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Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919

Chapter Twenty-Three — Operations Prior to and Including the Capture of Jericho

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Chapter Twenty-Three
Operations Prior to and Including the Capture of Jericho

At this time the right of the Turkish line rested on the sea coast, ten miles north of Jaffa, from which Point it ran in a south-easterly direction for a distance of about forty miles to El Muntar, a prominent land mark in the Judean Hills, eight miles north-east of Bethlehem, where our 60th Infantry Division faced it. From this position the enemy covered his lines of communication from Rujm El Bahr, a landing stage on the north shore of the Dead Sea, where stores were brought in launches for distribution among his troops then operating further north. At this time a raid across the Jordan Valley was contemplated, but before the main operation could be carried out it was necessary to drive the enemy across the River Jordan for three reasons:—

(a)To prevent the enemy from raiding the country west of the Dead Sea.
(b)To secure control of the Dead Sea.
(c)To gain a point of departure for operations eastward with a view to interrupting the enemy line of communication to the Hedjaz, in conjunction with the Arab forces based on Akaba.

The Commander-in-Chief therefore determined to clear his right flank on the west of the Jordan from the Dead Sea northwards to the Wadi Aujah as a preliminary to prosecuting further operations across the Jordan River, and for the initial offensive the New Zealand Brigade came under the orders of the XXth Corps.

On 9th February the Wellington Mounted Rifles commenced to march to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christendom, thirty-five miles distant, to occupy a position on the right of the British line facing the enemy left near El Muntar, the journey taking them into the midst of the most hallowed and historic places mentioned in the Bible. The first town passed was Ramleh, on the Plains of Sharon, which had been a favourite haunt of Richard the Lion Heart during the Crusades, and page 181two miles further north is Ludd, or Lydda, where, according to tradition, St. George, the patron saint of England, is buried. Heavy rain drenched the men to the skin before reaching Latron, many of the horses losing their shoes owing to the heavy going, and the Regiment was ordered to bivouac. A similar experience befell the troops of Richard the Lion Heart in the year 1191, when an attempt was made to capture Jerusalem from Saladin the Saracen King, referring to which the historian of the Crusaders states:—"Six weeks of precious time were lost at Jaffa, and it was only in the end of October that Richard renewed his march towards Jerusalem. Even then he had to stay at the Casal of the Plains and Casal Maen, between Ramleh and Lydda, for two months. At the end of the year he advanced to Beit-Nuba, some ten miles nearer the Holy City, but was there once more detained by the violence of the winter storms. The wind tore up the tents, and the wet rotted the store of provisions, whilst sickness played havoc both with the men and their horses." But our men had no tents, and although there were underground churches and passages which the Crusaders had left at Latron, our men weathered the storm they encountered under bivouac sheets for two days, when they resumed the journey.

On reaching "Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blest," it was found that the Holy City possessed none of the good things mentioned. On the contrary, a shortage of both food and money existed. A separate volume would be necessary to describe the many interesting places to be seen in Jerusalem, but the more famous are: The Holy Sepulchre, "The Rock" on the site of King Solomon's Temple, the Dome of the Rock (sometimes called the Mosque of Omar), David's Tower, the Walls and Gates of the City, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Jews' Wailing-place.

On the 11th the Regiment bivouacked near the Monastery of Mar-Elias, which lies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Here it come under the orders of the B.G.C. 179th Infantry Brigade, and on the following day the 6th Squadron relieved an infantry detachment at Ibn Obeid, a strong post enclosed by high stone walls on the Judean Hills to the north-east of Bethlehem When proceeding to occupy this post, the Squadron passed close to the Tomb of Rachel, mentioned in the Book of Genesis, and it then rode over the slippery cobbled streets of Bethlehem and across the Fields of the Shepherds. In Bethlehem may be seen the manger in which Christ is said to have been born, the Church of the Nativity being built over it.

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To keep the enemy under observation, two patrols were des-patched daily from Ibn Obeid till the advance commenced, they reconnoitring over the Wilderness towards El Muntar. Meanwhile the other units of the New Zealand Brigade had been ordered to proceed to Bethlehem.

On February 17th Lieut.-Colonel Whyte reconnoitred the country to the north and north-west of the Dead Sea by aero-plane. On its return, the 'plane landed on rough ground, turning completely over, and injuring the Colonel's knee and breaking the propellor, whereupon Major Spragg temporarily assumed command of the Regiment.

