With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine
Chapter XII — The Final Offensive
The Final Offensive
There was a comparative lull on the Palestine front until 18th September, 1918, when General Allenby began his first move in the final and triumphant advance which in less than six weeks was to burst right through the enemy's defences, utterly destroy the three Turco-German Armies opposed to him, and complete the conquest of Syria.
All doubts as to the fighting qualities of General Allenby's new troops were soon set at rest. The young battalions of Indian infantry, as well as the older regiments of Indian cavalry, and the other newer units of this strangely assorted army, now including the troops of the Legion d'Orient, the Tirailleurs Algeriena, the 1st Battalion Cape Corps, the 38th and 39th (Jewish) Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, as well as the Italian detachment, earned the Commander-in-Chief's praises in many gallant fights. With all these reinforcements General Allenby possessed a considerable superiority over the enemy in numbers—especially in mounted troops, whose part it was to provide what was probably the most signal example in the whole war of the value of "the White Arm" in sweeping operations on a big scale.
Superiority in strength was essential to success in any attempt to destroy the Fourth, Seventh and Eighth Turkish Armies under the Supreme Command of General Liman von Sanders, computed at 23,000 rifles, 3000 sabres, and 340 guns, with a total ration strength of 104,000, which faced General Allenby's troops in powerful positions along a line stretching from the sea across the Nablus-Jerusalem Road to the Jordan Valley, above the Wadi El Auja, a line held through most of the summer months.
In addition to these forces, which were all enclosed in a rectangle forty-five miles in length and only twelve miles in page 227depth, the enemy had a scattered reserve of not more than 3000 rifles and 30 guns distributed between Tiberias, Nazareth and Haifa, besides the garrison at Maan and other posts on the Hedjaz railway, consisting of another 6000 rifles and 30 guns.
When General Allenby, whose total force in the fighting line consisted of 13,000 sabres, 50,000 rifles and 540 guns, planned the great campaign in September the centre of his front was only eighteen miles north of Jerusalem, with its right about ten miles north of Jericho, and its left on the coast, only eight miles north of Jaffa. The Turks on their left were still barring our path from the west bank of the Jordan in the direction of the Hedjaz railway, and regarded as impregnable their positions in the centre among the precipitous hills of Ephraim, with numerous guns largely served by Austrians and-Germans. On their right wing, guarding the Plain of Sharon across the ten miles from Jiljulieh (the ancient Gilgal) to the sea they had constructed two series of deep and elaborate defensive systems, connected by continuous fire trenches, each system being 3000 yards in depth. It was along this coastal plain that General Allenby decided to deliver his main blow when he opened his campaign on 18th September, while he deceived the Turks into the belief that he would make another attempt to advance, as they fully anticipated, east of the Jordan. His plan, however, was first to overwhelm the Sevenths and Eighth Turkish Armies, and so isolate the Fourth Army in the Jordan Valley, at the same time pushing his cavalry through as far as El Ajule and Beisan, the two vital points in their communications, and seizing both before they could make good their escape.
It was all-important that these points, forty-five and sixty miles distant, should be reached at the earliest possible moment, before the enemy could man the passes, and it was only possible to get there in time along the coastal plain. Among the hills astride the Jerusalem-Nablus Road the operations in March had proved that in face of determined opposition no more than five miles a day could be reckoned on. Hence the plain along the coast, Napoleon's own route in his Syrian Campaign, was the only possible one for the rapid and decisive advance necessary to the success of General Allenby's ambitious plan.page 228
The main difficulty lay in concealing two cavalry divisions which had to be withdrawn for the purpose from the Jordan Valley, and in concentrating secretly a large force of all arms on the coastal plain before the advance could begin. That this secrecy was maintained to the last, General Allenby attributed to the supremacy which had been obtained by the Royal Air Force. The process of wearing down the enemy's strength in the air had been continuous throughout the summer.1
The Anzac Division was left out of the coastal attack, to remain in the Jordan Valley with General Chaytor's forces, to assist in the series of demonstrations arranged with the object of persuading the enemy that the impending attack would take place east of the Jordan.
The only New Zealand Unit forming part of the Army making the coastal attack was the 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron, which was attached to a brigade comprising a French Regiment of Cavalry and the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments.
The 2nd Squadron spent some very useful weeks at Surafeud, in which it was able to get its organisation and equipment complete. It was inspected by G.O.C. Desert Mounted Corps on 7th September and on 14th took part in the Divisional Field Day.
Preparatory to the opening of the offensive the 2nd Squadron moved out with its Brigade to the Agricultural College at Jaffa on the night 17th September, and next night proceeded to Mureblis.
