With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter XVII — The Raid On Amman
The Raid On Amman
During the latter part of December, and in the month of January, the Turks had been pushed north across the River Auja on the north of Jaffa, and in the hilly country north of Jerusalem the infantry kept forcing the enemy back in spite of the determined resistance of the Turks and the rough and broken nature of the country. The weather was frequently cold and wet, which added to the discomforts of the troops and to the difficulties of transport. By the middle of February seven of our infantry divisions held the front line which ran in a south-easterly direction from a point on the Mediterranean coast ten miles north of Jaffa, across the coastal plain and the mountains of Judaea to the high country overlooking the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. The Anzac Mounted Division captured Jericho on February 21, drove the Turks north past the Wadi el Auja, and cleared the lower part of the valley as far as the River Jordan.
In March General Allenby decided to make a raid on the Hedjaz railway on the high land east of the Jordan River. A special force was formed under the command of Major-General Shea, General Officer Commanding the 60th Division, and was known as Shea’s Group. This force consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 60th Infantry Division, and the Imperial Camel Brigade, along with a heavy and a mountain battery of artillery, and two bridging trains.
One reason for the raid was to draw off Turkish forces from positions farther south where the Arabs were operating against them. Another reason was to attempt to destroy a railway tunnel and viaduct at Amman so as to interrupt the lines of Turkish communication with their base.page 160
Amman, the point aimed at, is some thirty miles east from Jericho, and is situated on a plateau 3,500 feet above sea-level. There were no bridges over the Jordan River, and there was only one formed road east of it, leading to Es Salt, but even this was out of repair, the other routes being mere tracks quite unfit for wheeled transport, especially during wet weather.
At 1.20 a.m. on March 22 an officer and nine other ranks of the 2/19th Battalion, London Regiment of the 60th Division swam over the Jordan unobserved at Makhadet Hajla, and prepared the way for rafts to cross, and by 8.10 a.m. the first pontoon bridge was finished under a severe fire from the Turks who had excellent cover from the jungle of tamarisks fringing the river’s edge, and also from the higher terrace overlooking the stream from the eastern side. The engineers of the Desert Mounted Corps Bridging Train deserve great credit for the splendid work done by them in bridging the Jordan which was in high flood at the time.
Early on the morning of the 23rd the Auckland (N.Z.) Mounted Rifles crossed the Hajla bridge, and galloped down detachments of Turks in prepared posts with machine-guns in position, thus clearing the way for the engineers to throw another bridge across the river higher up at Ghoraniyeh, and the Anzac Mounted Division and the 60th Division crossed later by these.
At 7.30 p.m. on March 23 the I.C. Brigade left its camping ground on the bare Judaean hills at Talat ed Dumm, and marching all night made its way down the steep mountain road, through Jericho, and across the Jordan Valley to within half a mile of the northern shore of the Dead Sea.
The Cameliers moved up to the foothills near the mouth of the Wadi Kefrein, and halted there in the afternoon. This side of the Jordan Valley appeared to be better watered than the western side, and running streams of water delighted the eye, and provided the necessary material for a refreshing wash up for all hands.
A party of Bedouins who were camped near at hand appeared to be a finer built and more independent type than any we had hitherto seen. They, no doubt, were responsible for the stripping of the dead bodies of Turks we had seen on our way from the river, not an article of clothing being left on them. The men were tall, erect in bearing, and each one carried a rifle slung over his shoulder. Their tents were composed of black material woven out of goats’ or camels’ hair, one piece being nearly forty feet long.
At 6 p.m. the Cameliers mounted and rode on up the wadi. As they entered the hills, rain began to fall, and soon the track became very slippery. About 10 p.m. the column was halted, and from ahead came the rumbling of wheels. In the darkness we could see battery after battery of artillery making their way to the rear; the country was too difficult for them to negotiate, so the column moved on without them. We missed their assistance later on very materially. The small nine pounder mountain guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery mounted on the backs of pack-camels, however, kept with us.page 162
As our point of departure from the Jordan River was little above the level of the Dead Sea, which occu pies the deepest depression on the earth’s surface, being 1,292 feet below sea-level, and as our objective, the top of the tableland of Gilead and Moab is over 3,000 feet above sea-level, our animals with their soft padded soles had to climb over 4,000 feet up steep rocky mountain sides where the goat tracks were soon converted into quagmires with the passage of so many animals over them, an undertaking camels were never intended for, but their riders compelled them to do it.
