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

Chapter IX

page 76

Chapter IX.

A description of the way our men used to lay out a bivouac when occupying new ground may interest the reader. A soldier's home is under his hat, and this was literally true of our men, who never knew rest billets in buildings, but had to rig up what shelters they could wherever the Brigade halted. Let it be said here that, hot as the days are in Palestine, the nights are usually cold, making a man value every shred of cover. In laying out a bivouac, when the nature of the ground allowed of it, in most cases the three squadrons composing a regiment, the regimental transport, and headquarters, would be placed some distance apart from each other. The object of this was to present only a scattered target for enemy aeroplane bombs.

The horses were usually placed either in two parallel lines for each squadron, or in one long line, perhaps with an angle in it, this latter method being thought by some to offer the poorest target of all to aeroplanes. Each man carried on his horse a picketing or "built-up" rope, in addition to his head-rope. This "built-up" rope was about five feet in length, having a wooden toggle at one end and a spliced loop at the other, which enabled the ropes of a page 77whole squadron, if necessary, to be joined into one long line. The line of picketing ropes thus formed was stretched along the ground, and the extremities anchored down securely, by means of sacks filled with earth or sand, sunk below ground level. After this, the line was held down in each section of four ropes by sandbags let into the ground in similar manner. This system was first used in the Desert, where pegs would not hold, and was found to be most effective for security.

The men's "bivvies" (as their crude, often weirdly erected, but always practical, shelters of blankets or canvas were called), were generally put up in line in rear of the horse-lines, a space being left in between for saddlery and other gear.

Until quite late in the campaign the only shelters the men had were such as they could improvise from blankets and canvas, with the exception of a few bivouacs, where a limited number of tents was allotted them. Then they were supplied with canvas bivouac sheets, one to each man.

These were about six feet square, with buttons and buttonholes along each margin. Two men buttoned their sheets together, supported them on two sticks, pegged down the lower edges, and tied a blanket round one open end, when they had a fairly serviceable little shelter. Enemy bivouac sheets were much sought after when captures were made, as these were made of page 78excellent quality light canvas, with aluminium buttons, superior to ours.

In a bivouac likely to be occupied for some time, it was a common practice to dig a narrow trench inside the tiny shelter. This allowed room for the legs when sitting on the narrow ledge on each side which served for a bunk, and in emergency formed a useful "funk hole" below the level of the whirring bomb fragments during an aeroplane raid. Cooking was done just outside the bivvy on a few stones or bully beef tins. Many would dig out a shallow trench nearby, leaving a square block of earth standing in the centre, which served as a table for meals.

The section of four men being the smallest working unit of a mounted regiment, one man generally attended to the commissariat, and did the cooking and tea-making in mess-tins and billies, while the other three looked after the four or more horses. The co-operation, consideration for each other, and unselfishness, shown by our men in sharing their work and dangers in the field, would be a revelation to many people at home, and was one of the finest features of life in the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade in the memory of the writer. Newcomers in reinforcement drafts reaching the Brigade for the first time quickly had selfish-ness knocked out of them, and, under the rough chaff and good-humoured patience of their experienced comrades, quickly learnt the necessity of co-operation in all things, and the page 79valuable lesson of always helping others besides themselves.

In each squadron there were, in addition to riding horses, twelve pack-horses—four Hotch-kiss gun-packs, two Hotchkiss ammunition packs, four tool packs on which were carried picks and shovels, and two squadron packs for various uses; so that with these, and spare horses, of which there were always many when a squadron was not up to strength, or had recently had casualties, a big proportion of the men had to look after two, and sometimes three horses.

Practice makes perfect, and it was wonderful to see how quickly one of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Regiments could settle down for the night when on trek, or moving into a new bivouac.

As soon as the bivouac area was allotted to a unit, the troops would move on to the ground, each squadron halting in the formation in which the lines were to be put down—usually column of half-squadrons.

On the order to dismount being given, built-up ropes would quickly be taken off the horses ' necks and joined up into one long line. Then while the horse-holders in each section looked after the horses, the remainder would set to work with pick, shovel, and bayonet to stretch and anchor down the horse lines. This done, the horses would be tied on the line, off-saddled, perhaps given an opportunity to roll, if the page 80ground was soft, groomed, and then fed. The patient animals always knew the order "feed up," which was greeted with a chorus of hungry whinnyings and much pawing of the ground.

Then, and not till then, the men would set about making themselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed. Bivvies would spring up all over the area like magic, often supported, if sticks were scarce, on two bayoneted rifles, the bayonet being driven into the ground, while the butt of the rifle carried the canvas or blanket. As dusk fell, hundreds of tiny fires would flicker brightly in the gathering gloom, as shadowy figures moved about in preparation of the indispensable billy of tea to wash down "hard tack" and "bully."

On many "stunts," when it was necessary to travel as lightly as possible, bivouac sheets or blankets could not be carried, and then all hands had to sleep under no other canopy than the twinkling stars—quite all right in fine weather, but a miserable experience in the rainy season.

After the evening "boil-up," rations for the following day for horse and man would be drawn if the transport waggons had arrived, otherwise early next morning, or whenever opportunity offered. "Water-bottles would also be filled on the arrival of the water-cart, these welcome vehicles often having to cover long distances to procure the necessary water for drinking. Horse pickets for the night would be detailed, two men per squadron having to watch page break
Black-and-white photograph of civilians and Axis troops evacuating Jerusalem during World War One

Austrian troops evacuating Jerusalem before the tide of the british advance.(Captured enemy photograph)

page break
Black-and-white photograph of New Zealand troops taking possession of Jaffa, World War One

The N.Z.M.R. formally taking possession of Jaffa. The ceremony at the Town Hall.

page 81over the horses in two-hour reliefs through the night, so that ten or twelve men would be on this duty nightly. This essential routine having been performed, and many other affairs attended to, such as stripping required gear from carefully packed saddles, the weary soldiers would turn in with what measure of comfort they could secure on the hard bosom of mother earth.

In the morning the bivouac would be astir before dawn, the pale light of the coming day revealing saddled horses and ground devoid of bivouacs. Everywhere would be men rolling blankets, strapping gear to saddles, and tying up and securing their horses' canvas nosebags.

On the warning "get ready to move," straps and girths would be finally tightened, and horses bitted up, until punctually at the appointed time the leading squadron would move out mounted. This would be followed by the remainder in ordered succession, as the long column of sun-browned horsemen, with the regimental transport waggons in rear, streamed away on the day's march in a cloud of enveloping dust.

When the Brigade was on a "stunt" and in the vicinity of the enemy, the routine described would not be so peaceful, but would be varied by long trying nights on outpost, the horses remaining saddled and the men getting but a brief snatch of sleep between turns on sentry or horse-piquet. Or, as generally happened, the Brigade would march all night, the tiring page 82ride often culminating in a collision with the enemy at dawn.

This might be merely a small affair concerning the advance guard, or might develop into an action in which the whole force would be engaged.

On many occasions, when the mounted column was travelling over country impassable for wheeled traffic, the transport waggons of the three regiments, the machine-gun squadron, and the field ambulance, would be brigaded, and travel in a separate column by a different route more easily traversed, meeting the Brigade later at the next bivouac.

In the many bivouacs occupied in different parts of Palestine by our men for periods of a few weeks on end, a marquee or two was erected to house the Brigade canteen. This was instituted shortly after the New Zealanders first entered Palestine, and under energetic management proved a great boon to the men, providing, as it did, tinned fruit, fish, milk, sugar, tea, tobacco, and other goods at the most reasonable prices possible. It was especially appreciated in the closing phases of the campaign, when rations were cut down and hardships were considerable.