The War Effort of New Zealand
Chapter III. — The Senussi Campaign
The Senussi Campaign.
At six o'clock on the morning of October 10th, 1915, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade under the command of Lieut.-Colonel H. T. Fulton, sailed from Wellington on active service. At midnight on November 16th the 1st Battalion, having disembarked at Suez, arrived in the Aerodrome Camp, near Cairo, followed by the 2nd Battalion on the 18th. On November 22nd the 2nd Battalion, with Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart in command, left for Alexandria for duty on the line of communications of the Western Frontier Force operating against the tribes of the Senussi sect which had invaded the western borders of Egypt from Cyrenaica. The 1st Battalion, under Major W. S. Austin, Was despatched on the evening of December 18th to join the force at Mersa Matruh. Each unit was approximately 1,000 strong.*
The Senussi sect was founded by Mohammed Ali el Senussi, who was born in Algeria in 1787 and completed his education in Mecca. His doctrine was a reversion to the original Koranic Law in its simple form. Mohammed Ali el Senussi settled in the Benghazi district, or Cyrenaica, just beyond the present western frontier of Egypt, and rapidly gained a religious following throughout the north of Africa from Tunis to the Red Sea. His grandson, Ahmed el Sherif, elected to the headship of the sect in 1902, is known as Sayed Ahmed, or "The Senussi."
* Lieut.-Col. H. T. Fulton, to whom had been entrusted the organization and training of the headquarters and first two units of the Brigade, continued in temporary command thereof until some time after their arrival in Egypt. During the process of reorganizing the New Zealand Expeditionary Force after the withdrawal from Gallipoli, frequent changes in the command of the Brigade were made, but finally, when the New Zealand Division was formed in March, 1916, and the remaining two battalions of the Brigade arrived from New Zealand. Lieut.-Col. Fulton was formally appointed to the command, with the rank of Brigadier-General.
Hostilities had commenced on November 5th, 1915, when H.M. auxiliary cruiser Tara was torpedoed off Sollum by the German submarine U-35. On the following day an enemy submarine shelled Sollum, the most westerly Egyptian post. The camp here was sniped on November 15th; on the 17th the zawia or monastery at Barrani, fifty miles within our territory, was occupied by Senussi regulars; and next day the coastguard barracks at the same station were attacked.
The available enemy force at the commencement of hostilities was probably not less than 20,000. It had a nucleus of Turkish troops, with Turkish, German and Arab officers; the Senussi Regulars, a well-disciplined and uniformed force of from 2,000 to 3,000; and a varying number of irregulars. They were known to possess 6 mountain-guns, 10 mitrailleuses, and 6 field guns—all captured from the Italians; and they were also reported to have had other field-pieces and machine-guns landed from German submarines. They were well supplied with Greek, Italian and German rifles, and had abundance of ammunition. With the force there was a considerable number of mounted troops, and the supply of camels for transport was practically unlimited. The Commander-in-Chief was Nury Pasha, a Turkish officer.page 44
The 2nd Battalion of the N.Z.R.B. arrived at Quamaria Camp, Alexandria, at midnight on 22nd/23rd November, and on the following morning Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart was appointed to command the line of communications westwards from Alexandria. He was instructed to push out a company of the Battalion to the rail-head at Dabaa on the following day, and thereafter to distribute the remainder of the page 45companies on posts from Sidi Mergheb, near Alexandria, along the railway line to Dabaa.
The Mariut railway, which runs along the Mediterranean coast, was built by the late Khedive of Egypt as a private speculation. It was afterwards sold to the Egyptian Government, and is now a part of the State railway system. It is of broad gauge, and is approximately 100 miles in length. From Dabaa westward to Bir Fuka, a distance of about 30 miles, a narrow-gauge line was partially constructed, but at this time the rails had been removed. A motorable road, the remains of an ancient Roman highway, runs from the rail-head at Dabaa right on to the port of Sollum on the western frontier, and passes through Matruh, which is some 90 miles west of Dabaa.
Lieut.-Col. Stewart established his headquarters at Dabaa, and the 2nd N.Z.R.B., now under the command of Major R. St. J. Beere, was disposed along the line in fifteen posts, the garrisons of which varied in strength from 1 officer and 24 other ranks at less important points, to 12 officers and 300 other ranks at Dabaa.
The posts occupied were either at railway stations or in page 46the vicinity of the larger native villages. The garrisons immediately set to work to put these into a state of defence and to lay in reserve supplies of food, water, and ammunition. The materials used for walls and breastworks consisted either of loose and quarried rock or of sandbags, according to the nature of the country. An admirable rivalry sprang up amongst the various garrisons, which stimulated the men to extraordinary exertions, and in a few days each post became a veritable stronghold.
