Storm Over Khartoum extract

Chapter 11: Abu Klea

 

January 1885

 

‘Where on earth are the wells?’ Skinner asked the officer riding next to him – and the same question was on scores of other parched lips.

     They had advanced through a narrow pass, and were now in a small flat bowl surrounded on all sides by hills. However, as Major Kitchener, head of the relief force’s intelligence department, and the native guides were present, everyone supposed they were secure, and set to work to unload the camels. It was not such easy work as usual, for the ground was littered with large stones, on which the camels, not unreasonably for once, strongly objected to kneel. For a time there was a prodigious din – the camels grumbling and complaining, the natives screaming, the soldiers laughing, shouting and turning the air blue with obscene language. At last the loads were all off, the stores piled and the racket quieted down.

     ‘Where the hell is this water, Alfred?’ Easton asked Skinner as the two young subalterns met after the work was done.

     ‘I’ve no idea. I hope not far, because my water-skin’s leaked dry and my throat’s parched like a furnace.’

     ‘My water-bottle’s empty, too, but I’ve some left in the water-skin,’ Easton said, ‘but I can’t recommend it, it tastes of leather and smells like dog piss so strongly that it’s undrinkable. Oh, here’s Rupert. He knows everything. Where’s the water, Clinton?’

     ‘Apparently by that rock at the end of the valley. Are you coming?’

     ‘Told you,’ Skinner addressed Easton, ‘Rupert always knows everything.’

     ‘Yes, there’s nothing to do here at the moment,’ Easton added, smiling at Rupert.

     They hurried towards the outcrop that Rupert had pointed out, and on reaching it found no sign of water, but on going around a large boulder they all burst into delighted shouts. Before them lay a pool sixty feet wide by a hundred long. The rocks rose precipitously on each side and it was evident that the water was deep.

     ‘There are two more pools further up,’ offered another officer who had got there before them.

     ‘Le’s climb up and have a look,’ Rupert said and led the way up the scree. With some difficulty the three young men clambered up to the top of the rock and then balanced precariously for about thirty feet before getting to the edge.

     ‘Wow!’ exclaimed Rupert. Eighty feet below two beautiful pools glimmered where a rim of sunlight caught the water. The pools were evidently very deep, for at the edge the water was green, but nearly black in the centre.

     ‘This is more like it,’ Skinner said. ‘There’s no fear of running short of water. C’mon, let’s go down and grab a drink.’

     It was a struggle to get down and the final ledge was still too high above the pool to reach it. Ever practical, Skinner led the way by tying some string round his water-bottle, and soon brought it up full. The water was deliciously clear and cool, the high rock completely sheltering the pools from the worst of the sun’s heat. They indulged in several long draughts before satisfying their thirst.

     ‘I shan’t say anything against water again,’ Easton remarked. ‘I’ve always allowed its usefulness in washing, but have considered it a distinct failure as a drink. I recant. While considering that at home a fine wine is good enough for me, I’m prepared to maintain that, in the middle of the Bayuda Desert, clear cold water –and plenty of it – is good enough for anyone. But how in the world are we going to get at this water? Oh, here come the technical men; I trust they’re going to do something utterly amazing and engineeringish.’

     The three watched in fascination as the engineers arrived with some pumps and a hundred yards of hose. They lowered one end of the tubing into the upper pool and then led it down through the lower pool to a long trough which had been hurriedly assembled at its edge. The pumps were fixed in a very short time and in less than an hour a stream of pure water poured into the trough, from which the cooks of the various companies filled their kettles and boilers. This left the water of the lower pool for the use of the camels and the scouts’ horses.

     Some of the men, in spite of their long and fatiguing journey, had followed the example of the young officers and filled their water-bottles as they had done, but the majority had thrown themselves on the ground and were fast asleep a few minutes after the work of unloading the camels had been completed. For hours the task of watering the camels went on, slowly at first, as only a few could drink at a time, but more rapidly when larger troughs had been constructed and erected, at which thirty animals could drink at the same time.

