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Guarding Palestine

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I am sure that a great many people are thrilled by a good yarn of ancient days, and yet fail to realize that Britain is carrying out in Palestine a task exactly similar to that of the Crusaders centuries ago. We have to make the Holy Land safe and fit to live in.

I want to give you some idea of the life led by the men who maintain security in that interesting old land. There is still the danger of our work being swamped by hard-riding raiders from the east. The desert is still full of courageous, fanatical tribesmen as eager to harry the fatter lands to the west as ever they were in the day of Salahed-Din. Within the borders there are special problems raised by the rival sects and peoples—there is always the danger of riots and rebellion—and there is the age-old difference between Cross and Crescent.


To maintain peace we have a collection of native forces. East of the Jordan is the Frontier Force and the Arab Legion guarding the desert border. These are Arab troops with a few British officers. A few armored cars and a squadron of R. A. F. support them. West of the river is the Palestine Police, and armed, semi-military constabulary under British officers and having a section of British other ranks. In reserve are a couple of battalions of British infantry, but they are only called upon when the resources of the Palestine Government are exhausted.

I spent some very interesting years as an officer in the Arab section of that force and I want to give you some idea of the varied life we led. There was much to do and much to watch with interest. For instance, the great experiment of resettling the Jews in their ancient Homeland and, let me say, speaking with ten years’ experience, the yarns one hears so frequently in this country about the displaced and starving Arabs are completely untrue. In nearly every case the Jewish colonies are on land that has been derelict since the Roman evacuation. Most of them are still surrounded by large tracts of land belonging to Arabs and left uncultivated.

Again the Arab peasants, the lovable, industrious fellahin are emerging from their ignorance and are beginning to think for themselves. They are no longer so gullible in listening to the wild talk of city firebrands and in this fact lies the great hope of peace between Arab and Jew.

But the Bedouin was the man I loved—the dwellers in the long black tents—free as air, walking like kings, they own no one as their superior and mighty few as equals. You have to be a pretty hard case yourself before you win the respect of the Bedouin tribesmen in your district.

But let me give you one or two pictures of what the life of an officer in the Public Security Forces of the Holy Land is really like; they must be necessarily, short.


Fourteen thousand Wahabite horsemen had invaded our sister-territory of Transjordania— hoping to deliver a flying raid on the fat villages west of the Jordan. They were first reported when they were only a few miles from Amman, the capital. At that time their ruler was at feud with the whole House of Hashim, he had just expelled the old King Hussein from his throne at Mecca, he had already made trouble on the borders of Iraq, where the old king’s son, the late King Feisal was ruler, and this was an attempt on the territory governed by another son, the Emir Abdullah. The invaders were fresh from their victories in Arabia and believed that nothing could stop them.

Things looked very black, all we could muster in time was about 700 native soldiers and police, with a stiffening of a few R. A. F. armored cars and British officers. We managed to rush the men out in lorries and dig ourselves in across the track that the Wahabites would be forced to follow.


It was a magnificent sight as the whole Bedouin army came at us in a wild, headlong, galloping charge, riding hard for our flimsy-looking defenses. Believe me, you needed very little imagination to think yourself back in the days of Lionheart, or forming part of the shield-wall of the Hospitaller Knights making their last stand around Holy Rood on the Horns Hattin. We held our fire as they came at us, every bearded tribesman roaring his battlecry of Allah hu Akhbar, “God is Greatest.” Lance – heads, rifle – barrels, swords, and even battle-aces, shone and glittered in the dustcloud and the sunlight of early morning. Every Wahabi was straining to get to handstrokes, and fully believed, that death upon our weapons was the best passport to his Paradise.

I am sure that I shall never forget the utter, barbaric fierceness of the scene. The shouting, the firing, the made drumming of thousands of hooves, and, as they drew closer, the eager, bearded faces of the riders. On they came—straight at us—then —machine-guns and rifles mowed them down in swathes. The barbed-wire kept them from getting to close quarters, and in a few seconds they were in headlong flight down the broad valley, crouching over their horses’ heads to escape our pursuing fire.


