The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
Soon after this decisive battle the New Zealand Brigade occupied Jaffa, on the coast, a town in normal times of about fifty thousand inhabitants, but at this time nearly deserted. As in the case of Gaza, the population rapidly grew once more upon the advent of British administration. The town possesses many fine buildings, and Sarona, a suburb to the north east, is well laid out and modern. The centre of the town occupies a gentle eminence overlooking the sea, the rest of it running north and south along a wide stretch of sea beach.
The legend of Andromeda and the sea monster is supposed to have originated on the rocks over which the waves break in its indifferent harbour, while Jonah is said to have had his adventure in the whale's tummy not far away. The house of Simon the tanner is another spot of historie interest which may be seen, or rather the site of it, for the original building has long since disappeared and been built over by a house of modern origin. Before the War Jaffa was the pilgrim port of Jerusalem, some fifteen to twenty thousand of these people passing through it annually.page 95
The German Consulate in the town was occupied by New Zealand Brigade Headquarters, many New Zealanders (be it whispered) taking great delight in the use of the impressively headed official stationery which was found there in large quantities.
The country immediately surrounding the town is very fertile, and beautiful with vineyards and orange-groves, these latter being a great sight as the luscious fruit ripens goldenly against the vivid green of the trees. The abundance of oranges was appreciated to the full, and probably did much towards keeping our men fit.
It is worth recording that the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade were the first troops to enter Jaffa, on the extreme left flank of the British line, and also, later, were amongst the first British troops to enter Jericho on the extreme right.
Soon after the occupation of Jaffa, the New Zealanders were engaged to the north of it, across the Auja river at khirbet Hadra, and also at Sheik Muanis. The former event was nearly a disaster, the Turks once more attempting to finish our men off by an attack in overwhelming force one morning at dawn. The New Zealanders narrowly escaped being cut off by the river and mown down by heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. As it was the casualties were heavy enough, but the enemy's object of finally disposing of the dreaded page 96"death-riders," as the Turks called the slouchhatted Colonial horsemen, was not realized.
The suburb of Sarona, behind our men, largely inhabited by Germans, and at that time still containing many German women, was suspected of signalling or sending information of our strength on the northern bank of the river to the enemy, for the Turkish attack on this occasion was timed to catch the New Zealand unit at the maximum disadvantage, in a difficult and unsupported outpost position.
This suburb of Sarona contained a winepress, which our men soon discovered, and relieved by the simple process of syphoning the wine out of casks into water-bottles, or canvas waterbuckets. Later, an English unit mounted a guard over the place, and the New Zealanders were sore perplexed at their free supply of wine being cut off. However, where there's a will there's a way.
One evening a well turned out New Zealand guard, with fixed bayonets, and commanded by a sergeant, marched up to the guard-room. With great éclat each guard paid the usual compliment of presenting arms. Then the sergeants conferred, the Tommy non-commissioned officer demurring that he had no orders about relief at that time. Such trifling objections the New Zealanders quickly over-ruled, soon convincing the Englishman that everything was in order. The sentry was relieved by a mounted rifleman, and after the usual return of compliments the old guard marched off.page break page break page 97
The New Zealand sentry remained on duty, but the rest of the bogus guard dived into the building, and quickly emerged with all they could carry. By the time outraged authority discovered the boas, the last of our men were just disappearing in the distance with a heavy load—thus were the home fires (internal) kept burning!
On another occasion a well-known "hard case" in Canterbury Regiment Was riding towards the wine-press one evening with his intentions quite evident by reason of the score or so of water-bottles slung round his own and bis horse's anatomy. He was but slightly disconcerted to meet a well-known Assistant Provost Marshal, who stopped him with an enquiry as to where he was going. As he was on the direct track to the wine-press, evasion was useless, so "Up to the wine-press, sir," was the reply. "What for!" queried the officer. "To get some feed for my horse, sir," was the unsmiling answer—with which the worthy rode on before the officer had time to stay him.
During their stay in the vicinity of Jaffa, the New Zealanders for a time relieved the infantry in the trenches. This was rather a miserable experience, the weather being very cold and wet. The trench sides kept falling in, everyone becoming smothered in the sticky red mad, while the Turkish artillery was unpleasantly attentive.
Canterbury moving back first, Wellington and Auckland followed, and after a two days' trek page 98arrived at Sukerier, on Christmas Day, 1917, in a teeming deluge of rain which soaked every man and his gear through and through. This bivouac was in the sandhills, on the coast just north of Esdud, or Ashdod, as the old maps call it. This is a typical native village of mudwalled houses with thatched roofs. In the rainy season these roofs are green with the growth of barley and other seeds which have germinated amongst the refuse thrown on them, and the whole village blends into the green tone of the surrounding country in a way that makes it almost invisible at a distance.
After a short stay near Esdud a move was made farther north, a bivouac being established at Ayun Kara, adjoining the battlefield where so many good men had "gone west," and the Jewish village of Richon Le Zion.
Here the Brigade had a well-earned spell for a few weeks while the units were refitted and brought up to strength. The nearby village of Richon is a pretty little hamlet surrounded by vineyards and orange-groves, where the Jewish inhabitants were keenly appreciative of our mens' work in the Aynn Kara fight, in freeing them from the yoke of the detested Turk. The centre of interest is the substantially built brick wine-press, with its huge cellars, the property of Eothschild, and one of the three largest wine-presses in the world. Light white and red wines and cognac could be had at reasonable prices, and were largely in demand.page 99
The country in this part of Palestine consists of rolling downs, and, the soil being light and porous, it formed an excellent camping ground during the rainy season, the rest spell terminating all too soon. Keen interest Was taken in football matches between the different units, and other sport. A few miles away was situated Ludd, which became an important railhead for the military railway, and in history as Lydda was associated with the exploits of St. George, the patron saint of England.
This village is situated picturesquely in a setting of olive trees and cactus hedges, on a fertile flat which under modern handling should yield heavily the fruits of agriculture. As with many parts of Palestine, the possibilities are there, and it will be interesting to see in the next few years what use is made of them.