The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
Chapter VII. — How the Brigade crossed the Jordan and entered the Land of Moab
How the Brigade crossed the Jordan and entered the Land of Moab.
By the middle of March the Anzac Mounted Division was again called upon. This time, in conjunction with the famous 60th Division (with whom the Jericho operations had been carried out), a raid into the Land of Moab was to be undertaken.
The object of this raid was to cut the enemy lines of communication, along which he was feeding his forces that were operating against the Sherifian troops in the Hedjaz on the east and south-east of the Dead Sea.
In addition to the 60th Division and the Anzac Mounted Division, the I.C.C. Brigade was to take part and was again attached to the latter; and, as the undertaking included the crossing of the Jordan, an army bridging train was added to the Anzac Bridging Train, a small and efficient Australian unit that had so expeditiously built the wharf at El Arish.
On March 13th the Brigade left Rishon and marched to Junction Station (at the entrance of the railway to the Judean Hills), and reached Zakariya on the 16th, having remained on the 14th and 15th at Junction Station, owing to the heavy rains making the cross-country track impassable.
On the 17th Bethlehem was reached by way of the Roman road. Heavy rain had been falling on the Judean Hills for some days, and a good bivouac site was most difficult to find. page 191Eventually the Brigade was accommodated in the olive groves between Bethlehem and the village of Beit Jala, where shelter from the cold wet winds was obtained.
Here the Brigade remained until the 20th, again making use of every available hour by sending into Bethlehem and Jerusalem parties sight seeing.
On the 20th the Brigade marched down the main Jericho road after dark and bivouacked in the Wilderness close to Talaat ed Dumm—the Good Samaritan's Inn.
Here, among the rocky hills, which gave much discomfort to the horses, the next three days were passed, owing to the heavy rains interfering with the crossing of the Jordan. Every page 192effort was made to study the country on the opposite side of the valley by observation from the tops of convenient hills, and many a glass was directed upon the great wall of the mountains of Moab. From the Jordan Valley up these mountains to the plateau on the top, which forms the great agricultural lands of Moab and of Gilead, there were said to be many roads, and these were marked on the map. From our Intelligence Agents, information about each route was summarised and made known to all, and each road was given a number, beginning with the southernmost, which went away south-east to Maan. In all there were six—the sixth leading from a ford north of the Ghoraniyeh bridge straight up to Es Salt, which is the largest town east of the Jordan and is some 20 miles, as the crow flies, north-east of Jericho, and 3940 feet above it.
The Moabite plateau averages some 3000 feet above sea level—a little higher than the plateau of Judea—and as the valley of the Jordan opposite Jericho is some 1200 feet below sea level, the scaling of these heights looked no easy task.
To an observer from the Judean Hills, Moab presents one great wall of rock, yet the edge of the plateau in reality in falling into the Jordan Valley is seamed with great wadis—huge gulches cut down by the heavy winter rains of countless centuries.
It is a rich limestone country and was once well wooded. The broken ground carries a Splendid pasture, and on the top is one of the finest grain-growing lands in the world.
The plan of operations provided for the attack upon Es Salt to be made by way of the motor road from the Ghoraniyeh bridge. This was to be done by the 60th Division, to which was attached the 6th Squadron Wellington Regiment. The 1st L.H. Brigade was ordered to proceed up the Jordan valley on the east side to protect the northern flank of the 60th Division and to co-operate with that division in the attack upon Es Salt.
The remainder of the Mounted Division with the Camel Brigade was to make all despatch in scaling the mountains by several roads, then to get behind Es Salt so as to intercept the garrison, and finally to concentrate in an attack upon Amman with the object of destroying a portion of the Hedjaz railway.page break page break page 193
Es Salt is to-day a city of some 18,000 inhabitants, and is famous for its raisins. It was in early Christian times an important town.
Lt.Col. J. H. Whyte, D.S.O., in the Jordan Valley.
Since the capture of Jerusalem the Auckland Regiment had remained in the Jordan Valley engaged in watching the enemy and in gaining information about the crossing over the river. It had found that the Jordan at this time of the year page 194was unfordable at any available point, and that the only practicable places for throwing bridges across were Makhadet Hajlah and Ghoraniyeh. At the latter place the Turkish bridge had stood. This was of wood and had been burnt by the Turk after his evacuation of Jericho.
It was decided that the cavalry and camels should cross by a pontoon bridge to he thrown across at Makhadet Hajlah (Joshua's Crossing), and that the 60th Division should cross at Ghoraniyeh, where a pontoon bridge and a heavy barrel-pier bridge were to be built.
