The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Part 3.—The 1st Battalion At Mersa Matruh
Part 3.—The 1st Battalion At Mersa Matruh.
From Alexandria to Mersa Matruh by sea—Mersa Matruh— Earlier engagements of the Western Frontier Force—1st Battalion's baptism of fire, the fight at Wadi Majid, Christmas Day, 1915—On column to Bir Zarka—Church parade—Command, Lieut.-Col. Fulton — Duties, rest, training — Halazin fight — Arrivals and departures—Inspection by General Maxwell—On column towards Sollum—Um Rakham—Return to Matruh—Note on completion of campaign—Return to Alexandria—Move to Moascar.
On the arrival of the 1st Battalion at Gabarri Camp siding, Alexandria, on the night of 18th/19th December, it was found that no transport had been detailed to move the baggage, and that at the camp only a few tents had been pitched for us. These difficulties were eventually surmounted, however, but the men were not settled down before 4 a.m. Again, on going to Western Frontier Force Headquarters to report during the forenoon, as instructed, the commanding officer found the rooms empty, and no information appeared to be available, except that apparently the whole of the staff had moved to Mersa Matruh. The Embarkation Officer, who had been sufficiently busy elsewhere, came at about noon with instructions to the effect that part of the Battalion was to be sent away by sea in the evening, and by 4.30 p.m. "B" and "C" Companies had left for Matruh in H.M.S. "Clematis" and two or three trawlers. At 5 p.m. on the following day, "A" Company embarked on the "Missir," and about the same time on the 21st, "D" Company (less one platoon) and Battalion Headquarters (less Machine Gun, Transport, Signal and Stretcher-bearer Sections) departed on the "Noor El Bahr."
The gunboat and the tiny traders and trawlers were packed to their full capacity, and there was barely room to page 31turn. As in each case the journey was made at night, it had few interesting features beyond those attaching to the sights of the harbour of Alexandria as we passed out in the early evening, and to the unusual nature of the country that came into view with the dawn of the following day as we approached Mersa Matruh. There was, of course, the ever-present possibility of an encounter with a submarine. The "Clematis," indeed, received en route a wireless message that a U-boat had been sighted off Matruh, but no untoward incident marred the voyage.
Mersa Matruh * is a village lying near the shore of a little bay about a mile and a half long from east to west, and half a mile broad. The harbour and anchorage are good, completely sheltered from seawards by rocks which extend from each side of the bay, and may be used by steamers up to 1,000 tons. It is the first landing-place west of Alexandria, from which city it is distant about 200 miles. There is no wharf, but for military purposes an anchored barge was made use of as an improvised landing-stage. A fort stands on a rocky ridge and overlooks both the harbour and the open water of the Mediterranean. The shores of the harbour are of snow- white sand. The village lies beyond an outcrop of limestone and in the neighbourhood of a tiny oasis. Its population in pre-war days numbered about 200, mainly Greeks and Italians. The camps of the various units of the Frontier Force located here were spread out between the shore and a low, sandy, limestone ridge, some 1500 yards inland, along the crest of which ran part of the outpost line. To the east of the bay, on the hard sand between the harbour and a lagoon, stood canvas aeroplane hangars.
* Strictly speaking, Mersa Matruh is the name of the harbour, Mersa meaning "anchorage."
To meet the contingencies due to its isolation, and to ensure efficient all-round defence, a chain of outposts numbering 13 in all was constructed to cover the harbour, village and encampments. From the western entrance of the harbour, where No. 1 outpost was situated, this line ran southwards to the limestone ridge, and then eastwards along its crest to the El Dabaa road, where it turned again towards the coast, ending at No. 13 outpost, some 400 yards from the Coastguard Station at the entrance. The whole system was further protected by barbed wire entanglements. Each outpost consisted of a sangar of rough rock walls enclosing an area of some 200 square yards, in which place were shelters improvised from the very scanty material obtainable. The complete outer system was admirably sited, and formed a typical example of fortification capable of withstanding attacks by an enemy who depends mainly on the rifle. Surrounding the Force Headquarters, the ordnance and supply depots, and the main encampment, was an inner line of defence consisting of smaller rock and sandbag posts. This line also was heavily wired. The necessary patrolling beyond the outposts was carried out mainly by the mounted troops, while an aeroplane made periodical reconnoitring flights far out across the desert. A gunboat was usually present in the harbour, the equipment of the fort on the headland was augmented, and a Krupp gun was placed in the outpost line itself.
* A bir, or ber, is an underground cistern cut in the rock and filled by rainfall. A well fed by an underground spring, such as those at Matruh, is called a "sania," but the use of the word "bir" as part of a place-name is an indication of the presence of a water-source of any kind.
The country inland is rocky, but interspersed with patches of a peculiar hard, brown, clayey soil, said to produce the finest barley in the world. Such roads as exist in the neighbourhood have been made by simply removing the loose stones from the surface of the ground. The coastal strip is subject to occasional heavy rainstorms, as we learned from bitter experience. The camp of the 1st Battalion was twice flooded out, and on one expedition in particular we found that, after rain, marching was exceedingly difficult, and the strength and patience of the men were tried almost to breaking point by the repeated calls to extricate cars and transport waggons from the mud. Wild vegetation is scarce, and beyond a few dry flower-stems and roots of scrubby thorns sufficient to boil a mess-tin of water, the country produces no fuel.
