Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Eighteen — Occupation of the Wadi Ghuzee Line
Occupation of the Wadi Ghuzee Line
On the morning of 30th April the Wellington Mounted Rifles joined up with its Brigade, and the latter took up an outpost line in the vicinity of the great Weli Sheikh Nuran defence system, which the Turks, when low in morale before the two Gaza engagements, had vacated on the approach of a small reconnoitring force. This position formed part of the right of the British line, which extended along the Wadi Ghuzze to the sea at Gaza, and was then being entrenched and wired. The Turkish line ran from Gaza to Beersheba, and the western portion of it, facing our Infantry, was also being improved with every known device for defence purposes, and it soon became a modern fortress.
It will, therefore, be seen that as a result of the Gaza engagements the whole character of the campaign had changed. The Turks were now more confident and were prepared to make a stand. Trench warfare took the place of open fighting: a stalemate existed, and till such time as one side or the other could increase his strength no appreciable change in the situation could be made.
Sir Philip Chetwode was then in command of the British force in the forward zone, and on him devolved the arduous work, first, of strengthening his defences and, secondly, of building up his shattered battalions, and finally of preparing a plan of campaign to overthrow the Turks. He set about his task with characteristic energy and made the most of the resources available, and, although the East Force had little in the way of either reinforcements or equipment to draw on, he soon improved the condition of the troops at his disposal. Of an aggressive nature, a master of detail, and with a thorough knowledge of the country before him, General Chetwode evolved a plan to smash the Turkish line, and later, when a new Commander-in-Chief was appointed, General Chetwode's plan was adopted by him.
It has already been mentioned that the mounted troops were on the right of the British line and that wire entanglements had been erected in front of their sector for defence purposes; but page 149the Mounteds spent very little time behind the wires, their operations extending over the country in front and to the east, reconnoitering and patrolling to keep the enemy under observation.
The surface of the ground around Fara is loose and light, and the horses, marching to and fro, soon crumbled it into fine powder, which rose up and hung over the camps in clouds of thick dust, penetrating every nook and corner. Breathing was indeed difficult at times, and stomach troubles soon appeared. Septic sores were also prevalent, and many of the men were swathed in bandages. A change of food and atmosphere would have been beneficial to the health of the troops, but in the desert campaign periods of leave to anything like a civilised town were few and far between. The only place for troops to recoup after a long period of marching, counter-marching, and fighting in the monotonous desert was on the Mediterranean beach, which, fortunately, was close at hand, and this was now taken advantage of. Three Regiments at a time were released from the front line to camp on the beach near Khan Yunus, but the W.M.R.'s turn did not come till early in June.
On 27th April a change was made in the command of the regiment, the popular and much-loved Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum being appointed Brigadier of the New Zealand Brigade, vice General Chaytor, who had taken over the Anzac Division.
Major C. Dick assumed temporary command of the W.M.R. Towards the end of May a very successful raid was made by the Mounted troops on the Turkish railway which, running through Beersheba towards Sinai, had been constructed for the conquest of Egypt Since the capture of Maghdaba and our advance to the Wadi Ghuzze, this line had not been used, but while it remained intact it was a menace to our right flank. The demolition was carried out by Engineers, reinforced by 100 men from the Anzac Mounted Division, the latter with the Imperial Mounted Division and the Camel Brigade, covering the party till the work was completed, the W.M.R. having been posted near Esani to watch the country towards Beersheba Altogether, in the space of five hours, about fifteen miles of railway were destroyed by gun cotton, including a number of large stone bridges and viaducts, the force returning to camp unopposed.
To counteract the monotony and dust of camp life inland, the Brigade moved, on 8th June, to bivouac on the beach at Marakeb, near Khan Yunus, where bathing and other forms of recreation were indulged in for a few days, all ranks benefiting by the change. During this time Lieut.-Colonel J. H. Whyte, D.S.O., page 150took command of the Regiment, with Major C. Dick as second in command, and on the 18th the Brigade moved to Kazar, near Fukhari, where training was resumed.
Ten days later General Sir Edmund H. H. Allenby, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., assumed command of the E.E.F. The appointment was popular throughout the Force, and seemed to infuse new life into the men, disappointed after the Gaza failures. Better results were anticipated, and these were to be realised.
