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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

The Great Sweep North

page 3

The Great Sweep North.

The night before the bombardment there was in our camp close behind the line an atmosphere of confidence. Every man was moved at the prospect of a grand successful adventure which would give vast immediate results and have an incalculable influence on the whole war. The tropical intensity of Jordan Valley where the Australian Brigades, with one exception, and some of the British and Indian cavalry had spent the summer had left its mark. We had suffered much from malatia and other fevers which it was feared might recur as we moved into the cooler north. The horses were, if not in poor condition, certainly on the light side. But these things were forgotten as the critical day approached. The Australian Mounted Division, now made up entirely of Light Horse except for one dashing, picturesque regiment of French Colonial regulars, had recently been issued with swords. The period of training was very brief; for many regiments only a few hours. But the men, taking very keenly to the new weapon, reached a remarkably high standard of efficiency. Every trooper was excited at the thought of a true cavalry charge. The Anzac Mounted Division was still in the line in Jordan Valley.

During many nights before the push every road on the coastal sector was crowded with slow moving, well ordered traffic. By day all was normal except for significant glimpses of camps in the wide olive groves around Ludd, and in the orchards and orange groves about Jaffa. But as darkness fell the whole countryside would throng with masses of horse and foot and guns, and every kind of transport, groping their way through blinding clouds of dust. The roads were impassable outside the organised columns; the night was loud with the shouts of drivers speaking many languages. In the hours before the break this night traffic culminated in a great move northwards, as the cavalry was pushed close up behind the infantry and supplies followed the cavalry. Every road was massed with motor lorries and horse transport; every track with endless strings of camels. Every unit in the great army was pressing up as closely as possible to the dramatic starting gate.

The bombardment opened al dawn, a very heavy barrage. For half an hour the startled Turks were battered in their trenches. Then abruptly the bombardment ceased. At the time I was a few miles behind with the Australian Mounted Division which was not intended for the first cavalry dash. "Now the infantry," said a Brigadier of horse as the gunning stopped, "and then!.... " Never have plans worked out with greater precision All went so cleanly and rapidly that the overthrow of the Turks and the sensational collapse of what is in itself a great war calls for very little description. Throughout the victory has been a triumph for the staff, the supply columns and the air force, as much as for the fighting gunner, infantryman or cavalry man. The bombardment on the western Sharon sector was a surprise; the Turks' strength had been fooled away further east. Our battalions leaped forward as the gunning died away, and carried the Turkish trenches after a very brief struggle. They simply overwhelmed the enemy riflemen, and even the German machine gunners and Austrian artillerymen were reduced to bad shooting by the force of the attack and forced to flight or submission. Within half an hour the infantry had a gap clear for a great force of Indian and Yeomanry cavalry near the coast, and soon afterwards another gap was open a few miles inland. The expectant horsemen jumped off like throughbreds from the barrier.

They rode away in the sunrise, the advanced squadrons trotting out after the ground scouts, the flank patrols galloping wide; brigade after brigade over the rolling sandhills. The men were eager, the horses fought for their heads. The swords of the Yeomanry flashed and Indian lances glinted from each successive sky-line. It was the war scene of the picture galleries. Quickening the pace, the regiments raced on past our guns, most of which were already lim-bered-up for the pursuit. Tne infantry busy with their prisoners cheered them as they passed, and soon they were speeding down on Turks who had fled from the onslaught of the Infantry, But their sport with sword and lance was brief. On this Sharon sector the enemy had no forward reserves. Still more phenomenal was the absence of any reserve defensive line. The Turkish front depended for its safety on one trench system. From the crossing of the trenches until they reached the Esdraelon Plain late in the night the cavalry encountered no fighting enemy. Once or twice they sighted small bodies of Turks and made for them at the gallop. But the enemy would not give battle. The campaign was not three hours old before there was begun the long series of almost bloodless surrenders which were the most amazing feature of this sleepless fortnight.

The perfection of our organisation was revealed very early. The cavalry was scarcely clear of the trench system before scores of field guns were rumbling in their wake. And pressing on after the artillery by many tracks, good and bad, went mile after mile of camels and wheeled transport. Where the cavalry went the supplies must follow; and the cavalry rode from 40 to 50 miles between sunrise and midnight. With nothing to check them their pace was controlled only by the endurance of their horses. The men rode light; they carried only one blanket, and that as a saddle cloth. Tent sheets and water proofs were forbidden. It was a wild ride against time. But horses were loaded with three days' rations, and few carried less than 18 stone and many more than 20.

At dawn next morning the Yeomanry were across the Esdraelon Plain and in Nazareth, where they Caught most of the garrison of 3000 and the whole populatioa still in their beds, and secured their town at the expense of only 18 casualties. At noon the Esdraelon Plain was in our hands, and the Turkish army in Western Palestine left without communication or retreat except at Beisan at the north-east corner of the trap, and the capture of Beisan was already assured. How completely the enemy was deceived and how light were his forces on the sector broken for the cavalry, is shown by the fact that on the first day, although our horse travelled fully 40 miles on a wide front, only 900 prisoners were taken by the mounted troops. Next day as the net closed round the forward enemy forces on the Central Range and he attempted to retreat across the Esdraelon Plain, the cavalry took upwards of 12,000.

At the beginning of the second day we contained the Turkish western army on the south, west and north. The Anzac Mounted Division, which is two-thirds Australian and the balance New Zealand, was with a light infantry force entrusted with moving up the Jordan Valley on the east of the Turks and completing the net. But the task of the Anzacs was a very stiff one. Before they could move the enemy guns dominating the narrow ground on either side of the river had to be shifted. This meant that the Turks had to begin their retreat on the Samarian Range before the Division began to race them for the crossings. Not until the second day did this come about, and then the Anzacs, riding fast, closed the fords and the whole Turkish western army was doomed. Never has a collapse been more sudden. Forty hours after the fight commenced, as the second day was closing, the enemy began to stream down the tracks leading from his forward mountain position and out on to the Esdraelon Plain. Already he had abandoned guns and transport a tragedy which he owed mainly to the appalling havoc wrought with bombs and machine guns by our airmen.

At dusk on the second day a large force was reported to be heading towards Jenin on the northern edge of the Esdraelon Plain. General Chauvel at once ordered the Third Light Horse Brigade to move to the attack. An hour later the Brigade had captured a mass of prisoners who subsequently counted out at several thousands; and we had the first evidence of the demoralisation of the enemy. As the Brigade approached Jenin with the 10th Light Horse Regiment (Western Australians) leading and the 9th (chiefly South Australians) working round to the rear of the village, the Turks ran out in thousands and surrendered. We had one officer and one man wounded. The only shots fired at us came from nine German riflemen, who fought to a finish although two of our machine guns were laid on them at a range of 60 yds. Such a triumph for staff work is almost without parallel. The plan had put our troops into certain positions and the Turks, as at manoeuvre, recognising the checkmate, were surrendering witout bloodshed. Any resistance which followed on the long ride to Damascus came almost entirely from the Germans.