At noon on the same day the remainder of the W.M.R. arrived at Ibn Obeid, and, replacing the Infantry there, Regimental Headquarters were established inside the walls of the Monastery, the 2nd Squadron being sent on outpost.

On the 18th, orders for the operations against Jericho were received, the attack to commence next day. The troops for the operation were: The Anzac Division (less the 2nd L.H. Brigade, engaged elsewhere), the 60th and 53rd Infantry Divisions, and a Brigade of the 74th Infantry Division. The Infantry were to attack on the left along the line of the old Jerusalem Road, the Mounted troops to operate on the right, their special rôle being: To assist the Infantry attack on Jebel Ektief, five miles north of El Muntar, by threatening the retreat of the enemy through Jericho; to drive the enemy from his position covering Jericho from the west; to occupy the town temporarily in order to gather information; to clear the enemy from the Valley east of the Jordan as far north as the Wadi Aujah, and to seize any motor-boats at Rujm El Bahr on the north-west of the Dead Sea.

The special task entrusted to the W.M.R., attached to the 60th Infantry Division, was to co-operate with with the latter in the initial attack; the Regiment to move forward that night so as to be in position on the right flank of the Infantry line near El Muntar at six o'clock next morning in readiness to cut off the retreat of the enemy from El Muntar, which was to be attacked by the Infantry at dawn.

The line of advance of the W.M.R. lay across the Wilderness—referred to in the Book of Leviticus,—the country being almost inaccessible. The necessity of pressing the attack vigorously having been stressed, Major Spragg and his squadron commanders reconnoitred towards El Muntar and the Monastery of Mar Saba during the afternoon in order to acquaint themselves of the rough and broken country before commencing to advance. page break
Action at Jericho

Action at Jericho

page 183El Muntar (which is the "Hill of the Scapegoat") stands high above the surrounding country, whilst the ancient Monastery is built into the side of a deep ravine, the rugged nature of the latter being in keeping with its surroundings. Accompanying the reconnoitring party were Sergeant W. M. Fitzgerald and Corporal G. H. Patton, these non-commissioned officers of the 9th Squadron having volunteered to reconnoitre the "Ancient Road," which was really a track running through the enemy position, and, under cover of darkness, the scouts proceeded on their mission.

Towards evening the W.M.R. commenced to advance, and it soon became necessary to lead the horses in single file along goat-tracks—no other formation being possible, the horses glissading on their haunches down the steep banks of a succession of deep, tortuous, and jagged gorges which scarred the country. Those remaining in the Regiment who had taken part in the advance on Table Top likened their present advance in several ways to the operations on Gallipoli, only that they were now accompanied by their horses, and their climb was down the cliffs, principally, instead of up.

The advance was being carried out in darkness, to support the right of the main Infantry attack on the following morning, and, again like Gallipoli, the nature of the country was such that it was at no time possible to advance other than in single file. With the Regiment strung out in a long line, progress was slow, but at half-past ten the advance troops came under fire from enemy cavalry, which were driven back. On pressing forward towards a light seen in the distance, the Regiment surrounded and captured a number of prisoners, one of them being identified as Ali Salem, a famous Turkish spy.

In spite of the obstacles which had to be overcome, the Regiment captured its first objective two miles east of Mar Saba at six o'clock on the morning of the 19th. Dispositions were then made to intercept any enemy retiring before the Infantry thrust, and the Regiment continued to advance northward under shell and rifle fire till it occupied a line on the right of the 60th Division at 10.40 a.m. Patrols were then sent forward, and a strong enemy force was located in a dominating position across the "Ancient Road," with its left on Hill 306 (Tubk El Kaneiterah) and its right on Hill 288 (Jebel El Kulimum). In addition to his superior numerical strength, the enemy had five guns cleverly placed in rear of Neba Musa, the traditional Tomb of Moses, the fire of these commanding the flat ground in front of the Turkish line. Meanwhile, Sergeant Fitzgerald and page 184Corporal Patton had successfully reconnoitred the enemy position, having penetrated it as far as Nebi Musa, where they located the positions of three of the guns, and they also reported the approximate strength of the enemy at Hills 306 and 288. This information was of the greatest value, and for their daring exploit they were each awarded Military Medals.

