Feeding an Army
To the ordinary layman war is a picturesque function. Your troops are landed, they take their place in the line, and then they fight. To the soldier, however, one of the foremost questions— if not the very foremost— of a campaign resolves itself into those two prosaic words, ‘Transport’ and ‘Supply.’ Without a satisfactory solution of this dual problem, your immense modern army might just as well have stayed at home. Supply, of course, means food for man and beast, while transport is your vehicular or other means of carriage.
In the old wars, of relatively small armies, the question of supply was often solved by the natural process of ‘living on the country.’ Your victorious and advancing army helped itself to food; and so, the more victorious and more advancing it was, the better it fared. The defeated army starved and surrendered, unless it could retire on new armies. The question of transport, therefore, was also simplified, and the generals of those days had little need to go beyond the animals, carts, wagons, and so forth, which had been diverted from their peace-time occupations. The story that Xerxes led a million men against the Greeks, is manifestly an exaggeration. The supply and transport of such a body, even did the ancient Persian manage to subsist for twenty-four hours on a loaf of bread and an onion, would have proved a physical impossibility. To-day, however, we have to face this problem, and even a far larger one; and in so far as the United States and the British Empire are separated by water from the common foe, the matter as it presents itself to the Englishspeaking Allies is more or less identical. In both cases the subsistence of the Expeditionary Force is based on seapower, and the lines of communication start several thousand miles from the scene of action.
But let us land in France to begin with, and stand open-eyed in what is called a Base Supply Dépôt. Every one of the Allies has its bases, and the more of them there are, the easier it is to deal with our vast armies. From the base you send men and material to the Front by rail; and so, if you increase the number of your bases, you are able to double, treble, or even quadruple your effectiveness as a belligerent.
Your base supply dépôt is on the coast, and alongside the quays, piers, and wharves of a great harbor. Day and night the great ships come, unload, and disappear. They bring with them a new problem, that of Labor; and so it has come about that, beyond your army in the firing-line, and your army of transport-drivers, and your army of supply men, you need a new army to clear the holds of these great ships, to check and stack the cases, bales, sacks, drums, and barrels that are put ashore, and, further, to load the railway-trains that are for ever passing out of your dépôt.
Every one of these considerations applies likewise to clothing and equipment, to munitions, guns, rifles, tentage, hutments, fuel, mineral and lubricating oils; to barbed wire, sleepers, rails and bridging material for the engineers. I am dealing, however, only with the food-problem, which, though all-important in itself, is but the part of a far vaster matter.
I had qualified as an interpreter in French and German, and for that reason I was suddenly requested to leave the gallant regiment I had newly joined and to proceed forthwith to France. We were untrained, we had neither rifles nor equipment — it was in the first six months of the war, when everything, though seeming chaos, was in point of fact a wise and far-seeing preparation. In two days I could get out to France, and that was exactly what I wanted. Like many another, I had the feeling that the war would be over pretty soon, long before we of ’the first hundred thousand ’ were fit and ready. My exact job would be to tackle the French railway authorities in their own language. Beyond that I knew nothing, and, truth to tell, cared less.
I landed at a base and was immediately posted to the supply dépôt. It was only then that I began to realize the place of food and forage in modern warfare. The French had done us handsomely, giving us ample storeroom and abundant cover — acres of it, in fact, and we needed it all.
Our ration in France in those days was, and probably still is, composed of meat (canned or frozen), bread or biscuit, bacon, jam, preserved milk, cheese, tea, sugar, salt, mustard, and pepper. To these may be added butter, fresh or dried vegetables, compressed soup-tablets, rum, lime-juice, and a tinned delicacy, familiarly known as a ‘Maconochie,’ — such is the most popular maker’s surname, — but officially called an M. and V. ration. It is a stew of meat and vegetables, — hence the M. and V., — and like the other intermittent rations, adds a spice of variety to our menu.
The horses and mules lived then on oats, hay, bran, and maize — bulky and mountainous articles that suffer more than case goods from rain and weather.
To all this must be added fuel; for without wood, coal, or charcoal, how are you going to cook your food or make your tea?
In addition to these staple articles, and carefully protected from a pilfering world, one found a lesser dépôt devoted to what are known in the army as ‘medical comforts.’ In this holy of holies are stored the noble meat and drink supplied to hospitals. Cases of champagne are here, of port wine, and of stout; of tinned chicken, sago, arrowroot, jellies, soups, and what not.
