Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Chapter XVI. — N.Z. Field Troop Engineers — in Palestine
N.Z. Field Troop Engineers
The complete defeat of Jemel Pasha's Force of 15,000 Turks, Germans, Austrians and Bedouins by the British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian Force on the 2nd February, 1915, was followed by eighteen months of scouting and minor raids in the desert.
In March, 1916, when the New Zealand Division left Egypt for France, the original Field Troop, which had done most valuable work on Gallipoli, left Egypt also, as it had been absorbed into the newly formed 3rd Field Company New Zealand Engineers. The Troop had been disbanded because at that time it was considered of greater importance to complete the establishment of the Divisional Engineers than to keep these well trained specialists in Egypt, where there were no immediate prospects of making full use of their services. So the members of that experienced Troop became the nucleus of the 3rd Field Coy., the remaining vacancies being filled with men from the disbanded Otago Mounted Rifles and reinforcements which had arrived from New Zealand since the evacuation of Gallipoli. With the exception of Signallers, no Engineers therefore accompanied the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, which, under Brig.-Gen. E. W. C. Chaytor, C.B., proceeded West of the Suez Canal on the 24th April, 1916, as part of the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (or called shortly "Anzac Mounted Division").
The absence of the Engineers was soon felt though, for a few hours after crossing the Canal, the Brigade had penetrated about twenty miles into the waterless desert, and the troops and horses became dependent upon the Camel Transport Company for their water supplies. One camel carried 28 gallons of water and, as there were about 105 officers, 2264 other ranks and 2817 horses to keep supplied, it is easily understood that at times, on account of shortage, men and horses learned what real thirst was.
The Turkish troops, which the Anzac Mounted Division had crossed the Canal to repel, were driven off and our men took up temporary positions at Hill 70 and nearby defences page 274which had been constructed under the supervision of two N.Z, Field Coy. officers before their departure to France. From these position many patrols set out to explore the country in front, but only a waterless area was found.
It was soon realised, that if the water difficulty was to be solved the Engineers' assistance would be necessary, so it was decided to form a "Pioneer Troop." Its chief duty was to divine, locate and develop as great a supply of water as possible, and the Troop soon discovered that hard work and the digging of many wells at selected positions in the desert were rewarded with success, and before long it had the Brigade supplied with a number of watering places.
There was no official establishment for the Troop and accordingly no special tools or equipment were available for its use, but sufficient shovels, axes and sandbags were obtained, and these enabled the men to do most useful work, although elaborate arrangements for watering points could not be made with such scanty tools. The Brigade had one or two canvas water troughs, each to hold 600 gallons, but these could not be taken from Brigade Headquarters because they were needed for storing the daily water supply brought by the Camel Train.
Pumps were not available, but each Mounted man possessed a canvas bucket and tether rope and with these he was left to devise his own means of getting the water out of the wells. Often the supply was small and the men would then have to get into the well and bail out the water with a tin.
On 3rd August a force of 18,000 of Turkey's best troops, accompanied by many Germans and commanded by General Von Kressenstein, attacked the Anzac Mounted Division and some English troops at Romani, about 30 miles South East of Port Said on a front of seven or eight miles. The enemy suffered a heavy defeat on 4th and 5th August, and our forces pursued them for about twenty miles into the desert. Again the need of more Engineers was felt, for the water was scarce and mostly had to be carried over the desert, the Troops otherwise being unable to remain away from the established water points for long.
About this time it was decided to supply the urgent needs of food by rail, and water was pumped through pipes laid across the desert. These, being supplemented with camel transport, relieved matters considerably, but later on the troops travelled faster than the railway constructing gangs, and the everlasting shortage of water was felt once more.page 275
The Australian Light Horse Brigades formed and trained the 1st Field Squadron of Engineers at Kantara on the Suez Canal. It was officered by a Major of the Royal Engineers as officer commanding, and five Australians. The Mounted Division at that time was composed of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades. Each Engineer Troop was therefore to be attached to one Mounted Brigade to attend to its requirements from an engineering point of view. Just prior to their departure from the training area the G.O.C. of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt ordered that Trooper H. G. Alexander of the C.M.R. and Sergeant S. G. Brown of the A.M.R. be commissioned and attached to the 1st Australian Field Squadron for instruction. These appointments were most beneficial in many ways. For a whole the senior acted as assistant to the O.C. Field Troop attached to the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, the junior being retained at Squadron Headquarters as Adjutant and spare officer in case of casualties in the Field Troops.
