The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
How the Brigade Marched through the Land of Goshen
How the Brigade Marched through the Land of Goshen.
At 9 o'clock on January 23rd, 1916, the complete Brigade moved off from Zeitoun Camp, passing through ancient Heliopolis, which dates from 2433 B.C., and marched by easy stages to the Suez Canal.
Down through the shady lanes of Matarieh we rode, overhead arches of the gorgeous Bougainvillaea, underneath the horses' feet carpets of purple blossoms, past that old garden where is "Mary's Well," and that traditional tree under which Mary and Joseph and the Child took refuge after the "Flight into Egypt," and so to Heliopolis, the On of the Old Testament, now a wide enclosure of earthen mounds partly planted with gardens. And there standing solitary is that wonderful obelisk as tall and straight and as finely cut, even as it stood when first erected nearly 4000 years ago, in front of the Temple of the Sun wherein Moses was educated. It is the oldest known in Egypt, and therefore in the world, the father of all that have arisen since. It saw the coming of Joseph, the education and growth of Moses; it is mentioned by Herodotus; and of all the obelisks that were or still are, it alone has kept its position, and it stands to-day as erected by its makers; and was now looking down upon men from the youngest nation in the world.
Passing on, our way lay along one of those causeways high above the floods. We looked across the green fields to the minarets of Cairo and the mighty Pyramids shimmering there in the sun; even as no doubt Moses beheld them when he, too, turned his face to the East and took his leave of Egypt. So we now, not knowing what lay for us in the future, looked across Cairo to the Pyramids and wondered page 7whether our wanderings would bring us within sight of these mighty monuments ever again.
The weather was delightfully cool, and though rain fell heavily every day and there were no tents, all were in the highest spirits. The strain of the life on Anzac had gone and we were moving off to whatsoever God had in store for us; not this time on our feet, but in our rightful manner upon our beloved horses. And when the nights were wet and cold and the ration train arrived late and there was no firewood, yet the E.S.R. in its wisdom had seen fit at this time to duplicate the railway line from Cairo to Ismailia, and for the purpose had stacked quantities of creosoted sleepers—and creosoted wood does make a bright and cheerful fire! And so we journeyed through the land of Goshen, passing the night of January 27th at Abu Sueir, the ancient Pithom—the treasure city which the Israelites of old made for Pharaoh. On the fourth day we had passed through the lines of Tel el Kebir, now filled with sand but distinctly traceable; and on the sixth day, the day after passing Abu Sueir, arrived at Moascar. The next morning we rode through Ismailia and marched past General Sir Archibald Murray, then Commander-in-Chief in Egypt. He was accompanied by General Sir A. Godley—whose headquarters were in Ismailia—and General Sir A. H. Russell, the Brigade's old Commander. And on the evening of the seventh day we arrived at Serapeum and settled down into a comfortable camp in the sand about one mile from the banks of the Canal.
Now began training in earnest—rifle shooting, machine gun shooting, tactical exercises, boxing matches, swimming in the Canal, filled up the days—and happy days they were.
The weather was still cool and the nights bracingly cold. All the old hands were losing the "Gallipoli strain," and to the new hands the life was wonderfully interesting. Then came sorrow, with the breaking of many friendships; for there was being organised at Moascar the New Zealand Infantry Division, for the completion of which the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was peremptorily ordered to find some 50 officers and 2000 men. They went reluctantly to the artillery and to the infantry, and together with the Maoris, formed the Pioneer Battalion.page 8
This forceful and rigorous policy depleted the Brigade of some of its best officers and "Main Body" N.C.Os. and men. Many of these were in the details camps just out of hospital and recovering from wounds and sickness incurred on the Peninsula, and they were summarily transferred to batteries, transport, or infantry battalions. N.C.Os. of long experience as mounted riflemen were reduced to the ranks where privates or gunners only were required, and were not given a chance to volunteer; nor was the Brigadier given a chance to call for volunteers, for men were seized in the training camps.