     As soon as the dinner of coarse rations was over the Guards set to work to erect two forts that the engineers had already marked out. One of these was at the mouth of the pass leading into the little valley, the other they placed just above the pools. The baggage was piled close to the wells. At eight o’clock the mounted infantry and all of the camels started on their return journey, leaving the Guards, with fifteen engineers and six Hussars, to hold the wells and guard the pile of stores that had been brought along.

     Rupert Clinton returned with General Stewart and the column to Korti to bring out the main body of troops. Calculations indicated that it would take ten days before the main column would catch up at Gakdul, and the Guards and Marines set to in earnest the next morning to get things into order. The work was very heavy, but as the men had plenty to eat and no lack of excellent water they congratulated themselves on not having to make the long and wearisome journey to Korti and back again.

     In only a couple of days they were bitterly wishing the opposite.

     ‘This is awful!’ Easton said to Skinner as, sitting down uncomfortably on the ground, he mournfully contemplated his footwear. ‘I thought these boots would last me through the campaign, but look at them, they’re done for.’

     ‘They do look bad,’ Skinner agreed, ‘but no worse than mine, or in fact than anyone else’s. These rocks are a misery. If nature’d scattered ten million knives across this valley they couldn’t have been more destructive to boots than these stones. If we have to march many miles over stuff like this the whole force will be barefooted. I’ll be glad when the others arrive, and we’ve done with this. The men’s hands are pretty well cut to pieces as well, getting and carrying those sharp rocks, and I’m fed up of acting as a sort of amateur mason – I’m suposed to be a sailor.’

     The work was back-breaking, but in the course of the ten days the walls of the forts rose to a height of over five feet – a laborious job since one fort measured twenty by twenty-three yards, the other thirty by fifteen yards, and the stones had to be picked up and carried considerable distances, or loosened out of the solid rock by aid of the six pickaxes and four crowbars that were alone available.

     In addition to the forts, the site of a camp was marked out, roads being formed by clearing away the loathed stones, and paths made up to the forts and picket stations. The minute work ended the men flocked to the lower pool to indulge in the luxury of a bathe.

 

On the 11th of January a convoy of a thousand camels with stores and ammunition arrived, and the next day the troops at Gakdul were delighted at seeing the main column approaching. In addition to the Mounted Infantry and Heavy Camel Corps, 400 men of the Sussex Regiment came up on the camels. They were intended to garrison the forts and protect the wells when the rest of the force moved on, but a hundred of them were to go forward with the troops. With the newcomers were sailors with a Gardner machine gun, men of the Royal Artillery with three seven-pounders, medical and commissariat staff, and native drivers for the baggage camels. This gave a total force of 1,500 men, 90 horses and 2,200 camels.

     Those who had left Gakdul ten days before were astonished at the change which the labours of the Guards’ Camel Corps had made, those who had remained at Gakdul, however, were horrified at the change in their camels. The authorities had acted as if there were no limits to the beasts’ powers. For two weeks the animals had been kept at work with only three or four hours’ rest, with a scanty supply of food and water only twice, at Gakdul and Korti. They were weak, exhausted and the majority suffered from sore backs, some had already succumbed to a near-death lethargy, others were utterly incapable of further work until they were rested.

     Easton quickly interpreted the callous treatment of the camels which had carried them so well only ten days before: ‘I’m afraid, Alfred, that they must have very bad news from Khartoum, and now every day counts. The matter must have been extremely urgent to have worn out our transport in this way.’

     ‘I don’t like these night marches, either,’ Skinner added. ‘They’re a big mistake.’

‘They are. It was bad enough when we had the moon, but it’ll be ten times worse now. As to the heat, that’s all rot. We travelled in the daytime coming up by the banks of the Nile, and it’s cooler now than it was then. It’s all very well to march at night if there isn’t a baggage-train, but we’ve got one and the delays from falling behind and readjusting baggage are far greater at night than at day.’

     The greater worry the young officers shared was that in a night march the walking kept infantrymen awake, but sat on camels, without the exercise, drowsiness overwhelmed the riders and they risked becoming lost if the camel wandered off when its rider fell asleep. Sleep was also next to impossible during the daytime rests because of the sun’s driving heat and the flies.