Almost the whole of the Field Troops' work during the early part of the campaign consisted of water supply, so each was supplied with the full complement of pumps, troughs, four feet square well-frames in timber and iron, all loaded on to wagons. These wagons did not travel well in the sand and shortly afterwards the horses were used for packing the lighter gear, the heavier articles, such as well linings, forge, anvil, Abyssinian well, etc., being loaded on camels. The camels, however, were too slow for the well linings, which were usually required shortly after halts. No faster transport was to be obtained, so some means of overcoming the drawback had to be devised. Spear Point wells of 2½-inch diameter piping were made. These were somewhat similar to the Abyssinian and Norton Tube. Their length was 3 feet 6 inches, with extensions each 3 feet 6 inches. In order to enable the hosing of the service pumps to be attached to the well, special brass unions had to be made with female gas thread for screwing into it or extension and male L.C.C. thread for screwing to suction hose. Patent strap carriers were also made so that the Spear Points and extensions could be quickly strapped on to a pack horse to ride firmly and safely, provision being made to protect the threaded ends. Wire netting baskets were also made to ride on top of the pack saddle and carry the brass union, couplings and other smaller accessories such as driving clamp, etc. With these Spear Points water could be found at most places on the route from the Suez page 276Canal to El Arish, a distance of 100 odd miles, at a depth of from 8 to 25 feet below the surface. The water was always brackish, in some places more so than others.
In December, 1916, Sergt. H. A. Lockington of C.M.R. was granted a commission and attached as 2nd officer to the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade Field Troop.
Until 19th December, the enemy's headquarters had been located at the coastal town of El Arish, but afterwards he retreated to Magdhaba in the vicinity of the wells.
The Anzac Troops had followed fast and, overtaking the enemy at Magdhaba on 23rd December, commenced a battle immediately in spite of having travelled a distance of fifty miles within the previous three days. After half a day's fighting Magdhaba was captured. This proved an important gain, for it enabled supplies to be forwarded by sea from Egypt.
Magruntein, another formidable position at Rafa on the borders of Palestine, was captured on 9th January, 1917. This practically cleared the Turks from Sinai and preparations were made for the attack upon Palestine.
In March the Army was greatly increased, the mounted troops being more than doubled, so a second Field Squadron was formed. A New Zealand Field Troop was once more organised and became a part of the 1st Australian Field Squadron. The senior New Zealand subaltern received authority to obtain the required personnel from the various regiments. As previous experience had proved that the establishment was too small, an increase was made from one officer and thirty other ranks to two officers and fifty other ranks. The officers were 2nd Lieuts. S. G. Brown and H. G. Alexander. 2nd Lieut. Alexander was under orders to train a Troop of men, picked from the 1st Field Squadron, for special railway demolition work, which needed great care and quiet working both day and night.
A railway running from Ramleh to Beersheba and thence to the Wadi el Arish presented possible dangers to our troops, because when the intended attack on Gaza commenced it would have been possible for the enemy to use this railway for transporting troops to attack our flank and rear.
Eventually, at dusk one evening during May, in conjunction with the Field Troops of the other brigades, the New Zealand Field Troop, heavily laden with gun cotton, primers, detonators, fuse and other necessaries, set out from camp. The railway line was reached at 7 a.m. after an all-night march.page 277
Orders had been received to push ahead with the destruction but to cease at 10 a.m. An advance screen of our troops, after having a brush with the enemy outpost, protected the working party, and by the appointed time for cessation every rail—for fifteen miles had been cut. A fifteen arch masonry bridge at Asluj was also destroyed.
As the Division was resting at this time the Troop, with assistance from the Regimental working parties, made roads in and out of river beds and other difficult places to allow guns and horsemen to pass through quickly.
This being a malaria area much antimalaria work was done, chiefly by draining off all stagnant pools which were the breeding places for mosquitoes in the Wadi Ghuzze.
At this stage our Army was entering on the limestone country, the water being chiefly obtained from deep wells of native construction; the wells varying in depth from fifty to two hundred feet deep.
The pump equipment issued to Field Troops in the first place was a general service suction and force pump, capable of lifting from a depth of 26 feet, the capacity of each pump being 600 gallons per hour, operated by two or more men on the handles. At this stage each Field Troop was issued with what was called a "deep well pump." It was a plunger type operated with a rocking shaft from the top of the well, coupled to the bottom rocker by cables. The pump, whith the necessary piping and equipment, weighed 30cwt. and required a G.S. waggon with six horses to transport it. The necessary transport was added to the complement of each Troop. Upon receipt of these deep well pumps the Troops were ordered to train their men in rapidly installing them, and the best time accomplished for rigging them on a 200ft. well was 3½ hours. The water had to be pumped by hand to the surface manually.
The capacity of the pump was only 600 gallons per hour, which meant, with only one well available for a Brigade watering, that over 50 hours' pumping would be entailed to place 30,000 gallons of water on the surface. This amount was consumed daily by a Brigade, if fully supplied. Frequently a Field Troop was called on to water two or more Brigades as they might be occupying the only available water in the locality, which was being operated by the Division's forces. When one considers that in action a Brigade strength has to be watered inside of two hours it will readily be understood how inadequate the deep well pump was for the purpose. The worst page 278factor was that it could only be transported by waggon and the country into which our forces were about to advance was impassable in most places for wheeled transport to reach the wells.
After the trials of installing the deep well pump and realising its inadequacy, the O. C. Anzac Field Squadron, Major Alexander, called a conference of all Field Troop officers, who were instructed to make experiments and improvise a more efficient means of raising water from the deep wells.