Scattered over the countryside are many evidences of past occupation by a considerable population. One finds here and there fragments of sculptured pillars, dating back to Græco- Roman times; while large mounds of red pottery refuse mark the sites of kilns belonging to a still more ancient period. Antiquarians had quite recently been at work at various points in the district, and they were reported to have made many valuable finds, including some beautiful statues and vases discovered in the caves of a neighbouring wadi. Matruh is the ancient Parætonium, and was one of Cleopatra's favourite pleasure resorts; and during the stay of the 1st Battalion at the station the remains of her villa were found and partially uncovered. If legend is to be believed, it was at Mersa Matruh that Alexander the Great landed on his way to the Oasis of Siwa to consult the oracle there before founding the town of Alexandria.
General Wallace transferred his headquarters from Alexandria to Matruh on December 7th, 1915, and four days later had his first encounter with Senussi forces. From five to six miles south of Matruh is a tableland some 300 feet high, dropping to the coastal strip in a steep escarpment. The outline of the plateau is irregular, and ten miles to the west of the station it is only two miles from the sea. Intersecting the escarp-page 33ment at right angles are numerous dry, rocky watercourses, miles in length, and having extremely steep sides. In one or other of these deep gullies, known as "wadis," the enemy would establish his temporary stronghold. He had been located at Wadi Senaab, eight miles to the westward, and on December 11th a column moved out to attack him. The Yeomanry, aided by a squadron of Australian Light Horse, inflicted over a hundred casualties and cleared the wadi, the British losses being slight. The force, which included the Sikhs, camped on the ground won, and spent the following day rounding up prisoners.
Being reinforced by the Royal Scots, the column started again on the 13th for a spot twelve miles further west, to engage the enemy, but in crossing Wadi Shaifa was itself attacked by a force of 1,200. The enemy was defeated, leaving 180 dead. He was pursued till dark, when the column returned to Matruh.
The Senussi forces began to concentrate again, this time in the vicinity of Jebel Medwa, a prominent hill some eight miles to the south-west of Matruh. From air reconnaissance and other sources the enemy strength here was estimated to have reached in the course of a week the number of about 5,000 men, of whom more than half were muhafzia, or regular soldiers, with four guns and some machine-guns, the whole being under the command of Gaafar Pasha. It had become evident that the force at the disposal of General Wallace was not sufficiently strong in numbers both to hold Matruh and at the same time to bring the enemy to a decisive engagement, and it was in response to a request for reinforcements that the 1st Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade had been despatched from Cairo, together with a battery of the Honourable Artillery Company and two four-inch naval guns.
We were warned on December 23rd of an impending operation in which we were to take part. The adjutant, quarter- master, machine-gun officer, transport officer, and signalling officer were still at Alexandria, and upon the shoulders of Capt. Purdy, the acting-adjutant, there now fell a very great deal of extra work. Having no transport with us, we were instructed to make the best arrangements possible with the l/6th Royal Scots and the 2/7th Middlesex for the loan of horses and vehicles. These arrangements proved somewhat vexatious page 34and unsatisfactory, but we were finally helped out of our difficulty through the kind offices of Major Francis, commanding the Australian Train. The only chargers obtainable were those for the commanding officer and the adjutant. These were neither ornamental nor useful, Capt. Purdy's horse being particularly impossible, and both were, without regret, abandoned to the grooms long before the engagement was over. Fortunately the machine-gun officer with the personnel of his section arrived at Matruh on the eve of the battle, but his work next day was greatly hampered by the many defects that became apparent in the borrowed limber-teams as they negotiated the steep slopes of the rough wadi-country.
Definite orders for the morrow's operations were not received until about noon on Christmas Eve, and the companies being engaged at construction work on the outpost line, these orders were not communicated to the men until evening. All ranks were very fit and keen, and the prospect of a fight aroused the utmost enthusiasm.
As this was to be our baptism of fire, it will be of interest to record in detail the operation orders for the action in which we were to participate.
Major-General A. Wallace, C.B.,
Commanding Western Frontier Force.
24th December, 1915.
1. The following troops will move to-morrow to operate against the enemy force now occupying Wadi Majid and neighbourhood. 2. The left column, under Brigadier-General Tyndale Biscoe, will move via the Wadi Toweiwia and thence westward.
Australian Light Horse, 3 squadrons.
D.L.O. Yeomanry, 3 squadrons.
Yeomanry Machine Gun Section.
Notts R.H.A. (less one section).page 36
Notts R.H.A. Ammunition Column (less detachment). Detachment 1st S. Midland Field Ambulance.
3. The main column will move by the Matruh-sidi Barrani road.
To form right column under Lt.-Col. Gordon, 15th Sikhs.
Commander, Capt. Cates. 2 Coys. 15th Sikhs.
Starting point— South-west exit from camp—to be marked by 2 Signalling lamps.
15th Sikhs (less 2 Coys.). 1st Bn. N.Z. Rifle Bde. 1 Section Notts R.H.A. Royal Bucks Hussars. 2/8th Middlesex (less 1 Coy.)
Notts R.H.A. Amm. Col. (less detachment).