During the whole of that first night after leaving the plain, the Camel Brigade struggled up the rough track in darkness, rain and mud. The long night seemed as if it would never pass, but at length daylight broke, and we found we were evidently on the top of a plateau, but mist and clouds surrounded us, and the rain kept falling steadily so that no view of the surrounding country could be obtained. Just after dawn broke at one point the sound of dull blows could be heard at the bottom of a steep slope. Peering down in the dim light we could see a camel wedged in the narrow rocky creek bed at the bottom. The animal had fallen from the track down the steep hillside, and was unable to rise again, and as we were in enemy territory the tall Australian Veterinary Sergeant, not daring to use his revolver lest the report should be heard by any Turkish patrols in the vicinity, was attempting to destroy it with his bayonet.
Still the column moved on slowly with frequent halts owing to animals falling and blocking the track. In the afternoon we came up with an Australian Light Horse Regiment whose transport had failed to connect with it, and it was without food for both men and horses Each Camelier handed over two days’ supply of rations and grain to the Light Horsemen, and carried on with page 163a sufficient supply for themselves. The Horsemen acknowledged that the Cameliers had the advantage over them in the commissariat department at any rate. Night fell once more, but still the Brigade moved on, each man watching keenly ahead, not for an enemy, but for a sight of the tail of the animal ahead of him, as if he lost sight of that beacon he would most likely wander off into the darkness, to be recorded later in the list of "missing." The inclination to go to sleep was almost overpowering, but sleep was not yet our portion. Shortly after midnight we were aware that we were passing through a village, which turned out to be Naaur, and still we went on, camels slipping and having to be helped up again, and still on and on in the darkness and the everlasting mud and rain. At daybreak the rain ceased, and the country being more open, the going was easier. A halt was made about midday, and after a hasty meal, all who were not told off for duties, turned in and slept till well on into next morning, having had a period of eighty hours’ strenuous travelling since their last slumber.
Sir H. S. Gullett, in his Official History of the Australian Light Horse, writes: "The ascent of the Light Horsemen, however, was an easy task compared with the terrible climb of the Camel Brigade. Immediately after leaving the foothills, General Smith was obliged to dismount his force, and all night the men of the three Battalions dragged their camels up the mountain-side. The men hauled and urged, the camels slipped and fell, but still fought steadily on. The Brigade straggled in single file almost from the valley to the Plateau, winding its fantastic course along crooked and flooded wadi beds, and treading narrow ledges round the sides of the hills. In peace time such a feat would have been deemed impossible by any Eastern master of caravanning; but under the brutal lash of war the Brigade went surely page 164up to the tableland. ‘The camels were carried up by the men,’ said Smith next day. No less fine was the performance of the Egyptian drivers with the pack-camels which carried supplies and explosives."
All this was merely preparatory towards the demolition of a portion of the Hedjaz railway south of Amman, which was the duty for which the Fourth Battalion was told off, while the First and Second Battalions took part in the general attack on Amman itself.
The Fourth Battalion blew up some five miles of the Turkish railway between Libben and Kissir stations, as described elsewhere (Chapter XII), and then moved north to Rujim Taihin where it joined up with the right flank of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in its attack on the Turkish position.
While the mounted forces were struggling up the mountain tracks, the 60th Infantry Division moved up the Wadi Shaib to the town of Es Salt, the largest town east of the Jordan, from which the Turks retired as the British advanced. Leaving a Brigade in Es Salt, two Brigades of the 60th Division advanced towards Amman fifteen miles to the south-east. The Second Australian Light Horse Brigade attacked on the left of the line, the 60th Division being on their right, the First and Second Battalions of the Camel Brigade were next in order, with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles on their right, while the Fourth Battalion I.C.C., including the N.Z. 16th Company, later on joined up on the extreme right flank of the line.
The Turks were well provided with artillery, and as they had railway communication with their rear, reinforcements were hurried down to Amman. One part of Austrians was captured by us the morning after it arrived in the front line, and the members of it seemed very much disgusted at their fate. The only artillery page 165on the British side were a few light mountain guns and these soon ran out of ammunition.
