CHAPTER XII: THE ATTACK
IT did not prove an altogether easy task to collect in Leet all the camels that we needed for our journey. Leet is a very small town with a population numbering only a few hundred, and with no commercial connections whatever. To facilitate matters with regard to our journey I thought it advisable to pay my respects to the Sheikh of Leet. Never before had a Christian entered his home.
The medium of our conversation was my dragoman. After the customary felicitations had been exchanged, the Sheikh invited me to dine with him. His house was a hut put together of boards and matting, and without windows of any kind. Along two sides of the room stood divans covered with skins. The walls were hung with weapons. The rest of the furniture of the room consisted of smoking apparatus. Throughout the entire time before dinner, cups of Mocha and of a sort of lemonade were passed around. The coffee was of the Arabian variety, viz., in its preparation the husks of the coffee bean, and not the beans themselves, are boiled. The result is a bitter drink not at all palatable to Europeans, but which, for the sake of politeness, must be swallowed down under any circumstances. The preparations for the meal were begun while we were sitting in the room. First of all, quite a large round mat of woven straw was laid on the bare earth in the middle of the room. Then servants brought in rice, which was heaped in a huge mound in the middle of the mat. A few jars of mixed pickles completed the course. Instead of sitting, we lay down at the table. Spoons were provided, however. Soon we were all cheerfully doing our best to diminish the mountain of rice. Meanwhile the meat course had arrived at the front of the house. It consisted of a whole roast sheep, which, as such, did not make its appearance on the table however. Knives and forks there were none. Two servants, detailed for this special duty, tore the roast sheep into pieces with their hands, and placed before each one of us, on the mat, the piece that was intended for him.
In the course of the two days that we had to spend in Leet, we succeeded in getting together about ninety camels. With this number we could begin our march. The Sheikh assured us that we would meet with the others en route on the following day. I purchased a large number of straw mats and distributed them among my men. Later, these mats proved an excellent protection against the heat of the sun. Our caravan left Leet in the evening, and we began our march into the desert. Most of the camels carried only burdens, especially water, ammunition, the machine guns, and provisions. The water prospects for our journey were far from favorable. I had to reckon with the possibility of traveling for days without being able to replenish our water supply.
A journey on camels is necessarily a slow one. To begin with, the camel is not a speedy traveler; furthermore, ours was a caravan of ninety camels at the start, and later, of one hundred and ten. The camels on which the officers rode were the only ones that were allowed to run free. All the others were fastened together by ropes, the muzzle of one being tied by a rope of about four meters' length to the tail of the one in front of it. Naturally, the long line of camels thus formed could not move with the rapidity of a single animal, since the rate of progress of the whole line had to be kept down to the pace of the slowest camel. Moreover, frequent halts had to be made, to re-adjust packs that had slipped, to mend a broken saddle girth, to recover a saddle that had slipped off, and for other like causes of delay.
We kept to a route that follows the coast, close by the sea. This entire region is considered unsafe, robbery and attacks upon passing caravans being the order of the day. From the time we left Leet, our rifles were therefore kept loaded, and ready to shoot. We were fortunate in that the nights were bright with the light of a full moon. As a rule, we began the day's march at four o'clock in the afternoon, and arrived at nine or ten in the morning at the place where we were to rest. On an average, we spent about fourteen to eighteen hours a day in the saddle. As camels are pacers, it is very fatiguing to ride them.
The water places that we passed were mere holes dug into the sand of the desert, and were from fourteen to eighteen meters deep. With leather bags, which we lowered into them, we dipped up the water. The word water, in its European sense, is a misnomer, however, for this evil-smelling, brown or black, thick fluid, swarming with insects. At the bottom of some of the water holes a dead dog or sheep could be seen. To use it unboiled was therefore utterly out of the question. It frequently had a brackish taste also.
From Leet out, we were escorted by a Turkish officer and seven gendarmes. In addition, we were always accompanied by the sheikh of the district through which we happened to be passing, for it is customary in these parts to take with one, as hostage, the person who is responsible for the safety of the country. Such precautions are not looked upon as being anything unusual here. In this way our march proceeded without interruption of any kind until the thirty-first day of March.
