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

Chapter VI

page 49

Chapter VI.

The formation adopted by the Brigade for its own protection when moving across the Desert, liable at any time to attack by the enemy, was what is now known as the "screen" formation. This method was adopted as the result of Desert experience, and, in the wide unenclosed spaces traversed, proved most efficacious. The advance guard threw out a long screen of men riding some distance apart from each other, who moved forward as feelers on a wide front. From each flank of this moving screen the flank guards were strung out to the rear in another thin line of horse-men, the rear of the force being protected in like manner.

Some distance inside the screens moved the main body, while between it and the long line of scouts were the troops acting in support of the screen. Usually each four men in the scouting line were supported by the remainder of their troop some distance behind them. On the advanced screen of scouts being held up by enemy fire, these supporting troops would be thrown into the part of the line that was menaced with the object of breaking down the page 50opposition and allowing the main force to continue its progress without wasting valuable time in deployment. On coming into contact with a strong body of the enemy, such as in the early stages of a general engagement, the line formed by the screen and its supports would be gradually built up from the rear, as the main body deployed and came into action.

It was from Mustagidda, the last bivouac occupied in this stage of the Desert Campaign, that the New Zealand Brigade made its descent on El Arish, a spot on the coast held by the Turks, long desired by the British. At the time the Brigade moved out from the bivouac it was not known that a march on El Arish was immediately contemplated—all hands thought this was merely another step forward in the Desert to a bivouac a few miles further on. The Christmas mail from home had just been received, and as the column moved out many men resembled travelling Christmas trees, with parcels containing the good things from New Zealand tied all over themselves and horses. Many also carried long "bivvy" sticks for rigging up their next temporary blanket shelter, and these sticking up in the air enhanced the general comical effect. "When it became known that the column was bound for El Arish, where fighting was expected, parcels, sticks, and all other unnecessary gear were shed right and left into the Desert, until everyone was in fighting trim. This necessitated later page 51the telling of many "white lies" in letters home as to the enjoyment of cakes and other good things that were never eaten.

The march on El Arish, a distance of thirty-five miles through the heavy sand, was done in the one night, straight across the Desert on a compass bearing. By those knowing the Desert, and the difficulties of keeping direction, it was recognized as a fine piece of work, and a credit to the young officer who so ably led the column. Contrary to expectations, El Arish was occupied without opposition from the Turks, who had just evacuated it, this making another big step forward for the British troops in the Desert.

The New Zealand Brigade was at this time part of what was known as the Desert Column, under General Sir Philip Chetwoode; this was later, with the addition of other troops, formed into the Desert Mounted Corps, and came under the command of General Sir H. Chauvel.

Leaving El Arish on 22nd December, 1916, a bitterly cold night, the Brigade marched down the Wady El Arish, the River of Egypt of ancient history. This was the first occasion on which the horses had been on hard ground since leaving the Suez Canal. Marching all night, and covering a distance of nearly thirty miles, the New Zealanders shortly after dawn came into collision with the Turks at Magh Daba. After a stiff engagement the place fell into the hands of the Desert Column, which was thus page 52another and important step forward in the campaign to reach the Holy Land; Magh Daba forming, with Rafa, one of the southern outposts of the Turkish Empire.

After the battle at Magh Daba the New Zealanders moved back to El Arish, where they spent Christmas and New Year in bivouac on the beach beside the Mediterranean—the weather, unfortunately, being cold and wet, it being then the middle of the rainy season.

When the Brigade moved back, one regiment was left behind on the scene of the action to clean up, bury the dead, and escort the convoys of wounded back to El Arish. Leaving Magh Daba late in the afternoon, night soon fell, and it was finally decided to camp till daylight. This was on Christmas Eve, which could have been spent in more festive places than the barren gloom of the Desert. Moving at dawn, the bivouac area was soon reached by daylight, where a very tame Christmas was experienced. The central item in the menu was good old "high explosive" army "duff," practically everyone having shed their Christmas gifts, received at Mustagidda, into the Desert on the night of the advance.

