The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
After the night's halt at Suweileh, the advance of the Brigade continued on the 25th of September, and the New Zealanders soon deployed and came into action in the hilly country which surrounds Amman. The Turks evidently meant to hold the place, for they put up a stiff resistance, having plenty of artillery and machine-guns. The fight raged throughout the afternoon before the Turks showed any sign of weakening, but our men pressed them hard; as the day waned their defence collapsed, and the New Zealanders were quickly into the town and around the railway station, an Australian Brigade arriving in time to share in the closing phases of the fight.
During the engagement one squadron of New Zealanders galloped into action in troop waves, immediately coming under heavy cross fire from three machine-guns. The squadron dismounted for action, the horse-holders galloping back to the cover of a hill with the led horses. One or two men were shot in the saddle, and their uncontrolled horses set the pace for the rest as they galloped madly back, many with blood streaming from flesh wounds in their sides and legs; their arrival behind the hill with manes page 163and tails flying resembled the finish of some classic race, and was a sight worth seeing.
The results of the action were two thousand two hundred prisoners, numbers of guns and machine-guns, and a huge mass of material, the Turkish depot at the railway station being a litter of supplies of all sorts. It is worth commenting on, that in the four days from Damieh to Amman the New Zealand Brigade had thus taken over three thousand prisoners—twice as many as themselves in number, for the Brigade was below strength from casualties and sickness.
The New Zealanders had the honour of being the leading troops of the force employed, and did all the fighting with the exception of the first advance in the Jordan Valley.
Amman, or, as some maps show it, Eabboth Ammon, is the Philadelphia of history. Traces of its ancient glory still survive, notably in the big amphitheatre cut out of the side of a hill facing the town, before which still stands a row of handsome pillars. In the town itself portions of old columns may be seen lying by the roadside or doing duty in modern walls. The present day inhabitants are a villainous-looking lot, with a fair sprinkling of the Circassian element in the population.
A mysterious loss in horses occurred here, as many as nine in one troop dying on the lines. Experts could not agree as to the cause of the trouble, some blaming a local poisonous weed, while others thought it originated from some page 164captured grain our men had been giving to their horses.
The country to the south of the town opens out after a while into a comparatively level tableland, with good barley-growing land alongside the railway, more of which the New Zealanders were to see shortly.
With Amman in British hands, our troops were astride the Hedjaz railway, effectually cutting off all the Turks to the south from their base.
A few days later, a force of five thousand Turks, retreating from the Hedjaz, hoisted the white flag at Ziza, a station on the line about fifteen miles south of Amman. An Australian Brigade went out to take their surrender, the New Zealand Brigade going out in support. Marching all night, and arriving at dawn, our men heard rifle-fire and machine-guns chattering ahead of them, and suspected foul play. On drawing near to the scene of the surrender, however, it was seen that both Turks and Australians were firing at the Arabs, who had assembled in thousands, like human vultures, in the hope of being able to loot the defeated Turks. The New Zealand Brigade quickly took up posts all round the place, and commenced "potting" at the Arabs (mostly with Turkish rifles and ammunition), who quickly faded away to a safe distance. One mounted rifleman was very keen to try his hand at shelling them with one of the captured field guns, but his officer page 165prevented him from doing so, as there seemed more chance of his blowing himself up than anyone else.
Besides the five thousand prisoners, guns and machine-guns, the captures at Ziza included three complete trains, and a mass of other material, mostly grain, medical stores, and ammunition. The Turks were in a bad way with disease, many dead and dying lying all over the railway yard, and under trucks. The only water available was that from a stagnant reservoir with a dead man and mule lying in it; the boilers of the three engines at the station had already been drunk dry by the sick.
This final round-up at Ziza completed the work to be done on the right flank, so the New Zealand Brigade commenced its trek westward again, arriving at Jericho four days after leaving Ziza. The excitement of the operations over, many men collapsed daily from malaria. It was a pitiful sight on every day's march to see men lying in the dust as the column moved by, being given what rough attention was possible by a comrade. Others stuck grimly to their saddles, reeling with sickness, only to collapse helplessly on the ground when the day's march was ended. The night before reaching Jericho the Brigade bivouacked at Shunet Nimrin, under the foothills of Gilead, on a stony area thick with thorny scrub. A hundred and ninety men went down with malaria they had been fighting against for days, and lay about under the page 166shelter of the bushes till they could be carted away to hospital in motor lorries called into use to supplement the shortage of ambulances.
When Jericho was reached there were barely enough men to lead all the horses. Nearly every survivor liad to look after three or four, so that with such increased duties the strain on all hands was considerable.
After two or three days at Jericho, the long column of horsemen moved out once more, in a haze of white dust, for Jerusalem. Marching up the old Jericho road, the New Zealanders had their last glimpse of the Jordan Valley, where they had had such a gruelling time and lost so many of their pals from disease. Stopping one night at Talat Ed Dum en route, the Brigade halted for midday "boil-up" nest day on the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, near Bethany. Then they rode down into the Valley of Jehosophat for the last time, past the Garden of Gethseniane, up round the old walls and then through the streets of Jerusalem, past the Jaffa Gate, on to the Hebron road. There they went into bivouac about a mile from the Holy City.
Three days were spent in bivouac for rest and refitting, while a last chance was afforded the New Zealanders of seeing the surroundings amongst which Christ moved in the flesh. Most of the men, however, were too tired out for sight seeing, and only too glad to take what chances of rest came to them between their duties.
Leaving Jerusalem for the last time, the New page 167Zealand Brigade threaded its way down the winding road towards the coast, and in two days' march had left the Hills of Judea for ever for the rolling country of the plains, going into bivouac on the ground occupied many months before near the Jewish village of Richon Le Zion. At this time it was computed that of approximately five thousand men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt and Palestine, something like three thousand were either in hospital or convalescent depots, mostly with malaria.
A huge total of prisoners was taken in these final operations by the British, and although, as usual, the New Zealanders were not "in the limelight" as were the troops that reached Damascus, it has been shown that our men accomplished work of as great importance on the right flank. When, soon after reaching Richon, word came of the Armistice, the New Zealanders knew that the campaign had been brought to a victorious conclusion by their brilliant Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby.
The Author regrets that he has been unable to obtain the figures giving the casualties of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade from the inception to the close of the Sinai-Palestine Campaign. The figures given below, as supplied by the courtesy of the Officer-in-Charge Base page 168Records, are the casualties of the three Mounted Regiments for the War period, and give some indication of their heavy losses as fighting units in the Empire's cause.
Auckland Mounted Rifles.
- Officers.—Killed, 17; died of wounds, 6; dead—cause unknown, 1; wounded, 49. Total, 73.
- Other Ranks.—Killed, 177; died of wounds, 83; died of disease, 49; dead—cause unknown, 49; drowned, 5; wounded, 645.
- Total, l,008.
Wellington Mounted Rifles.
- Officers.—Killed, 13; died of wounds, 9; died of disease, 3; wounded, 46. Total, 71.
- Other Ranks.—Killed, 192; died of wounds, 74; died of disease, 47; dead—cause unknown, 1; drowned, 1; wounded, 685.
- Total, 1,000.
Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
- Officers.—Killed, 15; died of wounds, 7; died of disease, 3; wounded, 50. Total, 75.
- Other Ranks.—Killed, 158; died of wounds, 84; died of disease, 62; dead—cause unknown, 43; prisoner, 1; wounded, 679.
- Total, 1,027.