The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
Strenuous patrol and outpost work was then once again the lot of the New Zealanders, most of it directed to covering the advance of the railway, which was being pushed on as rapidly as possible across the Desert in rear of the troops. This continued through Salmana, Kasseiba, Mossefig, Mazar, and Mustagidda, from which last-named place the advance on El Arish was launched. A bivouac was established at each place named, which formed a base for the troops employed in the surrounding country, as they moved forward step by step, continually feeling and watching for any sudden descent of the enemy, who had proved he was no mean adversary in the Desert.
Little was heard of the mounted men during this time, the tale of patrols and outposts being unsung and almost unrecorded, but it was a stern duty to the men concerned.
Patrols often meant constant hard riding in superheated saddles, over mile after mile of burning, yielding sand, with every man continually on the alert, as the little force, usually a troop in strength, travelled in open formation across the Desert with no other guide than the flickering prismatic compass carried by the page 35leader. By night, movement would be made in somewhat closer formation, direction being kept by the stars and the luminous marks on the compass, combined with the native sense of direction of the leader.
In such featureless country, where one mound was like a thousand others, and detours had often to be made round high sand ridges, the greatest skill and accuracy were necessary to reach the desired points. Inattention or carelessness would mean the loss of direction, when many hours might be taken up before the true course to the objective was found once again. It was in this work that our men, used to wide open spaces and reliance upon their own initiative, always excelled.
The nights on outpost were long hours of watchfulness, with the horses screened by a ridge or hidden in a hollow. Few were the hours of sleep, as each man took his turn on sentry or on horse-picket, the horses requiring constant attention. In the morning, usually about 3 a.m., before dawn, every man would be called to "stand to."
This "standing to" every morning was a feature of the Desert campaign which always shortened the hours of sleep. All hands would have to turn out dressed, saddle the horses, tie horsefeed and other necessary gear to their saddles, and be ready to move at a moment's notice, this being the most likely hour in the twenty-four for the enemy to attempt a de-page 36scent on our men from the shadowy hollows and dim spaces of the Desert in front of the outpost line. Such nights on outpost were not unrelieved by occasional humorous incidents. One night a troop-leader, having disposed his troop on post, and given strict instructions to the first sentry to call him at once should anything approach the post, rolled himself up in his canvas "flea-bag" for a sleep.
It happened that this particular sentry was a man who fancied he had an old score against his troop-leader to pay off. Consequently, when he observed a desert jackal padding over the sand towards him, he saw his opportunity. He sent one of his mates to arouse the sleeping officer with the warning—"Something is moving over the desert towards us." It should be mentioned that this officer had not been long with the Brigade, and was not very experienced in night work. Alarmed by the warning, which, doubtless, conveyed a picture to his imaginative mind of swarms of Turks descending upon him, he scrambled out of his sleeping-bag. In his haste, however, one spur caught in the canvas, and he turned a somersault, while his ready cocked revolver went off with a bang and a flash in the darkness. The report alarmed the rest of the force on outpost, who immediately thought there must be "something doing," and got ready for anything to happen. It was subsequently hard for the principal actor in the little comedy to explain what caused all the commotion.page 37
He was for a time distinctly unpopular. The only man thoroughly satisfied was the sentry.
The monotony of the life was unvaried, leave at this time being almost unknown, and not granted to the men of the Brigade until much later, when they were practically out of the Desert, and one cannot but admire the faith fulness and efficiency with which they carried out their thankless task in these times. Even when in bivouac the Mounted Riflemen had plenty to do, with the minimum of comfort. While at Bir Et Malar tents were provided for the men, but in the heat of the day they often preferred to find shelter in the shade of a palm tree, so hot did they become. Throughout the rest of the Desert Campaign, the soldier's shelter consisted merely of a blanket or two stretched over a couple of palm leaf sticks. The often uninviting rations could seldom be supplemented with canteen supplies, so great was the congestion on the single line of railway caused by absolutely necessary supplies of material alone. At Kasseiba a herd of some thirty or forty goats was rounded up and brought into bivouac by a patrol, which had found them wandering on the Desert. Knives were sharpened in joyful preparation, many anticipating a change from the usual "bully" to a meal of fresh meat. Unfortunately, these happy anticipations were not justified—All the animals proved to be veterans, and the page 38opinion was freely expressed that they were direct descendants of the pair from the Ark, that had been wandering in those parts since their liberation on Mt. Ararat.
Mention should be made here of the good work done by the Pioneers. These Field Engineers were constantly out in small parties ahead of the other troops, finding and con-structing watering places ready for the next move forward—often in the course of this work isolated miles out in the Desert, where any enterprising party of Turks could have cut them off. It is interesting to record, that, in their passages across the Sinai Desert, the New Zealanders traversed the ancient caravan route between Egypt and Palestine, over which in Biblical times Joseph and Mary travelled with the infant Christ. This way was also taken by Napoleon in 1799, the New Zealand Brigade watering at Katia at Napoleon's wells.
