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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter VIII — Allenby's Drive Opens

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Chapter VIII
Allenby's Drive Opens

For six months the situation on the Palestine front had not changed, and the Turk, determined to stop our advance had spared no effort to make his line impregnable. Not only did the Turk hope to stop our advance, but also to drive us back across the frontier, into the waterless wastes of Sinai. The active patrolling that was carried on during the stationary period accustomed the enemy to the movement of our mounted forces, and deceived him as to our intentions. The enemy General Staff made up their minds that our renewed offensive would be against Gaza, with a probable landing north of the town to envelop it, but new blood was in the field, and with it new ideas. General Allenby decided to strike against Beersheba—the enemy's exposed left flank, and to roll up his line towards Gaza.

The new operations were fixed to begin on 31st October, 1917. The Squadron was stationed at El Fukhari at the beginning of October; it left there for Esani on 24th. On 28th it proceeded with the Brigade to Khalassa, the following day to Asluj, and at 5.30 p.m. on the 30th it moved out to the attack on Beersheba.

The night march over the mountain was successfully accomplished. The pack horses with the guns and equipment stood the arduous work splendidly. By 8 a.m. the following day the Brigade had reached Bir Salim and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade had reached Bir El Hamman. The line between these two places was the Anzac Division's first objective.

The Division's next objective was the line from Tel El Sakaty to Tel El Saba and the cutting of the Beersheba-Hebron Motor Road.

At 9 a.m. the 2nd Light Horse Brigade began its advance towards Tel El Sakaty, and the New Zealand Mounted Bri-

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The horses of the Squadron and Auckland Regiment were attacked by two enemy 'planes about 4.30 p.m., but as they were flying very low the concentrated fire of the reserve guns and the Hotchkiss and Rifles made them change their direction. Unfortunately, an Australian machine-gun section received their bombs. Fourteen horse-holders were killed or wounded and thirty-six horses killed.

On 1st November, 2nd Lieuts. Edridge and Cobb, with two guns each, accompanied two regiments on a reconnaissance east of Tel El Saba, and towards the Caves of Kh. El LeKiyeh, coming into action with success against enemy cavalry patrols and machine guns. On 4th November the Squadron marched with the Brigade to Wadi El Sultan and took over the line from 5th Australian Brigade, placing ten guns in defensive positions. Four guns on Ras El Nagb came under heavy shell and rifle fire, but were able to carry out a large amount of firing against small bodies of enemy infantry at from 600 to 1000 yards, inflicting casualties. Late in the afternoon of the 4th the enemy made an attack on the position, but it was practically wiped out by the Squadron's guns. During this attack one of the guns was hit through the water jacket, but was repaired and continued firing. On the enemy threatening our left flank, the two guns in reserve were sent with two Squadrons of the Wellington Regiment to strengthen the position. These guns came into action immediately at ranges from 1000 to 1500 yards. The heavy enemy enfilade shelling forced these two guns and the Squadrons to a position on the reverse slope of the hill. The enemy attack was not continued, but the whole Squadron remained in the line all night, and its horses were taken back to Beersheba for watering. Some of the horses had been without water for sixty hours. During the following morning the guns found many good targets, and kept up an active firing programme until 12.30 p.m., when they were relieved by a Squadron from the Imperial Camel Corps. After relief the Squadron remained near the line in reserve until 10th November, when it returned to Beersheba.

The country in which the Squadron was now operating was very rocky and mountainous, and the rock splinters from shell fire were as dangerous as the shrapnel itself. Owing page 208to the intense heat and shortage of water, all ranks suffered from septic sores, and many had to be evacuated to hospital.

During the period that the New Zealand Mounted Brigade was round Beersheba great events were happening further north. On 7th November the Turks evacuated Gaza and began their hurried retreat northwards under heavy pressure. The Brigade left Beersheba at 4 p.m. on 11th on a forced march to Hamemeh, on the coast, about fifteen miles north of Gaza. The journey of nearly sixty miles viâ Irgeig and Sharia was accomplished at 10 p.m. on the 12th. The Anzac Division, which had been split up temporarily after the capture of Beersheba, became complete again on the arrival of the Brigade at Hamemeh. On the 13th the Squadron moved northwards along the Jaffa Road with the Brigade to Khurbet Sukereir, and on the following day to Et Themadat, coming in touch with the enemy about midday, when an immediate attack was decided upon.

Canterbury Regiment deployed to the right, Wellington to the centre, and Auckland to the left, and the attack proceeded. Before the attack opened, 2nd Lieut. Edridge, with two guns, joined the advance guard Squadron of the Wellington Regiment, and 2nd Lieut. Cobb and Lieut. P. D. Russell, with four guns, joined the remaining Wellington Squadrons. Six guns under O.C. Squadron proceeded with the Auckland Regiment to the left flank to assist it in its task of enveloping the position.

As the 9th Squadron of the Wellington Regiment advanced, Lieut. Russell's guns delivered a covering fire. When the Squadron made good its advance, Russell advanced his guns on foot about 800 yards, and took up a position on its left flank. From this position splendid targets were obtained at 300 yards range; especially a body of Turks massed to launch a counter-attack. After smashing up the massed Turks, Russell shifted his guns to the right flank of the Squadron to engage hostile machine guns that were causing trouble; the gunners quickly found range, and in a short duel cut down the enemy gunners. The enemy were now observed lining the ridge about 450 yards to the right front, presenting a good enfilade target. The two guns poured a rapid fire along the crest line, which in a few moments was clear of page break
Lieut. L. A. Craven's Section getting a direct hit by 5.9 Shell at Second Battle of Gaza.

