The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine
The occupation of the line of the Wadi Ghuzzeh
The occupation of the line of the Wadi Ghuzzeh.
The Wadi Ghuzzeh now formed the general line of the British position. It is much like one of our river beds, but carries water only two or three times in the year. But the flow of water, such as it is, has cut deep down into the great Gaza-Beersheba plain, leaving perpendicular banks some 50 to 60 feet high. When our forces occupied this position there were four crossings of the wadi, leaving out the sea beach. The first was on the main road to Gaza; the next at Tel el Jemmi, which was used by the Division at the first battle of Gaza; the third was at Shellal on the Khan Yunus-Beersheba road; and the fourth at Tel el Fara on the Rafa-Beersheba road. But many more were made by the troops until it became possible to cross almost anywhere. The Wadi Ghuzzeh in common with the Wadi El Arish comes down "in spate" at intervals during the rainy season, and it was in this condition when our patrols were examining it, prior to the first Gaza battle; for they found three or four feet of water running in it. By the time the wadi was occupied as our line of defence, however, there remained a few pools of water only and these were carefully conserved and used for horses and men. At Shellal there was a remarkable spring of clear water gushing forth from out the eastern bank. And there were remains there of large Roman masonry cisterns, showing that in the old days this spring was used. But it was highly page 107impregnated with salts, tasting not unlike the "table waters" of commerce. The troops stationed at Shellal drank regularly of this spring, but continuance of the practice brought on stomach troubles.
Just north of Tel el Jemmi is Um Jerrar, the ancient Gerar mentioned in Genesis. Abraham lived here and also Isaac and it was here that the trouble arose between Isaac and the men of Gerar over the wells of water which the former page 108had dug. And it was rather remarkable that the only use made by us of this ancient site (for no buildings remain of any sort) was to clean out some seven or eight cisterns found there choked up with earth (and certainly many centuries old) and to fill them with water carried on camel-back from Belah. This water was used by the troops holding the line. So again were the wells of Gerar made to be of use.
The Division now took over the right flank, an open flank, which joining with the infantry line about Tel el Jemmi extended southward along the Wadi Ghuzzeh to Tel el Fara. Trenches were dug and strong points constructed, but the chief work consisted in active patrolling of the great plain which stretches east and south. Wells and cisterns were located, the enemy was continually harassed and he was induced to prolong his line to Beersheba.
This arduous work was carried out for the next few months in conformity with General Murray's plans for the systematic attack upon the now strongly entrenched Turks. The construction of the railway was continued to Belah and a branch line to Shellal; and a large body of men and horses was collected to form the "Egyptian Expeditionary Force," a great army of three corps—two infantry and one cavalry; and in addition there was one extra infantry division and an extra yeomanry brigade and the I.C.C. Brigade.
The Cavalry Corps was called the Desert Mounted Corps, to preserve the identity of the force which fought the Sinai Campaign; and consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division and the Yeomanry Mounted Division with the I.C.C. Brigade and an additional yeomanry brigade attached. The formation of the corps was made possible by the arrival of several yeomanry brigades and by the formation of the 4th L. H. Brigade, which consisted of the 4th, 11th and 12th L.H. Regiments. This Brigade took the place of a yeomanry brigade in the Imperial Mounted Division and so the latter now consisted of two L. H. Brigades and one Yeomanry Brigade and was in future called the Australian Mounted Division.
Major General Sir H. G. Chauvel, who had commanded the Anzac Mounted Division since its formation, took command of the Desert Mounted Corps, and Brigadier-General E. W. C. page 109Chaytor, our N.Z.M.R. Brigade Commander, took over the command of the Anzac Mounted Division, leaving the New Zealand Brigade to the command of Lieut-Col. W. Meldrum of the Wellington Regiment.
Included in the line held by the Division was a portion of the old Turkish line stretching through the great mound of Weli Sheikh Nuran to Khan Yunus designed by von Kressenstein to defend Palestine.
For reasons unknown this strong position was evacuated after General Chaytor's reconnaissance of Khan Yunus on February 23rd, and the Turks then took up the Gaza-Beersheba line.
