The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter XXIII. The First Gaza
Chapter XXIII. The First Gaza.
The historic town of Gaza was to be the next objective, but once more the army had to wait until the railway "caught up" before the blow could be delivered. Gaza was strongly held. It was the right flank of the new Turkish line, which extended over the 30 miles to Beersheba and into the high ground beyond, and preparations had to be made for an attack by infantry, in addition to flanking movements by the mounted troops. After Rafa, the A.M.R., with the rest of the brigade, returned to Sheik Zowaiid, and thence to Masaid, near El Arish, where a bivouac was established. Here Major Mackesy rejoined the Regiment, and took over the 3rd squadron.
Riders Of The Sand. 1. Lieutenant A. Carr, Corporal Gillespie, and Troopers Hartley and Glass. 2. A section bring in an old Bedouin and two children found in a state of starvation.
The Athletic Side. 1. Boxing on the desert. 2. A.M.R. football team, which never had its line crossed; winners of the Anzac Cup.
On March 10 the brigade was moved to Bir El Malalha, on the coast, but, as was remarked by one man who had not forgotten the slur cast upon the mounted rifles by some fool who had placed in a gift parcel a note stating, "I hope this does not fall into the hands of the cold-footed mounteds," they did not spend the time wading in the sea and holding picnics. The "picnics" took them on reconnoitring expeditions towards Gaza, and to lonely outposts to keep watch on the enemy patrols. The foolish people who imagined that the mounted men were enjoying a high time of lotus-eating, would have received a rude shock had they been, taken on one of these night patrols, to spend a sleepless night on top of a sand hill far from their Regiment, and to be shot at by a hostile patrol in the morning. This work the men accepted as a matter of course. They did it uncomplainingly, but they objected seriously to home-fire burners, belittling them.
The feature of the topography which called for special duty was the Wadi El Ghuzze, a watercourse dry except during winter rains, which runs north and south a few miles west of Gaza. The page 138crossing through this wadi had to be carefully studied in view of the coming operations. It was not a particularly deep watercourse, but usually its banks were too steep for the rapid passage of troops.
The brigade came up to Dier El Belah before the attack on Gaza on March 26, and from there moved off at 2.30 a.m. to get behind the town to keep back Turkish reinforcements and attack the position from the flank while the infantry made the frontal attack. Crossing the Wadi El Ghuzze at El Jemmi the brigade moved to Tellul El Humra, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade going further north to cover the ground to the sea. The 4th squadron was detached to oppose reinforcements advancing from the direction of Huj, while the 11th squadron and one troop of the 3rd went on a similar mission towards Tor Dimre, further north. At 4 p.m. the 22nd mounted brigade and the N.Z.M.R. attacked Gaza from El Meshahera, the remaining portion of the A.M.R. being held in reserve. Meeting with little resistance, and impeded only by cactus hedges, this part of the attacking force entered the outskirts of Gaza, and the town was theirs for the asking. But orders for withdrawal were issued, and when questioned they were made insistent. Accordingly, the mounted men were withdrawn—the most tragic and inexplicable episode of the whole campaign. There was no serious danger of the enemy reinforcements coming into the fight from the rear, nor was there any other reason why the Turks should have been handed back the town, but it had to be done. The A.M.R., less the 4th squadron, got back to Dier El Belah early the following morning. They were very tired, but even fatigue was forgotten in their page 139disgust at being pulled out of a great victory. Their spirits went down to zero, and a period of dark depression was ushered in.
During this night the 4th squadron, which had been left at Huj to delay reinforcements, had to retire in face of the reinforcements which pushed forward as soon as the retirement took place. Leaving Huj at 3 a.m. they had to ride all night, going at a smart pace for some miles, to avoid being captured. But, as usual, they found something to laugh about, which after all is the saving of many a soldier. They had captured one Turkish infantryman, who was wearing all his equipment, This unfortunate Turk had to be brought along, but as he could not be mounted he had to run, clinging to stirrups on either side. When a halt was called the prisoner, with set purpose on his features, took off his equipment, each part of which he flung to the ground with an angry grunt. Then he smiled cheerfully, and indicated that he would be much happier to go on without it. "I don't blame the poor devil," said one of the Waikatos. "I wouldn't care to train for a marathon with a pack up, but why didn't the lunatic tell us he wanted to drop it."
During the succeeding weeks the New Zealanders had the doubly distasteful job of holding an outpost line over country which they felt they had completely secured when they made the dash for Gaza, and of digging strong posts on important features. The Regiment, in its dashing desert work, had almost forgotten the tremendous digging of the Gallipoli campaign, and the men were hardly stimulated by the obvious purpose of these operations. Were they to assume the defensive, or settle down to a stalemate?page 140
At this time four Hotchkiss automatic rifles were added to the equipment of each squadron. These guns further increased the offensive and defensive strength of the mounted rifles, which, having already machine-guns and Lewis rifles, possessed stronger striking power than any mounted regiments in history. All this complementary armament was carried by pack horse, and therefore it possessed the same degree of mobility as the regiments.
The outpost lines held by the mounted regiments often covered a number of miles, squadrons being detached, but always there was the closest touch between them and between the headquarters of regiments and brigades. At night time the outposts could always communicate with their base by means of signal lamps, and by flag or helio by day. It was a stimulating, if common, sight on a sunny day to see the helios flashing their messages across the sky. The soldier takes the signal service as a matter of course, just as he does the medical service, the supply and transport service, and all other services upon which the whole fabric of an army rests. But it is only doing bare justice to the men concerned to place on record the splendid work they invariably performed. The A.M.R. was always fortunate in its specialists, as it was in its supply officers and transport men, who toiled out of the limelight, but often in great danger. They were always good game for hostile airmen, and they did not have much of "the fun."
During April, the transport services performed a tremendous task in building up a great water reserve at Tel El Jemmi, on the Wadi Ghuzze. The water was brought by camel (for page 141the most part) from the wells at Belah, and it was stored in tanks and canvas cisterns. Squadrons were told off to unload this water, and the magnitude of the supply may be gauged from the fact that on one day the 11th squadron of the A.M.R. unloaded 60,000 gallons. It was on this water-carrying duty that old Bob Hammond tried the experiment of threatening an enemy airman with a lousy shirt. The shirt was all he had, and he thought it was better than nothing. The facts of the affair were that Bob's shirt had been riding on the load, the day being hot, and the soldier in question having no great liking for unnecessary clothing. The shirt either fell or jumped off the load, and Hammond wandered back to get it. An airman swooped down very low, and opened his machine-gun on him. With the bullets kicking up a lively dust around him, Hammond seized the shirt and flourished it vigorously at the Taube, which thereupon departed. It is not known whether the airman was scared of the living shirt or was overcome with mirth.