Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
On 9th March Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum resumed command of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, and two days later the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division was formed, its composition being as follows:—
|1st||Australian Light Horse Brigade (Colonel Meredith).|
|2nd||Australian Light Horse Brigade (Brig.-Gen.-Ryrie).|
|3rd||Australian Light Horse Brigade (Brig.-Gen. Antill).|
N.Z.M.R. Brigade (Brig.-Gen. E. W. C. Chaytor)
And four batteries of Royal Horse Artillery, the Somerset Battery being attached to the New Zealanders. The formation of a Signal Squadron, a Field Squadron of Engineers and the Divisional Train was soon completed, and the Division, which became famous as the Anzac Mounted Division, came under the command of Major-General Chauvel. The New Zealanders were delighted to link up again with their old friends, the Australians, who, with the sturdy British gunners, soon became more like brothers than comrades, and they reciprocated the New Zealanders' feelings. The results of such pleasant associations had far-reaching and beneficial effects, materialising in efficiency, a high standard of work being maintained within the Division till the end of the campaign.
About this time the New Zealand Infantry left for France, taking with them the good wishes of the mounteds, who were then about to concentrate at Salhia on the eastern frontier of Egypt, where Napoleon had established his headquarters in the year 1798, prior to advancing on Palestine.
Salhia was reached on 6th April, and it was while the Brigade was camped there that the W.M.R. first met the 6th A.L.H. Regiment, of which the Wellingtonians cherish many pleasant recollections. Colonel Fuller and other officers called to "fraternise"—the W.M.R. reciprocating, and a jovial evening followed—the forerunner of many similar others.
Meanwhile the following promotions had been made.—Captain J. Armstrong to the rank of Major, and Lieutenants Wilder and Batchelar and J. O. Scott to the rank of Captain.
On 9th April the following officers were seconded and attached to the Training Regiment at Moascar:—Major Samuel, to command (with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel), Captain Oldham, Lieutenants Janson, Bird, and Foley. Lieut.-Colonel Samuel lost no page 83time in laying out a model camp for instructional purposes, the reinforcements from which were to play an important part in the forward zone later on. When casualties commenced, well-trained reinforcement drafts were ever ready to replace them, and it was principally due to Lieut.-Colonel Samuel's foresight and organising ability that the Mounted Regiments were seldom below their full establishment. A canteen was also organised at Moascar by Lieut.-Colonel Samuel, from the profits of which a sum of over. £4,000—an unexpected windfall—was distributed amongst the units of the Brigade.
Training continued at Salhia till the afternoon of the 23rd, when the Brigade was ordered by urgent message to proceed with all speed to the Canal Crossing at Kantara, a distance of thirty miles. Travelling all night, the Brigade reached Kantara at daylight next morning, when it was ascertained that the Turks, under cover of a fog, had attacked and inflicted heavy casualties on Yeomanry advanced posts at Katia and Ogratina. The Brigade crossed the Suez Canal and pressed forward to Hill 70—seven miles north,—where information was received that the Turks had retired during the night. No immediate assistance could men be given, so precautionary dispositions were made, the W.M.R. and A.M.R. taking up an outpost line near Hill 70, whilst the C.M.R. proceeded to Rail Head, the Brigade forming part of No. 3 Section of the Canal defences. The 2nd A.L.H. Brigade had crossed the Canal just prior to the New Zealanders and had established posts at Duiedar and Romani, fourteen and twenty-three miles respectively north of Kantara.
Kantara in Arabic means "bridge" or "crossing," and in this instance the word refers to the bridge which connects Egypt with Sinai and Palestine by the "oldest road in the world," constructed by Rameses the Great in 1350 b.c., which from time immemorial has figured prominently in the world's history. By reason of the inhospitable nature of the Sinai Desert, however, the length of the road which runs through that inferno is rarely used in normal times. The heat there is intense, fresh water wells are few and far between, and swarms of flies, fleas, and other insects infest it. For these reasons the Sinai portion of the road is avoided by travellers, but when the stern necessities of war demand it the discomforts and privations encountered there must be endured by an invading force to maintain communication between East and West.
