The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XVI. — How the Regiment Crossed the Jordan For the First Time
How the Regiment Crossed the Jordan For the First Time.
On the night of the 20th the Regiment rode down to Talaat ed Dumm, the halfway house to Jericho, called the House of the Good Samaritan. Here, the only water available was in the Wadi Kelt, a thousand feet below. This does not seem very far, but when it means taking horses down a barely discernible path winding round the face of a precipice, it is a long way, and the difficulties occurring through meeting camels going or coming caused endless delays. Many of the horses never got over the dread of these brutes, and even to the end of the campaign could not be got to face them.
It soon became known that the Jordan was to be crossed when the weather moderated, and the flood in the river subsided. A force consisting of the 60th Division, Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade was to make a rapid raid on Es Salt and Amman, the object, being to destroy the Hadjaz railway at the latter place.
The 60th Division was to advance up the motor road to Es Salt and to occupy this town; the role of the mounted men being to protect the right flank of the infantry, to work up on to the plateau, and to make an opening for a raid to destroy the great viaduct on the Hedjaz railway at Amman.
Every available moment of time was used in studying the land across the Jordan, and from the heights at Talaat ed Dumm one saw the mountains of Moab and Gilead rising as a sheer wall some 4,000 feet above the Jericho plain. And up that wall there could not be seen a road; yet when the ascent was made it was found that the great plateau of Moab and Gilead was seamed by innumerable watercourses, many of them great gulches reaching far back from the Jordan.
Es Salt is to-day a city of some eighteen thousand souls, close to Jebel Osha, the ancient Mount Gilead, and is famous for its raisins.page 204
Amman goes back into the dim ages of the Old Testament. It was the Rabbath Ammon captured by David's great soldier. Later as Philadelphia, it was one of the cities of the Decapolis, and is now the finest Roman ruin east of the Jordan, and is the centre of a grain growing district.
At this season of the year the Jordan is in flood and all fords impassable. The Turks had burned the Ghoraniych bridge, so it was decided to build at its site a pontoon bridge, and another at the Mahadet Hajla ford, where in all probability Joshua and his Israelites crossed to attack Jericho.
After much difficulty a party of the 2/19 London Regiment of the 60th Division got across at Mahadet Hajla and the Anzac Bridging Train soon commenced work and built a pontoon bridge. But at Ghoraniych the opposition put up by the Turks prevented anything being done. By noon on March 22nd two Battalions of the London Regiment crossed over the pontoon bridge, and at 4 a.m. on the 23rd the Auckland Mounted Rifles went over and immediately got to work to clear the enemy away. By a brilliant and gallant charge they drove a Turkish Squadron of Cavalry into the hills, rode down the Turkish infantry posts and cleared the plain right up to Ghoraniyeh.
The infantry were quickly across here and a pontoon bridge was built.
By daylight on the 24th the New Zealand Brigade was across and heading into the mountains by way of the Wadi Jeria.
At three o'clock in the afternoon the Regiment commenced the climb; the 1st Squadron, temporarily attached to the Auckland Mounted Rifles, forming the advanced guard. The lack of accurate maps and the entire absence of any tracks, made the task of finding a way passable for animals very difficult.
To make matters worse, it came on to rain again, and all view of the surrounding country was obscured by clouds. At 4.30 p.m. the Wadi Jeria was left, and ascending the steep hills the Regiment crossed over to the Wadi Sir. The country, so far as could be seen was magnificent. Wild flowers grew everywhere, and wherever one looked there was a blaze of colour, but in the wet, and riding in single file, one soon page 205forgot how beautiful the country was. At dusk a halt was made at Sir Abbada, about halfway up the mountains. Here the column was joined by the first of the local Arabs, a poor collection of men of the Adwan tribe, armed with a variety of rifles, pistols, daggers and wooden clubs, whose declared object was to knock all wounded Turks on the head —in reality, it appeared they applied the practice impartially to both sides. In fact they knew no sides; the "sport" of knocking wounded men on the head, and loot, seemed the main object of their lives. Any petty thieving appealed to them, as the worthy Medical Officer found out to his cost; for lying down for a well earned rest with his boots beside him, he awoke to find them gone.
