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

Chapter XXXIV. Retirement

page 206

Chapter XXXIV. Retirement.

Only partial success had been achieved by the forces attacking Amman from the west, and the situation had been complicated by the arrival of Turkish reinforcements in the vicinity of Es Salt, and that evening a general withdrawal was ordered.

The retirement could not possibly be attempted until after dark for every movement was met with a terrific storm of shells. No one knows how the men held out on the crest throughout that long afternoon. Some slight rest was obtained when the New Zealand machine-guns found the emplacements of the enemy, and forced them to move. The Turkish artillery continued its heavy fire until darkness fell. What a relief was the arrival of darkness that evening!

Plans were speedily made for the retirement, but owing to the difficulty in evacuating the wounded this could not take place immediately. The forward dressing station was 1,000 yards from the firing line, and from there the wounded had to be carried a further two miles before other means of conveyance could be obtained. But these other means of conveyance were only saddle horses and cacholet camels. The camel apparatus, which was only a double litter fitting over the hump, was reserved for the worst cases. The others had to be strapped to horses. The sufferings those men endured on that terrible journey, over slippery and dangerous tracks through the hills on a night which was piercingly cold, can never be described. Many died, of course, who otherwise would have lived.

page 207

Unfortunately, there were hardly any stretchers on which to convey the wounded to the dressing stations, and blankets had to be used for the purpose, some of the cases, therefore, requiring six men to carry them. This increased the difficulty of the retirement, and delayed it. All this time the men on the ridge had to keep a keen watch upon the enemy. "Jacko" was still looking for a chance to get the hill. Our right flank was very open, and there was the chance of the Turks pushing round it at any moment. It was an anxious time, and the appearance of the moon at 8.30, white helping to expedite movement, increased the possibilities of a disastrous retirement.

The colonel issued orders to each unit, giving the exact time for moving back, so that the whole force would meet in one line for the final withdrawal. When the last of the wounded had been got away and the dead buried, the force moved back in silence. Care was taken by everyone to avoid even kicking a stone. The first 1,000 yards was covered without event, the Turks not having any suspicion of what was taking place. The moon was now well up, and was showing up the crest that had been left, but the New Zealanders had got out of an impossible position by the same method they had used to get into it—by stealth. The retirement was now considered safe, and a feeling of inexpressible relief came over the men. Strong men, weary beyond all telling, and still showing signs of the daze which comes from long endurance of shell fire, silently gripped hands. The last of the wounded were picked up by the retiring line at the first dressing station, and carried on their painful way to the horses.

page 208

No disgrace attaches to this retirement. What had been started as a raid to cover a railway demolition party had developed into a little war without the necessaries of war, and the raiding force had done surprisingly well to have accomplished what it had. For two days it had existed on emergency iron rations, which, while they can sustain life, are not the food to fight on, nor the food to enable men to stand the intense cold which prevailed. Apart from the lack of proper food the men had had little sleep, and they were just about as wretched as they could possibly be, but the traditional cheerfulness of the A.M.R. shone out. As always, they made the best of things. It was typical of the men that when rations did come up they were more pleased about getting grain for the horses than some hard tack for themselves.

The former bivouac, a mile east of the village of Ain Es Sir, was reached by the column about 4 a.m., and the men of the A.M.R. were soon fast asleep.

The tribulations of this raid were not yet done, however. The whole force was to return to the Jordan, and the New Zealand Brigade was detailed to cover the infantry and Camels going back by this route. At 4 p.m., by which time most of the transport camels had started west, the C.M.R. reported a strong force of Turks advancing on the left flank. The A.M.R. was ordered out to support the C.M.R. The A.M.R. halted 600 yards from the outpost line, and spent one of the most dreadful nights of its existence. A cutting wind blew, and there was no shelter from it. Stiff with the cold the men lay close together, and prayed page 209that the Turks would be frozen too. The regiments began to retire slowly before dawn. The enemy had come within 1, 500 yards of the C.M.R. line, but had not attacked. Daylight was breaking by the time they were clear of the village, where the W.M.R. took over the rearguard duties. The column slowly moved down the wadi, along which were scattered the bodies of dozens of camels which had been knocked out by the greasy slopes and the cold, and were now being cut up by the Arabs for food. When the Regiment had reached the point where the road leaves the Wadi Sir and goes up the bank towards the Wadi Jerria, shooting was heard in the rear. The Circassians had opened fire on the Wellingtons from the houses and caves and rocks on either side of the defile. The W.M.R. promptly returned the fire, and the Circassians were severely punished. Unfortunately, the W.M.R. had nine or ten men killed. The A.M.R. and C.M.R. got into position to cover the retreat of the W.M.R., and when a machine-gun and a battery of the 181st Infantry Brigade, which was ahead, opened up, the firing ceased. Meanwhile a strong Turkish force was reported to be advancing, and the march was continued as quickly as possible. A force of Turks was observed working its way down a ridge to the south, but the mountain gun stopped it. At last the mounted men passed through the infantry brigade which was in position to hold the rear, and after drawing rations from a dump, pushed on down the slopes towards the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, calm and still, spread out below them. At many places along the track were to be seen the disasters which had overtaken the camel train. page 210Nimrin was reached by 8 p.m., and there they bivouacked. During the operations, the brigade had captured nine Turkish officers, 188 other ranks, and seven Germans, besides five machine-guns. It had also shared in the capture of three mountain guns. Its total casualties were six officers and 32 other ranks killed, six officers and 116 other ranks wounded, and 13 other ranks missing.