Letters from Egypt. — VIII. The Outlook from Sarras

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Letters from Egypt. — VIII. The Outlook from Sarras is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Westminster Gazette on 11 may 1896.

Arthur Conan Doyle accompanied the special force as a correspondent for the Gazette. This the 8th and last article of a series for The Westminster Gazette.


Letters from Egypt

The Westminster Gazette (11 may 1896, p. 1)
The Westminster Gazette (11 may 1896, p. 2)

VIII. The Outlook from Sarras


When the other plagues of Egypt were removed one was left permanently ass reminder to the people. The flies are unendurable. It is a small, cold, viscid fly, with a weakness for eyelids and for the corners of lips. From the first dawn of day, when it settles upon your face, until your last yawn at night, when it tries to buzz into your mouth, you have not an instant of peace. They bite, too, but that is a small matter compared to their eternal teasing. "It is not the little they eat I grudge them, but their everlasting tramp, tramp, tramp," cried an indignant tourist. And the dust at such places as Halfa and Sarras is only second to the flies. With the brisk northerly wind which has been blowing lately, one cannot go out without spectacles. These, however, are after all only minor inconveniences, and the health of the troops remains excellent. Dr. Hunter, who has made the most excellent arrangements at Halfa, tells me that less than 2 per cent. of the whole force are under medical treatment.

It is definitely settled now that no travellers or correspondents will be allowed to Akasheh until the general advance, and as the general advance will certainly not come off during the time which my friend and I have at our disposal we have been reluctantly compelled to turn our laces northward again. Before leaving, however, we obtained special permission from the Sirdar to visit Sarras, and the growing railway line which is being pushed from thence to the front. The river being unnavigable, the advance depends upon the railway and the camels, so that by measuring the length of the one or the number of the other one may form an estimate of when a general move may be possible. The railway is at present progressing slowly — 740 yards are the largest number done in any single day; but this first part is that which has been most thoroughly destroyed by the Dervishes during the time they occupied Sarras, and there are hopes of much more rapid advance further on. There are said to be two stretches, one of ten miles and one of eight, where the sleepers are all in position. As to the camels, it is supposed that 4,000 will be needed before anything can be done. There are at present about 1,200 at the front, and another 1,000 on their way up. Both railway and camels agree, therefore, that there will be no very important news from the front for some time to come. After all, there is no cause for hurry — especially now that Kassala has been relieved — and the Egyptian leaders are evidently determined to make very sure of each step before taking a new one. Nothing could be more impressive than the quiet, thorough, and business-hke way in which everything is being done.

Sarras, at the head of the second cataract, is a warlike little place, with its fort, its wire entanglements, its sandbag battery, and its long lines of picketed horses. Major Burn Murdoch, the dashing leader of the Egyptian Cavalry, is in temporary command, but he has every reason to hope that his dearest wish may be realised, and that he may be sent forward soon with his horsemen and the Camel Corps to beat up the Dervish quarters at Suarda. Should there be no advance from the other side, it is likely that a strong reconnaissance of this sort may bring on the first action of the campaign. From what I have seen of the Camel Corps officers, I should judge that if they are sent out to get touch of the enemy the touch is likely to be a rough one. Them are some old scores to be paid off, and the frontier field force, who have endured to many raids without being permitted to return them, are going to have their chance at last.

It is difficult to look at the scattered line of the Egyptian posts, with the great desert which bounds them, and to doubt that the Dervishes have lost something of this dash and enterprise. It may be on account of the waning of fanaticism, or it may be the chilling influence of the unpopularity of the Khalifa; but there is a wide gulf between the warriors who used to creep, spear in hand, into the heart of the British camp at Suakim, and those who have allowed sixty miles of weakly held posts to remain for a whole month unattacked. There is no doubt that the situation was at one time full of danger, and that strong clash upon the line of communications might have been most disastrous. Now the posts are more strongly held, but even now they are not connected either by telegraph or by heliograph, and any single one might be overwhelmed without the knowledge or the others. This has been unavoidable on account of the unforeseen older to advance, but it is being rapidly remedied, and by the time this letter reaches you the connexion will no doubt be perfected. The hill-tops are of such a uniform size that there has been a difficulty in finding any central position on which a heliograph could be erected. There is one peak which is high enough to be visible from every part of the line, but it is itself somewhat out of the way. It is intended, however, to occupy it with a small garrison, and to use it for a signalling centre. Up to now there has been an extraordinary torpidity upon the part of the Dervish patrols. By latest reports the tracks of a party of sixty camel men have been found forty-five miles out in the eastern desert, travelling north. Such a party might attack a convoy if weakly escorted, but it is not likely that they can do much harm.

The confidence in the Egyptian soldiers is undoubtedly increasing amongst those who have best means of judging them, and even the most casual observer cannot fail to be struck by their alacrity and cheeriness of expression. Their officers tell me that their spirit is all that could be wished. Major Adams, who commanded the patrol which was driven in by the big Dervish reconnaissance at Akasheh, found that when the Dervishes turned, his patrol of its own accord wheeled their horses, and followed the reconnoitring force back into the desert. Captain Anley told me also that as he and his men were unloading a boat a swarm of Arabs came down upon them through a neighbouring khor. They proved to be merely armed friendlies — but, for the moment, both officer and men thought that it was a Dervish attack, and be found that his Gippies stood to their arms in very cool, workmanlike style. These are small things, but they are the gossip of the camp until something more serious comes to supplant them.

One topic upon which I have heard very little difference of opinion will be of vast importance if British troops come to be employed. That is, whether the small light bullet of the Lee-Metford will stop a charging Dervish. The universal opinion seemed to be that it would not. "You might as well its peas at them," said one who had seen much of Arab warfare. It is one thing in a European campaign, where the soldier who is hit can exclaim "They've got me!" with the comfortable feeling that he has done his fair share of the work, and can look forward to medical comforts for the rest of the campaign. Any bullet will do for him. But the Dervish will come on until he really is stopped, and the universal opinion seems to be that the drilling of small holes through him with high-velocity-low-trajectory bullets will not have the slightest effect upon his career. The revolver, too, is at a discount among those officers who have been hand-to-hand with the Dervishes. The experienced Anglo-Egyptian carries a Bland's double-barrelled pistol loaded with slugs.

Of Osman Digna little has been heard here, but it is felt that if he gains a footing round Suakim he may compel the tribes there, however friendly they may be, to come to his standard. The only alternative is that the Egyptian force at Suakim should take the offensive, which is rather much to expect, since they are already doing it upon the Nile. On the whole, it would be a very excellent thing if a small force could be sent from Bombay to strengthen the hands of the Egyptian Government upon the Red Sea littoral. We can hardly do less, since this campaign is conducted quite as much for British as for Egyptian purposes; but if it is to be done at all it should be done at once.