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

Chapter XXI. Descent on El Arish and Magdhaba

page 124

Chapter XXI. Descent on El Arish and Magdhaba.

On the afternoon of December 20, the A.M.R., again under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mackesy, General Chaytor having resumed command of the New Zealand Brigade, left Mustagidda, and after watering at New Zealand Valley, four miles to the north-east, moved on to Gimai, where it joined up with the rest of the brigade. The Regiment, which had been detailed to form the advance guard, had barely time to draw rations, drinking water, and fodder, the latter being the mobile ration of pure barley, before it had to move off into the night. The distance to be covered was over 20 miles, and it had to be done solely by compass bearing. The first 15 miles had to be due east (90 degrees) and the remainder at 40 degrees. The route led across trackless desert covered with sand hills, which all looked alike.

The task of guiding the Anzac Division fell to the lot of Captain Finlayson, of the A.M.R. The difficulties of his job that night cannot be over-estimated. In the first place he had to estimate the distance covered. Further, he had to be guided by the stars, but, unfortunately, stars have a habit of moving across the heavens, therefore a new star had to be chosen every now and again. The system adopted was that they should ride at an even walking pace for 50 minutes and then halt for 10 minutes, when bearings were to be checked. From this the distance covered could be estimated with some accuracy. Every 25 page 125minutes the officer and his assistant had to select a fresh star as the guiding mark. They also had to make allowances for detours, which sand hills sometimes made necessary. This was before the days of the oil bath compass, which may be read with accuracy while riding, therefore the bearings could only be checked when they dismounted every hour. Notwithstanding the tremendous difficulties the march continued throughout the night with absolute precision, and at dawn the brigade was at Masmi, a truly remarkable achievement. From Masmi the brigades moved to their places, and by dawn El Arish was completely invested, Yeomanry being on its west side, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on the south-west, the Camel Corps on the south, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade on the east. It was found clear of the enemy, and immediately occupied. The town, which consisted of the usual mud brick buildings, covers a considerable area, and is only about one mile from the sea. Besides a mosque and a number of well-built public buildings it had once had a fort, but this had already been reduced to ruins by shells from monitors out at sea.

With El Arish in our hands it was possible to take immediate action against Magdhaba, some 24 miles up the Wadi El Arish (the Biblical River of Egypt), which had a garrison of 2,000. The mounted troops turned south to this new "job" the following day. At 10.30 a.m., on December 22, the 3rd squadron was ordered to proceed up the wadi to Bir Lahfan, and there await the arrival of the brigade if water was plentiful. The squadron's report being favourable the brigade page 126moved out from El Arish at midnight. Every effort was made to preserve silence, and smoking was not allowed. The guns, however, made a tremendous row on the hard surface of the wadi. But the noise was not sufficient to keep the troopers from sleeping in their saddles, seeing that they had had no sleep the previous night.

Early that morning Magdhaba was surrounded, and it fell to a bayonet attack at 4 p.m. Some 1, 200 Turks were made prisoners, and all the guns and material in the post captured. Great difficulty was experienced in getting water that night, but at 10 p.m. the Regiment had secured wells. The A.M.R. was left to clear up the held of action and destroy the serviceable buildings. Apart from the six field guns captured, which were sent into El Arish, there was a four-wheeled buggy, and there was wild mirth among the men when two troop horses were yoked into it. "Make the old nags think of market day at Pukekohe," remarked one man as two spare horses gaily trotted off with the vehicle. The Regiment left for Masmi at 2 p.m., and, after a halt at 5 o'clock, continued the march which was to bring them "home" for Christmas Day. A mistake was made in leaving the wadi too soon, and the Regiment got lost and had to wait through the intensely cold hours until dawn before it could find itself. It was rather an unfortunate Christmas morning, and it has been recorded that the cheerful trooper who suggested that they might employ the time by singing carols got a frigid reception. Even the horses seemed to realise that they were missing something, for one officer who went to sleep at his horse's head was wakened by the beast banging him with the empty nose bag.

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The A.M.R. did not have a cheerful Christmas. Utterly worn out by the work of the previous days and nights, they spent the day in slumber. The cooks did their best to put on something out of the ordinary, but the plum pudding was hardly sufficient to keep the thoughts of everyone from wandering to the desert route from Musta-gidda, along which they had had to discard the parcels that had arrived from home just before the ride began.

Periodically the Sinai Army was, in the language of the service, de-loused. This very necessary operation was simple, each man's clothing and blankets being placed in a steam disinfector for 20 minutes, at the end of which time the "Bedouins of the seams" were done with this life—or theoretically so. But a de-lousing parade of the A.M.R. at El Arish had perils for the men as well as for the creatures for which it was called. A party of men, more or less naked, were waiting for their clothes to come out of the disinfector when a Turkish aeroplane came over and dropped a bomb not far away. The Regiment, as usual, scattered with their horses, and the rather bare party had to gallop off as they were.

At El Arish the mounted men rested in great discomfort, for the weather turned wet and cold. The nights were most uncomfortable, because all the shelter that was possible was what could be obtained by rigging up ground sheets or blankets over the holes the men scraped in the sand. After a few days the A.M.R. moved to a new bivouac close to the beach, passing on the way a long convoy of the prisoners taken at Magdhaba, and the wounded, who were conveyed on sledges or in covered-in sand carts. It had been intended to take the prisoners and the wounded to Egypt by page 128sea, but the heavy weather made that impossible. It was a memorable sight, which contrasted sharply with the scenes of the previous months. Twenty yards away from the long column of defeated Turks the breakers rushed up the sandy shore. In the mist out at sea lay a number of vessels of the Royal Navy, recalling Gallipoli memories.

At the new bivouac site, wells were speedily sunk only 100 yards from the breakers, but the generous supply of water obtained was almost free of salt. The reason appeared to be that there was a hard strata below the sand which held the rain water.

On December 29, General Chetwode, who had been in command of the Desert Column during the recent operations, inspected the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and in addressing the men said that in the history of mounted war the recent action of the division created a record. He said he had expected big things of the division, but not so much as it had accomplished. For the first time in history, British cavalry had reconnoitred, attacked, assaulted, and stormed a position. Afterwards he expressed his personal thanks to Brigadier-General Chaytor for the good work of the New Zealand Brigade.

The weather continued bad. On the last day of this eventful year there was a howling gale, which turned the beach into a boiling, seething, roaring line of white foam. One of the small steamers which had been landing stores on the beach was driven ashore. During the gale a supply of fresh meat for the A.M.R. was buried by the wind-shifted sand, and it had to be dug out. The stew on that occasion was more gritty than usual.