Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Since arriving in the orange-bearing country of Palestine, a marked improvement in the health of the troops was noticeable. Septic sores had hitherto been prevalent, but with a liberal allowance of oranges these soon disappeared, and sick parades became fewer in number. The temperate climate and plenty of green feed had a beneficial effect on the horses also, and when orders were received, about the middle of March, for the next move forward to cut the enemy line of communication, along which he was feeding his forces engaged against the Sherifian troops in the Hedjaz across the Jordan, both men and horses were fit; and it is fortunate that they were, for the operation was to prove one of the most trying of the campaign, testing the powers of endurance of man and beast to the utmost degree.
Besides the Anzac Division, the troops for the operation were the Imperial Camel Corps and the 60th Infantry Division, with artillery and bridging trains, these to co-operate with the Sherifian forces then operating to the east and south-east of the Dead Sea.
By 11th March the 60th Division had secured the high country on the northern bank of the Jordan, near the Wadi Aujah, covering the approaches to the Valley, there to improve the position tor the mam operation, and two days later the mounted troops began to move towards the points of concentration in the Valley, where the A.M.R. had been harassing the Turk and performing particularly fine work generally.
Heavy rain fell during the march of the N.Z.M.R Brigade from Richon to Junction Station, in consequence of which the Brigade bivouacked at the latter place till the 16th, on which date the Brigade proceeded to Zakariya. Wet weather continued, and the sloppy state of the road delayed and disorganised the Camel transport to such an extent that it became necessary to requisition limbers to carry a portion of the Regimental equipment. Very cold weather was experienced when crossing the hills leading to Bethlehem, where the W.M.R. bivouacked close to the Monastery of Mar Elias. Heavy rain continued to fall, page 190and the men's clothing became saturated with water. The baggage camels, carrying a change of clothes, were among those which had broken down, and a miserable night in the open appeared inevitable, but arrangements were made with the monks of a Franciscan Monastery, near by, to accommodate the officers and 250 other ranks of the Regiment for the night. The monks were of mixed nationality, but all of them were good fellows, and they entertained the Regiment right royally that night.
Next day operation orders were issued briefly as follows:—The 60th Division was to force crossings over the Jordan River at Makhadet Hajla and Ghoraniyeh, and after the foothills of the Mountains of Moab had been secured it was to advance astride the main metalled road to Es Salt, with the 1st A.L.H. Brigade protecting its left flank. The N.Z.M.R. Brigade to move by the mountain tracks, passing through the Circassian village of Ain Es Sir direct on Amman, whilst the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade and Camel Corps were to advance on the right by way of Naaur, also on Amman. On reaching the latter place the railway was to be destroyed and the viaduct and tunnel there were to be demolished. The mounted troops were then to withdraw to the Jordan. (It will be seen later that further operations were undertaken before the mounted troops withdrew).
The enemy strength in the area affected by the operations was estimated at 4850 Infantry, 650 Mounted troops, 118 machine guns and automatic rifles, and about 40 field guns—the 11th Divisional Artillery of 16 guns being at Amman.
The importance of securing the goodwill of the inhabitants east of the Jordan was impressed on the troops, all ranks being warned to treat these natives with great consideration, as it was pointed out that they were a different class to those already met.
On the road to Jericho,
Thence right up to Moab—
Bogged in cloudland, and in ploughed land,
Acting up to Job;
Sleep forgetting, grim blood-letting.
Steel the only probe—
Where a grander daring crowd,
A hard-pressed, less despairing crowd,
A sterner Easter-faring crowd
Than pierced the hills of Moab?
After remaining for two days in the vicinity of Bethlehem, the New Zealand Brigade commenced to advance towards its page 191concentration point in the Jordan Valley, but owing to the heavy rains which had made the Jordan River impassable the date of the operation, which had been timed to commence on the 21st, was deferred, and the Brigade bivouacked for three days on the rocky slopes of Talat Ed Dumm on the old Jerusalem-Jericho Road in the Wilderness.
Our Infantry were then making desperate efforts to effect crossings over the Jordan, and while this was being done the New Zealanders took advantage of the height of their position in the Judean Hills to study the country across the Valley, and as much as could be seen of the roads and entrants leading up the slopes of the mountains of Moab to the East. These mountains, which rise from the scorching Jordan Valley 1200 feet below sea-level to a chilly height of 4000 feet present a most formidable appearance to an invading force from the distance, and subsequently events proved that the climbing of them was no easy matter. Winding tracks along rocky wadi beds constitute the roads through the mountains till the plateau above is reached, where an expanse of fertile and comparatively level country growing the best grain in the world opens out, the landscape being covered with many coloured and beautiful flowers.
