The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
How the Brigade took the Way of the Land of the Philistines
How the Brigade took the Way of the Land of the Philistines.
"You pass over broad plains—you pass over newly-reared hills—you pass through valleys dug out by the last week's storm—and the hills and the valley are sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand, and sand, and sand again. The earth is so samely that you turn your eyes towards heaven—towards heaven, I mean in sense of sky. You look to the sun for he is your taskmaster, and by him you know the measure of the work that you have done, and the measure of the work that remains for you to do. He comes when you strike your tents in the early morning, and then, for the first hour of the day, as you move forward on your camel, he stands at your near side, and makes you know that the whole day's toil is before you; then for a while, and a long while, you see him no more, for you are veiled and shrouded, and dare not lock upon the greatness of his glory, but you know where he strides, overhead by the touch of his flaming sword. No words are spoken, out your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, your skin glows, your shoulders ache, and for sights you see the pattern and web of the silk that veils your eyes, and the glare of the outer light. Time labours on—your skin glows your shoulders camels sigh, and you see the same pattern in the silk and the same glare of light beyond; but conquering time marches on, and by-and-by the descending sun has compassed the heaven, and now softly touches your right arm, and throws your lank shadow over the sand right along the way for Persia. Then again you look upon his face for his power is all veiled in his beauty, and the redness of flames has become the redness of roses; the fair, wavy cloud that fled in the morning now comes to his sight once more—comes blushing, yet still comes on—comes burning with blushes, yet comes and clings to his side."—Kinglake.
At dawn on April 24th the Brigade crossed the Suez Canal and marched 7 miles east into the Desert to a position called Hill 70, completing a forced march of 37 miles; but word was received that the Turks had made off. The 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which had crossed the Canal just before our men, was in time to exchange a few shots and to pursue the Turkish rear-guard for some miles further.
The Anzac Mounted Division took over the outer line of what was called No. 3 section Canal Defences, and established posts of Light Horsemen at Dueidar and Romani—15 and 20 miles respectively from the Canal; and with the Canterbury Regiment guarding rail-head The rest of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade remained for some days at Hill 70, spending the time in long patrols into the Desert, in water exploration, and in well-digging.page 15
Lt.-Col. John Findlay C.B. D.S.O., Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
A glance at the map will show why this great road is just here and not elsewhere. Sinai will be seen to occupy the position of a bridge between Asia and Africa. It is a great page 16waterless tract of glaring desert, all sand along the Mediterranean, and towards the south running up into lofty barren mountains of scorching stone.
These are the two main routes by which invading armies might approach from Palestine—the first the Darb el Sultani, the "Oldest Road in the World," and, the second, the route through the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula which the Turks used for their first attack upon Egypt in February 1915 and along which they were extending their railway from Beersheba. page 17On this route the only large water supply was at a place called Moya Harab some 30 miles from Serapeum on the Canal.
General Murray decided to occupy the Katia oasis area thus blocking the Darb el Sultani, and to empty the water cisterns at Moya Harab rendering the second route useless to the enemy, and to keep at Suez a small body of troops to ward off any raid in that direction.
The 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) was sent to the Katia oasis under this plan; and it was the initial attack upon this Brigade that brought the Anzac Mounted Division across the Canal.
Again looking at the map, a great lagoon will be seen following the coast line nearly to El Arish. It is the famous Serbonian Bog of Milton—the Bardawil of the Arabs (called Bardawil or Baldwin after King Baldwin I. of Jerusalem, who died near there is the year 1118 A.D.). It is the remains of the Pelusiac arm of the Nile which in the time of Herodotus was the main outlet of Egypt's trade with the Mediterranean. It is now a great salt marsh some 8 inches lower than the Mediterranean Sea; dry and salt-covered in summer; and filled with water for a short period in winter. Here at its western end on May 5th the Canterbury Regiment cut a canal 550 yards long designed to flood this great swamp and so cover effectually our left. But the force of the waves so persistently silted up the canal that it was eventually abandoned.
On May 12th the Brigade moved out to Bir Etmaler and joined with the 2nd Light Horse Brigade in a line of outposts and in patrolling the Desert to the front. Now ensued a period of great value to the whole Division; and much of the magnificent work done later owed its success to the lessons learnt at this time during which horse and man learnt to live in the Desert—even as do the Bedouins. Long patrols were undertaken to learn the country and to get information of the enemy. Whole Brigades learned to pack up at an hour's notice and to move with the same ease as previously did a squadron.
