The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
After the return to Egypt from Gallipoli, the Brigade was for some time encamped at Zeitoun, about seven miles out of Cairo.
In January, 1916, the Mounted Rifles marched out from this camp, and, heading to the east, left the verdure of the Nile Delta for the sand of Serapeum. There they bivouacked on the west bank of the Suez Canal not far from the Great Bitter Lake. Much training was done in field work in the different formations for moving across the desert that were shortly to be employed on the Sinai Peninsula. Towards the end of the stay there one squadron at a time was sent over the Canal to do patrol duty, in front of the British defences protecting this vital waterway. At the end of February the Brigade crossed the Canal, and for some time occupied a section of these defences, perhaps ten miles in length, out in the desert ten or twelve miles from the Canal. The positions were entrenched, and our men had an endless task shovelling sand, which drifted into the trenches almost as fast as they could take it out. At the same time they were called on to do long patrols out into the Desert, feeling for page 19any move of the Turks which might be threatening the Suez Canal. It was while holding these positions, protecting the waterway of so much importance to the Empire, that the New Zealand Mounted Brigade received its first and only visit from the Prince of Wales.
The time spent in those parts was dreary and monotonous for all concerned, and is fairly well reflected in the following lines of a soldier poet who was moved to this expression of his feelings at the time:—
Twenty miles from nowhere,
Where the sun is hot as 'ell,
And a breeze was never heard of—
The Mounteds knew it well.
In a sandy blisterin' 'ollow,
'Neath a hazy azure sky,
Lay the sun-browned cussin' Mounteds
At a post called Gundagai.
There were trenches all around 'em,
There was tanglefoot there, too,
There was damn all blinkin' water,
But heaps of bully stew.
Of drinks there never was none,
And coves you'd 'ear 'em sigh,
If you talked of nights at Zeitoun,
'Fore they left for Gundagai.
Of a wash they've most forgotten,
Or of bruahin' boots or 'air,
But them don't count for nothin'
Twenty miles from out nowhere.
For there ain't no blanky tram-cars,
Nor pretty girls' glad eye-
No week-end dancing parties
Way out at Gundagai.
Yet they mostly all are happy,
Tho' one was heard to cry,
"Gott strafe the cove wot chased us
To this bleedin' Gundagai."
And our horses, too, are thinking
That this summer's turned to drought,
As they come in from patrolling,
With their tongues all hangin' out.
While the 'skeeters 'um around 'em,
And the cruel camel fly
Makes 'em wish they 'adn't 'listed,
Since they've come to Gundagai.
But the boys have just been cheerin'
For the news it just 'as come,
That the Abduls is approachin'
But they'll soon be on the run.
The wait's been long and weary,
But at last they're comin' nigh,
And they've many scores to settle,
Have the lads at Gundagai.
Yes, they've many scores to settle,
Mostly things from Anzac's shore,
Where there's not a cove amongst 'em,
Didn't leave one pal or more.
But they've sworn that they'll avenge 'em,
And each man's prepared to die,
For the reckoning of his cobbers,
In a go at Gundagai.
Fate decreed, however, that our men were not to meet the Turfe in battle in this part of the Desert, but they were not to have long to wait.
Leaving the sandy trenches and the barren wastes which had been scoured by so many patrols, on the first of April, Serapeum was reached the same day. Then, in a few days, the Brigade trekked through to Salhieh, an unsalubrious spot west of Kantara.
During this march the mounted men stopped one night in the sand at Moascar, where "Good-byes" were said to the last of the New Zealand Infantry leaving for France, many brave fellows parting to meet no more in this world.
Arrived at Salhieh, training continued, to be rudely interrupted ou one occasion in a most unpleasant manner by a full-sized sandstorm of true desert fury, which smothered everyone and everything while it lasted. From Salhieh the Brigade moved one evening in intense anticipation at an hour's notice, and marching all night reached Kantara early next morning. This sudden move was on account of a raid by the Turks on Oghratina, Katia, and Duidar, where they had surrounded and cut up the yeomanry at the first two places named, and penetrated to within about 12 miles of the Canal.
