A Story By RS Porteous
Her name was Jezebel.
Certainly it wasn’t a nice name to give a mare but then Jezebel was not a nice mare. It sounds rather an exaggeration to say that one horse could upset a whole squadron, yet Jezebel came very close to doing that to A Squadron of the 8th Light Horse.
She came to us at Heliopolis after the evacuation of Gallipoli, sent up from the Remount Depot to replace a horse with a broken leg. In the opinion of A Squadron the Army buyer who picked Jezebel was either blind drunk or else his knowledge of horses had been gained from reading the Saturday evening race results.
She was a tall, rangy brute with a wicked eye, a Roman nose, a long quivering under-lip and the sourest nature ever implanted in a horse.
Trooper “Snow” Matson fell for her and Snow really deserved a better fate. He was a born horseman, a man who understood and loved horses. In civvy life he’d been a station hand and drover, one of the long lean type one sees everywhere in the Australian outback. On Gallipoli he’d proved himself a good soldier, a cheerful hard case who could crack a joke in the most desperate situation.
But no matter how he tried Snow couldn’t work up a spark of affection for Jezebel. No man could. Grooming her was a hazardous, nerve racking job from start to finish. When Snow ran the brush over her flanks she lashed out with the vicious, raking kick of a soured mule; when he bent down in the region of her girth he exposed the seat of his pants to a slashing bite. She kicked and bit the horse on either side of her just as impartially.
Once as he limped clear of the horse lines during “stables” Snow declared vehemently:
“I wish to Gawd they’d occupy the flamin’ Peninsula again. A man did stand a bit of a chance there but he’s a dead cert to cop it here.”
But it was on mounted parades that Jezebel really distinguished herself. Keep in line? Not her! She had a habit of snapping at the bit and bounding half a length ahead. When Snow dragged her back by main force she’d run backwards until a jab of the spurs sent her bounding ahead again. When she tired of that she’d swing sideways, bite the horse on her left and lash out at the one on her right.
The squadron sergeant-major’s roars of, “close up that section!” were just so much wasted breath. Jezebel wanted room, lots of room, and she got it. She preferred moving crabwise to the ordinary straight-ahead method of progress and instead of walking she jig-jogged, that maddening, jolting pace so detested by all horsemen.
I was in Snow’s section so I knew almost as much about Jezebel as he did. We tried her as No.1 and we tried her as No.4. It made no difference to her. We tried her in the inside positions but our bruised shins forced us to give that up.
At first Snow tried kindness. “She’s been bashed about; that’s what’s wrong with ‘er,” he reasoned. “They nearly all come good if you treat ’em right.” Snow was that sort of bloke,a good patient horseman.
But kindness was wasted on Jezebel. She took it as a sign of weakness. There was as much affection in her eye when Snow approached her with an extra ration of oats in her feed bag as there was when he changed his tactics and took to her with the flat of a shovel the day she ripped the back out of his one and only shirt.
From Heliopolis we moved across the Canal to Ferry Post and in that god-forsaken patch of the Sinai Desert our sufferings really started. There were long desert marches, patrols and monotonously slow days of camel escort duty. And in all those weary miles Jezebel never walked a single step. She jig-jogged along crabwise, advancing first one shoulder and then, when she tired of that, the other.
Ours was the most ragged section in the troop, the troop the most ragged in the squadron and the squadron, according to the colonel, the worst in the regiment. Before Jezebel came to us we were rather proud of our smartness but she soon altered that happy state of affairs. She changed Snow from a cheerful hard case and a good soldier to a soured lead-swinger. We sympathised with him, of course.
We knew how much he suffered on those long marches but towards the end of a long hot day in the saddle we were apt to forget Snow’s sufferings and snap at him to “take his blasted cow camel to hell out of it”. When your section mate’s rifle butt crashes into your ribs just as you’re starting out in the morning you don’t really mind it; you almost take it as a joke. But as the long day drags on and the number of crashes mounts you get a bit touchy about that particular spot on your ribs and your sense of humour vanishes.
There was a lot more to it than an odd crack with a rifle butt, of course. You know how it is with horses; they’re just like men. One upsets the other and so it goes on until you have a whole troop of normally docile horses playing up like the very devil. The colonel was once reported to have said that we had gained our knowledge of horsemanship behind the counter in a drapery establishment. That hurt.
