The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
First the Canterbury Regiment, and then Wellington, moved out for a tour of duty holding posts in the Judean foothills, and then the New Zealanders turned their horses' heads eastwards, and, joining up with Wellington en route, set out on a long trek to the right flank to take part in operations there, many miles inland. Leaving the cultivated land of the coast, the route led up into the stony hills of Judea, with their endless outcropping boulders. The road curved amongst the hills in country quite different from the downs of the coastal plain. The hills were masses of grey rock, here and there built into terraces for the cultivation of grapes in sunny aspects; in parts the harshness of the landscape was softened by the greygreen tints of olive trees.
The Brigade passed through Bethlehem, which witnessed the nativity of Christ, and where may be seen the large Church of the Nativity, which has passed through many vicissitudes in the course of history. Our men then threaded their way over precipitous mountain tracks eastwards towards the Valley of the Jordan.
It is interesting to record that the route followed through the hills on this occasion was page 101the one traversed by Ruth in Biblical times. Having left the Hills of Moab she crossed the Jordan Valley, and made her way up this mountain track to Bethlehem, where she made such an impression on Boaz in the harvest fields.
The going in many parts was over steep, rocky paths, over which the horses had to be led in single file, the Brigade being strung out in a column perhaps five miles in length.
The Turks were encountered at Nebi Musa, (the burial-place of Moses according to the Moslems), and although they held commanding positions withdrew after a comparatively brief action.
Soon after this Jericho was occupied, the New Zealanders being amongst the first troops to enter the town. Our men were thus the successors, after long years, of Joshua, and mounted the first British guard in Jericho. When they first rode into the place, the priest rang the church bell, and the women, who were mostly on the housetops (the universal vantage point in times of excitement), sprinkled water on them from bottles. This last performance was not at all appreciated by some of the men, the general opinion being that the water would have been put to better use, with the addition of some soap, on the persons of the ladies (?) themselves. It afterwards transpired that these natives were doing what they considered great honour to the conquerors, the water used being from the River Jordan.page 102
In the hospital our men found a number of dead and dying Turks, the dead still on beds alongside the living, with the usual neglect of the most elementary sanitary measures so characteristic of the Turks.
As with many other places in the Holy Land, Jericho proved to be disappointing in appearance. Instead of the town pictured in the imagination as having some dignity clinging to it by reason of its departed grandeur, our men found what is little more than a native village of the usual squalid type, with a few modern stone buildings. Some trees and vegetation make the surroundings green in the barren waste of the Jordan Valley, owing their existence to a fairly good water supply which originates in the Ain Es Sultan spring behind the town. According to an early tradition this was the water which Elisha healed with salt, whence it is called Elisha's Spring by Christians. Of the departed glory of Jericho, with its fine buildings and plantations of date palms and bananas, hardly a trace remains to the eye of the casual observer—such can be found only by archaeologists.
The modern natives of the place, only about three hundred in number, are of a very degenerate type, probably owing to the deadly climate, it being situated nearly a thousand feet below sea level and infested with malarial mosquitoes. The causes of the town's gradual decay are said to be chiefly attributable to misgovernment and malaria.page 103
After the taking of Jericho, Canterbury and Wellington Regiments moved back to the bivouac at Ayun Kara, on the other side of the country, Auckland Regiment alone remaining in the Jordan Valley. This regiment was then engaged for some time in useful patrol work. So afraid were the Turks of the Colonial horsemen, that it was a common practice for them to "snipe" at our patrols with their field guns, often sending shell after shell over at a couple, or even one, of our men. As they often made exceptionally good practice at such moving targets, patrol work under direct observation was most exciting, as one shell crashed before a rider and another whipped up the dust behind him with its flying fragments.
Auckland Regiment helped in forcing the first crossing of the river Jordan by British troops. This crossing was made at the most famous ford of the Jordan, at Mahadet Health, which is supposed to be the scene of the baptism of Christ. It is at this spot that the many pilgrims to the Jordan are dipped every year.
At the time the New Zealanders crossed it, however, in March, 1918, the river was filled from bank to bank, and was a swiftly running torrent many feet deep, the pontoon bridge over which the crossing was made being constructed by Pioneers under difficulties and heavy enemy fire. This regiment of mounted rifles was the first to clear the ground immediately east of the river of Turks, clearing several miles of country page 104in a brilliant operation which resulted in the capture of ten machine-guns and a good haul of prisoners. During this "stunt" one troop put to flight a body of Turkish cavalry double their number, putting half of them out of action in killed and wounded. Such is Destiny that the only New Zealander killed was the brilliant young officer who led the troop, beloved of all. Auckland also did good work in seizing what was afterwards made the main bridgehead on the river, the Ghoraniyeh crossing, directly east of Jericho.
At Jericho the Jordan Valley is roughly twelve miles wide. From the towering Mount of Temptation, with Jericho below it, on the west, the country, which is flat or only slightly undulating, slopes gradually towards the river. Perhaps a mile from the stream, the ground becomes furrowed and gutted by deep gullies into chalky bills, through which the track winds uncertainly till the river is reached. On the eastern side of the river the first mile or so is cut up into chalky hills of all formations in the same manner, and then as the gullies become shallower the country runs up in a gradual slope, covered with thorny scrub, to the foot of the Mountains of Gilead.
The Jordan River, which runs from north to south, to empty itself into the Dead Sea, is of an average width of forty or fifty yards. It turns and twists, like a writhing snake, amidst a vividly green fringe of vegetation which shows up in strong contrast to the chalky hills around.