Since the time of Rameses II. this road has been used at various times for military purposes by the Babylonians, Assyrians, page 84 Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and the French under Napoleon. Tradition also states that the flight of Joseph and Mary was made along this road when they succeeded in escaping with their Son from Herod's massacre. In the days of Moses the road was called "The Way of the Land of the Philistines" (Exodus xiii. 17), and it was apparently then held in bad repute, for it is recorded in the Bible that when Moses led the Children of Israel from Egypt he was advised to avoid it on account of the fierce tribes which were then in the vicinity of Gaza.
There is only one other route connecting Egypt and Palestine, so Moses had perforce to take it—leading the Israelites across the mountains to the south and east of Sinai and marching northward over the Desert.
The main water supply on this route is contained in cisterns at Moiya Harab and Wadi um Muksheib (forty miles from Serapeum), and the Turks had used this road and the cisterns when they attacked the Suez Canal in February, 1915. While the cisterns were full the road was open to them, so in April, 1916, the C. in C. ordered the cisterns to be emptied, thus confining the movements of the enemy to the "old road," along which the Anzac Division was now advancing, the object being to capture the water wells in the Katia area and prevent the enemy using them.
The march of the British Force from Kantara was therefore an event of considerable historic importance. It formed a link in the long line which records the advance of mighty armies from the very earliest times, and now came Crusaders from the Southern Cross. Into the burning Desert the advance troops of the Mediterranean Force were thrust, and they proceeded forth-with to make it habitable as a preliminary to defending it against the Turkish forces.
In these desolate wastes, sand met the eye in every direction, and in various formations, from razor-backed hills to desert which was apparently level, but which on further inspection revealed deep depressions, many of which were capable of concealing a division of troops. In this loose, deep, and shifting sand our horses were at times almost buried.
From the time of leaving Kantara till the end of the campaign the Regiment was to remain almost continuously in the front line, bearing its full share of the fighting and discomforts, the men never complaining; they were optimists who knew their work and did it, moving almost continuously with little or no cover to protect them from the burning sun of the desert or from the biting wind and rain which came later in the campaign.page 85
They became nomads and practically lived under their hats, reconnoitring night and day over new country where direction marks were few and far between, compasses and stars being resorted to to show the way.
In addition to his arms and accoutrements, each man carried 240 rounds of ammunition in two bandoliers—one on the man himself and one around the horse's neck. The wallets in front of the saddle were filled with a change of clothes, and a blanket and overcoat covered the wallets. Then there was a "built-up" rope which formed part of the line to which the horses were tied when in bivouac, and sandbags, which were buried in the sand to anchor the line, ordinary pegs being quite useless for the purpose in drifting sand. Muzzles were issued for the horses, and on trek they were used to carry various articles.
The load carried by the horse increased as the campaign advanced, as will be explained later, and great care was exercised in adjusting it on the saddle in order to protect the horse's back. Good horses were scarce and, thanks to the skill of the men, sore backs and girth-galls were rare.
The scarcity of good water at Hill 70 caused some difficulty, and well-digging was commenced to supplement the supply, which had to be brought from Port Said in barges, good results being obtained by the W.M.R. near Duiedar. Lieutenant Holland and twelve other ranks from the Regiment were detailed specially to locate water and dig wells, and in this connection the work of the party was entirely successful, and greatly accelerated the movements of the Regiment.
Looking across the sandy desert for the first time, one would imagine that it was waterless; but that is not so. Scattered here and there are depressions, called "hods," dotted with date palms, and there, a few feet under the surface of the sand, brackish water can invariably be obtained.
