The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
How the Brigade took the Way of the Land of the Philistines.
"You pass over broad plains—you pass over newly-reared hills—you pass through valleys dug out by the last week's storm—and the hills and the valley are sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand, and sand, and sand again. The earth is so samely that you turn your eyes towards heaven—towards heaven, I mean in sense of sky. You look to the sun for he is your taskmaster, and by him you know the measure of the work that you have done, and the measure of the work that remains for you to do. He comes when you strike your tents in the early morning, and then, for the first hour of the day, as you move forward on your camel, he stands at your near side, and makes you know that the whole day's toil is before you; then for a while, and a long while, you see him no more, for you are veiled and shrouded, and dare not lock upon the greatness of his glory, but you know where he strides, overhead by the touch of his flaming sword. No words are spoken, out your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, your skin glows, your shoulders ache, and for sights you see the pattern and web of the silk that veils your eyes, and the glare of the outer light. Time labours on—your skin glows your shoulders camels sigh, and you see the same pattern in the silk and the same glare of light beyond; but conquering time marches on, and by-and-by the descending sun has compassed the heaven, and now softly touches your right arm, and throws your lank shadow over the sand right along the way for Persia. Then again you look upon his face for his power is all veiled in his beauty, and the redness of flames has become the redness of roses; the fair, wavy cloud that fled in the morning now comes to his sight once more—comes blushing, yet still comes on—comes burning with blushes, yet comes and clings to his side."—Kinglake.
At dawn on April 24th the Brigade crossed the Suez Canal and marched 7 miles east into the Desert to a position called Hill 70, completing a forced march of 37 miles; but word was received that the Turks had made off. The 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which had crossed the Canal just before our men, was in time to exchange a few shots and to pursue the Turkish rear-guard for some miles further.
The Anzac Mounted Division took over the outer line of what was called No. 3 section Canal Defences, and established posts of Light Horsemen at Dueidar and Romani—15 and 20 miles respectively from the Canal; and with the Canterbury Regiment guarding rail-head The rest of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade remained for some days at Hill 70, spending the time in long patrols into the Desert, in water exploration, and in well-digging.page 15
Lt.-Col. John Findlay C.B. D.S.O., Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
A glance at the map will show why this great road is just here and not elsewhere. Sinai will be seen to occupy the position of a bridge between Asia and Africa. It is a great page 16waterless tract of glaring desert, all sand along the Mediterranean, and towards the south running up into lofty barren mountains of scorching stone.
These are the two main routes by which invading armies might approach from Palestine—the first the Darb el Sultani, the "Oldest Road in the World," and, the second, the route through the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula which the Turks used for their first attack upon Egypt in February 1915 and along which they were extending their railway from Beersheba. page 17On this route the only large water supply was at a place called Moya Harab some 30 miles from Serapeum on the Canal.
General Murray decided to occupy the Katia oasis area thus blocking the Darb el Sultani, and to empty the water cisterns at Moya Harab rendering the second route useless to the enemy, and to keep at Suez a small body of troops to ward off any raid in that direction.
The 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) was sent to the Katia oasis under this plan; and it was the initial attack upon this Brigade that brought the Anzac Mounted Division across the Canal.
Again looking at the map, a great lagoon will be seen following the coast line nearly to El Arish. It is the famous Serbonian Bog of Milton—the Bardawil of the Arabs (called Bardawil or Baldwin after King Baldwin I. of Jerusalem, who died near there is the year 1118 A.D.). It is the remains of the Pelusiac arm of the Nile which in the time of Herodotus was the main outlet of Egypt's trade with the Mediterranean. It is now a great salt marsh some 8 inches lower than the Mediterranean Sea; dry and salt-covered in summer; and filled with water for a short period in winter. Here at its western end on May 5th the Canterbury Regiment cut a canal 550 yards long designed to flood this great swamp and so cover effectually our left. But the force of the waves so persistently silted up the canal that it was eventually abandoned.
On May 12th the Brigade moved out to Bir Etmaler and joined with the 2nd Light Horse Brigade in a line of outposts and in patrolling the Desert to the front. Now ensued a period of great value to the whole Division; and much of the magnificent work done later owed its success to the lessons learnt at this time during which horse and man learnt to live in the Desert—even as do the Bedouins. Long patrols were undertaken to learn the country and to get information of the enemy. Whole Brigades learned to pack up at an hour's notice and to move with the same ease as previously did a squadron.