At about eleven o'clock on the morning of this day, we arrived at a watering place which is but a day's march distant from Djidda, our next objective point. At this water hole we found an officer and seventeen gendarmes, who had been sent from Djidda to meet us and to bring us the greetings of our Turkish allies and of the civil authorities of Djidda. They had also brought us a liberal supply of water. We camped at the water hole as usual, stretched our straw mats and woolen blankets over the low thorny desert growth, and crawled under them far enough to find protection for our heads at least from the scorching heat of the sun.
The cooking was always the first thing undertaken after we had settled down. Dry wood was gathered along the way by all of the men, and so a fire was quickly started. On it our usual meal of rice and, if we were lucky, of mutton, was soon prepared.
When I saw the men who had been sent out from Djidda to meet us, I supposed that the most dangerous part of our journey was behind us. We were now getting into the vicinity of a town in which there was stationed a Turkish garrison of about three hundred men, and I said to myself that if seventeen men could come through unmolested from Djidda to us, then surely we, a company of fifty men, would be able to travel the same road to Djidda in safety.
This district is inhabited by a tribe that is composed wholly of direct descendants of the Prophet, but which nevertheless is notorious for its uncivilized ways, and its robberies. "Father of the Wolf" is the very appropriate name by which this part of the country is known.
As usual, we began our onward march at four o'clock in the afternoon. Our road now led us somewhat away from the sea. The country round about consists wholly of flat sand drifts. Nowhere can one see farther ahead than a distance of about four hundred meters. Hardly has one sand hill been passed, before another looms up to shut out the view. The drifts are overgrown with tufts of grass attaining a height of about two feet. We were trotting slowly along in the moonlight when suddenly, to our right, from beyond the usual course followed by caravans, there appeared a number of Bedouins, about twelve or fifteen, riding in a quick trot, and then vanished in the direction from which we had come. This looked rather suspicious, for, as a rule, caravans do not depart from the routes that have been trodden for thousands of years. Still less is it customary to ride off into the desert at a quick trot in the night-time. Our Turkish escort also took these men to be robbers, and told us that there had been talk in Djidda of a band of robbers, numbering about forty, by which this part of the country was infested.
As from Leet I had notified the authorities at Djidda, as well as those at Mecca, of our coming, I had reason to believe that the whole country round about was aware of our approach. Everybody knew, therefore, that our company was not one of the usual merchant caravans with little armed protection, but that, on the contrary, we were a company of fifty well-armed men, who were, moreover, carrying with them four machine guns. A rumor of forty roaming bandits caused me little disturbance of mind, therefore. Nevertheless, that I might have my men better in hand, and be prepared for any emergency, I took the precaution to divide our one long line of camels into two lines of fifty each. The men were given orders not to go to sleep on their camels, the rifles were all examined, and everything was in readiness for prompt action. The orders to my men were, once for all: "Rally to your commander."
The officers were riding at the head of the caravan. When the first signs of the coming day began to appear behind the mountains that rose on our right, from out the flat surface of the desert, I supposed that all occasion for anxiety was now passed, as Bedouins never make their attacks by daylight. So I slung my rifle across my saddle, unbuckled my heavy cartridge belt, and rode slowly down the line to see whether everything was in order.
I had got no farther than the middle of the caravan when I suddenly heard a loud, shrill whistle that was instantly followed by a volley of rifle fire. From every side it rained lead into our caravan incessantly, and at close range. The hum and whistle of the bullets made such a noise that the commands I shouted could not be heard. I grabbed my rifle, held it high, jumped from my camel, and, followed by my men, ran to the head of the caravan. Here the firing from both sides was well under way. From out the dusk of the early morning came the flash of the enemy's shots at a distance of about eighty meters. The riflemen themselves we could not see, any more than they could probably see us, when we lay on the ground. The tall forms of the camels, on the other hand, must have been quite visible to the enemy, and it was at these, most likely, that their fire was chiefly directed. The only guide to the position of our foes was the flash of their shots. As we were being fired at from every side, it was difficult to decide in which direction to turn first.