In no unit of the Army is there greater esprit-de-corps than in a mounted regiment. It goes without saying that a man who willingly and voluntarily chooses a mounted unit, with all its added work of care for his horse in addition to the care of himself, is of necessity a man of steadfast purpose and of wide sympathies. In addition to the Brotherhood of the Regiment he belongs to the Brotherhood of the Horse, and from this twofold love springs a tribal feeling as strong as that which animated the Highland clans of old. And this Brigade had just been through a campaign the like of which for the welding of love and friendship between man and man has scarcely ever been equalled, and which was fought under a leader whose watchword to his men ever was—even as that of King Arthur to his knights of old: "Do everything that comes to you with all your might, and for reward just this—that to this Table Round ye all belong."
Amongst the officers so transferred was Major G. A. King, D.S.O., who had been the Brigade's Staff Captain since the Brigade was formed in New Zealand in 1914. His departure caused the greatest regret throughout the whole Brigade, for no other officer had so endeared himself to all ranks. His enthusiasm, his unbounded energy, his great knowledge of horses, arms, equipment, and all impedimenta of a mounted soldier's life, and his ever unfailing and smiling good humour proved a tower of strength to the whole Brigade and smoothed away many a difficulty. No one but he who had the good fortune to work intimately with George Augustus King can ever know how much the great reputation made by the Brigade throughout the War was due to him.page 9
On February 19th the well-known Commanding Officer of the Canterbury Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel John Findlay, affectionately called by his men "Old John," rejoined. He had been seriously wounded on Gallipoli in the breaking of the Turkish lines on the night of August 6th, and had been in hospital in England for some time. His arrival in his regimental lines was heralded by much cheering. This officer continued to command the Canterbury Regiment throughout the remainder of the War, and justly earned the distinction, conceded by both Australians and New Zealanders, of being the finest Regimental Commander in the Anzac Mounted Division. When it is remembered that this Division was the original cavalry formation in the Sinai Campaign, and the parent of all cavalry formations that eventually took part in the Palestine campaign, among whom it gained for itself the name of being the finest cavalry Division in the Army, it will be seen that the reputation won by Colonel Findlay was of the highest order.
Major G. A. King with Major Powles at Zeitoun.
On February 23rd the Otago Mounted Rifles finally left the Brigade. Though never officially a part of the Mounted Brigade, they had fought throughout the Gallipoli campaign under their beloved leader, Colonel Bauchop, as a Brigade unit, and had returned with the Brigade, and with it had gone through the period of re-horsing and reconstruction.
At Serapeum began the study of archaeology and ancient history, a study that proved of inestimable value to everyone in the Brigade. In a country of dust, sand flies and intolerable peoples—and from whom there was no escape, no week-end or other leave—this interest in the old history of the land helped to pass many a weary hour and to brighten many a dreary day.
And it began in this way—on the edge of our camp lay a large mound, much like the sand hills which lay all around but of a more solid formation; and on this mound lay broken slabs of red Assouan granite. A digging party found more granite. And so, gradually a band of enthusiastic excavators began systematic digging; and there came into being the "Serapeum Sand-Shifters' Association," formed by willing volunteers of brawn and muscle from all units in the Brigade. The result after due submission of many pieces of inscribed granite page 11to the Cairo Museum authorities, was interesting and startling. It appears that there was a Pharaoh called Necho who began to cut a canal from the Pelusiac arm of the Nile to the Red Sea, to bring his Mediterranean shipping through to the Indian Ocean. After one hundred thousand of his people had died on the work he was compelled to desist. Soon afterwards Darius the Persian conquered Egypt and he completed the canal and erected at its entrance to the Red Sea a huge monument in red Assouan granite. This was the monument which we had found.
This first excavation was the forerunner of much interesting work done by the Brigade during its career.
Shorn of some of its best officers and men and without the Otago Regiment, the Brigade welcomed with joy a move to rail-head Ferry Post and there on March 6th took over a portion of the front line of the Canal Defences.
Here many days were passed in long patrols into the Desert; in learning how and how not to make defences in the sand; and last and by no means least, in learning how and page 12how not to load the "Ship of the Desert." For the desert on the east of the Canal is so soft that all wheels were left at Serapeum, and the Brigade made its first move on "Camel Transport"—a never-to-be-forgotten day when everything everybody owned had either to be got somehow on to a camel or left behind for ever. And one experienced a mild wonder (a wonder that returned many times in the days to come) how with sand all round and no shops within many miles, one's "Things" multiplied exceedingly immediately a camp was pitched.