Lieut. L. A. Craven's Section getting a direct hit by 5.9 Shell at Second Battle of Gaza.

Major E. G. Fraser.

Major E. G. Fraser.

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Squadron Officers at El Arish, December, 1916.

Squadron Officers at El Arish, December, 1916.

Squadron Mess, Tel el Fara, May, 1917.

Squadron Mess, Tel el Fara, May, 1917.

Squadron Officers, 1st September. 1917.

Squadron Officers, 1st September. 1917.

page 209living Turks. Russell kept his guns in the same position, and at dusk dug in. 2nd Lieut. Cobb came into action on the left of Russell's guns, engaging the enemy lining the ridge at 1300 yards range, and covered the advance of the 2nd Wellington Squadron. After this Squadron reached its objective, Cobb pushed his guns forward and obtained splendid shooting against a large body of Turks retiring. Cobb kept his guns in position throughout the day, and at dusk dug in. 2nd Lieut. Edridge with the advanced guard Squadron did not have much opportunity of engaging favourable targets, so he shifted his guns between Cobb's and Russell's guns, where conditions were much better from a machine gunner's point of view. At dusk he also dug in, the six guns thus forming a well co-ordinated machine gun defence line.

The six guns with the Auckland Regiment had a very strenuous time, and rendered valuable assistance to the Wellington Regiment with flanking fire, as they worked round the position. The Auckland advance was made over undulating grass country, devoid of trees or scrub, and they soon came under enemy machine-gun fire. 2nd-Lieut. Kelly's section immediately got into action, engaging the enemy guns at 1100 yards; the other two sections, under 2nd-Lieuts. Picot and Armstrong, worked further round to the left. Picot soon got into position and enfiladed the enemy opposing the Wellington Regiment advance while Armstrong, after moving still further forward, also got his guns into action. Up to this time most of the opposition had come from the Wellington front, but, almost without warning, a strong enemy attack was launched from concealed positions straight at the Auckland front. Picot immediately switched his guns round, being now on the right of the line attacked. Armstrong rushed his guns further out to the left, and this enabled him to cross-fire with Picot over the Auckland front, and they both poured enfilade fire into the lines of the charging enemy. Lieut. Kelly had in the meantime brought his guns to the centre of the line between Picot and Armstrong, and met the enemy with point-blank frontal fire. The fire of the six guns, ably supported by the Hotchkiss and Rifles, beat back the enemy when about 25 yards from the guns. Several gunners were knocked out by hand grenades, and four guns were page 210eventually put out of action. The gunners had to revert to rifles and revolvers at the last; but the attack was broken, and the remnants of the enemy retreated back into cover.

The enemy attack was covered by machine guns in entrenched and concealed positions, and as the Squadron's guns were all right out in the open the gunners suffered heavy casualties.

One of the most outstanding examples of personal bravery during the critical moments, and which did so much to save the situation, was that of Sergt. M. P. Malone. His officer (2nd Lieut. Armstrong) was wounded just as the section began to get into position to meet the counter-attack. Malone got the section into action under heavy fire with determination and dash, when the enemy were almost overwhelming the position. He stood his ground, picking off the nearest Turks with his revolver. The spare gunners followed Malone's example, and with the rapid fire that was soon pouring out of the machine guns the enemy faltered and then fled back, but were mercilessly cut about by the guns of this and the other sections.

Capt. Hinman kept up supplies of ammunition and water for the forward gunners by limbers and pack horses. The work of some of the pack leaders, galloping backwards and forwards over machine-gun-swept ground in full view of the enemy, was very fine and called forth great praise from the gunners and other troops. Unfortunately, both Picot and Armstrong were wounded in the afternoon, so Capt. Hinman took over the command of their sections.

At dusk the guns on the left flank dug in; two damaged guns were made serviceable by using parts of other damaged guns. The Squadron throughout the day expended over 30,000 rounds of ammunition, and eight gunners were killed and sixteen wounded, in addition to 2nd-Lieuts. Picot and Armstrong.

A short review of the operation can best be made by an extract from Col. Powles' History:—

"Thus ended a brilliant battle, in which the Brigade had attacked and captured a strong natural position held by an enemy in superior numbers, and this enemy force was backed up by a well-concealed battery and held trenches with the aid page 211of numerous machine guns. The enemy force was estimated at 1500 men, with 18 machine guns and a battery of artillery. The Auckland and Wellington Regiments combined would not have numbered more than 1000, and of these some 200 were in charge of the led horses, but the rapidity of the movements of the two regiments, combined with a splendid cooperation, a co-operation which continued all day and existed between each troop in each squadron and between each squadron in either regiment, and between the two regiments. The day's action brought into play the full attacking powers of the mounted arm against an enemy in position. There was the mounted advance to the first fire position by one regiment and then its systematic capture of enemy trenches on foot as infantry with rifle and bayonet and Hotchkiss and machine guns, and its rapid reinforcing on horseback of the successive positions when captured."

The effect of the success of the operation caused an enemy withdrawal during the night, which was followed up by the Canterbury Regiment and a section of guns under 2nd Lieut. Edridge.

The battlefield was cleaned up during the morning of the 15th, and in the afternoon the remainder of the Brigade and the Squadron marched to Ayun Kara to bivouac, while the Canterbury Regiment took up an outpost line further on.

The day following, 16th November, the town of Jaffa surrendered. The Squadron passed through Jaffa on the 18th and took over a new area at Sarona, a few miles further north, in which to bivouac.