The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter XXX. Through the Hills to Jericho
Chapter XXX. Through the Hills to Jericho.
At 3 a.m. the next morning, the advance was continued. The W.M.R., dismounted, was sent forward on the right, while the C.M.R. was ordered to occupy the high ground to the left. At 4.30 the column, led by the A.M.R., started to move forward in single file. It was nearly nine miles long, and looked like a giant brown snake drawing itself across the hills and ravines. The descent was steep and stoney, and one cheerful soul named it the "Gaby Glide." Unfortunately, the "glide" was over rocks and loose shingle, which even the led horses negotiated with difficulty. For the camels it was as uncertain as a greasy boom, and the ungainly animals sprawled, and "split" and stuck, and sometimes came to grief. The camel is not built for acrobatics of the kind. As regimental headquarters, at the head of the column, was making the last glissade from the pass into the wide valley after daybreak, enemy guns opened fire from two high hills, Tubk el Kaneitera and Jebel el Kalimun, which commanded the approach and completely dominated the valley. The ranging was bad, however, and only one horse was hit before headquarters was behind the cover of little hillocks which were scattered over the valley. The enemy gunners still had an excellent field of fire, but, fortunately, they frequently changed their targets, and thereby aided the attackers. When the A.M.R. swung out across the valley in fairly open order it became apparent that the C.M.R. had missed their objective and taken the wrong ridge. The positions of the enemy in front of the A.M.R. were very strong, page 182the W.M.R., on the right, had encountered opposition, and generally the situation looked anything but encouraging. With the artillery and machine-guns sweeping the valley, the A.M.R. commenced to press forward. Of course, there were no guns to support them. Before long the 11th squadron, which had entered the valley as the vanguard, was ordered to cross the track and get under the cover of a low ridge, but the track was swept by machine-gun fire, and the move had to be abandoned. It was then decided to "plug in" from the front, and troop by troop, the squadrons galloped forward from one piece of cover to another. The machine-guns with the Regiment attempted to give some covering fire, but little impression could be made on the nests of machine-guns firing from well-prepared positions on the heights.
While the A.M.R. had been working up the valley in this manner, the attack to the north by the infantry, who had advanced along the main road, had been developing well. The C.M.R. had got into its correct position, and had started to co-operate with the A.M.R. by excellent fire on the Turkish positions. Towards mid-day, a lull in the enemy's fire gave the 11th squadron a chance to rush the first position, on the right side of the valley, which in addition to its operations against the A.M.R. had been a factor in holding up the W.M.R. The garrison retired in haste before the dismounted rush of the North Aucklanders. Meantime, the 3rd and 4th squadrons were pushing on against the left and centre. A brigade of Light Horse from the rear had been sent to work round the enemy's left, but the movement was necessarily slow, owing to the tracks having to be negotiated in single file. To the north the infantry had succeeded in ousting the Turks from their page 183first positions, and this gave them gun positions, the fire from which compelled the enemy to remove the higher tier of machine-guns on Kalimun. The A.M.R. horses were now ordered up, and in one furious charge the hill was taken. The garrison did not wait, but bolted down the other side. Very soon the Turks were shelling the crest by guns in the open, only a mile away. It was the first time Turkish guns went into action in full view.
The taking of these positions did not clear the way to the Jordan Valley, however. Four or five miles further, stood the frowning peak of Nebi Musa, said to be the burial place of Moses. This formidable position was reconnoitred, but as the daylight was fast waning it could not be attacked that day. The Regiment spent the night on the line gained. Strong posts were established in front, and then rose the eternal question of water for the horses. The horses of one squadron were sent four miles up the wadi to a well. Owing to the time occupied in drawing up the water in buckets these horses were away for four hours. It was therefore decided to do no more watering that night, otherwise the men would get no sleep at all.
When dawn broke there was no sign of the enemy on Nebi Musa, and it was soon ascertained that the position had been evacuated. The column continued its march down the desolate valley. The track became narrow and steep, and in places it was bordered by a precipice. Then rain began to fall, and the track became dangerous. A descent into the rocky bed of the wadi was therefore made, and down it the men and animals stumbled in single file. The brigade column stretched out to a distance of five miles, and offered page 184a splendid chance to the enemy. A couple of well placed machine-guns could have done terrible havoc, but the Turks had gone. No doubt they had been hurried by the fact that the infantry were pressing along the main road further north. About 9 a.m. a gap appeared in the hills ahead, and soon after the mounted men were issuing into the historic battleground of the Jordan Valley. A few miles to the south lay the Dead Sea, to the north lay Jericho, and seven or eight miles to the east, across the winding Jordan, rose the Hills of Moab and the country of Gilead.
