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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XV — Jaffa To Jerusalem

page 135

Chapter XV
Jaffa To Jerusalem

By the capture of Junction Station, where the main line branched off to Jerusalem, the Turkish force was cut in two, their Seventh Army retiring into the Judaean Hills, where they were followed by the 52nd and 75th Divisions. The Eighth Turkish Army retired along the coastal plain, followed by the mounted forces, past Ramleh, Ludd, and Jaffa (which was captured by the N.Z. Mounted Brigade on November 16), and finally took up a position north of the Auja River.

On November 10 the I.C. Brigade was relieved by the 53rd Division in the hills north of Beersheba, and started on an interesting four days’ journey through the land of the ancient Philistines, where they marched across the old front line and up the centre of the coastal plain in the track of the victorious mounted forces. The Cameliers were moved from the extreme right of the British front line at Ras el Nagb to the extreme left on the coast south of Jaffa, and in their journey they saw evidence of the effective work done by Desert Mounted Corps during its sweep north—the exploded ammunition dump at Sheria, transport vehicles with the carcases of horses and oxen still attached, the position at Huj where the Worcester and Warwick Yeomanry made their dramatic charge on Turkish artillery in position, cutting down the gunners with their swords and capturing all the guns.

Leaving Julis at 1 a.m. on November 15, we passed Esdud, the Ashdod of the Philistines and the Azotus of Herodotus, which was a walled city in ancient times. In the year 650 b.c. it was besieged by a Pharaoh of Egypt, Psammetichus I, and of it Herodotus relates: "Psammetichus ruled Egypt for fifty-four years, during twenty-nine of which he pressed the siege of Azotus without page 136intermission, till finally he took the place…. Of all the cities we know, none ever stood so long a siege." This record of twenty-nine years for the length of a siege has not been beaten since. A siege of that duration certainly has some advantages for the besiegers, it gets over some of the difficulties of procuring reinforcements. If the soldiers took their wives and families with them, recruits could be reared on the spot.

The Cameliers now passed through more thickly populated country. Small rounded hillocks were scattered here and there over the plain, and on each one was placed a village, Jewish or Bedouin. As they approached Yebna, they came under shell fire, and suffered casualties in men and camels. The first orange groves were met with at Yebna, and these were at once declared out of bounds for all ranks. Next day a limited supply of oranges was distributed by the Quartermaster, but the men had no room for these, as their saddlebags had all been well filled with fruit unofficially the night before. After weeks of bully-beef and biscuits, with no vegetable food, the oranges at Yebna were pronounced by all hands to be the best in the world.

On November 14 the I.C. Brigade was stationed on the sandhills near the sea, in support of the N.Z.M. Rifles who were attacking the Turks on the hill at Ayun Kara, north of Richon le Zion. In his despatches General Allenby states: "On the left the N.Z.M. Rifles had a smart engagement at Ayun Kara (Richon le Zion, six miles south of Jaffa). Here the Turks made a determined counter-attack, and got to within fifteen yards of our line. A bayonet attack drove them back with heavy loss." This action opened the way to Jaffa, which was occupied by the N.Z.M. Rifles on the 16th.

The Camel Corps had meanwhile moved inland towards "Abu Shushe where on the 15th the Yeomanry Division and part of the Imperial Camel Corps had a page 137very satisfactory engagement. The enemy was driven back on Amwas, leaving 400 dead and 360 prisoners, in addition to another ninety captured as the Yeomanry passed near Ramleh in their advance." (Official Record of E.E.F.) The prisoners taken in this big drive were frequently found to be in a very exhausted state, chiefly owing to lack of food and water. One large batch of prisoners under the escort of Cameliers was taken to a well where they nearly went mad in their attempts to get at the water. After being given a drink they lay round the well like animals, rising every now and then to again slake their thirst.

The country round Ramleh and Jaffa appears, to be very fertile if properly cultivated. In this area many of the Jewish colonies were placed which were established by the Zionist Movement. The villages were composed of bungalow types of houses, built of wood, and roofed with Marseilles tiles. All were neatly kept, and appeared to be comfortably furnished. The orchards were carefully cultivated, grape-vines, orange and lemon trees being neatly pruned according to modern methods. During the war these Jewish colonists must have led a precarious existence, as they could not export any of their produce, and there was no local market for it.