Inf. Bde. Amm. Column. 137th Ind. Field Amb.
S. Mid. Field Amb. (less detachment).
Notts & Derby Field Amb. Demolition Section.
1st line transport of main bodies (less details named in 5) in order of march.
2nd line transport in order of march.
Australian Train, with men's rations, water and greatcoats.
Water Section under Capt. Eaton.
Rearguard. 1 Coy. 2/8th Middlesex.
- 4. Water for animals will not be carried, and they will probably return to camp in the evening.
- 5. The only 1st line transport to accompany Infantry Units on the march will be the Regimental Reserve S.A.A., Machine Gun, Signalling Equipment and Entrenching Tools.
- 6. A detachment R.N.A.C.D. will leave camp at 7 a.m. Commander: Lieut.-Cmmdr. Lister. 6 armoured cars.page 37
- 7. With the above will move 6 motor ambulances, and the light cars of the R.N.A.C.D. which will be available for ambulance transport. The whole to be under orders of Lieut.- Colonel Sewell, R.A.M.C.
- 8. A headquarters' signal section and (possibly) a motor-car wireless detachment will accompany headquarters.
- 9. Reports to head of Main Body.
(Signed) G. G. Hunter, Colonel, General Staff, W.F. Force.
Copy No. Copies. 1. G.S.O. 1. Personally. 2. G.S.O. 2. Personally. 3. D.A.A. & Q.M.G. Personally. 4-6. A.D.M.S. (3). Personally. 7. A.D.S. & T. Personally. 8. G.O.C. Infantry Bde. By Orderly. 9. G.O.C. Mounted Bde. By Orderly. 10. O.C. Notts R.H.A. By Orderly. 11. Col. Gordon, 15th Sikhs. By Orderly. 12. O.C. 15th Sikhs. By Orderly. 13. O.C. 1st N.Z.R.B. By Orderly. 14. O.C. 2/8th Middlesex. By Orderly. 15. O.C. R.N.A.C.D. Personally. By Orderly. 16. O.C. H.M.S. "Clematis." By Commdr. Hoo, R.N. By Orderly.
Instructions For Mobile Column.*
Units of the Mobile Column will take the field equipped as under. Completion of deficiencies must be arranged at once.
1. In firing In R.H.A. Total rounds Battery. Ammn. Col. per gun. R.H.A. 110 100 210
Rounds, S.A.A., Per Rifle:
On the Person. In Section reserve. In Right reserve. In R.H.A. Amm. Col. Tl.per rifle.
Light Horse.. 120 — — 180 300 Infantry, T.F.. 100 20 180 — 300 Infantry, N.Z.R.B. 120 — 180 — 300 Indian Infantry 100 100 100 — 300page 38
* These instructions were issued on the previous day.
Per Machine Gun: With M.G. Section. In Section Reserve. In Bde Amm. Col. Total per gun. Yeomanry …. 3,500 16,000 — 19,500 Infantry. T.F., 19,500 N.Z.R.B. … 3,500 8,000 8.000 19,500 Indian Infantry 6,000 4,000 8,000 18.000
2. Infantry will complete to 200 rounds per man before moving into action.
3. A Brigade S.A.A. Column will be formed under command of Lieut. Chaplin. Australian A.S.C., consisting of Infantry Regimental Reserve S.A.A. carried in vehicles.
Vehicles. Rounds G.S. Limbered Wagons. G.S. Wagons, carried. 5 G.S. Limbered Wagons per Brit. & N.Z. Regt. 10 — 160,000 3 G.S. Wagons per Indian Regt. — 3 75,000
With this unit will move 9 rank and file per regiment.
4. All other regimental infantry ammunition wagons will join this column after troops move into action. Empty wagons will not be sent back to camp without orders from the O.C. Brigade Ammunition Column.
5. The Notts R.H.A. Ammunition Column will remain a separate formation and will carry:
50 rounds per gun and 180 rounds per rifle in 2 ammunition wagons and 8 G.S. limbered wagons respectively.
6. The remainder of the current day's rations will be carried on the person, and one day's ration per man will be carried in the train.
7. A total of half a gallon per man will be carried in the train. None will be carried for horses.page 39
8. Packs must be made as light as possible. Only the great- coat is to be carried therein.
Water And Explosives Units.
9. Special water and explosives units have been organized and will accompany the column. They will be commanded by Capt. Eaton and Lieut. Wilson respectively.
Scale of Ammunition for R.N.A.C.D.
10. Per Machine Gun, 3000 rounds.
Per Rifle, 100 rounds.
Signed) H. W. Tobin, Captain, General Staff. Copies to, etc.
General Wallace's force moved out before daylight on Christmas morning.
The plan of attack was for the right column to advance directly on Jebel Medwa, the left column to make a wide detour southward round the right flank of the enemy to deny his retreat to the west. H.M.S. "Clematis" stood off-shore to assist with gunfire as occasion offered.
By 5 a.m. the right column was on the move south-west along the Khedival Motor Road. The Bucks Hussars formed the screen, and were followed by the 15th Sikhs, who provided the advance guard. The 1/N.Z.R.B. was next in order, and supplied right and left flank guards to the infantry.