Articles have been written about these base supply depots, their dependent bakeries, and the immensity of their dealings; about their wonderful organization, and the busy fellows who move and labor in them.
The men employed here are comfortable, but often bored. They are out of danger, as a rule; they have permanent quarters; and rumor has it that, being where food is, they have first choice of whatever comes to hand. But against this must be set off the perpetual sameness of the work, the eternal vista of beef and biscuit-boxes, the monotonous accounts, the unvarying hindquarters and fores in the cold storage. There is romance at first, as one pictures the whole wide world converging on this centre. One comes across strange and unknown grasses in the bales of hay that have crossed oceans; Chicago, South America, Australia, and even Madagascar, have slaughtered cattle for us; one discovers that the honestest and most varied jams in the world come from British Columbia and Tasmania. But as time goes on, uneasy fellows like myself grow sick and tired of the same old story. The work here should be given to men well broken to the routine of offices and counters; the big and little business men are well at home here; with a difference, it is the same job that is done, in London by a Lyons or a Lipton.
From the dépôt the loaded trains go out to railhead. At first a train was allotted to an army corps, but on my second stay in France I found that the unit had changed to a division. We had only the existing railway tracks and railway material to work with, then; to-day there is an undreamed-of network, and wagons to match. The food and forage of a division is weighed and counted out. You have your scale, and each day you are told the number of men, the number of mules and horses. These vary with the casualty lists or the drafts sent forward. A big battle may decimate your division, or reinforcements swell it. A wire comes to your dépôt, and it is up to you to collect the goods.
At first an officer and five men went with each train as escort, and I was one of those officers. We led a roving life, much like that of a ship’s captain. We dealt with the French railway authorities and a host of ‘dugouts’ known as R.T.O.’s. Railway transport officer is the long of those initials. From them we took orders and to them reported progress. Now train-traveling officer and middle-aged ‘dugout’ are alike abolished, and the stuff gets to railhead more simply.
In theory a railhead stands well behind the reach of the enemy’s guns, and so, more often than not, you can unload your train in peace, if not in quiet. But every now and again the German will surprise you with a longrange weapon, or his aviators will try and make a mess of you. The longrange gun is easily answered. You shift your railhead farther back, till the gun is knocked out or abolished. The aviators are a necessary evil. But all these excursions and alarums are the exception rather than the rule, and spice a life that tends to grow too civilian. It is well to remind a supply officer once in a while that he takes risks, otherwise he grows too confoundedly meticulous and full of worries.
Your railhead may feed its two or three divisions, and so one must picture an extended front as dotted with these centres of activity. But the division itself is the main unit; so, next, the contents of your train are packed into motor-lorries and borne away to the divisional dump. From all the roads that lead to railhead these lorries converge, in clouds of dust when the roads are dry, in indescribable mud when the days are wet. The supplies are checked, receipts are given, and off go the lorries in long strings again. We are now quite definitely in the war area, and sailing those crowded roads depicted in the picture-papers. The guns are thundering, the aeroplanes are up, the resting infantry is swinging back to billets, and reliefs are going forward.
You, however, are bound for the divisional dump. Follow the motorlorries, and you come across it at a convenient spot, where traffic can enter at one side and depart at another, without much turning. As with the railway-train before them, the lorries are unloaded, and next their contents are sorted into heaps, each heap the property of a brigade. For a brigade is your next unit.
Matters are now becoming intimate. The people at the supply dépôt have no personal contact with the troops. The motor-convoys are almost as remote as they, but each division has its divisional train, which in turn is divided into companies, each of which is attached to a brigade. The divisional train consists of horse-drawn or muledrawn wagons. Company after company it rolls up, takes its load, and goes off to its various refilling points. These are lesser dumps, controlled by the brigade supply officer. This officer has to deal with the smallest unit on our list. His heap is subdivided into little heaps, each one the property of a battalion; and to his rendezvous comes daily the battalion transport, still horse-drawn, which makes the penultimate stage to the first-line trenches. The quartermaster is now in charge, and when night falls, the fatigue parties manhandle the food and drink that goes on its last stage to the men in front. Down the communication trenches they go, loaded and welcome. And so the company is fed, the dim platoon, right down to the last and hungriest Tommy.
