The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
Chapter X. — Leaving the Jordan Valley for the Last Time
Leaving the Jordan Valley for the Last Time.
The 5th, 6th and 7th of October were spent down by Jericho and on the 8th the Brigade began its last march out of the valley. The next few days were spent at Jerusalem and on the 14th October the Brigade arrived in its old camping ground at Richon-le-Zion.
Here equipment and clothing were overhauled and the men indulged in a good rest, though a certain amount of training was always carried on.
On the 27th of November with a strength of 25 officers, 464 other ranks and 81 horses the Regiment sailed from Kantara in the transport Huntscastle and disembarked at Chanak and camped at Camburnu near Kilid Bahr in an old Turkish hostel with the 10th Squadron at Maidos. Very bad weather was experienced on the voyage over, the transport was quite unsuitable, and many men were down with influenza.page 264
A great deal of time was spent in identifying the graves of those New Zealanders who had died on the Peninsula; and the studying of the Turkish position gave an immense amount of interest to the old hands who had been through those strenuous days at Anzac.
The sudden change from the heat of Palestine to the cold and wet weather of Gallipoli caused much sickness. Four officers and 106 other ranks were evacuated to hospital and page 265one officer and 10 other ranks died and were buried in the English cemetery at Chanak.
The Regiment re-embarked on the Norman for the return to Egypt on the 19th January, 1919—strength 20 officers, 332 other ranks, leaving four officers, and 90 other ranks with all animals and transport to return by a later ship.
On November 14th a Memorial Service was held on the battlefield of Ayun Kara over the graves of those who fell in the action there on November 14th, 1917. The Jewish inhabitants of the colonies of Richon le Zion and Wadi Hanein, out of their gratitude to the New Zealand Brigade for their deliverance from the Turk on that day, provided the material for a Memorial Column and planted trees round the grave, undertaking to look after them in the years to come.
The remainder of the month was taken up with regimental training varied by sports and rifle shooting competitions.
On the 11th December the Anzac Divisional Race Meeting was held and proved a great success.page 266
While the Brigade was camped in the vicinity of Richon le Zion a disturbance occurred in the divisional area following on the murder of a New Zealander, during which a village and an Arab camp were burned and some 30 Arabs killed and injured.
For a very long time there had been a feeling of bitterness throughout the forces on account of the many acts of the natives and the manner in which they were protected against the troops. Claims for damage, alleged to have been done by our men were always supported and the men had to pay up. This began as far back as Sinai where regiments were made to pay for damage alleged to have been done to the date palms there. Later in Palestine our troops suffered very much from the thieving propensities of the Arab. Here again if any damage were done to crops or stock of a native the claim was upheld, but no redress was ever obtained against a native for theft. At Rafa some natives attacked two of our men severely wounding one and killing the other and also stealing his horse. Subsequently the dead on the Rafa battle-field were dug up and stripped. This happened again after the action at Ayun Kara which took place close by Surafend and there is not the slightest doubt that these villagers were responsible. All troops round Surafend had been suffering from the depredations of the Arabs and could get no redress. Many times our men suffered by being fired upon by the native inhabitants and it must be remembered also that the murder of this New Zealander was not the first that had been committed by the Arabs in this district. An Australian had been shot here only a short time before.
Many messages were received from Jewish settlers and senior officers of other formations that this disturbance would have a very good effect on the natives.
The result was that at the inquiry it was found impossible to get any evidence as to who took part in the disturbance. But such evidence as was obtained showed that parties from units outside the Division took part in the disturbance which was probably organised in the murdered man's unit. The evidence showed clearly that many small parties came over from Ramleh, Ludd and G.H.Q. at Bir Salim.
It appears that the murdered man's comrades feeling aggrieved that the murderer was not immediately brought to page 267book went to the village and demanded his surrender. They were met by an insolent answer from the head man of the village so they determined to find him and the searching of the houses led to a collision with the natives which resulted in a riot.
