The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
By our occupation of Bir El Abd we had entered an area infected by the dreaded cholera. This was known through our intelligence agents and also from notice boards placed in infected areas by the Turkish medical officers. Precautions had been taken earlier in the campaign to regularly inoculate all ranks, not only against enteric but also cholera; these precautions bore good fruit for though there were mild outbreaks of cholera amongst our men the death rate was practically nil.page 44
At the extreme point of the curve made by the Bardawil Peninsula lies Katib El Galss—the Mount Cassius of Herodotus. This enormous sand hill, which rises some 200 feet page 45above the sea, now shows a steep cliff-like face to the waves which are encroaching upon it. Along that cliff about 50 feet from the top, stretches a line a few feet in thickness of broken Roman pottery, bricks and stone; clearly showing what was then the top of the hill upon which Cassius built his fortified camp. This is a remarkable instance of the permanency of a sand hill, for Herodotus saw it 300 B.C. Since then it has neither been blow away, nor has it even been moved; it has but added 50 feet to its height.
After our occupation of El Arish this stone was taken back and re-erected on that spot where it had been placed so many years ago.
On September 16th-17th a great reconnaissance was made as far as Mazar—half way between Bir el Abd and El Arish—by the 2nd and 3rd L.H. Brigades with a detachment of the Camel Corps, and the New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron. Mazar was surrounded and the strength of the garrison tested and then the Division withdrew. This threat so alarmed the enemy that the garrison fell back upon El Arish and Mazar was abandoned.
Early in November railway construction had advanced so well that the Division moved to Bir El Mazar and preparations were made for the capture of El Arish. All information available showed that this important centre was strongly held by the Turks and aeroplane photographs showed many lines of trenches covering the town both on the sea side and on the west and south. Every effort was made to test all sources of water between Mazar and El Arish.
Now the Wadi El Arish is what the ancients called the "River of Egypt." It is a great dry watercourse coming from the heart of the Sinai Peninsula and there flows down it, two or three times in each year, a great "spate of water." This usually occurs in December or January, at which season there are great thunderstorms among the mountains. For the rest of the year the wadi is dry; though, as we proved afterwards, water can be obtained at certain places by well-digging. Our intelligence reports showed that the Turks were building a railway from Beersheba through Magdhaba, which lies some 30 miles up the wadi from El Arish, and was intended to reach the Suez Canal by way of the route which lay through the mountains.page 47
There was always a danger of an attack by the Turks along this route so that it was necessary that the country to our south should be constantly patrolled. This work was undertaken by the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, which had been formed from New Zealand, Australian, and Yeomanry reinforcements.
The camels were swift trotting and were supposed to be able to go five days without water. New Zealand contributed two companies, the first of which—the 15th Camel Company—was formed in July under the command of Captain J. G. McCallum, a very keen and efficient young officer, who, backed up by the natural aptitude of the New Zealand soldier to fall in with existing circumstances, very soon had his page 48company fit to take the field. Later a second company was formed, again from volunteers and surplus reinforcements. The two companies took part in all operations undertaken by the I.C.C. Brigade until June, 1918, when they were re-organised, and formed the 2nd N.Z. Machine Gun Squadron in the final operations.
The Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Archibald Murray, came out to Mazar and rode round the outposts, going to the Auckland Regiment who were "farthest east" on the Old Road, and laid his plans for the advance upon El Arish.
The N.Z. Brigade, with whom marched the Divisional Headquarters, was guided by Lieut. Finlayson of the Auckland Regiment who had previously led patrols into this vacinity; and so excellent was his judgment and skill in finding his way that when daylight appeared the column was found to be within 200 yards of the small sand hill to which he had been asked to guide it. As soon as communication could be obtained with the other brigades it was found that all had reached their allotted positions before dawn and so completely isolated the town; and soon afterwards our patrols entered the town and found that the Turks had gone.page 50
The praise for this bloodless victory was in a great measure due to the horses, for the Turk was beginning to feel a wholesome dread of the speed and wide striking range of our mounted arm. He preferred to abandon rather than to defend the well prepared and excellently sited trenches at El Arish. He was so apprehensive about the security of his line of retreat that he made his exit good before the mounted troops could attack. His fears were soon realised however, at Magdhaba, where his retreat was abruptly terminated.
Immediate steps were taken to patrol the country to find out what had become of the garrison, and a line of out-posts was formed well to the east of the town. During the day the Desert Column Commander, General Chetwode, arrived on the beach at El Arish by motor launch from Port Said. Reliable information soon showed that the El Arish garrison had retired to Magdhaba and plans were put in hand for the advance of the Division to this place. The defence of El Arish was handed over to the Yeomanry and to the 52nd Division as they came up, and the Anzac Mounted Division concentrated after dark on the evening of the 21st at a point about five miles south of El Arish on the wadi. Here supplies were issued which had been brought from railhead by camel; and the Division resumed its march about midnight.
The weather was cold but the going admirable, and good progress was made. Each hour was divided into 40 minutes riding, 10 minutes leading to warm the men, and 10 minutes halt.
The fires of the enemy camp at Magdhaba having been observed at 3.50 a.m. the force continued to advance until 10 minutes to five and then halted and dismounted in an open plain some four miles from its objective, while the Divisional Commander went forward to reconnoitre. The number of bivouac fires indicated a considerable force and the brightness of the lights was very misleading as to distance. The position appeared much closer than it really was.
