CHAPTER IX: FROM PERIM TO HODEIDA
JANUARY 7th, 1915, found us in the vicinity of the Straits of Perim. Nothing worthy of note had happened on the way. A number of steamers had been sighted, but always in time to change the course of our vessel toward the coast of Africa. We kept this course until the steamer had disappeared, when we promptly returned to the right one.
Christmas was a very quiet day with us, but our New Year's festivities were all the more hilarious, and we made the most of what little remained of beer and wine aboard the "Choising."
It had been my intention to arrive in the Perim Straits immediately after sundown. In this we were not quite successful, however, and again for the reason that we had no marine charts. just as once before we had to draw a chart for ourselves when running into Padang, so now we had been obliged to make one of the Red Sea, and, naturally, our knowledge of the "Choising's" position was not quite accurate. As a consequence, we arrived at the Straits of Perim a few hours too early. I therefore gave orders to turn about and cruise back and forth a while. A large steamer coming from Dachibuti gave us some anxious moments, for we took her to be a man-of-war. She turned out to be a French mail steamer, however. As soon as darkness set in, we steered for the Straits of Perim again, and proceeded at high speed.
I had counted with certainty upon meeting with some sort of patrol in the Straits. In that event we would have been quite helpless, for with the "Choising" we could not face even the smallest hostile war vessel. We could not so much as run away, for any steam launch could have overtaken us. As my chief purpose was to conduct my men to where they could again serve in defence of their country, I determined, if necessary, to sacrifice the "Choising."
In case we should meet a hostile ship close to the African coast, I intended to strand our vessel and leave her there, taking the men with me in the long boats. We should then be ashore in the enemy's territory, and free to do as we might deem best. Should we be overtaken on the northerly side of the Straits, it was my intention to run boldly into the Perim harbor, trusting in Heaven for the outcome, or, if I failed in this, I proposed to run the steamer aground, and venture a bold attack upon the telegraph station which we knew was located in this vicinity. To be prepared for any emergency, the "Choising's" three largest long boats were swung out, lowered to the bulwarks, and made fast. Water, provisions for eight weeks, arms and ammunition, besides a few personal belongings, were stowed away in the boats.
An officer was placed in command of each one of them, and a particular crew designated for duty in it. The only orders given to the boats' crews were, once for all: "Obey your officer."
And again, as darkness came on, we were in much uncertainty with regard to our ship's position. Ahead of us we saw a group of small islands which, we concluded, must be the "Seven Brothers" lying just at the entrance of the Straits. In truth, however, these were the Arabian mountains, whose highest peaks rose into view just above the horizon, a fact which we did not discover until we came in sight of the Perim revolving light. This gave us a good fixed point from which to direct our further course.
Naturally, as we approached the Straits, all hands were on deck. Everyone was keeping a sharp lookout, for our only hope of safety lay in the keenness of our observation. The ship's lights were closely screened. The officers and petty officers were given orders to make continual rounds through the vessel to see to it that not a single ray of light escaped to reveal our presence, for the Chinese crew of the "Choising" had little appreciation of the importance of this precaution.
Whether I should sail with or without lights had been a question to which I had given much careful thought. If I calmly proceeded with all lights showing, just as any ordinary merchantman would, it might chance that none of the English patrol ships would hold me up, as it was not at all likely that so small a merchant ship as the "Choising" would be regarded with suspicion. A ship sailing with screened lights would, on the contrary, become an object of suspicion to any one who should discover her. Nevertheless, in the end, I decided to have the lights screened.
The Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb is a very narrow water-way. I hugged the African shore as closely as possible, to take advantage of the darker horizon there, and also because the shore afforded a dark background for the ship. But in spite of all this exercise of caution, we got so near to the revolving light at Perim that its intermittent ray fell upon us like a searchlight, illuminating us for seconds at a time. Moreover, we could see two English warships lying just outside of Perim, and they were signaling to each other in Morse code. During that night's most anxious half hour we muttered many a bitter imprecation upon our engine that at best could make no more than seven and a half miles. But fortune favored us; the Englishmen did not discover us. Perhaps none of the small patrol boats upon which I had reckoned were abroad, for there was a stiff breeze blowing, and the sea was running high. At the end of two trying hours we had got to where we could consider ourselves as safely through."