Herodotus tells the story of the Persian King, who, wishing to invade Egypt, did not know how to get his troops through the waterless desert until he hit upon the idea of utilising the earthern jars that came annually to Egypt from the Grecian Isles filled with wine. He bought up these and paid the Bedouins of that day to fill them with Nile water, and to secrete them in the desert, and so got his men across. But our men learned that water was to be found in many places and they learned how to get it without digging a well.
Well digging in the sand is a very arduous and tedious process, as an immense amount of sand has to be excavated to enable the water to be reached. But our Engineers per-page 19fected what was called the "Spear Point Pump." A 2½ inch pipe was pointed, perforated and covered with a sheet of fine perforated brass. This was driven down into the water area by means of a small pulley bar and monkey, or by a sledgehammer; and additional lengths of pipe were added if necessary. The ordinary General Service "Lift and Force Pump" was then attached. This arrangement proved so efficient that "Spear Points" were issued to every Squadron in the Division, and the R.E. Troops carried a number of them. Our men were thus enabled to get water at any of the hods in the desert in a very short space of time.
The Khamsin season was now at its height. Day after day blew this dreaded hot wind from the south. The summer sun burned with fiendish ferocity. The air scorched one's face, and sunstroke was frequent. Packets of candles melted until the wicks alone remained. What the temperature was in the blazing sunshine at this time is not recorded. One regimental medico just arrived, in his enthusiasm, put the only thermometer in possession of the regiment out in the sun and was surprised to see the mercury rush up to the top until it could go no farther. Special bathing parades were page 20organised, and whole regiments rode over to the sea at Mahemdiya, an ancient Roman watering place and fortress on the Bay of Tina, showing still standing great walls of stone and the remains of the baths built of brick and lined with plaster, much of which was in a state of perfect preservation.
That the desert is made of sand we had learnt at school as little children, but we had now to learn that it has yet another ingredient—flies.
They were to be found anywhere and everywhere—near habitations and far away from any sign of man. In or near the hods in the date season they were at their worst, and one continual battle was waged against them from sunrise to sunset. Various poisons were laid out and the "catches" were so great that a tent had to be swept clear of the "casualties" many times a day. But the great thing was to lay in wait for them at night. Then they clustered at the top of the "bivvies" or on the tent pole in drowsy myriads; and the cunning hunter applied swiftly a flaming flare. Eating became one long fight between hungry man and hungry flies. One ate with one hand while the other was continually brushing away the pests. Great was the war page 21waged upon them by our medical officers and the sanitary detachments; and to their lasting credit be it said that the flies always decreased the longer an area was occupied by our forces. Many instances occurred of a regiment moving into a fly infested area and leaving it practically free. The strongest weapon used, was the stamping out of the fly breeding areas; and in finding these our sanitary inspectors became wonderfully expert. One great difficulty there always was, in that, as the Turk was driven back our forces occupied ground lately occupied by him; and he never had with all his German tuition a sanitary system in any way approaching ours. The first few weeks in a Turkish area were very painful.
On the 16th a strong reconnaissance was ordered in the vicinity of Bir El Abd some 20 miles away and to Bir Bayud, and troops from the 2nd Light Horse and New Zealand Brigades were detailed for the work. The duty was successfully carried out, though the men and horses suffered severely, for the worst Khamsin yet experienced was blowing—20 miles out and 20 miles back under such conditions was a test fit to try the stoutest Crusader of old. But the information required was obtained, though many a man had to be carried into the shade of some convenient hod and brought round with bitter water dug from out the sand. At the Mounted Field Ambulance tent in the Et Maler hod under the palm page 22trees, the thermometer rose that day to 123 degrees. Think of 123 degrees in the shade! What it was out in the glaring sunshine must be left to the imagination.
The following message was received from G.H.Q. "The Commander-in-Chief wishes to convey to General Chauvel and troops of the Anzac Mounted Division his appreciation of the excellent work done in the very arduous reconnaissance yesterday. The Commander-in-Chief does not think that any other troops could have undertaken this operation successfully in the present weather."
