Memoirs & Diaries - A Sapper in Palestine
The first few months of training were curiously unreal. I seemed to be watching someone who wore my face and features doing a hundred things fairly easily that I hadn't imagined I could do at all. He even, I believe, achieved a little swagger on occasions.
I went through my training camps, "passed out" in musketry by the aid of a sergeant firing half my course for me, missed a Mesopotamian draft through a cook getting drunk, and found myself in Alexandria in the autumn of 1916.
On the voyage out one of the fellows struck a match after dusk. He was promptly shoved into clink, a comfortable cabin on the well deck. As it was inconvenient to take him his meals, he joined the rest of us during the day, returning to prison in the evening.
He had a mat to lie down on, and was the only one of us who had room to stretch himself at night. On making port one of the ship's officers came along and told him he was several kinds of idiot and dismissed him.
After a spell in the Signal School at Cleopatra Camp, I was drafted to the 74th Divisional Signal Company which was then being formed. My first experience of war was at the Second Battle of Gaza, when we were fu reserve.
It was a nightmare of interminable marching, thirst, and tiredness. On the third day of this commotion I was on a cable wagon which was picking up a line in order to lay it again wherever needed.
The horses were restive, and while I was undoing a tangle they jerked on and I was thrown with my foot in the winding gear. The wheel driver brought his horses back on their haunches when I yelled, and I found myself scrambling round on the sand "on three legs", trying to shake the pain from my foot.
By eight o'clock next morning preparations were being made to retire. I asked the sergeant-major to let me ride on a G.S. wagon, and he told me they'd no room for casualties, and I must look after myself. We could not see much because of the hills, but the sound of rifle-fire was getting nearer and nearer. I felt very unhappy.
A sergeant familiarly known as Charlie, and of whom the only other thing I remember is that he swore fluently and frequently, came to my rescue. I hung on to his stirrup leather and hopped while he rounded up a passing sand-cart ambulance and put me inside.
The sand-cart got into an area where one of our batteries was being shelled and bombed at the same time. The Egyptian drivers dismounted and crawled underneath the cart. The mules stood quite still. I was so done up that the only sensation I remember is one of violent anger because the noise kept me from going to sleep.
I went down the line on a camel ambulance - two men to a camel in little swing seats. We met a squadron of Australian Horse coming up, and a Taube flew slowly just over our heads machine-gunning them.
The casualty clearing station was so full that the lighter cases were given the staff tents. We lay on the ground, and three times a day an orderly came round with two buckets.
There was tea or cocoa in one bucket and stew or porridge in the other; we dipped in whatever receptacle we had.
There was a fellow in the tent with a dislocated shoulder, and the similarity of our damage drew us together. I used to hop along clinging to his sound shoulder, and in return fasten and unfasten his buttons.
Six weeks later I was discharged from convalescent depot with "Temporary
Base Duty", and as a result found myself posted to a section stationed in
Abbassia Barracks, Cairo.
In my new unit, U.U. Cable Section, I found a couple of enquiringly minded fellows, and we spent many evenings exploring native Cairo. We met with far more courtesy than hostility.
One evening we found ourselves in a kind of courtyard where men were sitting smoking, and where children were playing. In a corner were three or four not-too-fat cats. Dusty - so called because his name was Miller - bought a piastre worth of meat at a little shop and we cut this up with jack-knives and fed the cats.
This caused quite a stir. The men made friendly noises, and a number of them offered us sweetmeats. Afterwards in that quarter we were always greeted as "The askaris who fed pussini".
There were quarters in Cairo and in Alexandria that one doesn't talk much about in decent society. Places where girls sat on chairs outside a door, waiting for hire. I think most of our chaps went to look at them for curiosity. One of their tricks was to snatch a soldier's hat and run into their room with it, in the hope that he would follow. I knew one man who used to go to see one of these girls every week; if he hadn't a shilling he would take a vest or shirt, and she would hold it in pawn until he was in funds.
One evening in barracks I was working out, on a big sheet of paper, a kind of charm or soothsayer I had come across in Lane's book on Egypt.
It consisted of
circles of letters so contrived that if you selected a letter at random and
picked out every fifth from that starting point you got a sentence which was
supposed to be an answer to your enquiry.
