The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
The final operations in Palestine which culminated in the collapse of the Turks, and caused the enemy to sue for an armistice, commenced on the 19th of September, 1918, and in these the New Zealanders took a prominent part.
By means of clever ruses, which included the erection of dummy camps in the Jordan, the use of hundreds of dummy horses, dust clouds created by men and horses detailed for the purpose, and other devices of a like nature, the Turks were led to believe that General Allenby would strike on the Turkish left flank, in the Jordan Valley. For some time previous to the operations our men had an opportunity of exercising their artistic skill in the manufacture of dummy horses. Many thoroughbreds, which must have looked quite awe-inspiring at a distance, owed their racy outlines to a combination of reeds, horse blankets, sandbags, and wire!
A story was told that the British Commander in Chief reserved a suite of rooms in the Jerusalem Hotel for the use of his staff, and had signallers fitting up telephone and other apparatus in the building; this naturally spread in the town as an indication that General Headquarters were going to be established there, on the British right flank, and ultimately got over page 148to the enemy, as it was doubtless intended to do. However this may be, the Turks were completely "bluffed," and consequently massed thousands of troops opposite our positions in the Jordan to meet the expected thrust. Immediately before the operations commenced, the enemy troops on this flank probably outnumbered the British opposing them in the ratio of two or three to one.
When the big offensive was launched on the opposite flank, towards the coast, the troops in the Jordan Valley were called on to act as a pivot for the big turning movement, and hold the force opposing them. This they did, the infantry making some ground northwards in front of the New Zealand Brigade, which was "standing to" in reserve, ready for any emergency.
Then, on the night of September 20th, the Brigade moved out through the British infantry outposts, and by the morning had cleared the ground and taken up positions three miles further on. On this advance, momentarily expecting hot resistance, our men came upon dozens of well-prepared entrenched positions from which the Turks had fled before them. In one place blankets lay on the ground as though their owners had suddenly arisen and fled. It later transpired that only a matter of minutes separated the hurried departure of the Turks from the arrival of our first two mounted patrols at their positions.page 149
On the morning of September 21st, the New Zealand patrols were busy reconnoitring the ground held by the Turks, who evidently had "the wind up," and greeted them with machinegun fire.
Moving out late that night, the Brigade marched northwards through the darkness, their objective being the Damieh crossing of the Jordan. A main road of vital importance to the enemy ran down to the river at this point from the hills, and crossed to the eastern bank of the river on a pontoon bridge. The Turks had evidently fled soon after nightfall from the positions our patrols had found them in during the day, for no serious resistance was encountered until the leading regiment was astride the road leading down to the bridge from Nablus. There, just before dawn, the advance guard became engaged with the enemy force holding the bridgehead, in the chalky hills near the river.
As dawn broke, the Turks started to shell, and Auckland Regiment pushed into the attack. The other units meanwhile had captured some buildings where the road emerged from the hills into the valley, with a good haul of prisoners. Auckland was reinforced by a squadron of Canterbury and a company of British West Indies infantry, a hot fight ensuing. The Turks finally gave before the onslaught of our troops, and retreated in disorder and under heavy fire across their bridge. As they did so they made great targets for our men, who did good page 150shooting and inflicted heavy casualties, the road leading to the bridge, and the bridge itself, being littered with the corpses of men and horses.
The bridge was captured intact, a total of some five hundred prisoners being secured by the Brigade in the morning's operations. Our casualties were comparatively light in proportion to those of the enemy.
The seizure of this important tactical point by the New Zealanders contributed materially to the success of the operations as a whole, as it cut off the retreat of thousands of retiring Turks west of the Jordan, eventually forcing them to surrender to the British troops who had pushed through further north, by way of the breach made on the other flank.
The morning following the Damieh fight, the New Zealand Brigade assembled on the east bank of the river, and commenced to march on Es Salt, a populous town of some size high up in the Mountains of Gilead. Crossing the few miles of comparatively level country immediately east of the river, our men commenced the long climb up the hills towards their objective. The way led up a narrow mountain track, rocky and steep, the advance being made for the most part on foot, leading the tired horses, a most exhausting march. As they mounted higher and higher, the New Zealanders could see the whole of the lower Jordan Valley spread out before them, lines of dust-clouds indicating the movements of troops below them.page 151
The Turks held good positions on the hilltops, entrenched and wired, but, fortunately, offered only a half-hearted resistance. By half-past four in the afternoon, the town, nestling in a cup-shaped depression in the hill-tops, had fallen to the New Zealand Brigade, with three hundred and eighty prisoners and three guns.
The advance, in a single day, from country several hundreds of feet below sea-level, to two thousand nine hundred feet above sea-level, where the Brigade bivouacked above Es Salt, brought the men into a very different climate from that of the universally hated Jordan Valley, it being now distinctly cool. This was soon to have a disastrous effect on many men with malaria dormant in their blood, who collapsed rapidly, until at the close of the "stunt" the New Zealand Brigade had lost about sixty per cent. of its strength to hospital.
