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

Chapter XIV

page 116

Chapter XIV.

At Jericho the New Zealanders were in reserve to the troops holding the Ghoraniyeh bridgehead on the river, "standing to" every morning. They were in addition supplying troops to hold other minor fords and crossings of the Jordan where the enemy might have attempted to force a crossing. Shortly after the return from the disastrous Amman raid, they were subjected to a bombing attack by seven Turkish aeroplanes, which is worth mention, as on this occasion the bombs used were of Allied manufacture. One light bomb knocked out eighteen horses and wounded five men. One of the bombs dropped was a "dud," and was identified as one that had been sent to Russia amongst munitions from the Allies, taken by the Germans on the Russian collapse, and sent down to Turkey. Our men were quite convinced of the efficiency of such munitions from this experience.

While in this bivouac many men took the opportunity of viewing the Dead Sea, which was only a few miles away, at close quarters. It was a common practice to ride down, when things were quiet, to Rujm El Bahr, at the northern end of the Dead Sea, where the page 117Jordan River runs into it. There they bathed themselves and horses. The water is extremely salt and buoyant, and many of the horses, which had bathed before in fresh water or the Mediterranean Sea, were obviously perplexed at floating so high out of the water.

This inland sea is about forty-seven miles in length, its greatest breadth being about ten miles, steep mountain country sloping down to the water on each side. The water contains about twenty-five per cent of mineral salts, and it is said that an egg will float in it with a third of its volume above the surface. It has been calculated that six and a half million tons of water fall into the Dead Sea daily from various streams, the whole of which huge quantity must be carried off by evaporation, as it has no outlet. This helps to give some idea of the humid heat of the atmosphere in these parts. The surface of the sea lies 1,290 feet below the sea-level of the Mediterranean.

Besides Jericho, and Rujm El Bahr, where are a few decrepit buildings (much in request as firewood) there are no other villages in the Jordan in this locality. The only other human habitations are the rough shelters of the wandering Bedouins and several monasteries.

Of these buildings, one is situated near the river in the direction of the Dead Sea, while another is close to the river by one of the fords, and was for some time used by the New Zealanders as a post for observing enemy movepage 118ments on the far bank of the river. Another is to be found built into the rock high up on the face of the Mount of Temptation, overlooking Jericho and the Valley.

A prickly scrub abounds in the Jordan Valley, from the formidable thorns of which Christ's crown is said to have been made. Near Jericho is found a woody scrub three or four feet in height, with broad leaves woolly on the under side. The fruit, not unlike an apple, is often called the Apple of Sodom. Of animal life, storks are to be seen, and big vultures, which perch on the chalky bluffs overlooking the river, like so many grim sentinels. Our men occasionally saw wild pigs, while the river itself contains many fish, and its marshy borders abound with frogs and other small fry. Most of the New Zealanders bathed in the Jordan at one time or another during the many months they were in the Valley. It is doubtful, however, if their spiritual refreshment, or whatever benefit the pilgrims imagine they derive from the dip, was so great as their physical benefit during this campaign in which a good bath was such a luxury.

It has been mentioned that the New Zealanders while bivouacked near Jericho were called on to supply troops for holding various posts on the river, and as this was typical of what they were continually required to do when in bivouac, it will not be amiss to follow in detail the doings of a troop sent out on post for a twenty-four hours' tour of duty.

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Probably getting two or three hours' notice, the troop detailed for duty would parade mounted, carrying a full supply of ammunition and rations, at Regimental Headquarters. Here the troop-leader would receive his orders. Moving off, they would march perhaps eight or nine miles, often in single file, crossing the deep gullies with which the country is intersected near the river. The horses would be watered en route if an opportunity occurred, and they would probably arrive to relieve the other troop on their post at 6 p.m., or as darkness fell.

Here the relieved troop would hand over to their successors any information likely to be of use as to enemy patrols, posts, or ranges to important points, and then gladly set out on their march back to camp. The officer or sergeant in charge of the troop would then look over the ground and decide on the best spot for the horses, under cover from view and fire. The disposition of the troop had then to be seen to, this probably involving the selection of a place for a listening post to be occupied during the night, in front of the general position. The site allowing for the best use of the Hotchkiss automatic rifle, with which each troop was equipped, would also have to be chosen.

These matters attended to, sentries would be posted, and, if a hollow screened from observation could be found, the men would boil up their little billies and make a rough repast while page 120the horses were fed. On work of this kind the horses always remained saddled, and were usually "linked"—that is, tied together by their head-ropes, so that in an emergency they could quickly be got out. In addition to sentries, horse-pickets would be required to watch the horses, so that few of the troop would get much sleep.

