The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
The Shellal Mosaic
The Shellal Mosaic.
After the return of the Division to the vicinity of Shellal following upon the second battle of Gaza the top of the small conical hill upon which had been found some fragments of mosaic, was thoroughly explored under the supervision of Chaplain Maitland-Woods, an Australian padre. He was an enthusiastic archaeologist with a sound knowledge of handling ancient works of art.
The mosaic was carefully uncovered and proved to be the remains of a Christian Chapel floor done in beautiful colours page 115with a Greek inscription at each end. From the inscriptions it was found that this chapel had been built in the 622nd year after the Roman foundation of the city of Gaza. The Roman era of Gaza began 61 B.C., which would give the date of the chapel as 561 A.D.
In the 6th century, A.D., the coast district of Palestine was an important radiating centre of Christianity. The two churches built by Constantine, the "Holy Sepulchre" and the "Nativity," founded in 326 A.D, were the objects of the greatest veneration of all Christianity. This chapel must have stood on the road from Jerusalem to Egypt. Down this road came the Ethiopian Eunuch when he met Philip and it was just here that he was baptised.
The "True Vine" issues from a Greek Amphora of brilliant colouring in which is placed a cross in red marble, with a bright green glory shining from it. Above is a cage enclosing a bird symbolishing the Holy Spirit. On either side above this, is a representation of a hare escaping from a hound —the soul escaping from temptation. And all around the central idea are representations of animals, lions, tigers, page 116flamingoes and peacocks in glorious colours, all doing homage to the central chalice. It may be possible that each animal and bird represents some Eastern Race which had embraced Christianity. The Shellal mosaic awaits interpretation at the hands of competent experts who will be able to give to the world the full meaning of a message delivered over a thousand years ago.
After the mosaic had been fully uncovered it was carefully drawn and painted by a New Zealand sergeant with a faithful representation of its original colours, from which the Egyptian Survey Department turned out a beautiful lithograph. The padre took in hand its removal and cleverly lifted it in sections, which were, with the assistance of the engineers, securely packed in boxes and sent to Cairo.
The padre had always been of the opinion that the chapel had been built to the memory of some Saint and for a long time he was inclined to believe that our Saint George was buried there. And he became greatly excited when during the removal of the mosaic it became apparent that there was a chamber under the floor; and his enthusiasm rose to bursting point when in a small cavity there were found the bones of a skeleton. His brother officers in the Division had always viewed sceptically the idea of anyone having been buried under the floor, and so the padre, hot with his discovery, rushed off to the nearest telegraph station and sent the following wire to D.H.Q.: "Have found bones of saint"! By a strange coincidence the telegram went to Cairo, where it was sent to the Records Office, Cairo, without any alteration or explanation. In due course the padre received the following: "Send full name, No. and Regiment of Trooper Saint"! The laugh was against the padre, but he eventually scored, for the London papers took up the subject of the mosaic and devoted much space to it, and a discussion as to whose bones they might be.
At the end of May the Brigade was withdrawn from the front line and went into bivouac near Abasan el Kebir. Here for a week steady training was the order of the day; musketry, bombing, instruction in the Hotchkiss gun (of which each troop now had one), and the building up of the horses took up the whole of the men's time.page 117
A great pleasure to the men was given by the arrival of the New Zealand Band. This popular unit had left the Brigade when the advance into Palestine had begun and had remained with the Training Regiment at Moascar. Its arrival with new music and plenty of "wind," just at a time when training and dust were spoiling the sweetest of tempers, was welcomed with joy; and there was no more popular man among all the camps than Auckland's "Wally."
A Light Horse Pierrot Troupe also made its appearance about this time and cheered many a dull evening. But the greatest treat was given by the "Palestine Pops," a troupe belonging to the 74th Division, the dismounted yeomanry division who had fought as infantry on Gallipoli and were still doing so, and whose divisional badge was a broken spur. The "Palestine Pops" were talented vocalists and comedians and the "lady" was inimitable. "She" was fair, slim and graceful and "with a way with her" that took by storm the hearts of the boys.
