William struck a match to check his wristwatch. It was twenty minutes past midnight. Snuffing out the flame, he leaned over the side wall of the wagon, peering down the length of the train.
Photo – Australian War Memorial
“What could be the hold up?” All men and horses appeared to be aboard. Only a few remaining soldiers, who were seeing them off, stood back from the train: watching, waiting.
“Any minute now, I’d say,” Tom Fargher reassured William.
Lieutenant Tom Fargher was the Troop Officer for “A Squadron” of the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment. He returned from the Isolation Camp two days ago with a new draft of reinforcements for the front. Forty-seven men were selected for the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, alone. William’s decision to accompany them was not one he made lightly.
His driving force was an administrative matter regarding a young trooper named Alexander Farquhar. Currently serving at Wadi Ghuzze, he was being assessed for an ongoing medical condition that had resulted in numerous stays in hospital. Despite feeling the need to attend the hearing in person, William felt apprehensive at the thought of returning to the front. During his absence of eight months, he had relaxed his guard. His biggest battles have been crippling headaches. Although he had been headache free now for several weeks, William knew that his enemy was like any other: unpredictable and could attack at any time.
Just as he was about to check his watch again, a short bleating of the train whistle sounded. A rippling of cheers rolled down the track.
“At last,” he sighed, feeling his body being pulled back against the wall of the wagon as the train began to move. Bursts of steam clouded the waiting passengers in a ghostly veil.
Jerking and creaking, the line of open wagons laboured away from the siding. Crouched on the floor next to Tom, William rested his outstretched arm on the rim of the side wall that helped contain their thirty companions. There were no luxuries on this twelve-hour journey: just a hard plank floor that served as a seat.
Despite the late hour, the mood in the wagon was merry. Men were going to the front for the first time. Excited at the prospect of being useful to the war effort, they were also happy to leave the training camp behind. William smiled to himself as he listened to the sea of stories that swirled around him. Voices were animated, faces beamed with excitement.
“Do they seem familiar?” William asked Tom, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“Yes, unfortunately,” Tom replied, his face void of emotion. “They’ll be tried and tested soon enough.”
“That they will,” William agreed.
“It’ll be a different story on your return trip,” Tom added. “Those leaving for Cairo have usually been out at the Wadi for months, without a break.”
William leaned against the back wall of the wagon, remembering similar circumstances, when both he and Tom departed aboard the Lutzow for the Dardanelles. ‘And look how that turned out.’ Taking control of his thoughts, he closed his eyes. Chatter and laughter soon blended with the rumble of the train. Each time his head nodded in surrender to fatigue, a sudden jerk, as the train manoeuvred a sharp turn, forced him awake again. About an hour into the journey, as he repositioned himself to counter his hard seat, singing broke out. Notes, high and low, on key and off, bounced around the wagon to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. Picking up momentum, the song spread throughout the train.
“C’mon Captain,” a young trooper coaxed William. “You too, Lieutenant. Join us for a song.”
Both men laughed. Caving in to the young man’s persuasion, they belted out a chorus.
“It’s a long way to Tipperary
it’s a long was to go
It’s a long way to Tipperary
to the sweetest gal I know
so long Leister Square
It’s a long way to Tipperary
but my heart lies there”
At the song’s end, voices lulled to a quiet hum. Tom fell asleep and William turned his attention to the night sky. The lights of Cairo had disappeared, leaving a pitch-black canvas. Even the stars that usually watched over the Egyptian nightscape were blinded by clouds. William repositioned his hat to cushion his head against the wall. The train growled on like a predator in search of prey. All he could see down the length of the wagon were shadowy forms. Matches flashed here and there. Faces appeared, disappeared and reappeared. Burning cigarettes glowed like eerie eyes peering out of the gloom.
William thought about his last conversation with Colonel Wilson. The Colonel confirmed stories he had already heard. Men came in from the front with varying tales of woe. Even Tom Fargher had shared what he had seen and heard. By all accounts, the old regiment was really doing it tough. The Colonel offered an alarming insight. “Will, I don’t like to say it, but I’m afraid that Gaza is turning into another Gallipoli.”
On that thought, he closed his eyes again and nodded off to sleep.
The sun clawed out of hibernation, waking William with a start. The spiky forms of date palms began to take shape, causing his heart to quicken.
“El Katia,” he said guardedly; his eyes moving furtively from shadow to shadow.
The trooper in front of him groggily asked, “What did you say, Sir?”
“This is the oasis of El Katia,” William replied, not wishing to elaborate. Gazing out into the thick covering of palm trees, he thought of those who were left buried in hurried graves. Closing his eyes, he tried to halt the images that streamed into his mind. His memories of the charge gripped his consciousness like a straight-jacket that crippled and strangled his torso.
William was grateful for the growing signs of life around him as men began to wake. The hum of voices, along with the rising sun, lightened his mood. Looking down the line of wagons, he watched the unsuspecting faces of men, and horses whose manes flew freely in the breeze. Now, out of the cover of darkness, they were an open target for enemy taubes. Positioning his hat down on his brow to cut the sharpening glare, he straightened his posture in readiness for what awaited them at the end of the line.