All realised the plight the Division would be placed in for water unless some more efficient method than the deep well pump could be provided. There were quite a number of ingenious lifts introduced by the respective Field Troops, all of them being an improvement on the pump, and all could be transported by pack horse.
The N.Z. Troop, along with the others, was busy experimenting and several lifts were evolved—one, a conical leather tube with a holding capacity of 30 gallons and operated by cords attached to each end of the tube, introduced by 2nd Lieut. H. A. Lockington, was considered the best of all improvised lifts. A demonstration was given before the G.O.C. 2nd Mounted Division, the Engineer in Chief and the C.R.E., who decided to supply each Troop with one of these conical leather tubes or buckets, made from good serviceable leather.
To operate the bucket light sheer legs, made telescopic for packing on horse, were erected over the well top with a block at the top for one draught rope and a roller for the second draught rope, on ground level. The bucket had an iron ring and handle at the large diameter end, to which the rope leading through the block on sheer legs was attached; the smaller end just had the second rope attached thereto. The cordage was always kept lighter than the weight of bucket so that, when ropes were detached from the horse drawing it, it would drop of its own weight to the bottom of the well. The large end of the bucket being weighted with the iron handle and ring always proceeded down first and thus ensured a fill each time, for when the horse was attached to lift it, the two ropes being so wet that they lifted it up in the form of a U, the big end received the water first and the bucket filled. One diameter being so much larger than the other prevented the water spilling out of either end, for the smaller end did not have sufficient weight to effect the larger diameter end, and the weight of water in the large end was restricted page 279from spilling out through the smaller orifice by the reduction in size from 18in. diameter large end to 8in. diameter small end.
To control the ropes when tripped to allow the bucket to drop, a couple of posts were set apart equal to the depth of well, theses posts supporting a guide wire to which the draught ropes were attached by a ring This allowed a second horse to be standing in position to hook on immediately when the bucket reached the bottom, and the relieving horse returned, taking up its position whilst the other horse was in draught. The block carrying the rope attached to the large end of the tube was set seven feet higher than the roller over which the second rope, attached to the small end, passed. Consequently when the bucket reached the top of the well the large end was raised higher than the small end, when the water emptied from the smaller end into a receptacle, and by the time the bucket had taken a position of 45 per cent. It was emptied.
The total weight of bucket and equipment for a 200 feet well was 2501bs. which could be comfortably packed on two horses. After practice it was found that it could be assembled on a well in 20 minutes and, with relays of horses working for short intervals, as much as 4500 gallons per hour have been raised with this type of bucket, from a depth of 50 feet.
When wells of very large diameter were found, two of these buckets would be put into commission, one travelling down whilst the other was being raised. In this case the ropes from the two buckets were attached together at the required length and passed through a block set the necessary distance from the well on the ground level. The horse, being attached to these ropes, travelled backwards and forwards, being turned at the ends without unhitching.
At El Arish the British Forces had converged with the sea and from here onwards, during a period of many months, the work of developing water was greatly minimised. Along the sandy beach within about 12 feet of high water mark fresh water could always be obtained in abundance at a depth of from 12 to 20 inches. A similar backing, up of the fresh water by the sea was found on the beaches at Gallipoli during previous operations.
There was a conglomerate stratum here which had been pushed up like the edge of a saucer by the action of the sea waves, and the fresh water from inland was finding its outlet over this lip; if this subterranean stratum were driven through, the salt water was reached. During stormy weather the waves page 280went over this saucer lip and contaminated the fresh water, when a move further inland had to be made for good water.
On the Palestine shore, although there was an ample supply of water, any attempts to dig deeper only let the water away. So long, shallow, open trenches were dug in the sand.
While preparations for a further offensive were being carried out by our forces, the Turkish forces had been busy building a strong line of defence from the Mediterranean through Gaza, Hariera and Sheria to Beersheba. South of these positions was the steep-banked Wadi el Ghuzze. At times the bed of the river would be quite dry, whilst at others it was often flooded. This area was the scene of many old past battles and still another fight was shortly to be added to the list.
On 26th March occurred the first battle of Gaza, during which the N.Z.M.R. Brigade entered Gaza and captured two enemy guns, and on April 17th, 18th and 19th, was fought the second Battle of Gaza. Before, during and after both of these battles the chief concern of the Field Troop was the provision of water.
Until October, very little fighting was done, and the period was chiefly taken up by training, preparing water points, rifle ranges, re-equipping, etc.
In the past the Field Troop had been known as "D" Troop, commanded by Lieut. Alexander (vice Lt. S. G. Brown invalided to New Zealand); Lieut. H. A. Lockington was second officer. In future it was to be known as the New Zealand Field Troop. An amusing episode occurred about this time. The Troop requisitioned for five horses as replacements or remounts. Imagine the pleasure of the Officer Commanding when five donkeys arrived on the scene!