The larger number of my men was with me at the front. A few of them had been given orders to remain with the rear of the caravan.
The most important thing for us to do now was to get our most effective weapons, the machine guns, into play. Of these, two were strapped on camels at the head of the caravan, and two at the rear. In a few minutes we had the machine guns in action, and hardly had their volleys rattled over the enemy's lines, when silence reigned there. This turn in affairs had evidently not been expected. We took advantage of this lull in the enemy's fire to pull down the camels that were still standing, so that they would not form so easy a target, to distribute ammunition, and to get together.
The heaviest fire had poured down upon us from forward to the left, and it was therefore in this direction that I now led my men. Our equipment of fire-arms consisted, all told, of the four machine guns, thirteen German, and three modern Turkish rifles, together with ten old Turkish rifles that I had secured in Coonfidah to replace those lost with the wrecked zambuk. Of these, the three modern Turkish rifles had been distributed among the officers. In addition, we had twenty-four pistols among us, which, however, could only be of service in an encounter at close range. What the strength of the enemy was, we could not tell as yet. There might be from sixty to eighty men firing rapidly, or there might be many more who fired slowly. Their number was soon to be revealed to us by the coming day. When it was fully light, we could see that within our immediate vicinity the sand hills were black with Bedouins.
My men behaved splendidly. Not one of them showed the least perturbation in spite of the overwhelming superiority in numbers shown by the enemy, of whom there must have been at least three hundred. With one accord the bayonets appeared on all the rifles, although no order to that effect had been given.
During a moment of hesitation at the very outset of the firing, which had now begun in good earnest, and before I had fully decided what it was best to do, the answer to my question came from the man at my right, who called to me.
"Well, what is it?" I asked.
"How soon are we going at it, sir?"
"At what?" was my question in reply.
"Why, at storming the enemy," came the answer from this eighteen-year-old boy.
"Exactly, my man! You're right. Up! March, march!"
With a hearty cheer we were up, and rushing the enemy's line. No doubt, such tactics were a novelty to Bedouins used to attacking a caravan. At any rate, the enemy's fire ceased almost entirely. As our shining bayonets came closer to our foes, they quickly took to flight, followed by our rifle fire, which visibly thinned their ranks. First, we stormed to our left, then to the front, and then to the right.
It was not necessary to follow the same tactics to the rear, as there the enemy had disappeared entirely.
As a result, the narrow circle within which we had been hemmed in by the enemy, had now been widened to one of about 1200 meters' distance from us. The firing had stopped altogether. I now assembled my men close by the caravan. The machine guns remained in position, in readiness to keep off the enemy, as well as to attack them.
In spite of the close range at which the shots had poured in upon us, we had, thank God, only one man wounded among the Germans of my company. A little surprise was in store for me, however, when I looked about me for my friends of the Arab escort. There is a German saying which runs, "He counts his dear ones that are present, to find his six increased to seven." In my case the situation was reversed. Instead of twenty-four gendarmes, we now had only seven. There were no dead. The missing were found when we reached Djidda. Nearly all of the Arabs we still had with us had been shot in the leg. This was to be accounted for by the circumstance that, instead of advancing toward the enemy, they had run to cover among the camels. My men, who had lain in the sand some thirty to forty meters distant from the camels, had escaped the enemy's fire, which had passed over them. Our foes had aimed at the camels, and so, before our Arabs could pull the animals to their knees, to find complete shelter behind them, the enemy's bullets, in passing between the legs of the camels, had found a mark in the limbs of the heroes who had sought refuge there.
Of the enemy's losses we knew nothing at all. But, as we stormed past the evacuated positions where they had lain, we counted fifteen dead. It is the custom with Bedouins immediately to remove all weapons from the bodies of their fallen comrades. As such had been the case with all but one of the dead, only one of their rifles fell into our hands. It was a breech loader of the most modern English construction, and was gratefully added to our own equipment. All the distant sand hills were still full of Bedouins, as we could see. In so far as possible, each one of those who showed themselves within range of our rifle fire, received his share of it, the moral effect produced being the principal object in view for the time being.