This showing of lights by the enemy clearly indicated how impossible he thought that tired horses and men after an all-night march of 30 miles could possibly set out immediately upon another 30 mile march to the position to which he had retired.page 51
As dawn broke, the bivouac fires disappeared, and a haze of smoke obscured the valley from view for some time. Reconnaissance of the enemy's position was therefore very difficult, and though our aeroplanes were assisting it was not until 8 o'clock that orders could be issued for the attack.
A message which helped to a decision, though entirely unofficial, was that which fell from an aeroplane of the Australian Flying Squadron. The author had flown over an enemy position and had been given such a hot reception there that his feelings prompted him to advise his friends in the Light Horse,—for home consumption only—"the…… are there all right." This important message however fell near D.H.Q. and the latter immediately took full advantage of its principal information without questioning the pedigree of the Turks concerned.
General Chaytor with his own brigade and the 3rd L.H. Brigade was given orders to move on Magdhaba by the north and north-east and to endeavour to cut off all retreat. The camels advanced straight on Magdhaba following the telegraph line and the 1st L.H. Brigade was for the present in reserve. The Division's batteries soon got to work but targets were extraordinarily hard to find. The enemy's batteries and trenches were exceedingly well concealed, but by 10 o'clock the N.Z. Brigade had closed well in and the news was brought in by an aeroplane that the enemy were beginning to retire and that there was a possibility of their escaping our enveloping movement. So the 1st L.H. Brigade was ordered to move direct on to Magdhaba, but meeting severe shrapnel fire as it trotted over the open plain, was compelled to change direction and take refuge in the wadi bed, up which it advanced against the enemy's left, detaching one regiment to move round to the south of the enemy's position. By 12 o'clock all three brigades and the Camel Brigade were hotly engaged, but on account of mirage and dust-clouds good observations were impossible.
The greatest assistance was, however, given by the aeroplanes whose reports, frequently brought in, and often given verbally by the observer, whose pilot brought him to ground by Headquarters, showed estimated positions, strength, and movements of the enemy at various points.page 52
The information generally indicated that he was preparing to evacuate. The country favoured the enemy who took full advantage of the many folds in the ground to conceal himself. Much drawing of fire was necessary before he could be located.
At noon the situation was as follows:—
The New Zealanders were engaged with and had partially enveloped the enemy's right; the 3rd L.H. Brigade was still held in reserve by General Chaytor, with the exception of the 10th L.H. regiment, under that well-known New Zealander of page 53the 2nd contingent, Lieut.-Colonel "Barney" Todd, D.S.O., which was engaged in making a wide turning movement to the south to intercept any retirement by the enemy. The I.C.C. was attacking direct on the village and the 1st L.H. Brigade was working on to the enemy's left by way of the wadi bed.
At this time the fire from the enemy mountain guns and from his rifles and machine guns was very heavy, but the guns were very badly served and the small arms fire most inaccurate.
As the attack developed, at 12.30, General Chaytor sent in the 8th and 9th L.H. Regiments between the Wellington and Canterbury regiments, where there was a gap of some 800 yards.
About 1 o'clock word was received that water could not be found at Bir Lahfan, which meant that there was no water for the horses nearer than El Arish, 30 miles away, and it was realised that the enemy was in a very strong position with redoubts well sited and fully manned. Considerable doubt was felt therefore if the position could be taken before dark.
But about 2 p.m. things began to improve; both 1st L.H. and N.Z. Brigades making progress—the 1st L.H. Brigade capturing some trenches and about 100 prisoners.
By 3.30 p.m. the New Zealanders with fixed bayonets were swarming over the trenches to the east of the houses and the Turks were surrendering in all directions.
At four o'clock General Chaytor was enabled to report that his men held the buildings and redoubts on the left and that the 10th L.H. advancing from the south had captured two trenches on that side, so that all retreat to the Turks was cut off.
As darkness came on fighting had practically ceased and prisoners were rounded up and collected, and horses watered at the captured wells.
One of the decisive events of the afternoon was the capture of a battery of four mountain guns. This was effected by Lieut. Johnston, Canterbury regiment. After the surrender of the first batch of prisoners Lieut. Johnston and six men pushed on to where the battery was still firing; page 54he attacked the position and after firing a few rounds the garrison consisting of two officers and 15 men surrendered.
The Auckland regiment, with the 1st L.H. Regiment (from the 1st L.H. Brigade) and one squadron from the 3rd L.H. Brigade were left to clear the battlefield; and the three brigades began their 30 mile ride back to El Arish, stopping at Bir Lahfan where a convoy of camels had arrived laden with much needed water for the men, who had left El Arish the night before carrying one water bottle per man only.
It must be remembered that they had been marching and fighting for 30 hours without pause and for most of them it meant the third night without sleep. To pass one night without sleep is trying; two nights is absolutely painful; but the third night without sleep after heavy fighting with all the added strain and excitement that it means—is almost an impossibility. Men and horses were dropping off at the oddest times and in the oddest of positions, and many men and horses came down in the dust; and this long night ride may safely be regarded as one of the most trying of the many wearisome marches experienced by the brigade. Apart from the intense cold which penetrated to the bone the lightly clad horsemen, the men were fatigued to such a degree that words fail to adequately describe. They had been called upon to make a superhuman effort immediately following their long march from Mazar; and had succeeded in performing all that had been asked of them.