The enemy strength in Moab was estimated to be about 4850 infantry, 650 cavalry, 102 machine guns, and 30 to 40 field guns. Of the artillery the 11th Division was said to be at Amman with 16 guns.
The role of the Division, less the 1st L.H. Brigade, was to:
|(a)||Secure the right flank of the 60th Division|
|(b)||To prevent any advance of the enemy from the south.|
|(c)||To endeavour constantly to work up to the plateau and to secure the road junction near the Circassian village of Naaur.|
|(d)||To work round the flank of the enemy opposing the advance of the 60th Division moving on Es Salt.|
|(e)||To endeavour to create an opening for a raid to destroy the railway.|
On March 21st the enemy reinforced his positions at the Ghoraniyeh crossing with 600 infantry, and sent two squadrons of cavalry to Makhadet Hajlah.
That night the 60th Division made the first attempt to cross the river by swimming; but there was so much flood water in the river that the swimmers of the 2/17 Londons were unable to make headway against the current. Repeated attempts were made to cross in punts and rafts; but these attempts were also unsuccessful, alarming the enemy and causing him to open fire.
Meanwhile the 2/19 Londons had been more fortunate at Makhadet Hajlah. Their swimmers had crossed unobserved; and at twenty minutes past one on the morning of March 22nd, the first raft, holding 27 men was ferried across. By noon two battalions of the London Regiment were over and efforts were made to enlarge the bridgehead; but, owing page 195to enemy machine gun fire and the density of the jungle on the eastern bank of the river, little could be effected.
The second pontoon bridge at Hajla was finished by half-past 1, a remarkably fine performance by the Anzac, Bridging Train. But owing to enemy opposition little more was done that day.
This was a fine example of mounted rifles fearlessly and successfully attacking cavalry.
For in addition to galloping into infantry in position with machine guns, Colonel McCarroll's men charged, killed and captured Turkish Cavalry.
Once up the bank of the river there is an immense plain stretching north for miles and to the eastward to the foot of the hills. One squadron was sent to the east while the other two advanced up the river to clear the Ghoraniyeh bridge; all pack horses and spares were left behind.page 196
It was a beautiful morning, the horses were in great form, and the men eager for a ride. The pace soon increased to a gallop. Post after post along the bank of the river was ridden down and the Turks immediately surrendered. Away out to the east the detached squadron had a merry time. They charged some enemy cavalry and a long running fight ensued resulting in numerous casualties to the enemy, the superior weight and pace of our horses proving too much for the Turks. Lieut. K. J. Tait, the leader of the foremost troop was killed in a duel with the Turkish cavalry leader. This young officer's dash and determination were the feature of the morning's operations. The main body of the regiment found the Ghoraniyeh crossing strongly held, but the sight of the lines of galloping horsemen was too much for the enemy. Some of the Turks stood their ground and a troop of the 3rd Squadron galloped right into them, seized their machine guns, and turned them on to the fleeing enemy with good effect.
This bold move of the Auckland Regiment unlocked the Ghoraniyeh crossing and the infantry were soon hard at work on their pontoon bridge and by night-fall were beginning to cross.
At midnight the Anzac Mounted Division concentrated in the vicinity of Kasr Hajlah; and the 1st L.H. Brigade began to cross at 1 o'clock on the morning of the 24th, by the pontoon bridges at Makhadet Hajlah. The New Zealand Brigade followed.
By 5 a.m. the dispositions of the force known as "Shea's Group" (from Major-General Shea the commander of the famous 60th Division), were as follows:—The three brigades of the 60th Division were between Ghoraniyeh and Shunet Nimrin, with the leading brigade about two miles up the Es Salt road; the 1st L.H. Brigade was covering the northern flank of the 60th Division about one mile north of El Mandesi ford; and the rest of the Anzac Mounted Division was to the east of Hajlah, all safely across the Jordan.
For the next eight days this force was in the mountains, and the New Zealand Brigade went through the most trying times it had experienced since it left Gallipoli. The weather was Bitterly cold, with constant showers of rain, sleet and a cutting wind. The mountain roads were mere pack tracks over bare slippery rocks upon which the horses stumbled and page 197the camels fell, often never to rise again. The enemy were fresh troops, well fed and well equipped, and were fighting in well dug trenches supported by artillery; yet our wonderful men, short of sleep, short of rations, wet through, fighting in a strange country which was filled with hostile inhabitants, overcame almost insurmountable obstacles, captured impregnable positions in the darkness of night, and carried out their wounded for miles over mountain tracks.
