The madness of the desert arises out of necessary adaptations, not just the challenges of the environment. Take the camel, which walks more slowly than a man. Caravans move at an agonizingly slow pace because the animals must be tied together with ropes to prevent loss. Prone to spitting, complaining, and stinking, dromedaries are one of the most frustrating modes of transportation imaginable. So it makes sense that, whenever possible, Kapitainlieutnant Helmuth Karl von Mücke and his men have preferred not to travel overland during their long journey home from the far side of the Indian Ocean. In spite of British and French patrols in the Red Sea, they managed to sail almost half the length of the Arabian peninsula before one of their native boats struck a reef and sank two weeks ago.
Forced to cover the 130-mile distance from Al-Lut to the main port city of Jeddah (see above photograph of the pilgrims’ gate, taken in 1918) on camelback, the former shore party is armed with rifles, pistols, and the same four machine guns that they once used to declare their commandeered schooner a ‘warship’ and avoid internment. Their weapons are as necessary as their mounts. Less than thirty miles from their destination, where a garrison of 300 Turkish soldiers offers sanctuary, the platoon-sized group of sailors are passing through ‘Father of the Wolf,’ one of the most dangerous parts of the entire region. Claiming direct decent from the Prophet Muhammad, the tribesmen here are nonetheless known for their depredations on passing strangers.
While stopped to wait out the heat of the day, at about eleven o’clock yesterday morning Mücke and his men were approached by a Turkish officer and seventeen gendarmes (police) from Jeddah. Already alerted by the Turkish officer and seven Arab gendarmes travelling with him that a band of forty robbers has been active in the area, Mücke does not let their appearance lull him into a false sense of security. “I took the precaution to divide our one long line of camels into two lines of fifty each,” he writes in his memoir. “The men were given orders not to go to sleep on their camels, the rifles were all examined, and everything was in readiness for prompt action. The orders to my men were, once for all: ‘Rally to your commander.'”
The ambush finally springs just after dawn today. As Mücke rides through the middle of his caravan to make inspection, there is a sharp whistle, and then shots ring out from all sides. Springing to action, Mücke dismounts and runs to the head of the column, where he joins most of his men taking up prone firing positions and peering into the dusty morning haze. Pulling the camels to their knees, his command quickly forms a defensive perimeter — and deploys its most powerful weapons.
Two of their machine guns were submerged, along with some of the ammunition stores, during the recent accident. It is a credit to Mücke’s leadership that all of the complement’s weapons have been systematically cleaned and tested every day, ensuring operation now when they are suddenly needed. Set up in minutes, their automatic fire has an immediate psychological impact on the attackers. “Hardly had their volleys rattled over the enemy’s lines,” Mücke declares with understated calm, “when silence reigned there.”
Then, as the light grows stronger, Mücke and his men see the surrounding hills are covered in Bedouins. As he weighs his options, one of the men calls for his attention.
“Well, what is it?” I asked.
“How soon are we going at it, sir?”
“At what?” was my question in reply.
“Why, at storming the enemy,” came the answer from this eighteen-year-old boy.
“Exactly, my man! You’re right. Up! March, march!”
With a hearty cheer we were up, and rushing the enemy’s line. No doubt, such tactics were a novelty to Bedouins used to attacking a caravan.
As with battles fought recently in Oman and Persia, this seemingly-suicidal charge is immediately successful. Being little more than an undisciplined band of theives who mostly lack enough marksmanship training to hit the broad side of a barn, the Arabs fall back before Mücke as he leads three different attacks with bayonets fixed, winning critical breathing room for his command. Returning to the relative safety of the caravan, Mücke counts one man wounded…and seventeen Turkish gendarmes, along with most of his civilian cameleers, suddenly missing in action.
Sighting a glimmer of the Red Sea on the horizon, Mücke re-forms his caravan and turns west for the coastline to find better defensive ground. This is a gamble, for his machine guns must ride strapped to camels. Pushing on through harassing rifle fire, he only halts when one of the beasts carrying a machine gun falls. By then, seaman Rademacher has been killed, and Lieutenant Schmidt is mortally wounded in the chest and abdomen. Now unable to move in the open, Mücke elects to follow standard German defensive doctrine by digging in for a fight:
Hastily we constructed defense works out of camel saddles, which we filled with sand, out of sacks of coffee, rice and other provisions. We strengthened the rampart thus formed by filling it about with sand, as best we could. The camels were placed all together in the middle of the enclosed space, and loop holes were quickly got ready. For want of better material, they were put together out of tin plates and side arms. As all this was done in great haste, our constructions were, of course, but temporary and incomplete. Our water bottles were quickly buried deep in the sand, where they were least likely to be damaged by the enemy’s fire. Within our outer rampart we raised another little fortress, the walls of which were about one meter and a half high, and constructed of empty petroleum cans which we filled with sand. Here were placed the sick who were unfit for duty, the wounded, and the doctor.
Schmidt dies during the night, while ammunition, food, and water are being distributed inside the makeshift fortress. To extend his meager rations, Mücke allows all but one of the remaining civilians in his party to leave while his persecutors try to negotiate his surrender. The second day is a siege, with the machine guns holding off attacks amid constant sniping fire. Another German is wounded; yet another dies of wounds. As darkness falls again, Mücke sends out his last Arab companions to inform the garrison at Jeddah of what has transpired. If there is no relief by the end of the third day, he is determined to leave his wounded behind and attempt a breakout. By this time, there is only a little ammunition left for his most powerful weapons, no food, and no water.
At noon on the third day, an Arab approaches the Germans waving a white cloth. Mücke correctly guesses that this renewed attempt to negotiate his surrender is a sign that the Turkish garrison is finally approaching. After a few more bursts of fire, the Bedouins disappear as quickly as they first appeared. About one hour later, the Prince of Mecca does in fact arrive with seventy men to offer his hospitality — and extend his protection.
Having passed their greatest test of battle, Mücke and his men will soon be going home at last.