Herodotus tells the story of the Persian King, who, wishing to invade Egypt, did not know how to get his troops through the waterless desert until he hit upon the idea of utilising the earthern jars that came annually to Egypt from the Grecian Isles filled with wine. He bought up these and paid the Bedouins of that day to fill them with Nile water, and to secrete them in the desert, and so got his men across. But our men learned that water was to be found in many places and they learned how to get it without digging a well.
Well digging in the sand is a very arduous and tedious process, as an immense amount of sand has to be excavated to enable the water to be reached. But our Engineers per-page 19fected what was called the "Spear Point Pump." A 2½ inch pipe was pointed, perforated and covered with a sheet of fine perforated brass. This was driven down into the water area by means of a small pulley bar and monkey, or by a sledgehammer; and additional lengths of pipe were added if necessary. The ordinary General Service "Lift and Force Pump" was then attached. This arrangement proved so efficient that "Spear Points" were issued to every Squadron in the Division, and the R.E. Troops carried a number of them. Our men were thus enabled to get water at any of the hods in the desert in a very short space of time.
The Khamsin season was now at its height. Day after day blew this dreaded hot wind from the south. The summer sun burned with fiendish ferocity. The air scorched one's face, and sunstroke was frequent. Packets of candles melted until the wicks alone remained. What the temperature was in the blazing sunshine at this time is not recorded. One regimental medico just arrived, in his enthusiasm, put the only thermometer in possession of the regiment out in the sun and was surprised to see the mercury rush up to the top until it could go no farther. Special bathing parades were page 20organised, and whole regiments rode over to the sea at Mahemdiya, an ancient Roman watering place and fortress on the Bay of Tina, showing still standing great walls of stone and the remains of the baths built of brick and lined with plaster, much of which was in a state of perfect preservation.
That the desert is made of sand we had learnt at school as little children, but we had now to learn that it has yet another ingredient—flies.
They were to be found anywhere and everywhere—near habitations and far away from any sign of man. In or near the hods in the date season they were at their worst, and one continual battle was waged against them from sunrise to sunset. Various poisons were laid out and the "catches" were so great that a tent had to be swept clear of the "casualties" many times a day. But the great thing was to lay in wait for them at night. Then they clustered at the top of the "bivvies" or on the tent pole in drowsy myriads; and the cunning hunter applied swiftly a flaming flare. Eating became one long fight between hungry man and hungry flies. One ate with one hand while the other was continually brushing away the pests. Great was the war page 21waged upon them by our medical officers and the sanitary detachments; and to their lasting credit be it said that the flies always decreased the longer an area was occupied by our forces. Many instances occurred of a regiment moving into a fly infested area and leaving it practically free. The strongest weapon used, was the stamping out of the fly breeding areas; and in finding these our sanitary inspectors became wonderfully expert. One great difficulty there always was, in that, as the Turk was driven back our forces occupied ground lately occupied by him; and he never had with all his German tuition a sanitary system in any way approaching ours. The first few weeks in a Turkish area were very painful.
On the 16th a strong reconnaissance was ordered in the vicinity of Bir El Abd some 20 miles away and to Bir Bayud, and troops from the 2nd Light Horse and New Zealand Brigades were detailed for the work. The duty was successfully carried out, though the men and horses suffered severely, for the worst Khamsin yet experienced was blowing—20 miles out and 20 miles back under such conditions was a test fit to try the stoutest Crusader of old. But the information required was obtained, though many a man had to be carried into the shade of some convenient hod and brought round with bitter water dug from out the sand. At the Mounted Field Ambulance tent in the Et Maler hod under the palm page 22trees, the thermometer rose that day to 123 degrees. Think of 123 degrees in the shade! What it was out in the glaring sunshine must be left to the imagination.
The following message was received from G.H.Q. "The Commander-in-Chief wishes to convey to General Chauvel and troops of the Anzac Mounted Division his appreciation of the excellent work done in the very arduous reconnaissance yesterday. The Commander-in-Chief does not think that any other troops could have undertaken this operation successfully in the present weather."