For over six months the Turks had been strengthening their positions and considered them impregnable. These defences extended from Gaza south-east for a distance of 20 miles. In the centre was Hariera-Sheria, which protected the railway running from Beersheba to Lydda. Further east were defence works protecting Beersheba, but the area between here and the Dead Sea was a desert waste which the enemy considered impossible ground for troops to traverse. But this was not sufficient to hold up our forces. Assisted by the warships near the coast, they bombarded the strongly entrenched enemy forces at Gaza, attacking the South West of Beersheba with Infantry. The mounteds in the meantime had traversed the unguarded desert and, working to the East, attacked the Beersheba garrison. This advance necessitated a 35 miles page 281journey by night, but the men were keen, and after a day's battle and heavy fighting Beersheba was captured.
Before these operations, the Field Troop was kept very busy. It had moved with the Field Squadron and concentrated its energies chiefly on developing water supplies preparatory to the main attack. In this it was fairly successful, having found several useful wells. Two wells at Khalasa were allotted to the N.Z. Field Troop. A reconnaissance had been previously made and the Troop's officers had been informed of the surface condition of these two demolished wells. Instructions had been received to make the necessary preparations for material required, etc., and to furnish an estimate of time required for the work of clearing the wells. This was done and the estimate of time given was 72 hours.
Upon arrival at Khalasa these two wells were a sorry spectacle for the Engineers. Above No. 1 well there had been a masonry building with two large iron tanks set on the top. The building had been demolished along with the top portion of the masonry lining of the well to a depth of about 15 feet. No. 2 well was not so badly damaged, but the lining was blown out for about the same depth as No. 1.
The O.C. Field Troop, Lieut. Alexander, took charge of No. 2 well and 2nd Lieut. Lockington was in charge of No. 1 well. A strong boom with swinging arm and wooden buckets, capacity of half a ton each, and tackle had been provided for raising the spoil. These were soon erected on both wells and the surface spoil rapidly removed from the top; the surrounding ground, being a loose gravel and free running, had to be retained in place by a false lining of corrugated iron brought for the purpose, held in place by inside frames of timber, and the damaged masonry lining of the wells caught in the same manner.
All went well on both wells until No. 1 was cleaned down for 20 feet when a tangled mass of railway rails was encountered, these having been bent and thrown down the well by the Turks before demolishing it, and it was such a locked mass of metal that it took the most strenuous efforts of the Engineers and working party four hours before they could get any of the rails free, that being accomplished with a quadruple watch tackle with 60 men pulling on it.
The diameter of No. 1 well was 7 feet, and it allowed of only four men working there at a time, but despite this the men handled as high as 15 tons per hour of spoil from the well. No. 1 well entailed 600 tons of spoil being removed page 282and No. 2, 400 tons. The two wells were completed in 50 hours' time, 22 hours under the estimate. This could never have been accomplished if it had not been for the hearty cooperation of the working parties, whose work could not be too highly praised; realising the importance of the water for the Army following they all worked like trojans.
General Allenby visited the wells just when completed and he congratulated all for the splendid work done in the short time. The Engineers were working practically the whole 50 hours, with the exception of an odd half hour's sleep snatched when opportunity offered, and they all worked so well and efficiently that it would be unfair to mention one without naming the others.
As showing the unorthodox methods of the colonials the following incident was one of many that occurred. The 2nd officer of the N.Z. Field Troop was sent to Cairo just previous to the Beersheba push to order the patent buckets for the water hoist. While there he secured from a Cairo foundry the necessary ironwork mountings for the equipping of the two booms for the Khalasa wells, as shown in photo. Of course not having an official requisition, he had to pay cash. The trouble was then to get them transported from Cairo to the front. They travelled as officer's luggage as far as Kantara and then when they were being put on the Desert Express the R.T. officer interfered and refused to let the mounting go forward as it was solely a passenger train. Several attempts were made to slip on unobserved with the mountings but each time unsuccessfully, as a close watch was being kept. Just before the train was due to leave a General came along. It turned out afterwards to be General Wright, C.R.E., and he suggested concealing them in his sleeping compartment. This was accomplished after some manoeuvring and the mountings reached their destination.
When the O.C. Field Squadron was informed he nearly took a fit, and when gently pressed for a refund of the amount paid he did not know what to do. Eventually he arranged for the mounting to be assembled and a demonstration given before the R.E. General Commanding Desert Corps Engineers. This was done and, after a very successful demonstration of lifting sand, Major Alexander broke the question of payment to the General and the officer received his refund.
The N.Z. Troop, having finished ahead of timetable on the Khalasa wells, immediately pushed on towards Asluj, for the Forces were now arriving and the wells at Asluj were not page 283giving the quantities of water which had been reported as their yield.
A well 20 feet in diameter was found at Museisri. It was unlined and had been blown in by the Turks. Work was at once commenced by the Troop upon this well and, after over 100 tons of spoil had been removed in six hours, a splendid flow of water was encountered, yielding 5000 to 6000 gallons per hour, this assisting the watering of the Force quartered at Asluj.