Following the plan of operations, the New Zealand Brigade, in conjunction with the 60th Division, advanced upon the enemy who held the foot hills at Shunet Nimrin covering the Es Salt carriage road. With the Wellington and Canterbury Regiments in the lead, the Brigade soon drove the Turks from their positions, capturing a few prisoners, and with the infantry captured three mountain guns. This operation unlocked the number four road which led up to the plateau, past the Circassian village of Es Sir at the head of the Wadi Sir.
The Brigade, leaving the 6th Squadron (Wellington Regiment) with the infantry, headed into the mountains up this "road," beginning its climb of 4000 feet to the plateau of Moab. Heavy rain now came on, the "road" dwindled away to a mere track and all wheels had to be left. Though it was anticipated that the roads into the mountains would not be good, and though rations and forage were brought on camels, yet regiments were allowed to take their reserve ammunition upon half limbers, and it was intended that all the Divisional Artillery should be taken. The Brigade's half limbers had now to be left at the foot of the hills and a little reserve ammunition was taken on some camels together with the explosives for demolition purposes.
The remainder of the Division, comprising the 2nd L.H. Brigade and the I.C.C. Brigade, together with Divisional Headquarters and the Divisional Artillery and Ammunition Column, took the number three road which reaches the plateau at the Circassian village of Naaur.
This road also gave out and all wheels including the artillery and ammunition column were left on the plain. Not a gun could be taken except four small pack mountain guns with the Camel Brigade. All rations and forage were left, the men taking with them nothing but what they could carry on page 198their horses. The best of the light-burden camels were taker from the Supply Train and given a load of two boxes each of S.A.A. The special explosives which were being taken on half-limbers for the purpose of blowing up the Hedjaz railway were placed on improvised pack-horses and light-burden camels.
So darkness found the men on each track walking on foot and leading their horses in blinding rain over muddy tracks and clambering up slippery rocks, hour after hour. The Camel Brigade were the greatest sufferers, for the one thing a camel hates is slippery mud; " and when he comes to greasy ground he splits himself in two." All night it rained, and all night the weary columns climbed and slipped and fell. Daylight found them far from the top, and the weather if anything became worse. By noon the New Zealand advanced guard had reached the village of Es Sir, where two Turkish Officers and 48 other ranks were captured, and at half-past the Brigade concentrated at the cross roads on the plateau just above the village and which was to be the concentration point for the Division. But it was half-past seven in the evening before the remainder of the Division with the Camel Brigade reached the village of Naaur some eight miles south along the plateau. Without pause the march was continued and the head of the column reached the New Zealanders at 5 o'clock on the morning of the 26th; but it was nightfall before the last of the unfortunate Camel Brigade were in.
The force had now been marching under the worst possible conditions for three days and three nights and once again the weird hallucinations that beset the sleepless brain were experienced.
Hundreds of wet cold and tired men saw houses, tall houses brilliantly lit up and always on the windward side of the road, and many a man murmered to himself; "As soon as I get under the lee of that house shall be warm again." It was so cold that me literally had to keep moving to keep alive. Gippy camel drivers, who laid down upon the wet ground, having given up the struggle with the Oriental's fatalism, died where they lay.
At daylight when the head of the Divisional Column, which had come by number two road, had reached the first of the New Zealand outposts, the question was asked immediately; page 199"Where are your Headquarters?" and the answerer pointed along the rain and wind-swept track. The two leading officers who had asked the question saw a row of tall trees looming through the mist, on the windward side, and looking at each other remarked that the New Zealand Brigade Headquarters always "did itself well." They rode on joyfully but no trees came in sight, nothing but mud and rain and wind. Orders had been given for a concentration of the Division in the vicinity of the cross roads immediately east of Es Sir and in a shallow basin just north of this a halt was made. Some hours afterwards when a gleam of sunshine warmed the body and cheered the heart, these two officers rode back to see the New Zealand Brigade Headquarters. Not a tree was to be seen, for there was not a tree there, the Brigade Headquarters being on the edge of the plateau with a great sweep of mountain falling sheer down some 4000 feet to the Jordan; and up that great slope whistled the icy cold wind. This was a curious case of two men not only seeing the same hallucination at the same time, but of speaking about it at the time it was seen.
The plan of operations provided for the concentration of the Division on the plateau, for the interception of the garrison of Es Salt (who were being attacked by the 60th Division), and finally for the capture of Amman and the cutting of the Hedjaz railway.