There were six so-called roads to be used during the advance, all of which were numbered, the route to be taken by the New Zealanders running eastward from the bridge at Hajlah to the foothills of the Mountains of Moab near Nimrin. From there the track follows the course of the Wadi Jeria and then the Wadi Es Sir, running north till the Circassian village of Ain Es Sir is reached at the top of the plateau, where a fairly good road turns eastward to Amman. This town stands on the site of the once great and important City of Rabbath-Amman, the ancient capital of the Ammonites. In the Second Book of Samuel is to be found an account of the seige of the city by David. The Citadel, which is now part of the defences of Amman, is probably on the site of the one mentioned in the Bible.
In the third century b.c. the city was rebuilt by Ptolemy Philadelphus, King of Egypt, and called Philadelphia, one of the cities of the Decapolis. The theatre to be seen there is one of the largest in Syria, and is excavated out of solid rock in the side of a hill which is now known as "Hill 3039," and which the New Zealanders were subsequently to attack. The front of this theatre is open, and was originally ornamented by a Corinthian colannade, of which eight columns remain; within is an area of horseshoe page 192 form 128 feet in diameter, round which are 43 rows of seats, the structure being capable of accommodating more than 6000 spectators. With the remains of a smaller theatre, or odeon, of Corinthian freizes and cornices, and of panelling and scroll work on some of the walls there, Amman is the finest ruined city east of the Jordan. Es Salt, which is the largest town east of the Jordan, lies fifteen miles to the north-west of Amman, a comparatively good road connecting the two.
The delay in commencing the operations, owing to wet weather, was rather unfortunate, for on 21st March the Turks reinforced his positions at Ghoraniyeh Crossing with 600 Infantry and at Hajlah Crossing with two squadrons of cavalry; but our Infantry, who were operating there to effect a crossing, were not to be denied.
At midnight the first attempts to cross the river by swimming were made at Ghoraniyeh, but there was so much flood water in the Jordan that the swimmers of the 2/17th Londons were unable to make headway against the current. Repeated attempts were also made to cross in punts or on rafts, but these were, for the same reason, unsuccessful, the enemy opening fire and further complicating an already difficult operation.
Meanwhile the 2/19th Londons had been more fortunate at Hajlah. Their swimmers had got across unobserved, and soon after one o'clock in the morning of 22nd March the first raft, holding twenty-seven men, was ferried across. The first pontoon bridge across Hajlah was finished by eight o'clock, and by noon two London Battalions were across it. An hour later efforts were made to enlarge the bridgehead, but owing to enemy machine-gun fire and the density of the scrub on the eastern bank of the river, little could be effected.
All columns were directed to gain the top of the plateau as quickly as possible and to establish communication with the troops on the right and left in order to co-operate in the event of attack.
Major C. R. Spragg,
Who commanded the W.M.R. in the Battles of Katia, Bir El Abd, Khirbet Hadrah, and during the advance on and capture of Jericho.
1. Captain Williams and reconnoitring party locate water near Gereirat, prior to occupation of Et Arish. 2. 6th W.M.R. Squadron bivouac at Mustagidda. 3. 9th W.M.R. Squadron Officers at Romani. Back row: Lieutenants Williams, Fossett, Herrick, Coleman. Front: Captain Scott, Major Spragg. Lieutenant Grant. 4. This is not a squadron of Lancers, but the 6th W.M.R. Squadron moving to Arnussi, carrying firewood to boil their billies. 5. A spell after reconnaissance: W.M.R. Officers near El Arish. 6. Senior sergeants, W.M.R., 1916.
By midnight the Anzac Mounted Division had concentrated at Hajlah, where a second pontoon bridge had been constructed, and at 1.30 on the morning of the 24th the N.Z. Brigade commenced to cross to the eastern bank, where it was joined by the A.M.R.
By 5 a.m. the dispositions of the raiding force, now known as "Shea's Group" (from Major-General Shea, who commanded it) were as follows:—The 179th Infantry Brigade was in the Wadi Nimrin; the 180th was between the 179th and the Ghoraniyeh Bridge; the 181st was on the right flank of the 179th along the Nimrin Road; the 1st A.L.H. Brigade was covering the left flank of the 60th Division about a mile north of El Mandese Ford, and the rest of the Anzac Mounted Division was on the east of Hajlah.