After visiting the forward zone, where his presence fostered a feeling of confidence, the new Commander-in-Chief conferred on the situation with Sir Philip Chetwode, the Commander of the Eastern Force. A plan of campaign was mapped out, and then commenced a period of intense activity, which was to continue for some considerable time, till arrangements had been completed to carry it into effect. The reorganisation of the forces was a necessary preliminary, and it was not long before modern machines of war began to arrive: the latest types of aeroplanes to replace our antiquated aircraft, bigger guns to bombard Gaza, and additional mechanical transport to carry supplies. At the same time, water difficulties were to be dealt with, the railway from Kantara was to be lengthened and improved to overcome congestion of traffic, and the mounted troops and the air force were to be constantly engaged for some time in reconnoitring to gain information of the topography of the country and of the enemy defences.
At this time the enemy held a strong, elevated position, consisting of a series of defences which extended from the sea at Gaza to Atawineh, thence through Sharia and Hareira to Beersheba—a distance of about thirty miles along the Gaza-Beersheba Road; whilst our line ran along the south-west of it for a distance of about twenty-two miles, from Gaza to Gamli, the latter being seventeen miles due west from Beersheba.
In the Gaza sector the opposing lines ran close together, and our infantry were constantly engaged in trench warfare there, but on our right flank, owing to the distance between the lines and a lack of water in the intervening country, only mounted troops could operate and keep in touch with the enemy there. The Turkish line was strongly held, and any part of it could be quickly reinforced, and until such time as arrangements could be made to procure water within striking distance of the enemy on our right, or till the strength of the enemy position could be reduced by flanking his line with mounted troops and threatening his rear, a frontal attack was undesirable. Beersheba, with its page 151open flank to the east, was the least formidable position in the enemy line, and its capture, with its water wells, was deemed a necessary preliminary to further operations. Its occupation by mounted troops would jeopardise the main enemy line, and pressure from our infantry divisions in front would force its abandonment. With these objects in view, our mounted troops operated from Fara, reconnoitring and patrolling and harassing the Turk night and day in front of his position from Sharia to Beersheba till the work preparatory to an offensive was completed.
On the night of July 3rd-4th the New Zealand Brigade proceeded to Taweil El Habari, which faced the defences covering Beersheba from the west, to support the Australian Mounted Division whilst the latter reconnoitred the Shellal-Beersheba-Asluj area, there to obtain information of the roads, tracks, defences, and sources of water supply. Heavy shell-fire was encountered by the Brigade on taking up its position next morning, in consequence of which it became necessary to change the position of the W.M.R., the latter being in reserve. Some time later the W.M.R. moved to Karm, and when the reconnoitring force had completed its mission the Brigade withdrew.
To acquaint himself with the calibre of the mounted troops m the forward zone, the Commander-in-Chief inspected a composite brigade of these at Fukhari on the 7th. The W.M.R. represented the New Zealanders, and on the completion of the inspection the Regiment rejoined its own Brigade at Fara, where reconnoitring work was resumed across the Wadi Ghuzze, Continuing his investigations next day, the C.-in-C. viewed the Beersheba defences whilst the New Zealand Brigade reconnoitred the intervening country. During the operation the 9th Squadron (Major Wilder) in advance, attacked and captured an elevated position within four males of Beersheba, from which the defences covering the town from the west could be plainly seen. Anticipating an attack, the Turks had manned the trenches. The enemy guns were active, and there was much movement all along his line.
Next night the Brigade enveloped Khasif El Buggar area to capture enemy patrols which had been operating in the vicinity. Before dawn the cordon had closed in, but the Turks had withdrawn during the night.
A strong enemy post having been located by the 6th Squadron at Khalassa on the line of the intended advance against Beersheba, the W.M.R. proceeded, on 18th July, to clear and report on that page 152part of the country. Occupying prominent positions en rôute, the Regiment reached its objective without opposition, the Turks having withdrawn. A plentiful supply of running water was found, but the country was of a rough and sandy nature, and probably difficult for motor transport to traverse. During the reconnaissance, two disabled British aeroplanes were found.
Next morning the Turks took the initiative. They advanced across the Wadi Imleih with the apparent intention of striking a blow at the railway in the direction of Karm, the Anzac Division being called out at short notice to oppose them. As Divisional Reserve the New Zealand Brigade occupied a position near Gamli Crossing. There it was vigorously shelled and bombed, casualties being inflicted. The advanced enemy position was hotly attacked during the day, and early next morning the W.M.R. took over an outpost line, from which it advanced to reconnoitre it. On reaching El Girheir the Regiment found that the Turks had fled, many graves and field dressings on the vacated position indicating that the enemy had suffered severely.
