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The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine

How the Turkish Line was Broken at Beersheba

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How the Turkish Line was Broken at Beersheba.

It was now that the benefit of the constant patrolling and reconnoitring was felt. The Turk had become so accustomed to our mounted troops riding about the plains that our preliminary movements to the south to obtain a concentration point from which to descend upon Beersheba passed unnoticed. Every care was taken to conceal these movements, however, and no marches were made in daylight. A further protection came from our air service, now far ahead of the enemy's in speed, numbers and personnel; for our airmen kept the enemy planes away or forced them to fly so high that they apparently saw nothing.

The long line before which we had remained for the past six months extended from the sea at Gaza to Beersheba—a distance of close upon thirty miles—and was an almost continuous trench line and followed the Gaza-Beersheba road. That portion from the sea at Gaza to the great Atawineh redoubt we knew well—to our cost. From there on towards Beersheba our reconnaissances—both air and mounted—and our Intelligence Department, told us that there was a great system of trenches at Abu Hareira, where the Wadi.Sharia crosses the road; that there was also another great system at Kh. Kauwukah—covering the bend in the railway and the Sharia viaduct on the railway. From there through Bir Abu Irgeig ran a continuous line of strong works to the south of Beersheba. Practically the whole of this thirty-mile line lay upon higher ground than that held by us—giving the Turk good observation and an excellent field of fire.

Beersheba itself was entirely hidden behind a range of hills running up to a height of 960 feet, and along these hills lay the enemy trenches.

General Allenby's plan was to strike at Beersheba—the enemy's extreme left—and having taken the town with its invaluable water supply, to roll up the whole Turk line back upon Gaza. To do this the XX Corps was to attack Beersheba from the west and south-west, while the Desert Mounted Corps came in from the south, east and north.

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To cover these operations the XXI Corps, aided by the Navy, was to begin a heavy bombardment of Gaza and its defences 24 hours before the move against Beersheba began.

To enable the attack upon Beersheba to be so made, preparatory measures had to be undertaken some days before, to provide water for those troops taking part in the encircling movement and also to advance the front line towards the west of Beersheba—sufficiently near to enable the attack to be launched by the infantry. The preparatory measures included placing one mounted division at Asluj, one mounted division at Khalasa, and one mounted brigade at Bir el Esani.

Lieut.-Col. J. N McCarroll, Auckland Mounted Rifles.

Lieut.-Col. J. N McCarroll, Auckland Mounted Rifles.

The mounted corps was required also to protect the advance of the XX Corps to its preliminary position on the line Abu Ghalyun-Rashid Bek-El Buggar. The water required was to be sufficient for one mounted division at Asluj, for one mounted division at Khalasa and also for two mounted divisions passing through Esani, where they would each stay one night; and finally at Abu Ghalyun (between Esani and Khalasa) water was required for one infantry brigade group. A supply depot had to be formed at Esani page 130(and protection found for it) for the feeding of the mounted corps.

The preliminary moves therefore consisted of: (a) an advance of the front line eastward as far as the line Rashid Bek-Point 720 (2½ miles north of the Tel el Fara-Beersheba road)-Point 630-Point 510-Point 300; (b) a gradual extension of our line southward as far as Asluj.

General Allenby says:—"It is not uninteresting to review the enemy situation at this period.

The German Staff in Palestine had, so far back as August, decided that the British would make another effort to break through on that front, and with such forces that, unless the Turks were heavily reinforced, the result could only be in favour of the British. That the weaknesses of their position were its extent and the exposed left flank at Beersheba, was fully realised by the command in the field, and during August and September repeated requests were made to the Higher Command for a shortening of the line by withdrawing from Beersheba, or generous reinforcements so that Beersheba could be held à l'outrance.

"The soundness of these demands was fully realised by the German advisers of the Turks, but there existed a policy which was a veritable millstone to those who wished to conduct the operations in accordance with clear strategic principles. This policy was directed towards the recovery of Baghdad. A composite German force had been formed, and one of the first of German soldiers—Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn—was lent for the carrying through of this under taking. If Baghdad was to be taken, every man and gun must be sent to Irak, and every man sent to Sinai decreased the chance of success. But to this was the unanswerable argument of those who asked that reinforcements should be sent to Sinai: "If the Sinai front is broken, Palestine and Syria will fall into the enemy's hands, and not only will Baghdad not be retaken, but the armies in Irak will be caught like a rat in a trap, with the British across their lines of communication at Aleppo." It was not until mid-October that this argument prevailed, and then it was too late. Troops being diverted from Mesopotamia were still on the lines of communication and the aircraft were still being unpacked and put together page 131when the British troops attacked and captured Beersheba on October 31st, 1917.

