The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter XXIV. The Second Gaza and After
Chapter XXIV. The Second Gaza and After.
The second attack on Gaza was commenced on April 17, the main attack being delivered by the infantry divisions which could be supplied from Belah, where the railhead now was. The mounted division was used to protect the right flank of the infantry.
The operations of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles commenced on the evening of the 16th. The object was to demonstrate against Abu Hareira, and so prevent the enemy from detaching troops to reinforce Gaza. During the night the Regiment moved with the brigade to Shellal, arriving there at 3 a.m. At dawn, horses were watered in the wadi, and a move was then made to a point half a mile east, where men and horses were fed. Enemy aircraft being very active, the 11th squadron was detached to bring rifle fire to bear on them, the result being that the hostile airmen kept at a higher altitude. At 9 a.m. the Regiment moved with the brigade to an eminence overlooking Hareira, Sheria, and the Turkish railway line running laterally between Gaza and Beersheba. The 4th squadron was detached to watch these places, observing much activity among the enemy forces, and the striking of tents. Throughout the day the regiment was frequently under machine-gun fire from the air, but no casualties were sustained. That evening the brigade, in accordance with previous instructions, moved back to Shellal, arriving at 10 p.m. During the day the infantry had advanced against Gaza, and had seized the Sheik Abbas-Mansura ridge.page 143
The following morning the brigade again moved out to continue its duties in containing the enemy forces in this area, and protecting the right flank of the infantry. On the march the A.M.R. acted as advance guard to the brigade. By midday the 3rd and 11th squadrons, who formed the screen, were on the ridge running south-east towards El Buggar, driving the enemy advanced posts before them. On being relieved by a squadron of the C.M.R., the 3rd squadron withdrew, and with headquarters moved to El Girheir, whilst the 11th squadron established observation posts on the ridge from the road at Imsiri to a point one mile south-east of El Girheir. Again aircraft were active, flying low to deliver bursts of machine-gun fire. Our men replied with volleys. After dusk the brigade returned to Shellal to feed and water, but not to rest. Shellal was reached at 9.30 p.m., and at 11 p.m. the regiments were on the move again, the destination being El Mendur, which was not reached until 6 o'clock on the following morning (April 19).
This day the mounted division was required to be more aggressive than it had been during the operations, the infantry having been unable to make progress. At 9 a.m. the 3rd squadron of the A.M.R. was detailed as a guard to a battery of artillery, and proceeded with it in the direction of Atawineh, where the guns got into action, the 3rd squadron going into the firing line on the right of the W.M.R. Throughout this long hot day the squadron lay in a patch of high barley under very heavy rifle and artillery fire, and lost one killed and 17 wounded. It withdrew at 8 p.m. with the uncomfortable feeling that very little had been achieved. The other two squadrons had an easier page 144day, being held in reserve behind a hill west of Atawineh. They were often menaced by aircraft, however, and two men were wounded through this cause. This day saw what was practically the end of the second battle of Gaza, the plain hard facts of which were that the Turks with strong forces, plenty of artillery and munitions, good defensive positions, and an invaluable railway running behind their front, were more than a match for the desert column. With the conviction that Gaza could have been taken three weeks earlier, when the mounted troops were withdrawn from their position of mastery, the men, after these operations, came as near as ever they did to "getting their tails down."
The Regiment, with the rest of the brigade, remained in the forward positions of this area until the end of the month. Some trench digging at various strong posts was necessary, but the most arduous duty was that of night patrolling along an extensive outpost line. Whole regiments had to be used on these forward positions, and so dangerous was the situation regarded that the outposts had to report hourly during the night. The base of the A.M.R. was at Karim Abu El Hiseia, on the Wadi Ghuzze.
At this time a number of changes took place in commands. Brigadier-General E. W. C. Chaytor, C.B., C.M.G., was promoted to the command of the Anzac Mounted Division; Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. R. Mackesy, D.S.O., after acting as brigadier for a few days, was appointed Administrator of the Khan Yunus-Deir El Belah area; Lieutenant-Colonel W. Meldrum, C.M.G., D.S.O., who had been in command of the W.M.R., page 145became Commander of the New Zealand Brigade; Major J. N. McCarroll took over command of the A.M.R., and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel; Major C. R. E. Mackesy, who had been in command of the 3rd squadron, became second in command of the Regiment, and Captain T. L. Ranstead, who had been signalling officer to the Regiment on Gallipoli, and who had seen almost continuous service, took over the command of the 3rd squadron; Lieutenant W. Haeata, who had been acting as adjutant for some time, took over the duties permanently, Lieutenant J. Evans, who had rendered brilliant service as adjutant throughout the campaign, being transferred to the New Zealand infantry in France.