One at Khalasa had only a few feet of the top masonry blown in by the enemy, but the ground around was shattered. This required considerable excavation to enable the workers to reach a solid bottom, but before the day was over a supply was obtained. Another at Khalasa had been badly shattered by the enemy, and considerable work was necessary in clearing the debris and timbering the walls. Water was soon reached, but the accumulation of the ages in tons of broken pots, silt, etc., hindered the use of the well. A centrifugal pump and engine were installed at each of these wells and the watering arrangements were simplified. Up till now, our troops had only sand on which to erect their reservoirs, but here there was hard ground. Excavations 30 feet square were made and the canvas container was placed in the hole.
Another well found was hewn out of solid rock, bowl shape, and several underground streams fed it at the rate of thousands of gallons per hour. One mounted division watered each day at Khalasa and one at Asluj.
At Asluj the Turks had blown in the wells and the clearing had to be carried down to a depth of 100 feet. A well, with a flow of one thousand gallons per hour, situated at Museisri near Asluj was developed on 30th October.
During the same evening a move was made towards Beersheba. After marching all night, the troops deployed and a reconnaisance was made for water. One well was found at Selim Irgeig with 60 feet of water. A tackle and horn bucket were put in use and all troops and horses were supplied.
For a while after the capture of Beersheba the Field Troop was kept busy detaching and removing Turkish mines and booby-traps. One captured pumping plant was well charged with explosive. From the magneto a wire was connected to a case of gelignite placed under the engine, and a portion of the deep-well pump was cunningly attached to another charge of gelignite. These and many other traps were removed without casualty.page 284
For a couple of days the Field Troop remained with the New Zealand Mounted Brigade at El Halak. The district here was dry, and water was scarce. The exceptionally long, dry summer preceding had made matters as bad as possible.
On 4th November a move was made with the N.Z. Mounted Brigade to Kuweilfeh, where it relieved an Infantry Division in the firing line. Rough and rocky country surrounded this part, and little water could be found.
Wells were found at Kolek and unsuccessful attempts were made to develop them. During work here an enemy airman paid a visit and, flying low, fired upon the working parties and wounded several men. Shortly after midnight the Troop proceeded to Sheria.
The next move by our fighting troops was to attack the enemy's line on its left flank at Hareira-Sheria. This was successfully carried out on 6th November, 1917. It left the enemy's force at Gaza open to frontal and flank attack and its position was hopeless. Realising this, he evacuated the town and had retired several miles northwards when our troops entered the city the next morning.
The next day saw our force occupying a line along the Wadi Hesi, having captured all the intervening ground after some gallant efforts. They also seized the branch railway from Lydda to Gaza. The capture of Joppa, Ramleh and Lydda soon followed and the enemy's only communication and line of retreat was by the road running northwards to Shechem. A move was made on 4th December to cut off this communication and two weeks of heavy fighting followed. During this fighting the Engineers had a busy time repairing roads and maintaining the water supply.
When Jaffa was captured by our forces the N.Z. Engineers took possession of an up-to-date foundry there, owned and operated by a German. Many of our vehicles had got into a precarious state after our long forced march to Jaffa, so the Engineers at once got busy at the foundry and put all the Brigade gear in order. The German's foundry staff were ordered to return to work, and in the course of two days about 50 per cent. of the staff were engaged on work for our Division, and, supplemented by the N.Z. Engineers, a large amount of work was put through the foundry. Before the Division moved out of this area all necessary repairs had been completed to vehicles and gear.
As some time was spent in this area, the A.D.M.S. Major Hercus requested to have a delousing plant installed if possible. Our Engineers constructed a steam chamber for this page 285purpose and linked it up with a steam plant in a brewery at Sarona, a village in the vicinity of Jaffa; and after our Division had made full use of this plant for the period of their stay, it was handed over to the following units, who readily availed themselves of this chance to separate themselves from the very attentive live stock most were carrying on their persons. The process consisted of placing the clothes in the steam chamber and subjecting them to moist steam for twenty minutes, when the steam was turned off from the boiler and the chamber was then heated by underfiring and the clothes dried in the chamber before being removed.
Along the beach north of Hamame a plentiful supply of water was found at a depth of two to three feet in the sand. Good water in abundance was obtained from large pools in the Wadi Thahharat and troughs were erected nearby. At Richon four troughs and a 30,000 gallon reservoir were installed. Later a 12 h.p. Hornsby gas engine with Tangye suction gas plant was found. The pump was a triple plunger of 4000 gallons per hour capacity.
Hebron was occupied on the 6th December and Bethlehem and Jerusalem were ours shortly afterwards. The official entry into Jerusalem took place on the 11th.