By five o'clock the W.M.R. had completed its special mission with the 60th Division, at which hour it again came under the orders of the N.Z. Brigade. The latter had left Bethlehem that morning, and, with the 1st L.H. Brigade, which was to advance along the Jordan Valley, it joined up with the W.M.R. at six o'clock. There were no guns with the Anzac Division, they having been sent along the old Jerusalem-Jericho Road, on the left, to support the Infantry, which were then attacking Jebel Ektief, the enemy's strongest position there. The reserve of small arms ammunition for the Division was carried on camels.

Owing to the difficult nature of the country to be traversed by the Brigade to reach the plain facing the enemy position, it was decided to attack at dawn, dismounted. The advance commenced at three o'clock next morning, with the W.M.R. on the right against Hill 306, and the C.M.R. on the left against Hill 288, these Regiments to maintain touch along the line of the Ancient Road in the centre, the A.M.R. being in reserve. The 6th W.M.R. ascended the southern and the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron the south-west slopes of Hill 306, and by daylight they had gained contact with a strong force of Turks, the latter being located in a fortress-like position on the top of a steep hill-face, bristling with machine guns, commanding the surrounding country. The position was a formidable one, and in the absence of artillery support progress became slow, but pressure was brought to bear on the enemy by rifle and machine-gun fire. It was then observed that the C.M.R. had lost touch with the left of the W.M.R., they having taken up a position some distance to the north of their objective. To fill the gap in the line the A.M.R. were directed on Hill 288, instead of the C.M.R., and the latter were recalled to assist in the attack.

About this time the Infantry were attacking Jebel Ektief, further on the left, the capture of this position being effected at ten o'clock, but the Turks counter-attacked and recaptured it an hour later, and they were not driven off finally till about half-past twelve, after a heavy artillery bombardment and severe fighting.

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Simultaneously the New Zealand Brigade pressed its attack. Enemy opposition grew weaker, and there were indications that a withdrawal was taking place. A squadron of the A.M.R. then galloped forward and captured Hill 288, whereupon the whole line advanced, and both positions were occupied. The Turks then shelled the captured hills, and their machine guns covered the road, whilst the rear guard withdrew in scattered formations down the steep wadis leading to the Jordan Valley and Neby Musa. An outpost line was then taken up for the night, and desperate efforts were made to water the horses. The only water available was in a cistern near Khirbet Mird, but the approach to it was so narrow and the process of watering so slow that a number of horses could not be watered at all.

At six o'clock next morning the N.Z. Brigade continued the advance towards Jericho, whilst the 9th W.M.R. Squadron proceeded to occupy Rijm El Bahr on the north-western end of the Dead Sea, to capture boats and stores. The landing itself was captured, and it subsequently proved of great value in opening communications with the Sherifian Army, but the stores and boats and been removed.

Meanwhile, Neby-Musa had been taken and the 1st L.H. Brigade had entered Jericho. The W.M.R. casualties during the operations were one other rank killed and four wounded.

On reaching Jericho the horses of the N.Z. Brigade were watered in the Wadi Kelt, which is referred to in the First Book of Kings as "the Brook Cherith," where the wadi enters the Jordan Valley, close to the Mount of Temptation, its sides being about five hundred feet high, and on the northern wall is buijt a Greek Monastery somewhat similar to Mar Saba.

The modern town of Jericho, which lies about a thousand feet below sea-level, was found to be in a filthy state. The hospital—nodoubt less insanitary than any of the other buildings—was reeking with dirt and disease. In it dead bodies lay side by side with wounded and typhus-stricken Turks, these being attended single-handed by an Austrian nurse who had nobly remained on duty when the Turks retired.

The ruins of two ancient cities of Jericho are still to be seen close to the modern town. The Canaanite city of Joshua's time lay about a mile to the north-west of the site of the modern town, and the ruins of its walls, which the Bible records as having fallen before the blasts of Joshua's trumpets, still remain. Close by is Elisha's Spring, the water of which, according to the Second Book of King, was sweetened by Elisha. page 186Jericho of the time of Christ stood at the entrance to the Hills of Judea and commanded the old main road which still connects Jericho with Jerusalem. Blocks of masonry and ruins of aqueducts abound in the vicinity of the site of this city, and give indication of its former greatness. Turkish oppression and maladministration have been responsible for the degeneration of the once fertile Valley, and the Apple of Sodom now replaces the grapes and figs which once grew in profusion there.

