The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
How the Brigade went down to Jericho
How the Brigade went down to Jericho
Though the British Forces had occupied Jerusalem on December 9th, the Turk remained occupying the "Wilderness"—that tract of rough, barren, rocky country which lies between Jerusalem and the Jordan. He also maintained control of the Dead Sea, and brought large portions of his grain supplies this way from Kerak and the country east of the Dead Sea. These supplies were landed by motor boats page 173near the mouth of the Jordan and thence distributed northwards by motor lorry. It was decided, therefore, that Jericho must be occupied, and for this purpose the Anzac Mounted Division was ordered to move to the vicinity of Jerusalem, in readiness for a descent into the valley of the Jordan.
The troops for the operations were the 60th Division (London), with one Brigade of the 74th Division, the 53rd Division (all these were infantry), and the Anzac Mounted Division. The infantry formations were in position covering Jerusalem. On this occasion the Anzacs were without the 2nd L.H. Brigade, which was left on the plain holding a portion of the line there.
The enemy occupied a very strong line in exceedingly rough and waterless country, and the operations to drive him out were to be in two stages. The first stage was to consist of forcing him back upon his stronghold of Jebel Ektief on the main Jerusalem-Jericho road, and from El Muntar, a high hill between Bethlehem and Jericho, and over which was to lie the route of the mounted troops. The second phase was to be the storming by the infantry of the stronghold of Jebel Ektief, which blocked the road to Jericho; while the role of the mounted troops was to reach the Dead Sea by the shortest route and then to proceed up the Jordan, cutting off the garrison of Jericho.
On February 9th the Wellington Regiment left its bivouac at Richon and marched by the Jerusalem road to Bethlehem, camping for two days on account of the rain at Latron, a round hill surmounted by the ruins of a fort which commands the gorge at the foot of the hill through which the road to Jerusalem lies. In the days of the Romans this hill was occupied by a notorious robber, who levied toll upon all passers-by until a special expedition was sent against him. He was seized and hanged on the summit of the hill, which has been called since that time Latron (latro—a robber).
As it was not desired that the presence of the Division near Jerusalem should be known, the movement into the hills from Richon took place over the ancient Roman road which led from Ascalon to Jerusalem.
To reach this road the Division rode across the plain through the garden colony of Deiran (Rechoboth), past Akir, the ancient Ekron of the Old Testament and one of the capital cities of the Philistines, and into the foothills by following the Wadi Surar—the Valley of Sorek of the Bible—for some miles, and then striking across a beautiful flower-bespangled piece of low, rocky hill country, the Roman road was reached as it enters the Wadi es Sunt—the Valley of Elah. Right through the old Philistine country the route lay; past Tidnah (the ancient Timnath, the native place of Samson's wife), and past Tell Zakariya, the ancient Azekah, where, in the time of Joshua, the Philistines were utterly routed by the Israelites, who fell upon them in the midst of a hailstorm.page 175
Beyond the narrow pass at Zakariya the wadi opens out into a level valley bisected by the steep bed of a stream. Here it was that David slew Goliath. Soon after passing the village of Zakariya the road rises rapidly, following the bed of the wadi, and there are many stretches of bare rock cut into huge steps by the old Romans as the road rises rapidly into the mountains of Judea.
On the top of the Judean plateau a little south of Bethlehem, the Jerusalem-Hebron road was reached close by King Solomon's Pools. These three vast rock reservoirs were found to be full of water, and were used for the watering of the Division.
The remainder of the New Zealand Brigade reached Bethlehem on the 17th, and General Meldrum established his headquarters in a Greek monastery there. On the same day the Wellington Regiment, with a section of machine guns moved to Ibn Obeid, about six miles due east of Bethlehem on the page 176Wadi en Nar, which, taking its rise at Jerusalem as the brooks Kedron and Hinnom, falls rapidly through the wilderness into the Dead Sea. Regimental Headquarters were established in the monastery there and reconnaissances were made towards Jericho.
The weather on the plains had been wet, but the change to the heights of Judea was felt very much. Here the weather was cold, even in daytime, and very cold at night. Opportunity was taken to send parties to Jerusalem, and the padres proved invaluable as guides, for they were all enthusiastic students of the Holy Land and were well conversant with Jerusalem and its site from constant study.