Dense clouds of dust almost blinded the tired horses, which collided with one another in the dark. Many a man fell asleep, and letting his reins slack, was taken by his horse—who feeling the loss of control had quickened his pace—far in among the troops in front. This caused much amusement and especially so in the case of the Italian Liaison Officer who was among those who fell asleep on their horses. He was riding with the Headquarters of the Division behind one of the brigades and though clad in khaki wore a cap of a different colour and shape from the British cap. Three separate times did his horse take him away in amongst the horses of the leading brigade; and three separate times did tired and dosing troopers wake up with a start to find a stranger riding with them; and three separate times was he page 55brought back to Divisional Headquarters under arrest as a spy! He was a cavalry officer and had lived in England and in New Zealand and was a most popular man amongst all who knew him, but these repeated arrests distressed him considerably and added to the amusement of all concerned and helped to pass away the weary hours.
The powers of endurance of the human brain have their limits and rebel when overtaxed; and on this journey "visions" in various forms appeared to most of the riders. Although the route of the march was practically bare, yet streets and houses well lit up, and curiously shaped animals were seen. The Divisional Commander, usually the most staid of men and who was riding with his staff, was suddenly seen to set spurs to his horse and accompanied by the officer who was riding beside him galloped off to one side in the darkness. The column had gone on its way stumbling and grumbling for a mile or more before the General and his companion quietly slipped back into their places; and it was some time before the explanation of their sudden leaving of the column could be got out of them. It appears that they both, at the same time, thought they saw a fox and thought that they were fox hunting and so went off at a gallop.
That many hundreds of men should see tall buildings lighted up and strange forms—each according to his fancy—is curious, but that two sober sensible well-balanced men should at the same time experience the same hallucination is more than strange. Many discussions have followed these happenings and our wise ones laid it down that the brain had temporarily lost certain of its powers of endurance, which sleep alone could restore. Perhaps this phenomenon accounts for the story told in France of the "Angels of Mons" during the early stages of the war when the British troops were fighting continuously there.
The Brigade eventually arrived at its bivouac ground near Nasmi about three miles from El Arish at about six o'clock on the morning of Christmas Eve; and was almost immediately heavily bombed by enemy planes.
- 1282 Prisoners, including 43 officers.
- 1 Battery Mountain Guns.
- 4 Machine Guns complete.
- 1 Broken Machine Gun.
- 1052 Rifles.
- 180 Bayonets.
- 6 Boxes of gun ammunition.
- 100,000 Rounds of S.A.A.
- 1 Dredger.
- Component parts of an oil engine intact.
- 10 Fantasses.
- Telephone wire equipment.
- A number of plans of reservoirs, etc.
- Turkish orders and newspapers.
- 40 Horses.
- 51 Camels.
- Large quantity of Hospital equipment.
Amongst the officers captured was Khadir Bey commanding the 80th Regiment, Izzet Bey commanding 2/80 Battalion and Rushti Bey commanding 3/80 Battalion. Many hundreds of Turks were killed and wounded yet our casualties in the whole Division were only 12 killed and 134 wounded, of which the N.Z. Brigade contributed two officers, and seven men; and 36 other ranks wounded only. The extremely light casualty list may be attributed to the great adaptability of our men to this class of warfare. The attack was well-planned and well carried out with great skill and boldness, every man showing a skill and intelligent appreciation of the situation and fearless confidence in himself and his comrades. And the fine and sturdy persistence of the Youth from the Southern Cross ultimately placed them in a position to charge with the bayonet and the line of glistening bayonets at close range with determined men behind them, overcame the enemy who quickly collapsed and surrendered.page 57
It is worthy of note that in an address to the Brigade the following day General Chetwode said "that the mounted men at Magdhaba had done what he had never known cavalry in the history of war to have done before, i.e., they had not only located and surrounded the enemy's position but they had got down to it as infantry and had carried fortified positions at the point of the bayonet."
The season was midwinter in this country; and though the days had been hot the nights had been growing bitterly cold. Throughout the whole of the desert campaign, after the camps at Romani had been left, the troops had had no tents; not even a sun shelter was issued to them. When in the palm groves a certain amount of shelter from the sun could be obtained, but men bivouacing out in the open suffered the full blast from the sun. Many unauthorised "bivvies" were acquired from time to time, pieces of sacking, pieces of canvas, Bedouin cloth, in fact anything that would page 58serve as a sun shelter was pressed into use, to be thrown away again immediately a "stunt" came on. Now however with the bitterly cold nights and the prospect of winter storms coming, every effort was made to get tents from Egypt; but they were not forthcoming until some time after the winter storms had broken upon us.
Another ever present difficulty in the desert is firewood. There is a light scrub growing over many areas and it is good enough to boil the billy under a hot sun, but is never good enough as firewood to make a successful fire. A certain amount of firewood cut in the Mediterranean Islands, principally from Cyprus was available, and it was carried on Greek schooners to Kantara, sawn into two feet lengths and placed upon a military train, brought up to railhead and there distributed to the troops. There was a supposed ration of two lbs. per head per man; but this seldom came; and this thrust forward to El Arish from railhead 20 miles away, brought the firewood question to a climax. There was none: and to-morrow was Christmas Day. By the help of our postal service, the willing co-operation of the railways and camel transport and everybody on the line of communications, fairly large Christmas mails had come in, including amongst other good things—plum puddings and turkeys from the O.C. Training Regiment, Major Samuel. Hence the even more urgent demand for firewood. There were no ruins handy as there were always in France; there was only El Arish, which with our British scrupulous justice to inferior races was protected even more securely than our towns in our own country. But still there were good Christmas fires, and there were good Christmas dinners well cooked! An excited signalling officer rushed into Divisional Headquarters just before sundown and said "your men are cutting down the telegraph poles on the telegraph line which leads from El Arish to Magdhaba." Here was trouble for somebody! It must be remembered that all the way from Kantara to El Arish and on to Rafa and so to Palestine, stretches a telegraph line built of iron and wood. Owing to the action of the wind blowing sand along the surface of the desert, posts are built with iron bases which stand some four feet above the sand level, and to these iron bases page 59the ordinary wooden posts are bolted. Such was the scarcity of timber for poles that the strictest Army Orders had from time to time been issued prohibiting the cutting down or "lifting" of any posts; and to do the Force justice this order was well obeyed. But the urgency of Christmas dinners and cold weather had not before been experienced.
