Letters from Egypt. — VI. From Assouan to Korosko

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Letters from Egypt. — VI. From Assouan to Korosko is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 27 april 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This is the 6th article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Letters from Egypt

The Westminster Gazette (27 april 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (27 april 1896, p. 2)

VI. From Assouan to Korosko


Eight hard days of travel have brought us from Assouan to Korosko — days which some of us at least will never forget. For eight days the broad brown river has swirled past us, and for eight days we have jogged along its Arabian bank upon our camels, throwing ourselves down at night under the nearest palm trees and sleeping with the glorious blue velvet of a Nubian sky for our bed-hangings. How one ... after such a day of beat and dust, and how murderous one felt when with the rising of the moon there came the voice of the Daily News, "Reveillé, gentlemen, reveillé, if you please! Then the shouts for Abbas, Mansoor, Hussein, Mahomet, the sleepy "Aiwas" in reply, the low murmur of a waking camp, the crackling of sticks and a single red spot of fire in the darkness, the roarings of the camels as their loads were once more fastened upon their backs, and then with our Bishareen Arab guide riding his white dromedary at our head, away went the long string of horses, asses, and camels for another day's march. Looking forward or back, the silent sponge-footed camels were like a row of flitting ghosts in the light of a waning moon. Dim palm trees fringed our path, and the river glinted behind them. In front the Southern Cross rose slowly above the skyline. For an hour at a time we would move without a word or a sound under the solemn loveliness of a tropical sky. Then from the van of the column would come a rich rolling voice:—

Nut-brown maiden, you have a hazel, hazel eye,
Nut-brown maiden, you have a hazel eye,
A hazel eye is thine, love,
The image in it's mine, love,
Nut-brown maiden, you have a hazel eye.

And even as we broke into the chorus of our own English wog there would rise a high quavering voice from behind us, pitched in the sad minor key which seems to have been the universal music of primitive man, and Hussein, Mahomet, Abbas, and the rest would follow us under the starlight singing some plaintive Arabic love song of their own. But the moon would fade, the East would lighten, red feathers of cloud would drift in a colourless sky, and then within a few minutes night would have changed to foil day, the golden edge of the sun would be showing over the orange desert, and all our vague night-begotten sentiment would turn to practical questions of how far we had come and where we were to halt.

He who travels with baggage-camels — or "baggles," as we came to call them — must be a man of patient soul. The baggle will go so far in a day, and at such a pace, but at no other. His pace is two and a half miles an hour, and he is the earliest and most consistent supporter of the eight-hours-a-day movement, for if he is forced to do more he at once fines his employer fifteen pounds, by the simple expedient of lying down and dying. It follows, then, that upon a journey one cannot hope to make more than a steady twenty miles a day. You may have the fleetest steed of Arab, between your knees, but what use is its fleetness, when the supercilious, slow-going boggle carries your food and your blankets upon his back ? The riding camel can, in his curious jog trot, cover his fifty or sixty miles a day, and on a good Makloola saddle the motion is not an unpleasant one but you cannot carry both yourself and your needs upon your trotter. The ships of the desert, like those of the sea, have to regulate this pace by that of the lame duck of the squadron.

Before leaving Assouan Colonel Lewis, the Commandant, had warned us that we should need a guard, and had given us instructions to go up with 300 unloaded camels which were being escorted by some Egyptian cavalry. As luck would have it, however, the convoy passed us unseen, and as they were travelling light they rapidly increased their lead, is that they were soon two days ahead of us. The only traces which we ever saw of this were numerous footprints and two grotesquely swollen dead camels by the road-side. We had, I think, been a little inclined to underrate the necessity of the precautions which the Commandant had enjoined upon us, in ordering us to remain near the convoy, and it is certain that we made no great effort to join it but events showed that he was perfectly right and we perfectly wrong. When we were forty miles from Korosko we met a French Engineer, who was taking the levels for the railway, and were assured by him that a party of raiding Dervishes were at a well called Beer Koleib, some few miles from the track, and that the route was unsafe in consequence. So we had a little touch of romance in our journey, and had to sleep with our revolvers beside our pillows, which gives one it great sense of importance when one is not used to it. Of the Dervishes we saw nothing, but we learn here at Korosko that the report was true, and that several small bands have made their way across the Bishareen desert. In a country where wells are the centre of all strategical operations, and where they are few and scattered, it would, I should have thought, have been as well to have every one of them secured by it block house. At present the Murat wells are held by a company of troops, and the El Heimar by some armed Bishareen in Egyptian pay, but the other scattered springs are undefended. They are, I understand, too small to supply the wants of any force, but they are enough to form a base for roving bands who might raid a village or rifle a caravan.

So here we sit comfortably at Korosko after our long march, with a roof over our heads once more, and with an Egyptian band braying "Way down upon the Swanee river" outside our verandah. On arriving, we were hospitably received by Yussuf Bey Kalussi, the Commandant, a fine, rugged Turkish warrior, with a face which locks as if it had been carved out of a stump of old walnut. That grand Turkish race, with all its crimes, is a race of strength and of character: you feel as you look at Yussuf Bey, "Here is a man who might rise to a great height." But these chubby, mild-eyed, quiet-mannered amiable Egyptians, you can hardly conceive them flaming up at a great crisis When we talked of the possibility of his regiment's going to the front the Tusk's brown face brightened, and his little, twinkling dark eyes gleamed again. But the Egyptian subaltern beside him shrugged his shoulders, with a half-hearted "peut-être," and turned again to his coffee and his cigarette.

The chief news when we arrived here was of the fall of Kassala, which reached us, like much of our local news, via London. If this is correct it seems hard to say what its ultimate effect upon the campaign may be. A black-eyed Italian telegraph clerk broke it to us apologetically, with the remark that he could not believe it to be true, but the details seem to place it beyond doubt. We hear also that the Dervishes are increasing their forces at Suarda, which looks as it there might be a brush at Akasheh after all. Our plans now are to proceed from here by boat to Halfa, and this to push on to the front if possible; for, with the short time at our disposal, our only possible chance of seeing any action would be if the enemy were to attack the lines at Akasheh, or if (as is very possible) the Sirdar were to make a sudden advance and drive the Dervishes out of Suarda. In either of these cases we might hope to be present, but if the advance is to be delayed until all the camels are collected and the line laid down, this there is no possibility of my seeing anything of great interest, for within a week of reaching the front I must be upon my northward way once more.

The force at the front must now be ready as far as men go, though the transport may still need organising. Through all our march from Assouan we have seen the boats passing us, first the Cavalry, then the 9th Soudanese — twenty small steamers in all. Korosko is held by 600 of the 8th Egyptians, who have 200 more at Assouan. The rest are all at the front, and there within the next few days we hope to join them.

Korosko, April 10, 1896.