"The German command had, however, estimated the date of the British attack with fair accuracy, which they considered would take place, owing to weather conditions, early in November. But they were totally incorrect in their estimate of its direction.

"Various circumstances made them believe that it would consist of a third and final assault on Gaza, combined with a landing to the north, which would turn their right flank and enable the British to occupy the fertile coastal plain. To meet this all defensive work was concentrated for many weeks on the Gaza sector, and their main reserves—the 7th and 19th Infantry Divisions, were concentrated behind Gaza. Von Falkenhayn proposed, by a concentration of forces, to deliver an attack on the British right flank, and so drive General Allenby out of Palestine into the waterless and difficult country east of the Wadi el Arish. In addition to its strategical effect this would have had the political result of clearing that portion of the Turkish Empire from the invader.

"This attack was originally timed for the latter half of October, to precede and forestall the British attack. Owing, however, to indecision, general procrastination, poor transport facilities, and, above all, to the jealousy and opposition of Ahmed Jemal Pasha, G.O.C. IV Army and Governor of Syria, it had to be postponed and was eventually timed for early December.

"By October the 28th the organisation of the Turkish forces under the Yildirim Army Group into the VII and VIII Armies was nearing completion. The Headquarters of General Kress von Kressenstein (G.O.C. VIII Army) had moved back from Huj to Huleikat, so that the former now connected to the main railway by a light line, might be used as a reserve area, and Fevzi Pasha (G.O.C. VII Army) was about to move forward his Headquarters from Hebron to near Beersheba, finally to take over the troops allotted to his command. Marshal von Falkenhayn was at Aleppo, en route for Jerusalem.

"The front had been strengthened by three fresh divisions (giving a total of one cavalry and nine infantry divisions), page 132and an additional division was moving towards the front on the lines of communication south of Aleppo.

"The Gaza sector was a network of trenches, wire entanglements, and strongly fortified posts, conveniently sited for mutual support and cross fire, which extended to the south east until the defences of Beersheba were reached. The German Staff appeared to have been very well satisfied as to the security of the line against frontal attack, and any second line system of defence had been almost totally neglected. A wide turning movement on the cast was considered impossible owing to the broken nature of the country and lack of water."

The advance to the Rashid Bek line took place on October 24th by the Australian Mounted Division, under General Hodson, and was entrenched.

Early on October 27th, Points 720 and 630 were attacked by an enemy force, estimated at six battalions, two squadrons and two batteries. The line was then held by the 8th Mounted Brigade, detached from the Yeomanry Division. The enemy succeeded in occupying the tops of both hills in spite of heavy casualties caused to him during his advance. The position was very gallantly defended by the County of London Yeomanry and the 21st M.G. Squadron. The garrison of the post on Point 720 were all killed or wounded with the exception of three men; that on Point 630 held on in a support trench close behind the crest in spite of heavy casualties and though almost surrounded. It was eventually relieved by the 53rd Division.

This gallant little affair helped materially to keep the enemy's attention away from what was going on further south, and caused him to think that this was the southern limit of the expected attack.

The extension southwards was begun on October 22nd, when the 2nd L. H. Brigade moved to Bir el Esani and the I.C.C. Brigade to Abu Ghalyun.

Thenceforward work on water development was carried on at high pressure night and day. Tracks were improved and marked. The supply difficulties were successfully contended with, though much trouble was entailed in the transport, for the whole of the country to be traversed was sandy and cut up badly with the heavy traffic.

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The bulk of the work of finding and developing the water supply fell on the two brigades just mentioned, who, together with the field squadrons of the Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division, performed wonders and earned the unstinted praise of the Commander-in-Chief (General Allenby), who, following his custom of visiting the scene of any new move and becoming personally acquainted with those about to make it, had come down to Asluj on the day before the final advance on Beersheba.

The work at Khalasa and Asluj consisted in clearing out the deep wells that the Turks had blown in and installing oil engine-driven pumps and long rows of canvas horse troughs. So completely had the Turks wrecked these ancient wells that the task of clearing them down to the level of the water (over 100 feet) was no light one.

