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A First World War Soldier

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There was no question as to my eligibility for service. I was young and strong and healthy--and even if I had not been, the physical examination of Turkish recruits is a farce. The enlisting officers have a theory of their own that no man is really unfit for the army--a theory which has been fostered by the ingenious devices of the Arabs to avoid conscription. To these wild people the protracted discipline of military training is simply a purgatory, and for weeks before the recruiting officers are due, they dose themselves with powerful herbs and physics and fast, and nurse sores into being, until they are in a really deplorable condition. Some of them go so far as to cut off a finger or two. The officers, however, have learned to see beyond these little tricks, and few Arabs succeed in wriggling through their drag-net. I have watched dozens of Arabs being brought in to the recruiting office on camels or horses, so weak were they, and welcomed into the service with a severe beating--the sick and the shammers sharing the same fate. Thus it often happens that some of the new recruits die after their first day of garrison life.

Together with twenty of my comrades, I presented myself at the recruiting station at Acco (the St. Jean d'Acre of history). We had been given to understand that, once our names were registered, we should be allowed to return home to provide ourselves with money, suitable clothing, and food, as well as to bid our families good-bye. To our astonishment, however, we were marched off to the Hân, or caravanserai, and locked into the great courtyard with hundreds of dirty Arabs. Hour after hour passed; darkness came, and finally we had to stretch ourselves on the ground and make the best of a bad situation. It was a night of horrors. Few of us had closed an eye when, at dawn, an officer appeared and ordered us out of the Hân. From our total number about three hundred (including four young men from our village and myself) were picked out and told to make ready to start at once for Saffêd, a town in the hills of northern Galilee near the Sea of Tiberias, where our garrison was to be located. No attention was paid to our requests that we be allowed to return to our homes for a final visit. That same morning we were on our way to Saffêd--a motley, disgruntled crew.


The town of SAFFÊD

It was a four days' march--four days of heat and dust and physical suffering. The September sun smote us mercilessly as we straggled along the miserable native trail, full of gullies and loose stones. It would not have been so bad if we had been adequately shod or clothed; but soon we found ourselves envying the ragged Arabs as they trudged along barefoot, paying no heed to the jagged flints. (Shoes, to the Arab, are articles for ceremonious indoor use; when any serious walking is to be done, he takes them off, slings them over his shoulder, and trusts to the horny soles of his feet.)

To add to our troubles, the Turkish officers, with characteristic fatalism, had made no commissary provision for us whatever. Any food we ate had to be purchased by the roadside from our own funds, which were scant enough to start with. The Arabs were in a terrible plight. Most of them were penniless, and, as the pangs of hunger set in, they began pillaging right and left from the little farms by the wayside. From modest beginnings--poultry and vegetables--they progressed to larger game, unhindered by the officers. Houses were entered, women insulted; time and again I saw a stray horse, grazing by the roadside, seized by a crowd of grinning Arabs, who piled on the poor beast's back until he was almost crushed to earth, and rode off triumphantly, while their comrades held back the weeping owner. The result of this sort of "requisitioning," was that our band of recruits was followed by an increasing throng of farmers--imploring, threatening, trying by hook or by crook to win back the stolen goods. Little satisfaction did they get, although some of them went with us as far as Saffêd.

Our garrison town is not an inviting place, nor has it an inviting reputation. Lord Kitchener himself had good reason to remember it. As a young lieutenant of twenty-three, in the Royal Engineering Corps, he was nearly killed there by a band of fanatical Arabs while surveying for the Palestine Exploration Fund. Kitchener had a narrow escape of it (one of his fellow officers was shot dead close by him), but he went calmly ahead and completed his maps, splendid large-scale affairs which have never since been equaled--and which are now in use by the Turkish and German armies! However, though Saffêd combines most of the unpleasant characteristics of Palestine native towns, we welcomed the sight of it, for we were used up by the march. An old deserted mosque was given us for barracks; there, on the bare stone floor, in close-packed promiscuity, too tired to react to filth and vermin, we spent our first night as soldiers of the Sultan, while the milky moonlight streamed in through every chink and aperture, and bats flitted round the vaulting above the snoring carcasses of the recruits.