The Turks had withdrawn precipitately again out of reach, after their raid; consequently the New Zealanders were halted at Hill 70, about seven miles east of the Suez Canal at Kantara.page 22
There training continued, but the Brigade on one occasion marched out to Romani in support of an Australian Brigade on reconnaissance, the route followed being through very loose, deep sand, a distance of about 20 miles.
It was on this, their first "Brigade stunt" right out into the wastes of the Sinai Desert, that the New Zealanders got their first real ex-perience of what thirst could be. At this time it was the practice to ride twenty minutes, walk ten minutes, ride twenty minutes, and spell for ten minutes in every hour of a march. This practice was later discontinued, as it was found to be too wearing on the men, while the constant mounting and dismounting with a fully loaded saddle also affected the horses.
On the day of the march in question, the sun flamed from a brazen sky, and the heavy walking through the shifting sand, in the in-tense heat, leading an often dragging horse, gave the men a maddening thirst. It was a killing march, but, as always, a few cheerful spirits could not be suppressed. One of these was heard to remark to his neighbour, a boy nearly exhausted by the long march after a night on horsepicket—"Don't open your mouth so wide, Bill, when you yawn—you'll be getting your stummick sunburnt, an' it hurts something' awful!"
Romani was reached about four in the after-noon, but water was not available till late in the evening, when it was eagerly gulped down parched throats.page 23
The Brigade returned to Hill 70, where they remained about a month, training continuing the whole time. Then came a move to Bir Et Malar, farther out in the Desert, where May found them bivouacked. Here they were to remain till August, with the exception of a brief spell at Kantara, before being called on to take part in the historie fighting at Romani. When the Brigade moved back for this short spell, Wellington Regiment remained out in the Desert, being attached to the 2nd Brigade of Australian light Horse, with which they worked till after the fighting in August. Their place in the New Zealand Brigade was temporarily taken by an Australian Regiment.
When our men first moved out to Bir Et Malar, they experienced the greatest difficulty in getting their horses to drink the brackish desert water. The horses afterwards became more or less accustomed to it, but did not drink it freely. During the stay there, a patrol one day found an old Bedouin and three children in a palm tree "hod" away out in the Desert. The old man was squatting on his haunches before a pile of camel dung, busily engaged in picking out what undigested grain he could find. This and a few dry dates apparently formed their sole means of subsistence, which was barely keeping life in their poor starved bodies. The men of the patrol put the old fellow on a horse, and carrying the youngsters before them on their saddles, took them into the bivouac.page 24
There they were fed and photographed, before being sent down to the Base, where, no doubt, they lived in greater luxury than they had ever known before. Such Bedouins were occasion-ally encountered, nearly always in a state of starvation.
From the bivouac at Bir Et Malar the New Zealanders were constantly called out on patrol and reconnaissance work of the most trying kind, commonly being summoned at half an hour's notice to take part in a "stunt" of from one to four days in length. It was important work, made necessary by the continual menace of Turkish aggression towards the Canal which lay behind our forces.
In those days most of the men were still comparatively "new at the game," and turning out at such short notice in full marching order with all necessary supplies taxed them severely. A man had to draw his own rations, fill his waterbottle, and draw his horse's rations. This last had to be done up in nosebags and secured properly to the saddle, this being no mean art in itself. Horses had to be saddled, picket and head-ropes done up, and all necessary gear strapped to saddles. Besides these main items there was a host of minor details to be attended to incidental to turning out fully equipped for what the adventure might bring forth.
Later in the campaign, when men became expert in this sort of thing, half an hour's notice would be ample, and the appointed time page 25for moving would find every man ready without any apparent rush. Any stragglers would usually be found to be new men not thoroughly practised in the art of turning out and perhaps deceived by the unhurrying haste of their comrades with more experience.