The advance of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade across the Valley commenced at 9.30 a.m., the W.M.R. and C.M.R. co-operating with the 181st Infantry Brigade, to clear the enemy from the foothills commanding the roads leading into the Moabite Hills at Shunet Nimrin Heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was encountered en route, but the New Zealanders made good progress, and at 11.25 they, with the Infantry, charged the Turkish positions and captured them, the W.M.R. assisting in the capture of three mountain guns and in driving the enemy to the north.
The N.Z. Brigade resumed its advance at 3 p.m. with the A.M.R. and a section of the Hong Kong Mountain Battery attached as advance guard along the Wadi Jeria. Soon after it started, however, the 6th W.M.R. Squadron, on the request of Major-General Shea, was detached to the 181st Infantry Brigade to assist in the attack on Es Salt, the Squadron acting as advance guard. Owing to the rain which had fallen, the routes selected for the advance of the attacking force, other than the Es Salt Road, were found to be impassable for wheel traffic, including artillery, and it became necessary to transfer the reserve ammunition and the explosives for destroying the railway from limbers to camels. This was the first of a series of misfortunes which seemed to dog the footsteps of the whole force. It not only disorganised our transport arrangements, but, worse still, it deprived us of artillery support during the whole of eight days of fighting against a resolute and well-equipped foe, entrenched in fortress-like positions and covered by batteries of artillery and nests of machine page 194guns. But the splendid morale and ready resourcefulness of our men under most trying and exacting conditions overcame the many almost unsurmountable difficulties which subsequently arose.
When the Wadi Jeria had been passed, all indications of a road or track ceased, and compass bearings were then resorted to for direction over rough mountainous country. As the column climbed upwards the atmosphere became keener, and by evening it was intensely cold, in sharp contrast to the heat of the valley below. At six o'clock rain began to fall and the column bivouacked for the night.
The march was resumed in the early morning over steep and rocky ridges, and along the banks of a roaring torrent, which the troops were compelled to cross many times. Torrential rain continued, and the rocky surface along the line of march soon became muddy and slippery. Along it the camels stumbled and fell, and assistance was required many times to get them on their feet again. The camel is no mountaineer, and "w'en 'e comes to greasy ground 'e splits 'isself in two."
At noon the advance guard occupied the Circassian village of Ain Es Sir (seven miles due west of Amman), where a number of Turkish soldiers were surprised and captured by the A.M.R. The remainder of the column then joined the A.M.R., an outpost line was taken up, and the troops bivouacked. It was some considerable time, however, before the transport camels arrived.
In accordance with orders, every endeavour was made by the troops to secure the goodwill and assistance of the inhabitants east of the Jordan. These were principally Arabs and Circassians, and between them a deadly fued existed. The Circassians had been placed on Arab territory by the Turkish Government to police the country, and incidentally to help themselves to whatever they could lay hands on. In consequence, robbery and bloodshed occurred daily, for which pastimes both sides were fully prepared. The men were armed with every conceivable weapon—rifles, daggers, swords, and revolvers—each resembling a walking arsenal. During the advance on Ain Es Sir, many of our allies—Hedjas Arabs—followed the column. Having no leader or idea of discipline, they wandered about indiscriminately and, when at a distance, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish whether they were friends or foes.
The capture of the village greatly elated these nomads, who apparently expected a massacre of the inhabitants to follow. But they were disappointed. The New Zealanders treated the page 195Circassians kindly, and, in fact, protected them against the Arabs, who were ready to exterminate them. For this protection the mukhtar, or mayor, of the village humbly expressed his gratitude, the sincerity of which was soon to be tested.
The remainder of the Anzac Division arrived on the morning of the 26th, and the Camel Brigade, which had been delayed in the hilly country, joined up towards evening.
That night a W.M.R. troop, under Lieutenant Sutherland, was entrusted with the hazardous undertaking of destroying sufficient rails along the Hedjaz railway line south of Amman to cause a temporary isolation of the town. To carry out the project it was necesary to penetrate into the heart of enemy territory, but the party accomplished its mission without casualties, and returned to camp early next morning.
By this time the 60th Division had captured Es Salt, and General Chaytor had issued orders that Amman was to be attacked, with a view to destroying the railway. The N.Z. Brigade to attack from the south, on the frontage of Amman railway station on the right, thence westwards for a mile and a-quarter to the village of Amman; the Imperial Camel Brigade to follow the New Zealanders and take up a position to attack on their left from the west, and the 2nd L.H. Brigade, on the left of the camels, to attack from the north. To cover the operations, the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron, under Major C. J. Sommerville, took up a post three to four miles south-east of Es Sir, from which position patrols were sent to the south and south-east.