Thus roughly I have attempted to describe the various processes that prevail in an ordered country like France, where communications are good, roads are in being, and all the ground explored. I have omitted all mention of the endless checks and counter-checks: how the battalion quartermasters send their figures to the brigade supply officer, how the latter summarizes these figures and passes them on to the divisional supply officer, who in turn sends his calculations to someone more important. A vast deal of arithmetic and paper work goes on behind the physical phenomena of supply; and here again you are up against the value of a business training.
The good supply officer is the mother of his brigade. Down at the dump he does his best for man and beast; at his own refilling point he watches over the interest of each particular unit; and I have even known him to go into the trenches, and assure himself with his own eyes that the men of his brigade are faring well and plentifully. The particular officer I have in mind was cheered by the men as they went back to billets.
In addition to the regular supply from home, the army consumes a vast amount of material purchased in the country. There are fresh vegetables, — notably potatoes, — fruit, and wine, — a hospital item, — bran, yeast for the bakeries, live sheep and goats for our Indian troops, and many another article.
During part of my stay I attended to such purchases, and officially was known as local purchasing officer. This business brings one into notable contact with the civilian, and especially the civilian who is out to make money by the war. He or she — in France, especially now, with so many of the men away, it is often she — are among my most entertaining memories. I think I thoroughly enjoyed pitting them one against the other, and still more my dealings with the right sort, who were out to help, and not to exploit, the soldier.
The French market-gardener is a wonderful fellow. Often rich as Crœsus, he receives you in his earth-stained blouse and wooden shoes. I sought him where I could, and avoided the middleman. We were, in fact, brother artists, for generally he seemed far more interested in growing his leeks, carrots, potatoes, and turnips than in selling them. The middleman or woman has no such idealism but I must except a certain dear old lady who, the moment she knew that the fruit I was buying was for our wounded in the hospitals, suppressed her husband and came down to rock-bottom prices without further palaver. They are wonderfully frank, these Frenchwomen. Madame A—, whom I called on in quest of bran one morning, received me in her dressinggown and explained with circumstance that she had taken a purge. I had to be very severe with some of these ladies who were not above using their fine eyes to further a bargain. ‘How hard you English are! ’ they would say, when one stuck out for a fair market price; and often one’s unwillingness to lose time, besides being described as dur, was called brutale. They had the leisure to bargain and discuss; I had not. One singular piece of ‘brutality’ on my part consisted in reducing the price of live sheep by a good percentage. I remember going off in triumph to my chief with the great news.
‘To hell with you and your sheep!’ he cried; and burst into tears. He had just got word that his only brother and a cousin had been killed at Loos.
I enjoyed those months and the many homes I peeped into; for here in the provinces the Frenchman usually did his business in the middle of his family. Sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, nieces, would all chime in, wine and biscuits would be produced if the affair was one of importance; yet often I had to retire empty-handed. The prices would be excellent, the delivery as good; but how lay hands on a sufficient quantity? The consumption of an army is enormous and staggers the small contractor. How many fortunes might have been made if the material at issue had been available! And in such buying, the man more deadly than all is the contractor who will promise you everything, but, when it comes to delivery, makes excuses. One had to beware of these opportunists. Even worse was a man I heard of in Greece, who sold the same parcel of hay to the buying departments of three armies, received the money thrice over, and was about to depart with his mistress for the Fortunate Isles, when a brutal embarkation officer discovered him.
The main requisite of an officer buying for an army, besides ordinary common sense, is a rather more than ordinary honesty. Half the people he deals with will try to corrupt him, by bribery, by flattery, or means more insidious. And I think, too, that I have been cured, by my experience in this direction, of any leanings towards Socialism that I may have had. The average man’s attitude toward the state and its property seems not far removed from my own toward a railway company. Like most people, I have often traveled first-class with a third-class ticket, and felt that the action was rather meritorious than otherwise. The state, too, seems — especially to the civilian — fair game and outside the pale of ordinary morality. What is everybody’s business and everybody’s property often seems to be regarded as nobody’s business and nobody’s property.