On May 20th Turkish troops were discovered in the Maghara mountains; and on May 22nd a long and arduous reconnaissance was undertaken by the New Zealand Brigade to Bir Salmana, a series of brackish wells on the Old Caravan Route and about 20 miles from Romani. A couple of 18 pounders from the Ayrshire Battery mounted on ped-rails accompanied the Brigade. After an all night march Salmana was surrounded just as dawn was breaking and all the Turks in occupation killed or captured. Hod Salmana was held all day and the water thoroughly tested throughout the vicinity, and the Brigade marched back the following night.page 23
On all these patrols nothing but camel transport was used, all wheels having been left at Kantara, where our wagons under Major Smith ("Yorkie") did most excellent work in conveying the supplies of the Division from the main railway station at Kantara to our military railway across the Canal. The wagons with their teams of mules, two in the pole and three in the lead, driven by one man from the box, did such excellent service that the five-mule team was laid down for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force as being the perfect transport for the work; and they ultimately almost superseded the British four or six horse ride-and-drive team.
It is interesting to note that these same five-mule teams some two years later in the Jordan Valley most effectually demonstrated their superiority over the British six horse ride-and-drive team. There they daily drew an average of 1000lbs. more, and in the final operations in the mountains east of the Jordan they simply walked away from the heavy teams.
On June 1st the Division suffered its first casualties from enemy aeroplane bombing. A number of men and horses were killed and wounded in the 1st Light Horse Brigade camp at Romani; and thenceforward for the rest of the campaign, the Turk lost no opportunity of dropping bombs upon the horses. This was particularly so during an action, for then his planes would immediately be over, looking for the led-horses.
On June 24th the New Zealand Brigade handed over its camp and posts to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and leaving the Wellington Regiment with the Light Horse returned to Hill 70, and took over in place of the Wellington Regiment, the 5th Light Horse Regiment in position at Dueidar. This is the first stopping place on the "Old Road" and is some 15 miles from Kantara.
Advantage was taken of the nearness of the Suez Canal to send to Kantara two squadrons at a time for rest and bathing, their places being taken in the Brigade by two Squadrons of Warwickshire Yeomanry.
At this time, in accordance with the new establishment for Cavalry Brigades, the regimental machine gun sections were formed into a Machine Gun Squadron. This was done throughout the Division; so that each Brigade had now its Machine Gun Squadron as a complete and self-contained unit under its own Commander.page 24
About this time also the Divisional Field Squadron was further enlarged and improved to suit the desert warfare. It consisted of four troops, one to each brigade. These engineers became extraordinarily efficient in the quest and in the getting of water. Attached to each troop was a medical officer, whose duty it was to test all the water found and pronounce and placard it "drinking water"; "horse water" or "not fit for horses" as the case might be. Much of the water passed as fit for drinking was palatable if not boiled. But if boiled some chemical reaction appeared to be set up which let loose certain salts, completely spoiling the water and making a cup of tea undrinkable. The extreme heat and the brackish water caused digestive troubles which however were amenable to early treatment.
The appreciation of H.Q. was shown in a letter from the Commander-in-Chief (Sir Archibald Murray) to the G.O.C. Division dated 12/7/16 in which he said—"Whatever I ask you people to do is done without the slightest hesitation and page 25with promptness and efficiency. I have the greatest admiration for all your Command."
On the 19th July at a quarter past four in the afternoon an aeroplane reconnaissance, with Brigadier-General Chaytor observing, discovered long lines of Turks advancing westward over the desert in the vicinity of Bir Salmana, Bir Jamiel and Bir Bayud—on approximately a frontage of 8 miles.
This startling information—for no suspicion had been heard of any expected advance of the Turks—was sent in to D.H.Q. by 6 o'clock and by wireless immediately to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, who had already left Romani on a reconnaissance and were to go as far as Bir El Abd.
- "3000 men and 200 camels with from 200 to 300 large
- "shelters at Bayud also 3 rows of trenches facing west.
- "At Bir El Abd 3000 to 3500 men 2000 camels 200 to 300
- "shelters 20 to 25 bell tents 1 large black hut and 3
- "circular trenches."
The 2nd Light Horse Brigade, with which was the Wellington Regiment, was ordered to remain at Katia and to send out patrols to gain touch with the enemy.
The Battle of Romani.
And the Egyptians lay encamped on the banks of the Nile which runs by Pelusium, awaiting Cambyses. The Persians crossed the desert, and pitching their camp close to the Egyptians, made ready for battle. Stubborn was the fight which followed and it was not until vast numbers had been slain that the Egyptians turned and fled.—Herodotus.