Near at hand, by way of contrast, could sometimes be seen the Bedouins’ attempts at cultivation, where the surface of the soil had been merely scratched up an inch or two deep with their wooden ploughs of the type used in Biblical times, with the result that their barley crops were barely high enough to be cut with a hand sickle.

When camped south of Jaffa, our Company one day had an unusual experience; we were given what was practically a holiday and taken to spend a day on the sea-beach. Leaving camp at 9 a.m., under a sky of cloudless blue, we wound our way between groves of orange trees in full bearing. It was a beautiful sight, page 138the fresh green appearance of the trees spangled with the rich golden globes of fruit, and as we were mounted, we had no difficulty in extracting a contribution from the orchards for the purpose of assuaging our thirst. We rode through the southern outskirts of Jaffa, and reached a beautiful sandy beach, shelving gradually out to sea, in water that was so transparent that every object on the bottom could be distinctly seen for a considerable distance from the shore. Conditions were ideal for sea bathing, and this was enjoyed to the utmost. Yet on this very beach, in the year 1799, four thousand of the Turkish garrison of Jaffa were executed by Napoleon’s orders, on the plea that they had broken their promises not to take up arms against the French.

We noticed that the Turks had evidently been prepared to resist a landing from the sea, as trenches had been dug along the top of the low cliffs, but these were not used; the attack came by land, and the town was occupied by the New Zealanders without a fight.

As one of the few seaports on the coast of Palestine and the one nearest to Jerusalem, Jaffa has been concerned in every war in that country from the time when the Pharaohs of Egypt ruled the land. Here, no doubt, were landed the cedars of Lebanon for the building of Solomon’s Temple; here were performed some of the extraordinary exploits of Richard the Lion Heart, and here also landed the never-ending procession of pilgrims from the earliest times up to the present.

Jaffa has no proper harbour, only an open roadstead, and cargoes have to be landed in lighters. As soon as it fell into the hands of the British forces supply ships for the army were diverted there at once, and for the next nine months until the next big forward move took place Jaffa was a very busy port.

On November 25 the Fourth Battalion I.C.C., left its quarters near Richon le Zion at 2.30 a.m., and moved page 139across the Plain of Sharon (but no "dewy roses" were apparent) to a position eight miles north-east of Jaffa, known to us as Bald Hill, or Hill 265, where it relieved the Second Battalion. Some Scottish Cameliers whom we relieved told us it was " a good possie," as there was a village a short distance ahead where eggs, milk and oranges could be bought. One of our patrols did visit the place without noticing anything unusual, but it was found afterwards that an advance party of the Turks must have been concealed there while the patrol was passing through.

At this time the British front line, with its left flank resting on the Mediterranean Sea, swung round in a curve, and then ran south-east across the foothills until it faced east in the higher country, where the 52nd and 75th Divisions were forcing the Turks eastwards towards the Jerusalem-Nablus road. Bald Hill was on an exposed part of the curve facing north-east across low ridges running down to a level plain, two or three miles wide, and extending away to the north. This portion of the front line was held by two Brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 161st Brigade of the Infantry and the Imperial Camel Brigade. There was no continuous line, outposts being placed at suitable positions sometimes not within sight of each other. All troops that could be spared were needed for the more difficult task of forcing the enemy up the gorges and steep ridges leading to the plateau on which Jerusalem was situated. The day after we entrenched ourselves at Bald Hill, signs of activity could be seen in the enemy’s country. Down the level plain between us and the foothills, rein-forcements, artillery, and transport vehicles could be seen advancing from the north for the greater part of the day. They would have made a splendid target for our artillery, but we evidently had none in support of us. Our own guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore page 140Battery were away in support of our forces in the mountain country, so the Turks advanced unmolested. That night was a bright moonlight one and till well on in the morning we were kept awake by a continual howling of jackals in the gullies round about us. Whether it was the moon or the Turks that caused such an outcry we could not tell by further observation as on the following night there was quite a different kind of a disturbance to keep us awake.