The concentration had been successfully accomplished, and news was here received that Es Salt had been occupied by the 60th Division, with which was the 6th Wellington Squadron.
But General Chaytor, taking into consideration that the men had been three days and three nights without sleep and had been on their feet for the greater part of that time, and that there was not a camel in the Camel Brigade fit to move, decided to postpone the attack upon Amman until the next morning. So the troops settled down to get what rest they could, keeping patrols moving towards the east and north.
Shortly after the New Zealanders had arrived on the plateau an enemy patrol of six German infantry were captured, and during the night another German was shot who was approaching the lines. Later a cavalry patrol of three men were met and accounted for.page 200
The 2nd L.H. Brigade, pushing north across the Es Salt-Amman road, captured prisoners in the village of Suweileh and found there 30 German lorries and a motor car bogged on the road, having been left by the Es Salt garrison, who had abandoned the town to the 60th Division.
As soon as it was dark a special patrol of a troop under Lieutenant R. Sutherland, of the Wellington Regiment, set out to cut the railway line to the south of Amman. They had a ride of about 10 miles there and 10 miles back, in darkness and in pouring rain across a country almost a morass and totally unknown. This fine effort was successful and the rails were blown up with gun cotton.
A similar party from the 2nd L.H. Brigade had attempted to wreck the line north of Amman, but were unsuccessful.
Daylight on the 27th saw the Division moving. The ground was found to be so wet and boggy (it was all ploughed, and he newly-sown crop was just showing above the ground) that any movement off the roads and tracks was almost impossible. The country was undulating and dotted with hills, and here and there an outcrop of rock and patches of scrub. In many places the stones from the fields were piled up in heaps or laid out in lines, and these gave good cover to concealed riflemen and machine guns. The wadis were very steep-banked, and the Wadi Amman was uncrossable except in one or two places in single file. A strong cold wind was blowing with heavy showers of rain.
The attack was to be made by the New Zealand Brigade from the south, with its right on the railway and its left on the wadi; the I.C.C. were to attack on the left of the New Zealanders and astride the Es Sir-Amman road, with the 2nd Light Horse on their left. By 11 o'clock all brigades were engaged, but it was not until after midday that the leading regiment (the Aucklanders) reached the railway line near Kissir station, about three miles south of the town. The brigade had been held up by the extremely boggy ground and by the crossing of the Wadi Amman.
A little later those in the vicinity were startled to see a train steam into the station from the south, and fire was immediately opened upon it by the nearest troops, the W.M.R. Headquarters on an adjacent hill.page 201
After a momentary pause to disembark a garrison for the station the train disappeared into the hills immediately hiding Amman. The station was at once attacked, and in this attack a force of friendly Arabs took part. The result was the capture of 6 officers and 42 other ranks. The prisoners stated that the train contained 300 reinforcements for the Amman garrison.
About 6 in the evening the enemy made a strong attack on a high ridge between the 1st and 8th Squadrons of the Canterburys, but Colonel Findlay sent in the 10th Squadron, which, by a fine counter-attack, drove the enemy out.
Darkness came on, and with it the troops dug in on the lines they held.
During the night a patrol of the 2nd L.H. Brigade reached the railway line about seven miles north of Amman, where page 202it blew up a two-arch bridge spanning a steep wadi, causing a break of 25 feet and isolating Amman from the north.
Soon after daylight on the 28th the Turkish guns became very active, and the only reply that we could give was that of the four 12-pounder mountain guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery of the I.C.C. Brigade. There was not another gun with the Division, and during the night the Turks had greatly strengthened their line. Therefore, much satisfaction was felt when a wireless message came through saying that the 181st Brigade of the 60th Division was on its way from Es Salt and would bring with it two batteries of mountain guns. The leading battalion arrived at half-past 10, and was put into the line on the immediate left of the camels and between them and the 2nd Light Horse.
A general attack was ordered for half-past 1, but before it began a heavy enemy counter-attack fell upon the junction between the New Zealanders and the Camels. The Turk got within bombing distance, but was driven off.
Our attack began at half-past one, and was met by a very heavy machine-gun fire on all sides. The ground in front of the I.C.C. and the infantry was convex, with no cover and no forward observation, points. The enemy, with well-placed machine guns and supported by several field batteries, swept the ground from front and flank.
The New Zealanders were held up by the great dominating hill of 3039, and could make no headway.
On the northern flank the enemy counter-attacked the 2nd Light Horse with great determination, and no progress could be made there.