It is difficult to give a graphic picture of this time in the Desert, so few were the features of interest outside the daily routine. Later, in Palestine, the surroundings in which our men found themselves nearly always possessed some interest. At least the landscape was varied, whereas this could not be said of the Desert. This barren waste was always the same, except when whipped to fury in a blinding sandstorm. In every direction, as far as the wearied eye could see, was sand, sand, sand,—white and glaring. For the most part the Desert was page 39undulating, in gradual hills and hollows, broken now and then by a ridge built up by some freak of the wind, with a gradual slope on one side and a steep descent on the other. In places a dry stunted scrub Broke the white glare, which was otherwise unrelieved except for the occasional clumps of date-palms, whose graceful tops just showed out of some slight hollow. These palms were most useful to our men in many ways. They offered cover from observation by enemy aeroplanes, and their grateful shade was always welcome during the day. The central ribs of their big leaves provided sticks to support blankets in the erection of a "bivvy. " While last, but not least, in September and October their fruit was a healthy adjunct to army rations.
After the August fighting, a patrol scouring the Desert near the coast came suddenly upon a patch of water-melons growing in the sand. These were eagerly consumed by many, but the sudden change from the hard diet they had been used to had a disastrous effect on hardened "tummies" all round, and resulted in many bad pains under the beit!
On the commencement of the Desert Campaign, the British attempted to follow up the troops with a metalled road running roughly parallel to the railway. The difficulties of construction, however, were so great, that after a few miles this was abandoned, and an expedient was discovered in the wire road, which page 40successfully met requirements for the passage of infantry and light wheeled vehicles. A road of this kind was laid from Kantara right through the Desert into Southern Palestine.
It consisted of four widths of ordinary wire-netting, about one and a half inch mesh, pegged down into the sand in a double layer. It was thus about twelve feet in width, and excellent to walk on after footing it through the heavy sand. It was almost an essential to the movement of infantry for any distance across the Desert.
The enemy had made his first serious bombing raid at Romani, where his bombs did frightful damage to the men and horses of an Australian Brigade, and throughout this period he indulged in almost daily aeroplane raids, his objective generally being railhead and the precious water supplies. This incessant bombing continued until the latter part of 1917, up to which time the Turks were easily our superiors in the air, most of their pilots, however, being Germans and Austrians. It should be said that their superiority was not due to the personal element, but to the fact that they possessed much better and faster machines than the British force on this front. The New Zealanders were constant admirers of the exploits of our airmen in machines which were hopelessly outclassed by those of the enemy.
Owing largely to the scattered formation page break page break page 41adopted by the New Zealand Brigade when in Bivouac, after the lesson learnt at Romani, where the enemy caught horses and men in close formation, their losses from bombing were not heavy. On the other hand, the continued aerial attention of the Turk at this time caused a lot of extra and very harassing work with the constant alarms involving the necessity of leading the horses off the lines on the approach of an enemy 'plane.
Added to this, of course, was the nervous strain to which all hands were subjected. For, as everyone knows who has experienced it, aerial bombing is one of the most trying episodes in a soldier's life. When an aeroplane is over-head at a high altitude intent on dropping a number of death-dealing bombs to the best advantage, everyone for a wide distance around feels that the 'plane must be directly above him. The growing hiss of a released bomb, and the deafening crash and vicious whirring that succeeds it, does not do much to allay anxiety till the marauder has completed his work and disappeared elsewhere; and the bloody mess that is the result of a good hit does not increase one's appreciation of this almost daily item in the entertainment.
The only measures of protection against aircraft, as far as our men were concerned, were machine-guns on improvised mountings, and field guns sunk in pits to give the necessary elevation, but these were not effective in page 42checking the expeditions of the enemy's airmen.
Trying as they were, these bombing raids were at times productive of some amusing incidents, as in the case of one of the first alarms, when a well-known character in the Brigade, noted for his dry remarks, was observed crouching behind a small mound, vindictively emptying his revolver in the direction of an aeroplane at least four thousand feet above him.
On another occasion, an equally well-known character in charge of some camels, who had formerly been a sailor, was heard, during the rush to get horses and camels off the lines, to bawl at the top of his voice, "Cut them (adjective) camels adrift fore and aft!" At this time the course followed on the sound of the aeroplane alarm was to loosen all horses from the picket line and scatter with them in every direction, so as to offer but a poor target for bombs. This system was later discontinued, partly on account of the disorganization resulting from its frequent repetition.
Another individual, given to the use of nautical terms when strongly moved, entertained those near him one day in similar fashion. One trooper, in his haste to get himself and horse well out of the way, had freed his mount's headrope, but not the heelrope, and was on the horse's back vainly digging in his heels. The horse, of course, remained tethered by one hind leg, and was somewhat bored by his master's undue hurry. At this point a page 43voice in the rear was heard to drawl—"Go astern, man, go astern!"
At the time of the first raid at Romani, a senior officer of the New Zealand Brigade was the star turn in a truly "moving" picture that would have delighted the hearts of any audience. Some Indians of a camel train near his quarters showed signs of clearing out without proper attention to their charges, when this officer, bounding out of his bivouac in raiment of many colours, to wit, a pair of new pyjamas, leaped on to an agile Arab pony which he always rode, and with lurid language and much flourishing of a stockwhip rounded the scared natives up, and indicated to them in forceful terms their path of duty. The first bomb which landed amongst the Australians on this day stampeded many of their horses. As they came galloping through the New Zealand bivouac with manes and tails flying and nostrils distended, their fear of this new terror from the sky seemed to communicate itself to the New Zealand horses, which also would have stampeded in like fashion had our men not seen the trouble in time and rushed to their heads.