Operations began on February 19th, and by nightfall the first phase had been successfully carried out. Daylight on the 20th found the Division strung out in single file extending over some eight miles of rough mountain track. The head of this singularly narrow column had reached about a mile east of the great El Muntar hill, and had run into a Turkish out-post. The infantry on the left away on the main road were attacking Jebel Ektief, where the Turk was putting up a very strong resistance.
During the night the Wellington Regiment had proceeded down the Wadi en Nar and had reached a valley to the east of the great El Muntar hill (the hill of the Scapegoat of the Old Testament), and now formed the advanced guard to the New Zealand Brigade, behind which came the 1st Light Horse Brigade. All night the men had been clambering over the rocky tracks leading their horses. The route followed was practically a goat track only, though marked on the map "Ancient Road"; no wheels were taken; no supplies but such as could be carried by man and horse; and the only ammunition taken was a small camel train of light active camels, each carrying two boxes of S.A.A. No guns accompanied the Division, but they had been sent down the main road to Jericho to follow the infantry advance.
To deploy for the attack a column in single file of eight miles in length cannot be done in a few minutes; and it was some hours before the New Zealanders thoroughly got to work.page break page 177
El Muntar; the great hill which the Division crossed, is 1723 feet above sea level and 1250 feet above this flat-bottomed valley in which the head of the column had been held up by the Turkish positions on the hills on the far side of it. This descent of 1250 feet is all within a space of three miles, down which the track zig-zagged in full view of the enemy, and the sight of eight miles of horses slowly defiling down this hill must have had a great part in the ultimate abandonment of a very strong position which the Turks held with superior numbers and armament.
This position lay across the Ancient Road, with its left on the high hill Point 306 (Tubk-el Kaneiterah) and its right on the hill 288 (Jebel el Kulimum). Between these the road runs, and to get at the enemy our troops had to descend into a flat, open valley.
This had been boldly and skilfully reconnoitred by Sergeant W. M. Fitzgerald and Corporal G. H. Patton, of the Wellington Regiment, who, leaving the regiment on the evening of the 18th, had penetrated the enemy lines and had page 178reached Neby Musa. They rejoined at daylight on the 20th, reporting the enemy in strength at Points 306 and 288, and three guns in position at Neby Musa.
By 6 o'clock all the New Zealand Brigade were in the valley, and the 1st L.H. Brigade began to descend from El Muntar, still in single file.
The Wellington Regiment attacked Hill 306, and the Canterbury Regiment, and afterwards the Aucklanders, Hill 288.
The advance was slow owing to the rough nature of the country and owing to the strength of the enemy position and the want of artillery support. At 10 o'clock the infantry were reported to have captured Jebel Ektief—the dominating position on the Jericho road—but they were driven off by a strong counter-attack, and it was not until half-past 12 that they finally obtained a footing there, after heavy artillery preparation and much desperate fighting.
Attempts were made by the Wellington Regiment and the 1st L.H. Brigade leading troops to force a way down the Wadi Kumran towards the Dead Sea so as to get behind the Turks' left. But the wadi was found to be too strongly held.
However, the New Zealand attack was progressing slowly and shortly after noon, assisted by a mounted advance of an Auckland Squadron, hill 288 was taken and the Brigade was soon in possession of hill 306 as well.
Attempts were made to get through the pass through which the road ran, but it was well covered by the fire of machine guns and artillery from the Neby Musa position, which lay on the far side of a great impassable chasm.
An outpost line was taken up on the south side of this gorge and as soon as darkness came on the 1st L.H. Brigade began the descent of the Wadi Kumran. The bottom of the valley from which the New Zealanders had attacked the enemy was about at sea level, and as the Dead Sea is 1300 feet below sea level the 1st L.H. Brigade had to follow a goat track with a fall of 1300 feet in a little over two miles, an operation of extraordinary difficulty on a dark night.
However, by midnight the Brigade had reached the bottom and turned north along a very rough track and by daylight had reached just east of Neby Musa.page 179
During the night the New Zealand horses which had had no water during the day were sent back to the slopes of El Muntar where there were some cisterns; but the water was hard to get at and the tracks difficult in the dark, so the whole night was taken up in this work.
At daylight the New Zealanders were moving and the Canterbury Regiment occupied Nebi Musa, crossing the gorge on foot and finding that the enemy had evacuated the position and got away with his guns.
By 8 o'clock the leading troop of the 1st L.H. Brigade had reached Jericho to find that the enemy there had also flown.