At the beginning of December a company of the 15th Sikhs were sent westward to establish posts at the wells of Gerab, Baggush and Jerawala, on the road to Matruh. These, however, were withdrawn by the middle of the month, and later on the Sikhs rejoined their regiment, which had gone to Matruh by sea.
Definite reports were received from time to time of concentrations of Bedouin in the vicinity of the line of communications, but no attacks thereon eventuated. The most important of these camps was that of Sayed Harun, located near Baggush, but this, as will be seen, was dealt with by a column from Matruh at the end of December.
There was much satisfaction when, on December 19th, the Battalion was warned that it would probably be relieved within the next few days. On that date, Lieut.-Col. Ferguson-Davie, of the 54th Sikhs, took over command of the line of communications, and on the 28th the various posts were relieved by troops of the 54th Division. The 2nd N.Z.R.B., on relief, went by rail to Quamaria Camp, Alexandria to rest and refit; and on January 18th, after a tour of guard duty on the railway and traffic bridges over the Mariut Canal, proceeded to Moascar Camp, Ismailia, whither Brigade headquarters had already been moved from their old quarters at Heliopolis.page 49
It was evident that the force under General Wallace was not sufficiently strong both to hold Matruh and to bring the enemy to a decisive engagement; and it was in response to his request for reinforcements that the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade was despatched from Cairo, together with a battery of the Honourable Artillery Company and two 4-inch naval guns.
On December 23rd the Battalion was warned of an impending operation in which it was to participate, and was instructed to borrow signal personnel and transport from the units detailing part of their troops to form the garrison of the post. Fortunately the machine-gun officer, with the personnel of his section, arrived on the eve of the battle, but his work next day was greatly hampered owing to the shortcomings of the borrowed limber-teams in the rough wadi-country.
General Wallace's force moved out at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day. It consisted of two columns. The main column, commanded by Lieut.-Col. Gordon, 15th Sikhs, was made up of the 15th Sikhs, the 1st N.Z.R.B., the 2nd Battalion Middlesex, with the Royal Bucks Hussars and a section of the Notts Royal Horse Artillery. The left column was commanded by Brig.-Gen. Biscoe, and consisted of three squadrons of Australian Light Horse, three squadrons of English Yeomanry, a Yeomanry M.G. Section, and the Notts Royal Horse Artillery. Six armoured cars and several light cars of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Detachment left Matruh at 7 a.m. to join the columns.
The plan of attack was for the right column to advance directly on Jebel Medwa, the left column to proceed in a wide detour by Wadi Toweiwia and so round the right flank of the enemy to deny his retreat to the west. The Clematis stood off-shore to assist with gun-fire as targets presented themselves.
The right column moved south-west along the Khedival motor road. The Bucks Hussars formed the screen, and were followed by the 15th Sikhs, who provided the advance guard. The 1st N.Z.R.B. came next in order, and supplied flank guards to the main body.
At about 6 a.m. the enemy gave warning of our approach by means of a flare on one of the sand-hills, and half an hour later the advance guard came under artillery fire from the south-west. The Sikhs immediately shook out into artillery formation, and the 1st N.Z.R.B. was ordered to conform to their movements. Advanced elements were pushed back, and by 7.15 a.m. the whole of the main body had crossed the Wadi Ramleh.
At 7.30 a.m. the Sikhs were ordered to attack the right flank of the enemy, the Bucks Hussars and the 2nd Battalion Middlesex to co-operate by a containing attack along his front. West of the road the Sikhs came under rifle and machine-gun fire, but their advance was not checked. They moved steadily forward in extended order, the 1st N.Z.R.B. page 54following in artillery formation for about a mile. The Middlesex Battalion were soon able to occupy Jebel Medwa, and the right flank was thus secured. The section of the Notts battery came into action on the high ground near the road 2,000 yards east of Jebel Medwa, and silenced the enemy's guns, and at 7.45 a.m. the Clematis opened fire, her shooting being "spotted" by our aeroplane.
In the nullahs of Wadi Medwa the Sikhs met with considerable opposition, and our "A" Company was sent forward to prolong the line on the left flank. By 9.30 a.m., "B" Company had also reinforced the firing-line, and by 10 o'clock Wadi Medwa was cleared. The guns were soon after brought forward to the western side of the wadi, and "C" and "D" Companies placed in reserve in the nullah behind the guns. At 11 a.m. the left column could be seen operating about two miles to the south-west, and was signalled to change direction northwards along the Wadi Merjid.