Before withdrawing, the Regiment was shelled from the direction of Bir Iflis, Trooper Bremner being mortally wounded during the bombardment.
On the night of 22nd-23rd a skilful and daring reconnaissance was made of Sana Redoubt by Lieutenant W. J. Hollis and four men, the party being covered at Khirbet Erk Crossing by the 9th Squadron. The latter had cleared the wire entanglements east of Hiseia by 7.30 p.m., but owing to the bright light of the moon a halt was made. Secrecy and silence were, of course, essential, and when a favourable moment appeared Lieutenant Hollis and his men quickly passed through the supporting squadron. Stealthily the party crept round the redoubt, observing every movement and taking stock of the defences. The patrol was challenged several times, but by "lying low" its presence was not detected. At dawn the party withdrew, and Lieutenant Hollis furnished a valuable and comprehensive report on the observations made. For their services in connection with the reconnaissance, Lieutenant Hollis was mentioned in despatches and Troopers A. Davey and S. L. Goodwin were awarded Military Medals.
At this time, and onward till the general offensive began, patrolling played an important part in the daily routine in order to gain information of enemy movement. From early dawn our patrols operated towards and over enemy territory, and they page 153invariably out-manœuvred rival patrols for possession of prominent observation posts.
On 23rd July the N.Z. and 1st A.L.H. Brigades forestalled an enemy movement from Beersheba, and on the following day the W.M.R. reconnoitred along the Abu Ehawish Road to the south-east to report on enemy posts there. Three troops under Lieutenants Sutherland, Pierce, and Allison respectively carried out the forward operation, these co-operating against the strongest posts. Lieutenant Pierce's patrol encountered determined opposition in the vicinity of Wadi Imleih, the enemy there attempting to advance against it till a vigorous fire from Hotchkiss guns and rifles checked the Turks, several of the latter being seen to fall. On obtaining the information required, the patrols withdrew. Three days later two troops of the 9th Squadron, under Lieutenants E. G. Williams and Remnant, reconnoitred Wadi Sharia to the north-east, the enemy being located in strength at Sausage Ridge and in Sana Redoubt.
On August 1st the W.M.R. again reconnoitred along the Abu Shawish Road, three patrols supported by artillery clearing the enemy from the Wadis Imleih and Sharia. From the cover of these wadis, observations were made of the Turkish positions and of the roads, tracks, and crossings in the vicinity, and when the observations were completed the patrols withdrew.
On the night of 8-9th August, Sana Redoubt was again successfully reconnoitred, Lieutenant Remnant and one other rank of the 9th Squadron carrying out the operation in place of the original party of five, three of the latter being detached on approaching the redoubt, in order to minimise the risks of being heard. The party of two moved quietly around and close to the redoubt, watching movements of the Turks, locating trenches, and gaining general information till eleven o'clock, when it withdrew.
In view of the operations which were to follow against Beersheba, the G.O's.C. the Desert Mounted Corps and the 20th Corps made a reconnaissance of the area south west of that place on 16th August. The operation was covered by the Anzac Mounted Division, the latter taking up a line facing Beersheba at 5 a.m., the W.M.R. being established near Hill 720, four miles east of Karm. From this point the 9th Squadron, under Major Wilder, advanced and occupied a line two and a-half miles further eastward, where it held up the advance of mounted patrols from Beersheba, a fire fight continuing between the rival patrol till the Regiment withdrew. Subsequently the W.M.R. reported on the enemy defences and on the roads leading thereto.page 154
After a strenuous period the W.M.R. was relieved at Fara on 18th August, to partake of a well-earned rest on the sea coast at Marakeb, near Khan Yunus. From the dust, heat, and flies which had infested the camp at Fara, the change to sea-bathing, recreation, and a different diet had an electrical effect, both men and horses benefiting by it. Swimming, rifle-shooting, and boxing at the stadium were the principal pastimes of the men, competitions in these being keenly contested. At rifle-shooting the W.M.R. more than held its own, Trooper Sharp winning the Brigade Championship, the Regiment winning the Teams Match.
