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

Chapter XX

page 169

Chapter XX.

The Brigade remained in bivouac at Richon until a few days before Christmas, 1918. It was during this period that the trouble over the adjoining native village of Surafend occurred. It was a regrettable affair, but since various more or leas inaccurate accounts of it have appeared in the press it is well that the truth should be briefly told here. Mention has been made before of the treachery of the natives—our men had suffered under this without the opportunity of redress throughout the Campaign, and the feeling against them was here to come to a head with, tragic results.

Adjoining the bivouac of Richon was the village of Surafend, the natives of which indulged in constant thieving from the camps near them. One night a trooper of the New Zealand machine-gun squadron was awakened to find his kit-bag being dragged under the flap of his tent by some thief outside. He immediately arose and grappled with the native. The robber was armed with a revolver, with which he shot his assailant in the abdomen, the New Zealander shortly succumbing to a mortal wound. This outrage brought the resentment against the natives amongst the men of the page 170Anzac Mounted Division to fever heat. Had some drastic steps been taken immediately by the authorities to bring the murderer to book further tragedy might have been averted. What was done evidently appeared insufficient to the men by the evening of the following day, so that their anger flamed into action and resulted in their taking matters into their own hands. This they did soon, after dark, when hundreds of men representing every unit in the Anzac Division, New Zealanders, Australians, and English Artillerymen, surrounded the village of Surafend. The native women and children were first put out of harm's way, and then the men, fired by hate of the people who had brought death to one of their number, entered the village, set fire to it, and clubbed the male inhabitants. A Bedouin camp situated nearby was treated in like manner, a total of thirty-eight natives being killed in vengeance for the murdered trooper.

As no evidence was forthcoming at the subsequent Court of Enquiry, the blame for this massacre could not be fixed on any individuals or section of men. As it had been to avenge the death of a New Zealander perhaps official suspicion tended to lie on the New Zealanders. The only comment that can be made in the absence of knowledge is that such a thing was inconsistent with their good record.

General Allenby paraded the entire Anzac Mounted Division, and in a short speech "told page 171them off." After stigmatising the men who held such a high record of achievement and honourable service in the field as murderers, he said with dramatic effect: "Once I was proud of you—I am proud of you no longer"—turned on his horse and galloped away.

Although the action of the men in thus dealing drastically with affairs themselves is morally inexcusable, it cannot be too strongly stressed that the blame for the occurrence of this regrettable incident lay, in the first instance, upon the British authorities.

The British administration all through the campaign had been weak where the natives were concerned, and had pandered to them too much. If their attitude had been different, one of firmness and punishment where it was often deserved, the natives, who have no respect for anything but the "big stick," despite anything that humanitarians may say to the contrary, would never have dared to take the liberties with the troops that they came to consider almost their right, and this tragedy would not have occurred.

The writer is aware that some readers will think the inclusion of this incident in an account like this tactless on his part, as being one of the things best left unsaid. It has been included with the idea of giving the truth to the public, who can judge for themselves rather than form their opinions from accounts distorted by bias which have appeared or may appear in the press.

page 172

While in this bivouac the Canterbury Regiment received orders to leave for a destination unknown. Horses and saddlery were handed in, and the Regiment left, with the good wishes of their comrades, to form part of the garrison of Gallipoli. Canterbury left Richon in the middle of November, before the Surafend incident, and then, shortly before Christmas, the remainder of the Brigade trekked down to Rafa and went into camp close to the scene of the historic action there.

Demobilization commenced, and some of the long-service men left for New Zealand, their places being filled by men of the last reinforcements.

All the old horses unfit for further work, some hundreds in number, were shot, to prevent their getting into the hands of the natives. This was a sad, but nevertheless humane ending of the lives of these faithful animals which had done such good work and been such trusty servants of their devoted masters. Of the remaining horses, all but a few kept for necessary work, and some that were especially valued, were handed into remount depóts.

Saddlery, Hotchkiss guns, and other gear were cleaned, greased, and returned to ordnance stores.

Canterbury Regiment returned from Gallipoli and rejoined the Brigade at Rafa at the end of January, 1919.

The New Zealanders remained at Rafa, most page 173of the work done being educational, until March 17th, 1919. Visions of a boat and a quick passage back to New Zealand faded away when our men heard of the outbreak of the Egyptian Rebellion. On this date they got but a few hours' notice to move, and after a hurried packing up and burning of non-essential gear, left Palestine for ever that evening in two long closely packed troop-trains for Kantara.

There they went into bivouac on the west bank of the Suez Canal for two days, while they were re-equipped to an active service footing with new gear and fresh horses. Disappointment was keen, for all hopes of an early return to New Zealand were now dashed to the ground in the prospect of many months in Egypt.

From Kantara the different units were packed off hurriedly, horses and men, in long troop trains, to various places in the Nile Delta. There they were formed into several mobile columns, each with its headquarters in a different part of the Delta. Each column was responsible for maintaining order over a large area, and for some weeks our men had a strenuous time on constant patrol work to outlying villages that showed signs of trouble. The air was tense with the excitement of a possible wholesale upheaval of the natives, which would have laid the responsibility on our men of getting all the Europeans in outlying parts into centres of safety.

One column of two hundred New Zealanders page 174marched out to make a reconnaissance in force to Hosh Isa, a native town of bad repute on the Senussi Frontier, where trouble was expected with hordes of Bedouins. The Royal Air Force bombed the place the night before our men went out, and this apparently acted as a deterrent to their martial spirit, for they assumed the role of industry at our approach and did not attempt any demonstration. In places the natives were markedly hostile and sullen, and it seemed as though any slip by those in authority would be as a match to dry grass in the conflagration that would follow.

During this time our men had a good opportunity of seeing Egypt proper and the farming life on the fertile, irrigated flats of the Delta, much interest being taken in the system of cropping followed by the natives. The principal crops grown are berseem, a forage crop not unlike lucerne, rice, cotton, maize, barley, and wheat. The country is intersected everywhere by canals, from which the water is lifted on to the land by sakhiehs or water-wheels turned by slow-moving oxen, often driven by a diminutive child.

In one town, where the troops had been compelled to inflict eighty casualties on a mob of rioting natives, one column of New Zealanders paraded through the town, a place of some fifty thousand inhabitants. As our men rode through the streets lined with people, they studied the expressions on the faces of the population—page 175truculence not unmixed with fear, or perhaps it might better be called discretion—that which is the better part of valour.

The natives are a cowardly lot, and were obviously cowed by our small display of armed force—though they outnumbered our men by hundreds to one.

A general uprising was averted by the prompt distribution of troops all over Egypt, and patrolling of outlying parts, and as things became quieter our men were recalled and concentrated at Ismailia, after having been about three months in the Delta.

From there they finally left for the shores of New Zealand in the Egyptian mid-summer of 1919, making the passage homewards in the two ships Ulimaroa and Ellinga.