At about 6 a.m. the enemy gave warning of our approach by means of a flare on one of the sandhills, and half an hour later the advance guard came under artillery fire from the south-west. The Sikhs immediately shook out into artillery formation, and the 1/N.Z.R.B. was ordered to conform to their movements, bring in the flank guards, and detail one platoon as escort to the guns. Advanced elements of the Senussi were pushed back by the leading sections of the Sikhs, and by 7.15 a.m. our main body had crossed the Wadi Ramleh.
The enemy was now discovered occupying in strength an escarpment about a mile south of Jebel Medwa, and at 7.30 a.m. the Sikhs were ordered to attack the enemy on his right flank, the Bucks Hussars and 2/8th Middlesex to co-operate by a containing attack along his front. West of the road the Sikhs came under rifle and machine-gun fire, but their advance was page 40not checked. They moved steadily forward in extended order, the 1/N.Z.R.B. following in artillery formation for a distance of about a mile. The Middlesex men were soon able to occupy Jebel Medwa, and the right flank was thus secured. The section of the Notts Battery came into action on the high ground near the road 2000 yards east of Jebel Medwa and silenced the enemy's artillery, and at 7.45 a.m. H.M.S. "Clematis" opened an accurate and useful fire, her shooting being "spotted" by our aeroplane.
In the nullahs of the Wadi Medwa the Sikhs met with considerable opposition, and our "A" Company (Major W. Kay) was sent forward to prolong the firing-line on the left flank. At 9.30 a.m. "B" Company (Capt. E. Puttick) also reinforced the line, going in on the right of the Sikhs, and by ten o 'clock the Wadi Medwa was cleared.
The advance now continued across the rock-strewn ground beyond, and the guns were soon afterwards brought forward to the western side of the wadi, with "C" and "D" Companies (Captains J. Pow and J. R. Cowles), in reserve under cover behind the guns.
At 11 a.m., the left column could be seen operating about two miles to the south-west, and being communicated with by signal, it changed direction northwards along the Wadi Majid.
At the second gun position some casualties to the personnel of the artillery and Col. Gordon's staff details were caused by the fire of a party of the enemy that had crept round to a position on a ridge beyond the nullah on our left. A platoon of "D" Company, under Lieut. H. Holderness, was despatched to clear up this locality, an operation attended by no little difficulty, and one exceedingly interesting to watch by those in the vicinity of the guns, for they were able to follow the movements of both parties while each was frequently invisible to the other. The platoon, admirably handled, successfully accomplished its mission and left no one to cause further annoyance from this quarter.
By noon "C" and "D" Companies and the four machine-guns were sent into the firing-line, extending it to the right, and the work of clearing out the many branching nullahs at the head of Wadi Majid was carried on, the whole line moving forward slowly but surely. Much delay in getting the Vickers guns up was caused by the unsatisfactory nature of the bor-page 41rowed teams for the limbers, and Lieut. J. A. D. Hopkirk, who was in command of the section, found it necessary to employ all his men at the exhausting work of assisting the teams in order to get the limbers sufficiently far forward over the rock-strewn country to enable him to bring the guns into action.
Our battalion was held up for some time by hot rifle and machine-gun fire from a donga running forward at right angles from the main enemy position, two companies, with the Sikhs, being on one side of this, and two companies on the other. The line was somewhat long and thin, and at 2.30 p.m. Col Gordon gave instructions for part of the left to be withdrawn and pushed into the centre. For this purpose "A" Company was brought round through a donga from the left of the Sikhs to their right, thus joining up with "B" Company, which was then engaged in driving the forward parties of the enemy from the branch donga referred to above. The enemy's position here was held with great tenacity, and "B" Company's task was not accomplished without considerable difficulty.
It now became evident that the enemy's stronghold was the edge of the main wadi towards our right front, along which he occupied an entrenched position, and at this stage the Sikhs were withdrawn, apparently so as not to hamper the movements of the mounted troops, who had now come into action on the high ground beyond that section of the wadi immediately opposite the Sikhs. The situation being clear and definite, all four companies advanced by steady rushes across the intermediate stretch of plateau, a platoon of "B" Company making sure of the awkward branch donga, and soon after 4 p.m. the final position was taken. A company of the Middlesex Battalion had come up in the rear of our right company, but their aid was not required.
The mopping-up of the wadi was done with thoroughness, and by the time it was completed fully 100 enemy dead were left in the trenches, caves and hollows. Disorganized groups of the Senussi, forestalling the action of our mounted troops, made good their escape through the seaward end of the wadi or over the ridge to the west. Some 34 prisoners were taken, however, while 80 camels and a number of asses, sheep and goats found in the stronghold were destroyed, and about 30,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, with three cases of nine-pounder shells, were brought away and buried.page 42
While the clearing of the wadi was in progress we received orders to return to Jebel Medwa as soon as this duty was completed, and accompanying these instructions was the intimation that the remainder of the force had already left the field. It was after 5 p.m. before the battalion was reformed, and the return march, which had to be carried out in the dark over strange country intersected by a maze of nullahs, and with no guide or suitable map, proved a difficult and trying task. We had several of our own and enemy wounded to bring in, and as we were now short of stretchers, a whole platoon had to be detailed to attend to this problem alone. Thanks largely to the good management and untiring efforts of the medical officer, Capt. G. V. Bogle, and Lieut. N. L. Macky and Corporal W. McNab, all difficulties in this connection were finally overcome. In addition, we were hampered by the slow movement of the machine-gun limbers whose teams had made such a poor showing during the hours of day-light. However, the bivouac camp at Jebel Medwa was reached at last, and here we rested under the stars until four o'clock next morning, when the column moved off again for Matruh.
