The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
When the advance on Beersheba commenced, the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade formed part of the swiftly moving column that executed the brilliant turning movement at Beersheba, and allowed the thrust at Gaza to be made, which this time was completely successful. Down the ages of history, Gaza has been the scene of many battles, but was probably never subjected to such a battering as the town received on the occasion of this third attack by the British. The artillery bombardment was terrific, and greatly facilitated the work of the storming infantry.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade left E1 Fukhari on the evening of the 25th October, and, marching all night, arrived early next morning at Essani, fifteen miles away. There the New Zealanders stayed three days, acting in support of yeomanry and supplying escorts for camel trains. Leaving Essani on the night of the 28th, they rode due south to Khalassa, a distance of about ten miles. Resting all day after their arrival in the morning they marched again at night, in dense clouds of dust, to Asluj, another fifteen miles. Here was encountered the first metalled road since leaving the Suez page 84Canal, and the Turkish narrow-gauge railway.
Such night marches as these, a common experience of the Mounted men, will live long in their memories. Usually moving off at dusk, the long column takes the road in the enveloping dust which always shrouds the movement of a mounted column in Palestine in the dry season. Little is heard beyond the shuffling of the horses' feet and the jingle and rattle of accoutrements—the clink of stirrups and hits or perhaps the rattle of a mess-tin or some equipment on a pack-saddle loosely tied on. Occasional disjointed remarks are heard—perhaps to do with a load on some horse requiring adjustment—or a speculation as to the destination—then perhaps the curt order, "No Smoking!"—but for the most part the column pushes its way on through the darkness in almost complete silence. A sudden slowing up of the horses in front and figures dimly seen dismounting means a few minutes, halt, when the tired riders stretch themselves on the ground alongside their horses, sublimely in-different to the risk of being kicked or trodden on. Often the weary steeds, with almost human understanding, lie down beside their riders to rest their aching legs.
A sound of movement in front and the brief rest is at an end as each man climbs into his saddle on the order "get mounted" being passed down from the head of the column as it commences to move again. So the march page 85continues throughout the night with occasional halts. Some men fall asleep in their saddles and are carried on in uneasy oblivion by their understanding mounts—others remain awake in a world of moving shadows and distorted images.
The early morning hours of darkness are the most trying, for then vitality is at its lowest and fatigued bodies ache all over. Then comes the first lightening of the eastern sky, and the new day dawns with a cheering influence, which is increased as the next halt gives the opportunity for a hurried "boil-up" of tea; after which things seem not so bad after all to the dust-smothered and unshaven warriors.
At Asluj water for the horses was very short, and the long trek continued again that evening. During the night the Brigade covered a distance of some thirty-six miles, moving in a triple column composed of mounted troops, artillery, and transport, on a road barely half a chain wide.
In the morning the sequel to this fatiguing night was an action against the Turks holding the Tel El Saba redoubt, east of Beersheba. This fight at Saba was typical of the way in which an attack was developed from the time the first shots were fired at the advance guard. The Turkish main positions were on the summit of a hill which from its dominating position formed one of the chief keys to the 'defence of Beersheba. Auckland Regiment page 86made the attack, in conjunction with the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade, the other New Zealand Regiments continning the sweeping movement on their right which was to culminate in the fall of Beersheba. The thin line of sconts riding in the screen were held up by enemy fire at a range of about two thousand yards. They dismounted and at once replied in an endeavour to pick up the range. Their thin line was then reinforced by the troops acting in support of them, and then further strengthened as the remainder of the regiment behind deployed and came into action dismounted.
The line then commenced to move forward, first one part advancing covered by the fire of the others, then another section. The ground, being more or less broken, afforded fairly good cover, but the Turkish artillery made good shooting and put over many good bursts of shrapnel which whipped the ground amongst the advancing New Zealanders into myriad spurts of dust. The engagement thus developed until the attacking line was perhaps two or three hundred yards from the Turks, when heavy fire was exchanged from both sides. Then the New Zealanders, charged with fixed bayonets, pushing the attack home with great determination as they mounted the rising ground towards the enemy. The sight of the cold steel coming upon them was evidently too much for the morale of the Turks, for their page 87fire died down as our panting men approached their trenches, and those that did not bolt soon surrendered. Thus was another victory added to the record of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.
In the well executed movement by the British forces which resulted in the fall of Beersheba, the long detour made by our mounted troops led the Turks to believe that the main attack was to be delivered in this vicinity. This resulted in their fatal error of moving troops from their coastal flank into the hills near Beersheba, thus enabling the British troops to smash through at Gaza and in other parts of the line.
After the fall of Beersheba, the Brigade was engaged at Bas El Nagb, northwards in the direction of Hebron, against these enemy troops. The country was hilly and difficult, the result being that the New Zealanders (as happened a number of times during the Campaign) came under heavy artillery fire from the Turks, with no support from British guns. The Turks attempted to dislodge Canterbury Regiment from their positions by a bayonet charge, but were beaten off, although in the five days or so that our men were engaged in this locality this Begiment suffered very severe casualties.
The relieving troops were late in arriving, the New Zealanders being a day or two almost without water or rations—so that with this and page 88the strain of the fighting our men were about "all in" when they were finally relieved. It took them all their time to march back the five miles or so to the horses on foot, over the rough stony ground.
Whilst fighting in this part, water for the horses could not be found, and these animals performed a wonderful feat of endurance in existing without it for seventy-two hours—in the case of one waggon team eighty-four hours. They were eventually led back to Beersheba and watered there, a distance of twelve miles.