So far I have discussed only the feeding of an army under conditions that are more or less constant. It is, however, when you must, deal with an advance, or a retirement, or a retreat, that the problem grows really exciting. Everything is in flux, your railheads may be wiped out, uncertainty dogs you. The supply officer then does the best he can, pushing up stores, following the advance in darkness or in rain, snatching sleep where he can, and harrying the tired transport. The roads have been destroyed, his units are scattered; if he is wise he will keep a smiling face and accept disappointments and chuckle over his successes. The men have their emergency or iron ration to go on with — beef, biscuit, oxo cubes, sugar, and tea. Or, in a retreat, he may have to pack his stores and get them away, or even destroy them or leave them to the enemy. He has a car in France, a horse elsewhere, so is spared much that discomforts the infantry; but work hard he has to, often the clock around, keeping his men going, dodging in at an opening, or saving what he cannot pass forward. There are compensations, however, even in a retirement, for I have known a supply officer and his sergeant-major hold their end up to good purpose with a mixture of champagne and stout — hospital comforts salvaged from the advancing enemy.
Perhaps the most joyous days of all are those in which your division moves from one section of the line to another. In summer, with fine weather and starry nights, there is no trek more exhilarating. The French front is businesslike, and you entrain; but in Macedonia, where much of my time was spent, you struck camp overnight and were away at dawn. The day’s march was conditioned by the water-supply. You had a good horse, no cares, and saw the sunrise; your meals were a picnic on the bank of a shallow river; you slept out under the stars. Once a day, at an arranged spot, you would pick up the division’s food, come up by rail or lorry. Your transport would carry your share of it to an improvised dump; your men would sort it out in readiness for the battalion convoys. These dealt with, you were free to bathe, to sleep, or, better still, to watch the jeweled dragon-flies. Every shady streamlet was bright with them — green, blue, red, gray, black, and white, they flashed in and out of the shadows. There were large frogs here, with which our French comrades supplemented their rations, and lizards and tortoises, and once or twice I saw the swift passage of a snake.
Two, three, or even four days you might trek through a beautiful country where only the squalor of the villages distressed you. Some of them, destroyed in earlier wars, were hardly more than a few ruined walls and an empty church; the Turkish villages were cleaner than the Christian. You would leave the bare, intolerable plains, the marshy lakes, and go up into wooded hills which in some regions are almost Swiss. Macedonia is ever varied, and each changing light or season marks it. The spring is a gorgeous tumult of wild flowers; the summer withers this carpet and strews it with the black patches of grass-fires; the winter brings mud — mud inconceivable, and a perpetual dewdrop at the end of your cold nose.
But one spot I shall never forget. On an August evening we topped the ridge above Lake Doiran. This lake and town are often mentioned in the newspapers, but I am going to take shell-bursts for granted; also the aeroplanes and dropped bombs. You stand high up; the lake is a circular sheet of glass below you, the little town with its white minaret tucked away in a corner; and all the wide valley to your right gives on to mountains that look like the end of the world — bare, unbroken, and impassable. A wall of iron confronts you, and only miles away you catch at a break in it — the Rupel Pass, which now guards the road into Bulgaria. You realize then why the Saloniki army has marked time in this sector.
But suppose it rains? Then the rivers that you thought to ford so easily swell to torrents, and you may even be cut off from the men and animals whose mother you are; or your sugar spoils, your bread gets spongy, your vegetables a pulp. For shelter you have a waterproof sheet supported and pegged down — it is known as a ‘bivvy.’ You are not exactly comfortable, but goodfellowship and the habit of the open air make light of a situation that in pre-war days would fill one with forebodings of sciatica, rheumatics, and other damp-bred evils. And very often you strike a friend who will give you a corner of his tent; and by ‘friend’ I often mean a perfect stranger.
There is a camaraderie, a heartiness, in the front line that is occasionally to seek in the more sheltered areas. I have dropped down on many unknown hosts. There was H—, an ex-trooper of the N.W. Mounted Police; there was G—, who let me sleep on a pile of blankets in a corner of his mess after a right royal supper, and who gave me a bath in the morning; and poor C—, now bombed into the next world, who gave me a stretcher in a tent where mice (or was it rats?) played round me in the dark till I found a couple of boxes and so got off the floor and their playground.
