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The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders

Chapter XIII

page 105

Chapter XIII.

Towards the end of March, Canterbury and Wellington Regiments again trekked across Palestine to the Jordan Valley, and, crossing the river at midnight on the light pontoon bridge, joined up with Auckland on the eastern bank of the river at dawn on March 24th. This was the morning after Auckland's successful day in clearing this ground of Turks.

The New Zealand Brigade now formed part of the force which was to attack Amman, on the Hedjaz railway. The objects of this operation were to effectually damage the Hedjaz railway, and, if possible, capture the town of Amman. The successful accomplishment of the former would have cut off forces of the enemy lower down the line, compelling them to submit to attack by the King of the Hedjaz, working in co-operation with the British. The capture of Amman itself would have been a big blow to the Turks, for this was their distributing point for this section of their front for troops and supplies as they came down from the north by rail.

The Hedjaz railway is a narrow-gauge line running from Damascus to Medina, a distance of about seven hundred miles. It is three quar-page 106ters of an Inch narrower in gauge than the New Zealand railways, the rails being laid on steel sleepers. The line is well engineered, and in parts winds up steep grades in a clever serpentine course. The locomotives used are very heavy and powerful, of German build. The line was originally bruit entirely for religious purposes, for the carriage of pilgrims to Mecca. From Medina, which is the terminus, pilgrims travel by camel caravan to Mecca, the journey taking ten days. The money for the construction of the line was subscribed by Moslems all over the world, and no Christians or people of other than the "true faith" were ever allowed to travel farther south upon it than Maan, some distance below Amman.

On the first day of this expedition the New Zealanders left the Jordan Valley, the Turks being driven from their positions in the foothills comparatively easily. The wild flowers growing in the defiles and gullies traversed by the long string of horsemen were very beautiful. Scarlet anemones and a host of other blooms made a riot of colour most pleasing to the eye after the comparative barrenness of the Jordan flats.

Climbing by devious routes through the hills, mostly in single file, the Brigade bivouacked that night high up in the misty tops of Gilead. Moving on next day, a bitterly cold, wet morning, after a wet night, our men travelled in single file across rocky hillsides and up a page 107deep gully, crossing and recrossing a mountain torrent, until the Circassian village of Ain Es Sir was reached. This was occupied without resistance, about fifty Turkish line of communication troops being taken prisoner.

The Circassians were surly-looking scoundrels, most of them wearing the Arab headdress, a flowing cloth, secured by a woollen or alpaca rope passing twice round the crown of the head. Their clothes were semi-European, dirty coats or waistcoats being worn with heavy breeches baggy above the knee and tapering to the ankle. As they moved furtively about they concealed the lower parts of their faces with the loose folds of their head-cloths, and their eyes shot hostile glances at the invading troops, for their sympathies were known to be Turkish. Our men were to have further experience of this hostility later, at the cost of valuable lives.

The tableland which lies beyond the Mountains of Gilead having been reached, the Brigade was nest swung round to the right flank of the attack, coming into action against the Turks near Kissir station, on the railway line. Hundreds of armed Arabs were encountered in this locality, all armed to the teeth, nominally on the British side, but, although they hated the Turks, actually out for whatever loot they could get from either side.

They were treacherous but picturesque ruffians, nearly all carrying modern high velocity rifles, page 108one or two bandoliers, and a profusion of wicked looking knives. It was amusing to see how quickly, once the Turks were driven off part of the railway line, these rascals set to work to chop down the enemy's telegraph posts for firewood, which they carted away on horses or donkeys.

These Arabs were not risking their skins unnecessarily, but at Kissir a charge by mounted Arabs was witnessed which shed a ray of humour on the grim business of fighting, and would have delighted the heart of a cinematograph operator. Some New Zealanders attacked a small force of Turks who were holding the station buildings, and after a short fire fight successfully beat down the enemy opposition, and prepared to surround them as prisoners.

A number of Arab horsemen, who had been lying low in some safe spot nearby, seeing the Turks were beaten, galloped out, and, firing their rifles in the air and emitting blood-curdling yells, descended on the hapless Turks like a whirlwind. Dragging their victims out, they quickly stripped them of their possessions, our men arriving just in time to prevent the Arabs murdering them all, from which purpose they took considerable dissuasion. The Turks, needless to say, were in the condition popularly known as "having the wind up" until their fate was settled, and they were escorted to the rear by British soldiers.