The water ration was most precious, this consisting of but one waterbottle per man per day. This was the sole issue of fresh water, which could only be supplemented for ablution purposes at times by a trickle of the bitter brackish desert water, often collected most laboriously over long hours in jam tins or other small receptacles.
In the great heat of the blazing desert the temptation to drink freely was well-nigh irresistible, but every man had to exercise the greatest care, and no more than sip at his water-bottle. Water supplies were uncertain, no one knowing definitely how long it would be before more was available on these desert adventures.
It was usual to leave the bivouac at Bir Et Malar in the evening and march all night, the heat being too intense for much movement by day, unless it was absolutely necessary. During the fierce heat of the day the force on patrol would, when possible, seek the shade of some feathery date palms, which offered sanctuary in scattered "hods" far apart in the endless rolling hills and hollows of the Sinai Desert.
During the night heavy fogs would often page 26complicate the already difficult travelling in the dark without landmarks, and daylight, on one occasion at least, found the advance guard on the tail of their own rear guard, the force during the night having travelled in a circle but a few miles from the starting point. On these night marches it was a common occurrence for a man to fall asleep in his saddle. With head sunk on chest and body moving automatically with his horse, he would be carried on by his faithful plodding steed. A man would ride for long distances like this, only waking up when his horse wandered from his companions, and, passing the troop-leader, collided with the troop in front. Then would the sleeper dazedly pull himself together, thicken the air with a few choice imprecations, and resume his original place in the column, often to repeat the performance again during the night. A column sent out like this on reconnaissance was dependent on camel trains for supplies, these usually coming up in the evening with water, horse fodder, and rations. The water was carried in fifteen gallon fanatis, or as they were more commonly called, "fantasies," and was often almost too hot to drink, after travelling for hours in these metal tanks exposed to the sun—not the best kind of thirst-quenchers for parched throats, but eagerly drunk by the thirsty horsemen for all that.
On the 16th of May the Canterbury Regiment had an unenviable experience whilst engaged on page 27work of this kind. Going out on reconnaissance to Debabis, a spot where water was supposed to be available, they found that the Turks had been there before them, and no water was to be had. The Regiment had to journey back to Oghratina in the heat of the day, from which place word was sent in for the camel trains. Ninety men were struck down with sunstroke, the heat being 118° in the shade.
At one spot, where the New Zealanders had frequently to water, there were one or two disused wells of very brackish water, which could be bucketed up, and there could be seen horse and rider drinking the filthy stuff side by side out of the same trough, the water often making the men very sick afterwards.
Throughout this period the heat was almost unendurable, and flies, mosquitoes, and midges contributed their quota to the already sufficient hardships of the life. People at home, who have never experienced the flies of Egypt, cannot realize what a persistent and exasperating curse they can be, clustering in black clouds over everything, hardly deigning to leave the food one is eating even as it is swallowed. The horses were provided with cord fly-fringes which were attached to the browbands of their head-collars, and the men were supplied with a number of fly whisks for “swatting” the insects, but these did little to minimise the evil.
The men's rations were often indifferent, consisting largely of “bully” and “hard page 28tack." Many men were afflicted with a form of sand colic, which made it almost impossible for them to eat during the heat of the day without immediately vomiting. As the New Zealanders became experienced in the desert life, it be-came the custom to eat and drink little except in the cool of the evening and early morning —this was particularly so as regards drinking. Thus did the New Zealand horsemen live while guarding the frontiers of Empire in the wide spaces of the Desert of Sinai.
While at Bir Et Malar an incident occurred not without its humorous side. The Brigade got sudden notice one evening to "stand-to" as the result of a message announcing the approach of a cyclone in their direction. For hours, late into the night, all hands were on the alert, horses saddled and everything ready for an immediate move. It then transpired that the message had been mangled in transmission, and really related to a consignment of "cyclone wire" which was being forwarded for use in some defensive works!