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

Chapter VIII

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Chapter VIII.

The next big adventure in which the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade was concerned was the first attack on Gaza, the scene of many battles throughout history. In this attack, for the first time in the Campaign, the infantry in the British forces took a prominent part, the main attack on the town with its adjoining hill of Ali Muntar being left in their hands.

As the operations commenced, the New Zealanders moved round to the east of Gaza, the task assigned to them being chiefly that of preventing reinforcements reaching the enemy from the direction of Hareira and Beersheba, which our men successfully fulfilled. When the infantry attack failed, and they were in a difficult situation attempting to withdraw, the whole of the mounted troops were moved to the rear of Gaza. There they opened an attack on the Turkish positions in an endeavour to draw off the pressure from the British infantry, which by this time were in a bad plight. This having been in some measure accomplished, the mounted troops broke off the engagement, and at nightfall made a difficult withdrawal. The New Zealanders eventually reached Belah, after a gruelling time.

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During the attack on the rear of Gaza, an incident occurred which typifies colonial resource, and may be briefly described. Some of the Wellington Regiment reached a few buildings on the outskirts of the town, a non-commissioned officer and section of men capturing two Turkish guns. This little party was under heavy fire from some Turks in a nearby building; the two guns being handy, these worthies decided to use one against the hostile building. None of the men knew anything of the working of a field piece, but, inspired by the non-commissioned officer, they backed the trail of the gun against a telegraph post, sighted it by the somewhat unusual expedient of looking through the barrel, and successfully loaded it. On pulling the firing lever the recoil of the gun knocked the telegraph post over, but the shell hit its target and broke up the Turks in the building with good effect. These two guns were brought out of action with considerable difficulty when the Brigade retired.

It should here be commented upon that this first attack on Gaza was an attack on the town alone. It was thought that if Gaza were taken Beersheba would become untenable by the Turks. After this unsuccessful venture a considerable extension of the British front to the right occurred. Thus the second attack on Gaza was concerned not only with the town, but with the line held by the Turks from Gaza to Beersheba, this also being a failure.

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It may be remembered that the first attack on Gaza was reported in the press as a British success. After the British withdrawal an enemy aeroplane dropped a message which said, "You beat us at communiqués, but we beat you at Gaza."

The casualties to our forces in the two Gaza fights were said, unofficially, to total seventeen thousand. However this may be, it is certain that they were very much more severe than the authorities allowed the British public to believe at the time. The huge graveyard in Gaza to-day bears silent testimony to the costliness of both these efforts.

The historic town of Gaza itself stands on a gentle eminence, the white walls and quaint domed roofs of the city showing up through the green foliage of orchards and palm trees. To the West it is flanked by the sand dunes of the coast, to the East by the famous hill of Ali Muntar, which commands a wide stretch of country, and was the key to the Turkish defences. It was to this hill that Samson carried the gates of the city in Biblical times.

Before the War Gaza possessed a population of 40,000 inhabitants, but, during the long drawn out fighting for the possession of the town, almost the entire population deserted it. It is worth recording that since its capture, the greater part of the population has returned, and the place, under British administration, is rapidly returning to a thriving condition once more.

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The modern town is much smaller than in ancient times, many of the present-day buildings containing material taken from old structures fallen into decay. The Turks damaged the place badly, ripping out most of the woodwork they could find for use as fire-wood or revetting material for their trenches before the town. They also stored ammunition in the great mosque in the centre of the city, which, on being detonated, caused considerable damage to the buildings around. The dominating minaret of this mosque afforded an ideal observation station for the Turks, so it was soon demolished by the British, one direct hit with a heavy shell bringing the tower down in a heap of wreckage. With the damage caused by shellfire the town was for a long time in ruins, but is now rapidly becoming habitable again. The town is the centre of a fertile barley-growing district, which cereal before the War was exported to England in large quantities for brewing into English beer. In olden times it was a scene of much trade and traffic, several of the chief caravan routes of the country leading to or through it. It was at Gaza that Samson exerted his strength to the detriment of the local temple, and literally brought down the house.

Between this first unsuccessful attempt to take Gaza and the second attempt on the town which occurred on April 19th, the New Zealand Brigade was employed on outpost and patrol page 69work in the direction of Beersheba; this place was an important Turkish railhead, on the inland flank of the enemy's line. The opposing lines before Gaza were entrenched, but, as they ran inland into hilly country, were held in a series of posts and redoubts. The British right flank was very open, it being the special duty of the mounted troops to guard these wide open spaces.

Towards the middle of April, 1917, the New Zealanders moved out from Belah into the vicinity of Shellal, some miles inland, as part of a scheme to attempt to draw some of the opposing forces out from the defences of the town. Preparations for the second attack busily occupied our men, these including road-making over difficult crossings in the Wady Ghuzze, the big water-course which here divides the country in scarred and serried banks on its way to the sea, but which at this time was dry. One regiment was employed in the preparation of a reserve water supply, at Tel El Jemmi, in the Wady Ghuzze. Water was carried in fanatis by long strings of camels from Belah, miles away, one squadron in the course of a day's work filling sixty thousand gallons from these small tanks into large canvas cisterns in the Wady.

The second battle of Gaza lasted over three days, the infantry once more attacking the town. The New Zealand Brigade was sent in on the right flank of the attack, at Attawena, page 70about eight miles inland from Gaza. The Turks held all the predominating positions, and although our men succeeded in evicting the enemy from their foremost trenches, their superiority in numbers and weight of artillery prevented the attack from being driven home, and compelled the withdrawal of the Brigade after dark.