On the right flank the Fourth Battalion I.C.C. and the N.Z.M. Rifles were subjected to attack after attack on the 28th and 29th, but all these were repulsed, and the line was gradually advanced in the direction of Hill 3039, which overlooked the town of Amman. At 1.30 a.m. on the 30th an advance on Hill 3039 was made, led by the Auckland Mounted Rifles and the Fourth Battalion I.C.C. over a flat tableland for a distance of half a mile, where the Turks were driven out of their position at the point of the bayonet. The Canterbury and Wellington Regiments then advanced through this position and captured a second line where they were joined by the Cameliers. Another advance carried them to the crest of the hill overlooking Amman where protection had to be built up with whatever stones and rocks could be procured, as the covering of soil on the limestone ridge was so shallow that trenches could not be dug. All day long this exposed line was subjected to an intense fire from artillery and machine-guns, and counter-attack after counter-attack was made by the Turks, but each one was gallantly repulsed. The 16th N.Z. Company occupied a forward position on the northern slope, but being exposed to a deadly fire, it was withdrawn to the extreme right flank. During one of these determined attacks to recapture the hill-top the Turks advanced almost to the muzzles of the rifles of our men who, gallantly led by their officers, swept them back down the slope once more. Lieutenant Crawford of the 16th Company moved out openly to direct his men and was struck down to die later on from his wounds, Lieutenant Thorby of the same Company led charge after charge until he fell mortally wounded, as also did Lieutenant Adolph. In the heat of one attack Corporal MacMillan of the Lewis Gun Section of the Company page 166was seen advancing and firing his gun from his hip, until he too fell. Trooper McConnell, one of the regular packmen of the Company, had gone up to the line with reinforcements. He had a supply of bombs in his charge, and when the Turks counter-attacked almost to our line, he ran forward to meet them, and continued pulling out the pins and throwing the bombs with deadly effect right into the ranks of the enemy, until he fell pierced with bullets. The same spirit animated the whole Company, and the enemy was held off till darkness fell.
The Second A.L.H. Brigade, the Infantry Division, and the other Battalions of the I.C.C. were also held up on the left and in the centre of the front line, and as Turkish reinforcements were being hurried across the Jordan towards Es Salt, and from the north to Amman, It was evident that without strong artillery support the capture of the town would entail heavier casualties than would be justified by the gain, and so a retirement to the Jordan Valley was ordered.
Great difficulty was experienced in evacuating the wounded. The casualties were heavy, the dressing-station was a mile and a half behind the front line, the way to it was over a flat table-top exposed to both shell and machine-gun fire, and stretcher-bearers were frequently hit while attempting to cross it.
On the morning on which the advance on Hill 3039 took place, the N.Z. Brigade Medical Officer, a New Zealand Colonel, and the Fourth Battalion M.O., a New Zealand Captain, agreed to work together, and they examined the wadi to find the most suitable spot for a dressing-station. The Captain went towards the head of the wadi, but seeing no sheltered spot he returned to meet the Colonel, who reported that farther down there' was a cave that would be an ideal place, but that they could not get the use of it as an Australian M.O., evidently a Colonel, had possession of it and said it was page 167going to be used by the Camel Corps, and the New Zealanders could go elsewhere. "But I am the only Camel Corps M.O. with our Battalion. I wonder who this Colonel can be," said the Captain. "Well," replied the New Zealand M.O., "He had not a tunic on, but I think he must be a Colonel by his high-handed manner, and judging by his language I am certain he is an Aus tralian." "I had better go and see him," said the Captain. "Perhaps we can arrange matters suitably." When they arrived at the cave, the "Colonel" was standing at the entrance, and proved to be the Captain’s own dresser, one of the characters of the Company, an old soldier with a smart soldierly appearance whose silk shirt, neat strides and putties, as well as his authoritative style of speech had evidently carried full weight with the New Zealand colonel. Tom was merely looking after the interests of his own party. When the wounded cases began to arrive this man worked day and night assisting the Doctor. On the third day while provisions were being forwarded to the front line, two large stone jars of hot Bovril were dropped at the dressing-station, and Tom was urged to take a drink as he looked completely worn out. " No, d—it," he replied, "I won’t touch it. Give it to the wounded. They need it more than I do." The spirit of Sir Philip Sidney still exists. After the retirement from Amman this man was so run down that he was ordered into hospital by his Doctor to recuperate before rejoining his unit.