Now the ruins of ancient Pelusium are to this day to be seen some few miles from the wells of Romani; and it was just outside Pelusium in the year 528 B.C. that the invading Persians conquered the Egyptians. Upon this self same ground 2500 years later the invaders of Egypt were to be defeated in the Battle of Romani.
The operations which now ensued and which resulted in the complete defeat of the Turks and of the final overthrow of the German-Turkish dreams of cutting the Suez Canal and of conquering Egypt, may be described as of three phases.
In the first phase our plans were perfected; the railhead at Romani protected with strong works and manned by infantry; and the mounted troops drew the enemy on across the desert until he finally attacked our railhead.
The second phase was the Battle of Romani, which might have been called the second battle of Pelusium, and which consisted of the great Turkish attack and our counter stroke.
In the third phase, the Turk was driven back into the desert and finally defeated in the action of Bir El Abd.
Immediately the news of the enemy's advance was brought in by General Chaytor, there began a busy and an arduous time for the Anzac Mounted Division. At or around the wells of Romani were the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, and their work was to keep in touch with the enemy and to find out his strength and his movements. It had long been realised that if possible the Turk, when his next advance began, should be induced to come on and to attack us where we could get the support of the infantry; for by practical experience it was definitely known that under the great summer heat and on the burning sand, our infantry could not be expected to march more than six miles per day. Therefore it would be wise to induce the Turk to attack us in position, maintaining at the same time a mobile mounted force with which to strike at his flank, to cut his communications, and so surround him.page 27
A defensive line was therefore constructed by the 52nd Division (Lowland Scots), a magnificent lot of men of fine physique, who played a good game of Rugby and were therefore soon on the best of terms with our men. They were veterans from Helles where they were under the command of Lieut-General the Hon. H. A. Lawrence, afterwards Sir Hubert Lawrence, K.C.B., Chief of Staff to Sir Douglas Haig, and who now commanded all troops in the Romani area. This line rested its left on the sea at Mahemdia (the camp of Chabrias—that famous Athenian Admiral who conquered the Egyptian Fleet about the year 376 B.C. and landed his forces here for the attack upon Egypt) and ran along a series of sand hills protecting railhead at Romani and enclosed with its right a mighty sand hill called Katib Gannit, a total length of some six miles. But though protecting the railhead this fortified line did not include the "Old Road"—the caravan route which runs from Katia through Dueidar and so to Kantara. This was left to the Anzac Mounted Division whose distribution was now as follows:—1st and 2nd L.H. Brigade—vicinity of Romani (with the 2nd L.H. Brigade was the Wellington Regiment); at Hill 70 about five miles behind Dueidar lay the N.Z.M.R. Brigade with the 5th L.H. Regiment at Dueidar itself, and patrols away east along the "Old Road"—the New Zealanders with the addition of two regiments of Yeomanry and two R.H.A. batteries formed the force destine to strike at the enemy's southern flank; further south based upon the Canal was the 3rd Light Horse Brigade.
The 1st and 2nd L.H. Brigades working from Romani took it in turn day by day to harass the enemy, to report his movements, and to draw him on. The work was exceedingly interesting but very arduous, and was carried out day after day in the scorching sun with little or no sleep.
Miniature battles between our own and the enemy's patrols were frequent, and the prisoners thus taken were invaluable sources of information to us.
The Wellington Regiment was still attached to the 2nd L.H. Brigade and remained and fought as a unit therein through the battle of Romani and the operations following, which were preceded by those fatiguing day and night reconnaissances. The regiment bore its full share of the fighting page 28and earned the unstinted praise of the Australians who affectionately termed the Wellingtons the "Well and Trulies." Moreover, at one stage in these operations, the Wellington Regiment temporarily furnished—owing to casualties—the Brigade Commander, the Brigade Major, and the Staff Captain, simultaneously for the 2nd L.H. Brigade.
On the 28th July enemy forces had entered Um Ugba—which formed an advanced salient in their position. Lieut-Colonel Meldrum who commanded the regiment and who loved a fight, asked permission to take the Hod and for two guns to assist in the attack.
A typical day's work at this time was as follows:—
A brigade would leave its bivouac about one in the morning and would get into touch with the Turks about page 29daylight, picking up officer patrols that were left out all night by the preceding brigade. A section of horse artillery from the Ayrshire Battery with guns mounted on ped-rails accompanied the Brigade which soon came to blows with the Turks in finding out his dispositions. After harassing the enemy all day, the Brigade early in the afternoon would begin its return to its bivouac at Romani, leaving out as before a number of officer patrols to watch the Turks. These officer patrols were of the greatest value and the timely information sent in by them on the night of August 3rd gave ample notice of the Turks' great advance.