In connection with the operations in the second battle of Gaza, the names of Captain A. C. M. Finlayson, Sergeant Dunbar, Lance-Corporal K. M. Stevens, and Trooper K. Bishop, were brought under the notice of higher authorities.
The Regiment had richly earned a rest when it was relieved by infantry on April 29, and moved back to bivouac, at a spot one and a-half miles south-west of Fara. For some weeks the weather had been hot, and during the last week the dreaded wind had come with its suffocating heat and blinding dust. Fara was not a rest camp, of course. The term "rest" is used only in a comparative sense, as it always must be in respect to mounted troops who have to keep the enemy and his movements under close surveillance over miles of country. At Fara, the Mounted Rifles and kindred bodies were what might be called the antennae of the army, but they were also the sting. Sometimes moving in force, sometimes in page 146small bodies, the desert horsemen kept guard over the territory east of the wadi. Occasionally enemy patrols fired on the screen, but history does not take much notice of such incidents. It is the kind of work that is covered by the communique which says that patrols were in touch with the enemy, but quiet prevailed along the front. In addition to this highly-important duty, road-making was carried out and water developed in the wadi. Time was found, however, for football and sports.
A force of 2, 500 Turks was reported to be advancing towards Fara from Beersheba on May 10, and the New Zealand Brigade was ordered to move out that night, push the enemy screen back, and test the strength of the force at El Buggar. The A.M.R. acted as advanced guard to the brigade, with the 3rd squadron in the van. Turkish patrols retired before the advancing screen, and no action eventuated. Valuable information as to the nature of the country was obtained, however. The road was found to be fit for the passage of all arms and wheeled traffic, the country being easy rolling downs, carrying stunted crops and some grass. Water cisterns were found at Kh Khasif and El Buggar. On this stunt the men had their first glimpse of the minaret of the mosque in Beersheba.
It was at this time that the men were issued with gas helmets and trained in their use. Parties were marched through dense clouds of gas, and they felt very sorry for themselves. To add to the discomforts, which, with the approach of summer, were not light, inoculation against typhoid and cholera was carried out. During the month a considerable amount of barbed wire defence was page 147put into position along the British line—ominous preparations which were hardly calculated to give encouragement to the desert cavalry.
The most important aggressive operation of the period was the destruction of the southern sector of the Beersheba-El Auja railway. In this successful raid the New Zealanders were used to hold a defensive line between the Imperial Mounted Division, which demonstrated before Beersheba, and the Australian Light Horse. The Australians performed their demolition work about Bir Aslui, while part of the Camel Corps, which had moved south from Rafa, operated on the line near the terminus at El Auja, close to the Turco-Egyptian frontier. No opposition was encountered, and the railway was rendered useless, many viaducts and a large bridge being destroyed.
At the end of May, the Regiment, with the rest of the brigade, moved back to a bivouac ground at El Fukhari, where a new "home" was speedily established. The weather was growing hotter and the flies came in myriads. Training in manoeuvres, bomb throwing, and musketry was carried on, the range shooting being most important in view of the fact that Mark 7 rifles had been issued in place of the old Mark 6 type. Then the band came up from Rafa, and apart from the trials of summer, and the occasional visits of enemy aircraft, life was considered quite satisfactory. There was no want of applicants for leave to Cairo, however. Early in June a new bivouac was established at Tel El Marakeb, near Khan Yunus, where the training, which is rest, was continued, and later, another shift was made to Kazar. At this time the following names were brought under the notice of higher authorities:— page 148Captain A. C. M. Finlayson, Lieutenant C. V. Bigg-Wither (regimental quartermaster), S.S.M. H. Eisenhut, Q.M.S. J. Patten, and Trooper A. T. Buckland. Advice was received that Colonel Mackesy had been awarded the C.M.G. and R.S.M. W. Palmer the Military Cross.
