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The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919

Chapter XVIII. Gallop on Katia

page 111

Chapter XVIII. Gallop on Katia.

The Regiment nominally bivouacked that night at Pelusium—the Pelusium of ancient history, but now only a spot on the coast with a few ruins. Actually there was little time for sleep for most, and no sleep at all for picquets. It was nearly midnight before the men lay down to rest, and it was only three hours later that they had begun the duties of another day. The watering and feeding of horses began at 3 a.m., the water being brought up by camels, and at 6 o'clock the Regiment and the rest of the brigade moved off to Nuss, where the 11th squadron and the two troops of the 4th squadron who had been detached, were picked up. At 10.30 a.m. the brigade moved eastward in the direction of Katia, the orders being to attack the south-west corner of the hod, where, it was believed, the enemy had some guns concealed. It was decided to sweep down on this part of the hod in a long mounted line, the first men to gallop right through the guns if they were there, and the rear men to bayonet the gunners if there was any resistance. On the left was a Light Horse brigade, then came the 5th Light Horse Regiment, with the A.M.R. next, and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade on the right. The C.M.R. was to be the reserve regiment of the New Zealand Brigade. The troops swung out into open column at 2.30 p.m., and soon were in position to charge. The 3rd brigade did not materialise, however, and therefore the A.M.R. was left with its right flank "in the blue." The gallop was a thrilling spectacle.

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The horses simply raced towards the palms, leaving a high cloud of dust behind them. The troopers, expecting the guns to open on them any second, leaned forward in their saddles, and their faces wore the firm hard look which wins battles. The 5th Light Horse fixed bayonets as they rode, and held their rifles as lances. The hod proved to be empty, however, but that fact, not being known, did not detract from the audacious courage of the charge. It was the first time this movement was carried out.

Beyond the hod the regiments dismounted, and in extended order moved forward up the rise in front. As soon as they topped the "wave" of sand, the enemy, from entrenched positions previously prepared, opened a heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, which stopped the advance, and a duel ensued, continuing throughout the whole of that hot thirsty day. Information was received that the enemy were working round on the right and the C.M.R. was put into the gap. The mounted men hung on until dark when a withdrawal had to be started, owing to the Turks bringing up reinforcements, and it being impossible for British infantry to come up in time. The C.M.R. on the right had some difficulty in parting from the reinforced enemy—sometimes a mobile force can get itself into an advanced position much more easily than getting out of it— and the 11th squadron had to be sent to the aid of the Canterburys, and eventually the withdrawal was completed without serious loss. One officer and six men were wounded as a result of the day's adventure. The officer, Lieutenant Taylor, died of his wounds.

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Leaving Lieutenant O. Johnston and 12 men of the 3rd squadron as a listening post at Katia, the Regiment rode back to Katib Gannit, arriving at midnight. There were very few men who did not sleep in their saddles as they trekked back, and little wonder too, for they had fought for two days on end with practically no sleep. But rest was still a long distance away, for when an enemy is retreating the cavalry must not rest. For the cavalry there is the constant task of following and harrying the rearguards with a constant eye to unprotected flanks. The unlimited expanse of open desert increased the scope of cavalry work, but the absence of water and the softness of the sand increased the rigours of the work to an unspeakable degree. The bivouac ground was not reached until nearly midnight, and the column was off again at 6 a.m. (August 6) to Katia. The men and horses were thoroughly fagged out by the heavy work and hard conditions, but there could be no rest.

Katia being found clear of the enemy, the brigade was ordered to follow on and gain touch with the Turks. Towards mid-day the advanced scouts encountered the enemy, who were holding an entrenched line to the west of Oghratina. Under artillery fire the mounted men kept in close touch with the foe throughout the day, but the Regiment suffered no casualties. A most interesting incident occurred. The screen discovered that the Turks, in their hurry to get back the previous night, had neglected to cut their telephone wire that led to Katia and to Bayud, in the south. The wires, of course, ran along the ground. A signaller brought up a telephone box and switched on to the line. Conversations in German as well page 114as Arabic were heard, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mackesy, who can speak German, went out to listen, taking with him the interpreter who knew the Turkish language. In this way everything was heard and understood. It was ascertained that the retreat was to continue. Von Kressenstein was heard to say: "I will give you the orders for to-morrow later," but unfortunately he did not give them on the telephone. While lying beside the wire the colonel was able to study the bursting of shells from an uncomfortably close position. He observed that shells do not have as good an effect when they strike yielding sand as they do when they hit solid earth. At dusk the brigade withdrew to the Er Rabah, but kept touch with the enemy by patrols. Patrol duty is never easy, but in their present state of fatigue the men who had to go out to peer and watch and listen this night were not to be envied. During the day Lieutenants Reed and Martin with patrols were lent to the 52nd Infantry Division, and they succeeded in capturing eight camel men and four ammunition camels.

At 3 a.m. the brigade was again astir, and was off at 4.30 to bid good morning to the Turks, whose main position was now Oghratina. The brigade remained in reserve throughout the day, the 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade making a demonstration. It was shelled again, but no casualties were suffered.

The next night was spent at Rabah. At 4 a.m. (August 8), the force was again on the move eastward, and found Oghratina to be evacuated, the enemy holding a position in strength two miles west of Bir El Abd. That night was spent at Debabis with patrols keeping touch with the Turks. On a board at Oghratina was found a page 115message which confirmed the belief that Lieutenant Alsopp and his patrol had been taken prisoner on the night of August 3. The message read: "Here was a German artillerie observation post, and had seen all the movements of the English cavaliere. Lieutenant Alsopp, A.M. Rifles, now prisoner of war—a gentleman—had eaten in our batterie." The facts of this misfortune were that Lieutenant Alsopp, with eight men, had been posted at Nagid for the express purpose of giving information to the troops behind. Someone without authority ordered them to Abu Raml, further south, where they were out of touch with the troops they were intended to serve. That night the Turks made their advance, and the little party was enveloped by two columns and captured. The only man who escaped was Sergeant Cheetham, who had been sent out to ascertain if there was a way of escape. When he returned with the information that there was a way he found the post gone, the Turks having already arrived. In the darkness the sergeant made his way back to safety, galloping between the Turkish columns.

The ground the British troops now occupied was in a filthy state, the smell of the dead bodies of men and animals being atrocious. But there was more to contend against than the unpleasant evidences of a hurried retreat. Cholera infection was abroad. When a notice was found above a grave stating that the patient had died of cholera, it was believed to be a piece of Turkish bluff, but soon the fact was established that cholera had occurred. Prompt measures were taken, and the troops were forbidden to drink from any of the wells. As a result the danger was averted, the only case occurring in the regiment being that of a man who disobeyed the order.