The yellow banks of the Suez Canal were sketched by masts of Arab fishing craft, clusters of wind swept trees and waving palms. A sparse collection of small brick and timber buildings sat like modern blocks of defiance in the hot ancient sands. An army of men were busy digging a zig-zag line of trenches on the opposite side of the canal, oblivious to the dark shadowy warship that glided silently by. In a desolate landscape governed by sun and sand, the scene playing out in the Sinai Desert on that March day in 1916, was a world where ancient man crossed paths with his modern counterpart.
The seemingly uninhabitable yellow sands stretched westward in search of a low horizon. However, about one and a half miles from the canal, a map of paths were being carved by teams of rolling wagon wheels, plodding donkeys led by turbaned men in white robes and a travelling camel caravan that padded single file behind its Bedouin master. The Light Horse camp at Serapeum was teeming with life when a disturbance of sand rose like smoke against the hazy sky.
The sun stabbed through the thick flurries of grainy mist, watching the intermittent glimpses of action with the intensity of a furnace. A troop of rifle wielding men on horseback, raced back and forth, ploughing this way and that, slipping in and out of view. They were a turmoil of desperate men and beasts battling against the stormy rage of sand.
William felt the sun burn through his shirt and sear the skin of his face and neck. Squinting to cut through the blinding glare, his eyes stung from grit and sweat. In desperation, he urged his horse with another jab of his spurs, but the sweat foaming out of its hair, warned him against pushing harder. He leaned out to make another turn, but his horse lurched forward almost stumbling. His hooves struggled against the weight of sand, his breath laboured from heat and exertion. William pulled his horse up with a firm heave of the reins and realized it was knee deep in sand. He yelled through the blinding flurries of sand for the other troopers to back off. Their morning drill had become impossible.
William dismounted and led his horse to the line of troughs that edged the drill field. The other troopers followed suit.
Gulping from a water bag, a young trooper caught his breath before he addressed his instructor.
“By toast Lieutenant, if this is the life we are to lead, I would rather be a rock!”
A broad smile creased William’s tanned sandy face, as he simultaneously lifted his hat and wiped his hand across his brow and through his wet flattened hair.
“The sand is certainly testing us Corporal. “ William said, whilst replacing his hat on his head.
“I’m starting to wonder who the enemy actually is.” The Trooper replied. “The Desert or the Turks?”
“I feel sorry for our poor neddies.” Another young Trooper chimed as he splashed the forehead of his horse with water.
“I know it is difficult men.” William spoke as he allowed his horse to drink from the line of troughs. “Perhaps tomorrow the sand won’t be as deep.”
Desert life proved to be rough whilst the Light Horsemen awaited the imminent advance of the Turks on the Suez Canal. William knew only too well that nature could be a formidable force. The heat was stifling and one could never predict the movement of sand from one day to the next. A sand storm had filled their tents the previous night and as they discovered, had flooded the parade ground.
Despite his experience and training, he too was feeling the daily struggle. He has questioned whether his own regime of training prior to leaving Australia was of any benefit. Certainly, the Boer War had taught him about surviving with little water in hot conditions. With that in mind, he had regularly walked along the railway line from Minehan Siding to Townsville, rationing his water, in the event of this very predicament. But was it enough? He certainly was not going to voice his doubts in the company of the men whom he trained. He needed to be positive for them.
“Be here at 0800 sharp tomorrow men.” William announced before turning and leading his horse away from the group.