The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919
Chapter XXXI. Across the Jordan
Chapter XXXI. Across the Jordan.
There was to be little opportunity for practical joking for some time to come, however. The Commander-in-Chief had decided to make a raid into Gilead, through which ran the Turk's lines of supply to the forces operating against the Arabs of Hedjaz, named the Sherifian Forces. For the operation a special force known as "Shea's Group was created. It consisted of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, the 60th (London) Division, the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, the 10th Heavy Battery R.G.A., the Hongkong Mountain Battery, besides two bridging trains and armoured cars. Reconnaissance had shown that the Jordan, at this time of the year, was unfordable at any available point, and that the only practicable places for throwing bridges across were at Makhadet, Hajlah, and Ghor-aniyeh. The intention was that a steel pontoon bridge was to be thrown across the Hajlah for the passage of the cavalry and the "Camels," and a standard pontoon bridge, a barrel bridge, and an infantry bridge were to be built at Ghoraniyeh for the passage of the 60th Division.
At midnight on March 21, the bridging efforts commenced. At Ghoraniyeh repeated attempts by the swimmers of the Londons failed, owing to the force of flood water. The enemy opposite were alarmed, and the attempt had to be abandoned for a time. Better fortune attended the Australians of the Desert Mounted Corps Bridging Train and the Londons at Hajlah, which is about three miles from the Dead Sea. Swimmers page 190got across unobserved, and a raft ferry was started. After dawn the gallant Londons were crossing under heavy enfilade machine-gun fire. Meantime the bridge train had been performing stupendous feats, and by 8.10 a.m. their pontoon bridge was finished, other battalions of the Londons crossing immediately. During the day the infantry were confined to the trees and growth bordering the river, all attempts to extend the protection over the bridgehead being stopped by machine-guns, which opened up at every angle. No crossing had yet been possible at Ghoraniyeh.
Meantime the A.M.R. was waiting for its great chance, the chance which came on the morning of the 23rd. No other regiment of the New Zealand Brigade, nor any regiment of the Light Horse, was to share the honours of this wonderful day. The W.M.R. and the C.M.R. had come over the hills to Talaat Ed Dumm, near Nebi Musa, but there they were to remain for the time being. It was Auckland, and Auckland alone, which was to break the ground below the Mountains of Moab for the Londoners, when the hour struck. The hour struck at 5 a.m. on March 23, when the Regiment moved across to the pontoon bridge at Hajlah to a day of remarkable exploits—a day of the most audacious gallantry ever achieved by the horsemen of this campaign.
The men seemed to realise that a day of days had begun when they stood to their horses in the early dawn and tightened their girths. The horses, for the first time in their varied careers, tramped across a pontoon bridge, below which the river swept fast and deep. At 7.30, the Regiment had passed through the outpost line of the infantry, which was little more than 500 yards page 191from the river. The country was flat, and, excepting the presence of small wadis which cut it, was excellent for fast mounted work. Fast work it was to be. Immediately two troops of the 11th squadron were sent eastward, and one to the north-east, while the 3rd and 4th squadrons were ordered to make a dash north to attack from the rear the garrison defending the crossing at Ghoraniyeh, where bridging operations had so far failed. Engineers were standing by at the spot, but apparently little hope of success was entertained, seeing that guns which had been waiting to cross there had been sent down to the bridge at Hajlah. All pack horses, excepting those carrying Hotchkiss guns, were left behind, and the two squadrons, with the 4th acting as advanced guard, set off at the gallop.
Meantime one of the troops of the 11th squadron—under Lieutenant Tait—had intercepted a squadron of Turkish cavalry 60 strong. Without a second's hesitation, Lieutenant Tait with his 20 men, armed only with rifles, galloped at the sabres. The Turks showed some spirit, and attempted to ride the North Aucklanders down, but they broke and fled before the troopers who fired as they galloped forward. The Arab horses of the Turkish cavalry were no match for the swift and powerful mounts of the riflemen, who, within a few minutes, were on the heels and abreast of the Turks, and shooting with deadly accuracy. Numbers of Turks dropped from their saddles, while their comrades spurred on in panic, yelling in fear, and shooting wildly into the air or blindly backwards. No less than 20 of the Turks were shot down during this wild ride, and seven page 192were taken prisoner. The Aucklanders had only one casualty, the gallant troop leader himself, who was shot dead.
