Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Twenty — The Battle of Ayun Kara
The Battle of Ayun Kara
On 10th November the New Zealand Brigade, less the Auckland Mounted Rifles, proceeded to Beersheba, the first stage of a strenuous march, which was to transfer the New Zealanders from the extreme right to the left of the British line—a distance of about sixty miles,—there to rejoin the Anzac Mounted Division and continue the advance northward. Next day the A.M.R. arrived at Beersheba, the trek being resumed at 4.30 in the afternoon, with the 2nd and 6th W.M.R. Squadrons in advanced and right flank guards respectively. A strong wind was blowing, clouds of blinding dust enveloping the column, and obscuring the surroundings to such an extent that it became necessary to use luminous compasses for direction in day-time. Broken country was encountered at Irgeig, and on reaching Sharia about midnight some delay occurred owing to the column having to zizgag in single file across a maze of entangled wadis, in which it was difficult to keep the horses on their feet. Continuing under the skilful leading of Captain Herrick, in charge of the advanced guard, the Brigade reached Jemmameh early next morning, the G.O.C. reporting there to General Shea, of the 6th Division, while the horses fed and the column breakfasted. Moving forward again at 11.30 over country which had obviously been the scene of a Turkish defeat and a hasty retreat, the column reached Tel El Hesy at 1.30, the horses being watered in the Wadi Hesi near the site of the Biblical City of Lachish. The advance was continued at 2.30, the 9th Squadron relieving the 6th as right flank guard, moving via Burier, a town of mud huts, the Brigade rejoined the Anzac Division at Hamameh to the north near the Philistine town of Ascalon (where Herod the Great was born) at ten o'clock on the night of 12th November. There the Brigade bivouacked, and although the march had been a particularly trying one, neither a man nor a horse had fallen out by the way.
Contact was gained with the enemy at 11 a.m. the C.M.R., in advance, pressing forward to the Wadi Hanein, where it was held up at noon, the 6th W.M.R. Squadron, in support, advancing under heavy fire to a position on the west of the Wadi, where it dealt with enemy snipers in an orange grove close by, much enemy movement being observed further north.
At this time the remainder of the Brigade was approaching the southern extremity of a high ridge which, running in a northerly direction for about a mile, turned at a right angle towards the sandhills on the left. The enemy held the ridges which formed the right angle to the north, and could be seen to be reinforcing them. An immediate attack to capture the position was therefore decided on, General Meldrum giving his orders verbally for the operation at 12.30, the objectives being given as follows:—The W.M.R. (dismounted positions), along the main ridge (on which there were several entrenched positions), the A M.R. (mounted) on the projecting ridge to the left, the Somerset Battery and the Machine-gun Squadron to support the attack. Two squadrons of the C.M.R., under Major Gordon, to remain in reserve on the southern end of the ridge. Preceded by artillery fire, both regiments advanced rapidly, and at 1.30 the page 1689th W.M.R. Squadron commenced to attack its first objective—a series of entrenchments on the top of a hill from which the garrison directed heavy machine-gun and rifle fire at the advancing troops. Supported by a 6th Squadron troop, under Lieutenant Baigent, the 9th Squadron pressed the attack with great determination, and on reaching charging distance it rushed and captured the position at the point of the bayonet. The garrison fled in confusion, leaving behind twenty dead, a Lewis and a machine gun. Lieutenant W. R. Foley thereupon turned the captured gun to cover the 9th Squadron, the latter having continued to advance against its second objective, Captain Herrick's 2nd Squadron taking over the captured position. The second objective quickly fell before a vigorous bayonet charge, two other machine guns being captured, the squadron resuming the attack towards its third objective. Meanwhile the A.M.R. were pressing forward on the left, their advance being assisted by the fire of the Machine-gun Squadron, which also traversed the enemy position, towards which both regiments were closing.
The W.M.R.'s objective lay along the main ridge in approximate line with the A.M.R.'s objective, the latter consisting of a line of posts which extended along the projecting ridge referred to on the left. These posts were not entrenched, but cover was afforded by the crest of the ridge, from which machine guns were able to maintain a deadly fire on front and flank. One of these on a red knoll—midway between the objectives of the A.M.R. and W.M.R.—was particularly destructive during the day, its elevation and central position enabling it to enfilade the New Zealand line on either side. On approaching its objective, the 9th Squadron came under the full force of this fire, and it thereupon took up a line on a ridge facing its objective, where it engaged the enemy and awaited a favourable opportunity to charge.
In these attacks the following officers and other ranks performed meritorious services, Major A. S. Wilder, M.C., Lieutenant W. R. Foley, Lance-Corporal Woodward, Corporal A. H. Barwiek, and Corporal B. Draper; Lieutenant Jago and his troop also acted most gallantly.
