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The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919

Chapter X. — Of the Battle of Rafa and the First Crossing of the Boundary into Palestine

page 130

Chapter X.
Of the Battle of Rafa and the First Crossing of the Boundary into Palestine.

The Division received orders to move on the evening of the 8th January, 1917, to attack the enemy at Rafa at dawn next day. This time the Division was to be accompanied by the Camel Brigade (with its Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery) and by the 5th Brigade (Yeomanry) with a battery of the Honourable Artillery Company (18-pounders). The whole force was to be under the command of Sir P. Chetwode.

It is necessary to lay some stress upon the difficulties of the undertaking, because the famous cavalry raids of history offer no real standard of comparison.

In the European wars of 1866 and of 1870, cavalry actions did not take place at any great distance from their base, and even then there was food and water in plenty in the country. Again in America the great raids of Jeb Stuart and of Morgan were undertaken through country upon which the raiders could live. Our mounted troops (the cavalry of the Great War), on the other hand, made their raids in the desert, where all supplies even so far as water for the horses had to be carried with the column. If a man fell out of the column and wandered alone, he perished miserably; and where, if a water bottle by mischance were overturned or leaked, there was no water for the owner for perhaps another twenty-four hours; all this under a burning sun by day and in bitter cold by night, in which he became soaked to the skin with dew; and man cannot march and fight for more than a very limited time without food and drink.

Then, again, the task set our 'mounted troops in these raids must be considered. To attack and overcome a stubborn enemy strongly entrenched with both field and machine guns is at all times a difficult task. How much more so is it when page 131the attacking force has a few paltry 18-pounders behind it, however well served these be. Yet these difficulties were gloriously overcome again and again by these young soldiers from the Southern Seas. Dash and determination, combined with an infinity of painstaking forethought, were the qualities demanded by such tasks. The last round of ammunition, the last pound of "bully" and biscuits, and the last pint of water had to be worked out. When supplies could not be carried by the men, they had to be carried to them, and delivered at the very moment when wanted.

Yet all this was done. Men who had hunted and farmed fought as veteran soldiers, full of dash and determination and cunning; and he who had carried on a business or wielded a pen took his place and supplied and fed men and horses as never had been done before, or could have been done, even by the justly famed A.S.C. in the British Army.

Boundary Pillars between Egypt and Palestine.These two are on the battlefield close to Rafa.

Boundary Pillars between Egypt and Palestine.
These two are on the battlefield close to Rafa.

Aeroplanes had reported the Turks to be holding a strong position at Rafa, about a mile south-east of the police station on a low hill called El Magruntein. Leaving Masaid at midday on January 8th, the Desert Mounted Column concentrated in the Wadi el Arish. Mounted men and camel corps were the only troops participating. Moving out at dusk they followed the old telegraph line to Sheik Zowaiid, which was reached about 10.30 page 132p.m. Leaving here again at 1 a.m. on the morning of the 9th. daylight found the horsemen on the borders of Turkey and Egypt at a small Bedouin camp named Shokh el Sufi. These Bedouins were supposed to be hostile, and were quickly rounded up. The noise they made must have notified any Turks within miles that there was something unusual happening. Such a Bedouin camp had not been seen before, and was examined with much curiosity. Their tents are low shelters, like a verandah, about four feet high, open to the east; men, women and children and animals living in them indiscriminately. In the chill of the early morning the women huddled over their tiny fires set up their weird shrill lament. This lament has the strangest sound, a shrill highpitehed tremolo. It was answered from all directions. Later, as the Regiment rode into action it still continued, and one could almost fancy it came from some evil spirit of the air.

The country had completely changed during our night ride; much of it here was in crop, and everywhere the grass grew luxuriantly. What a relief the green was from the glare of the sand, and how greedily the horses cropped the sweet grass and young corn.

The battle of Rafa followed the same course as that of Magdhaba, the long night approach, the contact at dawn, the closing in during the forenoon, the determined attack in the afternoon, and the surrender at dusk.

But here the task was greater. At Magdhaba the Turk's strength lay in his invisibility, the well sited trenches in the level ground took hours to find. Here his strength lay not in the flatness of the position, but in the rising ground with its tiers of fire and splendid observation. The centre redoubt crowned a conical hill some two hundred feet above the surrounding plain, which was bare of cover and as smooth as a lawn. Spread out fanwise from the central redoubt were cleverly sited series of trenches, invisible in the grass.