The infantry attack also failed, so that Gaza still remained in Turkish hands. The New Zealand Brigade may be said to have attained in some degree what was required of them, in that they held to their sector of the line a big body of enemy troops, much their superior in numbers. The line held by the enemy at this time was a naturally strong one, of commanding positions. The Turks also possessed a big advantage in the railway line running to Beersheba behind their lines. This enabled them to quickly move troops from one part of their line to another, to any point that was threatened, whereas the British troops were attacking over difficult country with poor lines of communication.

After taking part in this second abortive attack on the stronghold of the Turks in Southern Palestine, in which the British casualties, including those of the New Zealand Brigade, were so very severe, the New Zealand unit moved back to Fara, on the Wady Ghuzze. Here our men were at once employed digging trenches, during a wave of intense heat, in page 71view of a possible counter-attack by the enemy.

Then ensued a long period of patrol and outpost work, most of the reconnaissance being in the direction of Hareira and Beersheba, both of which places were by this time swarming with Turkish troops. These "stunts," although of a minor nature in the whole scheme of operations, were very trying on the men who performed them. A man would be on patrol one day, starting with the usual "stand-to" about three o'clock in the darkness before dawn, travelling over arid, dusty country all day, and not returning till after dark. Outpost duty would claim him the next night, to be followed, if he were lucky, by a spell of sorts the next day. Then the cycle of duty would commence again, this routine continuing week after week.

Many fond parents would have failed to recognize their sons could they have seen them returning from patrol duty in those times. As the troop rode into bivouac with a jingling of accoutrements, some men would be seen wearing riding breeches, others slacks, with their spurs. Their bodies would be but half covered in sleeveless shirts or singlets, always open at the neck, round which was slung the heavy bandolier. Rifles would be carried across the front of the saddle or slung over the left shoulder. Many would be unshaven, with red-rimmed eyes peering from faces darkened by sunburn and dust. The horses' coats would be rough and streaked with sweat, and horse page 72and rider would be smothered in the dost of the day's march. The slouch hats worn by the men of the troop would vie with each other in disreputable appearance—if there had been no issue of fresh headgear for some time, many would have the crown half off like a flapping lid, the lower part being adorned by a ragged puggaree. For all their rough appearance, however, such a troop of apparent ruffians could always be depended on when it came to business—as the Turks well knew to their cost. The rough exterior covered hearts of gold, and as the little cavalcade rode in, the day's work done, no matter how tiring it had been, there would always be some irrepressible wag raising smiles by his apt comments on life in general and those around him in particular.

It was while the New Zealanders were in this locality that a mosaic floor of great historical interest was discovered on a small hill on the bank of the Wady Ghuzze. It was found in the course of excavating a small emplacement for a machine-gun, and was later carefully taken up and sent down the line to safer quarters.

The Turks at this time had distinctly "got their tails up" after the two British reverses at Gaza, and frequently tried to scupper the New Zealand patrols. There was a hill nearby, from which the adventures of these small parties of horsemen on the open country below could be watched by their mates; the frequent gatherings there, to watch the patrol encounters page 73on the country beneath them, gave this area of flying shots and galloping horses the nickname of "the racecourse."

The heat of the summer was being felt at this time, and thick dust lay everywhere. The routine of watering the horses twice daily was an unpleasant business, involving, as it did, a ride of some length in a blinding, suffocating, cloud of dust, through which a man could but dimly perceive the horse ahead of him.

The stay at Fara was interrupted for a time, some weeks after the second battle of Gaza, by a demolition expedition to the Turkish railway near Asluj, which ran towards Magh Daba. The New Zealanders on this occasion formed part of a column consisting of the Anzac Division, with the Imperial Camel Corps in support. A many-arched and substantial stone railway viaduct was completely demolished with explosives, several miles of line being destroyed in the same way, thus isolating what remained intact of the railway to the south. The object of the demolition was the destruction of material, which the Turks might otherwise have taken up and relaid behind their lines.

On the 18th of August, 1917, the Brigade left Fara for a fortnight on the beach near Khan Yunis—from there they returned to El Fukhari, not a great distance from Fara, where they remained until the historic advance on Beersheba commenced on the night of October 28th. While at El Fukhari, a party of men was page 74detailed to ride over to the railway and take delivery of some six hundred donkeys for the Anzac Division. Arrived at the station, the men set about unloading the bored-looking quadrupeds with their comical expressions and long floppy ears. Then the fun began, as this strange column started on its road. The donks were tied in fives, and travelled mostly in circles. First would be one man with the four horses of each section—behind him would be the other three men of the section—each vainly striving to make an erring team of five donkeys travel on the road instead of touring the surrounding country. It was finally decided to loosen the little wretches and try driving them like a mob of sheep. This was done, but the experiment was not a success—there appeared to be white donkeys all over Palestine as they perversely scattered out into the country round about. They had to be rounded up and caught again, which took some time and ingenuity. The procession continued, until the party arrived with their charges at Headquarters. There they handed over the "new remounts"—as an amused crowd of bystanders called them.

These donks were distributed amongst the various units, about seven to a squadron, and were ridden or led by "spare parts."

The official reason for their appearance was the shortage of remounts, but the ultimate purpose for which they were intended became evident later on, after the capture of Jerusalem.

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Then the hardy little animals were called in, and thousands of them were used in "donkey trains" transporting supplies over the rough tracks and steep grades of the Judean Hills.

Needless to say, when the Brigade was in bivouac, the donks were at times the cause of much amusement in races, and "polo,"—played with walking sticks and a football!