The Canterburys, who were on the sides of the wadi, made several attempts to get forward, but the enemy on Hill 3039 covered the ground in front of our men, who could make no progress. The Brigade asked for artillery assistance, as the enemy was being constantly reinforced. Two guns from the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery were ordered to report to the Brigade, but they did not arrive until 2 o'clock. One of the guns had defective sights and could not be used, so the single gun, short of ammunition, did not help matters much.page 203
At 11 o'clock the enemy heavily attacked the 4th Camel Battalion, reaching bombing distance, but they were driven back.
During the general attack, which began at half-past 1, the 4th Camel Battalion, on the right of the New Zealand Brigade, suffered very heavy casualties and were assisted by Nos. 2 and 4 subsections of the New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron with enfilade fire at 800 yards, which caused the enemy great loss. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon the Auckland Regiment and the 4th Camel Battalion had advanced their line for a distance of 500 yards, reaching the low ridges at the foot of 3039.
Rain still fell and the weather was bitterly cold, and the supply of rations and forage caused much anxiety; and darkness found the troops in much the same positions.
Morning broke on the 29th March with the same cold rain and cutting wind. The enemy began heavy shelling soon after dawn, but there was little movement as far as our troops were concerned during the day. Several counterier attacks by the Turk were driven off, especially on the northern flank and between the infantry and the 2nd L.H. Brigade.
During the afternoon officers' patrols from the Auckland Regiment reconnoitred the enemy's position on 3039, and all units along the line made themselves as familiar with the ground in front of them as circumstances would permit with a view to a night attack.
The two remaining battalions of the 18 1st Brigade and two battalions of the 180th Brigade arrived during the day, and with them the two mountain batteries so eagerly looked for.
General Chaytor now decided to attack by night. The plan was that the New Zealand Brigade, with the 4th Battalion I.C.C., were to take Hill 3039; the I.C.C. Brigade, less the 4th Battalion, were to advance straight upon the town, with their right on the wadi; the infantry also straight on Amman, with their right on the Roman Citadel; while the 2nd L.H. were to attract as much attention to themselves as possible and to cover the left of the main attack.page 204
Many were the anxious eyes turned towards Amman that day, but little could they see either of Amman or of the Turks. The town lay in a hollow, the approaches to which from the south-west, west, and north-west were convex and without a particle of cover. The enemy occupied well-protected positions on lower ground and out of sight of our troops, so that any advance upon him brought the attackers on to a sky-line facing a field of fire devoid of cover.
His guns were sited away back across the wadi, near the railway line.
On the south and east Amman is dominated by the great Hill 3039, against which the New Zealanders were striving. All one saw from the west was the great Roman amphitheatre on the far side of the town and carved out of the lower slopes of 3039. In the foreground and on the near side of the town the old Roman Citadel showed up; and it was against this old keep—conquered once by King David—that the I.C.C. and the infantry hurled themselves again and again.
The town itself was entirely hidden from all troops but the New Zealanders on 3039.
Away out beyond Amman in the far distance the great Arabian desert lay bright and shimmering in its leagues of sand under a burning sun, while the fertile land of Moab was being deluged with rain.
The many attacks against 3039 made by the New Zealanders and the many careful reconnaissances had disclosed fully the enemy dispositions and strength on the hills. He held a very strong position, somewhat in the shape of a shamrock, with the ridge leading to the main and highest position representing the stem of the leaf. This main position, marked "A" on the sketch, was of great strength, and consisted of two lines of trenches or sangers in tiers dominating the approach along the ridge; with a third trench " D" on higher ground behind; and a further position 300 yards further back on the northern point of the hill.
On either flank as one approached "A" were subsidiary positions marked "B" and "C," covering the advance along the ridge.
To capture this formidable position without any artillery support (as there were no guns available) the following plan page 205 page 206was adopted: The position "A" was to be the main objective, and was to be swiftly and silently approached by a force passing along the ridge between "B" and "C," which were rnerely to be contained by small parties in case they became active. "A" having been captured, it was considered "B" and "C" would be compelled to surrender.
This was the plan, simple yet daring, but requiring the most skilful leading in the dark, and the utmost resolution on the part of every officer. N.C.O., and man.
The Brigade's War Diary states: "This worked out according to plan."