The N.Z.M.R. were to attack from the north-east, the Australians and Camel Brigade from the south; and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade was held in reserve. By half-past nine each regiment was off, riding swiftly round to its appointed position. The 8th Squadron, under Major Bruce, formed the page 133advanced guard to the Canterbury Regiment. As it rode to the north of Rafa to cut the Turks' communications it came into full view of the enemy, who opened on the squadrons with shrapnel and rifle fire, but, riding in open order, the Regiment escaped with only two or three casualties. Here it was that Lieutenant Mathias, in charge of the advanced troop, did good work by capturing the Police station, taking fifty prisoners, then galloping on and cutting off the retreating Turks, many of whom were endeavouring to escape over the sandhills near the coast.

A portion of the Firing Line at Rafa early in the afternoon.

A portion of the Firing Line at Rafa early in the afternoon.

This gallop, in which the whole Regiment participated, gave the Canterburys possession of a line of half completed works running from Rafa to the east, yielded the surrender of six Germans and two Turkish officers with one hundred and sixty-three other ranks, and gave the Regiment complete command of the enemy's line of retreat.

From the small rise at the Police station a good view of the enemy position was obtained. Two thousand yards to the south-west lay a low round hill, with a well grassed plain page 134sloping gently up towards it from the edge of the sandhills which fringed the beach. This plain was devoid of anything that would give cover. The Turkish trenches could be seen on the forward slope of the hill, and rifle pits were to be distinguished in front of them. The 8th Squadron were already working quietly out over the plain. At 11.30 a.m. the 10th Squadron, under Major Murchison, went into action on the right of the 8th, and half an hour later the 1st Squadron, under Major Hurst, took up a position on the right of the 10th. The 8th Squadron had, in the meantime, linked up with the Auckland Mounted Rifles on the left. Enemy machine gun and rifle fire was at first very heavy, but our troops slowly gained the ascendancy. The Lewis guns were doing excellent work, and the machine guns, from a low ridge in our rear, supported the firing line. The advance was slow but steady, the men advancing on foot as though they were carrying out manoeuvres. Everything worked like clockwork. A troop would rise from the ground and, covered by the fire of their comrades on either flank, dash forward a few yards, the men throwing themselves down, and bringing fire to bear on the trench in front of them till the remaining troops had come into line. During a lull in the advance occurred one of those incidents that help one to bear the strain. A wounded man was being carried to the rear. A few enemy shells were landing just in rear, of the firing line, so the stretcher bearers decided to wait a few minutes for the fire to slacken. Putting the stretcher down, they flattened themselves out on the ground beside it. Evidently this did not agree with the views of their patient. Getting off the stretcher, he proceeded to leg it at a pace the stretcher bearers had no chance of improving on, in the direction of the nearest dressing station. The look of disgust on the faces of the two men with the stretcher can be better imagined than described. The Padre also caused some amusement. He was with the Colonel, whose headquarters were about 2,000 yards behind the firing line, and clear of the rifle and machine gun swept zone. Suddenly the enemy's shells began bursting round about, and the order was passed round for everyone to dig in for cover, page 135and the Padre was observed furiously attempting to dig himself in with a spoon.

By 11 a.m. all brigades were closely engaged, and the Yeomanry Brigade was sent in to the west of the enemy position between the Camels and the right of the Canterburys, who formed the right of the New Zealand attack.

A steady rifle and machine gun fire, backed up by the Territorial batteries, was pouring on to the Turks. The attack was a determined one but conducted cautiously; rashness would have availed nothing and perhaps led to disaster, for the force was fighting some twenty-five miles from the source of supply (Railhead), and the Turk was known to possess large reinforcements but a few hours march away, at Gaza, and also on the Beersheba railway. For more than three hours the regiments held their positions, the clear grassy plain preventing any movement. During one of its short rushes the leading company of the Camels, the 15th (New Zealand), led by McCallum of the Canterbury Regiment, came under a withering enfilade fire, and the company's gallant leader was mortally wounded.

At 2 o'clock the Yeomanry effected a junction with the Canterbury Regiment on the edge of the sandhills and the Magruntein position was encricled. About an hour later a shortage of ammunition was felt, the reserves having been left at Sheikh Zowaiid, and the Inverness Battery, covering the attack of the New Zealand Brigade, went out of action.

Shortly before 4 p.m. detachments of the 8th Light Horse and of the Wellingtons, who had been thrown out to the north and east to watch for enemy reinforcements, reported much movement. This information was endorsed by the British airmen, who estimated the Turkish reinforcements at two thousand five hundred. General Chetwode, therefore, after discussing the situation with General Chauvel, decided to break off the fight and withdraw, and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade was pulled out.