Probably the feature of Es Salt best appreciated by the New Zealanders was its beautifully cold water, which was eagerly filled into water-bottles from a spring in the town—a great luxury after the constantly warm water of the Valley.
Marching through the quaint main street between the terraced limestone buildings of the town, early next morning, the Brigade moved out in the advance on Amman. As has been indicated before, Amman was a place of importance to the Turks, being the station on the Hedjaz railway through which came all their page 152supplies on this part of the front. The road along which our men travelled bore ample evidence of the work of the Royal Air Force bombing aeroplanes. On the outskirts of Es Salt one heavy bomb had landed on what was probably a market-place, or perhaps a butcher's yard, for dead cattle, sheep, horses, and men lay all round in gory confusion. At intervals the road was littered with the remains of transport waggons, equipment of all sorts, and dead men and horses, which showed how the British 'planes had harassed the retreating Turks.
That night the New Zealanders reached Suweileh, a native village half-way between Es Salt and Amman, where they halted for the night under cover of outposts. From this point, at five o'clock in the evening, a party of four officers and one hundred men set out to try to cut the Turkish railway above Amman. This task they successfully performed, and as this "night stunt" was typical of others carried out at different times by men of the Mounted Brigade, a detailed account written by the Author just after its occurrence, may be appended here.
On the afternoon of September 25th, the advance guard of the New Zealand Mounted Brigade passed through the village of Suweileh, about eight miles beyond Es Salt, and by four p.m. the whole Brigade was drawn up in close formation on some open ground beyond the village.page 153
About a quarter past four, men were called for to form a demolition party to cut the railway above Amman, the Turkish main artery of communication. After a hurried "boil up" and stripping of saddles of gear, the party paraded at Auckland Headquarters shortly after five p.m. It was composed of one hundred picked men and horses, chosen equally from the three Auckland squadrons, commanded by a major, with a subaltern from each squadron. The order was given for stripped saddles, and nothing was carried but the necessary tools—these were just such as could be scraped up in a hurry, and consisted of two picks, two shovels, and four very indifferent spanners. No explosives were available. Every man was fully armed and carrying the maximum of ammunition.
This party penetrated twelve miles into unknown enemy territory at night, took a section out of the Hedjaz line under the noses of the Turkish patrols, and returned nest morning without the loss of a man, so an account of the expedition in detail may well be recorded.
The only information as to the route was that a course taken due east would eventually strike the line—the map of the locality was inaccurate, and did not give any idea of the nature of the country, so shortly after leaving Suweileh the column left the road and proceeded to strike across country. A halt was made before it became quite dark, and the column was told off into three parties—one covering party for page 154the left, the demolition party to work on the line, and a covering party for the right, in case the ground near the railway admitted of this system of protection.
The column then moved off silently in the darkness. Protection was afforded by an advanced section of four men and a sergeant under an officer, who kept in front of the column as feelers throughout the journey. It was soon found that the country instead of being easy rolling downs as had been hoped for, resolved itself into difficult going over rocky limestone spurs intersected by deep gullies, making constant reference to the stars and luminous compass a necessity to maintain direction.
The night was inky black, showing up the sparks as the horses tumbled over the rocksit was a marvel that no horses were disabled. Steadily the column pushed on, now negotiating a boulder-strewn hillside, then dipping into a gully, until in the bottom of a gully a track of sorts was found which travelled roughly in the direction required. This was traversed, and after a mile or two resolved itself into a wide track showing signs of recent traffic. It was not likely that such a good avenue of approach would be neglected, and the alertness of the advanced section was soon justified. The column was halted under a low spur, while three dim figures crept forward on foot to investigate some coughing and other sounds which had been heard in front-were they Bedouins or page 155Turks? Soon the adventurous three returned, reporting a Turkish post in course of digging in, with open ground in front which precluded the chance of rushing them silently.
As the column was then wedged in a narrow gully, with steep rocky hillsides on either side of them, quite impassable for mounted men, the only thing to do was to turn back and seek another line of approach to the railway which might not be so closely guarded by the enemy. As the element of surprise was necessary to get to the line without giving any warning of its approach, it was essential for the column to endeavour to dodge enemy posts rather than engage them, as even a single rifle shot in the stillness of the night, apart from telephonic communication by which such posts would be linked, would be sufficient to "give the game away."
Therefore the party retraced its way up the gully until it reached a point where, in the light of the newly risen moon, a goat track showed faintly, running up a depression in the spur on the left. This was followed in single file for a considerable distance until the summit was reached, when the long snake-like column once more headed east towards its goal. There was now no track visible, and the best passable way among the rocky gullies had to be picked by the advanced section, which now strung itself out for a considerable distance ahead, the officer and one man picking the way in the lead, with page 156the remainder acting as connecting files at long intervals back to the head of the column.