However, just as the wearied Staff began to see what could be done in came the Divisional Commander, who, hearing what was the matter, said with a laugh, that he had just come down this particular telegraph line and that the men removing the poles were the Signallers themselves (which of course they had a right to do for use in other communication lines). "I saw," he said, "two or three wagons being loaded with poles, which several gangs of men had unbolted from off the iron bases, while others took down the wires and rolled them up depositing them in bundles (together with the insulators) against the denuded bases. No other but your own men would be doing this," and the Signalling officer retired discomfited.
Half way through Christmas afternoon he rushed in again more angry and excited than before, saying that he was right after all, they were men from the regiments, and he poured forth many statements in proof. Of course the Staff had now to really act, and it was found that the Camel Brigade had hit upon this clever plan which had deceived even the Divisional Commander himself. There was much said—and written—of course, but the Christmas dinners had been cooked and the men had a little store of wood put away for the cold nights; and H.M. Government Signals was minus five whole miles of telegraph line.
The men had two fine days in which to rest and look about them before the rain came.
El Arish was found to be rather different from the villages of the Delta, though the houses were of the same low flat topped kind; but the town had not outwardly the same dirty appearance. The houses, as in Egypt, were of sun-dried brick, and were washed over with a coating of light yellowish plaster made from the clay found in the El Arish flats. This gave the town a bright and clean appearance. The page 60people, too, were very different. There appeared to be a mixture of many races. Many had blue eyes and fairish skin. One of the native police belonging to the town though unable to speak any language but Arabic, yet with his short close cut beard and blue eyes was a typical Frenchman from the Channel, possibly a descendant of Napoleon's ill-fated army. They were indeed a cosmopolitan, cheerful and vivacious people.
Approaching the town from the west along the Old Caravan Road, one usually follows a track that leads on to the sea beach about four miles from the mouth of the wadi. The beach is here a magnificent one—some 100 to 200 yards wide, and close down to it grow groves of luxuriant young date palms. We soon found the reason of this growth so close to salt water, in the excellent fresh water that was to be found in the sand—the best we had tasted since leaving Egypt, and it was in unlimited quantities.
Looking east there is a bold sand hill jutting right on to the beach; and on the top a domed tomb. This is the tomb of Nebi Yesir, and immediately beyond is a great grove of very tall and feathery palms. Here was the mouth of the wadi—the famous "River of Egypt."
Inland up the wadi some two miles lies in a hollow surrounded on three sides by sandhills, the town of El Arish, on an alluvial flat of yellow soil. The most conspicuous object is the Mosque (with its minaret) on a rise, and beside it is the ruins of a great fort whose stone walls were thrown down by the guns of the British Navy. It was this fort that withstood Napoleon for a whole week.
Looking east across the wadi are great groves of palms and more houses, now the village of El Risa. No doubt when El Arish was Rhinocolura it was a large city on both sides of the "River," and to it in those days were banished thieves from Egypt, whose punishment was not only banishment but disfigurement—by the slitting of their noses.
The Wadi El Arish is for 10 months of the year a dry watercourse, with its shingle beds and low alluvial flats, much resembling a New Zealand river. Debouching from the mountains just above Magdhaba, it bisects a narrow plain which at one time must have been intensely cultivated. Guide page 61books tell us El Arish is famous for its dates, figs and vines. The two first are there but there was no sign of the vines, though there were many acres of excellent vine country.
During December and January the wadi is liable to come down "in spate" on account of thunderstorms in the mountains. Our men were able to see it so on two occasions and both men and horses much enjoyed splashing through the quickly running water on a hard shingle bottom.
On 27th December came a bitter gale from the north-west with much rain and even hail. Horses and men were huddled into all the sheltered nooks that could be found. This gale and rain lasted for twelve days, during which much interest was caused by a trawler dragging her anchor and coming ashore a total wreck. A wharf had been erected in wonderfully quick time by the Australian Bridging Train immediately after our arrival. At this wharf it was intended that store ships should unload; but the gale formed a great sand bar right across its end and it was never used for the purpose.
During the course of the storm great changes were made in the huge sandhills that abut on El Arish on the western side—they were torn about, increased in height, blown flat and great holes excavated among them. In one of these holes, over a mile from the cultivated flat of good soil, which adjoins the town, was laid bare a portion of the plain that had page 62been buried by sand, many many generations ago; and on this bare portion were the clearly marked furrows of a plough.Who had laid those furrows? Perhaps he who paused in his work to watch the hosts of Cambyses the Persian go by; or perhaps one of those noseless inhabitants of Rhinocolura banished from Egypt some thousands of years ago.
The desert with rain and cloud took on a new and absorbing aspect; for the weather was bracing and inducive to effort; and the ground hard with the moisture in it; and many a joyful gallop had man and horse, where before was toil and heat and flies.