These tactics were so skilfully carried out that every move of the Turk was known to us; and he daily reported to Constantinople—"British again driven back towards the Canal." By daylight on August 3rd the enemy had advanced to and occupied Katia Oasis—within striking distance of the infantry line at Romani. Immediately in front of Katia lay our open right flank with the Old Caravan Route leading to Dueidar and the Canal. The possibility of the Turkish attack developing in this direction had been considered by General Lawrence in consultation with Divisional Commanders; and the plans for meeting such an attack fully discussed.
Having in view that the morrow, August 4th, was the last day of the Mohammedan Feast of Bairam; and that the Turks would probably attack on that day; General Chauvel decided to leave out for the night the whole of the 1st Light Horse Brigade to hold an out-post line of about 3 miles to cover all the entrances to the sandhill plateau, which formed the Romani position, and which were unprotected by Infantry posts. It was this skilful placing of the 1st L.H. Brigade by the Divisional Commander that upset the Turkish plan—causing the enemy to deploy four hours before he intended to and making one of his columns change direction in the dark, forcing it into the soft and steeply undulating sand dunes lying between Romani and Kantara.
The night was a very quiet one and very dark. At 10 o'clock a light was seen at Katia. It was exposed four times for 10 seconds each time; then ceased; and all was quiet. Just before midnight the 1st Light Horse Brigade called up the Divisional H.Q. by telephone and reported that bodies of page 30the enemy were appearing in front of the out-post line, and that firing had commenced.
This out-post line had been taken up after dark on the evening of the 3rd but nevertheless withstood the enemy's main attack from 12 midnight to 4 a.m. on the 4th, when the 1st Brigade was reinforced by the 2nd Brigade; and then the two Brigades as previously arranged, pivoting on the extreme right of the infantry position, gradually withdrew to a line which had already been decided upon, covering the right flank and rear of the Romani position.
At 3 o'clock in the morning some more information came in from the N.Z. Brigade which had an officer patrol at Bir Abu Raml away out on the Old Caravan road. It appears that the officer in charge had heard the enemy approaching and had sent an N.C.O. with some men to investigate. This N.C.O. soon encountered the enemy, and leaving his patrol in observation hurried back to Bir Abu Raml to warn the party there, but he found himself in between two columns of Turks moving north-west. He then rode quietly to one column, rode along it until he struck a gap in the transport camels, went through and made off with his information apparently unobserved. It soon became apparent that the enemy's attack was made in three columns in numbers about 8000. One, their right column, attacked the 52nd Division in front. This attack was easily held off, but the 52nd Division was subjected to severe shelling during the day. The Turk centre column and his left column were most skilfully led round the open flank on the 52nd Division's right, and on, to seize the camp and the railway. The skill and confidence with which these columns were led was explained some days afterwards when some Turkish orders were captured, signed by Lieut.-Colonel von Stotsein, Commander of the 4th Group. These orders stated, inter alia, "Bedouin guides will be required to have a certificate to be able to cross the enemy lines." This meant that only those Bedouins who were in our pay (and supposed to be getting information for us) were to be employed. The enemy were so determined in their attack that they would undoubtedly have reached the railway but for the gallant and skilful resistance put up by the Light Horse Brigades and our Wellington Regiment. There was page 31no moon and the Turkish masses could not be seen. Our men could only fire at the flash of the enemy rifles and beat off his bayonet attack when it came.
As has been said, at daylight the 2nd L.H. Brigade, with the Wellington Regiment reinforced the 1st L.H. Brigade, prolonging the latter's right. The enemy's weight was such that the two Brigades gradually drew back until about 11 a.m. The enemy's main attack, arrested by the well-directed fire of the R.H.A. Batteries of the Anzac Mounted Division, and by our rifle and machine gun fire, which was contributed to considerably by the 52nd Division infantry posts on the right of the Romani position, appeared then to have exhausted itself, but held its ground.
The camps as well as the firing line were heavily shelled by the Turkish guns of various calibres including 5.9" and 10.5 Cm. guns, and were severely bombed by enemy planes.
