Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Twenty-Two — Action at the River Auja and Engagement at Khirbet Hadrah
Action at the River Auja and Engagement at Khirbet Hadrah
About this time our 52nd and 75th Infantry Divisions were on the right flank, closing in on Jerusalem. The Holy City was strongly held, and with the view of making the enemy believe that a further advance was intended to the north of Jaffa, it was decided to secure a bridge head over the Nahr El Auja and to clear the enemy from the northern bank of the river for a distance of two miles from the coast. The enemy were not in strength in the immediate vicinity there, their main force being within striking distance further back, but they held the only known crossings and bridges—four in number—over the river: a ford close to the sea about four feet deep, a crossing for infantry at the Jerisheh Mill, two miles inland, a stone bridge which connected the Jaffa-Jablus Road one mile further north-east, and a mill dam over which men could cross on foot beside it. The capture of the posts across the river was not considered to be a difficult task, but the question of defending them with a small force against a much stronger one had yet to be put to the test.
The New Zealand Brigade, which was detailed to carry out the enterprise, was relieved in the line by the 161st Infantry Brigade on the 24th, and the attack commenced at one o'clock that day.
The C.M.R., as advance guard, quickly cleared the ford at the mouth of the river, and at 2 p.m. one Squadron took up a line guarding the left flank, whilst another occupied Sheikh Muannis. Following close up, the 6th and 9th W.M.R. Squadrons pressed forward against Khirbet Hadrah (one mile and a-half east by north of Sheikh Muannis) and the bridge at Jerisheh, which was taken by 3.30. At the bridge and dam Lieutenant Black's troop captured 22 prisoners. On the positions being secured, Headquarters and the 2nd Squadron, which had remained in reserve at Sheikh Muannis, advanced to Khirbet Hadrah, where 25 prisoners, two machine guns, 17 rifles and 8000 rounds of small ammunition were captured.page 175
For the defence of the captured positions, the 161st Infantry Brigade established posts, each of a half company of the Essex Regiment, at the bridge near Jerisheh and at Sheikh Muannis, and they held the outpost line formerly occupied by the N.Z. Brigade, whilst the latter established posts in front of the Infantry; the 11th A.M.R. Squadron at Khirbet Hadrah overlooking the bridge on the Jaffa-Nablus Road, the 3rd A.M.R. Squadron further north-east, the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron (Lieutenant W. R. Foley) six hundred yards north of Sheikh Muannis, while a C.M.R. Squadron covered the ford at the mouth of the river. A section of machine guns accompanied the respective squadrons. Major Whitchorn temporarily commanded the mounted posts, and the remainder of the Brigade returned to bivouac.
With a deep river in rear and a strong hostile force in front, our troops in the line were to be kept busy. Early next morning the A.M.R. became heavily engaged, and although they maintained a stout defence, their forward posts were eventually compelled to withdraw to the squadron lines. The enemy, who were advancing in strength, directed heavy fire on the position, and it became necessary to retire the led horses, and some time later the 3rd Squadron, which had been almost surrounded, withdrew to the Infantry line at Khirbet Hadrah.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Foley had sent a patrol, under Lieutenant Hollis, to reconnoitre to the north, where it soon gained contact with a strong enemy force marching rapidly down the coast. The Turks were also massing against Auckland on the right.
By 5.30 a.m. the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron was heavily engaged in front of Sheikh Muannis, and about half an hour later its led horses were retired to the village to escape shell-fire.
The Turks continued to advance, and at seven o'clock the W.M.R., south of the river, with Major Spragg in command (less the 2nd Squadron) pressed forward along the Nablus Road to support the troops on our right. When approaching the bridge south of Khirbet Hadrah the Regiment was heavily shelled and took up a covering the bridge. About the same time a C.M.R. Squadron was sent to relieve the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron at Sheikh Muannis, but owing to the change in the situation at Khirbet Hadrah both squadron were ordered to cover the Infantry post at Sheikh Muannis. The attack on Khirbet Hadrah rapidly developed. Heavily shelled and greatly out-numbered, at 8.15 a.m. the Infantry at Hadrah began to withdraw, covered by the fire of the A.M.R. Squadrons.page 176
By this time the Turks were attacking all along the line. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron had remained at Sheikh Muannis with the C.M.R. Squadron, whilst the remainder of the C.M.R. covered the ford on the left.
At 8.27 a.m. the 3rd A.M.R. Squadron commenced to withdraw from Khirbet Hadrah to the bridge. A little later the 11th Squadron, after checking the Turkish advance, was compelled to withdraw gradually to a position on the south bank of the river, where it covered the bridge. The Turkish attack then developed towards Sheikh Muannis. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron defended stubbornly, and checked the advance for some time, the fine work of Trooper Kelland in holding an advanced machine-gun post under heavy fire being particularly noticeable, but eventually the Squadron was compelled by weight of numbers to withdraw to Sheikh Muannis.
Hadrah had fallen at 8.30, and up to that time no artillery support had been given, but at that hour the Somerset Battery shelled the advancing Turks, and a few minutes later the batteries of the 161st Infantry Brigade opened fire.
The Turkish artillery commenced to shell Sheikh Muannis at 8.45, and at 9.30 two thousand Turks advanced rapidly from the north. They attacked Sheikh Muannis with great vigour, and at the same time bodies of Turks were pressing forward to capture the ford at the mouth of the river to cut off the retreat of the defenders. The position was indeed serious. It was a case of get out or be cut off. Sheikh Muannis soon became untenable, but the W.M.R. and C.M.R. Sqadrons held on there till the Infantry had retired to cross the river in boats, when the two squadrons began to withdraw under orders with all speed to recross the ford.
