The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
To give the reader some general idea as to the circumstances in which the New Zealand Mounted Rifles did their work, a few remarks relative to the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns will be in place.
The reader will note that the account contained in this book appertains only to the doings of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in this double campaign, which was not their first. The Mounted Rifles had suffered severely on Gallipoli, and had returned to Egypt after the time of the evacuation in December, 1915. They went into camp at Zeitoun, near Cairo, from which place they moved out to oppose the Turks in the Sinai Desert.
In April, 1916, all the other New Zealand troops which had been in Egypt since the evacuation of Gallipoli left for France. The Mounted Rifles were then the only New Zealand troops remaining on this front.
The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, of which they formed part, was in those days a comparatively small force. At Romani, where occurred page 12the first big Desert action, the troops engaged were the Anzac Mounted Division, a Yeomanry Brigade, and a force of infantry. The number of men concerned in the fighting did not total much over 20,000, and this was the major part of the force on this front. As the campaign progressed, this force gradually grew in numbers, notably before Gaza, where the Turks offered such a stubborn defence and held up the British for so long. At the time of the operations culminating in the Armistice with Turkey, the British force had grown from its small nucleus into an army second in numbers only to that in France. Official figures are not available at the time of writing, but, with line of communication troops, this army was numbered in hundreds of thousands.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade was one of the very few units which took an active part in the campaign from its inception in 1915 to its close at the end of 1918. The New Zealand Brigade was essentially a fighting unit from start to finish,—a unit which suffered its full share of battle casualties, with, in the later stages of the campaign, a big proportion of loss from tropical disease. It may be said that during the whole of the campaign the Brigade took part in every major operation east of the Suez Canal—a record probably possessed by them alone.
Towards the end, when troops were so badly needed in France, some of the white divisions page 13were withdrawn from Palestine, their places being filled by Indian troops. Some of these were Indian Cavalry, but the bulk of the mounted troops were, throughout, Australasian horsemen. In the final operations under General Allenby, probably the largest force of cavalry that has ever moved together in a concerted operation in the world's history was assembled on this front.
The campaign, which opened with the Turkish attempt on the Suez Canal in 1915, and ended in their utter defeat at the end of 1918, can be divided into several stages.
The first commenced with the repulse of the enemy forces which attacked the Canal. It continued through the subsequent defence of the Canal and the gradual pushing back of the Turks in the Desert; and it may be said to have ended with the fall of Magh Daba and Rafa, the two important southern outposts of the Turks on the border of Palestine.
The next stage was the clearing of the country to the Gaza-Beersheba line in southern Pales-tine, and the two unsuccessful attempts to take the Turkish stronghold of Gaza which resulted in such heavy loss to the British.
Up till the time of the first attack on Gaza, the campaign had been a series of actions against strongly defended enemy positions, each further forward than the last. After the page 14first failure at Gaza, an extension of the front to the right took place. The second attack was thus on a line held by the Turks from Gaza, on the coast, to Beersheba, thirty miles inland. As the campaign progressed, so the front extended bit by bit—first to Jerusalem—then to Jericho and the Jordan. Finally, the British were operating on a front extending from the Mediterranean coast to the Hedjaz railway, east of the Jordan on the plateau beyond the mountains of Gilead. The distance across this front was 75 miles by air, but nearly 120 miles by road.
After the two unsuccessful attempts to take Gaza, came General Allenby's move in October, 1917, which turned the enemy's flank at Beer-sheba, and broke through the line at Gaza and elsewhere. This move was a continuation of successes which only ended when the British line lay beyond Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Jericho.
The final stage, which developed into a Turkish rout, commenced in September, 1918. A breach was made in the enemy line at an unexpected spot, through which were poured thousands of fast-moving mounted troops. These disorganised the enemy's lines of communication and finally cut them, the British mounted forces which reached Damascus and other northern points taking thousands of prisoners. On the right flank, at the same time, a force cut the Turkish line of retreat across the Jordan, and, pushing into the mountains of Gilead, seized Amman, the enemy page 15supply depôt on the Hedjaz railway. There they secured as prisoners the garrison of the town and many Turkish troops cut off lower down the line and unable to retreat.
This advance ended in the complete defeat of the Turks, forcing them to sue for an armistice.
Throughout the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade had no official correspondent to chronicle its doings, with the result that but few people not immediately concerned have any idea of the experiences and adventures of this, for a time, almost forgotten unit. The Brigade got little official recognition from Imperial or Australian correspondents—many times, indeed, the work done by the New Zealanders was credited to others, and as the Brigade possessed no official news representative, to contradict or elucidate such reports, they usually remained unchallenged.
Although a knowledge of their accomplishments was denied to the outside world owing to the circumstances mentioned above, it may be said that amongst troops with whom they worked, our men gained and held the high reputation as first-class fighting men, on this front, that the New Zealand Division so proudly possessed in France.
New Zealand's representation in the field throughout this campaign, with but slight variation, page 16was comprised as follows:—A Brigade of Mounted Rifles, consisting of Headquarters, Auckland, Canterbury, and Wellington Regiments; one Machine-gun squadron, one Mounted Field Ambulance; a field troop of Engineers, one Signal troop, and a mobile Veterinary Section. The strength of the New Zealand Brigade was approximately 1,850 men and 2,200 horses, although the unit was often much below this strength in the field as regards men. The New Zealand unit formed, together with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the Anzac Mounted Division, although later in the campaign, after the capture of Rafa, the 3rd Light Horse were detached to make up another Division.
Making a "water dump" in the desert. In the foreground are seen the 15-gallon "fanatis" in which the water was carried on camels.
The base training camp, through which passed all reinforcements for the Brigade arriving from New Zealand, and men returning to duty from hospital, was situated at Moascar. This was on the fringe of the Desert, near the Suez Canal town of Ismailia, on the railway which runs from Port Said to Suez. During 1918, this camp was moved to a new and better locality on the shore of Lake Timsah, one of the canal lakes. This was a much more congenial spot and gave the opportunity of plenty of healthy bathing in the intervals of training.
In this camp all newly arrived reinforcements received their final training before being sent up the line to replace casualties. This training consisted chiefly of the use of gas-masks, musketry, and field work. Sufficient horses were kept to mount a squadron at a time, and were constantly employed in mounted training.
A training cadre of officers and non-commissioned officers was maintained, these instructors being detailed from regiments in the field for a tour of duty extending over three months.