There were two fellows with us who had arranged to meet two French girls from one of the shops that evening. There was nothing wrong in the proposed meeting, just a squeeze and a kiss perhaps, but the lads were not quite easy. One had left a bride at home, and the other carried a photograph; at any rate they asked me to consult my soothsayer. While all the room stood round watching, the answer spelt itself out: "Whoever does this thing will be doing great wrong". I felt sorry for those French girls.
September of this year found us on the borders of Palestine. The chief hardship was lack of water - a good wash was a luxury. Our final preparations for the advance (1917) took place in a sandstorm. For three days we were working with goggles over our eyes and handkerchiefs round mouth and nostrils.
The job was recovering and loading cable ready for the dash up. It was impossible to see a man 20 yards away; there was sand all over our perspiring bodies, sand on every mouthful of food we ate, and a sip of tepid water left sand on our lips. Half the fellows were suffering from dysentery pains and passing blood.
The storm ceased, and we had a clear and beautiful night. We washed, and we stretched ourselves under the stars utterly content with just the absence of physical discomfort. I have had the same feeling in miniature when a tooth has stopped aching. The noise of the bombardment added a pleasurable touch of excitement. We felt things were afoot.
Morning saw us setting off in earnest. Curiously enough, it was the drivers who suffered most from the sand, and it was a job getting men well enough to sit the horses.
My pal and I found
ourselves riding in an eight-horse cable team. It was an exciting
ride. Straight down the side of a wady and top speed at the opposite
bank before the momentum was spent.
About midday we clattered through Gaza, an untidy dilapidated Gaza from which most men had fled. Here and there a dark face peeped stealthily from a doorway, but, apart from the troops hurrying through, it was a place of desolation.
Yet I felt an indescribable sense of elation riding through this town heaped with the debris of war; an elation akin to those lines of Macaulay's about the thick, black cloud of smoke going up from a conquered town; an elation that seemed to have no basis in reason.
North of Gaza we off-saddled for a meal. We found a patch of grass on which both men and beast rolled for pure enjoyment. While we were eating a man and woman came trudging along the way. They were of village Bedawi type and looked hard pressed. They sat down as though waiting for any leavings. The woman had a baby.
My pal and I had a half tin of condensed milk, and we slipped over casually, and soon had the baby sucking it off biscuit. The man grinned and nodded when we gave him the rest of the tin, but the woman looked at us without saying a word. Although she was Mohammedan, she made no attempt to draw her veil. She just looked at us. I don't think we fitted in with her notion of invading soldiers.
We trekked northwards, rigging up signal offices wherever we stopped, until we settled down in the Wady Surar as a transmitting office to the divisions.
It was a mud and misery winter. Supply lorries were stuck fast in the mud, and supplies often scarce. Our Christmas Day ration was two biscuits, a tin of bully to four, and a tin of jam to seventeen men. We were sleeping in wet clothes, and even sleep was scarce, as pressure of work in the signal office necessitated us working all through every alternate night. I had the additional misery of neuralgia.
Three telegrams I handled that winter stick in my memory. One from General Allenby to the 60th Divisional General when Jerusalem was taken.
It read "Congratulations. Psalm 122, v. 2". I looked it up. "Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem." I thought it rather decent of Allenby.
The other two struck me by their contrast to one another. One wet and shivery night I handled a telegram from a G.H.Q. general asking for his hot-water bottle to be collected from Fast's Hotel, Jerusalem, and forwarded by despatch rider, as the nights were chilly. The next telegram was from 163rd Brigade reporting how many men had died of exposure during the last twenty-four hours.
My only other encounter with General Allenby - perhaps "other" is hardly the word - was at Haifa nearly a year later. One hot morning, with a bandolier slipped over my shirt, and a coil of wire hung round the handle of my wire cutters, so that any enquiring red-tab might assume I was out mending a line, I set off on a fruit scrounge.
A coil of wire and a blue armband were very useful passports in those days. Plodding homeward with the spoil, I became aware of a mounted party approaching, and quickly detected the particular polish and aurora of staff officers.
There was nowhere to dodge, so I squared my shoulders and tried to forget the pomegranates bulging my shirt. Suddenly I realized that the leading horseman was the G.O.C. himself.
He was spruce and polished; his equipment glittered, and his buttons shone. I was tunic-less, covered with dust, and couldn't even have pretended to a lance-corporal that I'd seen any polish that morning, but I gave the regulation salute.