On the march, as in fixed positions, you go buying what extra luxuries the land affords. Macedonia, unlike France, was a very poor country for such diversions. The country is depopulated, its agriculture backward, the Greekspeaking capitalist a difficult customer. The villages I struck seemed to be governed by this potentate, who might keep a wine-shop, and certainly ow ned the only pair of scales. I found peasants who were only too glad to accept the price I offered them in ready money; but there was usually a more important fellow, who would interfere, and who had the whole day before him. However, he would collect the hardworking and prematurely aged females of the place and set them to pick beans, collect marrows, watermelons, and cucumbers. When my limbers were full, out came the scales, and Plato would start his argument, which amounted to this. Forty miles away, at Saloniki, beans were fetching 20 lepta an oke (2¾ pounds) more than I was offering him.
‘But you’ve got to get them to Saloniki.’
‘Yes,’ he grudgingly admitted.
Meanwhile my men were weighing the stuff, and I had already settled with the one or two independent growers, who were only too glad to see me and simple enough to show it. I finished with Plato as soon as I knew the weights, and rode away with my men to the dump, rather pleased at getting fresh green stuff for the brigade. To the edge of the village Plato would pursue me. His parting thrust was always, ‘What about the sixpence for the Samos you drank when you came in?’ Samos is a kind of wine made out of figs, and has the merit of being wet.
You may have noticed that the wagons that we used to use in France are changed to limbers. On these bad roads and in this hilly country we found that the limber, with its two halves and simple yet tough construction, could go where the wagon failed. I do not know how many parts there are to a wagon; it is really complex compared to a limber; and in winter, and in the more mountainous country, even the limber gave way to the pack-mule, pure and simple. Our first-line transport drivers here were turned into muleteers. I often wished a cinema operator had taken pictures of the convoys as they came winding along, each animal with its load, and a picturesque ruffian to every pair. I would pass them as they crossed our road, they going away into the hills that our wheeled transport could touch only at certain places. But my own journey then was jolly enough, as we climbed upwards on the new-cut highways that Italian engineers had made. I had a sure-footed blue roan, and rode at the head of the column to avoid the choking dust we made. Often the road was precipitous, and we looked far down into the villages or up at the wooded mountainsides. At the dump we unloaded, then watered and fed the animals; and I used to stuff figs off the trees that grew here. Other officers strolled or rode or motored up; somewhere or other we found tea and cigarettes; the hour would go only too quickly.
Riding back in the dark, I usually left the horse to pick his way. He could see where I could not, and the old fellow knew that the day’s work was done when we struck homeward. Tired, yet wonderfully fit, one rattled in with one’s convoy; and before going off to one’s own supper, one first of all saw that the animals were well looked after. We had been out since two P.M., and now it was past nine. You sleep the peaceful sleep of an angel after such a day. With luck you can lay in till seven; but maybe you have to take early stables at six. Still, you have no convoy on that day and can get a good nap in the afternoon.
So far I have dwelt mostly on supply-work, but the question of transport is ever involved in it, and is so much a part of it as to need a few pages to itself. You have your stores, your meat and drink, and what not; but, unless you can move them to the desired point, they might almost as well be nonexistent.
In France this problem is now at its simplest. Railways have been doubled and even trebled, good roads are ready to take your motor-traffic and your horse wagons, and there are Decauvilles, where your trolleys can run in strings on narrow rails; and, last but not least, there are the Labor battalions to mend roads and keep the whole mechanism in order. The matter in France, except when an offensive was working with or against you, presented most of the features of an old established and finely organized business. In Macedonia and Egypt, where I served as well, it is not so easy. There the machine is frequently replaced by the beast of burden, and the transport officer is as often as not a donkey, mule, or camel-driver.
Till I went to Saloniki I had known the mule only from hearsay; ’obstinate as a mule,’ is a remark whose full significance I was yet to gather. The first one I rode — no pony being available — was a mouse-colored creature and very docile. We went along together in search of locally grown vegetables, across scorched and barren country, of which the only permanent resident seemed to be the black and yellow tortoise. I came across some French gunners at last, camped in a ruined village. When I mentioned vegetables, they laughed. There was nothing nearer than Kukus, outside the region I was supposed to ransack. They invited me in to have lunch, however, and I remember this particularly well, because one of them was a champagne-grower and a most useful fellow to have in a mess. After lunch the mule and I came to the sandy bed of a dried-up river. Instantly the mule knelt down, and almost as instantly I was off, demanding the why and the wherefore. The mule did not. leave me long in doubt. There was sand, and the chance of a good roll. He let me get the saddle off him, but roll he would and did. I had not previously been aware of this habit.