An object lesson in the superior range of the Turkish guns was forcibly shown to the Divisional Staff about this time. Headquarters had reached Jericho and had set up its report centre about one mile short of the town and between the town and the Judean hills, and the Staff after a strenuous night's work sat down to a morning cup of tea.
At that moment the two Corps Commanders appeared on horseback—Generals Chetwode and Chauvel—having ridden down from the hills by the Roman road to confer with General Chaytor and to take a look at Jericho. Hardly had they dismounted when a shell landed close beside, coming from the direction of the Jordan river. Almost immediately after-wards another shell arrived and bursting beside the improvised breakfast table on the ground covered it and the Staff with earth. General Chaytor was sitting on the step of his car and had a very narrow escape, the front of the car being blown in, and he himself covered with glass from the wind screen and half stifled with the fumes of the shell. Needless to say a hurried move to continue breakfast a little further off was made.
For the rest of the morning this gun continued shelling the cross roads at a range of over 10,000 yards. Our 13 pounders under the most favourable conditions could get no farther than 6,000 yards.
Early Breakfast on the morning of the capture of Jericho.
General Chaytor with Generals Chauvel and Chetwode.
By 11 o'clock the Brigade was concentrated at the Wadi Kelt, just where the Roman road from Jerusalem descends to the plain, and good running water was found there for the horses.
The Auckland Regiment took over the town of Jericho, of which Major Munro was appointed Military Commandant.
Thus fell modern Jericho, a degenerate city full of loath-some disease.
These devoted fellows tended the sick and buried the dead and cleaned and fumigated all the buildings, turning the Russian hospice into a hospital, and happily not one contracted the dread disease.
The volunteers were specially thanked by the Commander-in-Chief for their splendid work.
The 21st was spent in reconnoitring the valley which on every hand showed signs of a former glory. Close to modern Jericho there can be counted some 13 or 14 "tels," obviously the ruins of ancient cities or fortresses. The greatest of them is Tel es Sultan, the Jericho of Joshua, showing great rents and fissures in its sides made by archæologists in their exploration of this most ancient city in the World. And many times this day did these same excavations among the old walls of Jericho prove places of refuge, sheltering our men from Turkish shrapnel and high explosive shells. Perchance even the walls of the house of Rahab the Harlot again gave shelter to an invader.
Across the plain in many places lie the remains of great Roman aqueducts, and there are several burkets, as the Arab calls them—great square reservoirs now covered with pasture.
Jericho is fed by a beautiful perennial spring called Ain es Sultan, which comes from out the rock immediately by Joshua's Jericho. It is the spring of the prophet Elisha, who purified its waters by throwing in a handful of salt, as told in the Second Book of Kings.
This procedure was easily understood by our men who had been daily witnesses of the medical orderly "chlorinating water" by throwing in a handful of bleaching powder.
The spring fills a modern stone reservoir with pure water for modern Jericho; and the over-flow is used to irrigate the gardens and a small area of corn land.
But though little use is made of irrigation, what little is done shows that great possibilities lie in this once fertile valley. There are banana trees 20 feet in height, vines nine inches at the base and covering 200 superficial feet of horizontal trellis work, all from one root.page 183
But apart from a little cultivation at Jericho itself, and patches here and there where springs gush forth, as at Ain es Duk where the Brigade was afterwards camped, the western side of the valley of the Jordan is a barren wilderness. A few thorn bushes—the Dead Sea apple—and a little scanty herbage in the winter time, is all there is to relieve the appalling desolation.
The Brigade was afterwards to feel to the full the heat "down by Jericho," but at this time fresh from the cold and rain of the Judean Plateau the warmth of the valley was acceptable.
All day great masses of cloud hung over Judea and to the east the great mountain wall of Moab towered black and threatening. Heavy rain, thunder and lightning raged there; yet down in this weird narrow valley was peace and warmth and sunshine. Now and again a great mass of cloud would break off from the mountains of Judea and hurl itself across the sunlit valley upon Moab. Looking southwards down the Dead sea, brought to mind our New Zealand sounds with a westerly gale blowing, Judea on the one side and Moab on the other were shrouded in mist and great trailing clouds swept across the sunlit crack from mountain wall to mountain wall.
That first night down by Jericho was an eerie one.
Echoes of the gale in the mountains above occasionally were heard; a weird long-drawn sigh would go echoing down the valley, followed by a rush of wind, and then all would be still again. And above all hung Jebel Kuruntul, the Mount of Temptation, with its monastery tucked away half-way up its steep sides.