On 12th May the Brigade advanced from Hill 70 to Bir Et Maler, twenty-six miles north-east of Kantara, to cover the wells at Katia, six miles north-east, and to reconnoitre the country in front During the march the Brigade passed close by the ruins of Pelusium, through which Alexander the Great advanced when he invaded Egypt before the Christian era. Tradition connects this town also with Sennacherib, King of Assyria, who is said to have attacked it about the year 700 b.c.—when "the Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold." At a later date Pompey was murdered at Pelusium, and in the twelfth century the city was burned by the Crusaders.page 86
On reaching Bir Et Maler the Brigade established an outpost line connecting with the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, at Romani, on the left, patrols being sent out to reconnoitre in front.
Well-digging recommenced—a laborious work, for the sand ran back like water till an enormous amount of it could be cleared around the excavation. But our ingenious Engineers soon overcame this difficulty and reduced the hard work by introducing a "spear-point," which could be driven into the sand to reach the water, which was then drawn up by a force pump. Some time later, when operations became more extended, each squadron was supplied with its own spear-point, a force pump, and canvas troughs, so that it could procure water for the horses of the Squadron. Water of varying quality was obtained at Et Maler, mostly brackish. The horses at first refused to drink this. but the heat changed their aversion to it and, none other being available, they of necessity gradually and reluctantly became accustomed to it, although they never liked it. None of this water was fit for human consumption.
The difficulty of travelling on the soft sand became more acute as the troops penetrated the desert, the use of ordinary wheeled traffic being almost impossible, empty vehicles sinking axle-deep into the sand. To overcome this, the wheels of the remaining transport waggons and of artillery were fitted with nine-inch tyres and pedrails respectively, the experiments proving highly satisfactory. To assist in transport work, more camels were employed, their principal work being to carry supplies to troops operating in front of the railway line which was then being constructed at the rate of about a mile a day in the wake of the advancing troops. This railway was of the utmost value throughout the Desert campaign. It was the artery which carried supplies and all requirements to the troops, and its strategic importance cannot be over-estimated.
At the same time a pipe-line, carrying fresh Nile water (as apart from the brackish water found in hods), pumped from the filtration reservoir at Kantara, was being constructed as our troops advanced, and this also was to prove of inestimable value in the Desert.
The work of laying the pipe-line and of constructing the railway was carried out by relays of Egyptian natives, working night and day, and they were also engaged in laying a line of wirenetting along the ancient road in order to consolidate the loose sand to improve marching conditions for the infantry, who alone were allowed to use the road.page 87
On 14th May Major Whyte was detached as Brigade Major to the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade.
Then commenced a period of intense activity for some time, reconnoitring and gaining a knowledge of the country, till the Turks attacked in August Flies swarmed everywhere, and the heat burned with fiendish ferocity, liquids evaporating and candles melting till only the wick remained; but it had redeeming features which compensated to some extent its discomforts—it killed flies by the million; but millions of flies remained, taxing the skill and ingenuity of the medical and sanitary officers to find methods of still lessening or, better still, of exterminating them. During our occupation of any area, these filthy and irritating insects became gradually cleared out, but on occupying new ground, especially if lately occupied by the Turks, the number of flies was appalling.
On 16th May a troop of the 2nd Squadron reconnoitred towards the Sabhket El Bardawil—a low-lying stretch of land referred to by Milton as the "Serbonian Bog," which once formed the bed of an arm of the River Nile and ran past the ancient town of Pelusium. The heat on this day was abnormal, the thermometer in the hospital tent at Et Maler registered 127 degrees in the shade, and in consequence the troops operating in open country had a particularly trying time, many collapsing, the stricken men being brought to hospital in sand carts for treatment.
Reconnoitring continued on the 18th, the W.M.R. occupying the important Katia Oasis, six miles south-east, with its invaluable water wells, and next day the Regiment cleared the country towards Bir El Abd, sixteen miles further east, where it located enemy camels, too far away to gain touch with them before the Regiment returned to camp.