It was when our men were in a bivouac, such as that at El Arish, for a brief spell, that neighbouring dumps of Army Service Corps supplies got a bad time. Every New Zealander considered himself in honour bound to "pinch" extra fodder for his horse, to supplement the page 53light ration, so that dumps, even when under guard, were mysteriously depleted of large quantities of tibbin and grain. The more daring spirits aimed at liberally supplementing their own rations as well, and resorted to many ingenious devices towards this end; particularly when such sought-after supplies as condensed milk and rum were known to exist in a nearby dump in any quantify.

The matter of the guard had to be considered—if they could not be "squared" they must be bluffed. The writer knows of one instance in which the guard on the dump at El Arish were Scotties—always the friends of the New Zealanders. Two mounted riflemen, cheery souls, who had "inside information" as to the contents of the dump, engaged the Scottish sentry in talk one evening. After some time a mutual agreement was entered into, the gist of which was, that the descent on the rum known to exist in cases nearby, should coincide with the moment that the sentry reached the most distant point of his beat. This arrangement worked satisfactorily, and the two adventurers each succeeded in getting clear with a fat, heavy case of promising appearance. After having carried the two cases, with much exertion, perhaps two miles along the beach, suspicions arose regarding their contents, and the foragers decided to sample them. Breaking both cases open, great was their disgust to find them containing a compressed dry ration of page 54uninviting appearance, instead of the cheering liquid in jars that they had hoped for.

A trick practised with success by a Colonial horseman one day whilst working with others in a fatigue party, handling stores at a dump, was rather well executed. Waiting till the eye of authority was elsewhere, he dropped a case of tinned milk on its corner "good and hard." His mates, who had been previously rehearsed in their part, quickly gathered the scattered tins from the broken case and concealed them in their clothes. Then, with the most innocent air in the world, and a punctilious salute to the English officer in charge of the dump, this unblinking rascal asked, and obtained, permission to take away the smashed case "he had found" for firewood!

While at El Arish, a "de-lousing" parade was held. These parades were held at odd times when opportunities offered, and were often most amusing. All of a man's wearing apparel, and his blanket, would be put in big batches into a steam disinfector. There it would remain for about twenty minutes, when it would be supposed to be cleared of lice or other vermin—the writer one day heard a man remark that this treatment merely "refreshed them!" The steam disinfectors were either portable, or if on the railway, closed iron cars fitted with shelves and supplied with steam from an old engine.

On this day at El Arish, numbers of men page 55had stripped, and were waiting in most airy attire beside their horses until their clothing should be "cooked." Suddenly a "Jacko" aeroplane appeared, which shortly afterwards dropped a bomb not far from the disinfector. Then ensued a scene that baffles description, as men in all stages of deshabille, from a shirt to nothing at all, sprang on to their horses and scattered for their lives in all directions. It is perhaps superfluous to add that the humour of the situation was only appreciated afterwards.

Something should be said of the work of the Egyptian Labour Corps in this campaign. Thousands of natives, conscripted for terms of a few months, from Egypt, were constantly employed on railway construction. Without this native labour it would have been impossible to have pushed the railway across the Desert in rear of the troops as was done. "When their term of service expired, they could be seen going down the line singing and waving flags like children, as the train bore them towards their homes. As one lot returned to Egypt, their places would be filled by others, and so, throughout the operations, a big body of these natives was constantly at work.

During construction work at El Arish, an enemy aeroplane came over one day. On the sounding of the aeroplane alarm, a mob of these natives made a dive for the shelter of a cutting. The Turk dropped a bomb fairly in the midst of them, killing twenty-seven, and making a horrible mess.

page 56

The British surveyors were enterprising, and mapped out the course the line was to take miles ahead of the construction gangs, under the protection of patrols and posts thrown out beyond the British main positions. In parts the Turkish patrols would often remove their survey pegs during the night. Had they gone deeper, however, these smart "Jackoes" would have found that the real pegs, from which the levels were taken, were beneath the ones they made away with, these last being mere "blinds."