Ordinary police duties? Well we had enough of that sort of thing as well. In one year we had 397 reported wilful murders, and remember that Palestine is only as large as Wales. One common swindle we encountered was the “Flowers from the Holy Land” ramp. They would import several hundred gross of cards from Paris, with flowers pressed on to them, and then, after printing the legend, “Flowers from Bethlehem,” or Nazareth, Galilee, Gethsemane, Jericho, or some other place, send them off to credulous people in Europe and America. Of course there are some firms who do not demean themselves in this way and send off actual Palestinian flowers, but I should be very wary as to where I obtained such cards.

Another periodical swindle was the bright idea of getting trusting folk in Europe and the United States to sell all they had, and remit the proceeds to the swindlers in Jerusalem. These held themselves out to be the treasures of a community of earnest souls awaiting, in prayer and fasting, and the communal holding of goods, the Last Judgment. It was surprising the number of dupes they found, good people who came to Jerusalem only to find themselves destitute.


We had quite a few fanatics who conceived themselves to be prophets and Messiahs. They were of a great nuisance if they obtained a following, as gatherings of this nature are liable, in Palestine, to lead to serious rioting. One had about 2,000 disciples and preached from an empty sepulchre in the Upper Kedron Valley, and as there was very serious danger of an outbreak, I arrested him and lodged him in the barracks. Immediately we were besieged by an angry mob trying to release him, whilst on the fringes of the crowd I noticed several of our professional troublemakers and gutter-rats. Things began to look serious and it appeared as though it would be necessary to fire on the mob to keep them out of the barracks. Luckily I had an inspiration. I ran the horse-clippers over the prophet’s patriarchal beard and shoulder-length locks, stripped off his Biblical garments and dressed him in a terrible suit of “slops,” miles too big for him. I rushed him to the flat roof over the main-guard and managed to obtain silence from the angry crowd. Then they recognized the figure of fun beside me, and for a moment they stood quiet—followed a great guffaw, and the danger was over.


In 1929 we were faced with a full-dress rebellion and we had only 125 British police to deal with it, for we dared not, at first, submit our native constables to too severe a test. They, luckily for us, proved absolutely loyal to their salt and saved the day in the anxious time before British troops arrived from Malta and Egypt. Things went very badly with us, there were great massacres of the Jews in many places, especially in Hebron and Safed—may I say that the victims were not the young immigrants, the young Chalutzim, but the old Orthodox Jews who had lived in the country for generations—the Arab agitators had professed to like these country-bred Jews, but most of the victims came from this people. At the outbreak I was in command of a penal settlement on the Plain of Armageddon, and with several hundred convicts was building a new road from Harosheth-of-the-Gentiles to Megiddo.

I was afraid both of a mutiny and of a general attack to release the prisoners and seize the arms. I had no telephone and was the only European in the neighborhood. One night a young Jew staggered into camp—he was wounded in several places—and told me that his colony, which was about five miles away, was being attacked by an over-whelming body of Arabs. I could only spare four men and a corporal, and with them I started off to their assistance, fully expecting my convicts to mutiny in my absence. Those Arab policemen were as reliable as the guards as they came under fire—they went into a small mill like terriers and rooted out the defenders, afterwards helping me to demolish the building with some sticks of dynamite I carried in my belt.


We got on to one end of the horseshoe of hills that ran around the colony, and, firing at every rifle flash and the occasional use of the bayonet, cleared the ground without the Arabs guessing the weakness of our party. I picked up a couple of young Jewish girls on a knoll outside the colony. They were armed with shot guns and had been keeping up a steady fire towards the hills. Of course their guns were quite ineffective at the range, but they had managed to hold up the attack. With the help of the girls we got into the colony without drawing the fire of the defenders. Poor devils! They were glad to see us! They had been maintaining a defense with the few sporting guns they possessed, for the Government had withdrawn the sealed armories of rifles from the colonies some time before the rising commenced.