At daylight on the 25th the climb was continued, at first over small spurs, slipping off the flat shelving rocks into the mud, then into a rocky wadi in which the usually small creek was now a raging torrent of muddy water. The rain continued and the higher the force climbed the greater grew the cold, and the more difficult the rocky tracks. All wheels, including the guns, had been left behind owing to the simple impossibility of bringing them up tracks so steep and rough that for hours at a time the men had to lead their horses. All rations and forage also had to be left behind beyond what each man and horse could carry. Wet through and almost page 206perished with cold, the advanced guard reached the plateau by midday, capturing about fifty prisoners in the village of Ain Es Sir as they passed through. Two hours later the remainder of the regiment had arrived and a halt was made while Brigade Headquarters tried to get in touch with Divisional Headquarters, who were struggling through the mountains somewhere south. The only means of communication was a small wireless set packed on horses and mules. Eventually an outpost line was taken up about two miles out on the plateau. At 11 p.m. a patrol of six German infantry marched right into our outposts and were captured showing that our arrival on the plateau was unknown to the enemy at Amman, and shortly after nine the following morning three mounted men came over the rising ground and were caught by the fire of two of our posts.
All day on the 26th the Regiment remained in the same position. Our patrols reconnoitred the country towards Amman, which lay about six miles east. The men suffered from the cold and wet, and were quite ready to vent their troubles on any stray Turks or Germans who attempted to approach our position.
The plan of operations provided for the concentration of the Division on the plateau, 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 was successfully accomplished during the morning by the arrival of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, the Camel Brigade and the Anzac Mounted Division Headquarters; and about noon news was received of the successful occupation of Es Salt by the Infantry with whom was the 6th Wellington Squadron.
But the Australian horses and the camels were too exhausted for an immediate advance.
At 4 p.m. the 8th Squadron endeavoured to advance in conjunction with the Imperial Camel Brigade, but beyond improving their position slightly, the advance failed. Enemy artillery and machine gun fire increased during the afternoon, but casualties were light owing to good cover.
At 7.25 p.m. the enemy advanced against the Regiment's right, but were easily driven off. During the night patrols investigated the enemy positions with a view to renewing the attack the following day, and a small party from the 2nd Light Horse Brigade penetrated to the railway north of Amman and blew up a two arch bridge.
It rained without ceasing, and the troops were wet through and nearly perished with cold. Rations had been brought up by transport camels but great difficulty was experienced in getting them distributed to the men in the line. It was impossible to light fires, even if wood had been available.
Infantry and artillery were expected early on the 30th, so it was decided to make a dismounted attack on Hill 3039 early that morning. Here the enemy position was somewhat in the shape of a shamrock, the stem representing the ridge leading to the main and strongest position, which consisted of two trenches in tiers dominating the approach along the ridge, with a third trench on higher ground behind, and a fourth trench three hundred yards further back on the northern point of the hill. Officers and men in our present line page 210were reduced to a minimum, and finally 11 officers and 102 other ranks were withdrawn to the right flank to form part of the assaulting party. The Auckland Mounted Rifles and the 4th Battalion of the Imperial Camel Brigade, with a troop from Wellington Mounted Rifles, formed the balance of the party. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the 30th these men formed up and moved out to attack the hill. The attack was delivered in two lines, Auckland and the 4th Battalion forming the first under command of Lieut.-Colonel MeCarroll, while the second consisted of Canterbury and Wellington men under Major Acton-Adams.
The plan adopted was to pass swifty and silently along the ridge betwen the two smaller positions and fall upon the main position "A" on the higher hill behind the two, the two flanking positions "B" and "C" being merely silently contained by small parties in case they became active. "A" having been captured it was considered that "B" and "C" would be compelled to surrender.
This plan was simple yet daring and required the most skilful leading in the dark and the utmost resolution on the part of every officer, N.C.O. and man. The position had been reconnoitred by the Auckland officers during the day and the plan was carefully considered and thoroughly talked over by General Meldrum with all the officers concerned.
At half past one on the morning of March 30th the small force concentrated dismounted at the line of deployment in the wadi at the foot of Hill 3039 in the midst of bitter rain and wind and in intense darkness. The advance of the two lines took place punctually at 2 o'clock over an open flat for a distance of 800 yards until the ascent of the ridge forming the stalk of the shamrock was reached.
Two subsections of machine guns went forward with the assaulting troops while the remainder of the machine gun Squadron took up a covering position in case a retirement became necessary.
The trenches at "A" were successfully reached without alarming the enemy in "B" and "C", and the garrison bay-onetted with the exception of 23 Turks who surrendered with five machine guns.page 211
The trenches and sangers were at once altered to face the other way while the 2nd line, Canterburys and Wellingtons, came through and went for the trenches behind "A".
There was about 300 yards to go and the thin line when about half-way across encountered a heavy fire from machine guns and rifles, momentarily checking its advance. But inspired by the coolness of Lieutenant Murray of the 10th Squadron the men, scrambling forward over the wet and slippery rocks, hurled themselves into the midst of the enemy, eventually capturing the position with fourteen live Turks and a machine gun.