On the 24th October the N.Z.M.R. (strength 95 officers and 1878 other ranks) moved to Esani, and on the 29th to Asluj.

By the evening of October 30th, the day upon which the XXI Corps with the Navy, began the great bombardment of page 134Gaza, the concentration of the Desert Mounted Corps was complete. The Corps now consisted of three complete divisional groups (Anzacs, Australian Division and Yeomanry Division), the 7th Mounted Brigade, and the I.C.C. Brigade, in all 11 brigades, each with its horse artillery battery-— approximately 28,000 mounted men.

The units were disposed as follows—the Anzac Mounted Division at Asluj ready to encircle Beersheba; the Australian Mounted Division at Khalasa, with orders to follow the Anzacs to the vicinity of Beersheba, where it was to come into action on the left of the Anzac Mounted Division. At Bir el Esani was the 7th Mounted Brigade, and at Shellal the Yeomanry Division, with the I.C.C. Brigade at Hiseia, a few miles away.

At 6 in the evening of October 30th the Anzac Mounted Division moved off by a track leading up the Wadi el Imshash over the mountain range just east of Thaffha. The watershed was reached at midnight, and the advanced guard halted for 2½ hours to enable the column to close up and the track to G. el Shegeib to be reconnoitred and an enemy post there to be dealt with.

Here the 2nd L. H. Brigade took the road down to the Beersheba plains through Bir Arara and the remainder of the Division pushed down the track over G. el Shegeib, followed by the Australian Division, who had orders to halt at Iswaiwin until the situation developed.

The only wheels taken with the brigades were the guns and first-line transport (ammunition limbers and limbered wagons containing watering gear and tools). "B" eschelon (i.e., all other wagons), loaded with rations, was left at Asluj with the ammunition column, with orders to await directions. But the ammunition column was to follow on after the division at daylight on the 31st.

Camel water convoys with a small reserve of drinking water for the men were left also at Asluj in readiness to be sent up.

No. 1 Light Car Patrol (Ford cars) and No. 11 Light Armoured Motor Battery (No. 11 L.A.M.B.) were attached to the Division with orders to follow on, leaving Asluj at 5 o'clock on the morning of the 31st.

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Supplies were organised as follows:—Each man carried two days' rations for himself and one day's forage for his horse. In addition he carried in a sandbag strapped across the pommel of the saddle a small emergency ration of grain for his horse. "B" eschelon (an improvised train of all baggage wagons) carried two days' emergency rations for the man and one day's forage for the horse.

The medical arrangements made provision for the mobile sections of the field ambulances to march from Asluj with their respective brigades; and for all cacolet camels to march together in rear of the Australian Mounted Division.

A divisional collecting station was ordered to be formed of tent subdivisions of Field Ambulances, at points to be decided upon by the A.D.M.S., and evacuations were to be made by sand-carts and camels to the farthest point to which light motor ambulances could be brought; thence to the Australian Mounted Division receiving station at Asluj; thence to the Anzac Mounted Division receiving station at Rashid Bek by light motor ambulance; and thence to railhead near Shellal by heavy motor ambulance.

The 7th Mounted Brigade left Bir el Esani at 9.30 p.m. and came across country to the vicinity of G. Itwail el Semin on the Asluj-Beersheba road to act as a connecting link between the Desert Mounted Corps and the XX Corps, whose right was on the Khalasa-Beersheba road.

The Anzac Division met with some opposition on the road leading over G. el Shegeib, but this was brushed aside by the Wellingtons—the leading regiment—and by 8 o'clock in the morning of October 31st the Division had reached the line Bir el Hamman (2nd L. H. Brigade); Bir Salim Abu Irgeig (N.Z.M.R.) with the 1st L. H. Brigade in reserve behind the New Zealanders.

The Division's next objective was the line Tel el Sakaty-Tel el Saba and the cutting of the Beersheba-Hebron motor road; and its final objective the line Point 1020 (two miles north-west of Tel el Saba)-Point 970 (immediately north of the town)-Mosque. The importance of finding and developing water during the operations was impressed upon all units.

About 9 o'clock the advance began, and the leading brigades were soon under a hot artillery fire from the hills page 136on the north side of the Hebron road and the advance slowed down. The plains were found also to be much cut up by narrow and deep wadi beds, and this made rapid movement on horseback impossible.

At the same time the infantry attack from the west was proceeding satisfactorily, and their shells could be seen bursting on the hills covering Beersheba to the west.

