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The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine

How the Brigade entered Palestine and went up against Gaza

page 82

How the Brigade entered Palestine and went up against Gaza.

On February 22nd the Division marched to Sheikh Zowaiid and the Brigades camped on the beach, with the New Zealand Brigade farthest east just where the Turko-Egyptian boundary line reaches the coast.

The desert was now far behind and all reconnaissances were into grass country or among cultivated fields, with the green crop showing well above the ground. There were flowers everywhere. A blaze of bright poppies and scarlet ranunculi was characteristic of the country; then there were great stretches of irises both large and small, blue cornflower, pimpernels, anemones in endless variety and many beautiful "bulbs"—gladioli, tulips, acres of narcissi; and many flowers whose names were unknown to our men. And in the strip of sand-hill country that ran along the coast grew the beautiful perfumed desert lily.

The country around Rafa and up to the Wadi Ghuzzeh (Gaza), which was now the limit of our patrolling, was an open and rolling-downs country, with no fences and very few trees. It was either pasture land or under crop and the corn was coming on quickly over many thousands of acres. The Turk had made a great effort at grain growing and had compelled the Bedouin inhabitants to plough every available acre, confiscating their ploughs and animals for the purpose. So that by the time the second battle of Gaza was fought the whole of southern Palestine, from Rafa and Gaza eastwards to the mountains, was one great corn-field. Six miles north of Rafa on the main road to Gaza lies Khan Yunus the southernmost village of Palestine and most likely the "Darum" of the Crusaders of King Richard the Lion Hearted. In those days it was a fort built and held for the protection of the Christian Pilgrims coming from Egypt; and the remains of an old castle still stands there, the first of the many relics of the Crusaders we were to see. Khan Yunus is surrounded by many acres of orchards, each with its great hedge of prickly pear. Here also was the first deep well which afterwards page 83with the help of a modern old engine and pump gave an almost unlimited water supply to the troops. Near Khan Yunus there were several smaller villages, and some six miles further on close down by the sea lay Deir El Belah hidden in its groves of date palms. Here the sand hill strip narrowed to a bare half-mile just where a great lagoon empties into the sea during the height of the rainy season. Each of these villages has its well, and also there were many ancient "harabas," stone cisterns filled by the rain or by some
Arabs bringing in the Harvest.

Arabs bringing in the Harvest.

mechanical means. They were usually bottle-shaped with a circular opening of two to three feet in diameter. Sometimes the body of the bottle was excavated into a rectangular chamber. The opening was usually closed by a close fitting stone to prevent evaporation. These cisterns proved of great value to the troops, but the calculating of the capacity of the odd shaped reservoirs was a difficult task for the engineer in whose area they chanced to be.

On February the 23rd, General Chaytor with the New Zealand and 2nd L. H. Brigades, made a reconnaissance of Khan Yunus for the special purpose of capturing the Sheikh Ali El Hirsch and his following. This man was a notorious Turkish Intelligence Agent. At this time the Turks had a line of strong posts, Beersheba-Shellal-Weli Sheikh Nuran-page 84Khan Yunus, and air photographs showed well dug lines of trenches at these places. The operations failed in capturing the Turkish Agent, but our troops surrounded Khan Yunus and drove into the town detachments of the enemy. The effect of this was such as to make the Turk evacuate Khan Yunus and his splendid system of defences stretching from there to Shellal on the Wadi Ghuzzeh, and retire to the Gaza-Beersheba line wholly on the north and east of the wadi.

By the middle of March the railway had reached Rafa and preparations were made for the capture of Gaza. In the meantime a long looked for event came off, the Rafa Races, held on March 21st, on the old battlefield. The course was excellent going; and with natural grassy slopes for lawn and grandstand, the spectators were happily provided for. The "fields" were good and races keenly contested among the Yeomanry, Australians and New Zealanders. Our D.A.D.M.S. earned undying fame and a win for New Zealand by pulling off the "Promised Land Stakes" with a little horse called "Maori King" (alias "The Rat") from Canterbury.