But elsewhere his instructions fell on deaf ears, for General Chaytor had just issued an order for the final charge, and the line surged forward in a great rush carrying the centre keep. As the men went forward every available rifle and machine gun was page 136firing, particularly fine work being done by four guns attached to the Canterbury Regiment, and the hill "smoked like a furnace." The Turks would not meet the bayonet and surrendered. This success was the beginning of the end. The Australians and Camels, seeing the New Zealanders on the hilltop, quickly rushed the series of trenches they were attacking.

It was still a race against time, no one knowing what the Turkish reinforcements were doing, so prisoners were mustered and hustled off towards Sheikh Zowaiid, and orders were issued for the whole Division to withdraw.

The Ambulance carts, of which there were sufficient, were still busy, and the work of collecting and attending to the wounded was carried on far into the night, and a regiment of Light Horse was left until morning to cover this work. At Sheikh Zowaiid the Wellington Regiment remained until the morning of the 11th to ensure that no man had been overlooked, and to give Christian burial to those of the British Forces who had lost their lives.

Altogether Rafa was a notable victory, and one of which the Regiment had every reason to be proud. Further, it destroyed the last Turkish force in Egypt, the Sinai desert being a province of Egypt. The Regiment arrived at Sheikh Zowaiid shortly after 10 p.m., but the day's work was not yet finished. Horses had to be watered, and though the Field Troop of Engineers had done very well, it takes a long time to water two thousand animals at three small troughs. Horses once watered, the allotted camp sites were found, where rations and fodder had been dumped. After a few hours very welcome sleep the Regiment saddled up and rode quietly back to camp at Masaid, watering the horses en route at the 52nd Division troughs in the Wadi el Arish.

The infantry gave the Division a splendid reception, each camp turning out and cheering as it rode past. Also, what was appreciated very much, they volunteered to man the pumps till all horses had been watered.

The Column arrived in camp about 2.30 p.m., tired but proud. In just forty-eight hours it had covered over seventy miles, taken 1,450 prisoners, a battery of mountain guns and much other booty.

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On the 12th there was a ceremonial parade of the Brigade, when it was thanked by the General Officer commanding the Division for the brilliant work at Rafa.

Three or four days after Rafa another member of the old Main Body, Lieutenant G. L, Stedman, left to join the Royal Flying Corps.

The weather still continued cold and wet, but there was little to do, apart from ordinary camp duties, and more tents having been brought up during our absence at Rafa everybody was much more comfortable. Football was again started, and hard matches were played against the other regiments, Auckland and Wellington, also the Infantry and Australians. The Infantry, 52nd Lowland Division, were fine fellows who played a great game of football. Their boast was that they and the Anzac Division were the only divisions who had not used the railway or wire road since crossing the Suez Canal. The Regiment saw much of this Division till they finally went to France, and the more we saw of them the more we liked them. They suffered heavy casualties at the second battle of Gaza, because they preferred death to surrendering as prisoners.

It will have been gathered from the preceding pages that the Sinai desert was no place for a man on foot. At the battle of Romani, when ordered to attack Katia on the second day of the battle, the 42nd Division marched six miles and lost about 400 men per battalion, who were evacuated to hospital with heat stroke, of which many died. On the advance being resumed towards El Arish it was impossible for the railway to bring forward all infantry units, so where the hardened surface of the Darb el Sultani was not available, many miles of wire netting was laid down to take infantry in lours. Three three-foot strips of ordinary wire netting were laid on the sand side by side and pegged down, not only making a good road for infantry, but capable of bearing light motor traffic.

In between football days the staff tried to work in some field work so that the reinforcements lately arrived should have the benefit of a little desert training; daily classes were also held for officers and men in signalling, map reading and compass work.

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During this period the Turk's planes were over daily, and often at night, bombing the various camps.

The infantry had established a strong camp east of the Wadi el Arish, and the railway was pushing forward. El Arish, during the last six weeks, had altered considerably. The town itself remained the same, but between it and the sea, a new town of tents, wooden buildings, railway yards and shore dumps had sprung up, showing a remarkable change for a few short weeks. Later El Arish was to become one of the main depots and station for our advance into Palestine. Hospitals and rest camps were then scattered along the beach, and even a school of instruction was established.

After Rafa.

After Rafa.