We could not very well remain lying in the place where we were. I had at first thought that we were dealing with a band of brigands, whose purpose was the usual one, to capture the valuables we had with us. I had therefore come to the conclusion that our assailants, who had suffered considerable loss, had now thought better of their undertaking and had abandoned it.
Quite a number of our camels had been shot. We took from their packs everything that was most necessary to us, water especially, and, discarding all the less useful things from the burdens of the uninjured camels, replaced them with the indispensables.
I decided to leave the road usually traveled, and turn sharply to the left in the direction of the sea, which I saw shimmering in the distance. If we could reach it, it would afford us protection on one side, leaving us free to face our foes in front and at our rear. It was unfortunate that I could not make use of the machine guns while on the march. Having no limbers with us, the guns had to be carried by camels while we were on the march. To make the caravan more compact, it was divided into from four to six lines, which traveled abreast. The wounded were so placed on the camels that they hung on one side of the animal, which thus afforded them some protection against the flying bullets. Two of the four camels that carried machine guns were placed at the head of the caravan, and the other two at the rear. An advance guard of ten men in a widely extended skirmish line was sent out about one hundred and fifty meters ahead of the caravan, while a like number of men formed a rear guard at the same distance from it. As there were only nine more men who carried rifles, these formed a protecting guard, as best they could, for the two wings. The men who were armed with pistols only, and so could take part in no engagement except one at close range, remained near the caravan. Lieutenant Gerdts was placed in command of the advance guard, Lieutenant Schmidt of the rear guard, and Lieutenant Gyssling, of the flanks. Lieutenant Wellmann had charge of the caravan itself, where Dr. Lang was also with the sick.
Slowly our company set forth, our flag carried before us. Our hope, that the enemy would not trouble us again, was not to be realized. We had hardly been ten minutes on the march when shots again poured in upon us from every side. There was scarce a sign of our foes to be seen. Their every movement at any distance of more than four hundred meters was completely hidden by the sand hills. Ten to twenty dark heads popping up with lightning rapidity from behind a sand hill here or there, was all that we could see. Their appearance was always followed the next instant by a volley of shot rattling about the caravan, and before we could get the slightest opportunity to return the fire, the heads had disappeared, and a shower of lead fell upon us from another direction.
At first, strange to say, not one of our number was hit, although the enemy's fire was so incessant that shots were constantly falling about us, little pillars of sand marking the spot where they struck, while sand and gravel was constantly flying in our faces. In a short time it became evident that the greatest pressure was being brought to bear upon our rear guard. At that end of the caravan the men had to turn every few minutes to silence the enemy by a vigorous return of their fire.
I was with the rear guard when a signal came from the front, reporting that strong hostile forces had come in sight in the direction toward which the caravan was moving. When I arrived at the front, I saw that the whole horizon was black with Bedouins. At the same time came the report from the rear that one of the camels carrying the machine guns had been shot. The rear guard had halted, to protect the gun, and Lieutenant Schmidt asked that fresh camels be sent to the rear, so that he might shift the dead camel's load. I now heard the machine guns of the rear guard firing. They had been unstrapped, set up, and brought into action.
I now ordered the caravan to halt, an order which was by no means easy to carry out, however, as most of the camel drivers had taken advantage of the darkness to disappear along with the Arab gendarmes at the beginning of the fight. While on my way back to the rear guard, the report reached me that seaman Rademacher had fallen, and that Lieutenant Schmidt was mortally wounded, shot through the breast and abdomen. In the meantime the command of the rear guard had devolved upon Lieutenant Wellmann, who had brought with him two camels from the caravan, for the transport of the machine guns.
