The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XII. — Of the 2nd Battle of Gaza and the Holding of the Wadi Ghuzze
Of the 2nd Battle of Gaza and the Holding of the Wadi Ghuzze.
On April 16th orders were received for the second attack on the Gaza line, which was now practically continuous from the sea, passing just south of Gaza, and approximately along the Gaza-Beersheba road to Tel el Sharia on the Wadi Sheria, the tributary of the Wadi Ghuzze which comes down from the mountains of Judea. Behind this line lay the railway terminus of Huj and the railway to Beersheba. It was a very strong position and commanded all the country to its front down to the Wadi Ghuzze, across which the British troops would have to attack. General Dobell's plan was a simple one. The three infantry divisions were to make a frontal attack on the line from the sea to the Mansura ridge, the main Gaza position, while the mounted divisions pressed back the Turk flank towards Beersheba, prevented the withdrawal of reinforcements from there to Gaza, and held themselves in readiness for the pursuit.
The attack was to be conducted in two stages. In the first stage the infantry were to cross the Wadi and to seize Mansura ridge. As soon as this was done the position was to be wired and strengthened and the heavy guns brought forward ready for the general attack on the following day.
At half past six on the evening of the 16th April the Division moved off, and after a night march, in which the Canterbury Regiment formed the advanced guard with the 10th Squadron leading, reached the crossing at Shellal at half past four on the morning of the 17th. There was a small enemy post here with a machine gun in position on a conical hill, afterwards famous as the site of the "Shellal Mosaic," which was discovered when the machine gun trench was seized. Enemy aircraft were active and bombed the column as it crossed the narrow passage. The country was recon-page 152noitred towards Beersheba, and enemy movement about Sharia noted and reported. At dusk the Division withdrew to Shellal, leaving a Brigade of Yeomanry in observation.
During this day the first phase of the attack on Gaza was successfully carried out by the infantry divisions, which seized the Sheikh Abbas position at Mansura.
The next day, April 18th, the Anzac Mounted Division repeated the movements of the 17th, and the Imperial Mounted Division covered the right of the infantry attack, which, after desperate fighting right along the line, was brought to a standstill by the strength of the Turkish positions and their use of powerful and numerous guns.
The Imperial Mounted Division and the Camel Brigade made some progress, but such was the dread the Turk had of the mounted men that, realising their attack would fall on his left flank, he had massed heavy infantry reinforcements and numerous batteries on this portion of his line.page 153
At dusk orders were received for the Anzac Mounted Division to march under cover of darkness and to be ready to reinforce the Imperial Mounted Division at dawn. At 2300 hours the Regiment moved off and joined the Brigade across the Wadi. It was a black dark night, and as the War Diary says, "after many turnings connected up with the remainder of the Division." Many who read this history will remember those "many turnings" and how the Brigade caught its own tail.
By 9 o'clock on the third day of the battle all guns of the Division were in action, and the Wellington Regiment was sent in to support the 5th Yeomanry Brigade in its attack on "Sausage Ridge," which contained a very strong work known as the "Hair pin redoubt."
The Canterburys for some time waited in reserve and were severely bombed from the air.
At 2.30 p.m. the Regiment went forward, led by Colonel Findlay at the gallop, under heavy shell fire, and went in on the left of the Wellington Regiment, leaving the horses on the plain, where they were shelled and bombed for the rest of the day, but marvellously escaped with few casualties. One section of machine guns suffered much from shell fire page 154while advancing with the first line of troops, but owing to the courage and resource of 2nd Lieutenant L. A. Craven the guns were soon in position, from which they made excellent practice, stopping a big enemy rush at 400 yards. Later in the day this fine young officer was severely wounded, subsequently dying in New Zealand from his wounds. For his splendid work this day he was awarded the M.C. and given accelerated promotion.
One of the most striking sights during this strenuous day was the view of the plain covered with the led horses of the Brigade. The holding and control of led horses at all times is a difficult task. Yet owing to the skilful way they were disposed, and to the grit and determination of the horse-holders, though at times quite obscured from view by the mass of shells and bombs which fell in and around them, no horses got away and the casualties were fairly light. The stories told of the escapes of groups of horses from seeming annihilation were little short of miraculous.
It is worthy of note that the horses of the leading squadron (the 1st, under Major Hurst) were kept close up to the firing line, where they were sheltered from rifle and page 155machine gun fire, and quite escaped shelling and had no casualties.