At Ferry Post camel escort was one of the greatest nightmares of Snow’s existence. All our horses hated camels but they gradually grew used to them and, in time, were even able to emulate the camels’ haughty indifference. To Jezebel a camel always remained an excuse. At the first sniff of one she would roll her wicked eyes, snort in assumed fear and do her best to bolt. She must have had a wonderful constitution for she could keep up the pretence all day on camel escort.
At first Snow tried to force her alongside her charges but he gave it up when he found it was a physical impossibility to force her to within twenty yards of a camel.
It was on camel escort one day that he got his bright idea. “Kill or cure,” he declared. Actually he accomplished neither. There were no “heads” to reprove him. Only our Section was out, four horsemen escorting a single string of mangy camels with two Gyppo drivers. Twice Jezebel tried to bolt but Snow pulled her up. The third time she took the bit in her teeth Snow gave her her head.
“Righto, you fiddle-headed bitch!” he yelled. “If that’s how you want it, that’s how it suits me.”
He told us later that he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much since he enlisted. There was nothing for them to hit, no one to interfere, just endless miles of sandy desert. Jezebel bolted for nearly a mile before she decided there was no future in galloping over heavy sand in that blazing heat. She started to ease up but Snow had other ideas.
“You started this,” he informed her, unbuckling his belt. “I’m finishin’ it.” The heavy belt curled round her belly and horse and rider faded into the shimmering heat haze on the horizon.
It seemed ages before they returned. Snow was still swinging the belt and whooping like a Red Indian but in spite of his efforts Jezebel was only moving at a very slow canter. Sweat dripped from her heaving flanks, her ugly head hung almost level with her knees and she stumbled frequently. She was completely done. Snow spurred her alongside me and let her ease down to a walking pace.
“That’ll learn ‘er,” he declared with a grin. “She’ll be glad to do a bit of walkin’ now.”
It didn’t “learn” her. Exhausted as she was she sidled crabwise away from the camels and fell back into her maddening jog.
Snow started to swing the lead after that. He paraded sick but the M.O. marked him medicine and duty. The following day he paraded before the major and asked for a transfer into the infantry. The major was a shrewd sort of bloke. He knew all about Jezebel and the effect she was having on Snow, on the whole troop, in fact. He would have given a month’s pay to get rid of her but he was powerless. Jezebel had been issued to Trooper Matson and Trooper Matson would have to keep her. That’s how things were in the Army.
The major gave Snow a cigarette and explained all this nicely. He hinted that the regiment might be seeing a bit of action shortly. Anything might happen then, he pointed out horses would be killed and Jezebel might easily be one of the casualties. In the meantime if Snow would just carry on…
Snow carried on. He attended sick parade every day for a week but it did him no good. The M.O. also knew about Jezebel and in the end Snow got fed up with his daily diet of Number Nines.
We were saddling up for a two day patrol when Snow tried his next stunt. He took a crack at the orderly sergeant. It was a case of killing two birds with one stone, he confided in me afterwards. He’d always disliked that particular sergeant and if he couldn’t escape to hospital he could get himself sent away to the cooler, anywhere so long as it got him away from Jezebel.
But once again his luck was out. The C.O. knew what was behind the incident; he fined Snow a tenner and gave him fourteen days CB.
Two days later the Turk attacked at Romani. Wild furphies were flying as we drew extra ammo and fell in, in full marching order. The 1st Brigade had suffered enormous casualties! The Turks were over the Canal! We were withdrawing to Cairo! We were going to attack on the right flank!
The last furphy proved correct. I don’t know how Snow lived through that long forced march. Once I changed horses with him for two hours – two agonising hours while that cursed mare danced, jogged and reefed at the bit until she almost tore my arms out of their sockets.
Just before daylight next morning our scouts made contact with the enemy. Only a small force, we reckoned, for the rifle fire was light and spasmodic and there was no shelling whatsoever. It was full daylight when we went into action, A Squadron leading in open formation. The rifle and machine-gun fire grew intense and we got the order to trot. Ahead of us was a small sand ridge with a nice hollow on our side of it. The volume of fire increased, the trot turned into a canter and the canter to a mad gallop as we raced for the shelter of that hollow. We were “copping” it now! Horses and men were falling all along the line as we galloped through a hail of fire as hot as anything we’d struck on Gallipoli.