The possession of the latter was of vital importance to us at this stage, and to strengthen its defence the 6th and 9th W.M.R. Squadrons had been transferred from the position covering the bridge near Hadrah to cover the crossing at the mouth of the river.
The difficult task of withdrawing from Muannis was carried out with great skill, assisted by the fire of the Somerset Battery, the latter shelling the village from a distance of only 1400 yards, the Commander of the Battery, Major Clowes, directing its fire from an observation post north of the river, he eventually re-crossing to the south by boat.
1. Part of the battlefield after Bir El Abd. 2. Captain Herrick instructing his Lewis gun crew at Romani. 3. Turkish troops bivouacked in a hod during their advance on Romani. 4. Types of Bedouin and bints. 5. The exposed flat over which the W.M.R. advanced against the Turks at Katia.
1. W.M.R. horses under cover at Bir El Abd, from which position they were later driven by high-explosive shells. 2. Captain Jack Sommerville (on left) and Captain (Dr.) Wood. The latter was mortally wounded at Katia while attending the wounded. 3. Captain Levien returns from a "stunt." 4. W.M.R. Officers photographed on returning from the Battle of Bir El Abd-Romani operations. Left to right: Back row. Lieutenants Coleman and Fossett. Majors Spragg and Wilkie, Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum, Major Armstrong, Captain Scott. Front row: Captain Wilder, Lieutenants Herrick, Williams, Levien, Pierce, Allison, and Hall.
The strength of the enemy was estimated at 4000. Towards evening the 161st Infantry Brigade relieved the mounted troops in the outpost line, but the Mounted Brigade remained in close support during the night.
For their gallantry during this operation, Lieutenant Foley was awarded the Military Cross and Trooper Kelland the Military Medal, and the following also were conspicuous by their good work:—Lieutenant Hollis and Corporal Fred Smith.
In addition to Lieutenant Foley, eleven other ranks were wounded and four horses were killed and six wounded.
During the next few days the New Zealand Brigade was heavily shelled in the vicinity of Jaffa, and the town was bombed by eight hostile aeroplanes, many natives being killed and wounded in the main street.
The Capture of Jerusalem
On December 4th the Regiment marched with the Brigade to the vicinity of Ibn Ibrak, about four and a-half miles east by south of Jaffa, where it relieved the Imperial Camel Corps holding the line there.
At this time the capture of Jerusalem was contemplated. Troops had concentrated within striking distance of the city, and were about to attack. The New Zealanders were not to be directly engaged in the attack, but they, with other troops in the general line, which ran north-west from Jerusalem, drew enemy troops from the point of the main attack. Conditions in the trenches occupied by the Regiment were not inviting. The sector was somewhat exposed and the enemy pounded it periodically with high-explosive and shrapnel. Heavy rain saturated the men's clothing. It washed down the sides of the trenches, which were dug in soft sandstone, and which were with difficulty page 178 kept clear. A popular young officer, Lieutenant Allison, was mortally wounded in the sector.
The British troops advanced rapidly, and towards dusk on the 8th they were within sight of the city. Of the further events which led up to the capture of Jerusalem, the Records of the E.E.F. state, briefly:—
"On the approach of the British troops, a sudden panic fell on the Turks, who fled, bootless, and without rifles, never pausing to think or to fight. After four centuries of conquest, the Turk was ridding the land of his presence in the bitterness of defeat, and a great enthusiasm arose among the Jews. They cried: 'The Turks are running—the day of deliverance is come.'"
Thus was fulfilled the Arab prophesy that when the Nile had flowed into Palestine (actually through the pipe-line from Kantara) the prophet (Al Nebi) from the West would drive the Turks from Jerusalem.
On December 11th, the Commander-in-Chief followed by representatives of the Allies and of all units then in the field, made his formal entry into the Holy City. In the procession Sergeant H. A. Martin and ten other ranks represented the W.M.R. The General entered on foot through the Jaffa Gate to a terrace below the Tower of David, from which was read in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Russian and Italian a proclamation announcing that order would be maintained in all the hallowed sites of the three great religions, which were to be guarded and preserved for the full use of worshippers. The thousands assembled, comprising many creeds and classes, were much impressed by the solemnity and simplicity of the ceremony, which was in direct contrast to the theatrical entry on horseback through a gap in the city walls of the Kaiser in 1898.
On the 11th the Regiment proceeded to Beit Dejan (Biblical Beth-Dagon), where it was attached to the 54th Division as Tactical Reserve. The rainy season then commenced, and a particularly severe storm deluged the whole country.
On the 22nd the Division operated over the Auja in the vicinity of Mulebbis, the Regiment reconnoitring with the A.M.R. towards Ferrekhiyeh, north-eastward, where touch was gained with the enemy rearguard. Subsequently, on the completion of its mission, the Regiment was withdrawn to Beit Dejan.
A Wet and Cold Christmas
The following day saw the Regiment moving in torrents of rain to Wadi Hanein, seven miles to the south-west, en rôute page 179to rejoin the Brigade at Sukereir, about twenty-five miles distant. Drenching rain, bitter cold, and a quagmire of mud impeded the column's progress, the horses wading belly-deep and the transport vehicles almost disappearing at times. The journey was continued under these conditions till Sukereir was reached on Christmas afternoon, when a pleasant surprise, in the shape of welcome Christmas gifts from home, was sprung on the Regiment. Never did gifts arrive at a more opportune moment.
Instructional classes in musketry, bombing, Hotchkiss gun, signalling, and mounted drill were held during the first ten days of January, these being interrupted at times by wet weather, and the Brigade returned to bivouac at Richon on the 12th.