During our halt, the enemy's fire increased in severity, and a vigorous engagement was soon in progress. Suddenly the firing ceased altogether, and, as I looked about me for the cause, I saw two of the Arab gendarmes, who had remained with us, running toward the enemy's lines, waving large white cloths as they ran. At the same time a third gendarme came to tell me that his comrades wished to parley with the other side. Although this turn in affairs was in no way of my choosing, it was nevertheless a welcome one, for it had now become evident that this was no attack by a mere band of robbers, but one that was thoroughly organized. As our assailants outnumbered us by at least ten to one, it would have been folly to continue our march at the slow gait of a camel's pace, on an open plain, under continued fire from the enemy. Moreover, my most effective weapon of defence, the machine guns, could not be used while on the march. Nor could our twenty-nine rifles be employed to the best advantage, as there were too few of us to make their fire effective in all the directions from which we would be attacked. In the long run, we would have been shot down one after the other.
We therefore took advantage of the pause in the battle, to fortify ourselves. Hastily we constructed defence works out of camel saddles, which we filled with sand, out of sacks of coffee, rice and other provisions. We strengthened the rampart thus formed by filling it about with sand, as best we could. The camels were placed all together in the middle of the enclosed space, and loop holes were quickly got ready. For want of better material, they were put together out of tin plates and side arms. As all this was done in great haste, our constructions were, of course, but temporary and incomplete. Our water bottles were quickly buried deep in the sand, where they were least likely to be damaged by the enemy's fire. Within our outer rampart we raised another little fortress, the walls of which were about one meter and a half high, and constructed of empty petroleum cans which we filled with sand. Here were placed the sick who were unfit for duty, the wounded, and the doctor.
As we had to reckon with the possibility of being fired upon from all sides, and our rampart afforded us protection in front only, the camels were so placed as to shelter us from the enemy's fire at the flanks and rear. For our severely wounded, Lieutenant Schmidt, we made a stretcher of rifles and a woolen blanket, on which he was carefully carried to the inner fortress. The seaman, who had fallen, we buried where he fell.
The four machine guns were set up at the four corners of our defence works, and protected as best they could be by hastily thrown up ramparts of sand. The men armed with rifles were distributed at equal distances along our fortifications. In the spaces between, were stationed the men who were armed with pistols only, and the ammunition was placed within easy reach. Our preparations were hardly completed when the men bringing the enemy's conditions, returned. The demands were that we surrender all arms and ammunition, our camels, all our provisions and water. In addition we were to pay eleven thousand pounds in gold. Upon compliance with these conditions we were to be allowed to proceed unmolested. Well we might!
The parleying had at first been conducted through the dragoman who, with his wife, had joined us at Coonfidah. He also was among the wounded. Shot in the leg! When he went over to the enemy to negotiate, he did not forget to take his wife with him. We did not see either of them again until we met them in Djidda.
My answer ran: "In the first place, we have no money; in the second, we are guests of the country - get your money in Djidda; thirdly, it is not customary with Germans to surrender their arms."
Hereupon the firing began again. All the camel drivers who had so far remained with us, and a number of the Arab gendarmes also, took advantage of the truce to follow the example of the dragoman and his wife, and disappear. The engagement lasted until darkness came on. We lay very well protected behind our camel saddles and camels. We returned the enemy's fire but sparingly, as our store of ammunition was not large. Moreover, much of the ammunition that had gone down with the wrecked zambuk, and had lain in the water until we fished it out on the following morning, now missed fire. For this reason, I had all the undamaged ammunition placed in readiness near the machine guns, so that in a possible night attack at close range, I might feel sure of my most effective weapons. The rest of the ammunition was distributed among the rifles. We suffered no further losses during the day's engagement. Several of our camels were shot, but we were none the less protected for this, as a dead camel is quite as good a shield against rifle balls as is a live one. We had eaten nothing during the entire day. Nor could we think of doing so while the daylight lasted. No sooner did one of us raise his head above our rampart of saddles, than the enemy's fire was redoubled.
But our most strenuous work began with the coming of the night. The moon did not rise until about an hour after sunset. During the intervening hour the darkness was so intense that we could see hardly forty or fifty meters ahead. Within our rampart everything was in readiness to withstand a night attack by storm. All rifles and pistols were loaded, the machine guns manned and ready for action, and the men, with their weapons in hand, were kneeling just behind the rampart. But nothing happened.
