The New Zealanders at Gallipoli
Chapter IV. The Defence of the Suez Canal
Chapter IV. The Defence of the Suez Canal.
[Photo by the Author
En route to the Suez Canal.
Tel-el-Kebir is the scene of the famous battle fought by Lord Wolseley in 1882
Based on Ismailia itself were three sets of posts. A few miles north was El Ferdan, where a company and two platoons of the Auckland and Canterbury Battalions were stationed; the second group was nearer Ismailia — two posts, one called Battery Post, with two platoons of New Zealanders as part of its garrison, the other, Ismailia Ferry, with one company; in reserve at Ismailia were Brigade Headquarters, with the remainder of the Canterbury and Auckland Battalions not absorbed by the posts.
Between Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake was an important stretch of the Canal, only about seven miles long, but comprising the two posts of Toussoum and Serapeum. At the latter post, two platoons of the Canterbury Battalion (the 12th Nelson Company) were instrumental in helping to stave off the most determined attack ever made by the Turks on Egypt.page 50
South of Serapeum the Canal widens into the Great Bitter Lakes and the Little Bitter Lake, the defence of this part of the line naturally being entrusted to the Navy, assisted by two French cruisers. Between the lower lake and Suez, a distance of about fifteen miles, the Wellington and Otago Battalions were distributed—units at different times being posted at Shalouf, Baluchistan, Ghurka Posts, El Kubri and Suez.
About midnight on the night of our arrival at Kubri, a party of Turks made a great show of liveliness, evidently to draw fire and so obtain some information as to our strength and dispositions. But nothing came of these diversions, which occurred periodically.
Waiting for the Turk.
Some of our posts were on the Sinai side of the Canal, some on the Egyptian side. Up and down we were connected by telephone to all these posts and the batteries. The Turkish intelligence system was very active, whatever its efficiency, for on one night the wires from Kubri were cut no less than five times, although the line was being specially watched.
In the Suez Canal.
The provision of desert patrols, post guards, Canal patrols, listening and examination posts, took up most of the time. The work was hard but full of interest. The Turk was not far away, and it was exhilarating making preparations for his downfall. On both sides of the Canal, trenches had to be dug page 51 and sandbagged, and strong posts of tactical importance constructed. Every day it was regretted that though the Turks were quiescent, armies of mosquitoes were extremely active. Ships of all the Allies and the neutral nations passed slowly through the Canal, carrying many civilian Australians and New Zealanders to and from the south. After the heat of Cairo, the daily dip was a great boon, particularly as the ladies on the passing vessels threw many luxuries to the soldiers in the water. Especially at Ismailia were the surroundings agreeable. The men in their spare time bathed in Lake Timsah, lolled in the shade of the high acacias, and marvelled at the masses of bougainvillea climbing in its purple glory among the dark green trees.
The end of January drew near and still the Turks did not attack. Occasionally the outposts on either side saw shadowy page 52 forms and fired into the dark. Our Intelligence Department had gleaned some knowledge of the enemy's dispositions. It was known that about forty miles east of the Canal, opposite Serapeum, he was concentrating in a deep valley, from whence it was believed he intended to advance in two columns—one on Kantara and the other on Serapeum. These were the obvious routes, the only other feasible one being by way of Kubri.
The troops were very fit and well dug in. Every man–English, Indian, and Colonial—was a volunteer in the strictest sense and eager to try conclusions with the enemy. On the last day of the month we were greatly cheered by the news that the “Blucher” had been sunk in the North Sea.
It was discovered that the Turkish column, marching by way of the old caravan road towards Kantara, moved at nights, using the telegraph line as a guide. The Indians had prepared elaborate fortifications and wire entanglements out from Kantara, then skilfully altered the direction of the telegraph line, so that it might end in carefully concealed barbed wire and pointed stakes.
Affairs of outposts gradually became matters of frequency over the length of the line. The Turk was making a show of reconnaissance from Kantara to Kubri, but everywhere a warm welcome was awaiting him.
Our First Battle.
At last, on the night of February 2/3, it was obvious that the great attack had commenced. At Kantara the enemy page 53 made an early morning attack on the outposts, which was easily repulsed. Then their main body came down the deceiving telegraph line. To the intense delight of the Indians the enemy walked straight into the trap, and were scattered to the four winds of the desert by carefully posted machine guns. It was quite evident that Kantara would not fall. But the enemy maintained a certain measure of activity, advancing and digging in just out of range. He showed no anxiety for a closer acquaintance, but appeared content to throw a few shells at the posts and occasionally at the shipping on Lake Timsah. This continued all day, until he was evidently ordered to the attack. It was a miserably feeble effort which rapidly converted itself into a hasty retirement.
Some of the Canterburys were at El Ferdan, upon which post four small enemy field guns opened a desultory fire, but were quickly put out of action by a few well directed rounds from H.M.S. “Clio.”
Down at Kubri the troops were on the alert. H.M.S. “Himalaya” used her searchlights all night, flinging her ghostly beams of light far over the desert and preventing any surprise attack. A few shots were fired by the outposts but well-directed fire from the “Himalaya” deterred the Turk from making any organized advance.