The Field Troop moved to Wadi Hanein on 12th January, 1918, to prepare the water supply for the incoming Brigade. Wadi Hanein was one of the best villages the Troop had been near. The population, mostly Jews, was chiefly engaged in orange growing. Rothschild had been very kind to these people by providing engines, mostly Deutz, and deep-well pumps for their groves. Many years had passed since the engines and pumps were first installed and it is doubtful if a proper mecEanic had attended them during that period. All machinery was in. a shocking state, being tied up with bootlaces, string and wire. Grease, oil and dirt were thick, but, in spite of all, the machinery was started fairly easily and ample water was procured. A few days later the troubles began, and not until bootlaces, strings and wires were properly replaced and the machinery thoroughly cleaned, were satisfactory results obtained.
Owing to very heavy rains and excessive traffic the roads in this country broke up, and endless work on repairs kept our men busy. The rains had also caused a sudden flood in the Wadi Sultan where a trestle bridge which our men had erected on the 4th January, and over which 3000 camels had passed, page 286was washed away. This was replaced with a barrel-pier bridge and an improvised pontoon bridge.
From 20th January to 4th February a detachment of the Field Troop served with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment in the front line area at Nalin. Here it spent most of the time forming a very difficult roadway over the rocky hills, practically every yard having to be blasted out of solid rock. An obelisk, with the names of all the members of the C.M.R. Regiment who fell during the recent heavy fighting carved upon it, was erected in this area by our men.
A trek was made to Junction Station on 15th February. On arrival here cisterns were found containing respectively 30,000, 20,000 and 15,000 gallons of water. Twelve were also found in the Monastry at Mar Saba containing 120,540 gallons. In the vicinity of Hill 932, cisterns with 18,750, 12,000 and 13,800 gallons were discovered.
Many raids were made into the enemy's country, but it was not until March 21st that the Jordan was crossed in force. The object of this raid was to cut the Hedjaz railway at the ancient town of Amman so as to prevent supplies reaching the Turkish Armies in Arabia. Amman lies on the plateau to the East of the Jordan, about 30 miles North East of Jericho, and about four thousand feet above it. The river was in flood, so the Engineers built bridges to enable the troops to cross. The N.Z. Engineers, who took part in the raid, comprised a half troop under Lieutenant H. A. Lockington, strengthened by a troop from the Canterbury Regiment and one from the Auckland Regiment. The party proceeded practically due north for about five miles, parallel with the railway, and then turned east to reach the railway line.
Great difficulty was encountered with the camels. They were laden with explosives and were continually slipping on the roads, which were wet and greasy from the heavy rain; one section of sloping rock track had become so greasy that eight camels in succession did the splits and had to be destroyed. It was found necessary then to get a man supporting each of the camels' legs to prevent them from slipping before this place could be negotiated. The explosives from the eight camels, which were out of action, were divided up amongst the horsemen and carried on their mounts.
During the trek our allies, the Arabs, proved a great source of annoyance, for on nearly every hill-top they were found grouped, watching proceedings, and the advance guard had to investigate each time to ascertain whether it was a page 287Turkish outpost or not. After each of these Arab groups had been passed they collected in our rear and accompanied us on the journey, and by the time we had nearly reached the railway they had a much greater strength than our raiding party.
A hasty consultation was held by the officers of our force to consider what had better be done under the circumstances, for if the Arabs proved hostile the party would be caught between two forces. The decision was to push on and take the risk, as our force was too weak to place a guard over and hold them.
Without further incident the railway was reached and a two-arch masonry bridge located. The Engineers, with the Auckland and Canterbury men assisting, quickly had charges of guncotton placed and ready for firing. These were successfully fired electrically and the bridge completely demolished—not one stone being left in place. The time occupied on this piece of work was twenty-eight minutes, from the time the force dismounted, 200 yards from the bridge, until they returned and were marching away on the return journey to Ain es Sir. To demolish this bridge 20 eases of guncotton were employed, each case holding 20 slabs or pounds of gun-cotton, the guncotton being placed in four loose heaps over the haunches of the arches.
To ensure all the guncotton being fired and not blown piece of work was twenty-eight minutes from the time the the slabs of guncotton in each heap. Guncotton is made so that it will stand a considerable force or blow before exploding, to ensure safety in transport. To assist the detonator to fire the guncotton a hole 1½ inches in diameter is left in the centre of each slab to receive what is called a primer, the detonator fitting into a hole in the primer. In addition to the electric exploder for firing the charges, four fuses were also used in case the exploder failed to operate. In connection with the fuses an incident happened which would have ended the career of all the firing party but for the presence of mind and quickness of action by a Sergeant of the Engineers. At the time it seemed very strange that no guard was found on the railway, and that the work was accomplished without any molestation from the Turks.
After the campaign had finished at Amman, when the Armistice was signed, inquiries were made regarding the guarding of the railway line, and it was found that the Turks had a strong guard on two bridges, one on each side of the page 288one demolished, one being only 10 chains distant and the second a quarter of a mile distant, and patrols from these two guards visited the intervening railway at frequent intervals. So our party had the good fortune to slip in and do their work between the visits of the Turks' patrols.