It is a short phrase and often loosely used this "Worked out according to plan," yet containing in it unseen and untold agonies of hours. Think of that bitter winter night in the mountains. The men had been fighting day and night against nature's irresistible powers and against a stubborn enemy; without sleep or a hot meal or a hot drink for days; wet through, numbed with cold and weighted down by sodden clothes, yet these wonderful men cheerfully started out to face an almost impregnable fortress, garrisoned by a stubborn enemy, and in the midst of a dark night. But though under-foot was greasy mud or slippery rock and overhead a black, impenetrable sky, and though they were constantly lashed by the rain, yet these heroic hearts went forward, and, true to the record of the Mounted Brigade, what they undertook to do, that they carried out.
At half-past 1 on the morning of March 30th the Brigade, less the troops required for flank positions, concentrated dismounted at the line of deployment in the wadi at the foot of Hill 3039. All horses were left at Brigade Headquarters, the proportion of horse-holders being one man to eight horses.
The advance took place in two lines punctually at 2 a.m. In the first line were the Aucklanders and the 4th Battalion T.C.C., under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel McCarroll, and in the second line the Canterbury Regiment (less one squadron) and two troops of the Wellingtons. This line was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Acton-Adams.
The two lines advanced over an open flat for a distance of 800 yards, and then the course of a small wadi was page 207followed until the ascent of the ridge forming the stalk of the shamrock was reached.
All machine guns were under the command of the O.C. Machine Gun Squadron, and two subsections went forward with the attacking force, leaving three subsections in position in some ruins to cover a retirement if necessary. These latter guns were in telephone communication with the O.C. Squadron.
When the ridge was reached the Aucklanders and Camel men, quickly following along it, attacked and captured the first enemy trenches, bayonetting the garrison with the exception of 23 Turks who surrendered with five machine guns. The trenches and sangers were immediately altered to face the other way: and the Canterburys and Wellingtons came through and went for the second position. They had about 300 yards to go, and when half-way across, the now alarmed enemy opened fire with rifle and machine guns.
This sudden burst of fire momentarily steadied the advance of our men, but inspired by the coolness and determination of Lieutenant Murray the line surged forward and captured the position, with 14 live Turks and a machine gun.
After this position had been consolidated, the 16th Company I.C.C. (the New Zealand Company of the 4th Battalion) joined the second line, and they, with the 8th Squadron Canterbury Regiment, went on again to the next objective overlooking Amman and from which the Turks retired.
Upon the capture of "A" the Turks in "B"—one officer and 28 other ranks and four machine guns—were taken, and in "C" 12 other ranks and one machine gun surrendered without firing a shot.
Every effort was made to strengthen the positions won before daybreak. The ground was almost solid rock, so trenches could not be dug, but sangers were built up as high as possible.
The Camels occupied the third position taken, but after daybreak, owing to its exposed nature, they were withdrawn, all but a post of 10 men with two Lewis guns, and were put into the right of the line.
This line ran across the top of the hill from east to west as follows: 4th Battalion I.C.C., Wellington Regiment, Canterbury Regiment, and Auckland Regiment.page 208
The attacks by the other brigades were fairly successful. The I.C.C. took two lines of trenches and 12 prisoners. The infantry captured 135 prisoners and four machine guns. But after 4 o'clock scarcely any progress was made. On the left the 2nd Light Horse were hard put to it to hold their line.
So the situation was that at daylight the advance was everywhere held up, owing chiefly to the want of artillery support.
Away up on 3039 the New Zealanders were having an anxious time. Counter-attack after counter-attack was flung upon them during the day and between the attacks the hill was deluged with shells from Turkish guns situated to the east of Amman and out of range of the few guns our force possessed.
At 5 o'clock the first shelling began and the want of trenches was at once felt. The stone sangers, effective enough against rifle and machine gun fire, simply intensified the shell fire Shrapnel ricochetted in all directions and high explosives hurled the rocky material broadcast. This bombardment lasted an hour and caused many 'casualties and as soon as it was over the surviving camel men left in the forward position were withdrawn and sent to join their battalion on the right.
About 9 o'clock a large number of the enemy could be seen from Divisional Headquarters (immediately west of the town) massing on the northern slopes. News of this was immediately sent to General Meldrum. But no artillery support could be given though the massing enemy presented a splendid target. The section H.K. & S. Mountain Battery with the New Zealand Brigade was at this time in possession of four rounds only.
At half-past 9 the attack came and was well met by the fire of machine guns. Nos. 1 and 3 sub-sections were in position on the right front of the Canterbury Regiment in sangers with a good field of fire covering the centre of the position. No. 5 was on the right flank of the Canterburys protecting the front of the camels. No. 2 was on the left flank of the Auckland Regiment and No. 6 on its right flank crossing the fire of Nos. 1 and 3. Five captured machine guns were also in action in the line.