As a result of this disturbance the Commander-in-Chief did not forward names of officers or men of Anzac Units which were camped at Surafend at the time and who had been recommended by the Divisional Commander for inclusion in the Peace Despatch; but subsequently he relented out of consideration for the good work of the Division and forwarded most of the names in a supplementary despatch.
On the 22nd the Canterbury Mounted Rifles arrived at Port Said and reached the Brigade next day.
"With rest, sports, and good food, the health of the Brigade soon showed much improvement. Malaria had almost gone, and the depleted ranks had been filled up again from reinforcements.
Regimental training and educational classes continued for the next few weeks. Disquieting news had been coming through for some time about the disturbances in Egypt. On Monday, March 10th, the rioting in Cairo had begun. Crowds paraded the streets breaking windows and looting, and were dispersed by police and troops armed with batons.
The rioting spread throughout the country and railways were torn up, telegraph lines cut, bridges damaged, and railway stations destroyed, and Europeans went in danger of their lives.
Wild rumours of these events had been coming through and they culminated on March 17th with the receipt of orders that the Brigade was to move to the Canal to re-equip.
Orders were received about noon to be ready to move at once to Kantara. The Brigade left Rafa by two special trains about 10 p.m. the same night with orders to draw horses, wagons, saddlery, ammunition, machine guns and full equipment on arrival at Kantara. But the procuring of these arms, equipment and horses proved to be slow, a good deal of the equipment required having to be obtained from Cairo and a very large number of the horses having to be shod. The work was pushed forward as fast as possible by detailing all regimental farriers for duty at the Remount Depot. On the 20th the Auckland Mounted Rifles moved off to Tanta a town in the Delta. They were quickly followed by the Canterbury Regiment and later by the Wellington Regiment and Brigade Headquarters.
The Auckland Mounted Rifles went to Damanhour by rail (about mid-way between Kantara and Alexandria), but after a few days were withdrawn and moved back to Tanta and from there to Mehallet Kebir and later to Mansura and then across the river to Talka where they remained until withdrawn for embarkation.page 269
The Canterbury Mounted Rifles went to Benha and then to Tanta and later from Tanta to Kafr el Sheikh where they remained until withdrawn for embarkation.
The Wellington Mounted Rifles moved by road from Kantara to Benha by way of Salhia, Fagus and Zagazig. On arrival at Benha one squadron went to Cairo and the remainder of the Regiment moved to Quesla where they remained until withdrawn for embarkation.
Brigade Headquarters and Details from the Machine Gun squadron, signal troop, field troop, train, ambulance and mobile veterinary section were the last to move, and went to Tanta by road.
Each Regiment had its quota of machine guns, transport, A.S.C., field troop, signal troop, and ambulance.
The duty of each unit was to patrol the area allotted to it and to endeavour to trace the principal offenders who when caught were court-martialled and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.page 270
This duty imposed an enormous amount of patrolling upon our men. They were received with fear in the multitude of little villages with which the Delta is filled. Our men were tired of the war and exasperated at being retained in Egypt after the war was over and all other troops had returned, and so went about their work with a determination and thoroughness that soon brought peace and quietness to a turbulent community.
Though they were received in each village with fear, their departure was the signal for much regret and lamentation on the part of the head men and peaceable villagers, who found that though strict and stern to the evildoers, our men were generous and just to a degree.
Kafr el Sheikh was a typical disaffected area. The Canterbury Mounted Rifles reaching Tanta on the 22nd, Colonel Findlay was ordered to immediately proceed northwards. He had under his command his own regiment, four armoured cars and an armoured train. By a night march Kafr el Skeikh was surrounded at daylight and much amusement was given the men by the desperate efforts of disaffected individuals to escape. Among these was the Omda (or head man of the town). He was caught in a motor car. Later when peace and order were re-established the Omda was a firm friend of the Regiment and gave a dinner at which he made a speech and described his arrest. He said he was "in much fear of the men in the big hats and when a man came up to me after my arrest, told me to put my arms to my sides and to stand up and hold my head erect, at the same time placing his hand on his belt, I felt my last moment had come, and began trembling and to say my prayers and to consign myself to God, when he pulled out a camera and took my photograph, I could have kissed him."