It was found to be quite impossible to ride over these double lines of holes and there is no doubt but that we should have found them formidable obstacles.
On May 23rd a highly successful enterprise was undertaken by the Division in conjunction with the Imperial Mounted Division and the I.C.C. Brigade.page 110
Now that our advance had reached to within five miles of Gaza this railway line proved a constant menace to our communications and it was decided that it should be destroyed.
So the Field Squadrons from the two Mounted Divisions and the Australian Field Troop attached to the Camels, took in hand a few days intensive training in railway demolitions, and were reinforced for this special work by about 100 men from the regiments, forming in each division and in the Camel Brigade a "Demolition Squadron."page 111
At seven o'clock in the evening of May 22nd the Division moved out and marched all night. A particularly unpleasant "Khamsin" was blowing from the south covering the whole face of the earth in an impenetrable pall of dust. The column marched against this and the usual difficulties of a night ride were increased a thousand-fold. It was impossible to see and difficult to breathe.
The air was full of electricity. A horse's mane on being stroked gave forth a shower of sparks.
The Divisional Commander's and a Brigade Commander's lance bearers chanced to be riding side by side and an eerie sight was the will-o'-the-wisp dancing between their spear points as the lances swung together.
The Divisional Commander put up a record in the manner of leading a raid. He had been very unwell for some days but insisted upon going with the Division and the united endeavours of the Staff backed up by the A.D.M.S. and D.A.D.M.S. were powerless to persuade him to stay. It being impossible to get a motor car through the country to be encountered, he was with difficulty dissuaded from riding; but his great tenacity of purpose overcoming the weakness of the body, he eventually led the Division in a sand-cart.
At daylight on the 23rd the New Zealand Brigade was in position to the north (on the Beersheba end) of the scene of the "demolition" and in touch with the Imperial Mounted Division, whose mission for the day was a demonstration page 112against the Beersheba line so as to prevent any enemy troops from there interfering with the railway destruction.
The work went "according to plan" in every detail. Some 15 miles of railway were destroyed including many masonry bridges, in particular a great eighteen arch bridge at Asluj.
Such was the perfection of the training of the "demolition squadrons," that the destruction went on just as fast as a man could walk. In front went the led horses of the demolition party, straight along the railway as fast as they could walk. Then came two teams of men on foot in single file on each rail. The leading man put down a slab of gun cotton in the middle of a rail and then doubled on to the next but one, doing the same there, his vis-a-vis on the other side meanwhile putting down a slab of gun-cotton in the middle of the rail on his own side that paired with the rail missed on the other side. Then the next man following (on either side) wired the slab to the rail and doubled on, the third man put in the detonator and fuse which he carried ready, and the fourth man lighted the charge. And so they went on, each squadron doing its five miles. The gun-cotton blew a piece of rail clean away of some twelve to fifteen inches in length. The bridges were destroyed by blowing down each alternate arch with gun-cotton charges fired electrically.page break page break page 113
The 15 miles of railway and all bridges were finished by one o'clock and the troops reached their bivouacs soon after dusk, tired and overwhelmed with dust, but successful.
The constant movement of troops over the alluvial plain converted all roads and tracks into dust beds some 12 inches or more in depth. The dust was very fine and lifted to every breath of wind and enveloped every moving man horse or vehicle in a white cloud. This white cloud gave away movement and so it had long become the established custom to make no offensive during the hours of daylight. At about 10 o'clock in the morning the sea breeze began blowing from the west or north-west and continued until dark making life in a "bivvy" a torment, one breathed dust and ate dust and at night wrapped oneself up in dust.page 114
In order to minimise as far as possible the dust nuisance in and near camp all traffic was restricted to certain roads—usually indicated by heaps of sand or dust which served as a "curb" and were popularly called "lighthouses."
Great pride was taken by certain units in the way in which their camps were laid out and in the cleanliness of their lines. At the corners of intersecting roads and tracks well painted direction boards were placed so that a stranger coming near had no difficulty in finding his way about.