It will thus be observed that the advanced posts of the enemy were some thirty miles from Bir Et Maler, and it was essential to reconnoitre to keep in touch with them from time to time to gain information of their movements for the guidance of the higher command. This work was exacting, but it was during this time that he men became accustomed to live as the Bedouins do, and the horses to traverse waterless stretches of desert like camels, but with greater speed. The distance to the enemy was too great for Infantry, as the limit of the latter's daily march had been set at six miles per day. In any case, the food problem was a difficult one, as transport vehicles would not traverse the sand. Owing to the stamina of the horses, however the mounted men, with supplies and equipment complete, could page 88reach the enemy at a walking gait in five hours, including the regulation halt of ten minuntes in every hour. They could then dismount, fresh to fight, feel the pressure, and locate the position of the enemy, and return to camp the same day.
On these reconnaissances, in addition to the ordinary work of mounted troops, the men were called upon to undertake duties usually apportioned amongst other arms of the service. They provided engineers to find water, they carried their own supplies to relieve the Army Service Corps, they fought on foot like infantry, and they were employed generally as cavalry.
To carry out these extra duties, additional tools and other implements were required, and the horses were called upon to carry them. A certain number of "packs" were used, but notwith-standing this provision the riding horses were fully loaded. Estimating the weight of the rider at eleven stone and the saddlery, picks, shovels, arms, ammunition, spare horse shoes, cooking utensils, rations, forage (double quantities for long marches), clothing, blankets, water, etc., at nine stone, the average weight carried by the horse was at least twenty stone. In order to fasten the articles mentioned securely on the horse and rider, a considerable amount of ingenuity was necessary, but a place was found for everything. Little could be seen of the saddle, except the seat, and an acrobatic feat was necessary to get into it. The inevitable tea billy and other utensils hung on either side, and as one man aptly put it, "the horse and rider resembled a Christmas tree." A reference to tea recalls the fact that this thirst-quencher played a very important part in the daily lives of the men, who were seldom without it. When fatigued by loss of sleep and with the prospect of heavy fighting before them, a drink of tea was as welcome to the troops as a regiment of reinforcements.
The temperature of Sinai falls very rapidly after sunset, a difference of as much as sixty degrees being recorded at times. In a twenty-four hours' march extreme heat in the day and intense cold at night are encountered. At first it was difficult to reconcile two distinct climates in so short a time with a limited wardrobe, but the troops soon became accustomed to the change.
With the adaptability and resourcefulness possessed by the Mounted troops, it is not surprising to know that their services were in constant demand. As the enemy forces drew closer it became necessary to exercise increased vigilance, and this entailed long hours and little rest for the Anzac Division, whose duty it was to retard the enemy advance. These night-and-day page 89operations were most exacting. They tested the powers of endurance of man and beast to the utmost degree. Fortunately, the splendid physical fitness of the men enabled them to withstand the conditions prevailing, and they accomplished their tasks to the satisfaction of all concerned. These good results were made possible by the manner in which the men cared for their mounts. All ranks fully appreciated the importance of keeping their horses fit, and they toiled unremittingly to achieve that end. The horses' carrying capacity has already been referred to, but it must be remembered that, when moving, they oft times sank belly-deep into the sand, and that a scorching sun burned over them. Under these conditions, sixty-mile reconnaissances were frequently made, and by degrees both men and horses became accustomed to endure hardships which under ordinary circumstances would have been considered unbearable. By continuing this process of acclimatising and hardening, the mounted troops developed powers of endurance which enabled them to travel abnormal distances and to surprise and smite the Turks at times when the latter thought they were beyond the range of attack. In consequence, surprise tactics were generally adopted, and by them the enemy suffered very severely on several occasions.