The enemy now held a line running from the Bardawil along the front of the 52nd Division entrenched position and thence bending westward through, and including, the great sandhill called Mount Meredith to the great sand dune Mount Royston (named respectively after the G.Os.C. 1st and 2nd L.H. Brigades). This latter position dominated the camp area at Romani and threatened the railway line.
General Royston, under whom the Wellington Regiment was serving and who was a very Knight of the old Crusaders was throughout this momentous day the most conspicuous and ubiquitous figure on the battlefield. Although wounded he rode amongst the men, for whom he always had a cheery word, encouraging them and often exhorting them to take cover, whilst openly exposing himself. It is said that he used up no fewer than 8 horses during the fighting; and a characteristic message came from him to H.Q. late in the day—"General Royston has just been wounded and has gone to get another horse."
It was just at this critical period of the day's fighting that the N.Z.M.R. Brigade with some Yeomanry appeared on the high ground to the west of Mount Royston, and our counter stroke began.
To go back to the movements of this force since early dawn, at 2 o'clock on the morning of the 4th General Chaytor page 32had been advised of the Turkish advance against Romani and moved with his Brigade towards Dueidar along the Old Caravan Route; but events moving so rapidly at Romani and the Turkish attack proving so strong and reaching so close to the railway, that when within a mile of Dueidar he was ordered to move to Canterbury Hill close to Mount Royston, where he arrived at 11 o'clock, finding Yeomanry from the 5th Mounted Brigade already in touch with the enemy on the south west of Mount Royston.
The attack on Mount Royston at once began; and some infantry from the 42nd Division began to arrive from the Suez Canal at the Pelusium railway station close by. Aided by the accurate and rapid shooting of the Somerset R.H.A. Battery the N.Z. Brigade soon obtained a footing on Mount Royston; and by a very gallant advance in which the Yeomanry took part, the position was captured late in the afternoon; and it was occupied by the infantry, who had arrived too late to take part in the fighting. The mounted men continued to advance until darkness put an end to the fighting, capturing page break page 33some 1200 unwounded Turks and a mountain battery. The prisoners were sent into the Pelusium railway station and the N.Z. Brigade with the Yeomanry fell back to the railway line to feed and water their horses while the two L.H. Brigades put out an outpost line upon the field of battle. The 3rd L.H. Brigade, which so far had not been engaged, reached Dueidar after dark.
And now began the third phase, the thrusting back of the enemy into the desert.
Behind the Mounted Division came the 42nd Infantry Division marching in much distress in the scorching sand.
The Turks were making a very determined stand on the line Bir El Hamisah-Katia-Abu Hamra, using their guns to good effect and with numerous machine guns well placed in the palms fringing on the eastern side of the great flat marsh which stretched right across the front of the enemy's position and gave them a most excellent field of fire.
A general attack was decided upon to commence at 2.30 p.m. at which hour the N.Z. Brigade, and the 1st and 2nd L.H. Brigades advanced at the gallop over the exposed country. The 5th L.H. Regiment fixed bayonets which glittered in the sun, and the great line of galloping horses presented a magnificent spectacle—shell fire was unheeded, bullets buried themselves in the sand dunes as the horses surged over them. The advance continued until the ground became too swampy to carry the horses; and the men dismounted and went in on foot.
This mounted charge considerably shook the morale of the enemy—for in many places he displayed the white flag on the near approach of the horses.
A hot fight ensued and it was here that the popular medical officer of the Wellington Regiment, Captain Wood and his assistant Sgt. Moseley, lost their lives in succouring the wounded.
Meanwhile the 3rd L.H. on the extreme right were held up and failing to work round the enemy's right flank drew off, and this led to the Canterbury Regiment getting the full force of a strong Turkish counter attack.
Darkness put an end to the battle and the Division withdrew to water the horses, leaving Lieut. Johnson with his troop of the Auckland Regiment as a listening post.page 35
The 1st and 2nd L.H. Brigades who had borne the heat and burden of the day during the long and arduous days prior to the battle, and who withstood so gallantly the weight of the enemy's attack on the night of August 3rd and early morning of August 4th, were now so tired out that they were sent back to the bivouac lines at Romani and Etmaler. But the 5th Mounted Brigade which had been attached to the Anzac Mounted Division remained under General Chauvel's command. Orders were received to follow up the enemy—while the two infantry divisions, the 42nd and the 52nd, were respectively to advance to Katia and Abu Hamra and to hold these places.
