William tipped his hat low on his forehead to shade his stinging eyes from the stabbing mid-afternoon sun. The glare flashing from the sandy floor of the desert was blinding, but he didn’t mind. At least he was shielded somewhat from the bright yellow mounds marking the path that “C” Squadron followed to the Oasis of Bir-El-Dueidar.
“Poor Beggars,” a voice behind him commented.
“At least they are no danger to us now.” Another weary voice trailed off down the line.
“Chaps, you can’t afford to relax. Our job is not over yet.” William hoped no-one could detect the slight wavering of his voice. He, too, was tired and looked forward to reaching the shade of the oasis, but he daren’t show it.
William rode on, trying to push aside the distraction of conversations. Although they had chased the enemy out into the desert, his nerves were still alert. Lowering his gaze to shade his eyes, he found himself staring into the eyes of the enemy. Years of training had moulded his body and mind with the discipline of the job, but at times he felt so human. Is it wrong to pity the enemy? Does the sight of death get any easier? Drawing a deep breath, he guided his horse around the casualties that littered the desert floor, mentally screening out the staring eyes that blindly watched the procession of Light Horsemen.
The waving arms of date palms loomed only 100 yards ahead. The pushing of horses’ hooves through the soft sand was amplified by the growing hush that spread down the line of horsemen as their horses stepped over and around more bodies that littered the sand. Turks in yellow uniforms, Arabs in dirty hairy robes and camels, all caught in grotesque moments of death, guided them back into the place where the attack had blazed for five heated hours.
The argument of gunfire that had urged his regiment to gallop down to Dueidar had ceased. William lifted his water bottle to his dry cracked lips, hoping to revive some of the energy he had spent that day. With apprehension, he listened to the deathly quiet, wondering what awaited them beneath the covering of palms. The enemy of more than 600 men had disappeared on their camels into the desert, but what had they left behind?
Entering the protective covering of date palms, William’s eyes took a few seconds to refocus in the softened light. Dismounting, he watered his horse from what remained in his water bottle, before taking in his surroundings. A group of injured Scottish soldiers strapped with bloodied bandages leaned against a cluster of palm trunks, talking to several troopers he recognized from his own regiment. Weaving in and out of gaps in the entanglement of men and horses, his eyes kept stumbling over the afternoon’s casualties.
Life and death co-inhabited the small space. Turkish prisoners shared a patch of sand with the lifeless forms of their deceased. Horses tensed and fidgeted as they managed to sidestep their own fallen comrades. However, it was a small gathering in a clearing in the trees that caught William’s attention.
Tethering his horse, William slowly edged toward the group of Scottish Yeomanry, until he could see the row of 19 men laying on the ground, beside the body of a bay horse. Each man, silenced by a single bullet to the head, was being formally identified by their comrades. 1.
Without thinking, William removed his hat and marked the sign of cross with his shaking hand. Lowering his head, he tried to blot out the proceedings of the day, anything, to calm his racing mind. Regaining his composure, he returned his hat on his head and slipped away unnoticed from the sad little group, curious as to what exactly happened that morning.
‘But that will have to wait,’ he reminded himself as he strode back to his men. ‘There are horses to be fed and men to be buried.’
- The Desert Column, by Ion Idriess. Page 75.