We reached the hollow and flung ourselves out of saddles in response to the shrilling of whistles and the shouting of orders. All, that is, with the exception of those who had fallen in the advance and one man who didn’t stop.
We yelled, “Pull up, Snow! Come back!
But Snow, tired out and weakened from twenty-four hours of almost unadulterated Jezebel, couldn’t pull up. Jezebel had the bit in her teeth and was racing straight for the Turkish lines. To us, as we handed our horses over to the horse holders and threw ourselves flat on the crest of the ridge, it seemed incredible that a horse and rider could live through that murderous hail of fire, yet both came back untouched. Unable to stop her, Snow swung Jezebel in a wide arc and headed her back for her troop mates. She crashed into them and Snow flung himself out of the saddle just as the horse holders started to lead them back out of range.
“Take her away,” Snow said wearily as he passed his reins to our section No. 3. “Take the sod away and shoot her.” And then, with a flash of his old humour, “I took her over to the Jackos and offered her to ’em for five ‘disasters’ but they knocked ‘er back. They wouldn’t even waste a bullet on ‘er”
Apparently we troopers weren’t the only ones who had underestimated the strength of the enemy that day, for A Squadron suffered heavy casualties both in men and horses. Cut off from the rest of the regiment we hung to the hot barren ridge all day, husbanding our small supply of ammunition and watching the toll of wounded slowly mount. Away behind us we could see the shells burst as the Turkish artillery searched the hollows for our led horses.
“They’re giving the horses hell,” I remarked to Snow once.
Snow spat into the hot sand. “Even if they wiped out the rest of the squadron,” he said disgustedly, “they still wouldn’t knock Jezebel. No such flamin’ luck!”
At dusk our horses were brought up at the gallop and we were ordered to mount and withdraw. Helping some of our wounded and carrying others we staggered down into the shelter of the hollow. Badly wounded men were draped over the pommels of saddles; others, less seriously hurt, were legged up behind riders – there were big gaps in the horse lines.
My own horse was safe, I saw with relief as our section horse holder swung towards us; so also was Sweetheart, the little chestnut mare belonging to Charlie Conlon, my No.2. But of Jezebel there was no sign.
Catching sight of Snow, our horse holder yelled, “Jump up behind me, Snow. Jezebel’s dead.”
Snow lowered his rifle butt to the ground and stared in disbelief.
“You wouldn’t kid to a bloke about a thing like that, would you Jerry?” he asked incredulously.
“Dead as a maggot,” Jerry assured him. “An eighteen-pounder shell hit her fair in the guts. Blew her clean out of me hand. Hop up, Snow, for Gawd’s sake.”
“Is that fair dinkum?” Snow pleaded.
“Your horse is dead, Trooper Matson. Get mounted behind someone else.” That was our squadron sergeant-major roaring, his voice betraying the fact that he’d had a very trying day with the led horses.
Snow tossed his hat high in the air and yelled, “‘Ooray! She’s dead! Jezebel’s dead!” Instead of mounting he sat down in the sand.
The major was on to him in a flash. He galloped up and bellowed, “What the hell’s the matter with you, Matson? Get mounted.”
Jacko was shelling the hollow heavily now but Snow only waved his hat and yelled:
“She’s dead! Jezebel’s dead.”
“Up behind me, Matson,” the major snapped. “And get a move on.” There was an urgency in his tone that brought Snow to his feet in a bound.
A wild gallop, a short canter and we settled down to a steady walk march, safely out of range. The major called the sergeant-major up beside him.
“You’re sure about this man’s horse, are you, sar’-major?” he asked.
“Certain, sir. I saw it myself. She’s lying in that hollow we passed a couple of hundred yards back.”
“Thank God for that,” the major said. “There you are, Matson. I told you anything could happen in an action. We’ll be getting some remounts up after this. You can have your pick of ’em and see that you pick a good one this time.”
“My flamin’ oath, I will!” Snow declared. “Hey, major.”
“D’you mind if I drop off ‘ere? I just want to nick back and see ‘er for meself – just to make sure she’s dead.”
“You stay where you are,” the major commanded. “If that damned mare turns up I’ll see she never gets back into this squadron, even if I have to shoot her myself!”