A popular rest camp at Port Said, under Major Spragg, catered for the wants of semi-sick men, while fit officers and other ranks in need of a change from desert life were allowed leave to Cairo. Then there was the Aotea Home at Heliopolis, a splendid institution founded by New Zealand ladies for convalescents other than officers. The Home was founded on semi-military lines, but the word military could well be omitted, so far as discipline was concerned, for the conduct of the patients at "Aotea" was at all times exemplary. This was, no doubt, due to the tact and the kindly nature of the matron, Miss Early, to whom the men were devoted.
On 18th September the New Zealanders moved to Fukhari, where they relieved the 4th A.L.H. Brigade in the support line. The relief was effected during a violent dust storm, but the troops soon settled down, and a course of training in all branches was carried out, football not being forgotten. The result of this training was to prove invaluable later, when, tested to the utmost, the powers of endurance of both men and horses never failed.
Captain Gow, N.Z.M.C., joined the Regiment as medical officer at Fukhari, replacing Captain Forrest, who returned to his unit with the good wishes of all, to whom he had endeared himself by his kindness and skilful treatment.
On 28th September the C.-in-C. inspected an improved Hotch-kiss gun pack designed by Captain Herrick, which minimised the chance of galling the horses' backs, by reason of the gun being carried more securely in the centre of the saddle. The improvements had been effected by the versatile farriers of the Regiment, and the new mode of carrying the gun was adopted throughout the Brigade.
About this time a number of donkeys were drafted into the Mounted Regiments to carry out work of minor importance, replacing horses, which were required as mounts for combatants. The donkey, arriving in camp under suspicion on account of his page 155size and comical ways, soon proved his worth as a supply pack when the fighting began, and was ultimately cheered on reaching the forward zone with welcome stores of food.
Meanwhile our air force, which prior to the arrival of General Allenby had consisted of only two squadrons with antiquated machines, had been strengthened in personnel and with modern machines, these being held in reserve for use at a favourable opportunity to catch the enemy unawares. From the Romani days the German and Turkish airmen, with their great Albatross Scouts, Fokkers, and Rumplers, had repeatedly bombed our camps, and our valiant airmen, handicapped by obsolete machines, had been unable to prevent them, but they had done some particularly fine work under great difficulties. Apart from the ordinary hazards of flying, our airmen had gambled with their lives daily to combat their formidable opponents.
About the beginning of October the reorganisation of General Allenby's forces was nearing completion, and the commencement of the great offensive was close at hand. To gain the mastery of the air was a matter of supreme importance, and one fine morning four of the new Bristol Fighters left the ground to combat an enemy reconnoitring formation, which, no doubt, intended to hover confidently over our camps. But a surprise was in store for them. In the fight which followed, one of the enemy 'planes was brought down in our lines, whilst the pilots and observers of the others flew for their lives, a German pilot who was captured remarking that he never had doubted that his machine was superior to anything we had. From that day onward the tables were turned in our favour, and during the next few weeks, when the offensive began, other German machines shared the fate of the first, our airmen retaining the supremacy of the air till the end of the campaign.
The intended advance northward was popular among the troops, for the reason that the country there, besides being fertile, was historically interesting as well; and the troops were not disappointed. Hardships and lamentable lack of water were to be contended with, but there were compensations; the route taken during the great ride from "Beersheba to Dan," and further still over the most historical country in the world, was well worth the privations encountered. But it must be remembered that since the time when the Hebrews, Romans, and Crusders successively held the power in Palestine many of the towns and the country generally have degenerated very much under Turkish maladministration, only ruins now remaining in many places page 156 to mark the sites of former greatness. Beersheba, which appears to have been the headquarters of Abraham and Isaac during their wanderings, is one of the most ancient cities on record, and it must always be an important centre, on account of its wells, which were to prove of great value to our mounted troops during the advance. Further north-west stands Tel El Hesy, the Lackish mentioned in the Book of Joshua, whilst Ascalon, the birthplace of Herod the Great, lies on the sea coast. There, in the year 1099, the Crusaders defeated the Egyptians in a gory battle, and some years later the place was captured by Saladin the Saracen King. Further north we were to reach Esdud, the Ashdod of the Old Testament and the Azotus of the New, whilst Yebneh, the Jamni of the Maccabees and the Ibelin of the Crusaders, was to be seen before reaching Ayun Kara. At the latter place, which lies near the Jewish colony of Richon le Zion, the Brigade was to fight a stiff engagement wherein it defeated a strong enemy force covering Jaffa from the south, with the result that that historic town was occupied by the W.M.R. two days later without opposition.page break page break page break