An Australian sharpshooter stalks an enemy sniper during World War I.
Ion Idriess (1889–1979) is best known as a popular and prolific Australian author. One of his earliest books, The Desert Column (1932), is based on the diaries he kept during World War I while fighting as a sniper with the Australian 5th Light Horse at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. In this account, he hunts a sniper who has pinned down part of his unit on a rise near Gaza.
VERY GINGERLY I looked from the side of the rise through a pair of splendid field glasses, “souvenired” from an Austrian officer of artillery. I examined the field of barley on our right flank, whence apparently the shots had come. It was a beautiful, sun-kissed field. Emerald green. The crop just about a foot high, and as level as a billiard table. High in the clear air above the center of the little field, a brown lark trilled as only larks can. But of life in the field there was not a sign. I well knew that a trained man can lie perfectly still facing you not a hundred yards away on hard, brown earth without even a grass blade on it, and you can stare at the muzzle of his rifle for 10 minutes without seeing him.
Between us and the edge of the field, just at the foot of the gentle slope which ran down from our sheltering rise, and only a hundred yards away, was a narrow wadi—or gully as we could call it in our own good language. Throwing off haversack and water bottle, I suddenly jumped from behind the rise and tore down the slope in a crouching run, jerking from left to right, not for three seconds keeping to one straight line. The crackling hisses as the sniper tried to get me by rapid fire were reminiscent of the breath of a white-hot iron. I landed sprawling in the sheltering wadi bottom, and gasped in long, thankful breaths.
Pulling barley from the edge of the bank was the next thing; then arranging the footlong stalks in a row around the hatband, and carefully spreading barley in flat sheaves over my back under and over the bandolier and bayonet belt. Then came the stealthy climb up the wadi bank and into the barley field.
First came the length of the rifle (how heavy the familiar weapon quickly be – came!) poked gently on ahead, full length of the arms, through the barley stalks; then rested gently on the earth, palms of the hands cupped protectingly around the firing mechanism. Then careful craning forward of the head, chin pressed to the ground; then dragging of the entire taut body along by leverage of the elbows.
Just one foot advance for each drag, just one inch at a time; chin, chest, belly, and toes pressed tight against the earth, while the heart thumped.
My mates back on the rise would go through all the old tricks to attract the waiting sniper’s fire and attention: a gently moving hat held just above the skyline with a stick; a rifle poked above a sand mound with a hat slanting on the butt. If this had no effect, a man would dash from cover, then back again, lively— anything so that I might locate the sniper by the crack of his rifle.
Though I did not lift my chin from the ground, my eyes would naturally rise slightly to the sky on each pause for breath. Each time they would alight on the caroling lark, and it seemed as I wormed farther and farther into the field to hover constantly over one particular spot. I watched the lark for what seemed a long time, then a breathless realization gripped the mind and tingled through the body until it tightened at the roots of the scalp. I felt my mouth open a little and eyes widen as I pressed back the rifle’s safety catch and gripped hard the splendid weapon. I wormed a little farther on. Slow, tense minutes passed in withdrawing the field glasses and carefully raising them above the ground.
Then something moved. It was only the turn of his cheekbone, but it allowed me to focus right into the eyes of my man. Only partly could I see the big brown nose, hawk shaped, for two twisted barley stalks camouflaged his black [cloak]. The perfectly shaped tiny black dot of his rifle muzzle I could see, and below the telescopic sight the bony brown knuckles that gripped around the weapon. A Bedouin, with the eyes of a hawk.
Then the calculation on which one life would depend. Dearly I would have loved to level the rifle foresight fair between those two black eyes—the desire grew almost overwhelming. But many barley stalks besides the two crossed ones were in the way. Such a tiny thing might deflect a bullet—and a man would be allowed only one shot. I could see the butt of the two stalks as they crossed down his nose in a straight line past the center of his chin where the black beard hid them.
“Aim right at the butt of the stalks,” whispered the mind, “exactly where the beard covers them. The bullet should strike that little hollow below the throat at the base of the neck between the two bones, and go right down through his body. He should never move after that.”
Then the indrawing of a deep breath, the raising of the rifle, the easing of the racing nerves as the familiar weapon settled its iron-shod butt reassuringly into the hollow of the shoulder, the absolute steadiness as the trigger finger took the “first pull” and the foresight lowered on the barley stalk past the eyes, past the mouth, slowly past the chin, until, engaging in the rear sight, stopped dead where the beard hit the butt of the barley stalk.
“Crack.” I bounded out of the barley and was on the spot even as he rolled over. He was dying. His flashing black eyes fastened on mine in a gaze of instant realization and deathless hate. He attempted to raise his arms, the sinews tautened in the thick brown wrist as he tried vainly to clench his fist. I knew— he was beseeching all the curses of the Prophet upon this Christian dog who had taken his life. Looking down at him, like a great hawk fallen in the crushed barley, I felt no remorse; only hot pride that in fair warfare I had taken the life of a strong man.
Quickly I looked him over for the inevitable souvenirs. Strung on a camel sinew around his neck were 38 identification disks, mostly those of British troops, but with a sprinkling of Australian and one [New Zealander] badge.
A Mohammedan goes to paradise if he can kill a Christian. So this good religionist has 38 keys to the pearly gates. There was a special silver medal also, and a parchment deed of recognition from the sultan.
Presently I turned and examined the barley roots closely. But it was not until a couple fellows from the squadron came running over that we found what we sought. Within a foot of the Bedouin’s body, cunningly interwoven between four stalks of barley, was a little nest, and in it one solitary fledgling, its eyes still shut, but hungry mouth wide open.
Such an insignificant thing to cause the death of a man.
Adapted from The Last Column, by Ion Idriess. Copyright © 1932 Ion Idriess. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.