About this time our first store ship arrived at El Arish. Native boatmen with their boats from Alexandria were brought over to do the unloading; and it was hoped that our much overworked railway would be greatly eased by these sea-borne rations. But the Egyptian boatmen did not take kindly to the work. This work consisted of rowing their great double ended surf-boats out to the store ship, where she lay at anchor a mile from the shore; loading up their boats with rations and bringing them ashore—the boat being met in the surf by a large party of natives stripped to the waist and carrying a long rope. This rope was attached to the boat as she came through the surf and the team of men then ran away with her up on to the beach. The rate of unloading became so slow that it was seriously considered whether it would be advisable to give up landing stores on the beach, when a happy thought struck someone that the New Zealanders had just received a detachment of Rarotongans, who as Pacific Islanders were no doubt expert boatmen. Enquiries were made and it was found that they were all at home in the water, and they eagerly took on the job of manning two surf boats. These two boats put up wonderful records in unloading stores, shaming the Gyppies into greater effort, and building up a school of competition by which the boat making the greater number of trips in the day, received a flag mounted on a pole which was placed in the bows of the boat and carried throughout the following day.
Our Rarotongans were then withdrawn as there was more important work for them to do. But their example remained for the rest of the campaign, and the victorious flag was page 63carried by the winning boat right up the length of the coast, until Jaffa was reached.
The 1st Light Horse Brigade made a great reconnaissance to the next village, Sheikh Zowaiid, about half-way to Rafa (and therefore to the Turkish border), and brought back stories of great rolling plains; of grass land and of crops just coming through the ground; and of a great lake of water (though they omitted to say it was brackish); and of the village of Sheikh Zowaiid itself with its stone walls and Turkish oil engines and pumps. And the Brigadier exhibited proudly a dozen healthy young hens "all laying" which he had purchased from the Sheikh.
These same hens became well known throughout the Anzac Mounted Division. If one ever wanted to find Brigade Headquarters one looked out for the chicken coops which on the move were carried on a camel; or if one were out riding since early dawn and feeling very hungry directed one's steps to Brigade Headquarters—there was always ready a hearty Australian welcome and a good breakfast with bacon and "eggs." Charlie Cox's chickens became proverbial!
Meanwhile many and anxious were the eyes directed upon the railway line as it crept up to El Arish. The great question of the day—a question which caused as much speculation as the Melbourne Cup—was "would it cross the wadi?" The construction engineers were plagued with questions—but knew nothing. Their instructions were to build to El Arish. Then a rumour went around that a shipload of railway material had just arrived at Kantara, in fact a man coming back from leave said he had seen two of them (and is it not wonderful how one always heard first of what was going to happen at the "Front," from the "Back"?). Then one joyful day, a patrol was ordered as escort to the surveying engineer, our good friend Hay—who went away across the wadi; and we said, looking into each other's eyes, "It seems too good to be true, we are for the Promised Land after all!"
A diversion came and put an end to all these debates for a while. News had come in from many sources that there was a strong post of the enemy at Rafa, the last village of Sinai and which is situated on the Old Road where it crosses the Turco-Egyptian Boundary Line.
Intelligence reports showed some 2000 or 3000 men with guns strongly entrenched just out of Rafa, and from good page break page 65aeroplane photographs capital plans were drawn of the enemy position showing every trench.
The position appeared to be on paper very formidable. There was a central "keep" on a hill called El Magruntein and spreading out fanwise towards the south-east, south and south-west was a system of redoubts connected by trenches.
The Division received orders to move on the evening of the 8th January, 1917, to attack the enemy at Rafa at dawn next day. This time the Division was to be accompanied by the Camel Brigade (with its Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery) and by the 5th Brigade Yeomanry, with a battery of the Honourable Artillery Company (18 prs.). The whole force was to be under the command of Sir P. Chetwode.
It is necessary to lay some stress upon the difficulties of the undertaking, because the famous cavalry raids of history offer no real standard of comparison.page 66
In the European wars of 1865 and of 1870, cavalry actions did not take place at any great distance from their base and even then there was food and water in plenty in the country. Again in America the great raids of Jeb Stuart and of Morgan were undertaken through country upon which the raiders could live. Our mounted troops (the cavalry of the Great War) on the other hand, have made their raids in the desert, where all supplies even so far as water for the horses had to be carried with the column. Our mounted troops carried out their raids in a country where, if a man fell out of the column and wandered alone, he perished miserably; where, if a water bottle by mischance were overturned or leaked, there was no water for the owner for perhaps another twenty-four hours; and this under a burning sun by day and bitter cold by night, in which he became soaked to the skin with the dew; and man cannot march and fight for more than a very limited time without food and drink.
Then, again, the task set our mounted troops in these raids must be considered. To attack and overcome a stubborn enemy strongly entrenched with both field and machine guns, is at all times a difficult task. How much more so when the attacking force has a few paltry 18-pounders behind them, however well served these be. Yet these difficulties were again and again gloriously overcome by these young soldiers from the Southern Seas. It was a job that required dash and determination, combined with an infinity of painstaking fore-thought. The last round of ammunition, the last pound of "bully" and biscuits, and the last pint of water had to be worked out. When supplies could not be carried by the men they had to be carried to him and delivered at the very moment when wanted.
Yet all this was done. Men who had hunted and farmed fought as veteran soldiers, full of dash and determination and cunning; and he who had carried on a business or wielded a pen took his place and supplied and fed men and horses as never had been done before, or could have been done, even by the justly famed A.S.C. in the British Army itself.
Late in the afternoon the column assembled on the plain on the east side of the wadi over against El Arish. The wadi was "in spate" and the men and horses much enjoyed page 67fording the River of Egypt—splashing through the water on the shingle was so like New Zealand. With a thirty-mile ride to be considered it was decided that an assembly at dusk (as was the custom) would not give time; so the observation and perhaps bombing of enemy aeroplanes was risked and the column was actually in motion before the sun went down.