[Lent by Cant. Saunders. 12th Nel. Reg
Where the Attack came.
This is the part of the Canal where the pontoons were launched. The 12th Nelson Company was holding a line near the fir trees.
Lifting the Pontoons.
The fir trees on our side of the Canal are discernible. The pontoons were sunk by rifle fire. The large holes were made with axes to render the boats unserviceable.
Captured Turkish Orders.
[Photo by the Author
Captured Pontoons at Ismailia.
[Photo by the Author
Bows of Turkish Pontoons.
The pontoons are of German make, as the spelling of “the home port” indicates.
Three weeks of waiting ensued. There was certainly work to be done, but the Canal is just the Canal, and men get very sick of it. Any change is welcome to the soldier. It was a relief to climb into the troop trains on February 26 and eventually arrive in the old encampment near Zeitoun.
Return to Zeitoun.
The New Zealand and Australian Division was now feeling its feet, and towards the end of March the Third Reinforcements arrived and were promptly drafted to the units re- page 59 quiring them, particularly the Field Engineers and Divisional Train. Among them was a Maori contingent of 14 officers and 425 other ranks, eager to prove that they were too good for garrison duty. Egypt had never seen their betters as regards drill, physique and discipline.
About this time the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force came into being. The air was full of rumours; soon it became manifest that the two Colonial Divisions—the 1st Australian Division and the New Zealand and Australian Division —were, as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, to be called on to engage in a most important enterprise. Bustling administrative officers from the two Divisions commenced addressing their letters to Army Headquarters as A.N.Z.A.C., little realizing they were unconsciously creating a word destined to ring with glory down the ages.
[Photo by the Author
A Cosmopolitan Army.
In this picture are Australian Signallers. Ceylon Rifle Planters, British, French, and Australian Officers.
An Inspection on the Desert.
Just a year before, Sir Ian Hamilton, reviewing the New Zealanders and Australians in their own lands, expressed the wish that some day these wonderful horsemen might be shown to the world. By a strange chance, here they were in Africa, soon to be led by him in their first great visit to Europe, Surrounded by his staff, here again he sees them in the desert. Squadron after squadron go the 1st Light Horse Brigade, the pride of all Australia; then the New Zealand Mounted Rifles—men from the Waikato, the Wairarapa, the Waitaki. and every country district in between—prance gaily past in a cloud of dust and locusts; following the mounted rifles come the divisional artillery, all New Zealanders—with their cap badges blackened for war and their guns bedaubed with multi-coloured paints in a manner to make an old battery sergeant-major go crazy. Here are the handy men of the army—the divisional engineers with their great pontoons, and their confreres the signallers—wise men with buzzers and telephones and other signalling paraphernalia bedecking their horses and waggons. Following the “fancy troops.” in solid ranks of khaki and with bayonets flashing in the desert sun, come the infantry brigades of the Division. These are the men who trudge all day in the desert and at night dig themselves in, bivouacking and trudging on again next morning. The New Zealand Brigade marches brilliantly: every man is a prouder man than when he left New Zealand, for the infantry alone out of our Division participated in the defence of the Canal.
Now come the newly joined 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, and, closely following, the waggons of the divisional train; finally the field ambulance, flying their great Red Cross flags. By this time everybody is covered with grey desert dust and the plain is obscured as if with the smoke of a great bush fire. The march past over, units make for home by the shortest route. Soon the horses are rubbed down and are munching their tibbin and crushed barley, while the men are crowding the showers preparatory to the call of the cookhouse.page 61
That night we realized that at last the long-desired standard was attained—the New Zealand and Australian Division was pronounced fit for active service.
A Riot in the Ezbekieh Quarter.
[Photo by the Author
Showing Head-quarters cars and signallers on the old Suez Road. The officer in the foreground is Lt. Col. G. R. Pridham, D.S.O., R.E., the talented C.R.E. of the Division in Gallipoli and France.
Easter Monday was a most trying day. The khamseen blew, the breakfast dishes were full of grit, horses were page 63 fidgety in the driving sandstorm, everyone's temper was on edge. Egypt is a delightful place for the tourist, who can amuse himself indoors if the conditions be undesirable without. The soldier, on the contrary, must soldier on, khamseen or no khamseen, so over the drifting wastes of sand, artillery, engineers, infantry, divisional train and ambulance, wended their several ways to their different rendezvous in the desert. This was a new idea in the matter of parades—parading by ships—all to go on the “Lutzow” mustering in one place, those for the “Katuna” in another, and so on. Men, horses and vehicles were carefully checked by the known capacity of the transports already waiting in Alexandria Harbour.
Because the country was known to be mountainous and almost devoid of water it was recognized that in the initial stages of the campaign the mounted men must be left behind. This reduced the fighting strength of our division from four brigades to two. The mounted rifles for once were sorry they had horses, but hardly envied the infantrymen the daily long-distance route marches with the seventy pounds of pack and a rifle, dusty tracks, and an angry sun.
Everything comes to an end, even training in Egypt. In the week following Easter, all ranks were thankful to get aboard the troop trains in the dark and disappear into the black Egyptian night. The only regret was that their comrades of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and Australian Light Horse were left fretting in the desert camps.