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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter X — The Journey to Jericho

page 215

Chapter X
The Journey to Jericho

After the fall of Jerusalem the Turks, with German assistance, made a determined attempt to regain the city before the end of the year, but as a result of the three days' battle from December 27th to the 29th, they were totally defeated, with a loss of about 1000 killed and 600 captured, as well as some seven miles of ground won in the masterly counter stroke delivered by General Allenby as soon as the Turkish attack had been spent. These new territorial gains included positions of great strategical importance, providing four strong points between the enemy and Jerusalem instead of the one existing before the Turkish attack. During the next two months our line was carried farther northwards for several miles, and was pushed eastwards on 19th February by a more serious advance towards Jericho. Realising the danger of this threat to their communications on both sides of the Jordan, the Turks offered a fierce resistance in the difficult country among the mountain ridges through which our troops had to move.

The Squadron accompanied the Brigade on its march from Ayun Kara across Central Palestine to take part in the new operations against Jericho, reaching Bethlehem on 17th February. The Wellington Regiment, with a section of machine guns, had reached Bethlehem some days before the rest of the Brigade, and had moved on to Ihn Obeid, about six miles due east of the town. An extract from Lieut.-Col C. G. Powles' History is necessary to keep the reader au fait with the situation:—

"The weather on the plains had been wet, but the change to the heights of Judea was felt very much. Here the weather was cold, even in daytime, and very cold at night. Opportunity was taken to send parties to Jerusalem and the padres page 216proved invaluable as guides, for they were all enthusiastic students of the Holy Land, and were well conversant with Jerusalem and its site, from constant study.

"Operations began on 19th February, and by nightfall the first phase had been successfully carried out. Daylight on the 20th found the Division strung out in single file extending over some eight miles of rough mountain track. The head of this singularly narrow column had reached about a mile east of the great El Muntar Hill, and had run into a Turkish outpost. The infantry on the left away on the main road were attacking Jebel Ektief, where the Turk was putting up a very strong resistance.

"During the night the Wellington Regiment had proceeded down the Wadi en Nar and had reached a valley to the east of the Great El Muntar Hill (the hill of the scapegoat of the Old Testament), and now formed the advanced guard to the New Zealand Brigade, behind which came the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade. All night the men had been clambering over the rocky tracks, leading their horses. The route followed was practically a goat track only, though marked on the map 'Ancient Road,' No wheels were taken. No supplies but such as could be carried by man and horse, and the only ammunition taken was a small camel train of light active animals, each carrying two boxes of small arms ammunition. No artillery accompanied the Division, but they were sent down the main road to Jericho, to follow the infantry advance. To deploy for the attack, a column in single file of eight miles in length cannot be done in a few minutes, and it was some hours before the New Zealanders thoroughly got to work.

"El Muntar, the great hill which the Division crossed, is 1723 feet above sea level, and 1250 feet above this flat-bottomed valley in which the head of the column had been held up by the Turkish position on the far side of it. This descent of 1250 feet is all within a space of three miles, down which the track zig-zagged in full view of the enemy, and the sight of eight miles of horses slowly defiling down this hill must have had a great part in the ultimate abandonment of a very strong position which the Turks held with superior numbers and armament.

page 217

"This position lay across the 'Ancient Road,' with its left flank on the high hill, Point 306 (Tubk el Kaneiterah), and its right flank on the hill 288 (Jebel el Kulimum). Between these the road runs, and to get at the enemy our troops had to descend into a flat, open valley. It must be remembered that, in addition to holding these hills strongly with infantry and machine guns the enemy had five well placed guns in position farther back at Neby Musa (the alleged Tomb of Moses), and from there shelled the valley in front of his position."

The Canterbury Regiment, with two sections of machine guns, moved out on foot at 3 a.m. to attack Hill 288, and later the Wellington Regiment attacked Hill 306, assisted by two machine sections.

Both hills were taken soon after noon. The machine gun sections had a heavy day, but succeeded in rendering valuable assistance to the attacking force. The enemy positions being considerably higher, had a distinct advantage over our guns, but by constant firing against the enemy lining the ridges the hostile rifle and machine gun fire was kept down. As the Canterbury Regiment was pressing forward its attack on the right, two sections of guns were brought up, which came into action against the enemy's positions at 2000 yards. When the Auckland Regiment advanced to Hill 288 to assist Canterbury Regiment all the available guns concentrated a covering fire that crept forward with the advance until the hill was captured.

Immediately the attack succeeded, the guns were rushed forward to engage the retreating Turks, but the broken nature of the country afforded them good cover, and very few hits were obtained. The Brigade pushed out an outpost line in the evening, with two machine gun sections covering the approaches to Neby Musa. The night passed quietly, and at 5 a.m. next morning the 10th Squadron Canterbury Regiment, with a section of guns, advanced on foot to and occupied Neby Musa without opposition just as the advanced guards of the 60th Infantry Division arrived there. The remainder of the Squadron moved with the Brigade at 5.30 a.m. along the Ancient Road, reaching the Jordan Valley without encountering any enemy resistance. The enemy had made a page 218rapid disappearance, leaving Jericho undefended. The 1st Light Horse Brigade entered the town, while the Canterbury Regiment and the section of guns moved to positions northeast of it.

The Squadron returned next day to Bethlehem, leaving one section with the Auckland Regiment, which became detached from the Brigade to act as Corps Cavalry for XXth Corps.

During the next month the Squadron remained in the vicinity of Jerusalem, spending its spare time in sight seeing and making itself acquainted with Biblical History.