The total casualties during the day were 14 rank and file killed, and 3 officers and 47 other ranks wounded. The enemy lost 370 dead and 82 prisoners. Amongst the booty were the office and personal effects of Gaafar Pasha, abandoned by him in his flight. The casualties of our battalion numbered 6 killed* and 14 wounded. The dead were brought in and buried in the little military cemetery at Matruh, the officers of the battalion acting as bearers, and before we left the station permanent memorials were erected over their graves.
* These, the first of our Glorious Dead, were: Sergeant-Major R. C. Purkis, Sergeant S. F. Weir, Corporal A. Woollatt, Corporal E. C. Beresford-Wilkinson, Rifleman T. F. York, and Rifleman J. M. Todd. Of the wounded, Rifleman E. N. Davis died before the year had ended.
The immediate result of the action was the retirement of The Senussi with his staff and the remains of his force to Unjeila and Halazin, some twenty-five miles to the west, and subsequent events show that the Christmas Day fight was the turning-point in the campaign that ultimately brought about his downfall.
Monday, 27th December, was a day of rest, but towards evening there were rumours that the battalion was to go out on column again. On the 28th orders were received for a march, at 2 p.m. of the same day, to Bir Jerawala (Gerowle), twelve miles to the south-east, to operate against a hostile force under Sayed Harun, then threatening the Line of Communications between Matruh and Dabaa.
The mobile column consisted of a detachment of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, 6 squadrons of Royal Bucks Hussars, a section each of the Notts R.H.A. and "A" Battery of the H.A.C., the 1/N.Z.R.B., 15th Sikhs, 2/7th "Middlesex (less two companies), Force Signalling Section, Ammunition Column, 1st South Midland and 137th Indian Field Ambulances, a Water Section and the Australian Train, and was commanded by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan.
The force arrived at Bir Jerawala at 7 p.m. and bivouacked there. At midnight orders were issued for a continuance of the march on the 29th, and at 5 a.m. the column was on the move for Bir Zarka, some nine miles farther to the south, where we expected to meet the enemy. Failing to get touch with him here, we went on five miles beyond Bir Zarka and halted. It became evident that the hostile force had taken alarm and had cleared away in haste; and as it was impossible to pursue farther, we were compelled to commence the return march, taking with us as booty one month's supplies, 400 sheep, 90 camels and 200 tents abandoned by Harun. We bivouacked at Bir Zarka on the night of 29th/30th, reached page 44Jerawala at 10 a.m. on the 30th, where we rested till 2 p.m., and then marched in to Matruh, reaching camp at 7.30 p.m.
This expedition was an extremely arduous one. The country was exceedingly trying, low-lying stretches of loose sand alternating with rock-strewn tablelands, and in the anxiety to get on to the heels of Sayed Harun's force the customary halts were frequently dispensed with. There were several march casualties, even the hardy, seasoned Sikhs finding the strain almost unbearable.
On New Year's Day, Capt. Purdy, with his old platoon of "C" Company, together with the adjutant and medical officer, and an escort of Australian Light Horse and two armoured cars, went out at 6 a.m. to Wadi Majid to bring in the body of Corporal Beresford-Wilkinson, who had been killed in the Christmas Day fight while endeavouring to get a wounded comrade under cover. All our casualties of that day had been safely brought in with this exception. On going forward from the position Beresford-Wilkinson's companions had hastily covered the body, but later, in the darkness of evening, had not been able to locate the spot. Owing to the risks entailed, permission to send out our party was granted by Force Head-quarters with some misgivings, but the mission was accomplished without mishap. The party returned at 5 p.m., and the body was buried in the military cemetery beside those of his comrades.
On Sunday, 2nd January, the battalion attended the Force Church Parade in the coastguard barrack square, Force Head-quarters being present. Rain fell on the 3rd, 4th and 5th, gradually increasing in quantity until finally part of the camp was inundated and had to be shifted to higher ground.
The hospital-ship "Rasheed" arrived on January 8th, and two days later sailed again for Alexandria with sick and wounded.
The instruments having come to hand from Alexandria, the band played a programme in camp on the 8th, to the great delight of everyone, and on the following day, Sunday, headed the battalion in its march to church parade, where it accompanied the singing of the hymns.
In accordance with Brigade Orders, Lieut.-Col. Fulton arrived on the evening of January 9th, and resumed command of the battalion. Capt. Bell had already reported on December page 4526th and taken up the duties of adjutant again, Capt. Purdy returning to "C" Company.