As soon as this position had been consolidated and the 16th Company (New Zealanders) of the 4th Camel Battalion had come up, an attack was made on the final position on the front of the hill overlooking Amman. This was carried by the 8th Squadron (Canterburys) and the 16th Camel Company.
As soon as daylight came the enemy parties in "B" and "C" surrendered with one officer, forty other ranks, and five machine guns.
The line now ran across the hill from east to west as follows:—4th Battalion Camel Brigade, Wellington Regiment, Canterbury Regiment and Auckland Regiment, and all ranks were working for their lives to build some sort of defence but the ground was so hard and rocky that trenches could not be dug, sangers built up as high as possible taking their place.
Soon after daylight the enemy began to shell the top of Hill 3039. Stone sangers are effective enough against rifle and machine gun fire but against artillery fire they were veritable traps, shrapnel ricochetting in all directions and high explosive hurling the rocks and stones broadcast.
Counter-attack after counter-attack was flung back by this gallant little line throughout that dreadful day and between the attacks the enemy searched out every corner of that rocky area with, shells from his guns.
At 9.30 the first attack came, pressed by the Turk with the greatest determination and preceded by a perfect tornado of shells. But the Brigade machine guns, aided by those of page 212the Camels and five captured Turkish guns, had been well and carefully sited and brought a withering fire to bear upon the advancing enemy.
But his great numbers brought him right up to our line and on a misunderstanding the right of the line commenced to withdraw, allowing the enemy to reach the crest where they were checked by the machine gun fire from the Aueklanders on the left.
Seeing the gravity of the position and realising that nothing but the greatest determination could save the situation, Captain Hinson (Adjutant Canterbury Regiment), and Lieutenants Thorby and Crawford of the New Zealand Camel Company, by their inspiring example, each in his own part of the line, swept back their men in a magnificent charge It was estimated by watchers at Divisional Headquarters across the valley to the west that from four hundred to five hundred Turks assembled on the northern slopes of the hill for this attack and that no more than fifty were seen to go back.
At 2 p.m. three enemy batteries opened a steady fire on 3,039 and continued for the rest of the day and at 4 p.m. another determined counter attack by the Turks was repulsed. The brunt of this fell upon the Camel Battalion and was beaten off by the help of a small troop of reserves sent in on their right from Brigade Headquarters.
At 5 p.m. just before dark, the last of the enemy attacks occurred and was successfully repelled.
During the whole of this exceedingly difficult day General Meldrum had been entirely without artillery support, with the exception of a few rounds from the section of Hong Kong and Singapore mountain guns.
But the machine gunners, as usual, were magnificent. Many of their own guns having been destroyed by shell fire, they used captured enemy guns. During the final Turkish attack they put a belt of fire across our front line that no living man could penetrate.
On the left of the New Zealand Brigade, the Camels, the infantry, and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade (on the extreme left of the line) had been desperately attacking all day and page 213had made but little progress; in fact the 2nd Light Horse had been unable to go forward at all owing to the enemy's repeated endeavours to outflank them.
The principal objective given to the Division by the C. in C. had been a large railway viaduct at Amman. This had not been even seen and could not be destroyed, though the work of all ranks had been simply magnificent.
The brigades had been well handled; the regimental and battalion leadership thorough, daring and efficient; and with a complete confidence in the Divisional Commander every man fought unhesitatingly, carrying out devotedly everything that was asked of him through the most trying period experienced by the New Zealand and Australian mounted men during the Palestine campaign. Sir Philip Chetwode, who commanded the XX Corps, under whom this raid had taken place, stated in his report to the C. in C. "what the Anzac Mounted Division and the 60th Division could not do, no other troops could possibly undertake."
Though our first objective was unattained, the severe pressure put upon the Turkish forces east of the Jordan compelled them to evacuate Kerak, the grain centre of the Moabite uplands, thus allowing the forces of the King of the Hedjaz to advance northward and to join hands with our troops on the Jordan. This and the ultimate object in the C. in C.'s mind, to attract to the east of the Jordan as many of the enemy reserves as posible, caused him to speak with page 214unqualified satisfaction of the result of the raid and, bearing in mind the extreme difficulties in further providing for the troops on the plateau, he ordered the withdrawal to the Jordan.
Then began the most difficult of military operations, a withdrawal when in contact with the enemy.
The first tiling to be done was to move back the New Zealand Brigade and the 4th Camel Battalion from the right. General Meldrum received his orders at 6 p.m. to withdraw to the edge of the plateau just above the village of Am Es Sir. The greatest difficulty was the evacuation of the wounded. These unfortunate men had to be carried down the hill in blankets to the dressing station. From there to the nearest clearing station on the Es Salt road was a distance of 10 miles over country so boggy and slippery that the cacolet camels, the only means of ambulance transport, could not be used. So each sufferer was strapped on to his horse and so taken over 10 miles of agony to the dressing station. As a trooper remarked as he was being strapped on a horse "a man was lucky to be killed."