Their first performance was given a few days after one by another troupe, in which there were several "ladies" whose antics provoked uproarious mirth; and many sallies of wit (?) passed between them and the audience. So when the 74th Division's "maiden" came upon the stage she was greeted with applause which her "get-up" and deportment justly earned. But when a few " broad" remarks were indulged in by someone in the audience she turned him down as skilfully and withal as sweetly as any Queen of the May could have done secure in her elected position and surrounded by her court. Before she had been on the stage many minutes, by the mere power of her "womanhood," she had that rough audience in the hollow of her hand, a remarkable tribute not only to her fine acting, but to the innate chivalry of that great crowd of men bowing down to "woman" merely acted.
Hot discussions followed when the performance was over as to whether "she" was really a man or a girl and one reckless man, to settle a heavy wager, stayed behind and boldly invaded the "Green Room," but was met with a good round sentence full of the expletives that none but a Tommy can use, and so returned a disappointed man.page 118
This clever "girl" who nightly delighted the hearts of hundreds of home-sick men with her winning ways was killed in the attack of the 74th Division which broke the Turkish lines on November 6th, near Sharia.
On June 1st new rifles were issued and the rifles brought from New Zealand returned to Ordnance.
The new rifle fired Mark VII. ammunition and had a flatter trajectory and a greater muzzle velocity than the old rifle, but our men were sorry to lose Mark VI. New Zealand ammunition for the machine and Hotchkiss guns. This ammunition was tested by the makers and gave a very small percentage of stoppages, a smaller percentage than any other make of S.A.A. used whether made in England, America or India.
On June 3rd the whole Brigade marched over to Khan Yunus where on the railway there was a steam disinfecting plant; and all ranks stripped off all clothing for putting through the steam chamber, a very necessary operation in this dirty country as anyone who cared to stroll down the lines any evening would have soon satisfied himself. He would probably have heard something of this sort—"Bill I've had a regular Melbourne Cup Day. I've turned my bally breeches inside out and outside in 45 blithering times and I have broken the blighters little hearts." Or he might have over-heard a verse of an improvised song sung to the Brigade's page 119popular march "John Peel," which once "brought down the house" at a camp fire concert in the desert.
"I went down the lines the other day
When I heard a fellow in the Waikatos say
I've caught 22 which is 30 less than you
But I hope to get some sleep before the morning."
On June 8th, much to everyones joy, the Brigade marched to the sea at Marakeb, immediately west of Khan Yunus, and stayed there resting and bathing for ten days. The camp was on the sea beach and there was plenty of good water for man and horse.
Advantage was taken to overhaul and improve the Hotchkiss gun saddlery. Captain Herrick, who had been a Lewis Gun enthusiast and who was in charge of the training of the Hotchkiss gunners of the Wellington Regiment, made some great improvements. He devised a carrier by which the gun was carried on the centre of the saddle and so did away with the constant galling of the horses back, an ever present source of trouble with the pack saddle as issued. The improvements designed by this officer were carried out in the field by the Brigade's farriers. These men were invaluable. No work came amiss to them and no hours were too long.
The New Zealand Brigade had long before this justly earned the reputation among the mounted troops of being the finest horse-masters in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a page 120reputation which they maintained until the end of the war. To the farriers and to Major J. Stafford, D.S.O. the Brigade Veterinary Officer, the Brigade owes more than can ever be told.
On June 17th a report was sent in to Divisional Head-quarters showing the numbers of "original" horses still with the regiments. These original horses were horses from Australia or New Zealand and which crossed the Canal in April, 1916, with the brigades. The return is as follows:—1st L. H. Brigade, 671; 2nd L. H. Brigade, 742; N.Z.M.R. Brigade, 1056. All brigades had suffered much the same casualties.
The brigadiers concurred in that the ideal horse should be from 15 to 15.3 and as near 15 hands as possible and should be stout and cobby and if possible with plenty of blood.