The New Zealand Brigade was then with-drawn from this area, and rationed up at Beersheba, whence they marched through Hareira and Huj to Ascalon. In this trek our men covered a distance of over sixty miles in thirty-six hours, with only two spells en route; a fine performance for weary horses and men, when it is considered that they were then fully rationed, and carrying the maximum load, which has previously been shown was no light weight.
Slightly north of Ascalon, the New Zealanders encountered the first of the many large orange groves which dot the countryside in vivid green patches near Jaffa. On the 14th of November, they came into sanguinary collision with the Turks at a place called Ayun Kara, about nine miles south of Jaffa.
The fight occurred on open, undulating ground with no cover, and our men got no opportunity page 89of entrenching themselves. Auckland Regiment held the left, Wellington the centre, and Canter-bury the right, the Brigade being attacked by a whole Turkish division with the evident intention of wiping them out. The Turks charged with fixed bayonets, and endeavoured to turn the New Zealanders' left flank, towards the sandhills of the coast. Their attack was thus heaviest against Auckland and Wellington, the brunt of it falling on Auckland.
The Turks got to within bomb-throwing distance, but were eventually beaten off in the last thirty or forty yards of their advance, after a fierce struggle, in which our men fought like tigers. Casualties on both sides were very heavy, most of the grim combat occurring at very short range, some of our men being put out of action with hand grenades. Only the grim determination of the New Zealanders and their unwavering, deadly markmanship with rifle, machine-gun, and Hotchkiss rifle stopped the Turkish rush before it overwhelmed them. The fight ranged at close quarters for some time in the fiercest intensity, and then as the tide of battle turned, the remnant of the attacking Turks withdrew in disorder, leaving our men as victors in a frightful shamble of dead and wounded. Throughout that night our thin line of survivors held on to their positions ready for any renewed attack by the enemy, the darkness being made horrible by the groans and cries of the wounded Turks lying before our page 90line. The early morning light revealed a field littered with corpses, some four hundred Turkish dead being counted before Auckland's position alone. When it is remembered that a mounted rifle regiment dismounts for action only a little over two hundred men, and that the Regiment was far from full strength, the eighty-nine casualties suffered by Auckland give some indication of the fierceness of the engagement. There were probably not more than one hundred and thirty or one hundred and forty men in the line, and yet, with their heavy percentage of casualties, these great-hearted men from peaceful New Zealand accounted for a huge roll of enemy dead, over and above wounded.
The following essay, which was written by a Jewish schoolgirl in Bichon Le Zion, shows the relief with which our occupation of the pretty little hamlet was welcomed after the decisive battle of Ayun Kara, which took place barely a mile from the village.—
"For several days the roar of the guns became louder, gradually approaching our village. It seems almost incredible when we think that the British Army is coming soon, after three and a half years of patient waiting.
We were instructed by our late Turkish masters to stay strictly indoors during the awful conflict, so we were practically prisoners.
Presently news arrived that the British had occupied Dieran, and we thought they would reach here by the following day.page 91
Wednesday morning heralded a fresh outburst of the artillery, much nearer to our settlement, and we thought that a big battle was raging not far from here; all day we were afraid of the frightful noise, but in the evening it ceased. Later on the Turkish troops began to enter the settlement. All ranks seemed completely tired and crestfallen, and the wounded were crying out for food and water. That night was dark and cold; the Turks wandered about the roads for a place to rest. We received orders to supply food for man and beast, and we all wondered where they were going to. Was it that the British Army was too powerful for them to resist it any longer?
About midnight they installed a telephone, which made us think they were going to stay and continue fighting next day.
Everybody in our house sat up all night thinking and suggesting what would occur oa the morrow. I thought that we would be told to leave the place in the morning. We all dreaded the idea of leaving our homes, not knowing when we would be able to return. My sister and I, looking from our window, heard the confusion in the street below, but owing to the darkness we could see nothing. The cries of the wounded were pitiful. My brother-in-law had great confidence in the early appearance of the British troops, and he told us to have courage because to-morrow we would all be free. Afterwards he retired to sleep, but told page 92me to awaken him if I heard any soldiers speaking English.
In the early hours of the morning the Turks began to depart, and by eight o'clock we had bade adieu to the last Turkish officer, and everybody rejoiced and waited patiently for the conquerors to arrive.
Everything was quiet, so we looked in all directions for the first sign of any British troops. Presently I heard my brother calling me, saying, "Come here, Rachel, and see the cavalry."
Taking the glasses with me, I distinctly saw a large body of horsemen approaching in our direction, and it seemed almost incredible for the British to have captured our colony from the Turks without our being molested or disturbed. My brother became excited and hastened away to greet the first of them. After ten minutes two New Zealand troopers rode up to us and spoke, but I was very sorry that I could not understand English.
Presently one man spoke to his companion, who smiled, and I have since learned that he said, "They are not bad looking girls about here."
Afterwards many troops came up, and ail the civilians came out of their houses to welcome them. Everybody was overjoyed. The advanceguard stayed here all day, and that evening their Commanding Officer, General Meldrum, rode into the colony and interviewed the residents.page 93
Looking from our balcony now and watching the street full of soldiers, it seems that our dream has at last come true, and we can already Bee visions of a new life free from Turkish misrule; and we shall try to forget the past and for a victorious peace we Will drink "Palestine wine" in Palestine.
Now that the Turks have departed and the British (we hope) have come to stay, everybody in the colony is very busy learning the English language.
When the British first arrived only some people could understand them. I remember the first soldier who spoke to me—I could answer only by gestures, hut now I am pleased to be able to speak and read a little.
Among the New Zealanders yon will hear the Hebrew words "Shalom, Ma Shlemba, toda raba, etc." ("Good-day, how are you? Thank you very much, etc."). So both parties are fraternising and are becoming every day closer friends."