From this dressing-station to the nearest clearing-station the serious cases who could neither walk nor ride, had to be carried ten miles in camel cacolets or tied on the backs of horses. The tracks were so rough and slippery that time after time the animals fell, causing intense agony to the sufferers on their backs. One example will show what the wounded men had to endure on this journey. A camel cacolet consisted of an page 168arrangement of two stretchers, hung one on each side of a special saddle, in which the patients lay. Two men had always to be carried, the weight of one balancing that of the other, on the opposite side. One Camelier Sergeant had been wounded in the arm, and in spite of his protests, he was ordered back by the M.O. who had to threaten him with arrest if he disobeyed his orders. He had to occupy a place in a cacolet to balance the weight of an Australian Light Horseman who was badly wounded in both legs, and who was quite incapable of helping himself. An Egyptian led the camel, and every time the animal stumbled the Australian fluently called down imprecations on the heads of both camel and leader. Several times the side of the cacolet caught on projecting rocks, and the Light Horseman was thrown to the ground, and had to be lifted back on his stretcher by the Egyptian and the wounded Sergeant. During the whole journey the patient never let a groan or murmur about his own suffering pass his lips. Perhaps he found more relief the other way.
This method of evacuating the wounded was an agonizing experience to them, but it was the only available means of saving their lives or preventing them from falling into the hands of the Turks. From the clearing-station the wounded were conveyed to the Jordan Valley in limbers, another ten miles, and from there motor ambulances carried them to the railway, some seventy miles from the front line. All cases that could be safely moved were then forwarded in hospital trains to Cairo, a further journey of over two hundred miles, the total journey from the front sometimes occupying a fortnight or more.
The retirement of the whole of Shea’s Force from Amman took place on the night of March 30. When the wounded had all been cleared from the dressing-stations, the various units retired, some by way of the page 169Es Salt road, and some through the village of Ain es Sir. The Fourth Battalion I.C.C. made its way in the darkness over muddy roads and down a narrow rocky gorge, and arrived at Ain es Sir at daylight. As it passed through the narrow streets of the town down into the Wadi Sir, one could tell by the looks of the Circassian inhabitants that they were no well-wishers of the British cause. At the bottom of the steep sides of the wadi a fair-sized stream had to be forded, and the passage of so many animals across it made the crossing almost impossible for the camels which slipped continually on the wet slippery banks, but at length the ford was passed. The track then ascended the steep hillside leading to the top of a ridge from which an extensive view was obtained of the table-land extending to the south, and also of the Dead Sea, the lower Jordan Valley, and beyond these the bare hills of Judaea. One Camelier wondered if we were passing over the hill from which Moses had obtained a view of the Promised Land before he died, and on being told it was on one of the hills that we could see that this event occurred, he quite solemnly remarked, "Well, I don’t wonder that the old geezer turned up his toes rather than go into that Godforsaken country!"
The day of our return to the valley was a day of bright sunshine, and the flowers on the hillsides, refreshed by the recent rains that had caused us so much discomfort, were blooming freely, and made this countryside a marked contrast to the bare hills on the western side of the Jordan. But many a rider saw little of the beauty or the view, as worn out by the strenuous experiences night after night in the front line, followed by a long night’s ride during the retirement, many Cameliers fell asleep on their saddles, only to waken up momentarily when their mounts stopped to graze, or when roused by their comrades to keep the column intact.page 170
The N.Z. Mounted Brigade acted as rearguard to the retirement by the Wadi Sir, and when the last squadron of the Wellington M.R. was passing through Ain es Sir, it was fired on by the inhabitants and by a body of Turks who had followed in pursuit, and eighteen members of the squadron were either killed or wounded.
During the raid the British captured nearly a thousand Turks, but had 215 of their own force killed and 1,010 wounded, while 123 were posted as missing.
In the list of honours granted for services performed in these operations the 16th Company I.C.C. was well represented. Military Crosses were awarded to Lieutenants R. F. Mackenzie, A. G. R. Crawford (died of wounds), V. E. Adolph (died of wounds). Sergeant A. G. Hooper and Trooper R. Maxwell (died of wounds) were awarded the decoration of D.C.M., and Trooper T. Parker was awarded the Military Medal, while Sergeants H. S. Jones and M. Kirkpatrick, and Lance-Corporal L. Pask were mentioned in despatches.