As soon as the moon had risen, and we could see as much as three hundred meters ahead, we set to work to improve our position. First of all, water was served to the men, and hard tack distributed. While some of the officers and men remained on guard ready for action, others set to work at deepening the trenches, an undertaking that proceeded but slowly, as we had no proper tools for the work. Still others were engaged in removing the dead camels from within our enclosure. The intense heat caused putrefaction to set in very rapidly. The carcasses swelled up, the tense hides burst, and the entrails exuded. As at this season of the year the wind blows persistently from the north, we took the dead camels to the southward of us, so that the stench might not sicken us.
It was well into the night before we felt free to take a little rest. The trenches were now so deep that they afforded ample shelter for the men lying in them. We had thrown up mounds of sand on all sides, in addition to the protection afforded us by the camels. Our rifles and pistols had suffered considerably from the incessantly drifting sand. They were now taken apart, a few at a time, cleaned and tested. Then we wrapped our handkerchiefs around the locks, and stuffed small bits of cloth into the muzzles to keep out the sand. All this care was necessary to insure the efficiency of our weapons. That there might always be some one on guard within our fortification, a part of the men remained awake at their posts while the others slept with their loaded rifles in their arms. There was always one officer awake. But nothing of importance occurred during the night.
At nine o'clock that evening, Lieutenant Schmidt, the officer who had been so terribly wounded, died. We dug a grave for him as deep as possible in the middle of our camping place, and toward eleven o'clock in the night, we four surviving officers ourselves bore our fallen comrade to his grave. There could be no service at the burial. The volley over his freshly made grave was fired by the enemy on the coming morning.
I had brought with me from Hodeida an English-speaking Arab. During the course of the night, as soon as the moon had risen, I sent this man to Djidda, only a ten hours' march by camel distant from us, and only eight by foot. I had found him to be a very reliable and sensible man, and, as I learned later, he succeeded in making his way through the enemy's lines, and took the report of our perilous situation to the military authorities at Djidda.
Half an hour before sunrise I had all hands roused. If the enemy had remained, there would, in all likelihood, be an attack made upon us as soon as the day had fully come. For the sake of the moral effect, it was my purpose to return their first fire with as heavy volleys as possible. I wished to convince the enemy that we were fully prepared for an attack, and that our fighting strength was undiminished.
What I had expected, happened. As the sun rose, our opponents opened a lively fire upon us. We gave them a vigorous answer with full volleys, and every head that showed itself received its share. This method of procedure perceptibly dampened the fighting spirit of our opponents. Their fire became noticeably weaker and more cautious. Our purpose was achieved.
just before sunrise all hands were served with a drink of water. During the entire course of the day there was not another opportunity to give them more. Not until after the sun had set could another drink be given them. As we did not find it possible to cook anything even at night, our store of hard tack was drawn upon, and every man stuffed his pockets full.
The enemy fired upon us without intermission. But, as we were pretty well protected, we returned their fire sparingly. That we were not engaged in an ordinary encounter with robbers, but were facing a thoroughly organized attack, now became doubly evident. From our fortified camp we could plainly see two large zambuks lying at anchor near the shore in the far distance. Between them and the Arabs who were besieging us, a regular relief system was being carried on. A large number of our foes must have come in these two ships. Others had arrived by land, which was shown by the fact that far off in the desert, near the horizon, a large number of camels could be seen grazing. On this day, unhappily, two more of our men were severely wounded. Of these, Lanig, a fireman, was shot through the breast and abdomen, and died during the night. Unfortunately, we could give our wounded but little aid, as all our medical stores were lost together with the zambuk that foundered. All that we had left was the emergency bandage packages that we had brought with us from the "Emden," and a few bottles of brandy.