In the broader expanse of the Red Sea I kept well without the regular steamship course, and on the eighth of January, just after dark, we lay with the "Choising" close to Hodeida. The only book that we had from which to inform ourselves with regard to Arabian ways and customs was a "round the world" guide book that would have answered the purpose of directing a wedding journey very well. From it we learned that Hodeida is a large commercial city, and that the Hejaz railroad to Hodeida was in course of construction. As the book was some years old, and as one of my officers remembered that years ago he had met a French engineer who told him that he had been engaged in the construction of a railroad to Hodeida, we took it for granted that the railroad was completed by this time. Even should we be wrong in, our supposition, we would still, in all likelihood, be able to get some news of the war, and, in case we should have to continue our journey on the "Choising," we would at least be able to secure charts of the Red Sea.
As we approached Hodeida, or more accurately speaking, as we approached the locality where we expected to find Hodeida - because of our constant lack of marine charts we were never certain of just where we were - we suddenly beheld a long line of electric lights along the shore. Great was our joy at this first sign of a return to civilization. That Hodeida would be provided with electric lights had not entered into our most hopeful expectations.
"It appears to be a very respectable kind of place after all," was the opinion expressed on the bridge. "There even are electric lights. Then surely the railroad will be running. I can see ourselves walking into the central railroad station of Hodeida to-morrow morning, and boarding the special express. In a fortnight we shall be on the North Sea again."
We supposed the row of lights we saw to be on the Hodeida dock, for our "round the world" guide book had told us that Hodeida is a seaport. As we came closer to this dock, my joy gave way to apprehension, for, as I looked, the lights of the dock seemed suddenly and strangely to move closer together, an eccentricity which is not usual with lights on a dock. As we were quite sober, we decided that it must be the dock that was at fault. I therefore gave orders to stop the "Choising," so that soundings might be taken, from which to learn how far we were from the shore. A depth of forty meters was reported. Now we were evidently only a few thousand meters off from the supposed dock, while, according to the soundings, there must be a distance of several nautical miles between us and the shore. As we realized this, the dock lost much of its attractiveness in our eyes. It must be something else. I gave orders:
Course, to the south!" and ran off a few nautical miles.
I then ordered the four long boats that had been kept in readiness ever since our approach to Perim, to be lowered, and my men got into them. The Captain of the "Choising" received written orders to take his ship farther out to sea, to spend the next two days in the vicinity of a given point outside of the usual steamship course, and on each of the succeeding nights to return to the place where my men and I had left the ship, and await us there. If we did not return, he was to proceed to Massowa. My reason for wishing the "Choising" to return during the next two nights, was our total lack of any definite knowledge as to who was in control in South Arabia. Our latest information in regard to the war was over three months old, and although it had told of battles between the Turks and the English, the outcome of these battles was unknown to us. It was therefore quite possible that Hodeida was now in the hands of the English. In that event, it was my intention to return to the "Choising" on one of the following nights, and to continue our journey aboard her. The days, I meant to spend somewhere in the desert, in hiding.
At the same time, I arranged for signals by rockets to be given the "Choising" in case I should learn of the proximity of hostile ships that might prove dangerous to her. There was one special signal that meant: "Enemy's ships near. Proceed at once to Massowa." I wanted to avoid exposing the ship unnecessarily to the danger of capture while returning for us.
Soon the "Choising" had vanished in the darkness of the night, and my little flotilla of long boats was being vigorously rowed toward the shore. The ship's boats, like all boats that have been out of the water for some time, leaked badly, although days before we left the "Choising" they had been wet both inside and out, had been freshly painted, and kept half filled with water. Our chief effort for the time being was therefore directed toward bailing out the boats. As soon as the day dawned, all sails were set in the boats of our flotilla, and a goodly regatta in the direction of the shore developed.
On our supposed dock the lights were extinguished, and at sunrise we discovered that it had two masts and three smoke stacks, carried guns, and bore the name of "Desaix." It was a French armored cruiser. The other part of the dock revealed itself to be an Italian ship called "Juliana." We had little desire to tie up at this dock, and so directed our course toward land.
