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

Chapter XXV. Tel El Saba

page 155

Chapter XXV. Tel El Saba.

About October 20, General Allenby began to make his concentrations for his attack against the Gaza-Beersheba line. The New Zealanders formed part of the Desert Mounted Corps concentrating about Khalasa and Asluj, from 15 to 20 miles south of Beersheba.

At 5 p.m. on the evening of October 25, the brigade started for Esani, 15 miles to the southeast, and after a cold ride reached their destination at 1 a.m. In this locality was seen a new ration dump, which was being built up by night by steam tractors. A few nights later the brigade moved to Khalasa, 10 miles further south, and the next night continued on another 15 miles to Asluj, due south of Beersheba. No fires were allowed this night, and water and bully beef formed the supper. At 6 p.m. the following evening, the brigade started on the trek north to the attack on Beersheba from the east. The route for the first 10 miles followed a splendid metalled road, over which the guns and wheeled transport held exclusive rights, the column being a triple one. The road was left when the Wadi Imshash was reached, the column then moving almost due east along the bank of the wadi for another 10 miles, when it turned due north along a winding track. At 2 a.m. a halt was made while the W.M.R. went forward to surround a post at Goz El Shegeib, where a body of enemy cavalry was suspected to be. The post was found clear of the enemy, and the march was resumed at 3 a.m. At dawn the brigade was three or four miles south page 156of the Beersheba-Bir Arara Road, to the southeast of Tel El Saba, a strongly-held peak over 1,000 feet high, which dominated the eastern approach to Beersheba. At 8.30 the road line was reached, the A.M.R. then being in reserve. At 9 o'clock the A.M.R., with the Somerset Battery attached, received orders to advance on Saba, the C.M.R. being on their right and the 3rd Light Horse on their left. The advance was started immediately, the 11th squadron, under Major Whitehorn, forming the advanced guard. The advance followed the line of a wadi, which offered good cover, and in which pools of water were found for the thirsty horses. The discovery of this water was of great importance. Leaving the wadi the 11th squadron came under long-range machine-gun fire from Saba. The ground traversed was flat and open, but it was intersected with many watercourses, which gave good cover.

At 1, 800 yards from the enemy position the 11th squadron dismounted, and continued to advance on foot; the other two squadrons (the 3rd being under Captain Ashton and the 4th under Major Munro) rode on under cover of the north bank of the wadi to a point 800 yards from the objective. From this point the 3rd and 4th squadrons moved on foot into position on the left front of the 11th. The advances were made a troop at a time, the machine-guns being pushed on to give covering fire. The 3rd Light Horse regiment came into action on the south side of the wadi, and brought covering fire to bear on the position. The Somerset Battery gave considerable assistance with a well-directed fire against machine-gun positions, the exact locations of page 157which were communicated from the attacking line. It was the first time the experiment of putting a battery under the commander of an attacking line was tried, and it proved highly successful. The battery commander received his orders direct from the regimental commander, who was never far from the firing line, and always in a position to see the effect of the covering shells. Thus no time was lost in correcting the range of the guns, a signaller with flags passing on the messages given to him orally by the Auckland colonel. It was only a matter of minutes before several changes in the range were flagged back, and the shells were bursting right over the machine-gun emplacements of the enemy. "That's the stuff to give, 'em," ejaculated Lieutenant-Colonel McCarroll as he saw the goodly sight., Immediately this remark was sent back as a message by Lieutenant Hatrick, who doubtless had his tongue in his cheek as he did so. After the fight the battery commander, an Imperial officer, inquired who sent this message. "I could not find it in my book of signals," he said, "but I would like to say that we understood it perfectly, don't you know. It was—eh—rather novel for the service. What! It is to be preserved in the record of the battery as a memory of you fellows." At 2 p.m., when the Regiment was in line, orders were issued for a general attack ten minutes later. Promptly to the second the line moved forward in short rushes, the covering fire of our artillery and machine-guns being excellent. At 2.40 a hill 400 yards east of Saba was rushed, and 60 prisoners were taken, and also three machine-guns, which were immediately turned against Saba with splendid effect. After a short "breather" the Regiment moved on against Saba. Steadily the line page 158moved on, the old indomitable spirit sending joy to the heart of the colonel, who knew that nothing could stop that line of bayonets. At the exact moment the Regiment rose for the charge, but already the hill was won, the garrison retiring precipitately. A total of 122 unwounded and 10 wounded prisoners were taken by the Regiment, besides four machine-guns and a large amount of war material. The A.M.R. suffered practically the whole of the brigade's casualties, having held the post of honour. It lost six killed, including Captain S. C. Ashton, and 22 wounded, including Lieutenant W. H. John, a Main Body man, who had been promoted from the ranks. His injuries proved fatal. Captain G. S. Cheeseman assumed command of the 3rd squadron upon the death of Captain Ashton.