This course of progress was followed for some time through, country over which was scattered a number of Bedouin camps —- treacherous as the Bedouins are known to be, it was very necessary to keep well clear of their camps, as none of them would be above trying for a little "baksheesh" from the Turks if they thought it could be obtained by giving warning of our approach. Eventually a cairn of stones on the top of the hill was sighted by the advance party, which was identified as a cairn marked on the map as being on a hill overlooking the railway. The column was drawn up and dismounted in the shadow of a gully below the hill, while the officer commanding the column and the officer on the screen went forward to reconnoitre.
All was silent as the grave as the two pushed up the hill, except for the occasional clink of a horse's hoof against a stone, or the champing of a bit. They reached the summit, and went cautiously over it, when a wave of sound came up to them suddenly from the valley below, and they were the surprised witnesses of a huge Turkish transport column making its way up the road below them to the north, evidently bound for Deraa. The Turks knew that Amman would be threatened soon, how soon they did not realise, and were getting a tremendous mass of material away in time—probably with the idea that the garrison left to defend the town page 157could get away quickly if required by the railway. This, however, did not eventuate—they left Amman by the Es Salt road, as our prisoners, two days later.
Fascinated, the two officers watched the scene in the indistinct haze of moonlight, while a confused medley of sound floated up to them on the night air—the cracking of whips, creaking of wheels, and the shouting of the Turkish drivers. Had these unsuspecting Turks known that two enemy officers were watching them, and a hundred of the dreaded "death riders" were within easy rifle range of them, they would hardly have cracked their whips and shouted to each other with such abandon.
With some difficulty the railway line was at last located as running roughly parallel to the road up which this stream of transport was pouring. Then came the problem of getting down to the line and doing the job, without raising the alarm, when the main road ran within a chain or two of the line. It looked a forlorn hope, but it was decided to get as near to the line as possible and then make use of opportunities. The officers returned to the party, which then worked its way carefully round the shoulder of the hill into a slight hollow in which the horses could not be seen from the road, but from which the line below, about four hundred yards away, could be commanded. Here the column dismounted, and while the men with the tools were sorted Out, page 158and the remainder posted where they could bring rifle fire to bear on the line below, an officer with his sergeant and one man climbed gingerly down the hillside and crept along cautiously to find whether the approach to the line could be made by a small party.
On his reporting all clear, a party totalling eight, two officers and sis men, just the necessary number to start loosening the bolts, crept down to the line, while a few more with the picks and shovels waited ready to come up when needed. The party on the line had no more than got to work and got the first nuts loosened, when there was a subdued alarm given, and the astonished men looked up to behold a train coming from Amman, round a bend a short distance away. There was no time to get back from the line to cover, and the only cover near the line was composed of two small rocks, about eighteen inches high, not fifteen yards from the rails, behind which the party crawled —four behind each. If they were discovered the game was up, so be sure they lay very, very still in the moonlight, and it was a tense few moments as the big Turkish armoured truck, pushed by an armoured engine, approached. Both truck and engine were crammed full of Turks, singing and talking. Just as they passed the spot, travelling quite slowly, where the eight figures were lying so still, one of them gave a shout. Then the party on the ground thought they were "for it," but the train moved on, and page 159presently went out of sight round another bend. How they passed without seeing the khaki figures on the ground and opening fire on them remains a mystery to this day, and the men concerned will not forget those few moments in a hurry. As soon as the train was out of sight the party set feverishly to work to loosen the nuts where the rails were joined, and the only sounds were the subdued clink of a spanner and the whispered swearing of all at the inadequacy of the tools for the job. A Turk was seen lying not fifty yards on the other side of the line, with a pack-horse standing beside him—the risk of his enquiring the business of the party had to be taken, but as he lay there throughout the operations it was assumed that he was either sick or wounded, or else mistook the party on the line for Turkish railwaymen. Several of the nuts were off when there was another alarm, and all hands lay flat as a Turkish mounted patrol appeared—evidently the railway patrol. One of them halted on his horse barely a chain from the line, on the side of the road, and sat there for fully a minute, so once more the party had to try and make themselves appear a part of the ground they were lying on.
Eventually he moved off, and the work continued, with minor alarms from people on the road, until the joints of the rails were all loosened but one. This stubbornly refused all the efforts of the spanners available, so the men page 160with picks and shovels were brought up, and as quietly as possible loosened the ballast around the iron sleepers, until one end of the section of rails could be prised up. This went on until, by main brute strength, the party lifted the entire section, and wrenched the unbroken joints in such a way as to bend the rail and render a new one essential to repair it.
The breach in the line was not visible for any distance, owing to the way in which it was left, and this fact was no doubt responsible for its wrecking a Turkish supply train en route to Amman later that morning. It was estimated that not less than sis hours would be required to repair the break, and this would give all the delay required.
It was by then about three a.m., and the adventurous expedition had only an hour or two of darkness in which to make themselves scarce, so immediately the job was completed all hands got back to the horses, and the column set out on its return journey.
A comment on the above is that such a feat could only have been performed by well-mounted troops, pursuing bold tactics, as our men did in all their operations against the Turks. It is also obvious that such an adventure is of the essence of good soldiering—i.e., to cause the maximum of damage to the enemy, whilst suffering the minimum of loss.