The Brigade advanced at 8 a.m. in a rain storm with the A.M.R. as advanced guard, over newly-ploughed country, in which the horses sank knee-deep. Mounds of rock afforded ample cover for the enemy, and at nine o'clock the screen came under very heavy machine-gun and artillery fire in the vicinity of Abdun, but good progress was made, and an hour later the Brigade was in position as follows:—The A.M.R., from a point two and a-half miles due south of Amman, thence north-westerly for about two miles, connecting on the left with the C.M.R., who were holding a line which ran for a mile and a-half north-by-east, connecting with the Imperial Camel Corps on the left. Brigade Headquarters were established some distance to the south-west of Amman.
About this time the W.M.R., which then consisted only of Regimental Headquarters and the 9th W.M.R. Squadron (Major Spragg), with sub-section of machine guns as escort to a demolition party to Kissar railway station, five and a-half miles due page 196south of Amman station, to protect the party while the latter destroyed the Hedjaz railway in the vicinity.
On approaching the railway to the south of Kissar station, a 9th Squadron patrol suddenly encountered 300 Turkish reinforcements in a troop train sheltering in a cutting to escape observation. A lively fire-fight commenced, and the train was forced to depart hurriedly towards Kissar station. Here it was held up by machine-gun and rifle fire from an A.M.R. Squadron and by Lieutenant Chambers's 9th Squadron troop, a number of Turks detraining to retaliate. A sharp exchange of shots followed, in the midst of which the train escaped to Amman, leaving behind a number of Turks.
At this time an excitable mob of picturesquely-attired Arabs joined in the conflict. They charged, mounted, in a straggling line to the station, where they made their presence felt amongst the Turks. They literally tore the clothes from the latter, and would have butchered them but for the timely arrival of some New Zealanders, who escorted the Turks to safety.
A little later the I.C.C. covered the demolition party near the railway line, and the 9th Squadron returned to Brigade Headquarters.
During the day the troops in the general line had encountered stout opposition, the Turks counter-attacking at some points, but had been driven back. When darkness appeared the situation had not been changed, and our men consolidated the line they occupied and held it for the night.
Some time after a W.M.R. party, under Lieutenant Black, reconnoitred to Amman, where it gained valuable information of the enemy position, the party returning to camp unscathed.
Early in the morning of the 28th, in the face of an intense artillery bombardment, the New Zealand Brigade resumed the attack towards Hill 3039, which overlooked Amman from the south-west and commanded the country in front. The hill was strongly held, machine guns covering all approaches, and, in the absence of artillery to deal with them, little progress was made.
1. Preparing for the raid on Maghdaba. 2. A talk on the "doorstep": Captain Herrick. Majors C. Sommerville and Batchelor, and Captain Levien. 3. Turkish trenches at Rafa. (Note the exposed nature of the country). 4. Sixteen hundred prisoners, captured at Rafa. 5. Prisoners captured at Rafa. 6. W.M.R. teams wrestling on horseback. 7. The Wadi Ghuzze, looking towards Tel El Fara. 8. Turkish trenches at Rafa.
1. Bivouac of 6th W.M.R. Squadron on the beach near Khan Yunus. 2. Wadi Sultan: Led horses under cover during Has El Nagb fight. 3. A W.M.R. troop entering Wari Fara. 4. Pits excavated by the Turks in front of their position at Weli Sheikh Nuran to retard and trap storm troops. It will be noted that the excavated earth has been removed so as not to disclose the position of the holes, in each of which a sharp stake has been driven. 5. "Dad" Fitzherbert (mortally wounded at Gaza). 6. Pillars near Rafa, which mark the boundary between Sinai and Palestine. 7. Aotea Home, Heliopolis. 8. Dinner-time on the desert. 9. Crusaders' Church, Khan Yunus.
During the morning the 4th Battalion of the Camel Brigade, which had been engaged on demolition work on the railway, came under the orders of General Meldrum, and was placed on the extreme right of the New Zealand line.
At eleven o'clock the Turks became aggressive and, pressing forward with great determination, they came within bombing distance of the Camelmen, in which were the 16th Company of New Zealanders, and inflicted heavy casualties on them; but a stout defence was maintained, and the Turks were driven back.
