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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter VIII — Fights on the Border Line

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Chapter VIII
Fights on the Border Line

In December, 1916, a mounted force consisting of the Anzac Mounted Division (1st, 2nd, and 3rd A.L.H. Brigades, and N.Z.M.R. Brigade) and the newly constituted Imperial Camel Brigade was concentrated at Kilo 128, ten miles beyond Mazar. An attack on El Arish, twenty miles away was ordered to be carried out on the evening of December 20, and, travelling all night, the force arrived at daylight on the 21st to find that the Turks had retired without risking a fight, to a prepared position at Magdhaba, about thirty miles southeast from El Arish.

General Chetwode at once decided to surprise the Turks at Magdhaba, and ordered a force consisting of the First and Third Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, and the Imperial Camel Brigade, all under the command of Major-General Chauvel, to march at midnight on December 22, for a night ride of thirty miles along the wide, dried-up bed of a prehistoric stream—the River of Egypt of the Bible, but now known as the Wadi El Arish.

This was a good try-out for the newly formed Camel Brigade (in which was included the 15th N.Z. Company), which received its title as a Brigade on December 19, as within eighty-four hours afterwards it took part in two night advances of a total distance of fifty miles, the capture of El Arish, a successful all-day battle (resulting in the capture of the whole of the Turkish force at Magdhaba) and a retirement of thirty miles to its base.

During the advance on Magdhaba the Cameliers found that the nature of the ground over which they page 71were riding in the dark, was in marked contrast to that in the desert with which they had been so long accustomed. Here the ground was firm, with, scattered tufts of scrub growing on its dry surface, and as the column moved on steadily in the cold night, the unusual sounds were heard of the plop, plop, plop of the pads on the feet of the camels. The big brown Bikanir camels made good pace, and before daylight the bivouac fires of the enemy were seen in the distance, a sure sign that the Turks were not anticipating an attack to be made on them so soon after the British advance on El Arish.

The Turks had established six strong redoubts and numerous rifle-pits, with mountain guns to support them. The broken nature of the ground was wholly in favour of the enemy whose concealed positions were difficult to detect.

The 15th N.Z. Company of the I.C.C. had marched all night as a part of the Third Battalion and dismounted at 5 a.m. some four and a half miles from Magdhaba. The Company advanced in extended order as a dismounted attack, and formed the first wave of the battalion. The First Light Horse Brigade advanced along the dry bed of the wadi on the right of the I.C.C. while on the left of the latter were the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and farther to their left was the Third Australian Light Horse Brigade, of which the 10th Regiment made a wide detour and attacked the position in the rear. The Turks resisted stubbornly, and by shell, machine-gun and rifle fire held off the attack all the forenoon.

At 1 p.m. Major-General Chauvel was informed that the attempts of the engineers left at Bir Lahfan, fourteen miles back, to procure a water supply, had failed. As the nearest supply was thirty miles away unless Magd-haba was captured, and as there appeared to be no prospect of an immediate success in the attack on the Turkish page 72position, the General reluctantly decided to break off the engagement for the sake of the horses. The camels on the other hand would not be inconvenienced by the lack of water for several days longer, which showed their suitability for raids of this nature where the element of time counted for so much in the case of the horses.

However, about this time the Camel Brigade in the centre with the Third Australian Light Horse Regiment of the First Brigade on their right, made a spirited charge, the former over a wide level stretch of ground perfectly free from cover, and the latter along the level bed of the wadi. With loud cheers the Cameliers rushed forward on the higher ground, while the Light Horsemen co-operated on the lower ground in the wadi, and although met by a strong fire they carried the position at the point of the bayonet, capturing the force of ninety-five Turks in the redoubt. This success turned the scale in favour of the British, and General Chauvel ordered the attack to be pressed forward at all points, with the result that by 4 p.m. the N.Z.M.R. and Third L.H. Brigades had captured other redoubts, and as the 10th L.H. Regiment had captured the Aulad Ali position in the rear along with three hundred prisoners, by 4.30 p.m. the whole of Magdhaba was in our hands with a loss to the Turks of 1,282 prisoners and all their arms, equipment and stores. The British loss amounted to 22 killed and 124 wounded. The 15th Company I.C.C. suffered a loss of ten casualties, all wounded, in this, their first engagement.

A small force of mounted men was left to clear up the battlefield, and the main body after watering their animals from the wells in the wadi, set out in the dark on their return journey to El Arish. After the long night march from El Arish and the strain of the battle the thirty miles return march in the darkness and dust, from Magdhaba, imposed a great tax on the endurance page 73of all ranks in the force. Men continually fell asleep in the saddle, while their animals would wander off out of the line of march in search of something to graze on, but at length in the early morning of December 24, the column arrived at El Arish, with little energy left to get ready to celebrate Christmas.