The first part of the way lay over very heavy sand-dunes, which tried the double-gun teams and ammunition wagon teams to the utmost; and it was some miles before the Old Road in its defined form appeared, and then the column took to that great shallow trough worked down by the feet of countless generations. The guns and ammunition wagons were given the hardened centre and the horsemen rode on each side.
Let us stop and watch them go by in the moonlight. The great wonder of the desert is its all-embracing silence—all sound is swallowed up—and so in silence they go by, each troop riding in line with its troop leader in front. Over the swelling sandhills they come, line upon line—noiseless they go—no song, no laughter, no talking, not a light to be seen; no sound but the snort of a horse as he blows the dust from his nostrils; or the click of two stirrup irons touching as two riders close in together; or the jingle of the links on the pack horses; or perhaps a neck-chain rattling on the pommel. No other sound is heard unless one be very close, then there is a page 68low swish swish as the sand spurts out in front of a horse's foot slithering on from step to step. All are intent upon the work in hand; all with faces turned to the Promised Land.
Here come the Light Horse, with their emu plumes waving—here the quiet grim New Zealanders—here Yeomanry in helmets from many countries—and on the road itself go by the guns with their Scotch and English crews—and away out on the flank stretching out mile after mile into the black darkness of night come the camels, riding in sections four abreast.
There are Australians among them and Yeomen from the British Isles and our own New Zealanders, and following them a band of tall, silent, swarthy Sikhs on huge Indian camels. These are the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery, who so ably serve the Camel Brigade. And lastly, far behind, softly and slowly and calmly, come long streams of laden camels led by Egyptians bare-footed in the sand.
Very good progress was made to Sheikh Zowaiid which the head of the column, reached about 10 o'clock, and the whole force closed up and rested till 1 a.m. on the 9th, the men dismounting and going to sleep with their bridles on their arms; but to the unbounded surprise of everyone the good steeds instead of standing as usual as quiet and steady as statues and dozing also, immediately got their heads down and began cropping. Delighted investigations showed a halt had been made on cultivated land—with the crop showing about six inches—light sandy soil certainly, but soil it was. Though this caused a loss of much useful sleep, yet the pleasure shown by the horses more than made up for it, and many a man gave up entirely any thought of sleep and helped his horse to a "real green feed."
At 1 a.m. on the 9th the column continued its march, with the Yeomanry following the "Old Road" direct on Rafa, and the Anzac Mounted Division bearing away to the east to get into position to attack from the south, east and north. By the Column Commander's orders all wheels except the guns were to be left at Sheikh Zowaiid. This was done under protest by all Brigadiers as it meant leaving all reserve ammunition behind.page 69
About half a mile after leaving Sheikh Zowaiid an enemy Bedouin Camel Patrol was captured—luckily not a man got away. At half past three the flank guard of the 3rd L.H. Brigade ran into a Turkish post and captured two Turks, but not before they had fired a flare. But this was not answered from anyhere and was possibly not seen.
It was known that there were a great number of Bedouins in this district and aeroplane photos had shown a very large encampment at Karm Ibn Musleh—close on to the Border—so the N.Z. Brigade was sent forward on a special duty to round up these Arabs. This was successfully done at daylight, but not before the warning Arab "lu-lu-ing" had gone wailing over the downs—a most eerie sound in the half light. Immediately daylight came the nearest camp sent up a smoke signal and this was answered from camp to camp.
At six o'clock the Auckland Regiment in the advance reached the Boundary Line between Egypt and Turkey; and having halted his regiment the old Colonel rode forward alone, past the Boundary Pillar, and taking off his hat, there thanked Almighty God that he had at last been permitted to enter the Holy Land (and was the first New Zealander to do so!) and came back smiling—and the sun rose and we were out of Egypt. And for the rest of the day the battle was fought just round about here—in two countries at once—in Palestine and Egypt; one might almost say in two continents—in Asia and Africa; for the Boundary Line between Turkey and Egypt ran its pillared course to the Gulf of Akaba about one mile from the great Redoubt on El Magruntein.
The battle of Rafa took the same course as that of Maghdaba—the long night approach, the contact at dawn, the closing in during the forenoon, the determined attack in the afternoon and the surrender at dusk.
But here the task was greater. At Maghdaba the enemy's strength lay largely in his invisibility—the flat ground and well-sited trenches took hours to find. Here the strength lay not in the flatness of the position, but in its rising ground with its central "keep" on El Magruntein, a conical grassy sloped hill some 200 feet above the surrounding country. Clear for 2000 yards or more all round this position lay a page 70beautiful turf laud, slightly rolling, with a background of the great dunes stretching right along the coast in a strip of a half mile to three miles in width—away up to Jaffa. The edges of these sandhills were about a thousand yards from the centre of the Turkish position on its western side.
As the sun came up the enemy lines could be seen with the central keep dominating the whole—providing many tiers of fire to back up the well planned redoubts and lines of trenches. These were laid out by the German Engineer and dug by the Turk—a combination of best field engineer and best "digger" in the world. But forethought and good leading led the attack eventually on to the one place vulnerable.