About mid-day the Infantry, on the left, were reinforced and an hour later a general advance began, the New Zealanders and the 4th Camel Brigade advancing their line for a distance of five hundred yards, the Auckland Regiment taking up a position at the foot of Hill 3039, where it was held up by machine-gun fire. Elsewhere the attack had not been so successful, and the Camelmen, on the left of the New Zealanders, had sustained heavy losses.
Towards evening it became evident that, in the absence of artillery support, little progress could be made against the formidable fort-like position on Hill 3039 in daylight, and it was decided to attack with the bayonet under cover of darkness, the operation to commence at two o'cock next morning. The troops for the general operation and their objectives were to be as follows:—General Meldrum's command, consisting of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade and the 4th Battalion of the Camel Brigade to attack Hill 3039; the I.C.C. Brigade, less the 4th Battalion, to advance straight on the town from their position on the left of the New Zealanders from the west; the 181st Infantry Brigade group of two companies on the Citadel, and the remainder of the Infantry on the eastern bank of the Wadi Amman easterly from the town to the railway station.
The strength of the Turkish position on Hill 3039 has already been referred to. Its defences were constructed somewhat in the shape of a shamrock, the stem representing the ridge leading to the main and strongest position, "A" on the plan, consisting of trenches and sangars in tiers dominating the approach along the ridge, with a third position on higher ground behind and a fourth position 300 yards further back on the northern point of the hill. page 198Approaching "A" on either flank were subsidiary positions, "B" and "C," covering the advance along the ridge.
A consultation was held by the G.O.C. of the N.Z. Brigade with officers commanding units, and a plan of concentrating the attack swiftly and silently in the dark on the main "A" position was ordered, the main attacking force to pass between "B" and "C" en rôute, detaching two small parties to keep their garrisons occupied in case they became active, in order to gain all possible advantage by surprising and capturing the main "A" position as rapidly as possible.
The advance was to be made in two lines, the troops available after protection being provided for being the A.M.R., less one troop, and the 4th Battalion of the Camel Brigade, under Lieul.-Colonel McCarroll, to form the first line, and the C.M.R., less one squadron, and two troops of the 9th W.M.R. Squadron (Lieutenant Ebbitt), under Major Acton Adams, to form the second line. The other two troops of the 9th W.M.R. Squadron were to protect the left flank of the attacking force.
By half-past one on the morning of the 30th the troops to carry out the operation had concentrated, dismounted, at the position of deployment in a wadi at the foot of Hill 3039. The horses were left at Brigade Headquarters, the proportion of horse-holders being one man to eight horses.
The advance began at 2 a.m. over an open flat for a distance of eight hundred yards, when the course of a small wadi was followed previous to the ascent to the top of the hill.
All machine guns having been placed under the direct orders of Captain Hinman, Nos. 1 and 5 sub-sections followed the attacking force, and Nos. 2, 3, and 6 took up positions in ruins two miles south-by-west of Amman.
When the ridge had been gained, the A.M.R. and the 4th Battalion of the I.C.C. quickly and silently followed along it till a Turkish sentry at the first defensive system gave the alarm. Thereupon the attackers rushed forward and bayoneted the garrison, with the exception of twenty-three Turks who were captured, with five machine guns. The A.M.R. immediately commenced to consolidate the position by constructing stone sangers, as the rocky nature of the country prevented the digging of trenches.
The Auckland Mounted Rifles had also to watch carefully the left flank, where the enemy had a strong post on a hill six hundred yards west of 3039, from which it was connected with Amman by a good road.page 199 page break page 201
Meanwhile the second line had continued to advance through the front line of the A.M.R. and I.C.C. in the direction of the second enemy position-—a distance of some three hundred yards—when a burst of machine-gun and rifle fire was encountered at close range. This momentarily steadied the advance, but ready bayonets with determined men behind them demoralised the Turks, who were overwhelmed and the post was captured, together with fourteen prisoners and a machine gun (the latter by Corporal B. Draper and Trooper Willett, of the W.M.R.), a dozen Turks being killed.
After this position had been consolidated the 16th (N.Z.) Company of the Camel Brigade joined the second line, and, with a squadron of the C.M.R., proceeded to the next objective, over-looking Amman, the Turks retiring from the position. All objectives were now in our hands, and from the last position captured the lights of the town of Amman, below, could be clearly seen.
