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Send in the cavalry

We're perched on a rock on the brink of Gehenna (nowadays the Hinnom valley), scribbling notes for this chapter. The Old City of Jerusalem is in full view. So are five thick, greasy columns of black smoke from burning tyres, lit by Palestinian demonstrators as a cover while they hurl stones and petrol bombs at Israeli soldiers.

Beside us, (George writing this bit) a raven hops hopefully as Eileen shares her apple core with it. A lizard dozes in the sunshine. And the crackle of rifle fire means rubber bullets are being used to disperse rioters who have set ablaze an ambulance.

Right now, New Zealand seems more than half a world away. Yet we wouldn't choose to be anywhere else, and we know that God wants us here.

Our coming from New Zealand to do voluntary work in an old folks' home for a year has triggered positive responses from the locals. Their eyes light up. "Ah! New Zealanders. Australians. ANZACs. Did you know...?" And we are a captive audience at a fascinating history lesson that ought to make you get up on your little painted chairs and cheer.

(Hang on! Before we get into story-telling mode, you need to know a few things. We're a long way from home and all our usual stacks of reference books. History, even recent stuff, isn't the precise science we were kidded into believing at school. Military history is even more, er, creative - each regiments adapts the facts and the events to claim the kudos, grab the glory and maximise the mystique of their share of the action. So if you heard slightly differently, treat us gently. We're putting together what we've heard, plus what we culled from regimental records before we left Whangarei.)

After the destruction of the Temple around 70 AD, after Rome expelled the Jews from the Holy Land, after the rise of Islam in the seventh century which took possession of Jerusalem and every last city and village once owned by the Children of Israel -the burning ambition of many from the west was to liberate the land of Israel and - perhaps - return it to its rightful owners.

Whatever the political, religious and personal motives of the popes, the infamous crusades were launched to free the Promised Land from Muslim control. Vast fortunes were spent. Military might and expertise was lavished time and time again. But each attempt went sour. The result was failure.

Later, Napoleon stated his intention to free the entire area and re-instate the Jews. He had the skills and the power - and was defeated by Nelson in the famous battle of the Nile. Again, failure.

Then, early in the 20th century, the British decided to have a showdown with the once-majestic decaying Ottoman Empire and drive the Turks out. Steadily, the British army moved from Cairo, across the Sinai peninsula, in terrible desert conditions.

But the way to Jerusalem was blocked by a well-fortified line of Turks and Germans that stretched between Gaza and Beersheba. No fewer than 58,000 Britons were sent to attack. Yet once more: failure.

So what has this to do with New Zealand, Australia and God?

Just this. (Get ready to cheer.)

There were 800 ANZACs. (Note that number. That small number. Because a massive 58,000 crack British troops had just met with failure.) Cavalry. Horsemen from the dusty Australian outback, from the high country of New Zealand. Men whose riding techniques were the despair and embarrassment of every British upper-class officer. Men who cared for their horses, lived rough with them. And those men and their beasts had been three days without water.

The ANZACs asked permission to charge the Turkish line. General Allenby said yes. The charge, a hopeless gesture, began. It was certain death.

As men and horses breasted the first rise, they faced the gun emplacements and, behind those, the pools and wells of the life-giving oases. The horses smelt water.

And bolted. Nothing, not even their riders, could stop them. Seventy-two hours of unbearable thirst meant they charged (later it became known as the last great cavalry charge) into the unwavering hail of bullets, shot and shell that lay between them and those precious, vital gulps of water.

By rights, every last ANZAC and his mount should have been torn to shreds by flying lead and wicked lumps of shrapnel. And, for the record, 34 men did lose their lives that day and were later buried with special honours on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Golden Gate.

But the Turks, confident in their impregnable position, were flabbergasted to see the crazy ANZACs riding inexorably at them - and forgot to lower their sights as the charge drew closer. After the first torrent of gunfire whistled among horse and man, the shots began whining harmlessly overhead. Within minutes the Turkish defences had been breached, and 58,000 dispirited British soldiers were finding fresh strength to follow the 800 Kiwi and Aussie horsemen and secure the victory.

Yet it should still have been failure, not victory. Each oasis, every cistern, all the wells had been mined, and those landmines connected to a central point. One thrust of a plunger and riders and their mounts would have been blown to bloody fragments, and the water they and the British troops so desperately craved would have been rendered inaccessible in a second.

God had everything under control. One German officer was responsible for those landmines, and for firing them. On that fateful day the officer was enjoying a few hours' leave a safe 45km away in Jerusalem.

Those mines never exploded. Side by side the exhausted men and their horses noisily swallowed the water they had lacked for so long.

The rest, as they say, is history. Jerusalem, a little later, was liberated without a shot being fired. A few years before, the proud German Kaiser had smashed a hole in the wall of the Old City and magnificently entered on horseback to impress his allies the Turks. Now, as the Turks ran from the city, General Allenby walked - walked, please note - in through the centuries-old Jaffa Gate with an honour guard picked mainly (some say entirely) from ANZACs, and ordered a Jewish soldier from Christchurch to scale a nearby tower and fly a prayer shawl with a Star of David stitched to it from its flagpole.

Then Allenby handed the keys of the city to the Jewish leaders.

The date was 1917. Almost eighteen-and-a-half centuries after God's people were driven from their land, God had made it possible for them to begin their return.

And God had used people from the far ends of the earth, New Zealanders and Australians, to do the job.

Us two, we're Poms by birth, but Kiwis by adoption. We think its neat that various popes, Napoleon, and 58,000 Brits didn't get to liberate the Holy Land. But when God gave the nod, a bunch of horsemen from down under had the privilege.

One official army source was so moved by the enormity of the event that it commented that, although many of the men were not deeply religious, they fell down on their knees and gave thanks to the Lord for what had happened. That's pretty eloquent for normally sterile military records.

Three cheers for God.

Okay, that was then. Don't forget it, though. Just remember that the story isn't over yet. And the best bit is still in the future.

The real story is a whole heap bigger than a few lines from us. That's why we've tried to show how God dealt with popes and their crusades. Napoleon and his forces. The finest troops that Britain could muster.

Then God did almost a Gideon's-army re-run with 800 ANZACs. He's the great story-teller.

And every now and then he does the impossible: he puts himself into the story. He's done it before; he's promised to do it again. Sure, us two, we may not be at the right place when it happens. Then again, we might.

Whatever, whenever, he'll be part of the story once again. And there's no question of 'wherever'. He's not coming to Salt Lake City or Vatican City or Mecca or Lhassa. The address is going to be Jerusalem, Israel.

Always was, always will be.

For believers - everywhere - that's good news. Everywhere? Sure, because it's simply a matter of being where he wants us or you to be. To take a quote from the Battle Manual - you get the same reward, whether you're in the thick of the mayhem, or have to 'stay home with the stuff'.

Meanwhile, we must leave our comfortable rock and the sound of gunfire, and head for work. There are 140 place-settings to lay for the old folks' dinner tonight.

And afterwards - praise the Lord for dishwashing machines.

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