General Dobell, realising that the attack was everywhere held up and that his losses were very severe, decided to withdraw under cover of darkness. This was successfully accomplished, and the forces withdrew; those on the left, facing Gaza, holding what they had gained, including the Shiek Abbas position at Mansura. From there eastward the line fell back behind the Wadi.
Early on the 20th the Regiment moved to Weli Sheikh Nuran, being bombed from the air on the way. Outposts were put out, and all ranks had a little sleep—the first since leaving Belah. On April 22nd a position was taken up on the west side of the Wadi near Shellal, and an extensive line of trenches was dug. There was a plentiful supply of water at Shellal, gushing out of the ground from the eastern bank. There are remains of Roman cisterns of masonry, showing that in the old days the spring was used. But it was highly impregnated with salts, tasting not unlike commercial "table waters."page 156
The Division now took over the right flank of the British position, and the Wadi became the base for ceaseless reconnaissances into the open country stretching away to Beersheba. This great stretch of country was explored in every detail, wells and cisterns were located, the enemy was continually harassed, and he was induced to prolong his line to Beersheba.
There are many "tels" or mounds of earth in Palestine. They all appear to have been made by man, and are usually the remains of ancient cities, such as Tel el Farama (Pelusium), Tel el Saba (Beersheba).
On the Wadi Ghuzze were two remarkable "tels," of which no history could be found, namely Tel el Jemrni where the Division crossed in its advance to the first attack on Gaza, and Tel el Fara, seven miles further south, where the Rafa-Beersheba road crosses. These two tels, flat topped and square sided, stand up above the plain and can be page 157seen for miles on every side. Both drop sheer down into the Wadi. Tel el Fara has been built up in ages gone by with huge masonry buttresses and courses of cut stone.
The military railway which we had built from the Suez Canal across the desert had now reached Belah, and large reinforcements began to arrive.
General Sir Archibald Murray, who had so far borne the heat and burden of the day, was a wise far-seeing administrator, upon whose shoulders had fallen the difficult task of keeping Egypt quiet, of defending it from the Senussi on the west, and of organising the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and planning its advance into Palestine. In addition to these tasks—more than enough for one man—he had the control of the British forces at Salonika, and the handling of the difficult Hedjaz Arabs and the bringing of them into the war. His work not only made Egypt absolutely safe from invasion, but made easy the conquest of Palestine. Starting with a totally inadequate force, he cleared Sinai of the enemy, completely destroying the Turkish hopes of conquering Egypt. The magnitude of his work in the conquest of Sinai, can be gauged by the fact that by February, 1917, he had laid down 388 miles of railway reaching to Southern Palestine, with 300 miles of water piping and 203 miles of metalled roads. Truly and well had he laid the foundations for the overthrow of the Turkish armies. He was a man who placed implicit trust in his subordinates, and generously took upon his own shoulders their failures. His administration and organisation of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force had been masterly, but his many responsibilities kept him too far from the fighting in Palestine, and his trust in his subordinates led, upon their failure, to his recall by the War Office.
He was succeeded by General Sir Edmund Allenby, a cavalry officer of great reputation. He brought with him a fine spirit of optimism, which spread from him to the whole force as he speedily made himself known to every unit under his command. He was soon a familiar figure in every part of the line. He gave his whole time to the command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, being relieved of the administration of Egypt by Sir Reginald "Wingate.page 158
The increase in reinforcements made it possible to expand the two cavalry divisions by the formation of a third, called the Yeomanry Division, and the three Divisions with an extra Yeomanry Brigade became the Desert Mounted Corps.
The command of this cavalry corps was given to General Chanvel, General Chaytor took over command of the Anzac Mounted Division, and Colonel Meldrum (of the Wellington Regiment) was given command of the N.Z. Mounted Rifle Brigade.
The arduous patrolling of the Sharia-Beersheba area was now undertaken by one division at a time, with one in support about Abasan el Kebir and one on the sea beach at Marakeb, near Khan Yunus.
The patrol work was all to the east of the Wadi, towards Beersheba and Sharia. From the Wadi extends a flat plain for about five miles till one reached two low ridges called Goz el Basal and Karm; beyond these stretches ridge after ridge of rolling downs, each one slightly higher than the last, till the main range beyond Beersheba is reached. The whole of the land there, and also on our side of the Wadi, had been closely cultivated, and the constant passage of animals made the dust indescribable. It penetrated into everything, and when a force was on the move had to be seen to be believed; above all, it betrayed the movements of even a single horseman to the watching Turk.