By noon, "C" and "D" companies and the four machine-guns were sent into the firing-line, extending it to the right, and the work of clearing out the many nullahs at the head of Wadi Merjid was carried on, the whole line moving forward slowly but surely. Our battalion was held up for some time by hot rifle and machine-gun fire from a donga running forward at right-angles from the main enemy position, two companies, with the Sikhs, being on one side of this, and two companies on the other. At this stage our line was somewhat long and thin, and at 2.30 p.m. part of the left was withdrawn and pushed into the centre. This alteration was completed by 3 p.m., at which hour the Sikhs were withdrawn, apparently to avoid hampering the movements of the mounted troops who now appeared in their vicinity.
The casualties of the 1st N.Z.R.B. were 6 killed and 14 wounded. The dead were brought in and buried in the little military cemetery at Matruh, and before we left the station permanent memorials were erected over their graves.
In his despatch regarding this action, General Maxwell, Commanding in Egypt, specially mentions the 1st N.Z.R.B., its Commanding Officer, and Q.M.S. A. L. McCormick, Corporal R. Lepper and Rfmn. T. Nimmo. Of the New Zealanders it was said, "This was the first time the men of the 1st Battalion had been in action, but they fought with the steadiness of seasoned troops."
The immediate result of the action was the retirement of The Senussi with his Staff and the remains of his force to page 56Unjeila and Halazin, some twenty-five miles to the west; and subsequent events show that the Christmas Day fight was the turning-point in the campaign that ultimately brought about The Senussi's downfall.
The Rifle Brigade's First Graves, Mersa Matruh
During the first three weeks of the new year the Battalion was employed on outpost duty, supplying working-parties on the line of defence, or engaged in training and route-marching. There was great joy in the camp when our band arrived on January 8th; and thereafter we had an interesting series of open-air concerts. Lieut.-Col. H. T. Fulton, D.S.O., came to Matruh on January 9th and resumed command of the Battalion.page 58
On January 19th, 1916, aerial reconnaissance disclosed a concentration of the enemy, about 5,000 strong, at Halazin, 25 miles south-west of Matruh. On the 22nd our attacking force, which included a battalion of South Africans that had just arrived, moved out under the personal command of General Wallace. We reached Bir Shola, 16 miles out, and bivouacked for the night. At midnight heavy rain came on.
At 6 a.m. on the 23rd we moved out from Bir Shola in two columns, the infantry on the right and the mounted troops on the left in close touch, and marched due west in the direction of the enemy camp. Distant firing was heard at 9.40 a.m., and reports came in that the advanced screen of Yeomanry were engaged with the enemy. The Bucks Hussars and the H.A.C. were sent forward in support, the infantry column continuing the march in close order. At 10.30 a.m. the infantry filled up to 200 rounds, closed up its column, and the Sikhs, followed by the South Africans and the New Zealanders, advanced to the attack as the mounted troops uncovered the front.
Soon after 11 a.m. the enemy were observed working round our right flank and driving in the mounted troops. To check this the flank guard of two platoons of the 1st N.Z.R.B. was pushed out to about 1,500 yards. The attack was pressed on, our Battalion being still in support to the Sikhs and South Africans. By 12.30 p.m. it was found necessary to reinforce the right flank guard with two more platoons and two machine guns from the Battalion, and this whole company, under Captain Puttick, succeeded in driving off from that quarter an attack by 400 of the enemy, and silencing his two machine guns. At 1 p.m. "C" Company, under Captain Pow, was sent to the left in support of the left company of the Sikhs, and was eventually brought into the firing-line there. At the same time, half of "A" Company, which had formed the rear-guard, was brought forward to the reserve.
By 2.45 p.m. the Sikhs, South Africans, and part of the 1st N.Z.R.B. had reached the enemy's main line, but the mounted troops on the left had not been so successful. Indeed, they had been pushed back to such an extent that by 3.30 p.m. they were occupying, with the guns of the H.A.C., a page 59position nearly 1,000 yards in rear of the Field Ambulance. To restore the situation here, a composite company (half of "'A" and half of "D") under Major Kay, was hurried off to Force Headquarters, where it received orders to attack the enemy, estimated at 250 strong. This subsidiary attack was successful, and the enemy driven off; and the arrival of "B" Company under Captain Puttick, which had been withdrawn for the purpose from its position on our right flank, completed the security at this point. The position for the time had been very critical, and Major Kay was personally complimented by General Wallace on his quick grasp of the situation and his prompt and thorough action in dealing with it.