Stone sangars were then erected on the 2nd and 3rd positions, which were consolidated before daybreak, the Camel Battalion being placed in the 3rd position, with the C.M.R. and W.M.R. on their right and the A.M.R. on their left, from where rifle and machine-gun fire could be brought to bear, should the enemy attempt to advance against the other two positions. In the light of subsequent events the selection of the Auckland position proved of the greatest value. At daybreak, however, the greater part of the Camel Company was withdrawn from the No. 3 position, on account of its exposed nature, only ten men and two Lewis guns being left there. Those withdrawn were then placed on the extreme right of the line.
By dawn all the machine guns had been skilfully placed in positions covering all approaches in front, where, later in the day. the enemy in successive counter-attacks were to be severely dealt with. Nos. 1 and 3 sub-sections were on the front, with the C.M.R and W.M.R. in sangars, with a good field of fire covering the centre of the position. No.5 was on the right of the C.M.R. and W.M.R., protecting that flank. No. 2 was on the left flank of the A.M.R. and No. 6 on their right, its fire crossing with that of Nos. 1 and 3. Fiver captured machine guns were also in position.
The morning broke wet and cold, and at about five o'clock the enemy commenced to shell our position, on which there was little cover apart from the stone sangars, which proved death-traps: they afforded protection from rifle fire, but shells scattered page 202 them broadcast, lumps of flying rock intensifying the effect of high explosives and shrapnel.
After about an hour's solid bombardment, which rendered the position almost untenable, it was found necessary to remove the remainder of the Camel Battalion from the left to the right of the line, where they were again exposed to heavy shell-fire.
At 9.20 the enemy were plainly seen massing on the north-eastern slope of the hill to counter-attack, presenting a splendid target, and artillery assistance was again requisitioned to disperse them, but the two guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery, which now possessed only four rounds, were still the only ones available, and the enemy was enabled to attack in great strength, supported by the fire of at least three batteries. As the Turks advanced, an unauthorised order to retire was passed along the line held by the Camel Battalion, C.M.R. and W.M.R., and these began to withdraw, enabling the enemy to reach the crest of the hill. At that moment the officers, realising the gravity of the situation, rallied their men, and the latter returned to the attack. With grim determination they dashed at the Turks and drove them down the reverse slope of the hill, inflicting very heavy losses on them. Thus, within the space of a few seconds, was a desperate situation overcome by brilliant leadership and by the precision, morale, and boldness of the men. The sight of the charge in pouring rain was thrilling, and one of the most striking in the campaign, more particularly during a momentary pause when the opposing forces faced each other on the crest of the ridge, fifteen yards apart, bringing to mind Kipling's famous line—
"When two strong men stand face to face, though they came from the ends of the earth.
There was a clash, and the Turks were hurled back, enfiladed by machine-gun and rifle fire. During this momentous phase Captain Hinson, of the C.M.R., and Lieutenants Thorby and Crawford, of the 16th Company I.C.C., were conspicuous.
It is impossible to estimate the exact number of casualties inflicted on the enemy in this charge, but an eye-witness stated that about four hundred Turks advanced towards the crest of the hill and that they were almost wiped out.
The weather was intensely cold, and rain continued to fall heavily, the men lying in mud throughout the day.
At 10 o'clock a section of machine guns with the 3rd A.M.R. Squadron did some particularly fine work in silencing an enemy battery which was in position south-west of the town near Citadel Hill, and causing its withdrawal, and subsequently the right of the 181st Infantry Brigade gained their objective in that direction. In the meantime a troop of the 9th W.M.R. Squadron had been withdrawn from its protective position on the left flank to reinforce the firing line.
At two o'clock in the afternoon the enemy bombarded Hill 3039 very heavily with three batteries, causing many casualties, great difficulty being experienced in evacuating wounded, owing to the exposed nature of the country. The enemy again formed for a counter-attack, and although he got to within one hundred and fifty yards of our position, any further advance was shattered by rifle and machine guns, which not only did their own work, but also took the place of artillery.
At 4 p.m. a determined counter-attack was again delivered on our right, and it was there that the 9th W.M.R. Squadron troop was immediately thrown in. The attack was repulsed with rifle and machine-gun fire, the enemy having reached to within a distance of fifty yards of our line. An hour later the enemy again counter-attacked under cover of an intense bombardment, but they were driven back.