Although not so mobile as the Horse Brigade on the harder ground our forces were to be operating on from now onwards, the Camel Brigade was able to take part effectively in the future operations, and added materially to the offensive power of the mounted divisions to which it was attached.

From Christmas onward, reconnaissances by the mounted forces were constantly carried out towards the east and south from El Arish.

On the border line between Egypt and Palestine, near the coast, the Turks had entrenched a commanding hill at Rafa about two hundred feet higher than the surrounding country, with the ground sloping away gradually from it on all sides. The country stretching to the north and south and inland consisted of a slightly undulating plain, while sandhills fringing the coast lay a short distance to the west; and the whole of this plain was under observation from the Turkish position.

The main Turkish army lay some twelve miles farther north, along the south side of the Wadi Ghuzzi, and the post at Rafa was an advanced one which would block the advance of the British army if it attempted an attack on the main Turkish force.

A night raid on Rafa, thirty miles away from El Arish, was decided on by General Chetwode, and once more the Camel Brigade took part in a long night ride, followed by an all-day strenuous but successful fight, with another long ride back in the dark to its base.

The attacking force consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division (less the Second A.L.H. Brigade), the Fifth page 74Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry), and the Camel Brigade, the whole force being under the command of General Chetwode in person.

The column left El Arish at 4 p.m. on January 8, and wound its way through the sandhills lying parallel to the coast, but by midnight the nature of the ground altered to a sandy soil covered with a light coating of grass, with here and there patches of cultivation which was much appreciated by the mounts whenever a halt was made.

Ten miles from Rafa a native village called Sheikh Zowaiid was passed, and all wheeled vehicles except the field-guns were ordered to be left there, a decision which later on affected the replenishing of the supplies of ammunition of some of the artillery and machine-guns during the battle.

By daylight on January 9 the force arrived before the Turkish position at Rafa. The New Zealand Mounted Brigade under Brigadier-General Chaytor was ordered to make a detour round the right of the position, to attack it from the north. In carrying out this movement the New Zealanders crossed the political boundary between Egypt and Palestine, and therefore were the first members of the British army in this campaign to enter the Promised Land, and to pass from the continent of Africa into Asia. In the battle that followed the New Zealanders carried out their part in Asia, while the rest of the army was fighting in Africa.

The two Australian Light Horse Brigades, the First and the Third, attacked from the east and south-east, the Camel Brigade from the south, and the Yeomanry Brigade from the west, while the New Zealand Mounted Brigade attacked the northern approaches to the position and cut off the communication of the Turks with their base.

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Although the whole enemy position was surrounded the attacking force made very little impression on it as the day wore on. The entrenchments were well placed, the main redoubts dominating the country on all sides, while outer trenches with excellent fields of fire, concealed the position of the front line of the Turks who swept every yard of approach with their rifles.

The 15th N.Z. Camel Company had been transferred to the First Battalion I.C.C. in January, and took part in this action as a unit of that body. The men dismounted under shell fire some three and a half miles from the enemy position, and the 15th Company advanced as the first wave of the Battalion’s attack. The whole of the Camel Brigade present had been thrown into the attack, and the troops, during the day, attempted to work their way forward by crawling or by making short rushes over the bare level ground. By 2 p.m. the advance was held up by severe rifle and machine-gun fire, and the position was being enfiladed from concealed positions on the right. During this advance the 15th Company lost its popular O.C., Captain J. G. McCallum, who had been in command of the Company since its formation.

All forenoon and up to the middle of the afternoon, the Turkish position was subjected to a hot fire from our artillery, machine-guns and rifles, but no impression appeared to be made on it, and at 3.30 p.m. the Inverness Battery, which was working in conjunction with the N.Z. Brigade, ran out of ammunition and was withdrawn from the attack. About this time word was received at Headquarters that strong Turkish reinforcements were approaching from the north from the direction of the village of Khan Yunus.

The supply of ammunition for the machine-guns of the New Zealanders was running short, and some guns were out of action on that account. Major A Wilkie, page 76the Quartermaster of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, hearing of this, commandeered the use of the nearest cable-waggon back at Sheik Zowaiid, emptied out its contents, filled it with small-arms ammunition, and personally conducted it at a gallop to the New Zealand Brigade in time to enable the machine-gunners to take an effective part in the final advance on the main redoubt. The ammunition supply of the Camel Brigade, including that of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery attached to it, being carried by camel transport, did not come under the order which held all wheeled transport back at Sheik Zowaiid, and so all arms of this unit were able to carry on during the whole of the engagement.

Well on in the afternoon, in view of the difficulties of the situation, General Chetwode, after consulting with General Chauvel, decided to break off the action, and retire, but before this movement was begun, Brig.-Gen. Chaytor on the opposite side of the position ordered the New Zealand Brigade to attack the Turkish redoubt, and with their advance skilfully covered by machine-gun and artillery fire, the New Zealanders swept across the open grassy slope over a mile wide, and captured the main redoubt. When this success was noticed the order for retirement was recalled, and all Brigades pressed on the attack, and one by one the various redoubts were captured.

