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

Chapter XXII. Rafa—First Fight in Palestine

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Chapter XXII. Rafa—First Fight in Palestine.

The rest at El Arish was to be of short duration. The mounted division, having proved its capacity for sudden night dashes across the desert, was on the move again at dusk on January 8, the objective being Rafa, a police post, consisting of a few tumbled-down buildings on the frontier, 30 miles away. This day the Wadi El Arish was in flood, but it was forded without difficulty, the spate being more remarkable for its width than for its depth. The column assembled at a point four miles east of the wadi on the road. The intention was to surround the strong Turkish entrenchments, the New Zealanders again being part of the force to be thrown round the redoubt. Sheik Zowaiid was reached by 10 p.m., when a halt was made for three hours. This enabled the horses to be fed, but owing to the intense cold the men were unable to get any sleep. As a matter of fact they could not lie down, but had to tramp up and down to keep up their circulation.

As dawn approached the "Camels" and yeomanry moved off to the north-east, to get into position for their attack from the west and southwest. The Light Horse and the New Zealanders continued east, the first task being that of rounding up the Bedouins, believed to be hostile, living in and around the village of Shokh El Sufi, four miles south of Rafa. The A.M.R. threw a cordon round the village, and soon had collected a large crowd of yelling natives. Two unfortunate incidents proved the wisdom of the precaution taken to remove the Bedouins. One A.M.R. man was page 130shot dead by an Arab, who then escaped on the trooper's horse. At another tent the Arab owner suddenly drew from his clothing a sabre, with which he struck one trooper over the head, knocking him unconscious, and then galloped off on the soldier's horse, taking his rifle with him.

The troops were now in Palestine, the A.M.R. crossing the border at 6 a.m. Colonel Mackesy was the first to cross the line. They were also out of the desert. Much of the land was in barley or grass, and the flocks and herds of the natives dotted the landscape. There were no fences to hamper the movements of the cavalry—there is not a fence between the Suez and Constantinople—and the men rejoiced at the firmer "feel" beneath the hoofs. The field artillery, which accompanied the brigade, was able for the first time in the campaign to move at the gallop.

At 6.45 the brigade formed up behind a ridge which gave good cover, and from which the best view of the enemy works could be obtained. They consisted of a series of strong redoubts, connected by a maze of saps on the top of a huge mound or hump, the approaches to which, on all sides, were smooth grassy slopes of a mile or more. It was anything but an easy position to attack, and everyone expected that it would cost many lives. At nine o'clock the brigade was ordered to move north to get into position to attack the right flank works, and to cover the northern flank to the sea. Half-an-hour later it crossed the ridge and moved forward in column of troops extended. The Turkish artillery opened fire, and the pace was increased to a fast trot. For about a mile the horsemen were in full view of the redoubt, but the enemy gunners never got the range. Notwithstanding page 131the shelling, many Arabs, with their flocks, were along the line of the advance. Grazing donkeys seemed to realise that big events were afoot, and galloped as fast as their legs would carry them alongside the excited horses. On reaching a point about two miles from the Turkish position, the men were dismounted, and immediately sent forward in extended order.