Our patrols daily visited El Buggar, Im Siri and Hill 710, and the country towards the enemy lines at Sharia and Hareira, the watchful enemy posts always giving way in front of them. Very seldom could they be tempted into rifle range. They, on their part, endeavoured to lure us within range of their artillery, which would open fire on the least provocation. A "demolition squadron" was formed about this time from men from the various squadrons throughout the Brigades. The demand sent to each regiment for men "used to explosives" called forth the recommendation from one squadron commander on behalf of a corporal, "who was well used to explosives, having just been thrice blown up by shells!"page 159
On May 22nd the Regiment took part in the raid on the Beersheba railway at Asluj, leaving camp during the night of the 21st and 22nd and marching south with the Division. Shortly before daylight the Regiment was detached to hold an outpost line near Umm Apir. Daylight showed new and strange hills. With the aid of maps and compass the position was found. Just then Divisional Headquarters signalled from some distance south-west, saying they were at Hill X, and asking for the Regiment's position. The reply was that Canterbury was also on Hill X and holding an outpost line according to instructions. This produced quite a local disturbance, but a topographer who had come out to correct maps, certified in favour of the Regiment.
The enemy made no attempt to interfere with either the covering or demolition parties. The demolition work was very thoroughly carried out. Some 15 miles of railway were destroyed, including many fine stone bridges. Each arch of every bridge was blown up with gun-cotton, and the rails destroyed by the blowing out of a piece in the centre of each alternate rail. The ride back to camp in the evening after the demolition party had completed their work was wearisome in the extreme. For some reason, known only to themselves, the head of the column led into many strange places, such as cactus hedges, wire entanglements and other camps, before the Colonel obtained permission for the Regiment to find its own way back.
With the heat, dust, flies and hostile planes, life did not bear a rosy outlook, and all were glad when, on May 28th, the Regiment handed over its job and returned to Abasan el Kebir for a spell. Here was experienced a fairly quiet time, except for the daily attentions of hostile planes. The Turks had absolute control of the air, and could do as they liked. Our Flying Corps did their best, but their machines were obsolescent, and they were only courting disaster every time they left the ground.
On June 8th camp was moved to the beach at Tel el Marakeb, where the clean sand and cool sea were beneficial to men and animals, the latter enjoying the bathing as much as the page 160men. The weather was delightful, and there being very little work beyond ordinary camp routine, the general health of all rapidly improved.
On July 6th Tel el Fara and the old game of patrols was resumed. This work was only varied when a reconnaissance was made by the Brigade or Division. During the Regiment's absence infantry had dug trenches and put out wire entanglements, defending the main crossings of the Wadi.
A branch line, leaving the main railway line at Rafa, had been constructed to Shellal. This was now pushed forward towards Goz el Basal and was well beyond our entanglements.
On July 19th the Turks varied the monotony by a reconnaissance of our front. It is doubtful what their object was, but it appeared to be in the nature of a ruse to get our page 161troops to move. No direct attack was made, but they had a lot of artillery which they evidently hoped to use on the mounted troops if they could be drawn within range. But the mounted man was not to be tempted. The Turks, losing patience, bombarded vigorously, but at too extreme a range to do much damage. Their aeroplane bombing was much more annoying, and the cause of heavier casualties and the loss of many horses. This bombing was the most severe and accurate yet experienced, and culminated at 1600 hours, when three enemy planes came over and took a line through the Brigade, dropping a bomb on Brigade Headquarters and then on the 1st and 8th Squadrons. Three officers, Major Bruce, Lieutenants Wilson and Livingstone were wounded, Wilson dying later through the effects of his wounds. Trooper Ferguson was killed and eight other ranks wounded.
The following extract from the Regimental War Diary will give a good idea of the work carried on by the Regiment at this time:—
Tel el Fara.
July 24th Camp routine carried out. July 25th Camp routine carried out. Inspection of Gas Helmets by Divisional Gas Officer. July 26th A reconnaissance carried out by the 1st Sqd. under Major ? Hurst on the night of the 25-26th July of Sana Redoubt.
A special party of 1 officer (Lt. D. B. Murchison) and 5 O.R. was told off to make a special reconnaissance. The Commander of the Sqd. supporting. Sqd. left camp at 1800 on the 25th inst., and cleared the wire east of Hiseia at 1915, arriving at Point 300 at 2025. Stayed there for 1¾ hours on account of moonlight, and at 2200, leaving the led horses under guard of 1 officer and 16 O.R., the Sqd. moved forward on foot, and by 2330 had made good the Wadi Sharia between 310 and 340. At 2335 the party making the special reconnaissance passed through the Supporting Sqd. At 0300 the reconnaissance was complete, and the Sqd. withdrew to Camp.