I knew that the Arabs would attack at the false dawn and I set the colonists to work building a redoubt of sacks of grain. with the first light the attackers came, hundreds of them with scores of their women in rear carrying sacks in which to bear away the loot. I held my fire until they were within fifty yards and then opened with every shot gun the colony possessed. My policemen used their rifles but fired over the Arabs’ heads. I was most anxious to avoid killing any of them, as that would have saddled the colony with a blood-feud that would have lasted for years. The buckshot did its work well, peppered the attackers finely without seriously injuring them, and they were soon in headlong flight.


A few nights later the same colony was again attacked, and I repeated the tactics of the previous scrap. This time the Arabs had managed to fire the Jews’ haystacks and there was a huge blaze of light. As we advanced towards the grain sack redoubt I was surprised to see a number of white-clad figures coming towards me in what looked like formation. The bullets from the Arabs on the hills hummed and whined around us as we ran forward to engage these people. We went on by rushes, dropping flat about every fifty yards, and when we were only about eighty yards apart and lying on the ground, I was just about to give the order to “charge” with the bayonet, when I heard a Cockney voice shout, “right lads. As soon as the perishers get up, let ’em’ ave it.”

I think I must have been the most amazed man in the Near East, for only that morning I had been told not to expect any reinforcements for at least twenty-four hours. In answer to my challenge, the voice replied, “Royal Nival landing party. Who the ‘ell’re you?”

After I had replied, he told me to come forward with my hands in front of me, and not to try any funny business. I forgot to mention that I had armed myself with an ancient battleaxe that I had taken off a Bedouin years before, and as I stepped across gingerly, whilst some of the flying bullets from the hills whizzed around my ears, I heard him say again, “Blimey, boys, ‘ere comes Richard the blooming Lionheart. Look at his blinking chipper.”


Another yarn of a Cockney in the Holy Land: After the great ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one year, a tremendous fight started between the Armenians and the Assyrians. All that I could see in the Great Rotunda around the Tomb was a forest of pickshafts and batons, with which my men were armed, and a swirling, struggling mass of clerics and laymen fighting and yelling, mixed with a huge mob of panic-stricken people madly rushing for the only exit.

A panic like this is enough to scare anyone. A hundred years ago, on a similar occasion an English traveler counted 535 corpses laid out on the forecourt of the church, people who had been trampled to death in the crush.

I had a pretty shrewd idea of the ringleaders and I hewed my way with a riding-crop through the press and got hold of the man I wanted, a six-foot Assyrian archimandrite. He was astride the fallen figure of his Patriarch, the Assyrian Patriarch of Antioch, and with a snapped-off banner staff seemed to have gone berserk.

I grabbed hold of his long beard and pulled him against the wall of the Tomb. As I did so, a Cockney corporal of police grabbed the prelate’s gorgeous headdress, smote him a terrific blow across the head with his baton, and then, as the unfortunate man collapsed, popped his hat back onto his head.

“Why the blazes did you do that, corporal?” I roared. “Pity to spoil is blinking ‘at, sir,” he said as he plunged back into the fray.


But apart from these more spectacular sort of duties, the Palestine Police carries on the extremely difficult job of maintaining peace in Palestine, most excellently well.

Just one more little picture: A party of British infantry were out in the hills of Upper Galilee, searching for a very much wanted brigand leader. The soldiers knew no Arabic, and picked up a passing man to act as guide, and were very pleased when they found he knew a little English. He stayed with them two days and quite won their liking.

The party returned to the little Christian village of Rameh, where they were quartered, and after tipping him liberally, sent the guide off with their thanks.

He got up onto a shelf of the mountain above them, and then called down to the young Second Lieutenant-in-charge, “Ho, English officer! Next time you go looking for Fuad you will know him. Remember my face, I am the man for whom you have been hunting. Good-bye. Good luck.”

Who said that the spirit of Robin Hood had perished?

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