On 30th May, the Troop returned to Solomons Pools, near Jerusalem. Here it located cisterns containing 200,000 gallons of water in addition to other supplies previously obtained. A few days later it was busy installing a three-inch water pipe from a spring to a site for troughs some 400 feet away. Near Fort Eoman an old four-inch pipe supply to Jerusalem was discovered. This was improved and 6000 gallons per day were obtained. Pools containing 1,000,000 gallons of water each were also found.
During the twelve months spent in. holding the Jordan line, dummy bridges were constructed across the Jordan River to lead the Turks to believe that another attack was to take place against Amman. These dummies were made of hessian, supported by three lengths of cordage, and the thick undergrowth was cut down giving an approach to each side. Aeroplane photos of these dummy bridges were most unique, for in comparing them with the bridge proper one could hardly tell which was the dummy.
While holding the Jordan line all our force, except one brigade, were on the western side of the river, the 1st Brigade A.L.H. being across on the eastern bank, and two bridges—one pontoon and one a barrel bridge—across the Jordan linked them with the Western side. The Turk was continually shelling these two bridges, and there was always the risk of his putting them out of action, when this brigade would have been isolated. It was decided to have emergency arrangements made for crossing the Jordan to allow of the force on the Eastern side swimming the horses across the river in the event of the bridges being destroyed.
Approaches were cut down to the river at both sides and an endless rope erected across the river. The horses were attached to this rope at intervals of 10 to 20 feet apart and a party of men pulling the rope guided or dragged the horses across, the horsemen holding on alongside his horse or by the tail.
Being warm weather at the time of the erection of these swimming ropes, much fun was caused when the Regiments came down to practice their horses in swimming the river; the horses relishing it as much as the men.page break
The length of draught rope across the river extended back about 20 yards on each bank, which allowed the horses to be led alongside the moving rope and attached without checking the movement of the draught rope; it also enabled the horses to be detached.
At 4.30 a.m. on 18th September, the British made a fresh attack on the enemy along the front from the coast to a point ten miles inland, and by 11 a.m. had gained their objectives. Further attacks were made by the Infantry on the hill positions, while the Mounted Division, having previously broken through the gap in the Turkish lines, attacked the enemy in the rear. By the evening of the 20th the Cavalry had overrun the whole country as far north as Nazareth. Those of the defeated armies who were not captured retired in great confusion across the Jordan, but here they suffered heavy casualties through the energy of our airmen.
During this last big push when the General Advance was ordered, Chaytor's force in the Jordan Valley moved north, breaking the Nazareth line held by the Turks and capturing many prisoners, the main portion of the demoralised Turks escaping over a pontoon bridge at Damieh. After crossing, the Turks chopped the bottoms out of two of the six boats carrying the bridge. The N.Z. Engineers were instructed to immediately repair this bridge, to allow our forces to follow up the demoralised Turks. Upon arrival it was seen that the boats had been too completely destroyed to allow of repair, so parties were sent up and down the river in search of timber or poles. A landing wharf was located a short distance up the river and the heavy baulks of timber were quickly dismantled and floated down to the bridge where they were manner by and floated down to the bridge where they were manned by very willing helpers—B.W.I. Troops—who climbed on to each baulk as it came along and sank it beneath the two badly damaged boats until sufficient buoyancy was given by the sunken timber to allow the force to cross over the bridge. The first of our main force crossed in less than an hour after the arrival of the Engineers at the bridge.
When Amman was reached, five locomotives were found in the Amman Railway Station yard. The Turks, before leaving, had blown the cylinders off four of the engines, and the fifth, a large pusher-engine (the duty of which had been to. fall in behind the ordinary trains and assist the train up the steep incline from Amman to the main plateau above) had been seriously damaged, but the enemy failed to blow the cylinders off it as they had with all the other engines.page 290
The 2nd Brigade A.L.H., under General Riley of our forces, was hard pressed for water at Ziza, which had been surrendered to them by the Turks, chiefly owing to the shortage of water, for lack of which men were dying. The G.O.C., General Chaytor, ordered the Engineers to endeavour to place an engine in commission to convey water on the railway to Ziza, 25 miles distant, to the forces there. This was done in spite of the very inadequate equipment available.
The Turks, being short of coal, used wood for fuel on the locomotives, so all the heating of the plates had to be done with firewood.
Asbestos pulp was found on the premises. The vital parts of the engine were covered with this to protect them from the heat and the wood fire applied to heat the plates before straightening them.
After four hours furiously firing with wood it was found that our extreme heat was a very dull red and not sufficient to allow the locomotive jacks, which were applied to the extreme end for leverage, to force the plates back into position. A trip-block, or tumbler, was then arranged by taking an 8in x 8in baulk of timber (out of the station building) with a button attached at the bottom or lower slope to retain until required to trip.
The engine, 75 tons in weight, was blocked up solid at the back and held securely at sideways and then raised at the damaged front end and made to sit on this tumbler. On the jacks being removed the tumbler was tripped, when the engine suddenly dropped upon the ends of the plates, upon a setting prepared for it. The dead weight of the engine was thus brought to bear upon the bent plates. On account of its great weight the engine could not be dropped very much for fear of breaking the cast portions. By raising the engine, removing the jacks, and giving the engine four inch clear drop, the plates were forced back into position with half a dozen trippings of the tumbler. A few bolts were then fitted to replace the sheared rivets.