Incessant activity by the enemy indicated that he was in great strength His guns were able to sweep the hill at will, and had inflicted heavy casualties in our ranks. No reinforcements were available to replenish the losses. The I.C.C. and Infantry on the west had made some progress, but, without artillery, further attempts to advance would entail heavy losses. Difficulties in transporting supplies and ammunition over the flooded Jordan and over the muddy and slippery tracks across the Mountains of Moab were likely to arise, owing to the supply camels having become worn out; also the Force had carried out the main part of its operation in interrupting the enemy communication, thereby assisting the Sheriftan forces. Under these circumstances, a withdrawal to Am Es Sir under cover of darkness, was ordered.
The hazardous work of evacuating the wounded was then hastened, but, owing to the absence of a sufficient number of stretchers and cacolet camels great difficulties were experienced. page 204The Stretcher-Bearers were heavily handicapped in extricating their stricken comrades and in making them as comfortable as circumstances permitted. From the battlefield the wounded were carried in blankets for two miles, under fire, to the dressing station, where Captain Gow, N.Z.M.C., worked unceasingly for the whole Brigade. Most of the cacolet camels had broken down, but the doctor overcame the difficulty by placing the more serious cases on the camels which had survived, and there was no alternative but to strap the remainder on saddle horses to travel through broken country in intense cold to the nearest clearing station, ten miles distant. By 11.30 at night the evacuations had been completed, and the Brigade withdrew without opposition.
The mounted troops had fought magnificently. Equipped only for raiding, they had been called upon to capture a formidable hill without even one reliable gun to support them. Against enormous odds, nests of machine guns, and showers of shrapnel, they had carried the attack to the top of the hill, but victory was denied them for want of artillery support.
Ain Es Sir was reached at four o'clock the following morning. The troops had been marching and fighting, wet to the skin and chilled to the bone, almost continuously for a week, and, anticipating an early return to the warmth of the Jordan Valley, they slept during the morning. In the afternoon, however, the Turks attempted to advance against our left flank, but the C.M.R., with the A.M.R. in support, held them in check.
About this time it was ascertained that a Turkish Major was hiding in the village disguised as a Circassian, he no doubt being an emissary from the Turkish forces to organise the Circassians, who were known to be Turkish sympathisers, should the opportunity occur to attack our troops as they returned through the deep wadis. In the light of subsequent events, it is fortunate that this man was apprehended during the evening by Lieutenant Hall, of the W.M.R.
Towards evening the atmosphere became colder than ever. Heavy rain continued and the W.M.R. moved its bivouac to a hill overlooking Ain Es Sir from the south-east. There was no shelter, and sleep was impossible. Here the 6th Squadron rejoined after having co-operated with the Infantry in the attack on Es Salt, and later Suweileh, where, during the operations, the Circassians and Arabs fought a battle, apart altogether from the main operation, the British troops being neutral but interested onlookers.
1. A snap of Major Wilder. 2. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron, the first troops to enter Jaffa, lined up outside the Town Hall of that historic town. 3. W.M.R. Cemetery at Ayun Kara. 4. Scene between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This is typical of the surrounding country. 5. Main street, Jaffa. 6. Jewish quarters, Jaffa. 7. The W.M.R. marching out from the Ras El Nagb position, where they had been heavily engaged. The horses had been sent to water at Beersheba.
1. The mill on the Auja River, near Jaffa. 2. The road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Mar Elias Monastery, where the W.M.R. bivouacked on several occasions, can be seen in the distance. 3. The Mount of Olives, taken from the old walls of Jerusalem. The Garden of Gethsemane lies in the valley between. 4. Major C. Sommerville's grave in the Jordan Valley. 5. Monastery near the Jordan River at Hajlah Crossing. 6. The Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. The magnificent building in the centre was built by the ex-Kaiser. 7. The Mosque of Omar, Jerusalem.
From the W.M.R. bivouac, a rocky and irregular track ran through the village at right angles to the narrow Wadi Es Sir enclosed in high, steep walls below, where raged a mountain torrent, along the rocky bank of which a single track continues towards Jericho. With the column were some two hundred camels—clumsy when not on level country,—and in order to clear the pass for the mounted troops next morning the camels commenced to move along it in single file during the night.
At 3.30 on the morning of the 1st April the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron was withdrawn from the post it had held during the operations, and at 3.45 it formed a line of resistance to the north of Ain Es Sir, the 9th W.M.R. Squadron forming a second line to the south-east, the 6th Squadron being in reserve.
There had been considerable difficulty and some delay in driving the long line of camels through Ain Es Sir, and it was seven o'clock before the N.Z. Brigade entered the village two hundred yards from the wadi on the return journey, the 6th W.M.R. Squadron being in rear of the column, which advanced along the wadi for some distance and haltered, owing to a block of traffic ahead.