On the 22nd the A.M.R. were detailed to remain in the Valley for reconnaissance purposes, in view of an intended further advance across the Jordan, the remainder of the Brigade returning to Bethlehem. The W.M.R. proceeded along the old Jericho-Jerusalem Road, on which, midway between the two towns, lies Talaat Ed Dumm, the traditional site of the Good Samaritan incident. Further along the road stands the town of Bethany, where the Tomb of Lazarus may be seen, and close to Jerusalem is the Garden of Gethsemane a stone fence separating it from the road. Then a few yards further west stands the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. Crossing the bridge which spans the Valley of Jehoshaphat the Regiment reached the Walls of Jerusalem, near the Golden Gate, through which Christ entered the City for the last time, and close by, inside the walls, could be seen the Mosque of Omar, which stands on the original site of King Solomon's Temple. Skirting the walls to the west, past the Jaffa Gate, the W.M.R. reached its bivouac near Mar Elias Monastery, midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where Colonel Whyte awaited it, he resuming command, and Regimental Headquarters were established in the Monastery.

Next day parties from the Regiment visited Jerusalem to view the innumerable historic sights (most of which have already been mentioned), inside and outside the walls, the padrés acting as guides. The Old Jerusalem lies within the modern suburbs, surrounded by walls which roughly form a rectangle. These were erected by Sultan Suliman in the year 1541 on the site of the walls of the middle ages.

From the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east, a splendid view of the city is obtained, distance lending enchantment in this case, for, in sharp contrast to the domes and minarets which glisten above the walls, the streets inside, with few exceptions, are narrow and dirty. On the east of the city is the Kedron Valley, and on the west and south the Valley of Hinnom, another valley, called the Typropœon, cutting through the city between Mount Moriah, to the north-east, and Mount page 187Zion, to the south-west. On Mount Moriah is "The Rock," on which King Solomon built his temple, the site of which is now occupied by the Mosque of Omar, whilst King David's Tower stands high up on Mount Zion. Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within the walls, may be seen the mount, or hill, on which Christ is said to have been crucified, but opinions are divided as to the exact spot, some maintaining that the crucifixion took place on "Golgotha," or "Skull Hill," which is "a green hill beside the city wall"—Golgotha being just outside the wall, to the north. A fierce controversy was raging between the rival factions on this point when the New Zealanders were in Jerusalem, but our men, being on leave, had no time to enter the discussion, so left the question unsolved.

On the morning of the 25th the Brigade commenced the return march to Richon, taking a westerly route in order to avoid congestion of traffic on the main Jerusalem-Ramleh Road, which was then being almost entirely used by motor transport conveying supplies to our right flank, in view of the intended raid across the Jordan later.

Before reaching Bittir, a naturally-fortified, rocky terrace, where the Jews made their last stand against the Romans in the year 135, we passed close by Solomon's Pools, from which, in the time of King Solomon, water was carried to the Temple in Jerusalem along viaducts, the ruins of which are still to be seen. Following down the rocky slopes of the Judean Hills, along the course of a wadi, we came to Beit Nettif, situated on a rocky crest from the summit of which is an extensive and interesting view. The Wadi Surar opens out to the north, while close to the south-west lies the Wadi es Sunt—the Valley of Elah. From this point of observation we can best read the well-known story ot the duel between David and Goliath, which occurred in the very valley which lies below. The Israelites were probably camped near Beit Nettif, the Philistine camp being further west, towards Zakanya, the ancient Azekah, where our Brigade bivouacked.

Marching northward along the Wadi Surar, next morning, the Brigade soon reached Tibnah, the ancient Timnath, the birthplace of Samson's Philistine wife, and further north it came to Akir, which is the site of the once great Philistine City of Ekron, where, according to the First Book of Samuel, the Ark was held by the Philistines for some time. A rich country, covered with orange groves and grape vines, was then entered, the Brigade reaching Richon in the afternoon, where it bivouacked.

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On the 1st March, Major Dick rejoined the Regiment as second in command, Major Spragg then taking over command of the 9th Squadron. About this time, Lieut.-Colonel J. H. Whyte was awarded a bar to his D.S.O. decoration for his services whilst acting as Brigade Major to the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, Lieutenant E. Levien gaining a Military Cross for conspicuous good work in 1917 from 1st March to 15th September.