Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Twelve — The Return of the Regiment to Egypt and the Horses and Beginning of the Desert Campaign
The Return of the Regiment to Egypt and the Horses and Beginning of the Desert Campaign
"When horse and rider each can trust the other everywhere,
It takes a fence and more than a fence to pound that happy pair,
For the one will do what the other demands, although he is beaten and blown,
And when it is done they can live through a run that neither could face alone."
On 27th December the Wellington Mounted Rifles (18 officers and 342 other ranks) arrived with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade at Alexandria from Gallipoli, entraining that day for the Zeitoun Camp, where all ranks were delighted to become associated again with their trusted friends—the horses—which had been carefully tended by Major Edgar and his worthy staff of farriers and transport drivers, assisted by natives. With the horses in splendid condition, and some five hundred reinforcements to draw on to complete establishment, the reorganisation of the Regiment commenced immediately under most favourable circumstances; but many horses had new riders.
It will be remembered that when Lord Kitchener reported on the Gallipoli situation, prior to the evacuation, he was apprehensive of danger to Egypt. He anticipated that the Turks, on being released from Gallipoli, would attempt to capture Egypt, and recommended that a force should be mobilised to meet them. That recommendation had been adopted, and the New Zealand Brigade was to form part of the force.
Meanwhile, General Sir Archibald Murray had assumed command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and Colonel (now Major-General) Sir E. W. C. Chaytor had taken over the N.Z.M.R. Brigade from Brigadier-General (now Major-General) page 78Sir A. H. Russell, who had assumed command of the New Zealand Division. Captain A. King, the Brigade's efficient and popular Staff-Captain, also transferred to the Infantry Division some time later, but Major C. G. Powles, who had performed the duties of Brigade-Major most capably on Gallipoli, remained with the mounted troops.
The work of re-organising the New Zealand Brigade occupied the first three weeks of January, 1916, and during that time a tremendous amount of work was done. Besides absorbing reinforcements to complete establishments plus 10 per cent., all ranks were clothed and equipped. The value of machine-gun fire in defence and attack having been demonstrated so decisively at Gallipoli, the Regimental establishment of machine guns was increased from one to two sections—four guns in all—the additional guns being subsequently carried on pack-horses. To fill vacancies, periodical trials for officers and other ranks were held, from which the best were selected, the remainder being sent to a "Regimental Detail Squadron" for further instruction. Some time later a Reserve Regiment was formed of the Regimental Detail Squadrons, together with Schools of Instruction for Officers and N.C.O.'s.
Meanwhile plans were being prepared for the defence of Egypt against attack from the east, where the Suez Canal—"the jugular vein of the British Empire"—lay. The protection of the Canal from enemy raids was absolutely essential, for not only the British Empire, but all her allies depended on it for the conveyance of troops, ammunition, and supplies. The enemy was fully cognisant of this, and in February, 1915, a Turkish force, in attempting to seize the Canal, actually reached the eastern bank, from which it was repelled, with some killed and others captured, together with the loss of a number of pontoons which had been hauled over the Sinai Desert to bridge the waterway. In this engagement the Canal formed the foremost line of the defensive system, a fact which has since been adversely commented on, and although the enemy force was defeated and put to flight, the full fruits of victory were not reaped, for the reason that the Canal prevented our troops from pursuing. Had provision been made to transfer the mounted men then in Egypt to the eastern bank of the Canal to harass the retreating force, the greater part of it must have been captured or destroyed. It is reported that Lord Kitchener expressed the opinion that the invading force should have been intercepted before it reached the Canal. He further appears to have taken exception to the page 79inclusion of the Canal in the defensive system, and he is reported to have stated that "the Canal was not intended to defend the troops, but that the troops were to defend the Canal."
Under the circumstances, it was not difficult to foretell that future operations would be prosecuted from the eastern bank across the Sinai Desert, where it was essential to seize the water wells to prevent the enemy using them.