The Staff eyed me a trifle disdainfully, I thought, but General Allenby returned my salute with the precision of a full parade. There was no perfunctory lifting of the forefinger. The gesture was full and complete. It could not have been more so had he been taking the salute at the march past of a whole army. I thought that, too, rather decent of Allenby.
With spring we moved on to Birsalem, and how we revelled in the orange groves. I got the idea of sending some home to my youngster, posting them in old petrol tins.
The fellows laughed at me, but several of them followed my example later on.
G.H.Q. came to Birsalem, and we shifted onward, setting up a signal office by the side of the Turkish Railway near Wilhelma.
It was fairly quiet, but a Turkish battery at Kalkilieh used to shell fairly frequently. I remember being in the signal office one day when they kept our range for exactly an hour. They carried away every telegraph line we had, and as there was no proper dug-out the continuous whine and shatter were disconcerting. An Edinburgh fellow suddenly burst out "Oh Christ! When the hell will they hit us?" I felt like that too.
We drove up north again with the September advance. There was wreckage everywhere, and the veterinary sections were kept busy looking after abandoned animals. Among some we passed one day was a young bullock that looked as though it had been a regimental mascot. We were real hungry for fresh meat, and the forty-four of us ate three quarters of that bullock for supper and breakfast. It was a case of take the good things when you can.
By Christmas we were in Sidon maintaining lines of communication. It is because of two children that I remember Sidon most. A Hugh Mactaggart and I struck up an acquaintance with some American Syrian Mission folk. Hugh and I used to go along once a week and romp with their kids. It was the first association with civilized life we'd had for three years.
One evening Mrs. Byerley suggested we should all go out on the flat roof. The way led through her bedroom, and its delicacy and whiteness filtered round me and lifted me into a sweeter world. Hitherto the only women we had spoken to were those who wanted to save our souls and those who did their best to make us lose them. Here was a woman who, by this action, put us on the same plane as herself. I wonder if she realized how dear a thing she did.
Hugh and I had many a day's ramble in the hills around Sidon, often striking villages where British troops hadn't been seen before.
At one such they prepared a wonderful feast at which Hugh and I were guests of honour. The "grandma" of another had been in domestic service in New York, and greeted us in strident American.
After entertaining us to figs preserved in aniseed, she produced two attractive Syrian girls.
"These are my nieces", she explained. "They are good gals."
"You're married", she added, to me. Then turning to Hugh, she shot out: "You're not. I want my nieces to marry Englishmen. Which one will you have?"
These were Christian villages, and I think the hand of the Turk had been heavy.
There came orders to proceed to Beirut. Hugh and I, doing rations and orderly room work, got a comfortable room as combined office and quarters. We'd hardly settled in when a knock came at the door and two young women who spoke pleasant English made the proposition that they share room and rations with us.
We declined and they apologized. Afterwards they often called to see if there was any mending they could do for us - "Won't Mamma be pleased!" was their usual exclamation if we gave them a tin of bully or jam for darning our socks.
They never referred to their original proposal again, though once, when I asked the elder girl why they chose that livelihood, she answered, "It was this or starve, Mr. Harri".
A chaste friendliness with a prostitute seems a contradiction, yet I felt a tribute in their tears when we came away. We were out of touch with our ordinary conventions, and I think fellows hammered out standards for themselves.
For instance, among the drivers of our company was a Sheffield lad, a rough handful. I was in where he slept one day over something or other, and on the wall was a long string threaded with packing needles. I think there were eighty-seven of them, all sizes.
The Syrian prefers a packing needle to a whip when he's on a donkey. It's less trouble and more effective. This lad didn't agree with the practice, and used to take the needle away from anyone he saw using one.
On one occasion he stopped a portly Maronite priest, who got quite angry and held the needle clenched in his fist with one end dug into the pummel of the saddle, and the other end under his thumb.
This lad brought his first whack on the priest's thumb; there was a yell of pain and the priest tumbled backwards off the donkey. Our young driver walked off with the needle.
But this is getting beyond the War, although it was the more interesting time to me because I was more drawn to the idea of learning about people than of killing them. The only thing I killed all the war was a marauding dog, and I feel sorry about that still.
Sapper H. P. Bonser, Royal Engineers (Signals), February 1916 to July 1919. Foreign service units: 74th Divisional Signal Company, Egypt, Southern Palestine; Detached Duty, Fayoum Area; U.U. Cable Section. Royal Engineers, Egypt, Palestine, Syria.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".
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