Report by Lt. D. B. Murchison on Special Reconnaissance: " At 2335 crossed Wadi Sharia at Point 400 yds. west of Khirbit Erk and moved round west side of Sana Redoubt (Ref. Map Sharia 1/40,000) at 0045 in a position 600 yds. north of Redoubt; then moved to N.E. corner and round the east side at an average distance of 200 yds. from it to a point midway between S of Sana and 5 of 365. Withdrew from here at 0200, and at 0300 arrived at Khirbit Erk Crossing. Fog made observations difficult. An enemy working party 100 strong was digging during reconnaissance in front of the N.W. trenches of the Redoubt, digging pits or new line trenches. This working party hindered the reconnaissance. Hostile patrols were numerous and strong, consisting of from 10 to 15 men, at least half of each being armed Bedouins. They moved quickly and silently but carelessly, but followed the well-defined tracks. At 0200 arrived a patrol from Redoubt moving towards El Magan. Working parties covered by two patrols each of 13 men, who patrolled the west front 600 yds. out from Redoubt; patrols also coming from direction of El Magan and direction of 310. Our party was challenged by hostile patrol on approaching Khirbit Erk, the challenge sounded like Ender). Our party got into Wadi and eluded the enemy patrol.
Redoubt: Evidently a detached post, not connected with any other work to the north or north-west. Very strong; Shape, oval; Wire, did not locate any; Pits did not locate any; Saw two machine gun emplacements. Two flares were put up. All patrols were armed with rifles and fixed bayonets."
A reconnaissance was also carried out by the Regt. (less 1st Sqd.) along the Abu Shawish Road from Contour 300 to Point 510, and of Wadi Imleih. Attached to Regt.: 2 guns R.H.A. and one Section of Machine Gun Sqd. Left Camp at 0530 and proceeded to Contour 400, N.E. Goz el Geleib. Prom this point patrols were sent out to following points:—
No. 1. From Point 510 Abu Shawish Road to Point 410 Wadi Imleih. This patrol got to within 800 yds. of Hut, when they were fired on by about 30 Turkish Infantry in trench at Hut between L and E in W-Imleih, while a Cavalry troop approached from Wadi, S.E. side of Hut. Our patrols then withdrew to Contour line 500 and opened fire with Hotchkiss Rifles at long range. The enemy cavalry then retired and took shelter in Wadi, our guns shelling trench and Wadi near Hut.page 163 No. 2. to W in W-Imleih. Were fired on by enemy mounted patrol on north bank of Wadi and shelled from direction of Hareira-Tepe. (Ref. Map 1/40,000 Sharia.) Our patrols pushed on and took up position in Wadi, and remained unmolested all day. No. 3. To Khirbit Erk. No opposition; remained in position all day. Enemy entrenched position in front of and north of Wadi Imleih. Enemy appears to have dug out in Wadi from this post. Cavalry patrols were seen at various places on north bank of Wadi. The Regt. withdrew at 1800 to camp.
On August 18th the Yeomanry Division arrived, and the Anzac Mounted Division moved to the beach at Marakeb, and a quiet fortnight followed. The sea bathing was a great boon to everybody. What a treat it was to get thoroughly clean and free from dust; even sand was pleasant—sand which had always been reviled in the Sinai deserts, but to which after months of dust everybody was glad to return. As the men grew stronger a rifle range was built, and instead of much of the dreary training all ranks went through a complete musketry course on the range, and quite a number of competitions were fired.
But this rest was too good to last, and on September 18th the Regiment moved over to Fukhari, near Abasan el Kebir, a dusty, dirty camp, with flies everywhere. Easy times were finished, and training started again with the necessary but tedious tactical schemes, in which the whole page 164Brigade took part, and though probably interesting and instructive to senior officers, were most uninteresting to the men.
October saw huge dumps being accumulated at Belah and Shellal. The Regiment prospected the country south, looking for the best route to Esani, and suitable camp sites there. Evidently another move was contemplated. The Turkish defences were strong from Gaza to Beersheba, and wherever the blow was struck it would require to be pushed home regardless of cost, to be at all successful. Leave, which had been granted much more freely since the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief, was cancelled. All baggage and surplus gear was sent to a main dump at Rafa in charge of a few unfit men.
During the late afternoon of October 24th the Regiment rode out to Esani, arriving there about midnight and the first move of the great attack began.