From 2nd January until the 21st the battalion was employed on outpost duty, supplied parties for construction work on the outpost line or at the landing-stage, or was engaged in training and route-marching. During this period a column, of which we did not form a part, went out in the direction of Baggush. It failed to gain touch with the enemy, but brought in a very large number of camels. We opened our first regimental canteen on the 11th of January, and did a brisk trade in goods brought from Alexandria; and on the 15th held our first camp concert, the performers being our own men, volunteers from the neighbouring Middlesex camp, and the battalion band. Many similar entertainments were given in the various camps, but perhaps the one best remembered was that held at Force Headquarters, by a combined party of New Zealanders and Australians, at which the "star" items were the Earl of Denbigh's French-Canadian song and his story of Waterloo.
On January 19th, 1916, aerial reconnaissance disclosed a concentration of a considerable enemy force, estimated at about 5,000, at Halazin,*25 miles south-west of Matruh. In the encampment the tent of the Grand Senussi was recognized by the observer.
* This name is incorrectly given in some maps as Hazalin.
† Here we saw for the first time the recently-invented Lewis gun, which in the days to come was to prove so effective in both attack and defence. Our new comrades, the South Africans, had four of these.
At 6 a.m. on the 23rd, after a night's heavy rain, the force moved out from Bir Shola on a compass bearing of 270 deg. in the direction of the enemy camp. It was disposed as under:—
- Right Column (Lieut.-Col. J. L. R. Gordon, 15th Sikhs): 1 Squadron D.L.O. Yeomanry.
- Notts Battery, R.H.A.
- 15th Sikhs.
- 2nd Battalion South African Brigade.
- 1st Battalion N.Z.R.B.
Left Column (Brig.-General J. D. T. Tyndale Biscoe):
- 1 Squadron Australian Light Horse.
- 3 Squadrons Royal Bucks Hussars.
- 1 Squadron Dorset Yeomanry.
- 1 Squadron Herts Yeomanry.
- Mounted Brigade Machine Gun Section.
- "A" Battery H.A.C. (less one section).
- 2 Troops Surrey Yeomanry.
- 1/6th Battalion Royal Scots (less two companies).
- S.A.A. Column.
Detachment of Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, intended for action against the enemy's left flank.
The 1/N.Z.R.B. was the rear battalion of the right column, and found the right flank guard of a half-company and the rear guard of one company. The left column was echelonned to the left front of the right column, moving parallel to and in close touch with it. The reserve moved half a mile in rear of the right column. The train, with a half-battalion of the 2/8th Middlesex Regiment, remained parked at Bir Shola.
At 9 a.m. the right column halted for breakfast, and presently reports came in from the advanced mounted troops on the left that the enemy had been sighted about two miles page 47ahead. At 9.40 a.m., after the march had been resumed, distant firing was heard, the covering screen having become engaged. To support these leading troops, the Bucks Hussars and the battery of the H.A.C. were now sent forward, and the advance continued steadily for some time.
At 10.30 a.m. the infantry filled up to 200 rounds, closed up its column, and the Sikhs, followed by the remaining infantry, advanced to the attack as the mounted troops uncovered the front.
By 11 a.m. the infantry column began to suffer casualties from long-range fire, and the 1st Battalion opened out into artillery formation in rear of the South Africans. A few minutes later the enemy were observed working round our right and driving in the mounted troops. To check this, our flank guard, under Capt. A. I. Walker, was pushed out to about 1,500 yards. The main attack was pressed on, and by 12 noon our battalion, coming under heavy long-range rifle and machine-gun fire, was shaken out into extended lines behind the South Africans, to whose movements we conformed. Half-an-hour later it was found necessary to reinforce the right flank guard with two more platoons and two machine-guns, and this whole company, under Captain Puttick, succeeded in driving off from that quarter an attack by some 400 of the enemy, and silencing his two machine guns. At 1 p.m. "C" Company (Capt. Pow) was sent to the left in support of the left company of the Sikhs, and was eventually brought into the firing-line there. At the same time half of "A" Company was brought forward from the rear guard to the reserve.
By 2.45 p.m. the Sikhs, South Africans and part of the New Zealand Battalion were approaching the enemy's main line of resistance, but the mounted troops on the left had not been so successful. Indeed, they had been pushed back to such an extent that by 2.30 p.m. they were occupying, with the guns of the H.A.C., a position nearly 1,000 yards in rear of the Field Ambulance. To restore the situation here, a composite company (half of "A" and half of "D"), under Major Kay, was hurried off to Force Headquarters, where it received orders from General Wallace to attack that section of the enemy, estimated to be some 250 strong, which had almost succeeded in completing its enveloping movement. A sharp fight ensued, and the enemy was at once brought to a standstill. Our men page 48now advanced by successive rushes; the tide was turned; and by 3.30 p.m. the enemy in this quarter was driven off in disorder. The arrival of "B" Company under Capt. Puttick, which had been withdrawn for the purpose from its position on our right flank, completed the security of this point. The position for the time had been very critical, and Major Kay was personally complimented by General Wallace on his quick grasp of the situation and his prompt and thorough action in dealing with it.
In the meantime, the main attack by Colonel Gordon had progressed satisfactorily. His firing-line extended over a mile in length and had moved across ground absolutely destitute of cover, while mirage in the early stages made it impossible to locate the enemy's positions with any degree of certainty. Casualties caused by artillery and machine-guns had been somewhat severe, the enemy's fire being both rapid and accurate. Nevertheless the enemy was slowly but surely pressed back, though his retirement of nearly three miles to his main line of resistance was conducted with such great skill as to deny all efforts to come to close quarters with him.
