Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Twenty-Five — The Second Attack into Gilead
The Second Attack into Gilead
On April 30th commenced the second attack into Gilead, the intention being to cut off the large Turkish force then at Shunet Nimrin, and to capture Es Salt and the metal road leading from that town to Nimrin; the operation to be carried out by the Desert Mounted Corps, the 60th Infantry Division, and other troops attached, this force to co-operate with the Beni Sakhr tribe of the Sherifian Force, who had promised to assist.
The plan for the operation was to the effect that the 60th Division, to which was attached the Anzac Division, was to make a frontal attack on Shunet Nimrin, whilst the Desert Mounted Corps moved northwards to seize the approaches to the Jordan, to capture Es Salt, and then to cut off the retreat of the Shunet Nimrin garrison; the Sherifian Force to move along the Ain Es Sir track and join the mounted troops at Es Salt.
The New Zealand Brigade crossed the Ghoraniyeh bridge at half-past three in the morning, at which hour the W.M.R. came under the orders of the B.G.C. of the 180th Infantry Brigade. The latter was about to advance on Shunet Nimrin, and the Regiment took up a position covering its right flank.
Later in the day the Infantry captured the advanced enemy works in the Valley towards Nimrin, but from these little progress could be made. The main Turkish position in the hills was very strongly held; the Turks defended with great stubbornness, and by nightfall the advance had been held up.
Meanwhile the Desert Mounted Corps had captured Es Salt, and it had posted detachments covering the Jordan crossings.
Next morning the attack continued, but a change had come over the situation in the north. The enemy had brought forward large reinforcements towards Damieh, but as the Beni Sakhr tribe had failed to give any assistance in the Mountains of Moab the route by Ain Es Sir was left open to the Turks, and the latter's position at Shunet Nimrin, instead of being cut off, formed the southern claw of a formidable pair of pincers with which the enemy threatened to cut communications with the mounted troops at Es Salt. The situation was not at all favourable, more especially as the 60th Division page 211could make no headway without the co-operation of the Desert Mounted Corps, so it was decided to withdraw the latter from Es Salt, and on this being accomplished, with the assistance of the N.Z. Brigade, the whole force retired to Ghoraniyeh on May 4th, the W.M.R. covering the bridgehead there.
Although this operation had not been successful, it had, in conjunction with the raid on Amman, the desired effect of finally convincing the enemy that General Allenby's ultimate advance would be made by way of the Jordan Valley, and not along the coastal plain west of the Valley. Captured enemy documents substantiated this, the Turkish high command reasoning that Deraa would be our objective, and on this point his mind appeared to be perturbed with the knowledge that in the event of the capture of that place his forces west of the Jordan would be cut off and compelled to surrender.
The direct line to Deraa ran east of the Jordan, and to protect it the Turkish G.O.C. kept his IVth Army—about a third of his force—facing our troops in the Valley, the remainder of his line towards the coast being thereby considerably weakened.
This disposition of the enemy force was now exactly as General Allenby wanted it to be, in view of his intention later on; but the question arose as to whether it was possible for troops to remain in the Valley and engage the attention of the enemy and hold him there during the summer months. For centuries it had been understood that white men could not live in the Valley during that period, the Turks, encamped in more congenial surroundings and in the cool atmosphere of the Moab Mountains above, sharing this view. But traditions and local customs were brushed aside, and it was decided to hold the Valley and thus retain the advantage we had gained.
Malaria soon made its appearance, and, owing to the unhealthy conditions prevailing, it was necessary for the troops to have periodical changes, and they were therefore sent, in turn, to the higher country further back.
The W.M.R. reconnoitred and patrolled in the Valley until May 16th, when it moved with the Brigade to a bivouac site among the hills at Talaat Ed Dumm, where it remained until the 29th.
That night the Brigade moved along the Jericho-Jerusalem-Hebron Road to Solomon's Pools, south of Bethlehem, near which a bivouac area was taken up early next morning, and an enjoyable period of well-earned rest was entered on.page 212
Regimental and Brigade sports were held, and sight-seeing was again indulged in.
The Christian town of Bethlehem stands on the top of a rocky knoll, the approach to it, from the main road, being through cultivated terraces. There are many historic places to be seen there, the chief of which is the Church of the Nativity, in the centre of the town. The cobbled streets leading to this most sacred of all the Christian sites in Palestine are narrow, winding, and uneven, and along them a throng of noisy vendors of curiosities and relics, probably spurious, thrust forward their wares right up to the very door. In the Chapel of the Nativity, inside the main church, is a low vault, apparently hewn in the rock, wherein lies the Manger, and close to it are the words, in Latin: "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary."
Before the arrival of the British troops a Turkish soldier had always been on guard in the grotto of the Nativity to keep the Christians in order there, riots having occurred between the rival sects, and as late as the year 1891 there was an outbreak, resulting in much bloodshed and loss of life.
Close by is the Altar of the Innocents, said to mark the place where 20,000 children were massacred by the order of Herod, and further east is the grotto where "Shepherds watched their flocks by night."
The Christian inhabitants, numbering about seven thousand, are thrifty and flourishing. Their dress is unique and picturesque, the women's head-dress being particularly interesting. The married women wear a long white veil over a tarbush sewn with coins, and usually a string of coins hanging under the chin, while the unmarried girls wear the white veil only.
On June 13th the Brigade moved from Solomon's Pools to Talaat Ed Dumm, en rôute to the Jordan Valley, where, on the 14th, the W.M.R. relieved the 10th A.L.H. Regiment at Ain Ed Duk, two miles to the north of Jericho. The defences in the Valley were then divided into two sectors, and two days later the Regiment took over No. 4 sub-sector on the left from the 9th A.L.H. Regiment. The outpost line there consisted of four posts, these extending from a point on the left two miles due north of Ain Ed Duk, and thence north-easterly for a distance of nearly two miles. An additional work, to the south-east of the line of the other four posts, was also constructed, the mission of these posts being to form pivots of manœuvre for a counter-attack, should the enemy attempt to advance from the north. Patrols reconnoitred daily, the Turks were kept under page 213close observation, and all enemy movements were reported. At Ain Ed Duk, where Regimental Headquarters were established, is a cool, refreshing spring, around which tropical vegetation grows in profusion to a great height, providing shelter from the blazing sun—an oasis in the desert. The spring where it gushes from a rocky face was utilised by Lieutenant Lockington and the men of the N.Z. Engineers to construct five shower-baths, wherein the men delighted to disport themselves during the day, and its value in one of the hottest spots on the earth was inestimable.
Shelling and sniping occurred daily, but there was little damage, and on the evening of the 30th the A.M.R. relieved the W.M.R., the latter then becoming Divisional Reserve.