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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XIV — Beersheba to Jaffa

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Chapter XIV
Beersheba to Jaffa

In June, 1917, General Sir A. Murray was recalled to England and General Sir E. H. Allenby was sent out to succeed him as Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

The new Commander at once set to work to obtain a personal knowledge of all units under his command. He moved Headquarters from Cairo to the field near the front line, and soon produced a feeling of confidence in the minds of all ranks in the field. All Divisions were brought up to strength, and additional artillery and more efficient aeroplanes strengthened these departments of the army.

The mounted forces, consisting of three divisions, and the Imperial Camel Brigade, were formed into one body, known as Desert Mounted Corps, under the command of Lieut.-General Sir H. Chauvel.

The 20th Corps, under Lieut.-General Sir P. Chetwode, consisted of four Infantry Divisions, the 10th, 53rd, 60th, and 74th; while the 21st Corps, under Lieut.-General Sir E. Bulfin, was composed of the 52nd, 54th, and 74th Infantry Divisions.

The First Battalion (Australian) of the Imperial Camel Brigade, which had suffered very severely in the attacks on Gaza, was sent down to the Canal Zone, where it was brought up to strength, and carried out patrol work until it rejoined the Brigade in January, 1918. The 15th N.Z. Company was transferred from the Third Battalion to the Fourth Battalion in the month of August, and during the next few months the two New Zealand Companies took their share of the training exercises and patrols of the Camel Brigade.

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General Sir E. H. H. Allenby, C.-in-C., E.E.F.

General Sir E. H. H. Allenby, C.-in-C., E.E.F.

Lieut.-General Sir H. G. Chauvel, G.O.C. Desert Mounted Corps

Lieut.-General Sir H. G. Chauvel, G.O.C. Desert Mounted Corps

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Brig.-General C. L. Smith, V.C. (Left), O.C. Imperial Camel Brigade

Brig.-General C. L. Smith, V.C. (Left), O.C. Imperial Camel Brigade

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During this period of preparation for the next big move, the enemy’s land forces were content with strengthening and holding their front line, but their air force was fairly active, and their aeroplanes paid regular visits over our lines, which they bombed freely until our improved air force finally more than held its own against them. Fights in the air over our territory were frequently seen, and at length the successes of our airmen in most of these later contests helped to instil further confidence in the minds of all ranks who were interested spectators.

General Allenby’s plan was first to capture the small town of Beersheba on the eastern end of the enemy’s front line, where there was a good supply of water in wells, which were the cause of strife even in the times of the Patriarchs. The mounted forces were to carry out this operation from the east, while the 20th Corps was to bring pressure to bear on the part of the Turkish line extending from Beersheba westward to Tel esh Sheria. When this portion of the line had been broken, the mounted forces were then to pour through and pursue the retreating enemy, while threatening at the same time to cut off the Turkish forces in the vicinity of Gaza on the right of their line. The 21st Corps occupied the position opposite Gaza on the left of the British line, and at an opportune time was to press home an attack on the Turkish position there.

As in all this region there is not a running stream of water, every movement of these forces was determind by the water supply. To help to supply the requirements of the army on our right, branch railway lines were pushed out to the east from Rafa on the main line. In all railway construction the earthwork formation was carried out by bodies of the Egyptian Labour Corps under the superintendence of a staff of British Engineers, and excellent work was done by this page 122branch of the service. On one occasion when members of the 16th Company I.C.C. were going to water their camels at the Wadi Ghuzzi, they saw a line of Egyptians of the Labour Corps carrying sleepers and rails from a ballast train, and laying them on the prepared ground ahead of the engine. The material was put into position and spiked together by British engineers, and all the time the train moved slowly forward without once stopping. When the party returned from watering two hours later the train was nowhere to be seen, but a complete railway line disappeared over a rise in the distance.

The branch lines enabled water, provisions and ammunition to be concentrated at various points behind the army, ready to be carried forward by motor, horse, or camel transport as soon as the advance began. General Allenby, in his despatches, said, "Practically the whole of the transport available in the force, including 30,000 pack-camels, had to be allotted to one portion of the eastern force to enable it to be kept supplied with food, water, and ammunition at a distance of fifteen to twenty-one miles in advance of railhead." Allowing twelve feet for each camel, the above force, if placed in single file, would be sixty-eight miles long.