The day brought forth nothing of special interest. A camel that had escaped from our enclosure was shot by a stray bullet to leeward of us, and the intense odor of decay that the wind brought with it was a source of annoyance. Within our camp itself, some very unpleasant guests had made their appearance. Hundreds and thousands of nasty black beetles about the length of a man's thumb ran about everywhere, carrying the camel dung all over the camp. Our trenches were alive with these insects, and it mattered little how many we killed, for new ones came to fill their places as fast as we killed them. Sleep was impossible. They crawled into our clothing, and ran over our faces. Aside from the annoyance they caused us, they brought a very real danger to our wounded. The tetanus bacilli develop more readily in horse and camel manure than in anything else, and the inevitable result of this infection is the deadly lockjaw.
The burning heat of the sun made life intolerable during the day. While firing, we could not wear our light-colored head-cloths, as they afforded the enemy too good a target. The intense bright light dazzled our eyes, and made our heads ache. Everything was so hot that we burned our hands when, in firing, they occasionally touched the barrel of our rifles. The grease-soaked camel saddles began to smoulder in the heat, and a faint odor of smoke pervaded the whole camp. We got rid of this annoyance, as best we could, by heaping sand upon the saddles. The sand, carried by the never-ceasing wind, drifted over us incessantly. All day long some of us were kept busy digging out the trenches that had been half refilled with the drifting sand. It crept into our eyes, our ears, our mouths, and our noses. Our eyes became inflamed from its constant irritation. Dampened by sweat, it formed a thick coating on our faces by which they were disfigured beyond recognition. High in the air, just over our camp, circled from twenty to thirty great vultures.
With the approach of darkness everything within our camp was put into a state of preparedness again. And again I sent a message to Djidda, - this time by two Arab gendarmes disguised as Bedouins. As soon as the moon had risen, those of us who were off duty lay down to rest. The enemy ceased firing as it grew dark.
In the middle of the night we were suddenly wakened by shots fired by some of our sentinels. In a twinkling everyone was at his post, ready to repel the supposed attack. "Where are they?" I asked one of the sentries. "Right here, at a distance of about forty meters some of them were creeping along. There goes one now!" And off sped another bullet. But our supposed enemies were only hyenas and jackals, which, scenting prey, were sneaking about the camp, and making a meal of the dead camels.
When that night was ended, the sun rose over the horizon for the third time since the beginning of the fight. Our condition was critical. We had heard nothing from the Turkish garrison although, provided my messages had been received, relief might have reached us in the course of the preceding day. We could hold out no longer than to the end of this one day. By that time our supply of water would be exhausted, although each man had been allowed but one small cup full each morning and evening. Without water we were doomed. Whatever final action I decided upon, must therefore be undertaken at once, before my men had lost their strength. On that morning, I gave them orders to force their way through to Djidda as soon as the sun had set, if no relief reached us during the day. In this way I hoped that at least some of us would get there. Whoever fell, must fall. The sick and the wounded could not be taken with us. But it was not to come to that, thank God!
Toward noon of the third day a man waving a white cloth was seen coming over to us from the enemy, who had ceased firing. I had him brought within our camp, and asked him what he wanted. He replied that the other side would withdraw the demand for our arms, ammunition, camels, provisions, and water, if, instead, we would pay them twenty-two thousand pounds in gold. I conjectured that our foes had learned of the approach of the Turkish garrison, and that, in the customary way of the country, they were trying to get out of us what they could.
I determined to draw out the interview as long as possible, in the hope that the relief expected would arrive in the meantime, and the enemy would then be caught between two fires. For this reason I pictured our situation in as rosy a light as possible, and as though we could wish for nothing better than to spend a summer vacation in the desert, entertained by the music of whistling bullets about us. I pointed to our empty water cans where they lay buried in the sand, and gave the man to understand that we had water enough to last us four weeks easily, that there was therefore no reason why I should make special concessions, and furthermore, that we had an abundance of ammunition, as he himself had reason to know. In fact the enemy ought to be thankful that I had not come down upon them with my machine guns. The medium of our conversation was a native of Morocco, a man who, at some former time, had been made prisoner of war in Belgium, and, together with a number of other Mohammedans, had been sent back to Turkey. From there he had joined an expedition to Arabia, and had come to Coonfidah, where I ran across him and took him with us. He understood a few words of French.
