Before the Campaign. — II. Can the Fellah Fight?

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Before the Campaign. — II. Can the Fellah Fight? is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 7 april 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the 2nd article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Before the Campaign

The Westminster Gazette (7 april 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (7 april 1896, p. 2)

II. Can the Fellah Fight?


Is the fellah soldier going to fight well or not? Can mere drill and discipline turn these large-eyed timid folk into warriors? There is the question upon which everything depend, If Abdul and Ibrahim play the man, then British Tommy may remain an enthusiastic spectator in the back gallery. But there are some who think that Abdul and Ibrahim will be in the back gallery and Tommy holding the stage long before we have reached the last act of that drama upon which the curtain is now slowly rising.

One thing is certain, that if the Egyptian has not developed into a soldier now, then nothing will ever make him one. He has been well used, well clad, well armed, well drilled, and sedulously watched over by a series of the best men whom England could supply. Evelyn Wood, Greenfell, Kitchener, Wodehouse, Chermside, Hunter — these are among the men who have had the training of him. Have they really succeeded in stiffening that supple Oriental back? The yes or the no will mean a good deal to England. There are some qualities which everyone will allow to the fellaheen troops. They drill remarkably well. So taken were they by the mere idea of drill in the early days of their training that they would fall in and practise in squads of their own free will at the most unseasonable hours. Their manoeuvring is as regular as that of good British Infantry, but with less snap and swing in it. Their shooting is above the average — undoubtedly better than that of their black comrades. With a spade they are about the most handy men in the world, as Kafr-dowar and Tel-el-Kebir would testify. Willing, obedient, and orderly they are also, with considerable powers of passive endurance if you will not hustle or rush them. If they could only be stiffened up to hold their rifles straight when a swarm of wild-cat Dervishes are upon them, then they may yet carry this matter through without British help.

The new fellah regiments have already been tested, and have stood the ordeal very well, though it was not so severe a one as that to which they will now be exposed. At Ginnes the bulk of the work was done by the Blacks and the Highlanders, but the fellahs showed no sign of weakness. Again, when Nejumi came down into Nubia, and when his desperate, famine-stricken crew were destroyed at Toski, the Egyptians held their own with the rest. The same may be said in the skirmishes outside Suakim, where my friend Colonel Lewis told me that out of sixty men in his centre company eleven dropped almost simultaneously, but the forty-nine continued volley-firing with the utmost coolness. Amid all the differences of opinion as to the value of the fellah soldier, everyone recognises that he is a very different man from those who formed the rabble of Baker or of Hicks.

Of the force of 9,000 men available for the invasion of Dongola it may be roughly said that 5,000 are Egyptians and 4,000 are blacks. The latter are strong in the very qualities in which the fellah is weak, but, unfortunately, the converse is equally true. The black soldier is a man of very limited intelligence, liable to get "moythered" if he is ordered about, and capable of keeping his sights up for 1,000 yards in the closest action. He has the primitive man's instinct to break ranks and to clinch. His officers in action have a hard task to keep him in hand. But he is a fine, high-blooded, meat-eating creature, brave to the verge of ferocity, and consumed with hatred against the men with whom he is about to fight. These poor muscular, brainless fellows, without powers of combination, have always been the favourite prey of the Arab slave hunters, and the negro soldiers fully understand the racial wrong which they are now to have an opportunity of avenging. Physically the negro troops are magnificent fellows, tall and square-shouldered, with fine torsos, but a little thin in the legs, which does not prevent them from being excellent marchers. The greater part of them are veterans, for since the Dervish power lies between them and their homes in the mountain country to the north of the Equator they have no choice but to spend their lives in the one trade for which they are fitted. It is little to the credit of the Egyptian Government that nothing has been done to make a provision for these poor fellows when age or ill-health causes them to drop out of the ranks. It is only quite recently that Mr. Hooker has with characteristic enterprise, established a colony of these broken old soldiers in connex on with the singular industry which he is building up at the Nation Lakes.