Increased supplies of water were required large enough to satisfy the requirements of two mounted divisions, preparatory to making a surprise attack on Beersheba. Two jumping-off points were chosen, Khalasa and Asluj, about twenty-five and thirty miles from the point of attack, and on October 23 the I.C. Brigade moved to Abu Ghalyun and Khalasa where new wells were dug and a number of old ones cleared out, some of which were over a hundred feet deep, and which had been blown in by the Turks to prevent their being used by the British. The Camel Corps erected watering-troughs, and installed pumping plant in preparation for the needs of the mounted forces, and then withdrew to page 123the line of the Wadi Ghuzzi to take its share in the attack on Beersheba from another angle.

While these preparations were being made our improved air force prevented the enemy’s planes from closely inspecting the country behind our front line. Movements of troops by day were kept down to a minimum, and any that were apparent to the enemy were of such a nature as to lead him to suspect that our main attack was once more to be made on the Gaza sector. By night, however, columns of all kinds moved forward in preparation for the advance. Transport columns established dumps of all kinds in advanced positions, and the whole country, after dark, appeared like a gigantic ant colony on the move. The transport column of Desert Mounted Corps alone, on the night of October 28, was fully six miles long.

All sorts of devices were used to deceive the Turks of our real intentions. A British Staff Officer staged a simple ruse in No Man’s Land early in October. He rode out with a small escort as if on reconnaissance, and, when fired on by a Turkish patrol, he apparently collapsed on his horse as if wounded, at the same time dropping some of his equipment and a "doped" haversack smeared with fresh blood (obtained from a scratch on his horse’s neck) and containing papers with "valuable" information in them. Along with letters of a strictly private character, some of them commenting unfavourably on the plans of Headquarters, and a roll of pound notes to lend reality to the "bait," there were copies of the proposals (?) to be discussed at a conference of Senior Officers at British Headquarters, showing that Gaza was again going to be attacked, backed up by a landing farther up the coast, with a feint attack by mounted forces on Beersheba. The Turkish patrol followed the party during its retirement, but when the "wounded" officer noticed that the pursuers had stopped page 124at the spot where he had been "hit," he "recovered" sufficiently to escape in safety. To add more reality to the ruse, Routine Orders of Desert Mounted Corps, a few days afterwards stated that a valuable packet had been lost, and asked the finder to return it to Headquarters. Another party patrolling the same ground a day or two later wrapped up a lunch in a copy of these orders, and when an enemy patrol appeared this was also dropped to fall into the hands of the Turks. After the capture of Gaza it was found in Turkish Orders that a non-commissioned officer had been rewarded for discovering valuable enemy documents while patrolling, and also that all ranks were solemnly warned against foolishly carrying documents containing information likely to be of use to the enemy.

Standing tents with camp-fires lit in their lines every night were left in position in camps after their occupants had moved on.

A pretended embarkation of troops, within observation of the enemy, was staged at Deir el Belah for the benefit of the Turks. Columns of men belonging to the Egyptian Labour Corps were marched in order down to the beach and conveyed in surf-boats to vessels lying off-shore. Lighted boats were kept moving backwards and forwards till late at night, while next morning trawlers appeared off the coast near the mouth of the Wadi Hesi, some distance north of Gaza, giving the impression that a landing was going to be made in the rear of the Turkish position.

A bombardment of Gaza by the artillery was made on October 27, and on the 29th a naval flotilla of British and French cruisers, destroyers, and monitors continued this from the sea.

Colonel S. F. Newcombe, who had been assisting Colonel Lawrence in Arabia, was in Cairo on sick leave in October, 1917, and while there he proposed that, while page 125Beersheba was being attacked by the mounted forces, he should distract the attention of the Turks by making a raid on their lines of communication between Beersheba and Hebron. General Allenby gave his consent, and Newcombe selected a party of seventy members of a British Battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps. The party was equipped with ten machine-guns, with Lewis guns and explosives in addition, and with Arab guides set out from Asluj on October 30. Making a wide detour through the hill country, they arrived at Es Semua, twenty miles north-east of Beersheba. From there on the night of the 31st, they moved on to the road leading to Hebron, and cut the Turkish telegraph line. As Newcombe had, previous to the war, been exploring in this district, he was well acquainted with the Arab inhabitants, and he hoped to be able to induce them to help the British against the Turks. In this, however, he was disappointed, so he decided to attempt with his small force to block the road leading north from Beersheba, and so cut off the retreat of the Turks from the latter place. He took up a position at Yutta, covering the road, and dug in there, and effectively blocked the Hebron road for two days. The presence of this small force behind the Turkish front line had a most disturbing effect on Turkish Headquarters in Hebron, and preparations were hastily made for the removal of the staff and material.

