The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
Moving out from El Arish on January 8th, 1917, in company with three other Mounted Brigades, a Brigade of Camels, one Brigade of Horse Artillery, and an Indian Mountain Battery, the New Zealanders advanced on Rafa, the Gateway to Palestine, and, since the fall of Magh Daba, the most important Southern outpost of the Turks.
Marching all night, and covering a distance of over thirty miles, the Brigade got into position north-east of Rafa soon after dawn, when an attack on the prominent redoubt commenced from three sides. Early in the operation, some New Zealanders captured a German officer who was trying to make his way to the main Turkish position. He was found to speak excellent English, and so was haled before a well-known colonel for interrogation. During this process, one of his remarks was—"I know you have good troops, but you'll never take the redoubt." To which the New Zealand colonel, noted for his quick manner of speaking, replied in a breath—"Huh, all right, we'll see—we're going to have a go—tell you later on!" Later, under guard at Divisional Headquarters, this German was genuinely page 58amazed to hear that the New Zealanders had taken the redoubt he thought impregnable, and, his professional interest no doubt thoroughly aroused, began to ask all sorts of questions about these wonderful troops from the ends of the earth who had accomplished the impossible. This incident is recounted as giving an indication of what was before our men as they went into action that morning at Rafa, where they acquitted themselves so well.
The country being open and only slightly undulating, the attack had to be developed dismounted, over ground devoid of all cover, and fully commanded by the heavily entrenched redoubt held by the Turks. The New Zealanders dismounted for action in some slight hollows, which only gave partial cover for the horses, some two thousand yards from their objective.
The attack on Rafa is to this day held up as a brilliant example of the support to advancing troops that can be given by overhead covering fire from machine-guns, which on this occasion kept the Turkish parapets in a continual haze of dust with accurately placed fire, and allowed our men to advance over open country in a way that would have otherwise been quite impossible.
The attack reached a stage in which it was held up by the withering fire poured in by the Turks holding the big redoubt. From their entrenched position they swept the open ground page 59our men had to cross with a storm of fire against which there was no cover. The New Zealanders by this time were within easy range, and were being subjected to enfilade fire from a small isolated redoubt where the Turks had a machine-gun post. The other troops engaged were completely held up, and one unit had already acted upon orders to withdraw. To retire over such open ground under heavy enemy fire at this critical stage of the attack was out of the question for the New Zealand Brigade. It was therefore decided to push home the attack on the main Turkish positions as rapidly as possible. This was done, many casualties being sustained in the last phase of the advance, which culminated in a brilliant charge under a hail of fire over the last two hundred yards, and hand to hand fighting in the Turkish trenches. The defence then quickly collapsed, and the New Zealand Brigade were sole masters of the redoubt, with a big haul of prisoners and several guns.
At both Magh Daba and Rafa the Turks were more or less surprised by the sudden appearance of our troops before their positions at dawn. Their scouting aeroplanes in each case had been able to report the British forces in bivouac thirty miles away, over country which could be traversed but slowly, at sun-down, but in each case our mounted troops accomplished the long journey during the hours of darkness.page 60
The difficulties in evacuating the wounded throughout this campaign were often considerable, and it is worth while here to recount some of the hardships that attended men wounded in these engagements far from railhead.
At Rafa the action terminated at about five o'clock in the evening, but it was about eleven o'clock at night before the wounded were got away in sand-carts; these were two-wheeled hooded carts, fitted with broad tyres for travelling in the sand. The advanced casualty clearing station was at Sheik Zowaid, about eight miles away, the journey taking four hours over a rough track. Here the wounded men received the attention that very limited supplies and conveniences allowed; leaving next morning at about eleven o 'clock they made the journey back to El Arish, a distance of nineteen slow miles, in cacolets slung one on each side of a camel. These cacolets were shallow box-like affairs made of wood and canvas, and travelling in them, with the continual rocking motion from side to side as the camel slouched along, was an excruciatingly painful experience for men badly wounded or with broken bones. This instance is merely typical of other occasions of a like nature, the agony of the journey to hospital often proving fatal to men severely wounded. From El Arish casualties would travel by stages down the line by hospital trains, through various hospitals, until a base hospital in Cairo was reached.page 61
It was at Rafa that the New Zealanders realized the Desert Campaign was ended, and they stood on the threshold of Palestine. For the first time their eyes, accustomed to the fierce glare of the desert sand, beheld country covered with a tinge of green—the soil, although sandy, was in many places cultivated and under young crop, chiefly barley. Needless to say, the horses were not long in appreciating this fact, and eagerly nibbled at the welcome tufts of green, that reminded them, doubtless, of many a green homestead paddock in far off New Zealand. The sand decreased as the troops moved northwards, until later, near Gaza, our men travelled over rich black soil many feet deep.