At a quarter past six the Division was placed as follows:—Divisional Headquarters, 1st and 3rd L.H. Brigades and the Artillery just south of Karm Ibn Musleh. The N.Z. Brigade was about one and a quarter miles North at Point 350, close to the i in Shok El Sufi; and the Camels three-quarters of a mile west of Karm Ibn Musleh. The Divisional Commander and Brigadiers spent a little time in studying the position page 71while the aeroplanes were making their observations. These soon reported that they had been fired upon from all trenches. The airmen, however, performed perhaps their most useful work at a distance from the actual battlefield. They kept the movements of the enemy forces under observation giving timely news of the advance of the relieving columns from Shellal or Khan Yunus.
Shortly after 8 o'clock orders were issued for the attack; the New Zealanders were to attack from the east—taking the group of trenches C4 and C5; and the Brigadier was to make provision for the safety of his own right flank (and rear) which extended to the sea.
The 1st L.H. Brigade was ordered to attack C3, C2 and C1 and when these objectives had been carried both brigades were to rally and attack the central redoubt. The Camels were ordered to attack D Group and the 3rd L.H. Brigade to remain in reserve.
In the meantime a New Zealand patrol had reached to the north of Rafa and cut the telegraph line.
The brigades were soon in motion towards their several objectives and the New Zealanders had some four miles further north to go in order to attack from the east. It was a sight to hearten even a conscientious objector to see those magnificent men and horses moving over the close turfed open downs in "Artillery formation" with the Brigade Headquarters in the lead.
At 10 o'clock the attack began with the Aucklanders leading—supported by two machine guns. The Canterbury Regiment was ordered to prolong the Auckland right and in doing so advanced upon and captured Rafa, intercepting some camels which were seen retiring from the El Magruntoin position. Six Germans, 2 Turkish Officers, 16 other ranks and 21 Bedouins together with camels, horses and mules were taken with a line of half completed works running from Rafa to the south east. In Rafa itself were a few huts, the Police Barracks and the Police Post on the Main Road.
In getting into a position well forward and where the led horses could be left, the Auckland Regiment galloped over some out-lying trenches, and two German Officers and some 20 Turks were captured. Two of the latter attempted to run page 72away, but Major McCarroll cut one down with his sword and severely wounded him. This is probably the first occasion on which a sword was used by a New Zealander in this War.
The Wellington Regiment was ordered to support the Canterbury Regiment and also to protect the brigade from attack from the north and north-east, the direction of Khan Yunus and Shellal, at both of which places the enemy were known to be in numbers. So two troops were sent off for this purpose.
By 11 o'clock the position of the force was as follows:—From the extreme right (or northern flank) Canterbury Regiment, Auckland Regiment, 1st L.H. Brigade, 3rd L.H. Brigade, Camel Brigade and on their left and reaching to the sandhills the 5th Yeomanry Brigade.
At this hour General Chaytor moved his Headquarters to the Boundary Post one mile south-east of Rafa, immediately behind the Auckland Regiment. The Inverness Battery from a position near the Anzac Mounted Division Headquarters covered the advance of the Brigade, later moving to a covered position behind Brigade Headquarters at a range of 2250 yards. During the advance two reserve guns of the N.Z.M.G Squadron were placed in position on a small ridge which afforded cover. Very good shooting was done by these guns, supported by half a troop from one of the regiments, on trenches and parties of the enemy in C group at a range of about 800 yards and the fire greatly assisted the 3rd Brigade in advancing; in fact it eventually forced the enemy to abandon that portion of his position and an enemy machine gun was subsequently found there. The Machine Gun Squadron Commander then took over the four remaining guns and distributed them along the line of attack. The machine gunners advanced with the troops, giving them mutual support, and they were able to bring covering fire to bear on the central redoubt right up to the time of its capture.
To bring this pressure to bear at this time the New Zealand Brigade had continued their steady good work. After the capture of Rafa and the clearing of the sandhills to the sea (which was done by the Wellington Regiment) the Brigade settled down about noon to the systematic taking of the great central redoubt.
The Canterburys, on the right of the Brigade's advance, were steadily working their way forward just inside the sand belt and between them and the Aucklanders was the Wellington Regiment less the squadron on the look-out to the north and east. All three regiments continued making steady progress, though owing to the bowling-green nature of the country the pace was necessarily slow, and delay was caused by the "overs" from the H.A.C. battery attached to the Yeomanry. At two p.m. the Canterbury Regiment gained touch with the Yeomanry who were attacking straight along the road from El Arish and whose left was on the sandhills. These two forces junctioning on the sandhills completed the encirclement of the whole Turkish Force.
At 2.45 p.m. most important information was obtained from a Turkish machine gun officer and three Germans who had been captured by a Wellington troop, on the watch towards Khan Yunus. The information disclosed the fact that the 160th Regiment had left Shellal when the attack began with the intention of reinforceing the Rafa Garrison. Shellal is about 10 miles away on the Wadi Ghuzzeh and the going is good. Further information went to show that the Rafa Garrison consisted of two taburs of the 31st Regiment each one thousand strong, with four Krupp mountain guns. At this hour though the 1st L.H. Brigade had been making good progress and had reached the line of the "Big Tree" they were now at a standstill. The 3rd Brigade on their left were also held up and no progress could be made by the Camel Brigade or by the Yeomanry.page 75
At half-past three General Chetwode ordered all guns available to be turned on to the Central Redoubt and that a general assault was to take place; but still no progress was made and the enemy planes at about this time became very active in their bombing. Disquieting reports also came in from the two troops of the Wellington Regiment who were now engaged with the advanced guard of the enemy relieving forces advancing from Khan Yunus and Shellal respectively. These appeared to be about two battalions in number and other troops were seen further back advancing over the hills, but too far off for an estimate of their numbers to be made.