The air was mild and all ranks slept the sleep of tired men made comfortable after two nights spent in riding and combating the cold air in the mountains; and it was easy to realise how popular as a winter resort was this City of the Palms in the days of the Romans.
The 22nd was spent in more patrolling and feeling for the enemy who was found to be strongly posted at the Ghoraniyeh bridge and the fords at Makhadet Hajlah; and he successfully resisted all attempts of our men to reach the river; and it was not until 3 in the afternoon that a patrol of the Canterburys actually saw the running water.page 184
The Political and Intelligence Officers finished their work by noon, and as there was no grain to be removed from the store houses on the Dead Sea, orders were given for the withdrawal.
This regiment with a battery was to keep the Jericho plain clear of the enemy and to prevent a resumption of the boat traffic on the Dead Sea.
Half-way to Jerusalem a halt was made and men and horses absorbed much needed supplies in the shape of bully beef, biscuits and grain, that had been brought down by camel transport. Bethlehem was reached at 5 o'clock on the morning of the 23rd, the latter part of the march proving bitterly cold.
The view of Jerusalem seen from the Bethlehem road is very fine. One sees the "old" City and it is not overshadowed by the "new," which clusters against the western wall and completely spoils the approach from Jaffa.
But of all the different points of view our men came in time to look upon the Holy City, not one appeals to the page 185imagination so strongly as that seen from the Jericho road. Right through the Wilderness the road winds, up and ever up from Jericho's 1200 feet below sea level to Jerusalem's 2500 feet above. And when half-way up this truly awful piece of country, the traveller breasts the rise of the Inn of the Good Samaritan, and sees up against the sky-line far above him the trees and towers of the Mount of Olives; expectation rises and he eagerly looks for more. Then the road plunges into a great gorge to rise in sharp zig-zags to the village of Bethany, and on, round the shoulder of Olivet, there bursts upon view, with her long battlemented walls and her towers and domes silhouetted against the sky, the City of Jerusalem seated upon her hills. This was the view at the clear dawn of a winter day that our men saw and will ever remember.
The course of the ages and the results of Jerusalem's many sieges has almost filled up the Tyropean valley and raised the level of the valleys on either side of her, but the topography of the Bible is easily followed and all important places readily recognised.
We had been wandering for the past year in the lands of the Old Testament and had been imbibing the Old Testament stories from the "Land" and were now to have the greater pleasure in living in the New Testament.
On the 24th the Brigade remained in bivouac at Bethlehem and as many officers and men as possible were sent into Jerusalem in small parties. Luckily the skies cleared for the day and a bright sun tempered the bitter wind. The greatest of interest was shown by all ranks in seeing the Holy Places and full use was made of the permission to use a camera.page 188
The show places of Jerusalem are innumerable and all the "traditional sites" were visited by our men, and the padres proved invaluable both in lecturing and as guides.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Christian Church in a city conquered by Christians, was still guarded by a Moha-medan guard. That its congregation in days gone by had misbehaved itself we all knew from our books; and we knew that the Turkish Governor had placed a guard just within the porch to keep the peace; but why that Moslem guard should remain there now passed the understanding of the man from the dominions beyond the seas.
On the 25th the Brigade took its way back down the mountains by the Roman road and stayed the night at Zakariya reaching its old bivouac at Rishon on the 26th.
Here horses were rested, shoes overhauled, after the spell of mountain climbing; and dismounted training for all units was again the order of the day.
Rishon le Zion, "the first in Zion," is a garden city of some 1500 souls. It was founded some 30 years ago and is the centre of the Palestine wine industry. Here is the most capacious wine cellar in the world, containing 104 vats each holding 60,000 pints. It also has extensive orange orchards and the mulberry trees exceed 20,000 in number. Almonds and olives are also cultivated.
The oranges were now at their best and a daily ration of an orange per man helped greatly to drive out the effects of a prolonged hard diet under a hot sun.
Our medical officers had rather an interesting time in teaching (or perhaps 're-teaching' would be better), the Jews of the colony among which we dwelt, the art of modem sanitation.
That greatest of generals, Moses, had taught his people a system of sanitation upon which modern civilisation lives, and it was with a feeling of hesitation rather, that our thoughtful and ever sympathetic D.A.D.M.S., called together the leading householders and gave them an address. However, his labours were not in vain, and to the other triumphs of our Medical Branch can be added the re-starting of these colonies on the lines laid down by Moses.