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By Sempad Shahnazarian

Chapter Eleven 

e was taken out and placed with a group of about one hundred men. They were standing in the street in four columns with their hands tied together. Some were in uniform, others were in civilian clothes. How relieved he was, when the columns started to move on to Sevkiat camp to be sent to where they belonged. Yes, he was relaxed and content now but he was hungry. Before taking the train, they were each given a flat loaf of bread. He was devouring his when his eyes landed on a familiar face under Arabian headgear.

  “Beto!” he exclaimed uncontrollably.

  “Sempo!” he yelled.

  “How did you get here?” asked Sempad.

  “I ran away from the firing squad.” Beto answered. “As soon as we got to Amman we were subjected to the hardest labor imaginable, digging trenches with the temperature at 130° F. with no food or water. Most of the men died within a week and the rest were put before the firing squad but here I am! I outwitted them!”

  “I am so glad to see you again.” said Sempad.

  “Do you have any idea where we are going?”

  “To the front, of course, but possibly to different sectors. That’s what I have been dreaming about all the time...the front-line! A big offensive will soon be underway under the command of General Allenby. The Armenian Legion, Legion D’Orient, is confronting the Turks in the most fortified sector of the front. That is the place I have been dreaming to be!”

  “All aboard!” called the conductor. About one hundred of them got on the train. Beto belonged to a different group. He was looking around, excitedly, to locate Sempad. Sempad waved at him from the train window, saying: “Here I am, Beto...See you soon,” and in the commotion he lost sight of him. The whistle blew and the train began to move.

  After a six hour ride the train let him out at Vadi Sarar plain. This was a desolate place with sun scorched weeds, swarms of flies, mosquitoes and dust making the place unfit for human habitation. Arab farmers were selling watermelons and figs and there were clouds of flies swaying in the air and on the rotting fruit.

  Sick and wounded soldiers, lying on the ground, were prey to the masses of insects attacking their eyes, nostrils and their half-open mouths. They were unable to chase them away.

   He was put on a horse-drawn cart with a driver and two other soldiers and two barrels of vinegar. He never thought the 26th Artillery Division still existed after the crushing battles in the Straits of the Dardanelles. The way the sergeant explained his destination to the driver of the cart made him worry, however. To make sure he did not misunderstand the sergeant’s directions to the driver regarding his destination, he asked him: “How long has it been since the 26th Artillery Division has been here?”

  “About a month.” he said.

   So it still exists! thought Sempad, gloomily. What an absurd situation! What a tragedy! Going back after a year of desertion...to shake hands with a bullet! As the cart kept rolling in the hot and dry desert, the vinegar began to sing...chup, chup, chup, chup...His mouth was getting frothy. He would give anything for a glass of water...although he had nothing to give...Being unable to resist his thirst, he asked if anybody could give him a drop of water.

  “I have seen a well farther down the road.” said the driver. “We will soon be there.”

  After a few minutes of driving he pulled the reins and stopped the cart. They all got off and went to the well and looked in it. How deep! All they could see was something that looked like water...A dim reflection of it.  Was it water or a mirage? There was no way of getting to it. Disappointed and despondent, they climbed onto the cart and occupied their seats. The cart began rolling again with the vinegar slapping the inside walls of the barrels again. They couldn’t resist the temptation any longer. One of the soldiers formed a tube out of some paper, uncorked the barrel, stuck the tube in it and began to draw the warm vinegar into his frothy mouth.  They all got their fill of it and plugged the hole.

  It was sunset when the driver pulled the reins and told Sempad to get off in front of a guardhouse. He gave a note to the Chef de Post and moved on, saying: “Good luck!”

  That really was a worthwhile wish! thought Sempad.

  After the sergeant got through reading the note, he looked at him smilingly, saying: “Don’t you remember me from Galigradia, where you were teaching the Greek children those Armenian songs? Follow me!”

  The front line was somewhat quiet with only an occasional machine gun blast being heard. The English line could be seen zigzagging under the bluish haze of the sunset. They were walking through a maze of newly dug trenches where the soldiers looked at them, quizzically. Way off on the Jerusalem front the big guns roared every now and then, while an English observation balloon was quietly scanning the area.