The Turks pressed their attack with great determination and an unauthorised order to retire having been passed along page break page 209the line held by the Camels, that battalion with the Canterburys and Wellingtons commenced to withdraw. The enemy succeeded in reaching the crest, but were held up by rifle and machine gun fire from the Auckland Regiment where Lieut. Harris handled his guns in a masterly manner.
The officers on the right quickly realised the position and rallied their men. It was a moment of extreme difficulty and nothing but the greatest determination could succeed, and the men to succeed were instantly forthcoming. Captain Hinson (Adjutant Canterbury Regiment) and Lieutenants Thorby and Crawford of the 16th (N.Z.) Camel Company, by their inspiring example each in his own part of the line, swept back their men in a magnificent charge.
The sight on that bare mountain top as seen from Divisional Headquarters opposite was a most stirring one. Our men surged up on to the crest and there seemed to be a short pause as the opposing lines faced each other at a bare 15 yards; and then our grand fellow hurled them back.
It was estimated that from 400 to 500 Turks assembled on the northern slopes of the hill for this attack and went up to the top. But no more than 50 were seen to come back.
During the morning the extreme left of the old New Zealand line held by a Canterbury Squadron got into the town, but the I.C.C. line on their left not being able to move they were Forced to retire to their former position.
During the morning also the Somerset Battery, the battery that was always attached to the New Zealand Brigade and who now considered themselves almost New Zealanders, arrived having made a wonderful effort in overcoming all difficulties in climbing the mountains; and it was a welcome and a cheering sight to see their shells falling among the Turks. But the battery's arrival was too late to influence the tide of battle.
The Aucklanders on the extreme left of the line on the top of 3039 by machine gun fire silenced a forward battery of the enemy, which was in position near the Citadel in front of the Camel Brigade, and caused its withdrawal. This was the only battery belonging to the enemy put out of action during the operations.page 210
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon three enemy batteries opened a heavy fire upon 3039 and continued for the rest of the day, causing many casualties; and great difficulty was experienced in getting away the wounded, owing to the exposed position and the impossibility of digging communication trenches.
At 4 o'clock another very heavy counter-attack was made upon the New Zealand line and this time the brunt of it fell upon the Camel Battalion causing them heavy casualties. The attack was beaten off by the help of a troop from the New Zealand Brigade reserve, prolonging the Camel right and thus outflanking the enemy.
At 5 o'clock the Turk made another bitter attack under cover of an intense bombardment, but he was driven back.
Throughout the day Lieut. Thorby of the 16th Company Camel Brigade was most conspicuous and his fine example and cheerful courage inspired his men to hold on under the most trying ordeal this fine Company had ever been under. He was killed in leading an attack against a body of Turks who were lodged in a position on the extreme right and from which they were enfilading the Camel line.
The difficulty of feeding the force was now becoming acute. The motor lorry service from Jerusalem to Jericho was taxed to the utmost. The supplies were brought from Jericho to the foot of the mountain by the Divisional Train and the horses were doing 24 miles per day. From the foot of the mountains to the troops investing Amman the camel transport did the work and the severe weather and slippery mountain tracks page 211had caused fearful casualties to camels and drivers. And to crown all the Jordan overflowed its hanks and swept all but one bridge away, to cross which the teams had to haul their loads through flooded roads. The total distance covered from rail head on the maritime plains to the men in the firing line in the mountains by lorry, horse and camel was 86 miles.
So it came about that soon after dark orders were received that the whole force would be withdrawn owing to the difficulty of supplies and because it had already performed the chief part of its mission in interrupting the communications of the Turkish Force operating in the vicinity of Maan against the King of the Hedjaz.
The principal objective given the Division by the Commander-in-Chief had been a large viaduct at Amman. This we had been unable to destroy, but owing to the extraordinary tenacity of purpose so characteristic of our Divisional General aided by the magnificent work of the men, our pressure at Amman had been so severely felt that the Turk had evacuated Kerak, the great grain centre east of the Dead Sea; and the troops of the King of the Hedjaz were enabled to make a substantial advance and to join hands with our forces.
In a letter of thanks to the Division the XX Corps Commander, Sir P. Chetwode, said that the Commander-in-Chief was more than satisfied with the result of the operations, and had stated that "what the Anzac Mounted Division and the 60th Division could not do no other troops could possibly undertake."
Then began that nest difficult of military operations. a withdrawal when in contact with the enemy.