So carefully were all the plans for the offensive prepared, that a burst through resulted when the attack was launched, and the whole elaborate scheme worked like a miracle. The cavalry moved up in the early hours of the morning; under cover of an intense bombardment, in which two destroyers assisted, the infantry advanced so successfully that a way was soon open for the cavalry. By noon the leading cavalry troops were eighteen miles north of the original front line, and after a brief rest continued at the same rapid rate.
The 2nd Squadron moved off at 6 a.m. on 19th, and after watering in the River Auja, went through the breach made page 229by the infantry in the Turkish lines at 9 a.m. The advance was now in a north-westerly direction. The Brigade to which the Squadron was attached attacked and encircled Tel Kerani at 3 p.m. No.'s 1 and 2 subsections, with the 15th Light Horse Regiment, acting as advance guard, came into action on the right of the advance with two squadrons of the Regiment. No good targets could be obtained, so after waiting nearly an hour, with little firing, the guns withdrew. No.'s 3 and 4 subsections, attached to the French Regiment, pushed on and took up a position commanding the Nablus Road, about two miles east of Tel Kerani, and No. 6 subsection came into action on the north side of the road, north of Tel Kerani. The sections put up a brisk covering fire as the troopers closed in on the village, which was soon captured. On 20th the 2nd Squadron remained at Tel Kerani, except No.'s 1, 3 and 4 subsections, that accompanied the 14th Light Horse Regiment to the railway at Ajje Via. The railway was reached by noon and soon demolished, the whole regiment and the sub-sections returning safely without casualties. The guns were not called upon during the day.
On 21st a move was made at 5 a.m. along the Nablus Road, arriving north-west of Nablus at noon, when the Brigade was held up for three hours by small bodies of the enemy. No.'s 1 and 6 subsections, attached to 14th Light Horse Regiment, came into action on the south side of the road, about 2000 yards from Nablus, engaging bodies of the enemy with effect and covering the advance of the French Regiment into the town. Nablus was captured at 3 p.m., the 2nd Squadron passing through it soon after and camping for the night at Belaha.
Next day Bglaha was left at 8 a.m. and a march was made through Nablus, Samaria and Ramin to Jenin, which was reached at 7 p.m. without any opposition. A stay was made at Jenin until 25th, and the 2nd Squadron was visited first by G.O.C. Australian Mounted Division, and leter by G.O.C. Mounted Desert Corps. On the 25th the 2nd Squadron passed through El Fule and Nazareth to Keer Kenna, arriving the following day at Tiberias.
By this time the enemy had received a heavy blow. General Allenby's victorious forces were soon reaping the fruitspage 232
In its short career the 2nd Squadron won fame for the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, but still more remains to be written about the old Squadron, which was left with the New Zealand Mounted Brigade in the Jordan Valley when the great coastal attack opened. It has previously been pointed out that every effort was made to deceive the enemy into the belief that the great offensive would be delivered from the Jordan Valley, and to assist this effort a large force was placed at General Chaytor's disposal for the purpose of making demonstrations.
On 18th September Major A. C. Hinman, Commanding 1st Squadron (by which name the old Squadron will be designated from now on), attended a conference of Commanding Officers to discuss the plans for the part the Jordan Valley Force would play in the great offensive. A forward dump was established, to which all surplus gear was carted.
On 19th No.'s 1 and 2 subsections, under 2nd Lieut. J. Busby and Lieut. L. J. Armstrong, D.C.M., moved out at 3.45 a.m. to a covered position in the Wadi Auja, coming under command of the C.O. Wellington Regiment. No.'s 3 and 5 subsections, under Lieuts, E. Davidson and S. A. Kelly, also moved to the Wadi Auja, coming under command of the C.O. Auckland Regiment. 1st Squadron Headquarters joined Brigade Headquarters. No action eventuated that day, but on the following day a forward move was made. Shortly after midnight on the 20th the Auckland Regiment advanced to and occupied KH. Fusail without opposition.
The remainder of the Brigade then advanced and concentrated east of Mussallabeh, moving later to KH. Fusail. At 11.30 p.m. a conference of Commanding Officers was held, at which orders were given to continue the advance towards Jisr Ed Damieh, with the Auckland Regiment and No.'s 3 and 5 subsections forming the advance guard. The intention of General Chaytor was that the Auckland Regiment capture Jisr Ed Damieh bridge and crossings, and that the Wellington Regiment with No.'s 1 and 2 subsections capture El Makhruk and Tel El Mazar, and also cut off any enemy attempting to get east of the Jordan. The Canterbury Regiment was kept in support.
The Wellington Regiment occupied Makhruk after firing page 233a few shots, and captured a large number of prisoners. The Regiment immediately afterwards established itself on the hill, with the guns of No. 2 subsection in defensive positions. The Regiment then pushed on to Mazar, capturing many prisoners. No. 1 subsection came into action just after day-light and obtained some very good shooting at the retreating enemy.