The enemy's envoy did not seem especially elated by my representations. He withdrew, only to return again in about half an hour with a repetition of the selfsame terms. To gain time, I now told him that I considered it highly important that I should confer with the leader of our assailants in person, and I therefore besought him to come to me, here in my camp. His apprehensive Highness did not come, but sent, instead, the fierce threat that if we did not pay at once, we should have "beaucoup de combat." I interpreted this to mean that for him it was high time to get his train. So I expressed my surprise that he did not regard what had occurred as "beaucoup de combat." To me it had seemed to be such, I said.
Hereupon there blazed out from the enemy's lines a few more furiously angry volleys, and then silence fell.
A quarter of an hour passed, and then another, and not a shot was heard. Slowly and cautiously we raised our heads above our camel saddle ramparts. Nothing to be seen!
Careful," I cautioned. "This is only a ruse. Keep down! There is time enough. We can't get away from here before evening in any case."
But when nothing at all happened, we first got up on our knees, then on our feet, and then searched all about with our glasses. Nothing to be seen! Whither our foes had vanished, we had not the least idea. The sand hills of the desert, into which they had gone, concealed them from our view. Apparently they had departed.
For the present I meant under any circumstances to remain where we were. In the first place, I did not feel at all certain that the enemy had really withdrawn, and that this was not merely a ruse to which they had resorted. And secondly, we could not take up our march before nightfall in any case.
About an hour after the firing had ceased, two men on camels appeared in the distance. Their dress and richly caparisoned saddles proclaimed them from afar to be no ordinary Bedouins. Waving a white cloth, they came riding toward our camp. As a sign that we understood their purpose, we raised our war flag. When the men had come to within fifty meters of us, they dismounted. I sent my man from Morocco out to them, to ask what they wanted. The answer was that they wished to speak with the commander of the German troop. They had been sent by the Emir of Mecca, who had been informed of the attack upon us, and was sending troops to our relief.
This sounded very promising, but there was after all no surety that it was really true. By this time my sojourn in Arabia had taught me to be suspicious of everything. When I went out to meet the Arabs, it was with drawn sword in hand, and behind me walked one of my men with cocked rifle, ready to shoot. At the camp I left orders to stand ready to fire, and, in case an attack upon me should be made, to shoot without regard for my person. But again nothing happened.
The two Arabs assured me that Abdullah, the second son of the Emir of Mecca, would soon arrive with a company of soldiers. And truly, in about another half hour we could see in the distance about seventy men riding toward us on camels, and carrying before them a dark red banner emblazoned with verses from the Koran in golden lettering. They were making a sort of music by the beating of drums, and were singing to it. I regarded this proceeding as rather incautious, if, as I assumed, these soldiers were about to enter into an engagement.
Coming toward me, Abdullah saluted. He brought me his father's greetings, and expressed regret for what had occurred. He told me that he had brought us water, and assured me that we could now march on to Djidda in peace, as our assailants had withdrawn.
After I had distributed the water among my men, we proceeded to load the packs on the camels. This was a wearisome undertaking, and one that was accompanied by many difficulties, as getting camels ready to march has as yet not been included in the training for service in the Imperial navy. Quantities of provisions had to be left behind, as forty of our camels had been shot.
Accompanied by the Emir's troops we left our camp. It was, no doubt, a most unusual occurrence that a Christian should thus be riding through the desert, side by side with the son of the Emir of Mecca, and under the banner of the Prophet. A few minutes later we passed the abandoned positions of our foes. The rascals had actually dug out regular trenches for themselves.
We rode throughout the rest of the day. In the evening we camped beside a spring. Here, for the first time in four days, we could eat a cooked meal, wash ourselves, and lie down to rest. A circumstance of interest was that the water was brought up from a well having a depth of about forty meters, and yet its temperature was about thirty degrees Centigrade. [A depth of about 131 feet, and a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Translator.]
As we lay in our camp, close by the shore of the sea, we could see, in the darkness of the night, the restless play of a searchlight flashing over the surface of the water. Our friends, the Englishmen off Djidda!
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
– Hebrews 4:12