The Cameliers had suffered fairly heavily during the day, but had worked their way gradually forward. The last forty yards were carried in one rush, and as our men approached the trenches the Turks held up white flags, and the strongly held position was won. The Camel Brigade here captured five officers and two hundred and fourteen other ranks.

The total number of prisoners taken at Rafa amounted to 1,635, while the losses on the British side were 487 all told. The casualties of the 15th N.Z. page 77Company I.C.C. consisted of one officer and two other ranks killed, and nineteen other ranks wounded.

For their conduct in this engagement two members of the 15th Company received decorations, Sergeant Trott being awarded the Medaille Militaire, and Trooper J. Marwick the Military Medal.

Darkness fell before the captured position was fully cleaned up, so a force was left in charge, and to act as a rearguard should the Turkish reinforcements make an attack. The main body then retired to Sheikh Zowaiid which was reached after midnight, and next day the whole force returned to El Arish.

The Battle of Rafa was the last major action fought on Egyptian territory. The British army had reached the border of the Holy Land, and henceforth the campaign became a contest to decide who was to have possession of the Land of the Bible.

Although the main Turkish army had been driven off the Sinai Peninsula, there were still small posts here and there which were a menace to the British flank or its lines of communication. One of these posts was at Bir el Hassana about thirty miles south-west of Magd-haba, on the central road across the Peninsula. It was decided to clear up this position, so in February the Second Battalion (British) of the Imperial Camel Brigade, and one section of the Hong Kong Battery were told off to accomplish this. The 15th Company moved to Magdhaba and stayed there in reserve while this operation took place, and then returned to its former camping ground near El Arish.

The Second Battalion left El Arish on the morning of February 18, and riding all night, appeared before the Hassana position as day was breaking. The Turks were completely taken by surprise at the unexpected appearance of the Camels, and the whole garrison surrendered; an armed Bedouin force which was attached page 78to it was also dealt with. One Camelier received wounds of such a nature that it would have been impossible to carry him back to hospital in a camel cacolet with any hope of his surviving, so a British aeroplane that was acting in conjunction with the force was signalled to, and it was able to make a convenient landing. The wounded man was accommodated in the observer’s seat in the plane, and in a very short time was delivered safely at the hospital at El Arish. The air force thus added another branch to its service in the war; it already included combatant (machine-guns and bombs), intelligence, and transport, and now it linked itself up with the medical branch of the service.

Perhaps the most interesting raid, apart from any military significance, was the expedition to Mount Sinai itself, situated in the centre of the southern part of the Peninsula, the place generally accepted as the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Law. Here the Israelites had delivered to them a definite system of religion, a new moral code, and a purpose that were to lift them from their state of bondage, and weld them into a nation that would produce forces to affect the world’s history, and that would persist in spite of persecution, exile, and the loss of its national home.

It was to this spot that a party of Australian Cameliers, fifty strong, was despatched early in 1917, not in the character of pilgrims, but to disarm Bedouins, and collect firearms that had been distributed by the Turks, and to restore the prestige of the British army in the minds of these roving tribes. Some critics unkindly suggested that the Australians were sent on this expedition for a refresher course in the Commandments and the Law.

Mount Sinai itself is over seven thousand feet above sea-level; its barren rocky slopes are exposed to the scorching heat of summer, and to the frosts of winter. page 79At its foot is situated the Greek Monastery of St. Catherine, founded, according to tradition, by Constan-tine the Great, early in the fourth century. This monastery, protected by its inaccessible position, has throughout the ages served as a sanctuary for anchorites, and persecuted members of the Greek Church. During its long history it has acquired a great collection of sacred relics, rich vestments, works of art, and a very valuable library of ancient books and manuscripts. Here, in 1859, Dr. Tischendorf, a great German scholar, discovered and obtained possession of a complete copy of the New Testament supposed to be compiled towards the latter part of the fourth century. This volume, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, came into the possession of the Czar of Russia, and after the Russian Revolution, into the hands of the Soviet Government, by whom it was sold in 1933 to the trustees of the British Museum for the sum of £100,000. It is supposed to be the second oldest copy of the New Testament in existence.

But the Cameliers were not experts in ancient documents, and although they were keenly interested in the display of wonderful paintings, precious stones, sacred relics, and especially in the effigy of St. Catherine with its vestments of gold, silver, and jewels, and as a contrast, in the charnel-house where are contained the skeletons of all the priests who have ever died at Mount Sinai, yet they felt they had to take all precautions that their pilgrimage did not take as long as that of the Children of Israel, and so they soon moved off north, following possibly the tracks of the Israelites of old, until they once more arrived safely at their Brigade Headquarters in the south of Palestine.