The Auckland Regiment was held up about a mile from Jisr Ed Damieh by a considerable force of enemy, and was subjected to heavy artillery fire. The enemy then tried to work round the Auckland right flank, but a company of B.W.I.'s and one squadron of Canterbury Regiment hastened to this flank. After some deploying and reconnoitring, the whole force charged under cover of No.'s 3 and 5 subsections' guns, and took the position. The guns were then rapidly moved forward to command the bridges over the Jordan, and subjected the retreating enemy to a merciless fire, taking a heavy toll. No. 5 subsection found range at 1200 yards, and with good observation had an ideal chance to demonstrate the usefulness of the machine gun against confined positions. Among the heavy casualties inflicted were dozens of pack horses. No. 3 subsection covered the bridge with indirect fire. When the bridge was cleared two squadrons of the Canterbury Regiment, with No. 6 subsection, crossed the river to make a reconnaissance, under cover of No. 5 sub-section's guns.
No casualties occurred in the 1st Squadron on 22nd, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition were fired. In the evening, rations came up from Kh Fusail.
The situation west of the Jordan being cleared up, orders were issued to the Brigade to concentrate at Jisf Ed Damieh preparatory to advancing on Es Salt. At noon on 23rd the Canterbury Regiment, with No.'s 4 and 6 subsections, began the advance, which continued without opposition until Damieh was eight miles behind. A force of approximately 200 Turks was then encountered, but by careful manœuvring and out-flanking, this force was surrounded and captured. Es Salt was entered at 4.15 p.m. No. 6 subsection moved round the town, and came into action west of it to cover the Nimrin-Es Salt Road, along which enemy transport and artillery was page 234retreating. This subsection killed practically the whole of the enemy transport and artillery horses within range, and many drivers, the drivers not being killed or wounded making their escape on foot. After an outpost line was established the Squadron bivouacked for the night.
Next day at 1 p.m. the whole Brigade moved along the Amman Road to Sweileh, where it remained for the night. On the 25th the Brigade left Sweileh at 6 a.m. The Wellington Regiment, with No.'s 1 and 2 Subsections, formed the advanced guard. The enemy was encountered at 8 a.m., holding a line west of Wadi Amman in entrenched positions. No. 2 subsection successfully engaged enemy sniping posts at 1075 yards, and later in the day inflicted casualties on the enemy as they withdrew from their positions. No. 1 subsection came into action on the left flank of 2nd Squadron Wellington Regiment, bringing enfilade fire to bear on a redoubt and on to enemy reinforcements coming up in a feeble attempt at a counter-attack, that was completely cut up. No.'s 3 and 5 subsections, attached to the Auckland Regiment, engaged enemy machine guns at 1500 yards. When the Wellington Regiment advanced, these enemy guns were completely silenced by No.'s 3 and 5 subsections, which enabled the Wellingtons to continue without casualties. These sub-sections gave covering fire a little later as the 3rd and 4th Squadrons Auckland Regiment launched an attack, which successfully ended with the surrender of the garrison. At noon No. 6 subsection covered the attack of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade on the right flank, and with the excellent observation that was possible, kept up its fire until the Australians had almost reached their objective trench. This excellent handling of the section kept the enemy crouched up in their trenches, and the Australians advanced practically unmolested by enemy fire. When the Australians captured the position this subsection caught many retreating Turks with their fire.
No. 6 subsections, operating on the right, engaged several enemy machine guns during its advance and succeeded in knocking out the crew of one gun before they got into action. The subsection later got possession of this gun as they advanced. They gave excellent covering fire during the advance of the Canterbury Regiment.page 235
At 3.30 p.m. a general attack was ordered, and all guns concentrated on the enemy positions until masked by the attacking troops, when they rushed forward to consolidate the positions and further cover the advance, which ended in the fall of Amman to the New Zealanders.
The transport came up as far as Sweileh in the evening. Early next morning the subsections that had been attached to the Regiments rejoined the 1st Squadron, which marched to the Amman Station in the afternoon.
With the fall of Amman the 1st Squadron's active labours in the Great War practically closed.
On 3rd October the Brigade began its march back to the Jordan Valley, and on the 8th left the valley for its old camping ground at Richon le Zion, which it reached on the 14th. The 1st Squadron remained at Richon until after the Armistice, that came into operation at noon on 31st October.
The movements during the September operations were through malarial-infected country, and the fever took its toll of the Squadron; 49 were evacuated in September and 105 in October. Owing to the long distances to the hospitals, coupled with the effect of moving from 1000ft. below sea-level to 3000ft. above, many of the men developed pneumonia, and succumbed. During all the campaign the sufferings of the wounded during evacuation were terrible. Often it was necessary for the wounded to be taken five to ten miles on horse or camel, and then twenty to thirty miles by motor, before they reached a hospital.
1 See "The Great World War," vol. VIII, 301-304.