When we took over our sector of the line there were no trenches in the position, so we dug in on selected spots on the neighbouring ridges, but dug trenches only long enough to accommodate the small parties into which we were divided. Next morning the Turks began to shell our position. Their guns could be seen across the level flat near the foothills in front of us. At first it was interesting to watch for the flash and then duck down and wait for the arrival of the shell, but a whizz-bang or two soon stopped that practice. The bombardment with shrapnel and high explosives was kept on for several hours, and on our left enemy troops could be seen working their way up towards our line. The attack was so fierce that a company on our left flank was compelled to retire. The Turks entered these trenches and began to enfilade the trench next to it which was occupied by a section of the 16th Company. This section put up a stout resistance, but soon their casualties were so heavy that they were ordered to retire to the next ridge, and to keep the line intact; our other two sections on the extreme right in the afternoon were ordered to fall back also. As we were retiring the Sergeant in charge of our section was wounded and had to be assisted back. He was a general favourite with all ranks, being the leader in all the physical activities of the company. He had a considerable sum of money in his belt, and this was known to the men of his section. One of his page 141comrades, evidently wishing to do something to help his wounded Sergeant, innocently asked if he could carry the latter’s money-belt for him. The Sergeant’s sense of humour and knowledge of his man refused to see any selfish motive in the offer. During the retirement another member of the section heard that his Sergeant had been wounded, and returned to the trench to see if he could give any assistance, but finding the trench empty, evidently climbed out again to rejoin his party, when he was struck by a bullet, and fell just behind the trench. He was not missed until later on in the day, but his body was found in the evening untouched by the Turks.

We retired to the next ridge and dug in there. So far we had had no artillery or aeroplane support, and at one time five Taubes were hovering round us. Just before dark our artillery came to our assistance and pounded the trenches severely. As dusk fell, the 16th Company counter-attacked the position and charged uphill under a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire. With a yell our men flung themselves on the Turks who fled leaving their machine-gun and all its outfit, with men’s kits, some prisoners, and several dead and wounded. To our surprise the only casualty in our party was a wounded finger received by one man. The explanation was that the trench was slightly over the brow of the hill on the Turkish side, and the Turks instead of making use of the trench, had lain down on the front of the low parapet, and so were firing uphill. Our yell must have been well timed, as it had evidently been given just before we appeared on the sky-line, and the Turks, judging by its volume that they were being overwhelmed, fled without waiting to catch sight of us.

The Turks kept up a desultory firing on our position all night and till well on next morning, but their own captured machine-gun helped to keep them at a distance. Two Australian troopers had landed in our trench in the page 142dark along with our section, and shortly after daybreak one of them was struck on the side of the head by an enemy bullet, but did not seem to be badly affected by the wound. He merely put up his hand to the spot, and talked quite rationally about himself while his head was being bound up. When his mate declared that the bullet had passed right through the head the wounded man asked us to look for it, as he would like to keep it as a souvenir. It could not be found, and shortly afterwards he climbed out of the trench, and, refusing assistance, went off with his companion. His sergeant told me next day that the man died that night, and that the bullet had been found embedded in the base of the skull. Wounds, even fatal ones, affected men in many various ways.

On the day of the Turkish attack, the 15th Company’s camel lines were heavily shelled, and the camels had to be moved back in a hurry, leaving the men’s bivvies and gear behind. The position was under constant fire during the daytime, but one night a party succeeded in recovering all the property safely.

The following days were taken up with artillery duels, and at night raids were made now by one side, now by the other. On the night of December 3, the 17th (Australian) Company made a raid on a trench occupied by the Turks. The small party of about a hundred men moved out after dark to an appointed position to await the signal to attack, which was to be given by a star-shell. Our artillery shelled the trenches heavily, to which the Turks replied in kind. The attack-ing force lay out on the open hillside, with shells shriek-ing overhead both ways, and waited for the signal to advance. As they lay there in the dark, anticipating a warm reception, the suspense caused many of the men to take a gloomy view of the prospect, and quite a number page 143asked a padre who accompanied them to take last messages to relatives if they did not survive the night. The padre, who was afterwards awarded a Military Cross for his fine rescue work that night, said later his own heart was in his mouth, and he did not know which way he or the men would run if anyone set a bad example. Suddenly the star-shell burst, and the inevitable wag, who was to be found in every company, recalled all ranks to their proper senses, by calling out in the language of the "ring," so well known to the Aussies, " Gong’s gone! Get to your corners, boys! " With a laugh and a cheer the men rushed forward with the bayonet, but the Turks instead of keeping in their trench, were lying out some distance in advance of them, and met the attackers with machine-guns, rifles and bombs, and drove back the raiders with heavy loss, more than a third of them being casualties, three being killed.