  After crossing the second line, they stopped at the entrance of a tent, which was camouflaged with weeds. He remained outside while the sergeant went inside. As he came out, a harsh sounding voice called him in. He entered and stood at attention in front of the captain. This was the same one with whom he had had a dispute at Galigradia. A cold shiver ran through his spine!

  The captain raised his head from the paper he was reading, looked at him fiercely and shouted: “Why did you come back?”

  He could not answer...He was terror stricken. He was even watching his hand to see if he would reach for his pistol that was on his desk. He didn’t touch it, so Sempad became encouraged. He wasn’t going to kill him.  The captain kept looking at him with suppressed rage for a long time. He then called the orderly and sent Sempad to the observation post. There in a deep trench, on a hilltop, he saw one of his cadet classmates scanning the enemy line through a telescope that was mounted on a tripod. He let him observe the English line while at the same time conversing about various things. An hour later he was transferred to an infantry unit on the second line. He became sick there, probably from the heat and the vinegar he drank. He began to urinate blood. For a few days nobody could believe he was sick but when they discovered that he had not touched his ration of bread they became convinced. He was sent to a field hospital behind the line.

  He was in a large square tent cluttered with patients. He occupied a spot near the entrance facing an opening on the opposite side, through which the doctor entered. Miraculously, his attention centered on Sempad. He looked at him firmly and recognized him from Galigradia. He came to him with a smile on his face and saluted: “Hello Moushetzi! What brings you here?” Since he had a high fever he called the orderly and sent him to the tent next to his, saying: “Give him a glass of tea and I will be back soon.”

  He came back in three hours, examined him, gave him some pills to take and said: “Nothing serious! Stay here for a while, then I will have you transferred to another area closer to Jerusalem.”

  “Thank you doctor!” he said.

  In a few days he felt like a new man. The doctor put him with a newly organized column and said with a smile: “Good luck, Moushetzi!”

  They were marching down to a new sector of the front. The first two days the weather was fine and delightful. On the third day it began to rain. They plodded along a muddy road all day to the outskirts of Nablus, where the storm had hit hard. They were splashing through the puddles, tired and disgusted, when they noticed some high ranking officers standing on the embankment, watching them pass. One of them was the German General Liman von Sanders. Standing in front of the group he saluted, saying in Turkish: “Merhaba askerler! Hello soldiers!

  “Merhaba effendim! Hello sir!” They answered..adding in a lower voice, “God damned son-of-a-bitch!”  They continued to murmur, using the most vulgar language...” they come from their country to live like kings while we live like pigs!”

  The column did not stop at Nablus but continued its way until it reached an olive orchard on the side of a hill.  It kept on raining. The ground was muddy. To be able to set up the tents, they had to cover the mud with stacks of branches from olive trees. What an appalling deed! In no time, half of the orchard was a complete mess. They set up the tents and built fires.

  The rain continued into the night. Huge fires kept roaring...and finally, their dinner was announced. A man with a sack of flour on his back moved from tent to tent giving each man a handful of it. They didn’t know how to take care of it. Some just let the rain wet it and then licked it. Others made a ball out of it and munched it. Sempad let the flap of his overcoat lay on the muddy ground with the flour on it. He made dough out of it using the rain water from the puddles. He flattened it out and placed it on a shovel and put it on the fire and waited for it to be baked. The fires were roaring and they kept putting on more heavy branches to keep the camp warm. Sempad’s bread could have easily won first prize if there had been a contest. After munching his bread and enjoying it immensely, he lay down by the fire, tired and sleepy, and promptly fell asleep under the drizzle, all night.

  The next morning the rain had stopped. When he got up, he noticed that one side of his coat had burned leaving the other flap dancing in the air. Besides this the figure of his body was perfectly etched in the mud.  After a short walk, the company took a position behind a long range of hills, which extended parallel to the enemy line.

  They were kept busy all day cleaning their rifles and getting everything else in order so that they would be ready for the order to attack. There was heavy fighting taking place on the other side of the ridge. The sound of machine guns continued all day. The English guns kept pounding the heights behind them and some miscalculated projectiles coming in from the Turkish batteries burst over their heads but caused no serious damage.

  At about five o’clock in the afternoon, wounded men began to crawl down to where they had been waiting all day for the order. It finally came!



  How animated and eager they became all of a sudden in the retreat, climbing uphill and taking positions under continuous enemy fire.