At about 3.30 p.m., under steady pressure from our infantry, the enemy began to fall back from his main position. Soon his retirement developed into a complete rout, and by 4 p.m. he had finally fled from the field. Pursuit was out of the question. The heavy rain of the previous night had converted the whole country into a quagmire, with the result that the cavalry horses were exhausted, the armoured cars could not operate, and the supply train had not been able to advance more than three miles from Bir Shola. Orders were therefore issued that the advance was to proceed no further than the enemy's camp, which in his flight he had left standing.
Representative South Africans, Sikhs and New Zealanders at Matruh, Lieut.-Col. Gordon in the centre, and Lieut.-Col. Fulton on the right of middle row.
The First Graves. Sergt.-Major Robert Charles Purkis, Sergeant Stanley Francis Weir, Corporal Ernest Charles Beresford-Wilkinson, Corporal Archibald Woollatt, Rifleman John Mathew Todd.
On the 24th there was no sign of the enemy, and at 8 a.m. the force started on the return march to Bir Shola. Owing to the state of the ground this proved an arduous undertaking, as all wheeled vehicles had to be assisted by hand. To the New Zealanders, the rear battalion of the main body, fell the greater part of this exhausting labour. The transport of the wounded presented the greatest difficulty. They could not be taken in the ambulances, and those unable to ride had to be carried on stretchers, a severe strain upon the troops already tired out by their own exertions and a sleepless night, and still without food or water. At 2 p.m. we reached the point where the train had been parked, filled our water-bottles, and in somewhat better spirits continued the trudge to Bir Shola. Here, at 5 p.m., we bivouacked, but as it rained again during the night, and the coats and blankets were already wet, very little sleep was obtained.
On the 25th the weather cleared, and the troops marched back to Mersa Matruh, the last of the column getting in by 4.30 p.m.
The total British casualties in this action were:—1 officer killed and 13 wounded; other ranks, 30 killed and 278 wounded. Our battalion had 1 other rank killed and 2 officers and 30 other ranks wounded. The enemy's casualties were estimated from observation and prisoners' reports to be not less than 200 killed and 500 wounded. The British dead were buried at Halazin, but on the discovery later that the enemy had interfered with the graves for the sake of loot, a special expedition went out and brought in the bodies for interment at Matruh.*
* In accordance with the principles guiding the activities of the Imperial War Graves Commission, the bodies of our dead comrades were, at the conclusion of the war, removed from Matruh to the Chatby Military Cemetery at Alexandria.
The enemy had received a very severe blow, and it afterwards transpired, from the reports of deserters, that the effect of this reverse, following upon that at Wadi Majid on Christmas Day, had not only gone far to discourage the Grand Senussi himself, but had shaken the faith of his followers, many of whom, especially those from the eastern Bedouin tribes, deserted his cause and cleared away to their own country.
Referring to the success attained on the 23rd, General Maxwell states in his despatches: "Especial praise is due to the leading of Colonel Gordon, who commanded the main attack, and to the gallantry of the Sikhs, South Africans and New Zealanders, who fought with invincible dash and resolution throughout the day."
At about this time many changes were being made in the compositon of the Western Frontier Force at Matruh. The monitor "Humber" arrived in port on 30th January and commenced a survey of the harbour. She had been one of the ships employed in bombarding the German right at Nieuport on 18th October, 1914, and doubtless she was now intended for service in co-operation with contemplated land operations in connection with the retaking of Sollum. The Royal Naval Armoured Car Detachment left on 28th January, and was replaced by the Duke of Westminster's Armoured Car Batteries, which were destined to perform some brilliant feats at Sollum and beyond. The Australian Light Horse departed for Alexandria via Dabaa on the 30th. We hoped that the rumour to the effect that the relieving units would come from the New Zealand Mounted Brigade would prove to be correct, but in this we were disappointed, for troops of a Home cavalry regiment came through from Dabaa on 2nd February.
The 2nd Battalion of the South African Brigade, which had arrived at Matruh on 20th January, was joined by another battalion from the same brigade at the end of the month.
* The following General Order was issued on January 27th:— "On the departure of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, the General Officer Commanding the Western Frontier Force desires to place on record the universal regret of the Force at losing the comradeship of a reliable body of men of whom England may well be proud."
General Sir John Maxwell, K.C.B., commanding the Force in Egypt, arrived at Matruh on the 1st February, and on the following day inspected the battalion. He left the station again in the evening, accompanied by General Wallace, whose health had broken down. Major-General W. E. Peyton, C.B., D.S.O., succeeded General Wallace, taking over the command of the Western Frontier Force on February 9th. 1916.
The departure of the battalion was postponed from time to time, and general training and route-marching were continued. A camel-transport detachment having arrived at the station, all ranks were instructed and practised in the art of adjusting camel-packs and making up loads.
The power of the Senussi having been so broken in the engagements of Christmas Day and January 23rd that any danger to Matruh was practically at an end, it was now decided to clear the enemy from the coast westward and retake Sollum.