The Turks evidently thinking this was the advance party of a larger flanking movement, drew forces from their reserves at Dhaheriya in the north, and from Sheria in the west, thus weakening the centre of their front line at the time when Allenby was ready to drive home the blow that was to make the opening for the mounted divisions to pour through. Newcombe’s party was surrounded, but held out till nearly half of the force were killed, and most of the rest were wounded, when page 126the remainder surrendered. The Turks, meanwhile, had put up a stout resistance to the advance of the British force north of Beersheba, and thus prevented the gallant little company from being rescued.

On the 27th a Turkish reconnaissance in force inflicted severe loss on a line of Yeomanry outposts which had been pushed forward from Karm on the north side of the Wadi Ghuzzi, two troops being wiped out before the arrival of the 53rd Division compelled the Turks to retire.

Two battalions of the 158th Brigade of the 53rd Division were added to the Imperial Camel Brigade to form a force called Smith’s group under the command of Brigadier-General Smith of the I.C.C. This force, including the two N.Z. Companies, left its camping ground at 8 a.m. on the 30th, crossed the Wadi, and travelled all day across the flat undulating ground of No Man’s Land till the low hilly country was reached in the evening. Motor ambulances were met with, carrying back men wounded in outpost engagements. One Tommy with a triumphant grin proudly held up a bandaged thumb; he was wounded, but satisfied.

The I.C.C. dug in after dark on the hillsides, but during the night moved forward a mile and again dug in. At daylight on the 31st the infantry on our right could be seen advancing along the ridges under a hot shell-fire. The infantry divisions of the 20th Corps met with determined resistance, losing during this advance 136 men killed and 1,010 wounded.

Our force was dug in at the mouth of a wadi which opened out on to flat ground leading to the town, the outskirts of which could be seen from our position. In the morning a battery of Field Artillery came down the wadi at a gallop, wheeled into position and in less than a minute the guns opened fire on the defences of Beersheba; behind us somewhere in the hills, thundered our page 127heavier guns, and from our position we could see the shells bursting with tremendous effect in the vicinity of the town. Meanwhile the two mounted divisions, the Anzac and the Australian, had travelled some thirty miles during the night from Khalasa and Asluj, and after a very stiff fight the N.Z.M.R. and the A.L.H. had captured the important position of Tel es Saba by the afternoon. At 4.30 p.m. the Fourth A.L.H. Brigade charged, leaped over the trenches between them and Beersheba, and entered the town, when all resistance ceased. About fifteen hundred prisoners were captured by Desert Mounted Corps, with a loss to themselves of fifty-three killed and one hundred and forty-four wounded. The sudden, dramatic charge of the Australians prevented the Turks from damaging all the wells, and the possession of these made Beersheba a watering position as a base for movements farther afield.

Part of the Anzac and Yeomanry Divisions immediately followed the Turks who had retired from positions in the neighbourhood of Beersheba into the hilly country towards the north. Strong opposition was met with by our forces, as the enemy had reinforced their left flank to prevent the next set of wells at Khuweilfeh, some ten miles north, from falling into our hands.

Early in the morning of November 1 the I.C. Brigade moved forward through the defences of the town, where abandoned guns, shells, and here and there bodies of Turkish soldiers, indicated the toll that had been taken the day before by our forces. The camels, the only part of our columns that seemed to fit naturally into the surroundings of mosques and eastern houses, gravely stalked ahead, as their kind had done for thousands of years, through the small town that could trace back its existence to the time of Abraham, and their riders from the far distant lands of the Southern Hemisphere looked with interest on the deserted earthen dwellings and page 128 page 129abandoned wells, the latter of which had been the cause of strife ever since Abraham and Isaac first dug them.

The Camel Corps moved on in conjunction with the 53rd Infantry Division into the hilly country north of the town. The transport of the infantry had failed to connect with the Division, and during their advance the Cameliers came across small detached parties of the former searching unsuccessfully for springs or wells at which to slake their thirst. Our men attempted to fill the empty water-bottles, but not, being allowed to halt, they spilled more than they supplied from their fantassis.