In his cautious advance across the desert the enemy had prepared position after position and these were now invaluable to him in his retreat. He fought a very strong rearguard action well covered by his guns; and after stubborn fighting during the 6th, 7th and 8th, he was pressed back to Bir El Abd some 20 miles from the Romani lines. Assistance to the Division was given on the south by a small flying camel column from the Ballah railhead, who harassed the Turks' left flank working through Bir El Mageibra, Bir El Aweidia and Hod El Bayud.
The 1st and 2nd L.H. Brigades, who had been resting, were now ordered up and being so few in number were formed into a composite brigade under General Royston. At daylight on August 9th the Division began its advance with the New Zealanders in the centre following the telegraph line; the 1st and 2nd Brigades on the left; and the 3rd L.H. Brigade on the right and in touch with the small flying column. The enemy were soon encountered and were driven back on to Bir El Abd on a frontage of about 10 miles.
At 5 o'clock the New Zealand Brigade reached the high ground overlooking El Abd and there withstood a heavy counter attack by the Turks who came on in two columns of 5000 to 6000 each. But well backed up by the Somerset and Leicester batteries the Brigade firmly established itself across the telegraph line and the Old Caravan Road. By mid-day our advance had been completely checked—the Turks bringing up fresh troops and counter-attacking most determinedly. His guns were also well placed and his fire heavy and accurate.page 36
The Ayrshire Battery which was with Royston's column was badly cut up and great difficulty was experienced in moving the guns when he was forced to retire, being obliged to give ground for nearly a mile. The 3rd L.H. Brigade after advancing well up on the right flank was also forced to give ground by the accuracy of the Turkish shell fire, but the New Zealand Brigade held on in the centre and owing to the bending back of both wings were holding a very exposed line on the forward slopes of the hills overlooking the Hod. Though the enemy by the burning of store depots and by movement which could be observed was showing great anxiety to retire, yet finding he could hold his position and that his flanks were not threatened and being reinforced with fresh troops from El Arish, he again delivered a fierce counter-attack on a frontage of about 2½ miles right to our centre. The brunt of this attack was borne by the Canterbury and Auckland Regiments, and by a squadron of Warwickshire Yeomanry, which was under General Chaytor's command. The attack was gallantly withstood and the Turks beaten off just as darkness fell.
A great fight was put up by the machine guns. Lieut. Gordon Harper, the gallant commander of the section of machine guns attached to the Canterbury Regiment, was mortally wounded and brought out with great difficulty by his famous brother, Captain Robin Harper, O.C. Machine Gun Squadron, who had all guns available playing upon the advancing Turks arresting their advance when within 100 yards of the New Zealand position.
This defeat of the last Turkish counter-attack took place just before dusk and continued as the New Zealand Brigade withdrew under cover of these machine guns which were supported by some Yeomanry whose troopers offered many helmets to be used as "flame extinguishers" to hide the machine gun flashes as darkness came on. Each helmet was held over the muzzle and the gun fired through it, and it can be imagined the life of a helmet under such conditions would not be long; but it did its work effectually while it lasted.
Here also fell many gallant officers and men, among them Captain Johnston of the Auckland Regiment and Major Hammond of the Canterbury Regiment, both Squadron leaders. page 37Particularly sad circumstances surrounded the death of this last officer, who was very ill on the morning of the battle, in fact he had been recommended for evacuation to Hospital, but insisted on remaining and leading his squadron; and fought his men with great brilliancy throughout the day. Lieut. A. Martin of the Auckland Regiment also was severely wounded and died in Cairo some weeks later. He had shown exceptional ability as a "water officer," finding and developing wells far ahead of the Main Body. On this day at Bir el Abd after conspicuous good work he fell while leading his troop.
The three brigades were then withdrawn to water their horses and to rest some few miles back.
At daylight next morning strong patrols went forward and remained in touch with the enemy throughout the day, but the horses were too tired to enable an attack in force to be made.
On the 11th no serious fighting took place, but the enemy was watched and harassed, and plans were made for an attack on the 12th. The advance began at daylight and our patrols soon reported that the enemy was retiring—Bir El Abd was found to be evacuated—and he was followed as far as Salmana, where a small rear-guard was encountered.
Difficulties of transport and feeding the troops precluded the advance being carried any further, and arrangements were made to hold the country as far east as Bir El Abd.