The mission of the 2nd L. H. Brigade, besides the capture of Tel el Sakaty and the wells there and the cutting of the enemy main line of communication along the Hebron road, included
Gen. Meldrum just before the attack upon Beersheba.

Gen. Meldrum just before the attack upon Beersheba.

protection from counter-attack from the east and north-east; and in pushing across the open plain the Brigade encountered considerable opposition. By 11 a.m., however, they gained command of the road and by half-past twelve had captured Tel el Sakaty and the wells.

Divisional Headquarters was established on the hills at Khashm Zanna, distant from Beersheba five miles and from Tel el Saba three miles; and from this position a birdseye page 137view of the great Beersheba plain was obtained and the movements of the troops could be watched, even as one does upon a "Field Day"; and with the added interest that it was occasionally shelled by enemy batteries from the hills behind Tel el Saba.

The New Zealand Brigade began the attack on this key position, which appeared to be strongly held, at 10 minutes past nine with the Auckland Regiment in the place of honour. The Canterburys moved forward on its right with the intention of enveloping the tel from the north; and the Somerset Battery went forward with the Brigade coming into action at 3000 yards.

The plain is much broken up by the winding of wadi beds with steep banks almost uncrossable. But these in the end proved of great value giving covered approaches; and the Auckland Regiment soon worked its way up to about 800 yards of the enemy main position, where excellent cover for the horses was found. Good covering fire from here was given by the machine guns; and the regiment slowly, but steadily, worked forward.

At 11 o'clock the Inverness Battery, attached to the 1st L. H. Brigade came into action and covered the advance of the 3rd L.H. Regiment across the open plain to the south of Tel el Saba.

At this hour the Somerset Battery moved up and ranged on the tel at 1300 yards. Enemy machine guns were giving much trouble and were not located until the afternoon, when Lieut. Hatrick the Signalling Officer of the Auckland Regiment, from a concealed position in the front line, observed for the Somerset Battery and directed the fire by flag signal. A section of this Battery was moved round to the east of the tel to deal with machine guns in position on the high ground to the north of the hill. These machine guns were holding up the Canterbury Regiment.

About this time the 2nd L.H. Regiment (from the 1st L. H. Brigade in reserve) went forward under heavy fire and attacked some mud huts lying on the wadi edge and which formed the southern flank of the Tel el Saba position. By half-past one the Auckland Regiment had worked its way close up to the hill. Machine guns under Lieut. Picot and page 138supported by a troop under Lieut. Johns had secured a position from which enfilade fire was brought to bear on the enemy front trenches and eventually these guns got up to within 300 yards. During this fine advance Lieut. Johns was killed.

The Canterbury Regiment was now across the Wadi Khalil and bringing fire to bear on the rear of the position, but could not get any further owing to enemy fire from the slopes of the hills overlooking the Hebron road.

At 10 minutes past two the Aucklanders began the assault and advanced by short rushes under cover of all available guns and machine guns and at 2.40 gained the enemy trenches on a hill on the east flank of the tel, capturing 60 prisoners and three machine guns. Two of these machine guns were used with great effect on the Turks' main position, which was rushed at three o'clock.

Tel el Saba (or the hill of Sheba) formed the "keep" of the Beersheba position in the rear of the town and its fall precipitated a general retirement northwards. But the Turk still had plenty of "fight" left and heavily shelled Tel el Saba and the adjacent wadis from the hills above the town.

Just after the capture of Tel el Gaba.Horses closing up under the tel to obtain cover from heavy enemy shelling.

Just after the capture of Tel el Gaba.
Horses closing up under the tel to obtain cover from heavy enemy shelling.

The advance was pressed forward on to the line 1020-970-Mosque by the 1st L. H. Brigade; and the 2nd L. H. Brigade pushed well up into the hills west of Tel el Sakaty. The 3rd L. H. Brigade from the Australian Division was sent across to reinforce the New Zealanders.

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This Division had during the day come up, and at four p.m. the 4th L. H. Brigade moved forward over the plain on the left of the Anzac Mounted Division and directly upon the town, galloping over successive lines of trenches in a most gallant charge, in the face of severe machine gun and rifle fire. The plain was covered with fine dust and the spectacle of "lines of troop columns" advancing at the gallop, each with its cloud of "smoke," as it were, enveloping it and trailing away up into the air as the troop went forward, was a magnificent sight.