Soon after the capture of Rafa, the Third Australian Brigade of Light Horse was detached from the Anzac Mounted Division, which, from that time onwards, consisted only of the 1st and 2nd Brigades of Australian Light Horse, and the New Zealand Brigade.
After the capture of Rafa, the Brigade moved back to El Arish, and later up to Sheik Zowaid, where their task was again that of covering the advance of the quickly moving railhead. During-this work there were one or two engagements of a minor nature in the course of clearing Turkish posts in the vicinity of Khan Tunis. This was a picturesque township a few miles North of Rafa, possessing a tower that is a relic of the Crusades, in a fanciful setting of trees and high cactus hedges.page 62
The Brigade subsequently established a bivouac at Rafa, from which place they set out to do their part in the first attack on Gaza. After the battle they retired to Belah.
While in these parts the New Zealanders had many experiences with the Bedouins, the camps of these wandering nomad Arabs dotting the countryside in brown and black clusters in all directions. Our men were to meet these natives throughout their travels in Palestine in greater numbers than the few half-starved Bedouins they had encountered in the Desert, and were to learn to their own cost what scoundrels they were. On the morning of the Bafa fight, a few of our men were detailed to gather in the Bedouins, whose camps, dotted all over the country, stood in the path of our advance.
Two men engaged in this work approached a large tent before which stood a fieree-looking Bedouin, evidently resenting this interference with his liberty. One trooper's attention being occupied for a moment, the Arab suddenly produced an ancient sabre from the folds of his voluminous clothing, and struck the other man on the head from behind, knocking him out. By the time his companion realized what had happened, the Bedouin had seized the bandolier and rifle of the prostrate man, and, vaulting on to his horse, had galloped away.
Unfortunately for the robber, this New Zealander was a noted shot. Taking careful aim, at a range of nearly eight hundred yards, page 63he fired at the galloping horseman. The horse fell in a cloud of dust, throwing his rider clear. Being unhurt, the Bedouin commenced to run, when the marksman, deliberately reloading and aiming, brought him to his end with his second shot.
Periodically pitching their rude tents in different parts of the country, these Bedouins till and sow a small area of land with just enough seed to supply them with grain for their own use; in addition to which they had a few head of stock, mostly sheep and goats. The grain is garnered at harvest time, and ground up by the women into "doora," a coarse flour, which, when prepared, forms, with the milk from their goats, their staple articles of diet.
The wool from their few ragged sheep is spun by the women into a coarse yarn, which they weave on primitive hand looms into long strips of the roughest woollen cloth, resembling sacking. This, or sheepskins cured with the wool on, go to form their warmest clothing, under which they can be seen shivering in the rainy season. These strips of woollen cloth are also sewn together to form the long low tents under which they live, usually in conditions of the greatest filth.
Families, fowls, dogs, and often a donkey or two, live under the one shelter, which serves for every purpose, including cooking, and would make a sanitary inspector's hair stand on end.page 64
The women are seldom seen away from their tents, but the men prowl abroad armed with an ancient sword or gun, often with knives in their belts, intent on thieving or other nefarious schemes.
They are of no use to their fellow men, producing nothing beyond that barely essential to their own needs, and on many occasions were suspected of carrying information to the Turks of British movements. They will do anything for material gain, a little loot or "baksheesh," and on more than one occasion were directly responsible for the deaths of New Zealanders. It may be said that the deaths of our men were amply avenged before the Brigade finally left Palestine.page break page break