At 7.45 the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron opened fire on an enemy force advancing from the north, and at the same time the 9th W.M.R. Squadron was withdrawn, owing to the difficult nature of the country leading to the wadi. A few minutes later the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron began to withdraw gradually, covered by Lieutenant Sutherland and eight men, this party following later.
Upon the arrival of the 2nd Squadron at the junction of the track from the village and the wadi, the Circassians suddenly opened rifle fire on the troops from the hills overlooking the wadi, and from adjacent caves and houses, Lieutenant Hall, who had arrested the Turkish Major the previous night, being the first to fall.
The situation was an awkward one, and counter-actions were immediately taken to overcome it, positions being occupied by the 6th Squadron and two troops of the 9th on either side of the wadi, where the men dismounted to deal with the Circassians, the remainder of the Regiment and all the led horses being withdrawn to a position three miles further south, along the wadi, where a line was taken up by Colonel Whyte.page 206
Whilst this withdrawal was taking place the Circassians, on the top of the ridges at Ain Es Sir, continued to fire at the retiring led horses, unconscious of our men climbing up the rocks, and were astounded when the troopers arrived amongst them and proceeded to deal severely with them.
Major Sommerville, with others, had been wounded in the Wadi, and lay on the ground, exposed to the fire of the enemy around him, and a gallant act was performed by Lieutenant Patterson, who lost his own life in endeavouring to rescue him.
From the W.M.R. position to the south a steady fire was directed on the enemy, whilst the 6th Squadron and the two troops of the 9th Squadron, under Major Dick, withdrew gradually along the hills on either side of the Wadi, a line being maintained en rôute till it was absorbed in the W.M.R. line, further back.
During the withdrawal the Machine-Gunners, under Captain Hinman, had rendered most valuable assistance, checking the advance of enemy cavalry, and gradually withdrawing themselves, and although Turkish troops reinforced the Circassians, the advance of the enemy was checked. Finally, a battery of the 181st Infantry Brigade shelled the enemy positions, from which all firing quickly ceased. The casualties inflicted on the enemy during this fight were estimated at eighty.
Meanwhile, the approach of a strong Turkish force having been reported, the march was continued, after the wounded had been evacuated. During this treacherous attack, Majors Dick, Spragg, Sommerville and Batchelar, and Lieutenants Black (awarded a Military Cross), Sutherland and Patterson displayed promptitude and skill in organising the line of resistance near the village and in repelling the attack. Trooper Lylian accounted for many Circassians when defending a wounded comrade, for which he was awarded the Military Medal.
The Brigade arrived at Shunet Nimrin at 8.15 p.m. and bivouacked for the night.
The W.M.R. casualties at Wadi Es Sir were:—Killed: Lieutenant A. Hall, 2nd-Lieutenant D. Patterson, and eleven other ranks. Died of wounds: Major Charles L. Sommerville. Wounded: Major C. R. Spragg and seven other ranks.
The Brigade's casualties during the whole operation were six officers and thirty-two other ranks killed, thirteen other ranks missing, six officers and 116 other ranks wounded. Its captures included nine Turkish officers and 188 other ranks, seven German other ranks, five machine guns, and it shared in the capture of three mountain guns.page 207
Estimated enemy casualties: 110 killed, 300 wounded.
Major C. Sommerville was a capable, conscientious and gallant officer, whose unassuming manner endeared him to all. He was the eldest son of the late Lieut.-Colonel Sommerville, whose work for the advancement of rifle-shooting in New Zealand will ever be remembered. Reared in a military atmosphere, Major Sommerville possessed the best soldierly attributes. A thorough master of matters military and a born leader, he inspired confidence among his men. Major Sommerville was a soldier of many years' service, and was a member of the New Zealand Jubilee Contingent in 1897. He subsequently served most brilliantly through the war in South Africa with the 2nd New Zealand Contingent, and was twice wounded there. In the Palestine Campaign he was again wounded at Gaza, during the first attack on that town. The fourth wound, already referred to, was fatal.
Lieutenant Hall had proved himself a most efficient signal officer and, prior to his death, had displayed distinct ability as intelligence officer. He was awarded the M.C. 2nd-Lieutenant Patterson was a brilliant young officer.
Early on the morning of 2nd April the Brigade returned across the Jordan by the Ghoraniyeh Bridge and bivouacked near Jericho.