Whilst this work had been going on, minor repairs had been completed. The boiler was then filled with water and an attempt made to raise steam. The water leaked badly from nearly all the fire-box crown bolts—evidently the Turks had let the water out of the boiler and fired the boiler with no water in it. To prevent the fire being put out by the leakage, axle grease, of which there were several barrels, was freely used in the fire, and after adding about one cwt. of horse page 291manure to the water in the boiler the leakage was sealed and steam successfully raised.
The train of loaded water was then made up. The engine crew consisted of Lieut. Lockington, the O.C., N.Z. Field Troop, as driver, an Australian Ambulance man as fireman, and Corporal Williams of Field Troop as brakesman.
After proceeding half way up the Amman incline, the engine suddenly halted just after rounding a sharp curve and the train commenced to run back down the step incline. The automatic brake was too badly damaged to be repaired and the braking system of this train was two hand-brakes, one on the engine and one on the tender, the driver purposing using the engine power for braking by reversing when required. The two hand brakes could not arrest the train from going back down the hill, but luckily the engineers travelling on it realised the danger and at great risk, just as the train was gathering speed, they sprang off and spragged the wheels of all the trucks with pieces of firewood, thus succeeding in bringing it to a halt.
Upon examining the engine, it was found that the two high pressure steam pipes leading from the boiler to the cylinders were fractured right through and the steam was escaping. The broken pipes were cast-iron, 5in. diameter, and had evidently been fractured in the collision, but had held in place until subjected to heavy vibration through taking the sharp curves, when they opened out at the fracture. It was decided to slide back the three miles downhill to Amman, leaving all the other wheels spragged. At Amman further repairs were effected.
The journey was again attempted after four hours had been spent on the above repairs and all went well until the main plateau was nearly reached, when the bolts in the crown of the fire-box commenced leaking badly—evidently our horse manure had become displaced or blown out under the vibration—and the fire was fast being extinguished. To overcome this difficulty, limestone from the side of the railway cutting was rapidly crushed to powder with hand hammers and the powder fed to the boiler with the water through the injector; after about 201bs. of limestone had been thus put into the boiler, the leakage completely stopped and the journey was resumed.
After negotiating the big hill and running serenely along on the level plateau, the fusible plug in the crown of the firebox blew out and the fire was soon extinguished. Immediately the steam had been exhausted from the boiler, cold water—page 292despite the risk of breaking—was thrown on the fire bars to cool them and the driver screwed a solid bolt into the fusible plug to replace the fusible metal portion displaced. To accomplish this the driver had to make frequent visits into the fire-box, and owing to the extreme heat, it being impossible to stay in the heated fire-box more than a couple of minutes at a time, his clothes were saturated with cold water each time. After the fusible plug had been attended to, the boiler was refilled with water and steam again raised.
Some days previously our Engineers had demolished portions of the line, with a view to isolating the enemy's force at Ziza from that at Amman. Our train crew therefore needed to negotiate the line carefully and, after a little difficulty, reached Ziza, the destination, without further mishap. Needless to say everybody there was pleased to see the train as the water supply was practically exhausted when the train load of water arrived.
The 2nd Australian Brigade, together with 6000 Turkish prisoners, were at Ziza. The prisoners were so famished for water that, when they saw the overflow running away from the injector on the locomotive, they rushed over and cupped their hands and conveyed this practically boiling water in their mouths.
The engineers enjoyed a much needed sleep and rest that night as they had been engaged practically fifty hours without sleep or rest from the time they commenced upon the locomotive until reaching Ziza. They returned to Amman the next day with a valuable train load of Army stores, etc., including a large quantity of quinine which was most opportune for our malaria infected army, our supplies of quinine having run short.
For three weeks this engine was kept busily engaged transporting to Amman the valuable stores, munitions, etc., which had been captured both north and south of Amman. The repair work done on the engine proved quite a good job and remained intact despite the severe tests it was subjected to.
An armoured railway car, beautifully upholstered and driven by an oil engine, was also found at Amman. This had been used by the G.O.C. Turkish force. A feeble attempt had been made to put this car out of action but no very serious damage had been done to it. The N.Z. Engineers soon had it in commission and General Chaytor had the pleasure of utilising it on the railway for some of his journeys round his command.page 293
Our forces pursued the enemy to Gilead and Deraa, where junction was made with our allied Arab forces, and thence they rode northwards along Pilgrims' Road to Galilee, Damascus and Aleppo. Troops had also advanced along the coast, and by the 25th, Tyre, Sidon, Beyrout, Baalbek, Horns, Hama, and intervening towns had been captured. This completed the victory and the Turks capitulated before any further efforts were made.
On 11th November, Armistice was signed and shortly afterwards the disbanding of the Colonial forces commenced.