The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter XV. Back to the Suez
Chapter XV. Back to the Suez.
When men of the last division to leave Anzac left placards bearing the words, "So long, Johnnie, see you soon at the Suez Canal," they hardly knew how true their frivolous good-bye was to be. The Dardanelles campaign had prevented the Turk from making another attempt against the Canal; but it was only to be expected that, when the evacuation relieved his army, he would turn his attention once again to what the Kaiser had called the "jugular vein of the British Empire." Even if the Turk himself had been willing to leave the British in undisputed possession of the Canal, his German masters would have over-ruled him. To the Germans, the Canal on which the British had to depend for supplying the forces in Mesopotamia and German East Africa, was a prize of the first magnitude. They knew that, even if it could not be held by them, it might be closed for a considerable time by the hulls of sunken steamers, and that even a temporary closure of the waterway might have very serious consequences. They might also have hoped that an attack in force would cause a rising in Egypt, and therefore a further drain on Britain's man power. For political reasons, the Turks themselves had to make an aggressive move. Disaffection was growing in Syria, and the Arabs of the Hedjaz had been giving trouble, which presaged open revolt unless the Turks embarked upon an enterprise that displayed their power.page 94
A constant watch had been kept on the Canal during the Dardanelles campaign, chiefly by Indian troops and British Yeomanry. Danger did not threaten in the shape of attacks in force, but in small parties endeavouring to mine the waterway by night. Mines were actually found in the Canal, and one steamer was holed when passing through one of the Bitter Lakes, but she was skilfully beached, and only a blockage of half a day took place. On another occasion, the presence of mines in the Canal was discovered by a singular form of obtaining intelligence. It was the practice to make a narrow, smooth path on the sand along the east side of the Canal by a camel-drawn brush harrow. This obliterated all foot marks; therefore, if foot prints pointing west were found on the track, it was intelligence of first importance. The presence of these foot prints led to the discovery of mines in the Canal on this occasion.
Up till this time the defences of the Canal were on the Canal itself. The cavalry patrols were based there. The idea seemed to be that the desert was our best ally. When Lord Kitchener visited Egypt, after his call at Grallipoli, he is reported to have said, "Are you defending the Suez, or is it defending you?" An offensive defence was thereupon started. This meant going out to meet the Turk; it meant bases far out in the desert. This involved tremendous engineering undertakings in the shape of a desert railway, a waterpipe line sufficient to supply a large force, and an immense number of camels to convey the water from the bases to the troops ahead.page 95
The route for the railway had to be the coastal route along the line of the oldest road in the world, for here were to be found the main groups of oases. This being decided, it became necessary to render the southern routes impracticable to the Turks by draining off all water supplies. The chief source of supply was that at Er Rigm, at the northern end of the Wadi Muksheib, where the winter rains were dammed up. This source of supply was destroyed by the simple method of digging holes through the thin layer of clay at the bottom to the sandy subsoil beneath. In other places, Roman and Babylonian cisterns which were filled by the winter rains, were pumped dry; and at Jifjaffa an elaborate well-boring plant of the enemy was destroyed by raiders. In this way, all the water of any consequence in the southern desert was cleared, and the Turks were compelled to operate in the north, where our troops and our railway and our pipe line went out to meet them. So began the campaign which was to end in the destruction of the Turkish Army, the liberation of Palestine from the thraldom of the Turk, and the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire. It was the classic battle-ground of history. No less than 26 armies had crossed the Sinai since the beginning of history, and here were men from the Seven Seas about to fight the last crusade. It was war, hard hideous war, but it was romance.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles was part of the machine which began to move, and it was to be a permanent part. Before the brigade left Zeitoun for the Suez, the New Zealand Infantry were there, but within a month or two all the New Zealand Force, with the exception of the three page 96regiments of the mounted brigade, was sent to France. After training for a month at Zeitoun, the New Zealanders trekked to Serapeum on the Canal, at the northern end of the Great Bitter Lake on the west side. The A.M.R. was now itself again—at least it was back to full strength, but many a horse had a new rider. So many new officers and men were there, that the old family feeling was gone for the time being, but that soon returned as the men got to know one another, and the Spirit of the Regiment lived. Somehow, the Regiment never lost its individuality. Colonel Mackesy was in command again, with Major McCarroll second in command. The trek led along the route of the Ismalia Canal, passing through Nawa, Bilbeas, Abou Hammad, Kasasin (where the battlefield of Tel El Kebir was traversed), Abu Sueir, and Moascar, the journey occupying six days. Heavy rain fell during the latter part of the march, and as one man put it, "the saddles were afloat," with dire results to the saddles. General Murray, who was commander-in-chief in Egypt, inspected the brigade upon its arrival. Through the rain and the rigours of the trek it was not particularly beautiful. "More dubbin" was the brief remark of the general, and of course he was quite right, but, being a general, it was hardly possible to inform him that the brigade had been most resplendent only a few short days before.
A camp was established at Serapeum, and training was resumed; also dubbin. The men revelled in bathing in the Canal, and life was exceedingly pleasant. Occasionally passenger steamers passed through the waterway, the only page 97drawback being that the presence of "bints" made it necessary for bathers to rush to their clothes. It usually happened, however, when steamers surprised the naked bathers that the "bints" scampered first.