Another mule I had was a confirmed convoy-follower. In company he was all right; but get him alone on the road, whether I liked it or not, I had to join up with any chance convoy that happened along. He had a mouth like iron and a will to match. I might tug at the snaffle till my hands bled; the best I could hope for was to make him go round in a circle till that convoy had disappeared. But there were far too many of them; and after a long and painful morning I said I would rather walk. Thus I acquired Rupert, my first real ‘officer’s charger.’
Rupert was mine all one summer. The dumps we visited, the troops we fed, the long marches we made together ! To be quite frank, Rupert was a greedy beast, with all his passions centred in his tummy. If he ever reads this, — I think I am quite safe, — I fancy he’ll admit that his sole distraction in life was a good feed. Like his rider, he was middle-aged, and middle age is often the season of gluttony. He was a lazy old beast, too, and as we rode along, I would say, ‘Now if I let you have a whack at yonder maize-field, will you buck up and save me the trouble of kicking you along?’ He would promise anything, and bite off head after head, until I began to feel sorry for the poor Macedonian we were robbing; and even then he would reproach me all the way home for not letting him eat up half Macedonia. The only thing that could really set him going was a sharp-set morning, or a cloud of flies worrying the life out of him on a hot day. The poor beggar would try running away from them, and he had a real good trot on these occasions.
One other mount of that summer was a chestnut mare, lent me by a brother officer who omitted to inform me that she had not left the lines for three days. I set off gayly, with a loose rein, and she, seeing how matters stood, put her head between her knees and carried me over a few miles of broken country at what seemed a mile a minute, but was probably less. She took any blessed thing in her stride, and where most horses would have broken both our necks, she finished smiling, as if enjoying the blue-and-white funk of her rider. A curious commentary on the value of evidence is the fact that my servant, who had started out with us, returned to camp alone, declaring that the mare had bolted with me and that he had actually seen me thrown; which proves that imagination is far more real than lagging truth.
Here in Egypt, or rather on what is now called the Palestine Front, the problem of feeding and watering an army was complicated by the intervening desert. The Sinai Peninsula is 150 miles across, from the Suez Canal side to Rafa on the Palestine frontier, and there was no railway and next to no water. The Turk was driven back and the railway built, and a pipe-line was laid down bringing Nile water all the way to Palestine. The railway is now connected with existing lines, and from Kantara on the Canal, you can go straight on to Jaffa or Jerusalem.
So far so good; but away from the line, how are you to negotiate the sand, which changes, farther on, to dust? Someone thought of the camel, and to the camel has been added the donkey. Without the aid of these two quadrupeds, the Turk might still be in Jerusalem.
Thirty-five thousand camels, so I am told, were collected, and a legion of donkeys. The latter worked mostly in the hilly country, the camels in the plain. These accompanied the army, driven by Egyptian fellaheen. In a waterless country, they were the very thing, and they could go where wheeled transport was useless. All their equipment was a stout pack-saddle, with two stout nets slung from it, one on each side. These you filled with food or water-cans, and a good camel can take his four hundred pounds.
My last job in the field was with the camels and their Egyptian drivers. Speaking no Arabic and knowing the camel only as a beast you see in the Zoo, I was nonplussed at first. However, a wise system gave me a week to get going, during which I lived camel, thought camel, and was completely cut off from all other interests.
I learned that the beasts ate only twice a day and drank only every third day; that they required little grooming, and thought nothing of picking you up with their teeth and shaking the sand out of you. I have never met anyone who liked a camel. He will go on till, literally, he drops dead — that is the best thing that can be said about him. Socially he is an ill-conditioned churl, and treacherous into the bargain. A mule will save up an honest grudge for months, and then take it out of you with a well-planted kick; but a camel will go for you simply because he feels like it. Our Egyptians put up with him and seemed to understand him. I had 75 of them and 150 camels. The men were the best-humored fellows I have ever worked with. They were not much to look at — so many were crosseyed or even one-eyed; but when they stripped and gamboled in the sea, they were well-shaped and muscular enough. And they could sing in a way. The reis, or leader, used to improvise a line, and the rest of the troop would follow with the chorus. A favorite method was to make remarks about their officer, thus: —
The Reis: The officer is kind and loves us.
Chorus: So he is; so he does.
The Reis: He is strong as a lion and fears no foeman.