The position at this time was critical. The Turks in the trenches were fighting stubbornly and large bodies of enemy reinforcements were close at hand. Ammunition was running short in the firing line and the Inverness Battery, which had so effectively assisted the New Zealand Brigade throughout the day, ran out completely and was sent back.
A conversation took place on the telephone between the Divisional Commander and the Commander of the Desert Column, as to the advisability of abandoning the attack and withdrawing the troops owing to the advance of the enemy reinforcements. Before, however, any orders could be put into effect the New Zealanders were seen on the crest of the Central Redoubt—having stormed and captured it at the point of the bayonet. After which the remaining enemy positions quickly fell to the other brigades—being dominated and enfiladed by the New Zealanders on the central keep.
The attack which brought about this sudden transformation was carried through in perfect manner and was the culmination of a day of steady methodical and persistent work, exhibiting the characteristic tenacity of the New Zealanders and their fighting Brigadier.
It was New Zealand's day. The Brigade had advanced across grassy slopes, with no cover but an occasional clump of the Iris Lily, planted to show the boundary of a field. The covering fire from the machine guns, Lewis guns, and rifles was perfect, and was the great feature of the attack. At four o'clock, when General Chaytor ordered a general assault, the hail of bullets on the redoubt made it smoke like a furnace. This kept the enemy fire down to such an extent and so page 76disturbed his aim that our men were enabled to cover the last 800 yards of glacis-like slope in two grand rushes, every one having made up his mind to "get home." Another out-standing feature of the Brigade's attack was the determined use of machine guns. These advanced in the firing line, crossing their fire to get better targets, co-operating with one another and with the machine guns of the 1st Light Horse Brigade and advancing to within 400 yards of the Turk's main position. Four guns of the Canterbury Regiment on the right flank gave good covering fire at effective ranges. These guns were placed in a trench, but were afterwards-moved forward to a sunken road, from which position they were able to maintain "overhead" covering fire until the assaulting troops were within a few yards of the trenches. The position of these guns was also of such a nature that had the pressure from the enemy reinforcements advancing from Shellal proved too heavy to be held off, and the Brigade forced to retire to the coast, they would have been most useful and effective in covering the retirement.
Another feature of the final charge was the spectacle of many of our men firing as they ran—such was the feeling of "Fire Superiority."
After a short pause to reorganise in the redoubt, an attack was launched upon the "sandy redoubt"—"C" 5—which quickly surrendered. Darkness had now come on and the Brigade assembled close to the great redoubt while prisoners were being collected and sent on to Sheikh Zowaiid.
It was still a race against time, and no one knew what might develop from the Turkish columns from Shellal and Khan Yunus so ably held off all day by the Wellington Regiment. The whole Division was therefore given orders to move back to Sheikh Zowaiid where there was water ready and supplies for horse and man. These were reached about midnight.
The Ambulance Carts and the Stretcher Bearers were still busy and the work of tending and collecting the wounded was carried on far into the night, even though the Ambulances had worked without ceasing throughout the long day. Prisoners, amongst whom were German machine gunners, had to be collected; the captured guns taken away, and a Christian page 77burial given to those gallant fellows who had given their all for their country. A strong rearguard therefore was left and all available empty wagons sent up from Sheikh Zowaiid with which to clear the battlefield.
At Sheikh Zowaiid the Wellington Regiment remained until the morning of the 11th, to enable this to be done.
The Division had marched back to El Arish on the 10th, reaching there tired, but successful, on the evening of the same day.
The 15th Coy I.C.C. Brigade (The New Zealand Company) had some heavy fighting during the day, and their brilliant commander, Captain McCallum, the man who had made the company, was killed.
- 162 Wounded (and collected by us).
- 1472 Prisoners.
- 4 Krupp Guns.
- 7 Machine Guns.
- 1610 Rifles.
- 45,000 Rounds of S.A.A.
- 71 Belts of S.A.A.
- 134 Pack Saddles.
- 85 Camels.
- 19 Horses.
- 35 Mules; and a large quantity of miscellaneous equipment.
The expenditure of small arms ammunition was large, and adverse comments were afterwards made; but ammunition is cheaper than men, and the free use of machine and Lewis guns undoubtedly enabled the N.Z. Brigade to capture what at one time looked to be an impregnable position.
The capture of Rafa with its Turkish garrison completed the clearing out of the enemy from Sinai, which province he had held since the outbreak of the war. It completed the Sinai Campaign, the Desert Campaign as it was often called, in which the Anzac Mounted Division had borne the chief part and upon which almost the whole of the fighting had fallen. Henceforth the British forces engaged were to be greatly increased and the scope of the fighting greatly extended, but it was in this Desert Campaign in Sinai that the spade work was done, that the experience was gained, and the force forged, that was ultimately so dramatically to overthrow Turkey.
The small force of Australian and New Zealand horsemen and British Territorial horse-gunners which began the page 80campaign at Romani formed the nucleus of the largest body of horse that had ever operated under one commander since the days of Darius the Persian; and with their comrades from Great Britain and India, were to justify without any doubt the retention of cavalry as an indispensable arm of the service.
This small force had grown into the "Desert Column" and was to become "East Force" at the battles of Gaza and ultimately the great "Egyptian Expeditionary Force" that was to overthrow the Turkish Empire.
The Division settled down into fairly comfortable bivouacs and tents were brought up by train. The New Zealand Brigade was camped on the shore about three miles from El Arish where there was an ample supply of good water. Bathing, football, boxing, were fully indulged in and our men worthily upheld New Zealand's traditions. The absorbing topic of the hour again became the railway, and its progress towards Palestine was eagerly watched.