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

Operations Leading up to the Occupation of El Arish and the Battle of Maghdaba

Operations Leading up to the Occupation of El Arish and the Battle of Maghdaba.

During the month of September, 1916, the Headquarters of the W.M.R was at Swing Bridge, Kantara, its principal function there, apart from the usual Regimental routine, being to arrange well-earned holiday trips to Port Said and Sidi Bishr (near Alexandria) for all ranks of the Regiment. Officers and men were ripe and keen for a change from the monotony of Desert life and, in order to assist them to achieve their purpose, no pains were spared by the Regimental Staff. The length of leave was regulated by the latter to ensure not only that each and every page 110one of the personnel of the Regiment would have, in rotation, a full share of the time available for holiday-making—seven clear days,—but also that a sufficient number of officers and other ranks would at all times be present in camp to attend the horses. These arrangements worked admirably, and it was apparent from the exemplary manner in which the men behaved that they realised that everything possible had been done to give them a good time. No exhortation was made to them about their conduct whilst away, Colonel Meldrum apparently being of the opinion that it was unnecessary. Men who had proved themselves trustworthy in the field could be trusted elsewhere.

The Regiment returned to Bir Et Maler on 10th October, and two weeks later Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum left for England on leave, Captain J. A. Sommerville taking temporary command.

Meanwhile the work of constructing the desert railway and of laying the water-pipe line had been prosecuted with such energy that the heads of these had reached Ge'eila, twenty-five miles further east. On 23rd October the Brigade advanced from Bir Et Maler to clear the country and search for water east of Ge'eila, where Turkish posts had been located at Mazar, blocking the caravan route to El Arish, our next objective.

Cholera had meanwhile broken out in the vicinity of Bir El Abd, through which the Brigade had to pass. The W.M.R. escaped infection owing to precautions having been taken to inoculate all ranks against the disease, but some of the other troops were not so fortunate.

On reaching Ge'eila on the 24th the Brigade made dispositions to protect the Egyptian Labour Corps working on the railway and water-pipe lines and to cover members of the Topographical Company surveying the country; and then commenced a long and strenuous period of reconnoitring and patrolling to search for water and gain a knowledge of the country.

The W.M.R. reached Moseifig—seven miles east of Ge'eila—on the 27th, and from these Lieutenant E. G. Williams and two troops of the 9th Squadron, pressing forward behind Mazar located a most valuable supply of water at Gererat, fifteen miles west of El Arish.

On 11th November the Regiment advanced a further stage of fourteen miles to Mustagidda, where posts were thrown out at Arnussi and Zoabitia. By this time the head of the railway had reached Mazar, where Brigade Headquarters had established itself and preparations were being made for the attack on El Arish. It was known that El Arish was held by a strong force page 111entrenched around the town, with patrols operating in front. Turkish camelry were operating in the vicinity of Mazar, and on the night of 15-16th November they opened fire on the W.M.R. post at Arnussi, but did not press the attack, retiring before daylight.

On 8th December Lieut.-Colonel W. Meldrum rejoined and assumed command of the Regiment, which, during his absence, had been commanded temporarily for short periods by no less than five officers, in the following order:—Captain J. A. Sommerville and Majors Batchelar, Spragg, Samuel, and Whyte.

The W.M.R., with the other mounted troops, continued to reconnoitre and explore the country towards El Arish, and at the same time the Imperial Camel Corps, composed of New Zealanders, Australians, and Yeomanry, operated further south to harass the Turk, should he attempt to advance towards Egypt through Maghdaba, which lies about twenty-five miles south of El Arish, along tike Wadi El Arish. The latter is a dry watercourse during the greater part of the year, but in the rainy season it becomes a roaring torrent, and some difficulty is then experienced in crossing it, especially with camels.

El Arish, where Baldwin the Crusader, King of Jerusalem, died in a.d. 640, lies on the western bank of the mouth of the Wadi, and has been the scene of much fighting from time immemorial to the Napoleonic Wars. It is a little Eastern town with the usual flat-roofed houses, Sheikh's tomb and a minaret, and to the east of it is a plain on which are the welcome shade and greenery of tamarisks and fig trees, a relief to eyes strained and weary of constant sand. Water is plentiful from several groups of wells, and the beach a fine one, with groves of date palms close to it. The town had long been a base from which the Turks had launched troops to harass our advance over the desert, and when, on 19th December, orders were issued for its capture there was much jubilation among the troops. The occupation of El Arish would carry us within a few miles of green fields and good going, and the yielding sands through which we had waded for some months could not then be used by the enemy as an ally against us.

At that time the mounted force, comprising the Anzac and Imperial Divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps, was formed into the Desert Column, and Lieut-General Sir Philip Chetwode, who had commanded a cavalry division in France, was given command of it. All the mounted troops were then conversant with the topography of the rough country in front of them, and page 112provision had been made to water the horses en rôute. The "Q" branch had left nothing to chance: the head of the railway was well forward, and there camels in thousands had barracked to carry ammunition, supplies, and drinking water.

The force operating east of Suez was then called "The East Force," commanded by Lieut.-General Dobell. It comprised all arms, but owing to the heavy sand which restricted the movements of infantry, only mounted troops could be used in front of the railhead till the firm plains of Palestine were reached. Till then the whole of the heavy fighting—and the long marches which led up to the fights—fell on the Mounted force, the Infantry coming into action for the first time since Romani when the operations against Gaza began.