The weather was bitterly cold and wet, the page 109greatest difficulty being experienced in getting supplies up to advanced troops such as the New Zealand Brigade, who on more than one occasion were without rations or horse-feed. Everything had to be packed on camels over wet, slippery tracks and rocks, up steep hills, where these animals travelled very slowly as they slithered and slid in all directions.

The Egyptian natives of the Camel Transport Corps stuck to their work well, shivering in their blue cotton clothes with a ground sheet or sack thrown over their shoulders. So severe was the weather on this expedition that a number of men in the British force died of exposure.

For a day or two our men held positions in the hills on the extreme right, near Kissir, with the Imperial Camel Corps, where they came under heavy shell-fire. During this time, from a neighbouring hill, they witnessed a gallant but unsuccessful attempt by some of the Camel Corps to storm a strong Turkish position, in which they were beaten off with very heavy loss. The enemy held the top of a hill, apparently not in great strength. On the attack being developed, however, Turks appeared in swarms from over the crest, and poured a devastating fire into the small force attempting the assault; this forced them back to some slight cover half way up the hill, where they lay until it was possible for the remnant to withdraw at night.

The Turks made a practice of shelling conpage 110cealed hollows which might be made use of as lines of approach, and at this stage of the operations secured a direct hit which justified the expenditure of so much artillery ammunition in this way. A squadron of the Auckland Regiment was moving up to a position in the rocks by way of a depression that the enemy could not possibly observe, when one of these chance shells burst fairly on the mounted column. The result of its explosion was a bloody sight, seven men and eight horses being put out of action.

As the operations proceeded, the New Zealand Brigade was ordered, as part of a combined attack on the town of Amman from three sides, to take a big dome-shaped hill which was one of the dominating features of the landscape, and was heavily held by the enemy.

Concentrating in a gully one cold morning at two a.m., the New Zealanders advanced in one long line towards the Turkish positions fifteen hundred yards away. The different units in the line keeping touch in the dark wonderfully well, they got to within a short distance of the Turkish sangars before they were observed, when a tornado of rifle and machine-gun fire opened on them, the roar of musketry and the fatal chatter of machine-guns making night hideous with their din.

Fortunately, a great deal of this fire went high, and the advance culminated in a determined bayonet charge and savage hand to hand fighting in which the Turkish resistance was soon overcome.

page 111

During this assault in the dark one of our signallers had a strange experience. He Was following up one of the attacking units, laying a field telephone wire as he went. In the preoccupation of doing this he lost touch, and went up the wrong hill. Before he realized what had happened, he was confronted by some Turks in a trench only a few yards before him. To run would have been useless, so, in the darkness, inarticulately muttering what few words of Arabic he could remember, he succeeded in getting into the trench beside them unrecognized as an enemy.

Ultimately his slouch hat was his undoing, for, one of the Turks having distinguished it in the darkness, they fell upon him and would have killed him but for the intervention of a Turkish officer. This trench had been missed in the main assault, but shortly some Wellington men charged it with a yell—most of the Turks bolted, but the signaller fell upon the officer and took him prisoner, being nearly bayoneted by another New Zealander as he grappled with the Turk in the bottom of the trench. The captor thus became the captured, and at once handed over a fine pair of glasses to the New Zealander. The Turkish officer seemed to regard his one-time prisoner as his special protector under changed conditions, for he followed him about closely until eventually handed over to an escort and taken to the rear.

Our men now held the top of the hill, but as page 112the chilly wet dawn broke the Turks commenced to shell the position very heavily, having it ranged to a yard.

The gradually growing light revealed an isolated Turkish trench on the left flank which enfiladed the New Zealanders, this post having been missed in the dark. The Turks in it made things very lively for our men on the left of the line till they found cover in a depression on top of a rocky knob. Then a hot fire fight raged between the two small groups, at a range of about three hundred yards. Eventually the accuracy of the New Zealanders' Hotchkiss and machine-gun fire determined the issue, when the Turks hoisted four white flags, and were soon after brought in as prisoners.