Simultaneously, the 3rd and 4th squadrons were galloping north at breakneck speed. Every-thing depended on speed, and more often than not the main line was on the heels of what, under ordinary circumstances, would have been a screen. Spur as they would the advance guard could not keep any distance from the squadrons behind, and the colonel's shouts of "Faster, Faster," came clearly to their ears. Those fine horsemen seemed to be possessed of a devil, so reckless was the ride. The dash which the commander put into his regiment was amazing, and staggered the battalions of the Londons which were able to view it.
At 9 o'clock the leading squadron encountered a post of 17 Turks, which they instantly charged and captured intact without suffering a single casualty. The Turks seemed to be mesmerised by the suddenness of the onslaught, and they were prisoners before they knew what had happened. They had not been trained for this sort of warfare, which, according to one trooper, followed the rules of some authority named Rafferty. He could not say where the text book could be obtained, but he was emphatic that Rafferty rules were followed.
While this move had been progressing, the troop of the 11th squadron, which had been sent north from the crossing, had driven a machine-gun post from Kasr El Yehud overlooking the river, and as the Regiment continued the gallop to the north-east, one troop of the 4th squadron, under Lieutenant M. E. Johnson, was detached to cut page 193this party off. Using the fashionable tactics of the day, this troop swooped down upon the party and collected the lot, guns and all.
The "main body" of the Regiment now turned its attention towards the final objective, the Ghoraniyeh Bridge, to repair which the Royal Engineers were waiting for a chance. After a rest in a wadi, the 4th squadron was ordered to seize Shunet Nimrin by rushing it at the gallop, and the 3rd squadron was ordered to rush high ground overlooking Ghoraniyeh. The latter squadron succeeded in galloping into good positions. There were two machine-guns on the left, however, and Lieutenant Collins with his troop of the 3rd squadron was ordered to get them. Unseen by the machine-gunners who were firing vigorously at other targets, Collins and his men swept up a wadi on their flank, and dismounting right under them, rushed them before they could swing the guns round. The whole post was captured, and one of the guns was turned on a party of Turks who were seen bolting for their lives. Eleven of them were killed. This smart action enabled the remainder of the squadron to get into good positions commanding the bridge, the remaining Turks fled, and the Royal Engineers were able to start their work on the bridge. Some men of A.M.R. lent a hand to get the first rope across. Meanwhile, the 4th squadron had come under artillery fire from Nimrin. Later, the two squadrons attempted to cut off the garrison retiring from Ghoraniyeh towards Nimrin, but the artillery of the enemy from the hills put over a barrage which compelled a withdrawal. This was done at the gallop in lines of troop columns at irregular intervals, a formation which proved the best for escaping gun fire.page 194
It was a wonderful day. Events happened so rapidly that when the Regiment was relieved from the outpost line at dusk, the men could hardly realise what they had done. A total of 50 Turks were killed, 60 were captured, besides four machine-guns, at a cost of one officer killed, and one officer and one man wounded. Only six horses were hit. It need hardly be said that the extraordinary success of the day gave the A.M.R. a wonderful reputation among the Tommies. Many of them said they had never dreamed such riding possible. Through quick and courageous decisions, and prompt and intrepid action, one regiment, armed only for dismounted fighting, had cleared some miles of country. At any time hesitation or slow movement might have meant disaster. It was one of those occasions, too, when the results were immediately seen, for by nightfall artillery and supplies were passing over the pontoon bridge at Ghoraniyeh, while the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division started to cross at Hajleh.
As usual, the day was not without its humours. A sergeant of the 3rd squadron was the victim of the best joke. When the Regiment was standing-to in the wadi near Nimrin, a gun, very close at hand, started to drop shells into the opposite side of the watercourse. The sergeant in the wild gallop had lost his sense of direction, and believing that the gun was a British gun, climbed to the top of the sheltering bank and energetically waved a flag at the gun, which was only a few hundred yards away. The gun immediately roared again, and the sergeant took only half a second to roll down the bank again. "The damn thing's not ours at all," he remarked, amid the laughter, and added somewhat pensively, "And I waved my little flag at it."