The C.M.R. was on the right of the line, with its right flank on the white sand hills that border the sea, and then came the 3rd and 4th squadrons of the A.M.R., the 11th squadron being held in reserve. The W.M.R. was the reserve regiment, part of which moved in support of the C.M.R. and part remained behind the A.M.R. to watch for enemy reinforcements towards Shellal and Khan Yunus. The C.M.R. occupied the village of Raffa as it moved to its position, and intercepted some retreating Turks and Germans, and also a camel train. At mid-day a combined attack by the brigade was commenced against part of the enemy position known as Green Knoll Redoubt. On the left of the brigade, the 1st Light Horse Brigade was operating, but some of the W.M.R. reserve had to be put in to fill a small gap between the brigades. Steadily the line moved forward by sections under the splendid covering fire of the Inverness Battery and our machine-guns and rifles, which made the redoubt look like a smoking furnace and kept down the enemy fire to a considerable extent. The covering fire saved many lives, for there was not an inch of natural cover over the whole mile of grassy slope that had to be traversed. Soon after the advance began the 3rd squadron of the A.M.R. was withdrawn, and the 11th was sent in on the right of the 4th, the reason being page 132that in their position the 3rd could not make headway, except at heavy cost, which was not necessary, seeing that two sections were compelling the Turks to evacuate this part of the redoubt. Between 2 and 3 p.m., the 3rd squadron was sent in to reinforce the line, which, by 3.30, was far enough advanced to make the final assault. At 3.45 orders were issued for a general attack, but they did not reach the New Zealand Brigade until after 4 o'clock. At the same time came the information that the Turkish reinforcements were only two miles away. This menace against the rear of the troops on the eastern side of the redoubt, combined with the fact that darkness was fast approaching, made it essential that a decision must be immediately forced or a withdrawal made. For the New Zealanders, at least, a withdrawal would have been as costly as a charge, owing to the absence of cover. A little later an order was issued instructing all brigades to withdraw. It reached the Australians, the Camels, and the yeomanry, who immediately commenced to retire. It did not reach the New Zealand Brigade at the same time, and at 4.30 p.m. the New Zealanders, notwithstanding the fact that they saw the Australians on their left moving back, rose to the final charge with the bayonet. It was magnificent. The last 200 or 300 yards were covered in two grand rushes, and cheering madly, the men were into the first trenches. The surviving Turks surrendered. After a short pause the line swept forward against the next position—Sandy Redoubt—but before the gleaming bayonets were within striking distance, the garrison stood up and surrendered. When the Australians saw the New Zealanders charge, they turned at once and rushed the trenches above them.

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A little later the Camels and yeomanry also returned to the attack, but they met little opposition. The Turks had had enough, and everywhere they threw down their arms. Within a few minutes the whole of the position was in British hands. Victory had been snatched on the call of time with the sun going down. But for the good fortune which prevented the New Zealand commander getting the order to withdraw in time for him to stop, the day would have been lost. There are many veterans who argue that even if the order to retire had reached the line it could not have have been obeyed because the men had reached the point when the last charge is inevitable and when soldiers become individualists. Whether that be so or not, the fact remains that the resolute action of the New Zealanders turned incipient failure into outstanding success. Not only was the night descent upon Rafa, over 30 miles of sand, a brilliant lesson in mobility, as one war correspondent described it, but the attack after the investment was a model piece of work up to the point when the action was almost broken off. As for the final charge of the one remaining brigade, words can hardly do it justice. It was everything that a charge should be, and more. It was the personification of that indomitable courage which achieves the impossible. An authority has stated that in such a well-sited and highly developed position two British battalions could have beaten the onslaught of a division. Early in the day it was ascertained that the German commanders believed it impregnable to attack of the mounted men. A captured German officer, to whom the colonel of the A.M.R. spoke, said that the attack could not succeed, and he was a very surprised man when he learned that the position had fallen.

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The British casualties were surprisingly light for such an action. The New Zealand Brigade lost 17 killed and 92 wounded, the list for the A.M.R. being four killed, three died of wounds, and 41 wounded. The wounded included Major Whitehorn, Captain Aldred, and Captain Fin-layson.

The total enemy losses were about 300 killed and about 1, 600 prisoners, only 160 of whom were wounded.

Never did prisoners find themselves on the march quicker than did the Turks and Germans taken at Rafa. Owing to the proximity of the reinforcements, with whom the W.M.R. was still engaged, they were hurried back to Sheik Zowaiid, and the bulk of the mounted men with their horses, which had been without water since the previous night, went back too. The ambulance had to remain to evacuate the wounded, however, and a regiment of Light Horse remained to protect them.

Thereafter, Rafa, which had witnessed one of the most perfect operations in the history of mounted warfare, remained an outpost position until the railway came forward. So did the desert army, having fought and toiled and endured through fiery heat and raging thirst, through choking winds and bitter cold, come to the borders of the Promised Land, its pastures gay with glorious flowers. It was for many a wonderful moment of their lives. Here they stood, victors so far and confident of the future, at the gateway of Palestine, whence came the very principles of page 135truth and justice and right, for which the war had been waged. They were to tread holy ground. For them their fighting was to be the battle of the Cross, and whether religious convictions were strong or weak, the thought appealed to the slowest imagination. They were stirred in a way that neither the physical fatigue nor the drudgery of army life nor the system which kills individuality, could lessen.