Part of the I.C.B. were attached to the infantry in an attack on Tel el Khuweilfeh, while the Fourth Battalion relieved the Mounted Brigade on the extreme right of the line. While proceeding to take up this position on the evening of November 5, the Battalion was heading up a wide flat between two ranges of hills, the 16th N.Z. Company leading, when the Intelligence Officer galloped up, wheeled round the head and directed it up a side wadi into the hills. Here the camels were barracked, and left under camel-holders, while the main body advanced up the ridges in the dark in the supposed direction of the front line. The leaders, however, lost their way, and the force sat down in the dark and waited till daylight showed them their position. In the forenoon the camel-holders were ordered to take the animals to the wadi they had been making for the night before, but this time they travelled under different conditions as they were under observation of the Turkish artillery, which immediately opened fire on them, but fortunately the aim was bad, and the only losses sustained were loose articles which fell from the men’s baggage, but no one stopped to retrieve these, as the camel-holders, each with not less than three unwilling animals strung out at the full length of neck and halter behind him, were vying page 130with each other as to who could make the quickest passage into the shelter of the wadi for which they were bound. Fortunately there were no casualties, and the camel-lines were formed in Shrapnel Gully before the men of the N.Z. Mounted Rifles filed down it after their relief by the Cameliers in the morning. The camel-holders were able to make some compensation for being behind time by supplying each thirsty horseman with as much fresh water as he could drink.

The Fourth Battalion took over a position along the top of a limestone ridge, including Hill 2023, called Ras el Nagb, which was the key position of our right flank, the New Zealand Companies being on the extreme right of the whole British front line. Just before midnight on November 6, the Turks made a determined attack on the hill, creeping up in the dark and bombing our listening and observation posts. Their superiority in numbers enabled the enemy to gain a footing on the hilltop, but our men, recognizing the importance of our retaining possession of this post, refused to give way, and after a desperate fight, finally drove the Turks off the hill with considerable loss to the latter. From daylight on the 7th, the position was subjected to heavy fire, but all further attempts of the enemy to gain a footing on the hill were frustrated.

On the 8th, the 18th Australian Company attempted to carry out a strong reconnaissance in front of Ras el Nagb, but sustained heavy casualties. All the wounded were not brought in until after dark, and some fine work was done in recovering these, the New Zealanders giving assistance. On the following afternoon the Turks made another attempt to capture the position, and got within a hundred and fifty yards of our post, but the accurate fire of our men and the fine shrapnel practice of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery beat off what proved to be the last attempt of the enemy to regain the hill

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During one of these attacks a section of the 16th N.Z. Company under a Sergeant held a dominating position of the sector. The force on its left was being pressed so heavily that the Lieutenant in charge there (not a New Zealander) decided to retire his men, and sent a messenger to the Sergeant to retire also. The latter told the messenger to tell his officer to "go to H—, as the New Zealanders will hold their position to the last man." The superior officer yielded to the stronger mind, and the line remained intact. It was not surprising that Sergeant Wilson not long afterwards was sent to an Officers’ Training School to obtain his commission.

During the five days that the I.C.C. held this position the camels were watered only once, the nearest water being at Beersheba some fifteen miles away. The camel-holders set off in the late afternoon, and on the way down the wide open valley, one Camelier noticed a bag of durra which had evidently fallen from someone else’s saddle. He pulled out of the line with his unwilling string of animals, and barracked them down, being determined to secure an extra allowance of grain for them. As the straps of the bag were broken and the animals were very restive at being left behind, it took some time to fasten the durra on a saddle, and the column was over a mile away when the rattle of machine-guns was heard in its direction. When the rescuer of the durra arrived at the spot where the firing had occurred, he found two of his comrades lying on the ground wounded, waiting for the ambulance from a field-dressing station not far way, while eight camels were lying dead nearby, several others having been wounded. The Turkish planes had raked the column with their machine-guns, and the section where they had struck it most accurately was where the rider had been when he pulled out to salvage the bag of durra. The page 132Camelier who had moved up into his place in the column had one of his charges killed and another wounded, while the rider behind him received a bullet through his shoulder. "Virtue always brings its own reward," thought the Camelier. "It pays to be thoughtful for the welfare of one’s mount."

