William felt the cool air bristle his face and neck as he stood to attention in front of his horse. The camp at Dueidar was a stream of moving shadows in the 3 a.m. moonlight. Since the attacks on 23rd April, he had become an old hand at early morning starts. Days and nights had blended into one. Dates were unimportant, just insignificant numbers in a world where numbers stood for casualties or reinforcements. For weeks, William’s world has consisted of night patrols in preparation for an enemy that outnumbered them. Since the annihilation of Katia, he had heard the old Colonel saying over and over, “I will never let this regiment be taken by surprise!”
The morning’s early start was of no surprise to William. The booming of gunfire and artillery thundered across the sky for most of the preceding day, along with enemy planes droning back and forth over their camp. Word came through last night of the Turkish attack on Romani. He heard stories of fierce fighting resulting in many casualties and the capture of Mt Meredith, Wellington Ridge and other positions from the Turks. Awake for most of the night, he was waiting, fully dressed, for that shove, that whisper telling him it was time. He knew the time was nearing for the regiment to finally face the enemy’s angry agenda.
“Mount!” The order echoed down the lines of men and horses.
William, holding the reins against the neck of his horse, used his foot in the stirrup to help propel himself into the saddle. He needed no prompting, he was a machine who could switch into gear upon hearing a single word or signal. Colonel Wilson had ensured that every man could react without thought at a moment’s notice. William had great faith in the Colonel’s judgement. He had seen the man in action at Gallipoli. He also witnessed what his regiment was capable of during the last three months of training, in anticipation for this moment.
Nudging his horse with his boot, William moved into line with the troopers in front of him. As they slowly navigated the rocky trail to the top of Ridge 383, dawn lured them with a fiery crimson sky. ¹ Peering back from the elevation of the ridge, he thought how the column of New Zealand and Australian Mounted troops looked like a deadly giant khaki serpent glistening in the golden pink light as it slithered in and out of the rocky outcrops that marked the eastern route to Katia.
By the time the column reached the oasis of Bir-el-Nuss, the sun’s early morning softness had given way to stabbings of fiery heat that William felt through his shirt. He was grateful for the chance to water his horse and retreated to a patch of speckled shade between the palms. Removing his hat, he wiped the sweat off his brow and took a swig from his water bottle. Laughter, chatter and snorting of eager horses sang a song of immunity against the ominous war cry of guns booming violently in the background. All were oblivious to the long lines of ambulances rolling by.
“What a strange world this is!” He thought to himself. “How is it, that we can appear so blasé?” He knew that they all had their own coping mechanisms. For now, the regiment was a collective arm of protection that gave a sense of security. Sadly, the time was drawing near when each man would be fighting for himself.
Turning his back on the background banter, William wasted no time in checking and double checking the equipment strapped to his horse. Making a mental checklist, he pored over the saddle and his various pouches and saddlebags. Tightening the girth and stirrup straps, he was finally satisfied that he was done. Straightening up, he preened his hat and feathers before placing it on his head. Despite his small stature, he emanated an inner strength, borne out of experience.
During the two hours of wait, reinforcements began to arrive. Brigade after brigade filed into the Oasis until it was a crowded entanglement of men and horses. The light-hearted chatter and joking died as men noticed the faces of the new arrivals. Horse after horse, with large brown staring eyes carried men, haggard in appearance, faces grimy and clothes splattered with dirt and blood. No explanations were needed. William had seen those staring eyed faces before. They were the living dead, the survivors of the previous night’s fight.
Once more, the column of men filed out into the fierce heat in the direction of a thunderous argument which had increased in intensity. To the rut-tut-tut beat of machine guns, thousands of horses’ hooves pushed through the burning sand. William scanned the rocky outcrops that protruded from the sand, looking for a glint of a rifle or field glasses. Nothing.
Passing a small oasis, he looked down at a collection of bloody ambulance stretchers abandoned in the sand, some occupied by dead men.² His grim thoughts of what had transpired were broken by the clattering roar of rifle fire cracking the air. Holding the reins in one hand, he automatically felt the presence of his rifle with the other.
“Halt!” “Taube!” Taube!” shouted down the line.³
William tugged the reins to stop moving. His horse complied as he had practised the drill hundreds of times over the last three months. The plane droned overhead, unable to see the thousands of horses and men who dotted the sandy floor. It never ceased to amaze William how the enemy could not see so many horses and men, so long as they were still. He found the experience unnerving nonetheless.
Machine guns began to rattle again, clashing with the cracking of rifle fire. Then came the drone of more planes. William looked up to see their own planes circling and Turkish shrapnel exploding around them. His stomach tightened with that old familiar feeling.
Reaching the top of a ridge, the men dismounted whilst the Colonel and a group of officers discussed their plan. William, standing nearby, watched the Colonel point to the Oasis in front and say:
“A battery of Austrian guns has been found in that Oasis. We will have to charge and take them.” (4)
- The Desert Column by Ion Idriess (Page 131)
- The Desert Column by Ion Idriess (Page 134)
- The Desert Column by Ion Idriess (Page 134)
- The Desert Column by Ion Idriess