The enemy was in fast retreat across the plain, and hopes were entertained of cutting some of them off, but while the New Zealand Brigade "dribbled" out of the hills, valuable time was lost, and the main force of the Turks was across the Jordan by the Goraniyeh Bridge before the rear parties could be threatened.
Jericho, which looked well from a distance, proved to be horribly dirty. Australians had the honour of being the first into it. Away beyond the Jordan could be seen a Turkish camp. The A.M.R. bivouacked on the west side of the valley, with the Mount of Temptation towering above them. The other regiments were ordered to watch the line of the river from its mouth to El Ghoraniyeh Bridge. Major Munro, of the A.M.R., was appointed military commandant of Jericho.
In the Greek church they found a picture of St. George that had been mutilated by the Turks. This was interesting, in view of the fact that the Turks named the British mounted forces "St. George's cavalry"—the idea, no doubt, coming from the design on the handle of the cavalry sword.
On February 22, the whole of the mounted troops, excepting the A.M.R., moved back to Bethlehem, the W.M.R. and the C.M.R. returning thence to Ayun Kara. The A.M.R. was attached to the 60th Division to act as corps cavalry, its job being to patrol the Jordan, or as near to the Jordan as the enemy would permit. The patrols came in for a good deal of shelling, and among the first men to be wounded was that fine troop leader Lieutenant McCathy.
During the first few days the road leading to Jerusalem was crowded by the ever-pitiful refugees. Among the crowd were to be seen barefooted women and children carrying huge loads. Although these folk of many races were leaving their homes for their own good, and were under page 186the care of Britain, which always feeds the people of a country she conquers, their present tribulations were saddening.
For those who were interested in Biblical history, this wonderful, but rather desolate valley, was crowded with interesting places. A mile north of Jericho, beside the ruins of the first Jericho, was Elijah's well, the source of the water supply of the town. This was the well which the prophet is said to have turned from brackish to sweet water.
A reconnoitring stunt was carried out on March 2. The infantry brought forward their guns, including four 60-pounders which were attached to the A.M.R., and the old, old valley echoed to martial music of a very different kind from the trumpet-blowing which the Israelites once indulged in with good effect around the walls of Jericho. The A.M.R. pushed ahead towards the bridge, but the Turkish guns did good work, and nowhere where they able to get nearer than a mile to the river.
A few days later, the 11th squadron went on a little expedition towards the bridge, and paid its respects to Turks who held a trench west of it, while British field guns did some excellent practice on a machine-gun "possie." That night the Turks blew up the bridge, a wooden affair 80 feet long and 12 feet wide, and thereafter patrols were able to approach within a few hundred yards of the river. The weather was now becoming uncomfortably hot, and the Aucklanders had a foretaste of the heat they were to endure down in that malaria-stricken valley during the summer.page 187
Some days later the infantry made a local push northward, and the A.M.R. was used on both flanks. They had no fighting, but plenty of shell fire. On this occasion two troops of the 11th squadron, under Major Herrold, added mountaineering to the list of their experiences. Their task was to get in touch with the 53rd Division on En Nejmeh, a rough peak, 2, 391 feet above sea-level, and therefore another 1,000 feet above the level of the Jordan Valley. Riding west from the Wadi Obeideh, the party crossed some broken country, and then found itself in a veritable paradise among rolling hills. The vegetation was luxuriant, and among the grass and wild flowers of every colour, deer and flocks of partridges were seen. On reaching the old Roman road, the horses were left behind, and in three parties the men went forward. The party which essayed the direct ascent toiled on, but always the top seemed as far off as ever. Eventually the rifles had to be sent back, and eight men crawled upward, helping each other over the dizzy ledges. Figures could be seen on the crest, and the party signalled, but got no reply. They had to climb on, scaling a high cliff before they could signal from the site of some old ruins. From this lofty point of vantage a view of the whole of the Jordan Valley was obtained and every move of the successful advance of the infantry was observed.
One day the 11th squadron, which had gone out to get into touch with the enemy, had a particularly severe shelling, but as usual, speed beat the gunners. Later in the day a troop of the 3rd squadron was ordered out to try to cut off a cavalry patrol, but the guns opened on them, and page 188they had to scatter. During this stunt the 4th squadron had been kept busy keeping an eye on four possible fords.
An amusing incident of the time must not be overlooked. It was the habit of the officers to bathe in the Sultan's Spring, near Jericho. One day the padre, the doctor, and another officer were enjoying themselves in the water when the adjutant came along. The bathers promptly splashed the adjutant before he undressed. The adjutant decided not to have a bathe, and he went off, taking the padre's clothes with him. The padre could not go home naked, so he was left there alone. At dinner time his messmates sent him a tin of bully beef, a biscuit and an empty beer bottle. His clothes went up later. It is rumoured that that evening the man of peace was willing to fight the whose mess.