That night the scene at the wells at Beersheba, when lit up momentarily by the flashes of officers’ electric torches, showed nothing but a sea of camels’ heads and humps, or the tossing manes of eager horses, held back with difficulty by their holders, who at the same time were vying with each other to reach the water-troughs first in order to let their thirsty mounts be thoroughly satisfied before being moved on by the voice of authority.

At one point at Ras el Nagb one sniper caused us some trouble every time a man moved from shelter. There were no trenches, the only cover being a low line of limestone on the hilltop, and he claimed several victims before a strong pair of field-glasses (not of military issue) detected a movement in a clump of scrub about a thousand yards away. A burst of fire from a Lewis gunner cleaned the spot up effectively. Shortly afterwards a party of Staff Officers rode up the wadi behind us and dismounting, proceeded to a hummock on the sky-line close at hand, where they had a view of the village of Dhahariya ahead, and the road leading north, along which Turkish transport vehicles could be seen moving to the rear. The party drew the artillery fire of the Turks, and a shell flew fairly close over their heads. Every man in the party with the exception of one tall officer ducked; he stood erect like a telegraph pole. Shells still flying, the party retired to where they had left their horses, remounted, and rode away. They had not gone fifty yards round a rocky corner when a shell burst on the very spot where the horses had been standing. The tall officer who disdained to duck was page 133General Allenby. If the sniper had still been in action, or if the Turks had only known what their target was, and how accurate was their ranging, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force might have had to continue the campaign under a different leader, with what results who can tell It is good policy to take a strong pair of field-glasses with you to the war.

By the fifth day on which we had been in this part of the line, the pressure of the Turks had been lessened, and the Cameliers were relieved by the Infantry. The Cameliers mounted and moved west past the hill of Khuweilfeh where their comrades of the Third Battalion had, along with the 53rd Division, a desperate but finally successful struggle against the Turks. Of this action General Allenby in his despatches says: "The Turkish losses in this area were very heavy indeed, and the stubborn fighting of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, Imperial Camel Corps, and part of the Mounted troops during November 2 to 6, drew in and exhausted theTurkish reserves, and paved the way for the success of the attack on Sheria."

During the Third Crusade this spot, Khuweilfeh, was the scene of a highly successful raid carried out by Richard the Lion Heart, on June 23, 1192. Richard had word that a very valuable caravan, laden with treasures of all kinds, and stores and arms for the Saracens, was coming from Egypt, so he made a sudden incursion from the coast, and intercepted it here. Mounted on a powerful charger, the King, with lance and sword struck terror into the hearts of his enemies. The description of the fight, as given by a contemporary historian, gives one the impression that Richard mowed down his enemies in the same manner as a reaper in a harvest field, and the harvest was evidently a rich one, consisting of great quantities of gold, silver, spices, valuable garments, arms and coats of mail, etc. If Richard had been taking part page 134in the fight at Khuweilfeh in November, 1917, he would have been crouching behind rocks, or crawling on his hands and knees along hollows on the ground, and his harvest would have consisted of one substance, under the circumstances more valuable than all the wealth captured in 1192, namely, fresh water from the wells.

While these successes were being gained on the right flank, the 21st Corps on the left of the line had captured Gaza on November 6, and the 52nd (Lowland) Division pushed north to prevent the Turks from taking up another entrenched position. Near Deir Sineid this Scottish Division met with fierce resistance, and were driven off a low hill four times, but undismayed they made a fifth assault, and drove back the enemy in confusion. The attacks on Gaza from November 2 to 7 cost the British just on two thousand seven hundred casualties in killed, wounded, and missing.

In the centre of the Gaza-Beersheba line, the 20th Corps drove back the enemy on November 6 and 7, capturing the strongly entrenched positions of Kauwukeh, Rushdi, Hareira, and Tel esh Sheria. Through the gap thus formed, Desert Mounted Corps poured in pursuit of the retreating enemy. From the 7th to the 16th the mounted forces kept the Turks fighting rearguard actions, and, by their fierce pursuit, prevented the enemy from taking up an entrenched position strong enough to check the pursuing British forces. The broken nature of the roadless country, the difficulty of obtaining supplies of water and forage for the horses, and the ever-increasing distance from railhead, all combined to form a difficult problem for General Allenby, but the advance never ceased. From the starting point at Asluj on October 30 to November 16, the mounted forces advanced seventy-five miles, and cleared up all the country of Turks between the Judaean Hills and the sea as far north as Jaffa.