Our chief concern now was that we might be discovered by the armored cruiser that was not far distant. The rigging of one of my boats was Chinese, of the other three, German. Four gray boats rigged in this extraordinary fashion could not fail to attract attention. When we had come close enough to the shore, I anchored, and had the other three boats come alongside and made fast. Quickly our masts and rigging disappeared, and we held a consultation with regard to what it was now best to do. The "Choising" was gone. Behind us lay the French armored cruiser and the Italian vessel.
What attitude Italy had assumed toward the war by this time was wholly unknown to me. Before us lay the land with the surf beating between us and it. The indications were that this part of Arabia was now in the hands of the French. To remain in the boats was not possible, as, in the course of the day, we would surely be seen by the Frenchmen who were now enjoying an early morning nap aboard the armored cruiser. My orders therefore were: "Pull for the shore."
Fortunately our heavily laden boats got through the surf without either capsizing or filling. On our way to the shore we met a small Arabian boat whose sole occupant, an Arab, was engaged in fishing, and who in response to our questions gave us the comforting information that Hodeida was now in the hands of the French. The mistake may be ascribed to the fact that although we spoke excellent German, and the Arab had a fluent command of Arabic, we nevertheless failed to understand each other.
Just after our boats had passed through the surf and were about 800 meters off shore, they ran aground. All our belongings had therefore to be carried all this distance to land, and through water that was knee deep. Rafts were quickly put together out of the masts, a few boards, some straps, life preservers, and the like. On them we placed our machine guns, the ammunition, etc., so that the transportation might be made as rapidly as possible.
First of all, the machine guns were sent ashore. I waded to land along with them. On the beach an Arab was splashing about in the water. Unarmed, and with every expression of amiability and friendliness of which I am capable, I approached him to offer the hand of friendship. He misunderstood me, however, and departed. A second Arab, who had appeared in the meantime, was quite time, as unresponsive to my offers of friendship.
While I was employed in having the rest of our things put ashore, a man in uniform, and mounted on a hedjin, or riding camel, came toward me. The uniform was blue and red. Around his head a cloth was wound. To what country the uniform belonged, I had not the least idea. It might easily have been a French one. This man had the unpleasant distinction of being armed. When he had come to within 600 meters of us, he stopped, cocked his rifle, and stood watching us at our work. Carrying no arms of any kind, I went toward him, beckoned to him, called to him, and tried in every way possible to make him understand that I wished to speak with him. He remained immovable until I had come to within two hundred meters of him; then he raised his rifle and aimed it at me. I stood still. He lowered his rifle, whereupon I moved a few steps nearer. Again he pointed his rifle at me. Again I stopped, and he dropped his rifle. Again I took a few steps forward, and again he aimed at me. I stopped again, and so the teasing performance went on for several minutes, until I had reached a point not more than fifty meters distant from him. Then his rifle was not again lowered. Consequently I remained standing for some time. An understanding by way of conversation was out of the question with him. He had not understood one of my efforts at speech. He made a sign, however, which could not be misinterpreted, and by which he gave me to understand that I was to remain with my men where we were. After I had assured him, as best I could, that we had no thought of leaving, and that we were delighted to be there, I returned to my men. He mounted his camel and disappeared at a rapid pace in the direction of Hodeida, the white houses of which we could but just distinguish in the far distance.
It now behooved us to make all haste possible, for in three or four hours the French garrison might be upon us. So we worked with all our might to get the things ashore, and so be able to start upon our march into the desert.
It was my intention to remain in the desert during the day, and then at night to send one of my officers to Hodeida to get information. Should this prove unfavorable, I purposed to spend the following day also in the desert, and then, on the next night, to get back to where the "Choising" would pick us up, and to proceed with her, trusting to luck for the future.
Just as we were about to set off on our march, there poured forth from behind the low sand hills of the desert a swarm of Bedouins, - at first about eighty in number, then a hundred or more, all armed. They spread out into a sort of skirmishing line, and then disappeared behind the sand dunes along the beach. Upon seeing this, we, too, formed a skirmishing line, and made ready for a fight. I waited for the first shot to come from the other side. After a few moments there came out from among our opponents twelve unarmed men. They approached us slowly, all the while beckoning with their arms. Laying aside my sword and pistol, I went toward them. Midway between the two lines we met. Immediately a lively conversation developed, with the unfortunate disadvantage, however, that neither party understood the other. The Bedouins shouted at me, gesticulated violently with the vehemence peculiar to southern races, and made the most remarkable signs, all of which I failed to understand. My own attempt to speak to them in German, English, French, and Malay was of as little avail.