How the tide of battle rolled on, crumpling the Turkish left, and within a few days carrying the whole of the line from Gaza to Beersheba, has been related in other histories. During these wonderfully successful operations the New Zealanders were used in pressing the left flank of the enemy. After spending a night and day in consolidating the Saba position, which was shelled and bombed from the air, the A.M.R. sent forward the 3rd and 11th squadrons to take a turn of duty on the outpost line. The water trouble now began to reach the severe stage. So far the horses had been watered in surface pools in the Wadi Saba, but this supply soon gave out. The men had by now consumed their iron rations, but their greatest concern was for their horses, which had carried them so far and endured so nobly. On November 2, the W.M.R. and the C.M.R., which had been engaged with a force of 400 cavalry page 159to the north-west of Kh El Ras, and the 4th squadron of the A.M.R., moved to Bir Imshash and took up an outpost line facing east and covering the wells in that locality, the other two squadrons of the A.M.R. arriving that evening. In this area some dozen wells were located, but they contained only a few inches of muddy water, and this had to be drawn up in buckets, which were filled by men who descended. It can be readily imagined how slow a process this method of watering was, but when everything possible had been done the thirst of the poor animals was only stimulated. During the next few days the Regiment, when not out on the outpost line, was ranging the countryside in search for a little water. On the 4th, the brigade was rushed to the Wadi El Sultan to support yeomanry who had come into action. This day neither the men nor the horses had any water. The following day the C.M.R. and the Waikatos pushed forward their line some 800 yards, and were heavily shelled. A counter-attack was attempted against the left of the C.M.R., and the 3rd squadron of the A.M.R. was ordered to support, but the attack was repulsed. During the day, water for the men was brought up on pack horses, but there was none for the horses, which by midnight had been without a drink for 48 hours. The "Camels" were due to relieve the mounted rifles, but as they did not materialise, it was decided to lead the horses to Beersheba, 14 miles distant, to get a drink. This day the Regiment lost one man killed and four wounded, but the C.M.R. suffered heavily.

On the morning of November 6, the Camel Brigade arrived, and the sorely tried New Zealanders moved back on foot to Mikreh, a distance page 160of five miles. The Camel Brigade did not have too much water for themselves, but the New Zealanders were in such dire straits that they gave them 150 gallons. This worked out at half-a-pint per man. Everyone was tempted to gulp the water, but most took only a sip, and boiled the rest for tea. The state of fatigue of most of the men after this rigorous week of trekking and fighting, revived memories of the Gallipoli August. That night the led horses arrived back from Beersheba, and the Hotchkiss gun pack horses, which by this time had not had a drink for 72 hours, had to start on the 10 miles journey to Beersheba to be watered. Truly the horses of the mounted rifles "did their bit" towards the defeat of the Turks. On the 7th, 8th, and 9th the Regiment had to send the horses to water at Beersheba, and it says a good deal for their stamina that only 50 had to go to hospital.

On the 10th, the W.M.R. and the C.M.R. moved back to Beersheba, but the A.M.R. had to remain for another day on the outpost line, watering horses with the greatest difficulty at Mak-runeh. On the morning of the 11th, the Westminster Dragoons arrived at the inevitable trot, to relieve the A.M.R., and never were the Dragoons more popular.