Steady training continued, interspersed with football and boxing tournaments; and the health of all ranks rapidly improved. A glorious surf rides in on to the Palestine coast and men and horses spent a great deal of their time in the water.page 121
A little leave to Egypt was now given and the New Zealand Brigade's quota of three officers and thirty-seven other ranks went off for ten days.
Here one puts one's finger upon one of the greatest disabilities suffered by the troops campaigning in the East. There was absolutely no respite from the glare of the sun or the tor ment of the flies or from the association with alien peoples. There were no quiet restful back areas. To go from Sinai to Egypt or from Palestine to Egypt was simply out of the frying pan into the fire, the same sun, the same flies, the same smelly East and unsociable people. There was of course a very warm-hearted English Colony in Cairo and there were exceptions even among the natives; but the Arab Mahommedan is without humour, sympathy, or the elements of cleanliness; and his only smile is a smile of deceit. Later on a Rest Camp for the Division was established at Port Said chiefly by the help of the Australian Red Cross. Here our men could get good food and sea bathing and rest; but the help of inter-course with friends, to cure war weariness, was entirely lacking. The Aotea Home was a haven of refuge to our New Zealanders, but to get there a man had to be a "convalescent" from a hospital and it was ever a point of honour not to go near a hospital until absolutely forced.
Aotea was a home indeed and the only home our men ever knew throughout the campaign in the East. But as has been said, to get there one had to be first evacuated to hospital. It was this absence of home life as the years went on that told on all alike and the great spaces and great silences of the desert intensified the home hunger. The few Bedouin children met with were made much of by our men, for in spite of their dirt and the natural unattractiveness of the Arab they were children and as children brought memories of home. Two war worn hard-bitten veterans were riding in from the desert in the dusk and passing a Bedouin Camp heard the wail of a baby. "Gee, is'nt that like home, let's take the little beggar into camp Bill"! said one, "Let's" said Bill, and for the sum of two piastres the bargain was clinched. Crowds surrounded their bivvy for hours and much and varied was the advice poured upon them. It was a good little baby, fat and round, and it caused the greatest of interest to the regiment, but page 122biscuits and bully and tea, how ever tenderly administered, is a food for a hard-doing man. The wailing grew in intensity as the days went by and their mates finally firmly and emphatically demanded some rest at night. So the foster fathers sadly went back and returned the infant to its mother.
The last days of June were spent in the bivouacs near Abasan and training went on steadily. All ranks were instructed in anti-gas methods and all officers and N.C.Os. in the handling of carrier pigeons.
On June 28th General Sir Edmund Allenby took over the command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force bringing a spirit of great optimism; and war material of all kinds poured into the area. Heavy guns arrived, a multitude of motor transport reached railhead and last, but not least, new and fast aeroplanes appeared. These gave our men intense pleasure. The mounted troops had always suffered greatly from bombing from the air, and our own planes had been powerless to prevent it. Equipped with obsolete machines the air men had done extraordinarily good work under the most unfavourable conditions for they were always a prey to the German Fokker or Albatross Scout. Now at last we were to see the tables turned and a general shout of joy went up from the whole Division when a German in an Albatross Scout was brought down in our lines by one of our airmen.
The mastery of the air after this gradually passed from the Turks, who had held it since Sinai days, to our British and Australian airmen.
July found the Brigade back in the front line at Tel el Fara, patrolling, reconnoitring and stirring up the Turk. This, as has been explained, was on the open flank of the Turkish line of defence. Towards Gaza, where the opposing lines drew together, a steady trench warfare with all its accessories was carried on by the infantry divisions. But on the right flank, owing to the distance apart of the lines and the great open flank to the east which nothing but the want of water precluded from use, all work was done on horseback. A small patrol under an officer would go out at night to test or examine some portion of the Turk's line. The party would ride on a compass bearing close up to the objective. Then a selected few would dismount and spend a few hours page 123on foot in among the Turkish patrols, examining, listening and noting down tracks, movement, trenches and above all water.
Then many reconnaissances were made to verify air intelligence. This work brought out all the hunter's instinct in man and much good work was done and the training to officers and men was invaluable. Confidence in the dark is one of the most valuable of military qualities and our men increased this native quality an hundredfold.
