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

Chapter XXIX. The Column Goes East

page 177

Chapter XXIX. The Column Goes East.

The next offensive operation was a movement against the enemy's left, the object being to drive the Turks from their positions covering Jericho from the west, to occupy the town temporarily to allow of it being examined by political and intelligence officers, and to clear the valley west of the Jordan as far north as the Wadi El Aujah. The role of the Australia and New Zealand Mounted Division was to assist the infantry by threatening the retreat of the enemy through Jericho, and afterwards to throw out protection round Jericho for at least 48 hours.

On February 15, the Regiment left Ayun Kara for Bethlehem. The route was not the usual one through Latron and Amwas, but by devious tracks across the hills. "This will be great," exclaimed the padre. "We will see the most interesting part of Central Palestine." "You can have it all for me," replied a trooper, with an eye to his steed, and, no doubt, more than a thought for the long climbs leading his mount. However it is yet too soon to speak of the hills. The first stage of the journey was south-east across the plain to the Junction Station, the point where the line to Beersheba met that to Jerusalem. They passed through pleasant country, the vineyards about to burst into leaf, and the almond trees in glorious bloom. The little Bedouin village of Akir was on the route, looking anything like the great Philistine city it once was. On all sides barley crops were sprouting, and the primitive farming operations of the country were going forward. The page 178night was spent at the Junction Station. The following morning the march was continued, the route turning south-east from the railway a few miles beyond the station, and leading immediately into the hills. The ancient road was in quite fair order, and the day's march to Zakariyeh was pleasant. The wild flowers which were blooming in profusion among the rocks of this wild region were a perfect delight. The colours of the anemones were beyond description. Here and there among the hills were passed small cultivated patches, and the growth of grass was amazing. Near Zakariyeh, a high point not unlike Gibraltar, where they bivouacked that night, was the place where "David did the shanghai trick," as one youthful veteran described the duel between the shepherd boy and the Philistian giant. One man surveyed the scene of the exploit in silence. He noted the pebbly bed of the old brook, and finally drawled, "Well, the shepherd bloke had stacks of small arm ammunition anyway." Some of the boys visited the village nearby, and had a rummage through what had been a sheikh's harem. In a bag on the wall was found the sign of the eternal female in the shape of black powder for darkening the eye-brows. The most junior lieutenant was advised to try it on his upper lip. The watering of the horses was a tedious job that night, all the water having to be drawn up 30 feet from a cistern.

Soon after leaving the bivouac the next morning, the horsemen found themselves on a sharp ascent. Bleak, barren, rocky ridges stretched as far as the eye could reach. A halt for lunch was made on the watershed, and then the route led down by steep grades. Finally, the page 179Hebron road was reached, and it was followed to within a mile of Bethlehem, where they bivouacked for the night among the rocks and boulders. The horses that evening drank water from Solomon's Pools.

The Regiment remained in bivouac the following day (February 18), and many men took the opportunity of visiting Bethlehem. All around were fine olive groves and vineyards and crops of barley on the little terraces which represented the labour of thousands of years. The great centre of interest was the Church of Nativity, which is built on the site of the Manger. Who could have dreamed when the Regiment left Auckland that men of it, before they returned, would stand in the accoutrements of war on Christendom's holy place. Who could have imagined that the paved streets of Bethlehem would resound with the march of New Zealand horsemen as they moved forward to the conquest of Jericho?

The next day (February 19) the column moved east to its difficult task across the hills. Already the W.M.R. had gone out to assist the 60th Infantry Division in its attack on El Muntar, some 10 miles east-north-east of Bethlehem. The A.M.R. was on the way at 9.30 a.m., the "road" being little more than a goat track. At 11 a.m. they started to descend to a wadi by a track that was so steep that the men had to lead their horses. Camels, of course, were the only means of transport on this march, and the drivers had a very arduous time in getting the clumsy brutes through. Muntar having been taken that morning, the page 180mounted men pushed on over the unspeakable track along the bed of the wadi. The scene was an impressive one. On either side towered high cliffs, and among the heights could be seen flocks of goats tended by Arabs, who played on the old-fashioned pipe as they led their flocks. At nightfall patrols were sent out, and the brigade, now joined by the W.M.R., bivouacked.