The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 2.—The 2nd Battalion On The Line Of Communications
Part 2.—The 2nd Battalion On The Line Of Communications.
Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart in command—Troops—Dispositions—A monotonous service—Return to Alexandria—Move to Moascar.
The 2nd Battalion arrived at Quamaria Camp, Alexandria, on the night of 22/23rd November. On the following day Lieut.-Col. A. E. Stewart was appointed to command the Line of Communications from Alexandria westward towards Mersa Matruh.
In addition to the 2/N.Z.R.B., Lieut.-Col. Stewart had under his command the following details:—A squadron of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division (afterwards sent to Matruh); 150 men of the Bikaner Camel Corps, with an Egyptianpage 28
Army Machine Gun Section; an armoured train, manned by a detachment of the 1/10th Gurkha Rifles, with two 12½ pounders of the Egyptian Army Artillery and two searchlights; and, for a time, a company of the 15th Sikhs.
The Mariut Railway, a broad-gauge line approximately 100 miles in length, runs westward along the Mediterranean coast. A narrow-gauge line had been partially constructed from rail-head at El Dabaa to Bir Fuka, some 30 miles further on, but at this time the rails had been removed. A motorable road, the remains of an ancient Roman highway, runs from El Dabaa right on to Sollum on the western frontier, and passes through Matruh, which is about 90 miles west of El Dabaa.
Lieut.-Col. Stewart established his headquarters at El Dabaa, and by the 25th November the 2nd Battalion, now under the immediate command of Major R. St. J. Beere, was disposed along the line from Alexandria to the rail-head.
Posts were established at the following points:—Sidi Mergheb (near Alexandria), Amria, Hawaria, El Ghirbaniat. El Roweisat, El Alamein, El Gazel, Jemeima, Abd El Kader. Ikingi Mariut, Bahig, El Hammam, El Omeiyid, Sidi Abd El Rahman, and El Dabaa.* These were either at railway stations or in the vicinity of the larger native villages, and the garrisons varied in strength from one officer and 24 other ranks at less importers points, to 12 officers and 300 other ranks at rail-head.
The garrisons immediately set to work to put their posts into a state of defence, and to lay in supplies of food, water and ammunition. The materials used for walls and breastworks consisted either of loose and quarried rock or of sandbags, according to the nature of the country. An admirable rivalry sprang up amongst the various garrisons, which stimulated the men to extraordinary exertions, and in a few days each post became a veritable stronghold.
As time wore on, however, the men's enthusiasm waned. They had come out west full of hopes of an early conflict with the invaders, but they were disappointed to find nothing more exciting to relieve the monotony than the ordinary patrolling page 29into the desert, the capture of an occasional suspected spy, the stopping and bringing in of suspicious-looking caravans, and the passing of mounted troops, artillery and transport bound for Matruh. Even the novelty of the conditions and the natural curiosity regarding the country and its inhabitants began to pall, and especially so when sand-colic became prevalent. Perhaps the most exciting incident was that experienced by the garrison of a newly-established post at the village of Hammam. In the dusk of the evening of the first day on duty, streams of men and beasts of burden appeared to be converging on the post from all points of the horizon. Later on, camp-fires gleamed on every side, and the officer in command of the post came to the conclusion that the end of all things was at hand. After standing to arms all night, the men of the little garrison were somewhat relieved in the morning to find that the sudden growth of population in the neighbourhood was merely the accompaniment to the holding of the periodic and peaceful market, warning of which had not reached the post.
At the beginning of December the company of 15th Sikh was sent westward to establish posts at the wells of Gerab, Baggush and Jerawala, on the road to Matruh. The garrisons of these, however, were withdrawn by the middle of the month, and later on the Sikhs rejoined their regiment, which had gone to Matruh by sea.
Definite reports were received from time to time of concentrations of Bedouin in the vicinity of the Line of Communications, but no attacks thereon eventuated. The most important of these camps was that of Saved Harun, located near Baggush, but this, as will be seen, was dealt with by a column from Matruh at the end of December.
There was much satisfaction when, on December 19th, the battalion was warned that it would probably be relieved within the next few days. On that date, Lieut.-Col. Ferguson-Davie, of the 54th Sikhs, took over command of the Line of Communications, and on the 28th the various posts were relieved by troops of the 54th Division. The 2/N.Z.R.B., on relief, went by rail to Quamaria Camp, Alexandria, to rest and refit. Having now returned to Brigade, the battalion was inspected by the Brigadier on 1st January, 1916, and again on the 14th. The battalion took over from the 2nd Composite Regiment of page 30Infantry the defence of the Mariut Canal from the 12th to the 17th January, "D" Company, under Capt. A. Digby-Smith, being despatched to hold all railway and traffic bridges over the Canal. The battalion was relieved of this duty by the 1st Battalion of the South African Brigade, and on the 18th January moved from Alexandria to Ismailia, and was quartered at Moascar Camp.
* The spelling of place-names varies. "G" and "J," for instance, are practically interchangeable, and the "Q" of the ordinary Egyptian survey maps is on the War Office maps written either "G" or "K," according to the local pronunciation. Thus we have Gemaima or Jemeima, Baqqush or Baggush, Majid or Merjid, or even Mergid.