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

Chapter XXXIX. On to Es Salt

page 227

Chapter XXXIX. On to Es Salt.

Next morning the brigade concentrated on the east bank of the river, and at mid-day moved east towards Es Salt. In intense heat, the column, led by the C.M.R., crossed the plain, and then started the steep ascent in single file. Touch was gained with the enemy in the foothills, but the advanced guard was not checked, capturing several posts and outflanking a redoubt a mile west of Es Salt. The mountain town was enveloped by 4 p.m. and taken without a fight, over 500 prisoners being secured. Once again the mounted troops had performed a feat which the Turks had not thought was possible. The climb of 3,000 feet through the hills had been exhausting to man and beast, because the pace was fast for such country. The Indian Mountain Battery, which accompanied the New Zealanders, lived up to the reputation of that branch of the service. There was no limit to the admiration won by the mules which carried the guns. In such work in such country the trained mule is master of all four-footed soldiers, and the mounted riflemen take off their hats to him and to the fighting men of India who led him.

That night the A.M.R. bivouacked west of the town. Next morning, after watering in Es Salt, the Regiment moved east along the road to Amman as advance guard to the brigade. The road was filled with the wreckage of a disastrous retreat. Evidently the Air Force had bombed it the previous day. Dead men and animals, abandoned carts and guns cumbered the way. Wounded Turks, who had crawled under the banks page 228of the road, cried piteously for help. It was the hideous side of war. By mid-day the Regiment, close on the heels of the fleeing Turks, had occupied the Circassian village of Suweileh without opposition, and secured a few prisoners. Here a halt had to be made, for the Regiment had been going too fast for the rest of the column. Good water was found, and the horses were watered and fed, and the men "boiled up." During the afternoon, touch was gained with the 2nd Light Horse, which had crossed the hills further south.

That evening, a selected party of 100 men with picked horses was ordered to ride across country to the Hedjaz railway south of Amman and damage the line as much as they could with the few tools available. Each squadron supplied 33 men and an officer, and the whole was under the command of Major Herrold. All saddles were stripped, and all that was carried beyond arms and ammunition was two picks, two shovels, and four spanners. Before darkness fell, the party started on their hazardous enterprise, striking due east. No one had any knowledge of the 10 or 12 miles of trackless country lying between Suweileh and the railway. The party was divided into three sections, one to work on the line and the other two to cover them on either flank, and then it pushed forward into the night, a small advance guard feeling the way. Soon the little column was picking its doubtful way through a jumbled mass of rocky spurs and deep ravines. The iron-shod hoofs striking the rocks seemed to make an appalling noise, but luckily there was no one to hear. Finally a track was struck, and as it ran due east it was followed for a mile or two, but with great caution, as it showed signs of recent traffic. Soon sounds of men were heard, and the page 229advance guard, going forward on foot, found a party of Turks digging a trench. The essential thing being to remain unseen, the party turned back and took a track of sorts which ran up a gully on the left. Up this the column moved in single file. The moon had now risen, and while its light aided progress it increased the chance of detection. The luck held, however. From the head of the gully, the party moved on through broken country, passed sleeping Bedouin camps, and finally reached the top of a ridge which overlooked the railway. The men dismounted in a gully, and two officers went forward to reconnoitre. They found that the road running parallel to the line on the far side was filled with Turkish transport, and it seemed too good to hope that a demolition party could escape detection. But the job had to be attempted. They returned to the party, and moved it forward to a depression within 400 yards of the line. Here the men got into position to cover the working party. The latter crept forward, two officers and six men going first with spanners, and then a few men with the picks and shovels.

The spanner men, lying as flat as they could, had only started their task when an engine with an armoured truck full of soldiers came down the line. The workers crawled behind a couple of rocks a few yards from the line and waited. The Turks in the truck were making a great row, and did not notice the prone figures as the train moved slowly past and round a bend beyond. The working party then crawled silently back to the line, and were none the happier when they observed, a matter of 50 yards away, the figure of a man on the ground with a pack horse standing alongside. This individual neither heard nor saw anything, however. Again the page 230work was interrupted, this time by a mounted patrol. One of the horsemen stopped only a chain away, but he did not see the figures on the ground. Eventually all the bolts were removed except one, and then the picks and shovels had to be used to finish the job. Both rails were twisted in such a way as to make them useless, and left in their original positions. The party then crept back to the horses, and the raiders secretly wended their way back, reaching Suweileh soon after dawn. That morning a train was wrecked at the gap made in the line. For his leadership of this daring and highly successful raid, Major Herrold received the D.S.O.