  While they were digging in, it began to rain again.

  Around midnight, the Sergeant gave Koniali Ahmed and Sempad ten canteens each and told them to go and bring in some water from the village that was a short distance away. The night was quiet except for some random firing here and there. They walked on badly scarred ground from enemy artillery and reached the village without uttering a word.

  They filled up the canteens, slung them over their shoulders and started on their way back. The moon was shining. A weird spectacle dominated the scene. They came upon a freshly bombarded artillery emplacement, pulverized with a few bodies scattered around. A little further on they came upon a wounded horse, stretched out on the ground. They looked at the dying horse for a moment then continued their way. Suddenly, Ahmed stopped and walked back to the horse. Sempad followed him to see what he was going to do.

  “Put the canteens down and help me.” he said. He had already put his down and was taking his knife out of his pocket. He was crouched over the dying horse. Sempad was looking at him puzzled. Ahmed stuck his knife in the horse’s shoulder and cut a deep line down to the hip and then cut three more lines on the side of the horse making a rectangle. He began removing the skin from the center of the rectangle. At every thrust of the blade the poor animal jerked violently and trembled.

  “He isn’t dead yet!” exclaimed Sempad. “How can you do that?”

  There was no answer...

  In a short time he removed a rectangular piece of the hide and displayed it in the clear moonlight, saying joyfully: “I am going to cover my old overshoes with this.” While Ahmed was delighted with his conquest, the poor horse kept jerking.

  They returned to their trenches with the canteens and the future overshoe.

  In the morning, the sky was clear and sunny. Everything was quiet. An English observation balloon was almost stationary while scanning the front. They stayed there for a whole week and received only about a dozen projectiles from the enemy, wounding three persons.

  One day there was a torrential downpour that flooded the trenches. Everybody crawled out of his hole praying for the rain to stop. In the evening, a thick blanket of fog covered the ground with zero visibility. The Sergeant took his entire section, vacated the trenches and moved on down to the village for the night. He distributed his men to several houses. Sempad and three other men were assigned to a house that was occupied by an old woman and her grandson of about ten years of age. They knocked on the door. The old woman opened it, while holding a clay lamp in her hand, and the boy was holding her skirt, terrified. They spoke Arabic. None of us could understand Arabic. They just broke in with no introduction whatsoever! It was a little house with a stable below the main floor, a small space which could only accommodate three people. They had a rush mat, a couple of blankets, a fireplace and a huge earthen container of cereal along the wall on one side. They had no furniture.

 As they entered, the stench of the stable welcomed them. Disregarding the extreme poverty before their eyes, they shouted in Turkish: “Come in! Set the table...bread...water...milk, anything you have!”

  The poor woman had little to offer. She only had a pitcher of milk sitting by the fireplace, which one of them grabbed and drank to the last drop without sharing any of it with his buddies.

  While everybody was going all over the house with the hope of finding something they could use, Sempad was sitting by the fireplace looking aghast at the way they were acting. He looked at the frightened little boy, with a slight smile and took a flat loaf of bread out of his bag. He nodded at him to come and get it. The little boy pulled his grandmother’s skirt to call her attention to it. She whispered something in Arabic and the boy went over, haltingly, and sat at the fireplace with him. He gave him the bread. He seemed very pleased. He took it and ran over to her.

  Everything was finally quiet. They spread the blankets on the floor and settled down on them without giving a thought to where the old woman and the boy were going to sleep. The boy was sitting next to Sempad while she was looking at him. Soon he also became sleepy and the old woman came over and looked at him. She took her shawl off her head, wrapped him up with it, patted his back and lay down by the fire with the boy in her arms. He took another piece of bread out of his sack, gave it to her, said goodnight in Armenian and fell asleep.

.   In the morning before the sun was up, they hurried back to their trenches. During the day, the artillery barrage and small arms fire kept their heads down. Late in the afternoon, Ahmed and Sempad were again sent out to get some water. On their way there, Sempad began calculating the risks of running away.

  After they had filled their canteens and were on their way back, he told Ahmed: “You go ahead, I’ll catch up with you. Take my canteens with you. I’ll see if I can get some figs around here...”

Chapter Eleven  - Continue >
Updated 20 June, 2000 Contents.......
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