This charge completed the discomforture of the Turk who had been giving way for some hours before the infantry attack from the west; and the town was soon in our hands. In the town were captured 58 officers, 1090 other ranks, 10 field guns, and four machine guns, besides a huge quantity of military stores, an aerodrome, and much railway rolling stock. The total captures for the Mounted Corps for the day were 70 officers and 1458 other ranks.

The general situation on the morning of November 1st was as follows:—The Australian Mounted Division lay to the south-east of Beersheba with the Anzac Mounted Division immediately east and north-east of the town and the 53rd Infantry Division in the hills to the north, the three divisions occupying a line whose perimeter lay some five miles from Beersheba. To the west of the town and connecting with the 53rd Division were the 60th, 74th and 10th Divisions in that order, the last named occupying the railway line to Abu Irgeig where the railway leaves the Beersheba-Gaza motor road. From this point the line stretched away west to the old front line on the Wadi Ghuzzeh.

Along the whole of this new portion of the line the enemy was putting up a stout resistance.

The XXI Corps opposite Gaza was still pounding away at the enemy defences, aided by the Navy whose fire was directed at the town of Gaza.

So it will be seen that, though we had captured the great bastion at the end of the wall, we were faced with a new line, a bending back of the end of the wall as it were. But Beersheba gave us water and an excellent position from which to again hammer at the wall.

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The next few days the role of the mounted corps was to protect the right of the XX Corps and some very hard fighting ensued as the enemy brought up his general reserve against the line Ras el Nagb-Tel Khuweilfeh.

On November 1st the Australian Division was withdrawn into reserve at Beersheba and the Anzac Mounted Division ordered to occupy the line Bir el Makruneh-Towal Abu Jerwal, to the north-east of Beersheba. This was done by nine o'clock and the New Zealand Brigade captured some prisoners and a machine gun and was relieved after dark by the 1st L. H. Brigade. For the next few days the Division carried on a mountain warfare against the Turks' left which, with fresh reinforcements brought into the strong position at Tel Khuweilfeh and into the town of Dhaheriyeh on the Hebron road, put up a very stubborn fight. Water was the great difficulty and our troops could not have carried out these
An Anxious Moment. Is there water in The Well?

An Anxious Moment. Is there water in The Well?

operations if it had not been for several providential thunderstorms which occurred on the two or three days previous to the advance from Asluj.

Patrols from the 2nd L. H. Brigade at one time worked their way to the east of Dhaheriyeh, within sight of the Hebron road to the north of the town, and watched there the busy motor traffic with reinforcements coming down from the north.

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On November 4th the Australian Mounted Division was sent back to Karm near the Wadi Ghuzzeh for water and on the same day the New Zealanders relieved the 5th Mounted Brigade on the left of the 2nd L. H. Brigade in the hills in front of Tel Khuweilfeh. Here at Ras el Nagb the Brigade spent the next two days and experienced some heavy fighting. A fine performance was put up by L.-Cpl. L. G. Greenslade, 8th Squadron, C.M.R., who was assisting another man to get in one of the wounded. The bringing in of the wounded
Brigade 1st line transport and led-horses in Shrapnel Gully during the fighting at Tel khuweilfeh.

Brigade 1st line transport and led-horses in Shrapnel Gully during the fighting at Tel khuweilfeh.

from the firing line was a very difficult matter. There were no regular trenches and the communication from front to rear lay through a shrapnel beaten zone. Both men were hit but Greenslade succeeded in placing the man who had been helping him out of danger and then in attempting to bring in the man they were both going for, Greenslade was killed.

There was no water for the horses so they were all sent back to Beersheba, though not before 37 horses had been killed and 84 wounded. The Brigade was to have been relieved on the 5th by the I.C.C. Brigade, but the latter missed the way in the darkness; and the New Zealand Brigade was forced to remain in the line until the afternoon of the 6th, when they marched out on foot and came into local reserve a few miles behind the front line, with their horses still at Beersheba. Here owing to the strength of the enemy facing the 53rd page 142Division they remained in reserve. The water problem was still to be faced and the horses went in daily to Beersheba, a distance there and back of 20 miles. The Brigade furnished one squadron as a connecting link between the I.C.C. Brigade and the 53rd Division and also furnished one regiment (the A.M.R.) to the 53rd Division.

On the 10th the Brigade withdrew to Beersheba under orders to rejoin the Anzac Mounted Division.