Such are the two classes, then, of which the Egyptian army is composed, and the fact to be borne in mind is that of the 9,000 troops which have advanced about 4,100 are of known quality and about 5,000 of unknown. It Suakim were held by a couple of Indian or British regiments — which should at once be done — the Egyptians could probably put trom 3,000 to 4,000 more men into the field.

Yesterday we saw the Staffordshires off, nine hundred of them, for Wady Halfa, and a more hard bitten set of lads I have never set eyes upon. It is pleasant to find that the territorial system has, with the exception of the cases of a few regiments which are recruited from sparsely-inhabited districts, come to stand for an absolute fact. It will make the next great battle in which British infantry are engaged singularly picturesque when the men of Kent, the men of Gloucester, or the men of Yorkshire are actually fighting under their own banners. In this case I am assured that at the very least 90 per cent of the men are actually of Staffordshire birth and breeding — midlanders drawn from the mines and the potteries. Taken as a body they are shorter than either Egyptian or negro troop, but their chest measurements are high, and in their white gold-spiked helmets and khaki suits they look a thoroughly workmanlike body of men. Outside the station they stand in their ranks leaning on their rifles, while Colonel Beale makes his last preparations, and the subalterns chat together. A crowd of red-fezzed Egyptians and sun-helmeted Europeans are looking silently on without much sign of sympathy. A long-legged, red-coated dragoon wanders through the ranks looking for a pal. He finds him at last, just in front of me — a stocky little infantryman, all hat and knapsack. "Bye, Bill!" says the dragoon. "Bye!" says the other, hardly glancing at him. Two Frenchmen would have been in each other's arms. Yet it cannot be want of feeling, or why should the dragoon wander about in that blazing Cairo sun looking for his pal?

And now the men file in and take their places in the train as stiff and as silent as so many clay-coloured, red-faced marionettes. The officers are in the long saloon carriages in front, and the windows are fringed with their face, some laughing, some a little solemn perhaps, for the platform is crowded with ladies, and the season has been a gay one. A senior officer waves his hand, and a lady beside me responds. They are husband and wife, and this is their Anglo Saxon farewell. It is the dragoon and his pal over again. But feeling is strained in spite of this restraint, and there are some eyes turned away as the band wails off into "Auld Lang Syne." An irresponsible subaltern shoots his head out through the window. "Back the stable on Friday, and wire me if the mare wins." "Say, mister," asks a lance-corporal, pushing through the crowd, "is this 'ere the train for Dongola?" Tension is relieved, and before it can return the train steams slowly out of the station.

And now, as I stand on the platform, there passes me window after window blocked with the faces of the men. They are small windows, and yet everyone of them frames eight faces, two with their chins overhanging the lower edge, two above, two above, and then finally two who can just squeeze through at the top. But these faces are a revelation. To watch the marionette Tommy so far, one would say that he had no opinion open the matter in hand. He was wound up to entrain himself, and at he mechanically entrained. But now his helmet is off, his belt is undone, and he is a human being again. And what a human being! Look at those eight bullet-heads, close cropped and red-eared, with flushed bruiser faces, and gap-toothed mouths howling in chorus. They are not beautiful, certainly, and it would be hard to deny that they are brutal, but what a sense of vigorous high-blooded animalism they leave behind them! For good or evil, there is nothing weak about these squares of flushed shouting faces which are sliding past us. Tommy looks to me as capable of sacking Badajos as his forbears did before him, but he is also as capable of holding the ridge at Busaco. Swifter and swifter goes the train, and on the back footboard a small private is dancing wildly. "Ye see, ye couldn't leave me be'ind!" he screamed, and waved two frantic arms in the air. Good-bye, my gallant soldier boy, and God be with you I think that you will see Berber before you set foot on Cairo platform once more. With a fringe of waving helmets the train lurches round the curve, and England has moved another pawn upon the chessboard of the world.

Mena House, Cairo.