On the night of July 3-4, the New Zealanders moved east in support of the Australian Mounted Division, which had to reconnoitre the country in the Shellal-Beersheba-Asluj area. By morning the Regiment was in its appointed position, west of Taweil E1 Habari, where the squadrons, particularly the 11th, were vigorously shelled, but the shelter of the wadis prevented any casualties. Here a remarkable incident was witnessed. A British aeroplane landed on open ground between the advanced division and the reserves. In a twinkling the Turkish artillery had the range, and the pilot was forced to bolt on foot. Fully 100 shells burst round the 'plane, which everyone thought must have been damaged. Later the pilot, unseen by the Turks, crept back to his machine, and starting the engine careered along the road to safety. He could not rise owing to one wing being broken, but the machine rushed along the road like a motor-car, to the great joy of the horsemen. The New Zealanders withdrew during the afternoon, and watered the thirsty horses at Fara, the first watering for 31 hours.
The following day the "bivvies" which covered the "arm chair" holes in the ground were folded up and a shift was made to Fara, where a standing camp of tents was taken over. Patrolling work was resumed. Five patrols of one troop each were sent out to the outpost line, and soon renewed their acquaintance with the page 149Turks. At Kh Khasif a squadron of cavalry was seen watering their horses, and Hotchkiss and rifle fire was brought to bear upon it. The Turks did not wait for any more water.
On July 8, during a reconnaisance by the Anzac Division, the New Zealanders saw for the first time the new Commander-in-Chief, Major-General Sir Edmund Allenby. The presence of the great soldier in the forward zone was more than a tonic to the regiments which were still suffering from the Gaza fiasco, and his personality began to have a wonderful effect throughout the entire force. "He'll do us," was the colloquial verdict. In this expedition the advance reached within four miles of Beersheba. The Turkish guns were busy during the day, and much activity was seen among the Turkish forces, which, no doubt, feared an attack.
A couple of nights later the brigade left on a silent stunt with the idea of rounding up any Turks believed to be in the habit of frequenting the Khasif-El Buggar area. Leaving the horses at a safe distance, the positions were surrounded on foot, but the Turks were not there. At this time the squadron commanders were Captain Ashton (3rd), Major Munro (4th), and Captain Finlay-son (11th).
On July 12 there was another foray. At Khasif a troop, under Lieutenant Tait, encountered three troops of enemy cavalry, and forced them to retire, after a short encounter. The Somerset Battery came up in the afternoon to shell an eminence known as Hill 630, but the Turks did not wait for the attentions of that excellent battery. The Turkish gunners did their best to page 150spoil the work of Lieutenant Hatrick and his signallers, who were using helios, but fortune again attended the signallers, and no harm was done. A day or two later the Regiment took over part of the advance defences, the 3rd squadron going to Z Redoubt at E1 Ghabi, the 4th squadron to Y Redoubt at El Jezariye, and the 11th squadron to X Redoubt at Um Ajua. These redoubts were already entrenched, and were protected with barbed wire. The most serious disadvantage of this duty was that horses had to be taken to Gamli, four miles away, for water, the 30 transport camels of the Regiment being unable to bring up the necessary supplies. Owing to the large proportion of the men who had to be on patrol duty and on guard in the redoubts at night, this stretch of duty was arduous. On July 19 there was a mild scare, patrols from Fara encountering a strong force of Turks in the fog early in the morning. The A.M.R. remained in the redoubts, but the rest of the brigade moved out with the division, and infantry came up to support the Regiment. No action eventuated, but casualties occurred through shell fire.
The Regiment returned to Fara on July 22, but excursions and alarms continued to be the order of life. The weather was very hot, the men became worn out, and there was a great deal of sickness. Patrols ventured right into what the Turks regarded as their territory, and often were under fire. One day the report came in that the Turks were evacuating Beersheba, and this had to be investigated. Of course the information was incorrect. The following day there was a recon-naisance to the Wadi Imleih. After the fog lifted page 151at 8 a.m., a patrol, under Lieutenant M. E. Johnson, located a Turkish post, and two troops under Captain Finlayson were ordered to capture it. They moved into the Wadi Sheria, and then under cover of artillery fire they rushed the post, but the Turks fled. The A.M.R. men gave pursuit, one troop galloping along the north bank of the wadi, and the other along the south bank of the Wadi Imleih, and came within an ace of cutting off the Turks. Heavy fire from the Sana redoubt forced the troops to retire. Four Turks were killed and a number were wounded. Later, the Somerset Battery directed its fire against Sana, 7,000 yards away, and so well was it directed that the Turks were made to clear out in disorder. Corporal E. J. Coleman, who turned back and rescued under fire a man who had his arm broken when his horse was shot, was recommended for reward. He was given the Military Medal. It was a very gallant rescue.