The march of the Brigade from Zeitoun to the Canal commenced at 9 a.m. on January 23rd through the village of Mata-rieh, which stands on the site of the Biblical city of On, past the ancient obelisk of the time of Moses, previously described, and the Virgin's Well and Tree, where Joseph and Mary rested during their flight from Herod with the Child Christ. The weather, as is usual in Egypt, was bright and warm, and with a broad expanse of fertile Nile land and desert so peculiarly mixed before them—a sharp contrast to the congested area of Anzac—the men were able to breathe the fresh air more freely and, with the exhilarating exercise of riding fit horses, the men of the "Old Brigade" of Gallipoli soon became their normal selves. The Brigade bivouacked the first night at Nawa, and next day it proceeded through the land of Goshen to Bilbeis, where rain began to fall, but commandeered firewood cheered the surroundings, and the journey was resumed towards Abu Sueir, identified as the store or Treasure City of Pithon, referred to in the First Book of Exodus. Then we came to the modern battlefield of Tel El Kebir, where Arabi Pasha was defeated by the British in 1882—the trenches still remaining. Moascar (where our Training Camp was to be established later) was reached on 28th January, and next day the column arrived at Serapeum, near the bank of the Suez Canal, where the Brigade settled down to a course of vigorous training, but swimming and the ever-popular game of football came as a matter of course. On 19th February Major Whyte took charge temporarily of the W.M.R., vice Major Samuel, the Utter reverting to second in command.
About this time a considerable amount of dissatisfaction was caused amongst officers and other ranks of the mounted units, who, although thoroughly trained in mounted work, had been compulsorily transferred to the Infantry Division then being formed at Moascar. This procedure was not only unfair to those who did not wish to leave the mounted regiments, but it was an injustice to the brigade as a whole, for it became necessary at the eleventh hour to train new men to fill the vacancies created. The greatest injustice, however, was meted out to N.C.O.'s, who were page 80disrated on being transferred. It is a matter of common knowledge that an N.C.O. cannot be legitimately disrated against his will unless he has been court-martialled and found guilty of having committed a crime, or for incompetence. In any case he is given an opportunity to defend himself—a right which is expected as a matter of common justice. At this stage, however, cases can be cited of mounted N.C.O.'s being compulsorily transferred from their units and reduced in rank without trial, although they were quite competent mounted riflemen, and no crime could be brought against them. This arbitrary proceeding caused a great deal of friction. Fortunately, the officers of the Mounted Brigade were resourceful and painstaking, and the work of training the new men began forthwith. The task was not an easy one, for the curriculum set for mounted men is varied, including scouting, horsemanship, marksmanship, the cultivation of initiative and self-reliance, and reconnaissance and patrol work. A knowledge of these and other subjects is essential to ensure efficiency in the field and credit is due to the officers and other instructors for imparting it in the short time available, for the Brigade was soon to take over a front line of trenches.
On 23rd February the Otago Mounted Rifles were absorbed into the Infantry Division en bloc. Till then the Otagos had been attached to the New Zealand Brigade and had fought with it on Gallipoli. They had proved themselves gallant soldiers and good comrades, and our men were sorry to lose them.
On 1st March Lieutenant A. S. Wilder, of the 6th Squadron, was appointed Adjutant of the W.M.R. vice Lieutenant Bremner, transferred, and on the 5th the Brigade moved to Ferry Post Rail Head, some distance from the Canal, where it relieved two Australian Infantry Brigades in the front line of trenches.
The march to Ferry Post is memorable for the reason that camels were used by the Brigade for the first time, carrying baggage, supplies, and ammunition in place of wheeled transport, which could not travel in the heavy sand. To load the "ship of the desert" properly is an art acquired only by practice, and at first our men experienced some difficulty in balancing the load on the camels, but they soon became accustomed to the work, and eventually became expert cameliers.
The accomplishment of a formidable task: Big Table Top captured by the W.M.R. during, the August operations. The dotted line shows the route taken by the Regiment.