With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine
Chapter XI — Across the Jordan Into the Land of Moab
Across the Jordan Into the Land of Moab
On the 12th March a large-scaled attack on the coastal area took place by East Anglian, South Anglian and Indian troops. The advance on an eleven-mile front was very successful, bringing the line, with the positions already won, astride the Jerusalem-Nablus Road. In the Jordan Valley the British right wing was also carried forward to conform with the same advance, securing the high ground crossing the road from Nablus to Jericho, three miles north of the Wadi Auja and ten miles above Jericho. General Allenby now had the right bank of the Jordan in his possession down to the Dead Sea, and decided to make an attempt against the Hedjaz railway line.
The Turks had apparently feared some such attempt, and to delay it they blew up the concrete bridge that crossed the Jordan at El Ghoraniyeh. The bridge (which had been built by the Germans some years before the war) carried the road that ran from Jerusalem through Jericho to Es Salt and Amman, on the Hedjaz railway. After blowing up the bridge the Turks entrenched themselves on the eastern bank of the Jordan to await developments.
The enemy did not have long to wait. The infantry managed to effect a crossing at Makhadet-Hajlah, four miles below the destroyed bridge, and a pontoon was finally completed on 22nd March. The enemy was in strength across the river, and succeeded in preventing the infantry from properly securing the bridgehead.
The Auckland Regiment was near Jericho on 21st March, where it was joined by two sections of guns that had been detailed to accompany the Regiment on a projected operation. The pontoon bridge having been finished, and considered safe for mounted troops to cross, it was decided to risk a shock action by the Auckland Regiment on the morning of the 23rd.page 220
At early dawn the Regiment and the sections of guns crossed the pontoon bridge safely, and at 7.30 a.m. commenced what finished up as one of the finest cavalry exploits of the whole war.
The plan of the operation was to clear the enemy from the vicinity of the bridge, and to make a dash northwards to attack the garrison defending the destroyed bridge at El Ghoraniyeh from the rear. By defeating this garrison the crossing would be secured, and engineers were in readiness to repair the bridge.
It does not come within the scope of this work to detail the wonderful ride of the Auckland Regiment, which carried all before it in a manner hardly expected in old-time fiction. Sergt. Nicol, in his "Story of Two Campaigns," has given a graphic description of the operation, which could not be surpassed.
The two sections kept close up with the Regiment in their wild ride, but did not get into action until Ghoraniyeh Crossing was reached. Here they took up positions covering the bridgehead and searched the enemy positions intermittently until dark, when they withdrew inside the outpost line.
The next day the Brigade crossed the Jordan at 7 a.m. to attack Shunet Nimrin. The Wellington Regiment led as advanced guard, with two sections (four guns), but as the opposition was so slight the guns were not used. The sections with the Auckland Regiment rejoined the Squadron later in the day, and marched to Wadi Jeria, to bivouac for the night.
For three days the forward march was made against slight opposition, but under climatic conditions of the severest nature; heavy thunderstorms constantly broke, with a temperature very little above freezing point. The Division had now reached the high tableland 4000 feet above the Jordan Valley.
By this time Es Salt had been captured, and an early attack by the Anzac Division was ordered, to intercept the garrison that had made good its escape from Es Salt, and in order to hasten the capture of Amman and the cutting of the Hedjaz railway. Owing to the condition of the Division, the attack against Amman was postponed until the 27th.
At 7.45 a.m. on the 27th the Brigade left Ain Es Sir with the Auckland Regiment as advanced guard.page 221
The Brigade was on the Divisional right flank with the Camel Corps in the centre and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade on the left. The heavy rains had made the cultivated land over which the Brigade advanced very muddy, impeding movement to a marked degree. The Brigade was detailed to advance to a line between railway line and the Wadi Amman, about three miles from the town.
The Squadron was now divided into six subsections of two guns each and numbered one to six.
No.'s 1 and 6 subsections became attached to the Auckland Regiment, and came into action at 1800 yards against the enemy lining the ridges in sangers. They then gave covering fire for the further advance. The Canterbury Regiment came in on the left of the Auckland Regiment with No.'s 2 and 5 subsections attached. These guns obtained targets at 1200 yards and 900 yards respectively, inflicting many casualties. No. 4 subsection, acting independently, came into action on the Canterbury front and obtained good enfilade shooting at enemy sangers at 900 yards. No. 3 subsection left with a Squadron of the Wellington Regiment to act as covering party to the demolition party that had been despatched to blow up the railway line, but were not called upon to fire.
The Brigade made good progress, and after breaking an enemy counter-attack, dug in for the night, the gunners taking up forward positions, which they strengthened by erecting stone sangers.
A general attack was ordered for 1.30 p.m. on the 28th, but before it was launched a heavy enemy attack fell against the Camel Corps on the right of the Auckland Regiment. No.'s 1 and 6 subsections, from their positions, were able to bring a devastating flanking fire that raked the advancing enemy infantry, which greatly assisted in the complete repulse of the attack. The Camel Corps on the left of the Canterbury Regiment, attacked at 1.30 p.m. and succeeded in advancing about 500 yards. No.'s 2 and 4 subsections co-operated in the operation with a heavy enfilade fire along the enemy sangers.
There was no forward movement attempted on the 29th, and the gun subsections contented themselves with sniping, page 222expending 7000 rounds. Ten horses engaged in bringing up ammunition to the forward guns were killed during the day.
On the 30th the Division made its final attempt to complete the capture of Amman, but failed, only after inflicting heavy casualties and rudely shaking the morale of the enemy forces.
