I am currently reading The Hunt for Zerzura by Saul Kelly, which tells the story of the interwar desert explorers who criss-crossed the Egyptian desert in search of the lost oasis of Zerzura.
They never found Zerzura but did manage to map a great deal of previously unknown territory. These maps eventually ended up in the hands of both the Axis Powers and British armies after the outbreak of the Second World War.
There is much I could say about the book and the people involved in the exploration, but in this post I just wanted to highlight a comment made by ‘The Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier Freddie de Guingand’ (p.187) regarding the contribution made to the desert war on behalf of Britain and her allies by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
The LRDG was founded by one of the desert explorers, Ralph Bagnold, with orders ‘to make trouble for the Italians, and later the Germans, anywhere in Libya’ (p.136).
As the war progressed, the LRDG’s role also developed so that its commanding officer, Guy Prendergast could say that it
… found itself more and more in the position of ‘universal aunts’ to anyone who has business in the desert behind the enemy lines. An increasing stream of Commandos (European and Arab), L. Detachment, I.S.L.D., G(R)., bogus Germans (BUCK), lost travellers, ‘escape scheme’ promoters, stranded aviators, etc., has continued to arrive at SIWA needing petrol, rations, maintenance, information, training, accommodation, and supplies of all kinds.
In 1942, spying was at the top of the LRDG’s list of priorities as a 24-hour watch was kept on the Via Balbia, ‘Rommel’s main line of communication’ (p.187). Every vehicle and man that passed this way was noted and a report sent back to Cairo. The information sent by the LRDG’s observers was important as it
… enabled Military Intelligence in Cairo to check the Axis vehicle figures it was getting from Enigma so as to arrive at a reasonably accurate figure, in particular of the number of serviceable tanks, which Rommel could put in the field.
I’m sure I don’t need to say why it was important for the British army to know how many tanks the Desert Fox had at his disposal. And, indeed, this information was not just important but absolutely critical to the British war effort. So much so that de Guingand
… later maintained that the road watch was the LRDG’s most valuable contribution in the fight against the Axis in North Africa.
The raids behind enemy lines, the harassment of enemy forces, the soldiers ferried about, aviators rescued – no doubt all were valuable works but the most important thing that the LRDG did was lie down on the ground for hours on end and jot down names and numbers. That’s quite a thought.
Reading the above passage made a deep impression on me as it brought home once again how an army simply does not win its battles only on the battlefield. That may be where the greatest amount of glory is won but clearly, without the efforts of those behind the (battle) scenes, the ultimate outcome of any clash of arms has the potential to be a lot less certain.
Over the last few months, this thought has lead me to consider Hephaestion’s role as Alexander’s chief-logistics officer. I might now also consider who else served him in an equally unglamorous but perhaps vital way.
One person does immediately spring to mind: Eumenes, his chief war secretary. I might also mention Perdiccas who worked with Hephaestion on the logistics side. And then there is Chares, Alexander’s Royal Usher when the king was taking on Persian dress and customs and so a link between the traditional and progressive factions at court. Also, Leonidas and Lysimachus, the king’s tutors. Leonidas is well known but Lysimachus (not to be confused with the general of that name) perhaps less so. Alexander considered him important enough to rescue at great risk to his own life when the old man’s strength failed him during a brief campaign against arabs in Anti-Lebanon (Plutarch Life 24).
I’m sure I could go on but, hopefully, you already see my point – the chief story of Alexander’s life is definitely the battles, sieges and brave deeds he did, but there is definitely another – even if more shadowy – story to tell alongside that one. I must thank Saul Kelly (and, ultimately, Brigadier Freddie de Guingand) or reminding me of this in his excellent book.