The Turks kept searching for our Headquarters and the camel-lines with their artillery, and made our line of communication rather unhealthy. The presence of Bedouins in the vicinity raised a suspicion that they were responsible for the accuracy of the enemy fire. On one occasion a runner from the front line was making his way back to H.Q. when the Turks opened fire on the track. Shells were landing all round him, and he was thrown to the gound by the explosion of an H.E. Looking around he saw near at hand another Camelier lying as flat as he could, and he coolly remarked to him, Well, Bill, what is it to be, Heaven or Constantinople ? Let’s give Heaven a go," and he took to his heels and got through untouched.

If the Turks had broken through on this section of the front line, the lines of communication of the British army would have been threatened, and the safety of the Divisions operating in the hills would have been seriously endangered.

page 144

On the night of December 4 the Camel Brigade was relieved by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and retired to near Ramleh. As the 16th Company was waiting in the reserve trenches for the relief to arrive, the sound of a horse galloping towards them from the rear was heard in the darkness. Down the slope it came, and across the flat, heading straight for the trenches. Some of the Cameliers ran to meet it, and managed to stop it almost on the edge of a trench, and helped the rider to dismount. He seemed almost on the verge of a col-lapse, and gasped out, "They’re coming! There’s thous-ands of them. I saw them back there! " " Who’s com-ing from back there, my lad ? " he was asked. " The Turks! There’s thousands of them! I saw them!" " Well, they can’t come from there, my son. What have you been drinking ? " was all the sympathy he got. He was a member of the relief force, and had evidently been sampling some of the wine of the country, and had fallen asleep in the saddle. His horse had wandered off from the column, and when the trooper woke up in the darkness, he mistook his own regiment for what he thought was a Turkish arm, and setting spurs to his horse, he fled, he knew not where.

While the Mounted men were thus engaged, the 52nd and 75th Divisions, and the Yeomanry Division were forcing the Turks back up the mountain sides in spite of the difficulties of the rocky, roadless country and cold wet weather which rendered impassable to camels and limbers what roads had been made. Under these conditions donkeys proved very useful for packing stores, etc. to the troops. By the end of November the 60th and 74th Divisions relieved the 52nd and 75th, and in the beginning of December the 10th (Irish) Divison lately arrived from Salonika, took the place of the Yeomanry Mounted Division. The 10th Australian Light Horse was attached to the 60th Division during page break
Brig.-General C. F. Watson, First British soldier to enter Jerusalem

Brig.-General C. F. Watson,
First British soldier to enter Jerusalem

page break
Reading the Proclamation at Jerusalem, from the Tower of David. December 11, 1917.

Reading the Proclamation at Jerusalem, from the Tower of David. December 11, 1917.

page 145the advance on Jerusalem, and one night they were camped on the historic Field of the Shepherds near Bethlehem. The visit of the Aussies would not have quite the same surprising effect on the minds of the natives as that of the midnight visitors of old, but perhaps the shepherds watched their flocks more carefully that night.

The 53rd Division came north by the Hebron road, and by December 8 the pressure of the British forces compelled the Turks to retire from Jerusalem, which was surrendered on December 9 without a shot being fired in its immediate vicinity.

On December 8 many civilians in Jersualem had received orders from the police to be ready to leave the city at once, but during the day the near approach of the British forces caused a panic to be set up amongst the Turkish troops who retreated, and during the night the whole of the enemy forces abandoned the city, the Governor, Izzet Bey, leaving behind him a letter of surrender. On the morning of December 9 the Mayor of Jerusalem delivered this to Brigadier-General C. F. Watson, who transmitted the information to Major-General Shea, the G.O.C. of the 60th Division, by whom the surrender was accepted. The first intimation of the departure of the Turks was given by civilians to Privates H. E. Church and R. W. J. Andrews of the 2/20th Battalion, London Regiment, while Sergeants Hurcomb and Sedgewick of the 2/19th Battalion were the first to meet the Mayor who was approaching the British position with a flag of truce.

On December 11 General Allenby made his formal entry into Jerusalem through the Bab el Khalil or Jaffa Gate, with an escort which contained representatives of all the forces in his army. A proclamation announcing that order would be maintained in all the hallowed sites of the three great religions, which were to be guarded page 146and preserved for the free use of worshippers, was read in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Russian, and Italian, from the terrace of the entrance to the Citadel below the Tower of David, and thus for the thirty-fourth time in its recorded history of nearly three thousand years the Sacred City of Christendom passed once more into the hands of an invading army.