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Extracts of Spies of Jerusalem

(From Chapter 36. The Charge at Huj.)

Pichler was giving orders about the shell fuzing to his Feldwebel, a giant of a young Tyrollean who had tried to disguise his youth with the kind of moustache young children hang on. “Each gun to have five shrapnel rounds set to ten seconds, five to five, and five to zero.”

When the NCO had gone off to see about this Weidinger said, “Zero settings? Expecting them to get that close?”

“I’m not taking any chances,” replied Pichler. “I’m a conventional kind of soldier I suppose. I know those machine-guns behind us won’t let us down. I know they won’t jam. I know they have the best field of fire where they are and will keep those nasty Tommy toothpicks away from us. But just between you and me and my grandmother’s favourite saint I would feel a whole lot happier if we had some people out in front.

“And there’s another thing. As you may have noticed, we may be hidden from them but they are also hidden from us. There’s at least four hundred metres of dead ground out there behind the spurt which we can’t cover over open sights You must agree it’s worrying. I’m going to have to send my young gentleman back to where were lying, with a man on a field telephone to act as spotter. At least he can lie down and pretend he’s in bed which is where he should be if you ask me.”

Weidinger nodded. It was true enough. The boy obviously had jaundice. But he was still convinced that it wasn’t going to happen.

“Don’t forget you’ve got those mountain guns covering your left flank,” he said. “If the Tommies came at you head on they’d have to face enfilade fire from over there. They’d be slaughtered.”

“Yes,” said Pichler. “I suppose you’re right - providing they can get the range.”

At that moment one of the most unearthly sounds either officer had ever heard floated across the little valley that separated them from the enemy. Others who were with the guns that day recalled it was like something between an off-key bugle call and a canine’s lunar howl. At the same time a large cloud of dust began to roll towards the mountain, which began booming away at a furious rate. They were soon accompanied by the rattle of rifle fire, and then the machine-guns behind Weidinger joined in. At first they fired short bursts and then long ones as they appeared to get on target. Weidinger estimated the range at just over one thousand metres, and wondered if they would curb the tendency to shoot high at that distance.

“They’re charging,” said Pichler. “Perhaps it’s the Australians again.”

Weidinger was looking at the dust cloud through his field glasses. It had now almost reached the Turkish position and he could see the flashing of steel.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Not this time.”

Then came that strange doubling note again, slightly closer now.

Private Calderwell felt himself go cold.

“There goes old Toby tootin’ his ‘orn,” said Mace to no-one in particular.

“Alright, s’arnt-major,” said Captain Valintine. “Squadron will advance in half squadrons.”

It was almost 1.30pm . Overhead a late flock of cranes flew south on their winter migration to the Great Rift Valley.

“Squadron advaaance.”

B Squadron of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, four officers and thirty-eight men, trotted their horses about twenty yards. They were still just below the crest, only their dust showing. The two remaining troops of the Worcesters about thirty men under a lieutenant called Edwards, came with them, positioning themselves slightly in echelon to the right. Valintine was about a length ahead of everybody else on a grey. He turned in the saddle, his face flushed with excitement, and said, “It’s the guns we’re after lads. Good huntin’ and keep spread out! Chaaaarrrrge!”

As Valintine’s sword arm went down and his spurs went in so the pair of Skoda guns facing them opened fire on the Yeomanry for the first time.

“High,” said Pichler. “Down two degrees.”

The brass elevation wheels were turned.

“Fire! That’s better.”

Weidinger, peering through his Zeiss alongside him, thought he saw at least three horses go down.

“Bloody ignorant these Tommies,” growled Pichler. “Don’t read their own history books.”

But they were not coming in the way Weidinger had always imagined a cavalry charge, a great glorious mass of men and horseflesh advancing on the enemy stirrup to stirrup, as the Uhlans had at Mars La Tour. These horsemen were hardly in formation at all: they seemed to be riding in twos and threes, even singly, with as much as ten metres between groups in places. They looked more like Cossacks than regular cavalry, and every few seconds they would vanish into their own dust.

When the first whizz-bangs from the Austrian battery came at them, just a little too late to do any harm, Calderwell’s reaction had been like most of the other Yeomanry: the sooner they got past those guns the safer they would be. He raked Villa’s sides with his spurs and even began to sue his word like a whip on her rump. At one point he was almost level with Mace, who grinned and shouted something that was carried away by the sound of the next explosion, which seemed directly above them. It was like the last straight of a derby that had seen no warm up, no reining in. The best riders and the best horses, who almost invariably went together, edged into the lead, so that soon Calderwell was squinting into the dust of at least four mounts immediately ahead.

There was a noise like a hailstorm on an iron-roofed building and for a moment Calderwell wondered whether their own Hotchkiss teams had come up and were giving them cover. Then he had to swerve around an animal that was down in front of him and he for a moment he felt Villa falter and break her stride as her hooves caught something. There was a scream, whether from a horse or man he could not tell. The hailstorm continued as the Turkish infantry joined in with their Mausers. “Bloody charge of the light brigade,” muttered Calderwell. “Right, you bastards.”