The section of the Machine-gun Squadron under Lieutenant Russell had meanwhile inflicted much loss on the enemy from the right flank. They had engaged the Turks at a range of four hundred yards and had forced the retirement of enemy machine guns. Advancing with the 9th Squadron, the gunners enfiladed an enemy post on a ridge at 450 yards, and drove it back.page 169
By 2.15 the A.M.R. had located a strong force of Turks in an orange grove close to its objective, where it became hotly engaged. The enemy was in strength all along his line, and at 2.30 he attempted to counter-attack in massed formation against the left of the 9th Squadron line, where, however, a formidable rifle fire was maintained and, supported by a withering cross fire from five machine guns, the squadron drove the enemy back with heavy loss. Simultaneously two companies of Turkish Infantry heavily counter-attacked the Auckland position at short range, the enemy being aggressive all along his line, and in the centre on the ridge which separated the two regiments Turkish machine-gunners were enfilading our troops, the fire from the post on the red knoll inflicting casualties on both regiments.
At this stage the situation was somewhat serious, and prompt action was taken by Brigade Headquarters to ease the pressure there, a message being sent to the W.M.R. to give every possible support to the A.M.R. on the left. To do this, the capture of the red knoll was necessary. The approaches to it were flat and devoid of cover, presenting a clear field of fire to the enemy, but these features favoured also a rapid advance to attack it. Seizing the opportunity while the fight was raging furiously, Captain Herrick and two troops of the 2nd Squadron, under Lieutenants Sutherland and Hollis, galloped towards the position. Dismounting at a disance of two hundred yards from the knoll, in the face of an intense machine-gun and rifle fire, they rushed to the crest and engaged the Turks in hand-to-hand fighting, the position being captured, together with a machine gun which had inflicted heavy casualties among our troops. From the captured knoll the Wellington men then enfiladed an enemy force which was working round on the flank and compelled it to retire, and they simultaneously forced the retirement of the other enemy machine guns which were inflicting casualties on the A.M.R. and on the 9th W.M.R. Squadron. The gallant Herrick was twice wounded during the attack, but he continued to direct the fire and movements of his men till he received a fatal wound, but his indomitable determination, initiative, daring, and magnificent example continued throughout his command. Other machine guns were captured, and the two remaining troops under Lieutenants Alison and Pierce immediately reinforced the position, the Squadron enfilading the enemy, who were still attacking the A.M.R. The latter were defending with determination and, taking advantage of the enemy confusion which followed the charge of the 2nd Squadron, reinforced the forward line and page 170 drove the enemy back. At the same time (4 p.m.) the 9th W.M.R. Squadron charged and cleared the position in front of it, and captured other machine guns, the enemy suffering severely. The 6th W.M.R. Squadron, on the right of the 9th, also moved forward, one of its troops being placed between the 9th and 2nd Squadrons, another being sent to protect the machine guns. Meanwhile Auckland had been putting up a good fight on the left, where they held up the advance of the main counter-attack.
The whole situation then began to change. Dispossesed of his dominating positions and confronted by a dogged and aggressive foe, the fighting spirit of the enemy weakened, and he began to waver. Further pressure being brought to bear all along the line, the enemy's morale collapsed and he fled, leaving behind many dead, scattered in front of the position. As darkness set in. orders were issued by Brigade Headquarters for the wounded to be evacuated and the captured position to be consolidated and held for the night. About 11 p.m. a squadron of the 1st A.L.H. Brigade and one of the Imperial Camel Brigade arrived and gave the tired New Zealanders a much-needed rest.
The W.M.R. casualties were 11 killed and 46 wounded. The latter number included Lieutenant Baigent, and three others died of wounds, and Lieutenants Foley and Black, who, being slightly wounded, remained on duty. The Brigade lost 44 killed and 141 wounded, the A.M.R. being the chief sufferers. The enemy losses were very much greater, being about 170 killed and 300 wounded.
The W.M.R. captured two officers and 32 other ranks, also five machine guns, two Lewis guns, and many rifles and much ammunition, several of the captured guns having been used with effect against the enemy.
All ranks fought with great determination, and for special gallantry Lance-Corporal B. Draper was awarded the D.C.M., Troopers P. Joblin and C. V. Oxley gaining the Military Medal. The following officers and other ranks also performed meritorious services:—Lieutenant C. J. Pierce (who took command of the 2nd Squadron when Captain Herrick was killed), Lieutenant W. J. Hollis, Corporals H. Martin and L. Gledhill, and Troopers A. F. Perrott and C. R. Kelland.
Captain A. Herrick, M.C., had gained his commission on Gallipoli. Brave, keen, energetic, and most proficient, he was probably the most versatile officer in the Regiment, and excelled in any capacity in the field. After Gallipoli, he mastered the mechanism and use of the Lewis gun, on which he became an authority, and subsequently, when the Hotchkiss rifle replaced the Lewis gun, he invented a pack for carrying the rifle, which was adopted throughout the Brigade. In attack or defence he was absolutely fearless, all his work being characterised by clear thinking and good judgment. For his fine work and great gallantry during the day in charging and capturing the centre position of the enemy force he was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
Lieutenant Baigent fell whilst gallantly leading his troop.
Of the other ranks, Sergeants Osborne, Rouse (M.M.), Strachan (D.C.M.), and Mason, Troopers Baldwin and Ellis were of the Main Body. They had seen much service, and their mature experience was much valued in the Regiment. With the others mentioned in the casualty list on this date they fell in the thick of the fight.