In the meantime, the main attack by Colonel Gordon had progressed satisfactorily. His firing-line extended over a mile in length, and had moved across ground absolutely devoid of cover. Desert mirage made it very difficult to locate the enemy's positions. The enemy was slowly but surely pressed back, but his retirement of nearly three miles to his main line of resistance was conducted with such skill as to deny all our efforts to come to close quarters with him. By 4 p.m., however, he was driven from his final position, and the remnants of his force fled westwards. His camp was taken, and his tents, equipment and stores were burnt.
Unfortunately pursuit was found to be impossible. The heavy rain of the previous night had converted the whole countryside into a quagmire, with the result that the cavalry horses were exhausted, the armoured cars could not operate, and the supply train was bogged three miles from Bir Shola. The force bivouacked two miles east of the captured position, at a spot where the ambulance had became immovable owing to the deep mud. The weather was wet and bitterly cold, and the troops spent a miserable night without greatcoats, blankets, food or water.
Next day, the 24th, there was no sign of the enemy, and the force returned to Bir Shola. The return march proved to be a most arduous business. Owing to the state of the ground all wheeled vehicles had to be assisted by hand, and to the New Zealanders, the rear battalion of the main body, fell the greater part of this exhausting labour. The transport page 60of the wounded presented the greatest difficulty; they could not be taken in the ambulances, and those unable to ride had to be carried on stretchers, a severe strain upon the troops already tired out by their own exertions and a sleepless night, and still without food or water. We reached the parked transport at 2 p.m., filled our water-bottles, and in somewhat better spirits continued the trudge to Bir Shola. Here we bivouacked again, but as it rained during the night, and the coats and blankets were already wet, very little sleep was obtained. Matruh was reached at 4.30 p.m. on the 25th, after a comparatively comfortable march in good weather.
The casualties of the 1st Battalion in this engagement were one other rank killed, and two officers and 30 other ranks wounded. The British dead were buried at Halazin, but as it was discovered that the enemy had interfered with the graves for the sake of spoil, the bodies were afterwards brought in and interred at Matruh.
The enemy had received a very severe blow, and it transpired from the reports of deserters that the effects of this reverse, following upon that at Wadi Merjid on Christmas Day, had gone far to discourage the Grand Senussi, and to shake the faith of his followers.
General Maxwell, referring to the success on January page 6123rd, said:—"Especial praise is due to the leading of Colonel Gordon, who commanded the main attack, and to the gallantry of the Sikhs, South Africans and New Zealanders, who fought with invincible dash and resolution throughout the day."
On January 26th, warning was received that the Battalion was to leave Mersa Matruh to rejoin the New Zealand forces elsewhere, and next day the following General Order was issued by Major-General Wallace, C.B. Commanding the Western Frontier Force:—"On the departure of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, the General Officer commanding desires to place on record the universal regret of the Force at losing the comradeship of a reliable body of men of whom England may well be proud." The weather, however, proved unfavourable for a move, and then the departure was postponed to permit of the Sikhs going first.
The power of the Senussi having been so broken in the engagements of Christmas Day and January 23rd that any fear of danger to Matruh was practically at an end, it was now decided to clear the enemy from the coast westward, and re-take Sollum. In connection with this scheme the 1st Battalion, with a huge camel transport, moved out with the object of establishing an advanced station in the direction of Sidi Barrani. Starting at 9.30 on the morning of February 13th, and proceeding along a camel-track near the coast, the column reached Zowiet Um Rakhum and bivouacked at 3 p.m., after an interesting march of fifteen miles. While here we received instructions that we were to go back to Alexandria for a destination unknown. On the following day we were relieved by the 1st South African Battalion, and commenced our return march at 4.40 p.m. We had a delightfully cool moonlight night, and reached Matruh comfortably by 9.30 p.m. Our recall was a great disappointment to all ranks, as we had been looking forward to participating in the taking of Sollum, which would have been a fitting climax to our work with the Western Frontier Force.*
* The concluding stages of the campaign followed rapidly. As the force moved westward it was strengthened by the arrival of the remaining battalions of the South African Brigade. The Senussi forces were badly beaten again near Barrani on February 26th and Sollum was captured on March 14th. Pushing on for twenty miles beyond Sollum the Armoured Car Detachment captured all the enemy's guns and machine guns; and by a bold dash on an enemy camp forty miles still further westward rescued the survivors of the crew of the torpedoed Tara.
The return to Alexandria commenced on February 15th, and by the 18th we were settled down in the Rest Camp at Matras. On the night of February 28th the Battalion left Alexandria, rejoining the Brigade at Moascar Camp, Ismailia, on the following day.