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

Chapter XVII

page 141

Chapter XVII.

After the first spell near Bethlehem, the Brigade returned to the Jordan Valley about the middle of June, 1918.

The following month, on July 14th, at Ain Ed Duc, our line in the Valley north of Jericho, which was held by New Zealanders and Australians, was attacked by the Turks, strongly stiffened with German troops. The attack pierced the line at one point, but the Colonial horsemen quickly got round behind the attacking force and cut them off, eventually surrounding them and taking about seven hundred prisoners. Of these three hundred were Germans, of which Wellington got a number. It was worth notice in this attack that the Turks seemed to have deliberately let the Germans down, as their supporting troops made no serious attempt to follow up the attackers, otherwise our men could never have surrounded them as they did.

With the exception of the second short spell at Bethlehem, in August, our men remained in the Jordan Valley right up till the time of the final operations commencing in September, their work alternating between holding posts in the line, supplying patrols, and acting in support of other units.

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Their life in the Valley, from which even the natives migrate in summer, was one of great hardship. The summer heat was intense, ranging up to 120 degrees in the shade. Venomous snakes and scorpions abounded on the ground where they slept, and flies were an ever present evil. The most deadly pest, however, was the malarial mosquito—at night these swarmed around, vicious as miniature tigers in their thirst for human blood. Out of the many hundreds of New Zealanders that were sent to hospital from the Jordan Valley with malaria, many a fine man succumbed to the deadly disease, this being one of the most tragic features of the closing months of the campaign. Many recovered after treatment in hospital, only to suffer a relapse later and to be evacuated again to hospital. Many men were in this way invalided to New Zealand as a result of malaria, with their health badly undermined. The quick absorption of all available reinforcements at this time is thus easily understood.

The Base hospitals being in Cairo, the evacuation of a man with fever occupied many stages, which may be briefly described here, the journey being over three hundred miles.

From his regiment the sick man would be carried on a stretcher to the New Zealand Mounted Field Ambulance, where his case would be diagnosed and a card attached to his clothing giving particulars. He would next be moved to the Anzac Divisional C.C.S. (Casualty page 143Clearing Station), which would be a little further back in the Valley, handy to the motor road. There he would be placed, with three other stretcher cases, in a motor ambulance, to make the long journey through the hills to Jerusalem, where he would arrive coated in dust. In Jerusalem he would be carried into one of the two big buildings taken over by the British for use as casualty clearing stations. His medical history card would be read and treatment given him, and he might be kept there for a couple of days. Then, if he was considered fit to travel, his stretcher would again make up a load in a motor ambulance, this stage of the journey being to Ludd, near the coast, and on the railway. The journey took from three to four hours over very hilly, dusty roads, being severe on a man with a high temperature. Later, when the broadgauge line was through to Jerusalem, cases would be sent direct from there by hospital train.

At Ludd the patient would be admitted to another casualty clearing station, where he would perhaps be kept another two days before continuing his journey in a hospital train. This hospital train would land him in a stationary hospital at Gaza, from which, if he was progressing favourably, he would soon be moved by train to a hospital on the sea-shore at El Arish. After another brief stay there, a hospital train would take him on to Kantara. After lying in a hospital at Kantara East for perhaps two or page 144three days, he would be carried in an ambulance across the Suez Canal to Kantara West. From there he would travel the last stage of his journey to a base hospital in Cairo on the Egyptian State Railways.

Unfortunately, the New Zealanders had no hospital of their own in Egypt (since the departure of the other New Zealand troops to France), and so the mounted men were sent to an Imperial Military Hospital, usually the 27th General, in Cairo. It was often wished that a New Zealand hospital for the Mounted Riflemen had been possible, where our men could have had the invaluable care of our own New Zealand nursing sisters. There was a number of New Zealand sisters in the English hospitals, and they will ever be remembered gratefully by the men who were fortunate enough to be nursed by them.

When a man was sufficiently recovered to leave hospital, he was discharged to Aotea Convalescent Home, at Heliopolis, about eight miles from Cairo. This was a convalescent home established for our men by some of the more thoughtful and generous people of New Zealand, and run by a small staff of devoted New Zealand women. These ladies all men of the Mounted Brigade hold in the highest honour for their untiring work in bringing sick and wounded back to health, and giving them a taste of wholesome living after their long spells of roughing it in the field. Their work was often thankless and almost unrecognised by the page break
Black-and-white photograph of Turkish troops killed in fighting with New Zealand mounted forces, World War One

Victors and vanquished. Turks Killed in the fight for the Bridge at Damieh.

page break
Black-and-white photograph of Turkish prisoners of war, Amman, Jordan, World War One

Turkish Prisoners at Amman.

page 145public or Government of New Zealand, but their reward lay in the measure of appreciation in which it was held by the men they cared for. On leaving Aotea, the men were sent back to the Base training camp at Ismailia, on the Suez Canal. There, if they were again fit, they spent a short time in more or less uncongenial drill and camp duties, and were then despatched with a reinforcement draft to rejoin the Brigade. These drafts would contain men rejoining from hospital like this, and men recently arrived from New Zealand going to join the Brigade for the first time—the latter easily distinguishable by their "bloom," which most men lost after a few months as they became thinner and sallow.

The journey "up the line" was very different from that coming down in a hospital train, for a draft usually travelled at night, in practically open trucks. About thirty-five men were packed into each truck, this being a very tight fit with their kits, rifles, forty-eight hours' rations, and loaded bandolier. Morning would find them at Ludd again, after a sleepless night in a bumping, clanking train. There they would have time for a wash and a scratch meal before moving on by train to Jerusalem, where the draft would be accommodated at the Desert Corps camp, a mile or so from the station, for perhaps a night or two. From there they would be despatched in motor-lorries down the hill to Jericho, where led horses would be sent in some miles, from the Brigade bivouac, to meet them and carry them out.

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Thus did a man go to hospital, recover, and come back once more, tired but determined, to do his duty in the heat, dust, and other evils of the Jordan.

The soil of the Jordan Valley is of a chalky formation, and under the occupation of troops soon became churned up, until everything lay under a thick blanket of dust, roads and tracks often being nearly a foot deep in it. Any traffic stirred this up into a dense, limey cloud which penetrated everywhere, and stuck grittily to sweat-soaked clothes. Men returning from watering their horses were often weird sights—their scanty clothes would be wet with perspiration, which sometimes dripped from the knees of their riding-breeches. A white coating of dust would enshroud them, through which their faces could be seen as white masks streaked with sweat.

During this period in the Valley, the Turk used to enliven things with spasmodic bursts of long-range shelling. Behind his defences in the hills east of Jordan the enemy possessed a long-range naval pattern six inch gun. With this he used to fire at targets over twelve miles away on the other side of the Valley, on one occasion shelling Jericho with it. The gun thus came to be known as "Jericho Jane." When it was afterwards captured by the British it was found to have a barrel about eighteen feet long, the projectile being very pointed in shape. The shell and charge-case together measured nearly six feet.