The first thing to be done was to move back the New Zealand Brigade from hill 3039 across the Wadi Amman.
At 6 o'clock in the evening the New Zealand Brigade received their orders to withdraw to the cross road at the western end of the plateau just above the village of Es Sir. The greatest difficulty the Brigade had to face was the evacuation of the wounded. These unfortunate men had to be carried from the battle field in blankets to the dressing station, a distance of one-and-a-half miles down rocky hills. From the dressing station to the nearest clearing station on the Es Salt-Amman road was a distance of 10 miles over page 212country so boggy and slippery that the cacolet camels, the only means of ambulance transport, could not be used. Therefore each sufferer had to be strapped upon his horse and so taken over the 10 miles to the clearing station. Here he was placed upon a horse ambulance and taken to the Jordan valley where he had a 50 mile ride in a motor ambulance over the mountains of Judea to the hospital railway train, and then 200 miles to hospital in Cairo, though some of the very worst cases were accommodated in the hospitals in Jerusalem.
Among those who worked so devotedly and so untiringly in aiding the wounded was Captain J. G. Gow, the popular Medical Officer of the Wellington Regiment; and it was largely owing to his splendid work that the wounded mere all collected and dressed and sent away by 11 o'clock that night and the Brigade commenced to re-cross the Wadi Amman at midnight, reaching the cross road above Es Sir at 4 o'clock on the morning of March 31st.
An outpost line was thrown by the Brigade across the country between Es Sir and Amman and the whole day was spent in concentrating the Force—mounted troops, infantry, camels and camel transport; and in getting all camels, both camel brigade and camel transport down the mountains.
The 2nd L.H. Brigade and the Somerset Battery took the Es Salt road; and the remainder of the force, including the infantry, withdrew by way of the Wadi Es Sir track, up which the New Zealand Brigade had come.
This track had been used continuously by the transport camels while the investment' of Amman had been going on, and it was now in an appalling state of mud and slippery rock. So all day long and all the next night a long line of weary camels, horses and men, slowly stumbled, slipped and fell, down this mountain track which descends some 4000 feet in eight miles. It was well after daylight on the morning of April 1st before the rear guard could move.
The New Zealand Brigade had been selected for this difficult task and were kept fully occupied in holding off the enemy.
The Wellington Regiment which had now regained the 6th Squadron, detached throughout the operations with the page 21360th Division, was detailed to take up a position to cover the rear of the Brigade.
All night the long line of camels, infantry and horses, had been filing down the narrow gorge and it was not until 7 on the morning of April 1st that the New Zealand Brigade began to leave the plateau.
At a quarter to eight the enemy attacked the Wellington Regiment's rear guard; but were successfully held off until the regiment filed down through the village of Ain Es Sir.
The last to move was the 2nd Squadron and as they rode through the last of the village, the inhabitants, Circassians, suddenly opened fire from a mill and from adjacent caves, at very close range.
This treacherous attack was at once dealt with and the mill rushed and its occupants killed, but not before the squadron had suffered 18 casualties. Among these fell the popular commander of the 2nd Squadron, Major Charlie Sommerville (a veteran of South Africa), and Lieut. R. Hall, the capable signalling officer of the regiment.
About 1 o'clock a saddle was reached which looked down upon the Jordan valley. A halt was made here for the purpose of distributing rations and forage that had been brought up to meet the Brigade; and the sun came out and the mind died away: and an hour afterwards we were riding down through flowers up' to the horses' knees—cornflowers, page 214anemonies, ranunculi, poppies in the greatest profusion, acres of lilies, miles of colour—and all was peace and warmth and quietness; and one could scarcely realise that but a few short hours before the winds were raging, rain falling, and a bitter battle not yet finished.
Shortly after dark the Jordan valley was reached without further incident, and all ranks settled down to the sound sleep of worn-out men.
The quality of the Turkish troops was exceptionally good. They appeared to be fresh troops and were of good physique, and very well clothed and equipped. To guard against the cold, all ranks wore a well-made cotton-quilted long waist-coat.page 215
Prisoners taken by the force were 20 officers, 595 other ranks; and the material taken included 10 machine guns, 2 automatic rifles, 207 rifles, and 248,000 rounds of S.A.A. The enemy abandoned on the Amman road two travelling field cookers, 26 motor lorries and 5 motor cars, besides many horse wagons. On the Hedjaz railway the New Zealanders captured an enemy aeroplane.
The expenditure of small arms ammunition by the force was 587,338 rounds.