In connection with this scheme the 1st Battalion, with attached troops, was despatched on a three days' march to the west with the object of establishing an advanced base at Unjeila. Included in the column, which was under the command of Lieut.-Col. Fulton, were a troop of Yeomanry from the 2nd Mounted Brigade, a section of the Notts Royal Horse Artillery, a detachment of the Egyptian Royal Engineers and Labour Corps, and a detachment of the Notts and Derby Field Ambulance. There was practically no wheeled transport, the kits, ammunition, tools and general supplies being conveyed by some 900 camels in charge of about 500 native drivers of the Camel Transport Corps. On the line of march the camels were arranged in four parallel columns and moved on the left flank of the combatant units. Starting from the mosque on page 52the west of the harbour at 9.30 a.m. on 13th February, and proceeding along the coast road, the column reached the end of the first stage and bivouacked at Zawia Um Rakham, after an interesting march of fifteen miles. About half-way from Matruh we came to the break that the enemy had made in the telephone line from Sollum. The line had been dismantled for a long distance and diverted southwards to the camp in the Wadi Majid that we had attacked and broken up on Christmas Day. Repairs were made by a party from headquarters signal corps and connection restored between Um Rakham and Matruh. Repairs to the road were carried out by the men of the Egyptian Engineers, and we were struck with the skill and rapidity with which the work was accomplished, particularly the difficult section at the ascent from Wadi Shaifa, just to the west of Um Rakham.
Along the line of march we passed numerous deserted plantations forming tiny oases about the wells, at which, by means of the quaint shadufs, we watered our animals. Reconnaissances inland towards the south, amongst the sandhills on our right, and for a considerable distance westward of our final halting-place revealed no sign of either men or animals.
The bivouac camp at Um Rakham had an extremely picturesque appearance. Within the regular faces of the perimeter formed by companies of infantry were the little groups of guns, the picket lines of the mounted troops, and the well-ordered sections of kneeling camels with their loads neatly arranged in rows before them and their attendants squatted in the sand nearby, the whole picture being set off by the white sand of the hills towards the shore and the scattered palms and quaint stone huts and tombs of the deserted village. Column headquarters were established outside a group of low buildings which had formed a sort of monastery or college in which the preachers and teachers of the Senussi sect were trained.
Instructions for the following day's march were issued, the outposts, especially those on the plateau to the south-west, were strengthened, and the camp settled down for the night. At 10 p.m., however, orders came through by wire that we were to be relieved next day by a battalion of the South African Brigade, and were to return to Matruh. This alteration in the general plans, as we rightly conjectured, was to mark the con-page 52clusion of our service with the Western Frontier Force. During the following morning preparations were made for the transfer of our own ammunition and stores from the camel transport to the wheeled vehicles of the South Africans, which were to be taken over by us. Further reconnaissances were made in all directions, but no signs of the enemy were seen; and the only positive result of these was the finding on the seashore of a large number of cases of pure rubber that had been washed ashore from a torpedoed trading-ship. These we salved and brought in, and by their subsequent sale our regimental funds were considerably augmented.
The South Africans arrived during the afternoon, and we commenced our return march at 4.30 p.m. We had a delightfully cool moonlight night, and reached Matruh comfortably by 9.30 p.m. Our recall was a great disappointment to all ranks, as we had been looking forward to taking part in the recapture of Sollum, which would have been a fitting climax to our service in this interesting theatre of war.*
* An advanced depot was duly established at Unjeila on 16th February, and on the 20th a force, the infantry of which consisted mainly of the 1st and 3rd South Africans, moved out to establish itself at Barrani, thus securing the second stepping-stone on the way to Sollum. This force ascertained on the 26th that the enemy was in strength near Agagia (fourteen miles to the south-east of Barrani), and they moved out at once to attack him. The ensuing action resulted in a severe defeat to the Senussi forces and the capture of the commander, Gaafar Pasha, who, it is reported, afterwards did valuable service on the side of the Allies as Staff Officer to the King of the Hedjaz in Arabia.
The enemy retreated westward towards Sollum, the Egyptian Bedouin deserting him in large numbers; and the bulk of the Western Frontier Force, including the remaining two battalions of the South African Brigade, was brought forward to Barrani. Two columns operating from this station attacked and took Sollum on March 14th, and by a dash of some twenty miles beyond that village the armoured cars under Major the Duke of Westminster succeeded in capturing all the enemy's guns and machine-guns, besides a number of prisoners, including three Turkish officers.
The campaign came to an end with the rescue, by the Armoured Car Detachment, of the survivors of the crews of the "Tara" and "Moorina" from an enemy camp some sixty miles west of Sollum.
General Maxwell, in his despatch, says:—"I think it may fairly be claimed that seldom has a small campaign been so completely successful or had such far-reaching results. The effect of this success has been to remove the anxiety which was at one time felt as to the possibility of hostile outbreaks in Egypt itself, where agitation was known to be rife. The attitude of the people in Alexandria, and more especially of the very large Bedouin population of the Behera province, has completely changed; and any prestige which we may have lost through the evacuation of Sollum has been more than recovered. Moreover, through his failure as a temporal leader, Sayed Ahmed has lost much of the influence which was attached to him as a spiritual head."
Sayed Ahmed afterwards fled to Turkey and was succeeded by Sidi Mohammed Idris, who was the eldest son of Ahmed's predecessor, and who had strongly opposed the entry of the Senussi into the war against the British.