The prisoners captured during the Romani operations amounted to nearly 5000, including 50 officers, some German and Austrians. We also captured a very large number of rifles and a camel-pack machine gun company complete, a mountain battery, quantities of stores and ammunition and two complete field Hospitals most excellently appointed. All the arms and equipment were of German manufacture and the camel-pack machine gun company's equipment had been especially designed for desert warfare. Many of the rifles were of the latest pattern and made of rustless steel. Enemy casualties were estimated at 3000.
The result of these operations was the complete defeat of an enemy force of some 18,000, of which in killed, wounded and prisoners, he lost 9000 men.
The Turk throughout displayed the greatest determination and tenacity. His strength during the rear-guard fighting debarred any serious interference with his flanks. Heavy going and lack of water for our horses assisted the enemy greatly in that they confined our movements. His guns were well served with an unlimited supply of ammunition. The fact that he had transported guns of 5.9 in. calibre across the yielding sand of the desert speaks page 39volumes for his engineering ability. This was accomplished apparently by a large party of workmen who preceded the guns and excavated two parallel wheel tracks through the sand to correspond with the width of the wheels on the gun carriages. These tracks were then filled with brushwood which was firmly packed, and formed an excellent road along which the guns were man-handled; a truly wonderful feat. For those places in the desert where the sand was too soft for this road, strong wooden planks were carried on camels, to be put down as temporary crossings. The same thoroughness and foresight in all branches characterised the enemy's organisation throughout, due no doubt to their German leaders. The heavy guns were manned by Austrians, the machine guns by Germans. The Field Hospitals were complete with all the instruments, fittings and drugs modern science could supply. The bid to break the Suez Canal and to conquer Egypt was a bold one and it was made by picked troops who fought a clean and vigorous fight notwithstanding the tribulation of their wonderful march in midsummer, and this justly earned the admiration of our troops. The attack upon Egypt failed and the attacking force lost at least half its numbers, but the Turkish Government thought so highly of the enterprise that it awarded a special star to the survivors.
The following extract from a captured order by Jemal Pasha is of interest:—
"Army Order.30th January, 1915.
1. Grants of money, to be given to the families of officers killed in the attack on the Canal in addition to legal pensions. (L.T. 250 in one payment apparently). 2. Officers killed, who have shown extraordinary bravery, will be promoted in rank and the pensions of the higher rank will be paid to their families. 3. Privates, corporals and N.C.Os. killed in the attack on the Canal who have shown great bravery will be promoted to a higher rank. The pensions attached to the higher rank will be paid. 4. When the conquest of Egypt has been completed the family of every officer and soldier killed will have a house built for it by the government in its town or village. 5. Claims in this connection must be authenticated by the A. C. Commander. 6. This order applies to all soldiers on the line of battle or behind it. 7. It also includes officers and men disabled by wounds and rendered unable to work.
Commander of the IV. Army, and Minister of Marine.
That these operations and the attack upon the Canal in January, 1915, were not merely raids, but were genuine and determined attempts to conquer Egypt, was amply proved afterwards when our forces were able to see the great and thorough preparations in Palestine. A new railway had been built extending the Palestine system to the Wadi El Arish, and alongside it was constructed a fine motor road. Permanent works were constructed for the conservation of water along the route; and at the Wadi El Arish enormous rock cut reservoirs were being made.page 41
The tenacity and endurance of our own troops of the Mounted Brigades were magnificent. The battle was fought and persevered with through abnormal summer heat, regardless of long periods of thirst suffered by man and beast. The artillery and machine guns covered our advances. In defence they wrought havoc on the enemy's attack. No words can adequately express the untiring devotion of the medical officers, the stretcher bearers and the sand-cart drivers who were ever in the firing line, traversing enormous distances and doing all that lay in their power to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded.
The heavy sand precluded the use of the army ambulance whether motor or horse drawn, and the wounded were collected by the cacolet camel or by the sand-cart, a two-wheeled vehicle with broad tyres on its wheels. The cacolet was a contrivance lashed to a camel's back which carried a man on each side; but the rolling motion which accompanied the camel's gait allows of neither rest nor ease and exacts the full penalty of pain from the unfortunate occupant. Happy indeed was the man whose wound permitted him to be lashed instead to his horse.
Sledges of wood and sheet iron were improvised to cope with the abnormal number of evacuations; but the close contact with the ground surface indelibly impressed upon the occupant of the sledge the rough nature of the country.