By 11 p.m. all wounded were got away and the Brigade retired to Ain Es Sir, throwing out an outpost line some two miles forward on the plateau to cover the withdrawal of the remainder of the force down the Es Sir defile.
The 1st Squadron took up the line it had held on arrival on the plateau and the remainder of the Regiment tried to get some much needed rest. But this was not to be, for the Turks showing up in front of the 1st Squadron, the whole Regiment moved into the line and the Aucklanders came up in support.
A certain amount of sniping took place all the afternoon and evening but no attack was made.
This night (March 31st) was the most bitter yet experienced. The wind blew the cold drenching rain through all clothing. The men, exhausted with eight days' ceaseless marching and fighting, disappointed with apparent failure and sorrowing for their lost comrades, suffered torture from the icy blasts.
All that night a ceaseless line of infantry, camels and mounted men climbed and slipped and fell down the greasy page 215rocks and muddy water channels of the Wadi Es Sir. At 4 a.m. on April 1st the Wellington Regiment took over the outposts and Canterbury Regiment moved off after the rest of the Brigade. As the last of the Wellington Regiment, following as a rearguard, passed through the village of Ain Es Sir, the Circassian inhabitants, our supposed friends, suddenly opened Are from some houses at point blank range and several of the Wellington officers and men fell. The Wellingtons promptly turned and cleaned up the houses from which the treacherous fire had come.
By dusk the Jordan plain was reached and the wearied men, marching for the last few hours through wild flowers of gorgeous colouring reaching up to the stirrups, in a delightfully calm, peaceful evening with the light of the western sun in their faces, could scarcely believe that only a few short hours before they were fighting for their lives in wind and cold and wet. Here by the Jordan was peace and a sweet balmy air so warm after the wild uplands that many lay down as they were in their torn and muddy clothing and slept the sleep of exhausted men.
Prisoners taken by the force were twenty officers and five hundred and ninety-five other ranks. The enemy abandoned on the Amman road two field cookers, twenty-six motor lorries and page 216five motor cars, besides much horse transport. On the Hedjaz railway an enemy airplane was taken. All were destroyed on our retirement.
The quality of the Turkish troops was exceptionally good. They were Anatolians, fresh troops and of fine physique and particularly well clothed to stand the winter weather.
The one bright spot in the operations was the magnificent effort put up by the supply services. Rations and forage arrived throughout the nine days across the Jordan with unfailing regularity. The force when investing Amman was eighty-six miles from the railhead on the Philistine plain, for the Turkish railway from Ludd station to Jerusalem was undergoing relaying as a broad gauge railway. Supplies were brought up the winding road to Jerusalem by lorry, then down through the wilderness by other lorry trains, across the Jordan plain by horse transport and then up the 4,000 feet on to the plateau of Moab and Gilead by camels. The slippery mountain tracks and the bitterly cold winds and rains caused heavy casualties among the camels and their Egyptian drivers.
At Amman fell Captain H. B. Hinson of the New Zealand Staff Corps who had so ably performed the arduous duties of Adjutant for some time. A graduate of Duntroon Military College he had joined the Regiment as Signalling Officer. He met his death leading a most gallant charge on Hill 3039. Here also fell Lieutenant S. Berryman and 2nd Lieutenant H. Benson and many of the best and bravest in the Regiment.
This raid into the land of Moab and Gilead had shown us a lofty plateau bounded on the west by the great Jordan cleft and on the east by the desert sands of Arabia. It is a country crying out to the agriculturalist for development and to the archaeologist for exploration, a country that once was one of the granaries of the world and could well be so again, a country which has seen the rise and fall of many religions and civilisations, the ebb and flow of many great world forces, whose stories are written all over the face of this land for those who have eyes to see and patience to decipher.page 217
It was in many ways a disappointment that we did not remain in occupation of the country to the east of the Jordan, so that we could have a sight of the wonderful ruins of Jerash, and the extraordinary underground cities, of which Edrei is the most famous, a testimony to the continuous insecurity of this region which, with a single exception, has for thousands of years frustrated all attempts to develop a land blessed more than most with health and fertility. Ruins and traces of other peoples meet the eye everywhere throughout this land. What is its future? If history has any coherent meaning at all, if upon it lessons and deductions can be based, surely it is this: that under enlightened and just government, free from any danger of invasion, as well as from internal oppression, then Jordan will recover its former prosperity and again there shall be found "balm in Gilead."