On May 20th Turkish troops were discovered in the Maghara mountains; and on May 22nd a long and arduous reconnaissance was undertaken by the New Zealand Brigade to Bir Salmana, a series of brackish wells on the Old Caravan Route and about 20 miles from Romani. A couple of 18 pounders from the Ayrshire Battery mounted on ped-rails accompanied the Brigade. After an all night march Salmana was surrounded just as dawn was breaking and all the Turks in occupation killed or captured. Hod Salmana was held all day and the water thoroughly tested throughout the vicinity, and the Brigade marched back the following night.page 23
On all these patrols nothing but camel transport was used, all wheels having been left at Kantara, where our wagons under Major Smith ("Yorkie") did most excellent work in conveying the supplies of the Division from the main railway station at Kantara to our military railway across the Canal. The wagons with their teams of mules, two in the pole and three in the lead, driven by one man from the box, did such excellent service that the five-mule team was laid down for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force as being the perfect transport for the work; and they ultimately almost superseded the British four or six horse ride-and-drive team.
It is interesting to note that these same five-mule teams some two years later in the Jordan Valley most effectually demonstrated their superiority over the British six horse ride-and-drive team. There they daily drew an average of 1000lbs. more, and in the final operations in the mountains east of the Jordan they simply walked away from the heavy teams.
On June 1st the Division suffered its first casualties from enemy aeroplane bombing. A number of men and horses were killed and wounded in the 1st Light Horse Brigade camp at Romani; and thenceforward for the rest of the campaign, the Turk lost no opportunity of dropping bombs upon the horses. This was particularly so during an action, for then his planes would immediately be over, looking for the led-horses.
On June 24th the New Zealand Brigade handed over its camp and posts to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and leaving the Wellington Regiment with the Light Horse returned to Hill 70, and took over in place of the Wellington Regiment, the 5th Light Horse Regiment in position at Dueidar. This is the first stopping place on the "Old Road" and is some 15 miles from Kantara.
Advantage was taken of the nearness of the Suez Canal to send to Kantara two squadrons at a time for rest and bathing, their places being taken in the Brigade by two Squadrons of Warwickshire Yeomanry.
At this time, in accordance with the new establishment for Cavalry Brigades, the regimental machine gun sections were formed into a Machine Gun Squadron. This was done throughout the Division; so that each Brigade had now its Machine Gun Squadron as a complete and self-contained unit under its own Commander.page 24
About this time also the Divisional Field Squadron was further enlarged and improved to suit the desert warfare. It consisted of four troops, one to each brigade. These engineers became extraordinarily efficient in the quest and in the getting of water. Attached to each troop was a medical officer, whose duty it was to test all the water found and pronounce and placard it "drinking water"; "horse water" or "not fit for horses" as the case might be. Much of the water passed as fit for drinking was palatable if not boiled. But if boiled some chemical reaction appeared to be set up which let loose certain salts, completely spoiling the water and making a cup of tea undrinkable. The extreme heat and the brackish water caused digestive troubles which however were amenable to early treatment.
The appreciation of H.Q. was shown in a letter from the Commander-in-Chief (Sir Archibald Murray) to the G.O.C. Division dated 12/7/16 in which he said—"Whatever I ask you people to do is done without the slightest hesitation and page 25with promptness and efficiency. I have the greatest admiration for all your Command."
On the 19th July at a quarter past four in the afternoon an aeroplane reconnaissance, with Brigadier-General Chaytor observing, discovered long lines of Turks advancing westward over the desert in the vicinity of Bir Salmana, Bir Jamiel and Bir Bayud—on approximately a frontage of 8 miles.
This startling information—for no suspicion had been heard of any expected advance of the Turks—was sent in to D.H.Q. by 6 o'clock and by wireless immediately to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, who had already left Romani on a reconnaissance and were to go as far as Bir El Abd.
- "3000 men and 200 camels with from 200 to 300 large
- "shelters at Bayud also 3 rows of trenches facing west.
- "At Bir El Abd 3000 to 3500 men 2000 camels 200 to 300
- "shelters 20 to 25 bell tents 1 large black hut and 3
- "circular trenches."
The 2nd Light Horse Brigade, with which was the Wellington Regiment, was ordered to remain at Katia and to send out patrols to gain touch with the enemy.