Each troop in the New Zealand Brigade carried a Hotchkiss automatic rifle, and had a section of four men trained in its use. On troop adventures such as the one under description, where the troop-leader often wished he had a hundred men instead of twenty-five or less, it was an invaluable weapon. The gun is aircooled, can fire as fast as a machine-gun, but has the advantage of a single-shot adjustment, which will often enable the man behind the gun to get the exact range by single shots indistinguishable from rifle fire, and then to pour in a burst of deadly automatic fire. The gun will not stand continued use as an automatic without overheating, but despite this it is a most useful weapon, light enough to be carried by one man dismounted. On trek, or going into action, a pack-horse in each troop carried the Hotchkiss rifle, spare barrel, and several panniers of ammunition, while a reserve of ammunition was carried by another pack-horse for each two troops. The ammunition was fed into the gun in metal strips, each containing thirty rounds.

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Black-and-white map of Southern Palestine

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On post, the Hotchkiss would always be placed where it could do the most damage, and all night a man would be lying near it, with the first strip inserted in the breach, ready to spit out death at a moment's notice.

The night of our troop on post might pass uneventfully—on the other hand, rifle fire in front, and the ricochetting of bullets overhead, might give all hands an anxious time as they peered into the darkness in the hope of information from their listening post in front. Perhaps the firing would die down, and silence reign once more, except for the occasional restless movements of the horses, the rolling of a dislodged clod down a hillside, or the weird baying of jackals. Thus the night might pass, or a sinister stillness might suddenly be broken by a crash of rifle fire near at hand, and the hurried tumbling in of panting men from the listening post, with information of the direction of an enemy attack. Then, if the enemy appeared to be in greatly superior numbers from their rifle flashes and vaguely-seen dim forms, each man would know a stern fight was before him. For if the orders were to hold the position, it must be some hours before the troop could be reinforced from the Regiment, miles away. So would the little band hang on in a grim defence, while the bullets hissed over them or went "phut" into the ground nearby, and the deadly stammer of the Hotchkiss rose through the din in a stuttering roar.

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Assuming that our troop weathers the hours of darkness with nothing more eventful occurring than a few stray shots, and perhaps the sounds of an enemy patrol moving somewhere in front, the eerie hour of dawn would see a few tired figures creeping in, as the men of the listening post return to their troop ready for what the day may bring forth. If things are quiet, this is the time of relaxation after a more or less sleepless night, for now one sentry, with glasses, is all that need be on watch, and the remainder set about feeding themselves and horses somewhere under cover.

The day may give opportunities of "potting" at Turks if they show themselves in range, or the troop may see enemy aeroplanes come over to reconnoitre the British bivouacs for signs of any hostile movements, and interestedly watch them running the gauntlet as the white puffs of shrapnel or black splotches of high explosive anti-aircraft shells burst around them thousands of feet up in the air. This interest, however, may be tempered with a certain amount of bad language from the troop if the enemy planes happen to be about half way between them and the British anti-aircraft guns. For the air will presently fill with a slowly growing musical note as "spare parts" in the form of shrapnel, shell fragments, and nosecaps, begin to fall, with a whirring noise, from the sky to the ground all around them; the spent parts of the exploded shells fired at the enemy airmen, still page 123with a sufficient momentum in falling to knock a man out.

The Turk may have located this post and decided to shell it, when soon after it is light there will be a muffled roar in the distance, a whine that quickly grows to a hissing shriek, and with a shocking crash in the stillness a shell bursts near at hand. Every man gets behind whatever cover is available, and anxious eyes watch the horses in the hope that they will not be hit. A sigh of relief goes round as the enemy shots go wider and wider with each successive shell, apparently searching the ground for the exact location of the post. Then perhaps the shell-fire will cease, "Jacko," as our men call the Turk, having decided that the expenditure of more ammunition on such an unsatisfactory target is not worth while.

Later in the day the post may be visited by an artillery officer keen to hear of any new targets that our men may have located before them on enemy ground, or perhaps even a colonel or general may appear, wishing to acquaint himself with all the features of the front he is responsible for.

So the day draws to a close, until, as the dust cloud heralding the arrival of the relieving troop appears in the distance, the order is given "Saddle Up!" (it being usual to off saddle by day), and then "Get Ready to Move!" Then after a brief account of occurrences has been handed over from one troop to another, page 124our troop sets out on its march back to the Regimental bivouac.

Watering the horses en route they arrive smothered in dust, but in good humour, and quickly have the horses once more tied on the lines and themselves settled down into the usual routine. Possibly one of the far too few mails from home has arrived, and, with their mates, they are soon absorbed in welcome letters and illustrated papers, until duty claims them for some necessary work once more.