Our first conflict with the Turks occurred early in the morning of the 30th May, when, after a night march of thirty miles to Salmana, the Brigade surprised and captured or killed the garrison of a Turkish post. The A.M.R. were in advance that day, and carried out the principal part of the operation. The water supply at Salmana was found inadequate for a large number of horses, so the Brigade commenced to march back to camp the following night It reached Et Maler early on the morning of 1st June. The men had just begun to sleep, when loud explosions were heard close by. Turkish airmen had followed the column back to bomb it as a reprisal for the loss of the Salmana post, but the 1st A.L.H. Brigade caught the blast, instead of the New Zealanders, the Australians suffering very heavy casualties in both men and horses. From that time onward the camps around Romani were bombed consistently, and it became necessary on the approach of an enemy 'plane to scatter over a large area the men and horses which were concentrated in the shade of hods, forming easy targets on which to drop bombs. Fortunately, the Regiment was never caught napping, for it always managed to unfasten the horses and get them out of danger before me airmen could take advantage of the regularity of horse lines to bomb them, but occasionally a trooper would page 90experience some difficulty in unfastening a heel rope, to free his horse; then it became interesting! The more the men struggled to unfasten the rope, the tighter the latter became, with bombs bursting close by. On one of these occasions an officer who has been a sea captain appeared on the scene and gave some advice in nautical language, calling on the trooper to "cut him adrift and back him astern." The order was promptly obeyed, with the result that both man and horse escaped.
To counteract the enemy raids, British aeroplanes bombed El Arish and Turkish camps, and our 'planes were also used to reconnoitre. At Bir Et Maler the Regiment first saw an air fight, which commenced over the camp. The battle was followed with intense interest, every manoeuvre of the 'planes being loudly cheered. The machine-gunners on each exchanged bursts of fire frequently, but the Taube appeared to have the greater speed, and it eventually fled in a northerly direction, pursued by the British machine. From this time till the arrival of General Allenbv in 1917, our aeroplanes were much inferior to those used by the enemy, and it seemed like sacrificing valuable lives to send up intrepid airmen in crazy craft to combat the superior German machines.
From 21st June till the 23rd the W.M.R. acted as covering troops at Katia to the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, whilst the latter reconnoitred the country to the east, and on returning to Et Maler the Regiment took the place of the 5th L.H. Regiment in the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade.
The remainder of the New Zealanders were then returning to Hill 70 to rest, having handed over the camps of the A.M.R. and C.M.R. to the 6th and 7th L.H. Regiments, who gladly welcomed the Wellington men to their Brigade. The latter and the 1st Brigade then continued the work of reconnoitring, which was to become more arduous as the enemy advanced—checking him till he approached his objective and then withstanding the full weight of his attack.
With the other units of the 2nd Brigade, the W.M.R. were destined to take a prominent part in the fighting around Romani, and later, when driving the enemy back, gaining the whole-hearted praise of the Australians, who called the Wellingtons the "Welland Trulys."
The Regiment also had the honour at one stage of temporarily furnishing, owing to casualties, the Brigadier, the Brigade-Major, and the Staff-Captians for the 2nd Brigade.page 91
On 25th June Captain Milne (N.Z.M.C.) was transferred from the Regiment, and Captain G. H. Wood, who was to distinguish himself later at the cost of his life, filled the vacancy.
About this time the three Regimental Machine-gun Sections were formed into a Brigade Machine-gun Squadron as a separate unit, the W.M.R. quota consisting of two officers (Lieutenants R. F. Chapman and D. E. Batchelar), fifty-two other ranks and seventy-two horses, three Maxim and one Vickers guns being transferred.
From the end of June to the middle of July the 1st and 2nd A.L.H. Brigades were kept constantly employed reconnoitring over the Desert alternately for periods of twenty-four hours, in the heat of the day and far into the night, watching for the approach of the enemy in the direction of Bir El Abd and Salmana. With little sleep, long marches, and having to procure water for the horses, the powers of endurance of the troops were sorely tried, but the men were more than equal to the many demands made on them. The C. in C. was impressed with the manner in which these two Brigades overcame the difficulties which confronted them and on 12th July he wrote General Chauvel as follows:—"Whatever I ask you people to do is done without the slightest hesitation, and with promptness and efficiency. I have the greatest admiration for all your Command."