Next morning we were routed out at five. The black depths of the well in the center of the mosque courtyard provided doubtful water for washing, bathing, and drinking; then came breakfast,--our first government meal,--consisting, simply enough, of boiled rice, which was ladled out into tin wash-basins holding rations for ten men. In true Eastern fashion we squatted down round the basin and dug into the rice with our fingers. At first I was rather upset by this sort of table manners, and for some time I ate with my eyes fixed on my own portion, to avoid seeing the Arabs, who fill the palms of their hands with rice, pat it into a ball and cram it into their mouths just so, the bolus making a great lump in their lean throats as it reluctantly descends.

In the course of that same morning we were allotted our uniforms. The Turkish uniform, under indirect German influence, has been greatly modified during the past five years. It is of khaki--a greener khaki than that of the British army, and of conventional European cut. Spiral puttees and good boots are provided; the only peculiar feature is the headgear--a curious, uncouth-looking combination of the turban and the German helmet, devised by Enver Pasha to combine religion and practicality, and called in his honor enverieh. (With commendable thrift, Enver patented his invention, and it is rumored that he has drawn a comfortable fortune from its sale.) An excellent uniform it is, on the whole; but, to our disgust, we found that in the great olive-drab pile to which we were led, there was not a single new one. All were old, discarded, and dirty, and the mere thought of putting on the clothes of some unknown Arab legionary, who, perhaps, had died of cholera at Mecca or Yemen, made me shudder. After some indecision, my friends and I finally went up to one of the officers and offered to buy new uniforms with the money we expected daily from our families. The officer, scenting the chance for a little private profit, gave his consent.

The days and weeks following were busy ones. From morning till night, it was drill, drill, and again drill. We were divided into groups of fifty, each of which was put in charge of a young non-commissioned officer from the Military School of Constantinople or Damascus, or of some Arab who had seen several years' service. These instructors had a hard time of it; the German military system, which had only recently been introduced, was too much for them. They kept mixing up the old and the new methods of training, with the result that it was often hopeless to try and make out their orders. Whole weeks were spent in grinding into the Arabs the names of the different parts of the rifle; weeks more went to teaching them to clean it--although it must be said that, once they had mastered these technicalities, they were excellent shots. Their efficiency would have been considerably greater if there had been more target-shooting. From the very first, however, we felt that there was a scarcity of ammunition. This shortage the drill-masters, in a spirit of compensation, attempted to make up by abundant severity. The whip of soft, flexible, stinging leather, which seldom leaves the Turkish officer's hand, was never idle. This was not surprising, for the Arab is a cunning fellow, whose only respect is for brute force. He exercises it himself on every possible victim, and expects the same treatment from his superiors.

So far as my comrades and I were concerned, I must admit that we were generally treated kindly. We knew most of the drill-exercises from the gymnastic training we had practiced since childhood, and the officers realized that we were educated and came from respectable families. The same was also true with regard to the native Christians, most of whom can read and write and are of a better class than the Mohammedans of the country. When Turkey threw in her lot with the Germanic powers, the attitude toward the Jews and Christians changed radically; but of this I shall speak later.

It was a hard life we led while in training at Saffêd; evening would find us dead tired, and little disposed for anything but rest. As the tremendous light-play of the Eastern sunsets faded away, we would gather in little groups in the courtyard of our mosque--its minaret towering black against a turquoise sky--and talk fitfully of the little happenings of the day, while the Arabs murmured gutturally around us. Occasionally, one of them would burst into a quavering, hot-blooded tribal love-song. It happened that I was fairly well known among these natives through my horse Kochba--of pure Maneghi-Sbeli blood--which I had purchased from some Anazzi Bedouins who were encamped not far from Aleppo: a swift and intelligent animal he was, winner of many races, and in a land where a horse is considerably more valuable than a wife, his ownership cast quite a glamour over me.

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