CHAPTER I Mersa Matruh and the Senussi
It is a little difficult to know the precise place at which to begin this narrative. There are, as it were, several points d'appui. One might describe the outward voyage, in a troopship packed to three or four times its normal peace-time capacity; where men slept on the floors, on mess-tables, and in hammocks so closely slung that once you were in it was literally impossible to get out until the whole row was ready to move; and where we were given food (!) cooked and served under conditions so revolting as to turn the stomach at the bare sight of it. And there were other things....
But I do not think any useful purpose would be served by such a course. It was an unspeakably horrible voyage, but most of the troops travelling East experienced the same conditions; moreover, the praise or blame for those responsible for the early chaos will doubtless be meted out at the proper time and in the proper place.
Again, as far as most people at home are concerned, the Great Crusade began with the taking of Jerusalem and ended when the Turks finally surrendered in the autumn of 1918. This view, entirely erroneous though it be, is not unreasonable, for a thick veil shrouded the doings of the army in Egypt in the early days, and the people at home saw only the splendid results of two years' arduous preparation and self-sacrifice.
Now the tale of these weary months ought to be told that justice be done to some of the biggest-hearted men who ever left the shores of Great Britain and Australasia, and that the stupendous difficulties confronting them may be properly appreciated. It is no tale of glamour and romance; it is a tale of sheer, hard graft, generally under terrible conditions—for a white man.
Before we could even think of moving eastwards towards Palestine we had to set our own house in order. Egypt was seething with sedition, and the flame of discontent was sedulously fanned by the young excitables from Al Azhar, who probably were themselves stimulated by Turko-German propaganda—and "baksheesh." These had to be suppressed; and the task was not easy. Further, as far south as Aden there were Turkish garrisons, and troops in considerable numbers had to be detached to overcome them; this, too, was no small undertaking. Finally, a flowery gentleman called the High Sheikh or the Grand Sheikh of the Senussi had ideas above his station—and he had to be disillusionised.
This was a more serious matter, for the Senussi were the largest native tribe in Egypt, and Turkish and German officers had been very busy amongst them. Some account of the operations against them has already been published, but I believe it concerns mainly the Duke of Westminster's spirited dash with his armoured cars to rescue the shipwrecked survivors of the Tara, who were grossly ill-treated by the Senussi. Yet right up to the end of 1917 they were a source of trouble, and in 1915 the situation became so serious that a strong punitive force had to be sent to Mersa Matruh, on the Western Frontier of Egypt, to cope with it.
Here, I think, is where we must make our bow, for we had some small place in these operations; it was, in fact, our introduction to actual fighting, though we had already spent many torrid weeks on the Suez Canal. And no better mise en scène could we have than the old Missa, for the story of the campaign would be incomplete without mention of her; she was unique. Besides, everybody in Egypt knows the Missa. Those who had the misfortune to know her intimately speak of her with revilings and cast slurs upon her parentage.
Far back down the ages, possibly about the time when the admirable Mr. Stephenson was busy practising with his locomotive, the Missa might have been a respectable ship, but her engines had been replaced so many times by others more pernicious and evil-smelling, and new boards had been nailed so frequently and promiscuously about the hull, that she resembled nothing so much as an aged female of indifferent repute decked in juvenile and unseemly clothes; and her conduct matched her looks....