Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Water and the War in the Desert

Across the open desert a small column of mules is flinging a brisk trail of dust up to the brassy sky. They are in strings of three, and a native drabie is hanging on to the lead rope of each string. Each mule has a squat tin tank hooked on either side of his pack caddie. Two of these pakhals, as these rope-netted tanks are called, will fill the water-bottles of a platoon.

Camel-Borne Pakhals

At intervals along the column a British soldier strides along, bare-armed and bare-kneed, his shirt open over his brown chest, one sun-blackened arm through the sling of his loaded rifle. A big curved cover of green-lined khaki hangs from the back of his pith helmet, and a broad quilted band of the same material drapes his spine from neck to waist in protection from the blazing sun that swings directly overhead. He carries no pack, but his entrenching tool and water bottle hang from his equipment, and 200 rounds of ammunition fill his pouches. He wears a stocked haversack, too, for one must always be ready for emergencies in the desert, and slung from his bayonet scabbard flaps a grey canvas bag, shaped something like the hot-water bag of civilization. 

Trudging along the hot earth with the mules and their escort arc a number of native camp followers, bearers and syces chattering in cheery monotones and carrying canvas buckets, water bottles, and chargals—the grey canvas bags. These are voluntary members of the party who wouldn't walk a yard in the ordinary course of life if they could help it. 

A mounted sergeant completes the party. His saddle has four chargals suspended from it, and a water bottle is slung across his shoulders. From beneath his dust-laden brows his eyes stare keenly ahead as the column smokes along. There is nothing visible in the dead flat levels from horizon to horizon to tell you whence the column has come or whither it is heading. 

Presently the sergeant's horse whinnies loudly, and the mule strings begin to crowd and jostle forward. In the distance the shimmering haze falls away and discloses a long line of tents, the divisional watering-place, and the river. When its bank is reached, it needs all the strength of drabie and Atkins to keep the mules out of the water at the place where the pakhals are unloaded. But the unloading is completed, and then the mules are led downstream to drink. In the meantime, pakhals and chargals and water-bottles are filled ready for reloading. Half an hour later the regimental watering-party fades away again into the desert spaces where twelve miles away from the watering-place the regiment is dug into the left flank of the army that is pushing the Turk back into his own country. This from my diary: 

We have just pushed the Turk out of the______position. It is about 5 p.m., and the thermometer is somewhere near 120 in the shade. We have been on the move since 3 a.m., and are now bivouacked in a nullah near the river. Through unavoidable causes connected with the surprise nature of the operation, our water bottles were only half full when we commenced, and our pakhals were practically empty. Upon the track of our advance field hospitals are being erected to deal with the big casualties of the march. 

It has been a hot-weather day; the ground too hot to lay the bare hand upon; a rifle barrel untouchable. The sky is a lid of burning brass, and the sun a low-hung blast furnace. All the day we have been the target for hundreds of "dust devils" pirouetting from one rim of the lid to the other, silting our eyes and ears and nostrils with finely powdered earth that stings and scorches as though it had come from a red-hot crucible. 

Scarcely a shot was fired by the Turk in his evacuation, but the rigours of the blazing, waterless march have more than decimated the hardest of units. More than half my regiment have been knocked out, and the survivors just managed to reach the objective. Water must be got immediately. A water-party has just come in, dead beat, to say there is a section of Turks on the opposite bank with a Maxim, and there's no chance of getting water before nightfall. They have just managed to fill two pakhals. 

The Turkish Solution—Horse Version

We divide one of these between a party of picked men and a few drabies, rinse the mouths of half a dozen mules, and set out for another try. The nullah runs down to the river edge. Up-stream of the nullah I spotted a belt of reeds on the river bank, and observed that they could be approached most of the way by a fold in the ground. 

We unhooked" all the pakhals in the nullah, as near as we could get to the water without being observed. Leaving most of the watering-party behind under a sergeant, the mules and the rest of us 'began another trek back along the nullah to where it crossed the fold of ground. Along this the party proceeded towards the reed bed. We had almost got into the reeds before the Turk spotted our water mules, and got his machine-gun aligned on the new target. He opened fire for about fifty rounds. The result being unsatisfactory, he ceased fire, and shifted the position of his gun. We could track his course by the movement of the reeds in the belt on the opposite bank where lie was concealed. 

Reducing risk as far as possible, we made great play with the mules and our reeds and ourselves, and successfully counterfeited the movements of a watering-party. We carried on for about a quarter of an hour, and at intervals replied to his fire with bursts of "rapid" from our rifles. 

We had just lost a mule when a volley of musketry broke from the nullah where we had left the real watering-party. This was the signal that our simple strategem had succeeded, and that the pakhals had been filled under cover of our demonstration. The diversion caused by this new fire attack upon the concealed machine-gun enabled the "camouflage" party to withdraw without further casualties. The mules were taken back to the pakhals. 

The water was being consumed by the exhausted survivors and sick of the battalion before night fell. 

The Turkish Solution - Camel Version

We are occupying one Turkish position while we prepare to eject the enemy from the line upon which he has retired. It is the middle of the hot weather in the middle of the desert and every man and beast is getting as much water as is required. 1 have a bath each evening. In the centre of our perimeter a big wide pit has been dug and lined with tarpaulin. Every morning and evening this is retired from three wells, which arc shared by the brigade. In addition, when the wells fall dry, our water-party goes to the divisional storage tanks, and can draw enough daily from this source for the-cooking and drinking needs of the whole regiment. 

The divisional tanks are walls of sand-bags supporting tarpaulins, which rest on the ground. The water is carried up from the river about fourteen miles away. It comes by convoy, and is carried in ordinary A.T. carts, lined with-tarpaulin, and in pakhals stacked inside big motor-lorries. 

That is how we safeguard our water requirements when we "sit down" for a, while. Here, in Mesopotamia, water is life. It is more. It is a thing for which the straightest man in the regiment would cheerfully break all the Commandments. When a soldier's body is watered he can march and fight and win. But when he is without water the sap of life is from him. He is like the perished tree, the branch of which breaks in the hand. He is Nothing. His rifle is lumber. His big guns are Mockery. A well-filled water-bottle is a won battle. So water is the first article of war, and as we water the regiment do we sweep the Euphrates-Tigris plains and push the Turk towards Aleppo. 

Sources: Thanks to Tony Langley for the photos and the article which originally appeared in the the British magazine The War Illustrated of 6 July 1918

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