Throughout the day the New Zealanders lay on the main hill top, holding on grimly under incessant heavy shell-fire, and successfully beating off two determined counter attacks made by the enemy. It was very cold, and rations were exhausted. The ground was of too rocky a nature to make trenches possible, the only shelter our men had being what little they could get behind flat rocks or low stone sangars, so that the casualties from accurately burst shrapnel were heavy. The New Zealand Brigade had no artillery support, our guns being unable to get up the rocky narrow mountain tracks over which the mounted riflemen had passed, so that throughout the day the hard-won position was grimly held under the fire of about fifteen page break
Black-and-white photograph of a Jordanian tribesman

A typical East of Jordan cut-throat.

Black-and-white photograph of Jerusalem

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olive.

page break
Black-and-white photograph of allied troops visiting the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, World War One

A leave party approaching the Mosque of Omar, Jerusalem

Black-and-white photograph of a monastery, Jericho

The Monastery built into face of the "Mount of Temptation" above Jericho.

page 113Turkish guns. The horses had a hard time, having to remain saddled almost constantly for days, and getting little to eat beyond what grazing could be had under cover close to our positions. As they held the hill, our men could get occasional glimpses of the engagement on the country below them, where could be seen the white puffs indicating shrapnel bursts and moving dots they knew to be men—sometimes stopping suddenly to move no more.

Modern battle, with the importance of concealment so necessary in every phase, is uninspiring to watch, as so little is visible to the eye. The spectacular incidents such as a bayonet charge usually occur at night or in the indistinct half light of dawn. The features which impress themselves most strongly on one's senses are the noises, the horrible sights, and smells. The varied noises and crashing of explosives impress themselves strongly on heightened sensibilities. Under shell-fire, if it is not too intense to smother individual reports in a shattering roar, one hears the "wumph" of the enemy gun in the distance, followed by the whine of the approaching shell. This is intensified into a shrieking hiss as it passes close overhead and bursts with a roar and cloud of smoke nearby. If a shrapnel shell, the smoke will be white, and the report will be followed by a vicious whirring as the shrapnel bullets find their marks and the heavy shell-case and nosecap land with a thud or a squelch. If the page 114enemy is using high explosive shells fired from a high velocity gun, the muffled boom of the gun will be followed immediately by a deafening crash, as the shell bursts overhead in a cloud of black smoke and drives its death-dealing jagged fragments to the ground beneath. Rifle fire is heard rising and falling with a popping and crackling noise, which grows to a sustained roar in the heat of an engagement; the bullets coming over with a swishing hiss or a thud when one finds a billet; while the deadly machinegun contributes its quota to the inferno in a staccato "prp-rp-rp-rp-rp-rp" as one of the main items in the chorus of death.

Other units participating in the attack failed to reach their objective, so that as a concerted operation the attack on Amman failed, and at nightfall our Brigade was ordered to withdraw as soon as the wounded could be got out. Field ambulances could not get within miles of the area, so that the wounded had to be carried out on camels and tied to horses, the agony of which was fatal to several.

Retiring some miles that night, the New Zealanders the following night took up an outpost line to cover the withdrawal of a big force of infantry and camels. Everyone was chilled to the bone, and quite expecting an attack from a superior force of Turks. Fortunately this did not eventuate, and in the early hours of the morning, before daylight, the Brigade withdrew, acting still as rearguard.

The retiring force passed through the Cirpage 115cassian village of Ain Es Sir, and then down a narrow defile. As the last squadron of the rearguard left this place, the inhabitants, who Were armed, turned on our men, and treacherously shot three officers and several men. The rearguard at once replied, but, owing to the pressure from the Turks reported as coming on, it was not possible to deal as effectively with the village as our men would like to have done. The Brigade eventually reached the Jordan, and went into bivouac near Jericho.

This expedition, perhaps the most severe experience the Brigade had in the whole of the Campaign, was referred to in the press as a "successful raid." Apart from casualties, the only loss inflicted on the enemy was a temporary dislocation of his railway traffic south of Amman. There our forces had blown up several small culverts and part of the line, but the damage done was quickly repaired by the Turks, who had trains running over the section soon after the British withdrawal. A ten-arched stone railway viaduct, the destruction of which would have been the only effective means of cutting the line, was not reached, the damage done to the enemy being hardly justified by the heavy British casualties suffered. It was therefore somewhat surprising to those who had taken part in the operations to find them described as a success, and as on more than one occasion, made the press reports, in the light of knowledge of the truth, seem more or less facetious.