It was at Serapeum that the Regiment began "to qualify for dinkum crusaders," as one dissolute character termed it. The band was still off on its travels somewhere about the Mediterranean, and the padre, Chaplain Williams, formed a choir to help things along at church parades. The choir made a joyful noise, and the Regiment thought a good deal of itself. It is a pity that another anecdote of the same period must be recorded, but truth demands. The fact is, the Regiment's language was "frequent and painful and free," and something had to be done about it, no doubt in the interests of the native population. The sergeants, who had established a mess, and were in consequence getting plump and peaceful, were told about the matter, and those worthy gentlemen decided to give an example to the men. It was agreed that every man who swore in the mess should be fined one piastre for each swear. At the end of the first day, it is said, the treasurer was 200 piastres richer. The rule lapsed next day, and of course the only inference is that no A.M.R. sergeant ever swore again. "Hassan" thought that the choir must have done it.
Days of ease are not always good for soldiers, and part of the Regiment became afflicted with pessimism. They knew that the infantry was to go to France, and they began to feel that the mounted rifles were going to be left on the Canal until someone won the war. Fresh batteries of artillery were in the course of construction, and page 98some of the good old veterans of the A.M.R. transferred, and so were lost to the Regiment. Quite a number of the men who had been wounded and had gone to England, were also transferred to the artillery. It should be mentioned that the commander of the artillery stated that he only wished he could get some more men of the type of the troopers who became gunners. Among the officers who transferred to the infantry were Major Wyman, of the 3rd squadron, and Lieutenant E. McGregor, who on Gallipoli had risen to the position of brigade machine-gun officer.
Early in March the brigade marched across the desert to the railhead at Kembla, and took over the trenches and posts held up to then by Australian infantry. This was the first experience of the Regiment in moving over a caravan route with only camel transport, and their first real introduction to the water problem of the desert. Only a few troughs were available at their destination, and it took two hours to water the horses. Few realised that this was to be the ordinary experience of the next two years. The section of trench taken over by the A.M.R. offered new problems. The works were not the usual ditches. Owing to the softness of the sand, the walls had to be built up with sand bags or sacking nailed to wooden uprights. If the wall was torn the sand trickled through and the trench was liable to be blocked. This was not the only trouble, however. When the khamseen blew it nearly obliterated the trenches, and sometimes shifted sand hill crests a number of yards in a single night. When the Regiment arrived, a wind had been doing its best in the interests of the page 99Turk, and the first task, beyond sending out patrols, was that of digging out the trenches. For the first day or two the horses had to be taken back four miles for water, but after that the supply for all purposes was brought by camel, each camel carrying two 12-gallon fantasses. Needless to say, water for washing purposes was not over-plentiful, but the men of Gallipoli had already acquired the art of washing and shaving in about two spoonfuls of water, and it was speedily learned by the new men. But many felt like the man at Anzac, who, when asked by General Birdwood how he was enjoying his wash, said it was alright, but he wished he was a crimson canary.
While at Kembla a "grain market" was established some miles out in the desert. Its purpose was to get information.
At the end of March the mounted rifles were relieved by Australian infantry, none of the colonial infantry having yet left for France, and they returned to the old camp at Serapeum, but in a week's time moved on to a new camp at Salhia. Here the horses had the benefit of plenty of water and green fed, and they put on condition.
The heat was now trying, and the days grew hotter, but hard work was ahead. On April 23, the brigade suddenly received orders to move to Kantara. It left camp the following evening and set out across the desert on a long night trek. The reason for the sudden move north was that a force of 1,000 Turks had delivered a surprise attack against the unprepared yeomanry at Oghratina and Katia, and against a post held by Scottish infantry at Dueidar. At the two former page 100places the yeomanry were badly cut up, but at Dueidar the Scots checked the enemy and inflicted more losses than were sustained by the British at all three places.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles established a camp at Hill 70, in the vicinity of Dueidar, and commenced an arduous period of patrol work. Just before the move north a few changes had taken place in the squadron commands. Major Schofield, who had been wounded at Gallipoli, took over the command of the 3rd squadron from Major Whitehorn, who became commander of the 11th squadron, Captain Aldred relinquishing that post and becoming second in command of the 3rd. Major Munro commanded the 4th squadron. While here Lieutenant-Colonel Mackesy had command of the Anzac Mounted Division for a few days in the absence of General Chauvel, the divisional commander, and General Chaytor, the commander of the New Zealand Brigade. Major McCarroll took over the Regiment for the period.
The cordial relations that were established between the Scots and the New Zealanders had their beginning at Hill 70 in a Rugby football match.
A week later the brigade moved to Romani and took over the posts there vacated by the 2nd Light Horse, who went on a reconnoitring expedition a few miles further east. Here water was fairly plentiful in the hods, but usually it was very brackish". It was found that Arab intelligence on the subject of water was not reliable, the natives having no idea of the amount of water required by a brigade. Many extraordinary things were discovered in connection with hod page 101water. One well was not salt, but the water contained a very high content of magnesia. It also contained a neutralising substance which made the water quite safe to drink, but boiling deneu-tralised it. At another place there were two wells within eight feet of each other; the water of one was very brackish, while that of the other was perfectly fresh, although the intervening sand was quite soft. No explanation could be found for the phenomenon. The most important work for the troopers while at Romani was that of digging wells and making preparations for watering horses quickly. Every squadron was supplied with a pump and a portable trough, which helped matters a good deal.
From Romani the Regiment moved back to Hill 70, and thence to Bir Etmaler, from which place parties were sent out on well-sinking operations. No chances could be taken, and the whole camp stood to arms before dawn every day. Another duty was that of searching the various hods for natives, whose presence was a source of danger. At one hod two Arabs were found by a patrol down a well.
Two intensely hot days were experienced at this time, and man and beast suffered terribly. On May 16, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., a temperature of over 120 degrees was registered in a marquee. A patrol of the C.M.R. had 40 cases of sunstroke. The one and only benefit of the heat wave was that it killed myriads of flies, which had become as bad a pest as they had been during the summer days on Gallipoli.