I then had our war flag, which we had with us, brought out, and I called attention in the most explicit manner to the red, white, and black, to the iron cross, to the eagle. They did not understand this either. As I had thought it quite likely that the people of some of the coast regions where we might be forced to land would be unacquainted with the German war flag, I had taken the flag of our merchant marine with me also. It was now produced and displayed to the Arabs, but this, too, they did not recognize. Then we pointed to the French armored cruiser lying at anchor in the roadstead, shook our fists at it with the most extravagant gestures, and all together roared, "Boom! Boom! Boom!"
The only response we received was a return to their crazy signs. One of these was to hold one hand to the forehead, as though to shade the eyes, and then wag the head violently from side to side. Another was to pass two fingers over the face, either up or down. A third consisted in rubbing the two extended forefingers together, and staring at us idiotically the while. This last one we thought we understood. We interpreted it in this way: Two are rubbing against each other, which means, "We are enemies." With all the means in our power we tried to assure them that quite the reverse was true. Had we been understood, our situation would hardly have been improved by this assurance, for it developed later that this sign meant, "We are friends," instead of, "We are enemies." As a last resort, we produced a gold piece. To this means of intercourse the Arabians were very susceptible from the outset. We pointed at the eagle, but it did not seem to suggest anything to them. Then I pointed at the head of the Kaiser. This met with instant response, and aroused the liveliest interest. Among their ejaculations we distinguished the word, "Aleman." This was understood on our part, for it could mean nothing other than "German." Instantly, and with ready adaptability to the customs of the country, we all shouted at the top of our voices, "Aleman! Aleman!" And with this, the way to a mutual understanding was opened.
A tremendous and enthusiastic roar of response instantly arose among the Arabs. Their rifles were stacked, and the whole company gathered about us, screaming and shouting, and tumbling over one another in a wild scramble to carry our luggage for us, to drag the machine guns, and to do us other like service. In a tumult of noise the procession set out in the direction of Hodeida. One of our newly acquired brethren could even speak a few words of English, and from him I learned that Hodeida was in the hands of the Turks.
Our onward march was the occasion for still further excitement. As destitute of people as the desert through which we were passing seemed to be, it nevertheless harbored a countless number of people. In this land, where every boy of twelve carries a rifle and is regarded as a warrior, it did not take long for another crowd of about a hundred Bedouins to gather and come out to meet us, all eager, in the assumption that we were enemies, to have a shot at us. With much excited yelling, our hundred attendants endeavored to convince their approaching hundred colleagues that we were friends. When they had been persuaded that such was the case, we continued on our march with a retinue of two hundred, only to be met, a half hour later, by two hundred more who were coming to attack us, and who, in turn, had to be convinced by our escort of two hundred, that we were friends.
These explanations always entailed a considerable loss of time, and so it had got to be midday, and we were still on the way. We had had nothing to eat since the evening before, had worked hard and continuously, and had taken a long tramp through the burning sand at a time of day when, under ordinary circumstances, even to ride abroad is avoided. All told, there were probably eight hundred Bedouins moving along with us. They had at last understood that we were Germans, and now carried on quite a variety show as they went along with us, dancing and singing, yelling and shooting off their rifles, and carrying on all sorts of fantastic performances.
In the meantime, the first Turkish officers from Hodeida had arrived, among them several who could speak German. Our mutual joy at meeting comrades in arms was great. The whole Turkish garrison of Hodeida was marching out against us in the belief that a detachment of the enemy was attempting a landing. Cannons even had been dragged along to assail us.
Surrounded by the Turkish troops, and with banners flying, we made our entry into Hodeida. The people filled the streets and shouted their welcome at us, and flattered us with loud cries of approval and a vigorous clapping of hands at the close of every marching song we sang as we moved along.
Hastily prepared barracks were soon made ready for my men. For the officers, a house in the town was provided. And so, for the present, we were comfortable. From the windows of our house we could see the French armored cruiser peacefully and dreamily rocking upon the blue water a few miles off.
“Not a drop of rain falls in the sandy desert or on the barren rock, however useless it may seem to be, that is not seen to be of value by God, and that is not designated to accomplish some important purpose there.”
–Albert Barnes, Notes, Job 38:26