A Court was set up and all rioters arrested and brought in. Some 30 to 40 a day were tried and sentenced to fines, imprisonment and the lash.
In a few weeks the whole district was patrolled and all disaffected people dealt with. The Gyppy went back to his usual industrious life a firm friend of the big men on the big horses. Those not actually friendly treated our men with civility and respect, and as one of our men says, "The whole page 271district seemed very sorry when we at last moved off for demobilisation—we were not!"
The difficulties of keeping discipline in an army after the excitement of war is over is well known. For a while the work of keeping the Egyptian in order served to bury the grievances, fancied or real, of the delay in demobilisation. As the work became stereotyped other interests were brought in. Horse racing caused an immense amount of fun, and tennis proved a welcome recreation. Each unit improvised a racecourse and tennis courts; and cricket pitches were to be seen wherever our men were camped.
Inter-squadron and inter-regimental tournaments were held and a cricket team journeyed to Cairo and played a strong team from the Gezireh Sporting Club.
But the events which undoubtedly gave the greatest pleasure were the horse races. The natives took an immense amount of interest and helped in the arrangements and provision of the various race-courses required. A totalisator run on New Zealand lines was established. No charge was made for admission and the inhabitants were invited to come and to bring their horses.
All Egyptians are great gamblers and a large amount of native money used to pass through the "tote."
The programme consisted usually of eight races of which two were open to the force in Egypt and two for native ponies.
The latter caused tremendous excitement and the native winners if at all favourites were greeted by the assembled natives with band and flagwaving and escorted in triumph back to the judge.
Race meetings were also held at Alexandria and at Cairo, at which regimental representatives won much prize money. Amongst the many races won, were the Victory Cup and Palestine Plate at Alexandria, the Birthday Plate at Quesna and the Farewell Cup at Cairo. A great race was one at Cairo for N.C.Os. and men and was won by Trooper Quigley's (C.M.R.) "Sunday," magnificently ridden by Trooper Wormald of the same regiment.
At Heliopolis, on May 24th, the Brigade won five out of the six horse events, including the Allenby Cup, won by "Gazelle," ridden by Capt. Black, W.M.R.page 272
Sports—cricket, tennis, racing were all invaluable and kept the men interested and happy until the time at last came for demobilisation. They did more. They undoubtedly helped in the pacifying of the disturbed districts in which our men were. The brotherhood of "sport" is world-wide.
On June 17th orders were issued to all Brigade Units to send in their horses to the Remount Depot at Bel Beis.
The whole Brigade, minus horses, concentrated at Chevalier Island, Ismailia (Chevalier Island is near Ferry Post, it is bounded by Lake Timsah, the Suez Canal and the Sweet Water Canal).
No story of the Mounted Brigade would be complete without a further reference to Aotea Home.
Quietly and unobtrusively there was opened in Heliopolis, the modern suburb of Cairo, on the 25th November, 1915, a small Convalescent Home of 25 beds for New Zealanders. By 1918 the Home had increased to 250 beds and was firmly page 273established as the Home of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. Its success was indeed great and as a Convalescent Home, founded and run by women and in which there was no enforced military discipline, it was a standing wonder to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
In 1915 three ladies of Wanganui, the Misses M. Macdonald, M. McDonnell and M. Duncan conceived the idea of forming a Convalescent Home and the idea was enthusiastically taken up in Wanganui, Rangitikei and Wairarapa.
A strong executive committee was formed and the Government accepted the offer with the proviso that the Home and all concerned were to be under the absolute control of the New Zealand Military Authorities, and that there should be on the staff of the Home a duly qualified Matron and two nurses.
The Military Authorities undertook to provide the necessary tents and buildings and rations and medicines, while the committee undertook to find the staff, the beds and bedding and comforts required.