Chorus: So he is; so he does.
The Reis: He is beautiful to look at and gives much backsheesh.
Chorus: So he is; so he does.
The Reis: He is loved by maidens and sings like a nightingale.
Chorus: So he is; so he does.
There need be no end to this song, or to the something similar which used to accompany our work in the desert. One plaintive chorus, reminiscent of forced labor and the days of the Pharaohs, ran, ‘How many days, how many nights?’ It was a favorite, and must have been sung for hundreds of years. The men, in truth, had little to complain about. They were clothed, wellfed, and well paid. Their contract is for six months. I asked one of my three reises what he would do when his time was up. He would go back to his village, he said, and sit in the shade and smoke cigarettes. I can picture him, squatting outside his mud hovel on the Nile, his mind rather a blank, his body comfortable and warm, his women ministering to him. Occasionally he showed symptoms of wanting to begin in advance of his time.
The attitude of the driver to the camel often amused me. The man would put his head alongside the beast’s, and drink out of the same trough. I remember one man who preferred a tin can of his own. ‘You think you’re too good to drink out of the same trough as your camel,’ the others reproached him; and of course they had quite an argument. The camel was so much one of themselves that they would curse him as they cursed each other, beginning with the modest ‘son of a dog,’ and ending with ‘ein al dinak ’ which expresses the speaker’s contempt for the camel’s religion!
I show, perhaps, too great an inclination to linger over my camels and my last days of active service near the firing-line. When the push came that was to end with the defeat of Falkenhayn and the capture of Jerusalem, we old subalterns were weeded out. One seemed rather like a woman who has been made to feel that the days of her beauty are over. M—, who is fifty, and I, who am two years less, were set aside for younger and more damp-resisting bodies. Yet one thing will always stay with me — the dun sand and the blue sky, and, silhouetted against the blue, the endless lines of camels, dun-colored as the sand. On every sky-line one saw this picture, and never tired of it. Barely it moved, and one might fancy it had stood thus for century on century, since the first caravans had gone out of ancient Egypt into the hills and deserts of Philistia, and away to distant Assyria and the far lands of Hittite kings.
I have said nothing of the risks run by your supply and transport men, except that at the base they are negligible, while farther up country, in the early part of the war, a tacit understanding seemed to prevail on either side. In those days, ‘Eat and let eat’ was our motto. To-day, however, all that is changed, and aeroplane and high-velocity gun do their best to cut off the supply man and the transport driver. They take their risks, and have not even the satisfaction of answering back. Of course, their dangers are never comparable to those of the infantryman; but certainly, at Gallipoli, with everything in the open and the beaches continually under shell-fire, they were not far short. At those times many a good man crawled into his forage-dump and envied the infantry in their trenches. I have been bombed from the air, and shelled at very long range. In the latter case, you soon got to learn the line the shells would take, and so you kept outside it; in the former, I was at one time glad because of my partner. He was one of those overzealous individuals who are forever worrying about nothing. A fair bombing made him realize that he was a soldier, and I admit to having taken a malicious pleasure in watching him contemplate the unpleasant possibility of a sudden extinction. It used to sober him for quite two days.
Just now, with the great German offensive on in France, the supply and transport men are getting their opportunity. They are all class B men, that is to say, men who are not good enough for the first line; but they are sticking it like heroes, and taking their convoys up, no matter how broken the roads, how severe the bursts of the big shells and the bombs dropped by the gothas. They get little credit for their work and never a chance to show their mettle in the hand-to-hand of actual conflict; there are no V.C.’s for them and precious few other distinctions. Still, they are carrying on, and munitions go up, and man and beast are fed; and if some poor devils are blown to bits, they have at least had a pretty lengthy run for their money.
I have no wish to be statistical, and figures are dull reading, but the essence of supply-work is this. Every man you have in the field means about three pounds of food a day, seven days a week and three hundred and sixtyfive days a year. Every horse eats twenty-four pounds of forage a day, and eight pounds more for the big teamsters. You have to collect this material, you have to waste as little of it as you can, you have to carry it and distribute it to perhaps a couple of million mouths — day after day, week after week, month after month. It is the one job that never ceases. You want honest men for it — food and forage just now are easily what literary folk would call ‘ the best sellers’; you want men who are good at figures; and, thirdly, you want men who are patient and not afraid of doing to-day as they did yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.