By the beginning of August, new infantry divisions were appearing on the front, the railway had reached Shellal, which was as far as it could go, and there were signs of another forward move. Acutally the army was being organised for the next blow, but the hour was not yet ripe, and the endless game of night and day riding had to go on. The squadron commanders remained the same, except that Major Ranstead, upon his return from hospital, took over the 3rd squadron, Captain Ashton becoming second in command of the 4th squadron.
A very fine piece of work was carried out by Lieutenant M. E. Johnson and a patrol of four men, on the night of August 7. It had been reported that the Sana Redoubt was being filled in, page 152and definite information was wanted on the point. The party went to Khirbit Erk during the afternoon, and after dark rode due north for a mile and then east for an hour. Owing to the brightness of the moonlight the party had to wait until midnight before venturing further. They succeeded in getting close to the redoubt without being detected, and at a distance of from 250 to 150 yards they reconnoitred the post, gaining definite information that the trenches were not being filled in. Small parties of Turks were seen in all quarters of the works.
The prevalence of fog at this time added to the troubles of patrols, and was responsible for some incidents which afterwards were considered amusing. Often patrols moved out in the darkness with the object of "beating" the Turks for valued observation posts at dawn. One foggy morning several patrols got into a bad state of nerves owing to the screen losing direction, and after riding around for a time coming up in rear of the party which they had been expected to protect. Later one officer rode across to the officer of the next patrol, and said he was certain that some men were in front of him, and he was very anxious to know if the screen of his friend was in its right position. Of course it was, how could his screen lose itself, was the reply. Later the first officer informed his brother that he would not dream of casting reflections about his men, but that he could swear that a horse that had loomed up and disappeared again was very much like Baldie of the second troop. "Of course there was no need to worry about the fellows getting lost," remarks the ex-officer long after.page break page break page break page break page 153
"An officer doesn't need to worry with men of such capacity. Even if they do lose themselves in the fog you can bet your boots that you'll hear where they are mighty quick if they run into an enemy patrol. And if nothing happens you can rely upon them pulling into some dump before long. It's easy to be an officer with such men." On the other hand we find ex-troopers yarning over the days that have been, and some one is bound to remark that the great thing on these night adventures was to have officers they could trust, and then they will start to extol Bobbie This or Magnus That or Mervyn So and So, or Sinclair Whathis-name, who did honour to the King's commission, and never, never lost themselves. And when long after the days of stress, officers and rankers indulge in expressions of mutual admiration, you realise what a happy family it was, and you get the key to the secret of many things.
The men and horses were badly in need of the rest which commenced on August 18, the Regiment and the rest of the brigade going to Goz Abu Um El Dakeir, on the coast, in the vicinity of Khan Yunus. Never did men more enjoy sea bathing than did the grimy sun-baked men from inland. The sea itself was hot—as warm as No. 6 at Te Aroha, remarked one man— and horses and riders disported themselves in the surf like porpoises. Then there was fruit to be had from Khan Yunus—prickly pear and watermelons, and for some there was leave to the rest camp at Port Said. Of course the usual athletic epidemic broke out during the life of ease by the vitalising sea, taking the form of boxing on this occasion. Each evening burly brown giants pounded each other in the "stadium," and one page 154man with an eye for muscular strength, formally called upon Richard the Lion Heart to "trot out his ironclad pugs." The shades of Richard remained mute, but doubtless they were there.
On September 18, the New Zealanders, much improved in health, moved to Fukhari, taking the place of the 4th Light Horse in the support line. They arrived at the new bivouac ground in a severe dust storm, which continued for a number of days with maddening persistency. The most of the month was spent in strenuous training and practise of all kinds, but time was found for football matches. But there was not to be much more time for play.