On September 10th, 1915, six weeks after the proposal was mooted, the staff of "The Aotea Home for Convalescent N.Z. Soldiers" left New Zealand, arriving in Egypt on the 20th October. The personnel was as follows:—The Matron, Sister M. A. Early (Wellington Hospital), Sisters K. Booth and N. L. Hughes (Wellington Hospital). Misses E. and M. Macdonald (Mangamahu), R. Cameron (Wanganui), L. McLaren (Masterton), M. McDonnell (Wanganui) and Sergeant G. H. Sleight (Wanganui).
This devoted band carried on the Home with ever increasing success until the Mounted Brigade was disbanded in 1919.
In 1917 owing to the congestion at Aotea, an auxiliary home was opened at Port Said for the whole of the summer.
In October, 1918, a Convalescent Camp was established at Chevalier Island, as an adjunct to the N.Z. Training Depot, and was kept going (under the charge of the Misses Macdonald), until demobilisation took place.
An indication has been given in this book of the lack of home life for the men when on leave. Aotea provided a true home for all who passed out of hospital, and it went further, it was the home-centre for the whole of the Brigade. Though page 274existing as a Convalescent Home for the N.C.Os. and men exclusively, yet all New Zealanders of whatever rank were welcome visitors there, and a table overflowing with good things from New Zealand was always open to any officer or man who chanced to be in Cairo.
Apart from the advice of the medical officer who for the time being was attached to the Home, and apart from the ever-present good sense and ready help of Sergeant Sleight, the Home was entirely without military rule or regulations, and page 275yet the discipline and good conduct of its inmates was unimpeachable.
Towards this high reputation the men themselves contributed no little part.
Aotea was a piece of New Zealand, a "home within a home," and every man felt in duty bound to treat the staff as his hostesses, and to his everlasting honour be it said the New Zealand Mounted Riflemen throughout the whole of the life of the Home "played the game."
Want of space draws this little story to its close, but one more reference to the voyage home must be made.
On June 30th, 1919, the N.Z.M.R. Brigade was disbanded and 75 officers and 1014 other ranks embarked on the transport Ulimaroa for New Zealand.
The final draft left on 23rd July, on the transport Ellenga, leaving an engineer officer, Captain Bale, and four men to hand over stores.
The officer commanding the Ismailia district came down to see the final draft away, saying that he could not let the men leave without letting them know his great appreciation of their good work and excellent behaviour during the trying times they had just been through.
This last draft of 1000 men eventually reached Australia and the transport put into Newcastle for coal. During the ship's stay here of several days they were treated with that great hospitality for which Australia is famous. Special trains were put on by the Commonwealth Government and the men taken to Sydney. Everything was done to make the visit of our men enjoyable and their bearing and behaviour after five years' strenuous warfare was the admiration of all those with whom they came into contact. As one of the Sydney papers said "They had a great time and Sydney loved them. In all our experience of the war we have known no finer and better behaved body of troops. They were everywhere. The theatres had them in hundreds, and (a fact that prohibition theorists may do well to notice) they kept resolutely sober, though all hotels were open and everybody was injudiciously keen as ever to offer them Australian hospitality."
A tribute also taken, from a letter written to the officer commanding the troops on the ship, Lieut.-Col. E. J. Hulbert, page 276is worth quoting. "It is my pleasure to convey to you the following resolution which we passed at last night's meeting of this Council, viz.—"That a letter be written to the officer commanding the New Zealand Forces congratulating him on the way the men have behaved themselves during their stay in Newcastle. In forwarding this resolution it was generally agreed by the Aldermen present, that the men under your care have during their stay in Newcastle, behaved in an exemplary manner. Their fine appearance combined with their general conduct has been the subject of much favourable comment by our citizens, and I have pleasure in conveying the decision of the Council to this effect to you. (Sgd.) Robert Gilison, Mayor, Newcastle."
And these men were returning after five years of war.
So ends our story—far far too short and too poor to do justice to these splendid men, who like Jason of old and his companions set forth with stout hearts and tireless bodies and rested not until the quest was won.
And some did not return.
"Blow out you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been
Their sons, they gave, the immortality."