A description of the positions to be attacked appears in Lieut.-Col. Powles' History, which is now reproduced:—
"On the south and east, Amman is dominated by the great Hill 3039, against which the New Zealanders were striving.… The town itself was entirely hidden from all but the New Zealanders on the hill.… The enemy held a very strong position, somewhat in the shape of a shamrock, with the ridge leading to the main and highest position representing the stem of the leaf. The main position, marked 'A' on the sketch, was of great strength, and consisted of two lines of trenches or sangers in tiers dominating the approach along the ridge, with a third trench 'D' on higher ground behind, and a further position 300 yards further back on the northern point of the hill. On either flank, as one approached 'A' were subsidiary positions, marked 'B' and 'C,' covering the advance of the ridge. To capture this formidable position without any artillery support (as there were no guns available) the following plan was adopted:—The position 'A' was to be the main objective, and was to be silently and swiftly approached by a force passing along the ridge between 'B' and 'C,' which were to be merely contained by small parties in case they became active. 'A' having become captured, it was considered 'B' and 'C' would be compelled to surrender."
It was extremely difficult to select gun positions in the dark, but nevertheless the ten guns of the Squadron and the three captured guns were all placed in positions that, at daybreak, were found to be quite satisfactory. Digging-in was impossible, so stone sangers were hastily built around each gun position. These positions, in common with the mounted troopers' positions, were subjected to unceasing shell-fire throughout the seventeen hours the Brigade held the line.
No. 5 sub-section was placed on the extreme right to cover that flank; Nos. 1 and 3 sub-sections on the right centre with the Canterbury Regiment and Camel Corps troops; No. 6 sub-section (with two captured guns extra) on the left centre, and No. 2 sub-section on the extreme left flank with the Auckland Regiment.
A very heavy bombardment was followed at 9 a.m. by a strong counter-attack directed chiefly against the front held by the Canterbury Regiment and the Camel Corps.
No. 1, 3, and 5 sub-sections met the attack with frontal, and No. 6 sub-section with enfilade fire. The enemy managed to get within 30 yards of the sangers; but the withering fire from the four guns of No. 6 sub-section, firing right across the line of attack, completely broke it up. As the shattered remnants of the attacking force retired the gunners inflicted further casualties upon them.
By this time the guns had almost exhausted their supplies of ammunition. Parties were organised at once to bring up new supplies. Some particularly fine work was done by these parties, and a good reserve was built up, and belts were re-filled. Trooper Barrett's work was particularly meritorious in this respect. Unfortunately, he was killed in the course of one of his expeditions.
The Squadron's casualties were very heavy, and among the wounded were Lieuts. Edridge and Picot. The evacuation of the wounded was very difficult.
Major Hinman kept in close touch with all the guns, and, page 224after No.'s 1 and 3 subsections lost their officers, he took charge of them both and directed them throughout the remainder of the day.
A second counter-attack was launched, but again it failed. Lieut. Harris (in command of No. 6 sub-section) was given another opportunity. The guns of his section repeated their earlier performance; they poured a hurricane of fire among the Turks swarming towards the crest, which cut them down in hundreds.
Orders were received for an evacuation of the position, so the gunners destroyed the remaining captured gun, got their wounded evacuated, and buried the dead. At 8.15 p.m. No.'s 3 and 6 withdrew to positions in the rear, and No.'s 5, 1 and 2 followed ten minutes later, leaving the Hotchkiss guns to protect the line. When it was seen that no enemy action threatened, the guns were returned to the concentration point to which the horses were brought. The Squadron then withdrew with the Brigade to Ain Es Sir, being joined by No. 4 subsection en rôute. This subsection had remained in its original position to help cover the Camel Corps front, and had a good day's shooting.
The Squadron arrived at Ain Es Sir at 4 a.m. on 31st. At 2 p.m. the enemy were reported advancing on the outpost line, and the Squadron stood to arms. No.'s 2 and 4 subsections were sent to strengthen the Canterbury Regiment in the outpost line, and No.'s 5 and 6 to the Auckland Regiment.
The Brigade, acting as rearguard for the force, retired down the Wadi Sir at 7.30 a.m. on 1st April. At 9.30 a.m. the enemy attacked the Wellington Regiment, then rearguard for the Brigade. No.'s 2 and 4 subsections were ordered to take up positions on two small spurs—No. 4 taking the north spur about 200 yards to the rear. At about 2000 yards range No. 4 subsection opened fire against enemy cavalry, which immediately retired, after suffering casualties. Even at this great range the gunners quickly observed their fire and secured hits. Soon after this No. 4 subsection and the rearguard made a withdrawal, covered by No. 2 subsection. No. 4 subsection reached Hill No. 1500 to cover No. 2's withdrawal.
Next day the Squadron crossed the Jordan by El Ghoraniyeh, and went into bivouac in the area that was destined to become its new home throughout the long summer months. The gunners, together with the whole of the Desert Forces, experienced a very trying time in the Jordan Valley between April and September. The valley, 1000 feet below sea level, with a temperature of 110 degrees in the shade at midday, was considered by the Turks to be untenable by white troops during the summer months, but in spite of this, it was held. The Squadron suffered from the inevitable malaria, the total evacuations to hospital during the six months being just equal to the Squadron's strength—viz., 230, all ranks. During these months the Squadron took part in two further attacks across the Jordan River, and helped to repulse a combined German and Turkish attack on the Auja River. It also manned the machine gun defences in the line of posts between the Auja and the Jordan, in which Major Hinman had over forty guns under his supervision.
On 2nd August the New Zealand Section of the Imperial Camel Corps became a new Machine Gun Squadron, called 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron, under the command of Major Davis. Major Davis returned to the Mounted Brigade on 12th August, and Capt. D. E. Batchelor, of the 1st Squadron New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, took over command.