“Five-second fuzes,” Pichler was shouting, his hand over the mouthpiece of the field telephone. Apart from about thirty horsemen who had started after the others, the English were out of sight now. His commands came after the ensign manning the observation post had registered the distances through his Goertz range-finder and then reeled them off to the gunner operating the field telephone. The nearest horses were now at four hundred and fifty metres.

“C’est magnifique mais c’est n’est pas la guerre,” murmured Weidinger who, like Calderwell, could not get the Crimea out of his head. What sort of fool sent cavalry to attack a position like this without artillery support? Another hundred metres and the machine-gunners would really start to cut them to pieces if they weren’t already.

Suddenly he scented that somebody else was standing the other side of him from Pichler. He turned and there was Shemsi, leaning on her rolled parasol and peering into the dust as if she was at the race track. “What’s happening?” she said, flinching every time a gun went off. “Where have they all gone?”

“They’re just behind that ridge in front of us, that spur,” said Weidinger, trying to conceal his astonishment. For the last few minutes he had almost forgotten she existed. “I think it might be better if you went back to the lorry. Where’s Major Krag?”

“He’s trying to help get it started.”

Weidinger looked and saw that the driver was still tinkering with the engine while Krag stood stooped at the front gripping the starting handle with both hands.

“They almost got it going a few minutes ago.” she said.

“I think you ought to forget about trying to start it now,” said Weidinger. “Please tell Major Krag there is a possibility that some of these Tommies might break through. You must take cover until we’ve dealt with them.”

“But where?”

“Go under the lorry,” said Pichler who had been half listening. “And go now. They’re three hundred metres away.” He started to shout down the telephone, “You’ve done a good job. I’ll try and get you a medal for it. Now get out of there. Come on! Come back and keep your heads down or you’ll get them blown off by those excellent machine-guns behind us.

The Widow Shemsi lifted her skirts and ran back to the lorry. The machine-gun fire intensified.

They had almost crossed the valley now and were approaching the slight incline that seemed to conceal the place where the guns that had been tormenting them lay. A riderless horse, a chestnut like Villa, came alongside Calderwell. He glanced across at it and failed to recognise whose it was but saw that the horse had got caught up in some sort of blueish tubing that was clinging to its left flank. Then he realised that he was looking at the animal’s intestines, which had sprung from some gaping wound in its side and were now easing themselves a little more into the daylight with every stride it took. To Calderwell’s amazement, despite its impending evisceration, the horse easily overtook Villa and other laden stable-mates. When they reached the crest the hailstorm on the roof became noisier, though Calderwell was concentrating so hard on avoiding falling horses that he hardly noticed. He glimpsed a dismounted Yeoman pulling his Lee-Enfield out of his saddle boot, and then he was at the top and his sword arm went down.

“Just point your weapon,” the instructor had said. “Thumb in the groove and the speed of your horse will do the rest.”

But what do I point at, sergeant? What do I point at when then dust is so thick I can hardly see to the end of my sword? Then the dust cloud parted and he saw the guns for the first time. At almost the same moment the machine-gun fire stopped.

“Zero fuzes,” Pichler was shouting. “Zero fuzes. For God’s sake, where’s that boy?”

“Here they come now,” said Weidinger.

They were following the field telephone line down. The Hungarian gunner they called Gypsy was in the lead, winding the cable onto the apparatus as he went. Behind him came the ensign, who had the gunner’s carbine slung over his right shoulder and the Goertz range-finder in his left hand. He kept looking back. They were about four hundred metres from the guns.

“Come on, come on,” said Pichler.

The first horse appeared. It was riderless, and was almost immediately felled by a burst of machine-gun fire.

“Run, man. Come on, run,” pleaded Pichler, though there was absolutely no chance they could hear him above the din of exploding ordnance. The ensign would run for half-a-dozen strides then seemed to pause for breath. Another riderless horse crested the ridge to meet the same fate.

“For God’s sake drop that phone,” whispered Pichler to himself. “I won’t have you court martialled for losing it.”

Horsemen were visible now, a man on a grey in the front. Almost as if he had heard him Gypsy dropped the phone and sprinted towards the guns. Weidinger estimated the nearest Tommy was about thirty metres away from the ensign. For a few seconds the sick teenager looked as if he might keep up a sustained sprint too. But then he stopped again, put the range-finder down, and began to unsling the carbine. Almost at the same moment the machine-gun fire became suddenly much reduced, and for the second time that afternoon the gunners heard that strange double-noted horn.


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Buy this as an ebook from
  The Last Crusade
London, 1991
ISBN: 1 85619 0765

Sinclair-Stevenson Paperback 1993 and 1994
ISBN 1 85619 475 2
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