On the 19th the enemy were reported advancing upon Shellal; and the Division turned out with the two L. H. Brigades in front and the New Zealand Brigade in reserve. The enemy was encountered about five miles out and after a good deal of shelling by both sides he withdrew.
On July 23rd the Brigade went out with some guns to reconnoitre the enemy line before Beersheba, as intelligence had been received that the enemy had evacuated this part of his line. But he was found to be fully occupying all his works.
On August the 5th and 6th a water reconnaissance was made away to Esani in the south by the New Zealand Field Troop. Their report showed that there was ample water to sustain indefinitely two Divisions at least. About this time the Railway Construction Engineers made a flying survey of a line towards Beersheba under the protection of the New Zealand troops.
Towards the end of August the Brigade went out to the beach and there again steady training became the order of the day.page 124
Great progress was made in musketry and on September 13th a Brigade Rifle Meeting was held, bringing out some excellent shooting.
On September 18th the Brigade moved back to its old bivouac at Abasan and came into reserve for the front line.
On September 28th the Commander-in-Chief inspected the men and horses, and on October 16th he presented medals to officers and men of the Division; and the New Zealanders to be so decorated were: Captain R. P. Harper, Machine Gun Squadron; Lieut. L. J. Armstrong and Trooper D. O'Connor, for distinguished service in the field.
During this month steady training had been continued, relieved by tactical exercises-and work in conjunction with aeroplanes.
On October 24th the first move of the Great Attack on the Turkish line began.
It was now nearly six months since our men had been looking at the Promised Land from behind the Gaza-Beersheba lines, and many were the speculations as to what it was like. Day after day we had gazed at the mountains of Judea showing up like a great blue wall away to the east, and we wondered just where Jerusalem stood. We were to find page 125Palestine a rich country sharply divided into plain and mountain. Straight before us lay the plain of the Philistines stretching away north to Jaffa and thence continuing in an ever narrowing strip as the plain of Sharon to Mount Carmel. And marching with the plains on our right was the Judean plateau which rising from the desert at Beersheba reaches its average height of 2500 feet between that city and Hebron and continues north until the great bisecting plain of Armaggedon is reached to the east of Mount Carmel. Here the blue mountains meet the sea and the plains are ended.
The great blue wall of this plateau of Judea is the most characteristic sight from the plain and from it the Israelites of old looked down upon the country that was filled with corn and wine and olives. The highlands are healthly pasture land, but to grow crops of corn much and unceasing industry is required and the luxuriantly fertile plains of the Philistines must at all times have been a great temptation to the Israelites.
Captain Robin Harper, D.S.O., M.C., D.C.M. Commanding the Machine Gun Squadron.
Lt. Gordon Harper, M.C., D.C.M., Machine Gun Squadron.
Ascalon, Ashdod, Jaffa, all were full of people and hives of industry, even down to the time of the Crusade. Now there is a great silence everywhere along that coast, silence and the desolation of sand blowing where so e'er it wills. Ashdod the proud city that withstood the seige of Psammetichus for 29 years is now a Bedouin hovel, and the old Crusader castle that stood so proudly on guard at the harbour is making its last battle with the waves.
On the great ride that was to follow the fall of Beersheba we were to pass through ancient history in every mile. The old Hebrew cities are still there with their Roman and Crusader ruins. We were to pass from Um Gerar and Beersheba in the land of Abraham and Isaac by Gaza (so identified with the life of Samson) and between that city and Um Lakis (the Lachish of the Old Testament) away north past Ascalon where Herod the Great was born, Tel el Safi the ancient Gath of the Scriptures and the Blanche Garde or White Custody of the Crusaders of Richard I. Thence by Ashdod, the Azotus of the New Testament, and Yebna, celebrated of the Maccabees, and Akir (Ekron), and so to Ayun Kara where was Samson's exploit with the lion; next to Ramleh and Ludd, the Romula of the Crusaders and the Lod or Lydda of the Bible and so to Jaffa "the beautiful."