Extracts of Spies of Jerusalem
(From the Prologue)
Huj, 8 November 1917: about 2.30pm
There were dead men and dead horses, but at first it was mostly dead horses.
Meinertzhagen and Ponting arrived with the cleaners, human and otherwise. The
birds circled in the low thermals above the ambulances and stretcher parties,
especially over the far ridge where the Turkish dead were thickly clustered.
Buzzards, said Meinertzhagen, pushing up the peak of of the solar
topee and holding a hand over his eyes. Long-legged buzzards and a few
Booted Eagles by the look of em.
Ponting shuddered. They disgust me.
But why? Its their nature.
The officers rode on in silence for a while after that, each apparently lost
in his own thoughts. They were freshly horsed on the tough little Australian
remounts that were known in that campaign as Walers because they were bred in
New South Wales. Now they walked their Walers down the ridge behind which the
Warwicks and Worcesters had assembled before making their sudden appearance on
the skyline to make their half-mile gallop towards the Austrian seventy-fives.
The guns were hidden in a hollow in the enemy held ridge, so that as the English
cavalry crossed the flat of the little valley they had ridden into dead ground,
where the gunners could no longer fire at them over open sights and had to rely
on air bursts - those and the protection of the German machine-gunners and Turkish
infantry, who were dug in higher up behind them and could see the Yeomanry coming
all the way.
As they got nearer the Austrian battery Meinertzhagen and Ponting saw bundles
of khaki huddled together by the dead horses. Great clouds of flies rose off
human and animal cadavers alike, settling down again once they were past.
They did not go down to the Skoda guns in the hollow right away but rode to the
left of them, up to the crest of the ridge where the nationalities were intertwined.
Further down the far slope the dead were exclusively Turkish, for it was here
that the English had run them through with their long swords as they ran away.
Close to a Turkish corpse with a gaping back wound was an open red-covered
book, also lying spine uppermost. It was such an incongruous sight that Ponting
and picked it up, half expecting it to be a Koran, which would have been
a nice keepsake. But it turned out to be in English. The Complete Letter-Writer
Ladies and Gentleman, he read, and he could see by flicking through the chapter
headings that it gave advice on how to conduct all kinds of correspondence:
business, social, family - even amorous. On the title page was an inscription
black ink in the large and precise style Ponting always thought of as Working
Class Copperplate: To our dearest son Walter, in the hope that he might
learn these lessons well and keep us informed of all his adventures. May
God keep you safe and sound until you return to us. Your loving parents,
Mr and Mrs
Ponting wondered what sort of self-improving Tommy Atkins would take such
a volume into battle with him. Written in pencil in the inside of the front
cover was Private
W. Calderwell, Warwickshire Yeomanry. Beneath, inscribed in block capitals
ina different, darker pencil lead were the words B Squadron, which
indicated to Ponting, who had a deductive mind, that the man was probably one
of a recent draft of reinforcements who had not known which squadron of his regiment
he would be allotted to until he arrived in Egypt. It didnt look like
the poor boy had lasted long.
Interesting? asked Meinertzhagen.
Its from one of ours, said Ponting, slipping the book into
a tunic pocket and remounting.
They turned around and went back to the top of the ridge where, on the English
side, the slaughter had only been exceeded by that which had occurred around
the Austrian artillery itself. The farriers were putting down those horses
that could not be persuaded to stand. A single bullet wound, even several,
always good reason enough to kill a horse. Mules were even tougher, but mules
didnt make charges.
A soldier with hair the colour of corn was crouched with his rifle beside a brown
horse lying on its side with its neck outstretched on the ground. Every so often
the head and neck would come up, the mane shake enough to dislodge the flies,
and then shudder down again. Above the horse stood a farrier corporal holding
what Ponting at first mistook for some sort of outsize pistol and then realised
was one of those captive bolt devices they had begun to use in abattoirs shortly
before the start of the war.
Shes winded, the corn-haired boy was saying. Shell
come round. I know she will. Ponting saw that he was one of the very
young ones, nineteen at the most.
Cmon, son, it doesnt always work first time with a rifle, said
the corporal farrier, who had a blacksmiths forearms.
Fuck off or I might shoot you, the youth said quietly, although not
quietly enough for Ponting not to overhear him.
For a moment he thought Meinertzhagen might see the boy as another dreadful example
of the callowness of these New Army civilian volunteers, and have him tied spread-eagled
to a wagon wheel doing field punishment for insolence to a non-commissioned officer.
But Meinertzhagen did not appear to have heard. He was looking beyond them towards
a lorry parked on a dirt track about for hundred yards from the Skoda guns. Next
to the lorry, which was of German manufacture, was a horse-drawn British field
ambulance. A man was being loaded into the back of the ambulance on a stretcher,
watched by a British officer and a woman.
It was, of course, the woman who had attracted Meinertzhagens attention.
After the war, when he had polished it to one of those anecdotes that neither
bored or gave away too much, Ponting used to say that he would have been
less surprised to see a Clapham omnibus than a female at Huj.
From the distance she appeared to be European. She was quite tall and dark
looking and was wearing a grubby white dress and a large straw hat. They
her. As they got closer they could see that most of the grubbiness on the
dress was blood- and fresh blood at that, because the heat quickly dried
it brown. Ponting wondered why nobody was assisting her. Then he realised
that the blood
was probably not her own.