 

The column did not linger at Gakdul. Orders were issued that the advance would recommence on the 13th; the intervening day to be devoted to seeing to the arms and ammunition, issuing stores and replenishing the water supply. The water-skins were extremely defective, leaking freely, the only exception being the India-rubber bags supplied to the sailors. Every effort was made during the halt to sew up holes and stop leaks, but with little success. Each man carried on his camel one water-skin in addition to his water-bottle. The supply in the skins was for general purposes, such as cooking and making tea and the men had strict orders never to drink from them, only from the water-bottles.

     During the halt Edgar applied himself steadily to the work of repairing water-skins. He had been well hidden from Rupert on the march from Korti, but the camps of the Heavies and the Guards were joined, and he felt that his danger of being recognised by Easton or Skinner was great. Sitting with a group of others sewing skins, his face shaded by his helmet, the risk was much less than if he stood up or moved about.

     At two o’clock in the afternoon the force moved off in columns of companies. The Heavy Camel Corps led, the Guards followed, the baggage and stores were in the centre, and the Mounted Infantry in the rear. Due to their condition, many of the camels had to be left behind, and those that continued were only enough to carry the necessary stores, rations for the men and a quantity of corn to provide each animal with two eight-pound feeds; for the rest of their needs, they would have to depend on whatever they could pluck from the mimosa shrubs and the dry yellow grass. The men carried a hundred and seventy rounds each. There were a hundred rounds per gun for the artillery, but only a thousand rounds were taken for the Gardner, which the machine-gun could run through in five minutes.

     The route across the neck of desert to Metemma went via the wells of Abu Klea, the only available water before reaching the Nile. It had been calculated that the force should reach Abu Klea in two days. Easton and Skinner were pleased to learn that the marches were to be made in daylight, which put the men in better spirits.

     Less cheering were the delays caused by the collapse of many camels: some fell dead as they walked, while others grew so weary that they had to be left behind in the hope that they would recover enough to graze on the bushes and make their way back to Gakdul. As a consequence of these holdups, the journey took longer than anticipated and so it was the 15th when a final halt was made at eleven for a rest break and quick meal, with the hope of reaching Abu Klea that evening.

     They were stopped in a valley flanked by hills. The track, according to the maps, lay over a steep hill in front and then along a pass between two hills, the wells lying some three miles beyond the pass. Dinner was cooked, and as soon as they had finished their meal the Hussars – whose horses had not had water since Gakdul – started for the wells. The rest of the force was stretched out on the ground taking it quietly when two Hussars returned at a gallop. The general immediately ordered the men to fall in and for the officers to check arms and ammunition. The enemy had been discovered in large numbers on the hill ahead, blocking the way to the wells and the life-giving water.

     In a moment fatigue and thirst were forgotten, bustle and animation extinguished the previous quiet. Men laughed and joked with each other as the adrenalin kicked in. They were thrilled to be preparing for a fight which all the spies had predicted would not happen until after Metemma. The Mahdi’s forces had moved northwards far more quickly than anyone had expected.

     As the troops fell in General Stewart and his staff rode ahead to some rising ground. Through his field-glasses Rupert Clinton could make out numbers of white-robed Arabs dominating the pass. ‘A lot of mounted men, sir, with their foot-soldiers – the deep desert Baqqara nomads, by the look of their dress.’

     Baqqara, this far north? That’s not a good sign,’ the general muttered.

On the side of the hills commanding the pass the enemy had constructed small stone walls from which to fire. Out of range on the hilltops a host was in constant motion, gesticulating and chanting. Since it was now four o’clock, and the enemy’s real strength remained unknown, Stewart knew it would be unwise to try forcing the pass with only an hour and a half of daylight left. A halt for the night was ordered.

     A detachment of mounted infantry covered men of the Naval Brigade as they built a small fort on a hill flanking the approach and set up their machine-gun there. A company from each camel regiment extended to cover the front and the camels were knee-haltered. This done, the troops set to work to build a wall, but the lack of suitable loose stones provided a frontal defence only about two feet high. Two zareba-style hedges of thorn bushes and wire protected the flanks as much as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

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