The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XI. — Of the Advance into Palestine and the First Battle of Gaza
Of the Advance into Palestine and the First Battle of Gaza.
It was one of the paradoxes to which history sometimes treats us that the younger nations of the world should begin to make history amid the scenes of the oldest civilisations.
When we disembarked in Egypt we found ourselves in a land whose history stretches back to the most distant times. Three mighty Empires had had their day and passed away. The soldiers of each of these Empires had trodden the road we were to tread, captured the same cities and fought on the same battlefields. Beyond the earliest of these Empires (about 4000 B.C.) we now know that the Nile Valley was occupied for a long period by a population which lived chiefly by pastoral pursuits, but had made some advances in civilisation; and each fresh discovery, although unfolding an earlier page stall, leaves the origin of these people in obscurity.
The route across the desert of Sinai was the ancient northern route from Egypt to Palestine, and had been used from time immemorial as the connecting link between the two countries. For it must be remembered that Palestine has, for the greater part of its history, been closely connected with Egypt. This road has been justly called "The oldest road in the world," and the armies of nearly every great Power for the last 5,000 years have passed along it at one time or another. Pepi I. (VI. Dynasty, about 3000 B.C.) appears to have been the first Egyptian king to attempt the conquest of Palestine, and successive invasions are known under the great Kings of the XII. and XVIII. Dynasties (2479-1600 B.C.). The famous Tel el Amarna tablets give a wonderful insight into the state of Palestine during the closing years of the XVIII. Dynasty. The great Empire of the Hittites had arisen in northern Syria, and to meet it Seti and Rameses the Great led their armies along the same road (1370). During the next fifty years there page 140seems to have been a systematic spoliation of Palestine, as we read of no fewer than fourteen expeditions in that time. To supply these armies, great arsenals and bases were built at Barneses and Pithom, west of the Canal. These are the "Treasure Cities" of Exodus I. 11, and excavation of Pithom (Tel Maskuta), close to Ismailia, by Neville, have revealed great barns and warehouses for storing supplies.
After the Israelites had settled in Palestine the power of Egypt began to decline. Soon after the death of Solomon, Southern Palestine was ravaged by Shishak, possibly to place the "son of Pharoah's daughter" on the throne of Judea.
During the next 300 years the connection between Egypt and Palestine was fairly close; a constant claim seems to have been maintained by Egypt over the south-east border cities in the neighbourhood of Gaza. By the beginning of the seventh century B.C. the tide of invasion had begun to set in the opposite direction. The great powers of the East, Assyria, Babylonia and Persia, were beginning to press westward. Sennacherib, after ravaging Palestine, appears to have attempted to invade Egypt, but his successors were more fortunate, and for ten or fifteen years Egypt was under Assyrian rule. Before the final collapse of Egypt as a world page 141power, she made one last rally, and Necho (2 Kings 23, 29) for the last time marched an Egyptian army across the Sinai desert, overthrew the Jewish King Josiah on the plains of Megiddo and met his fate at the hands of Nebuchadnczzah at Karkemish in 605.
In 525 B.C. Persia, which had by now become the greatest power, crossed the desert and defeated Egypt at Pelusium. The Persian rule lasted about 100 years, and after a few troubled years of native rule, the last native king of Egypt was overthrown by Alexander the Great, and all Egypt, Sinai and Palestine passed into the power of the Greeks. From that day to this Egypt has been under foreign rule. A century or two later and the desert road was trodden by the feet of Roman legions, and in due course Arabs, Crusaders and Turks passed to and fro over it. Finally, to complete an historic survey, must be mentioned Napoleon's famous march from Kantara to El Arish in 1799.
Truly our march over the desert may have been watched with interest by the shades of countless thousands of heroes of bygone days, who had seen the same sights and gone through the same experiences as we had. The old road had long been at peace; once again it was to "hear the tramp of thousands and of armed men the hum."
We were now to enter Palestine even as these old Egyptians had done by way of the Sinai desert, to pass up the broad and fertile plains of the Philistines and to look upon that blue wall of the Judean mountains so often beheld by the Crusaders of old; passing by their old castle of Darum and the city of Gaza, we were to encamp at Ascalon and Jaffa, the two cities held by Richard Coeur de Lion, and from there, even as he did, to make an advance upon Jerusalem.
Time passed quickly, and on February 22nd this comfortable camp was left for the last time; the Regiment marched to Sheikh Zowaiid, and, dumping all surplus gear here, moved out on the evening of the 23rd to ascertain the strength of the enemy at Khan Yunus, a small village about six miles east of Rafa. At the break of dawn the main body of our brigade was too close to the advanced guard, who had page 142dismounted to attack and capture an enemy outpost. Their led horses came galloping through Brigade Headquarters. But the enemy were only holding their outlying posts lightly, and these were soon rushed. By 9 a.m. the village was surrounded, but the action was broken off. The instructions had been not to force a serious engagement, and owing to the village and outlying cultivation being bordered by thick cactus hedges, there was a possibility of being seriously involved if the advance had continued.
After a short halt at Rafa the return journey was made to Shiekh Zowaiid.
On the 28th Khan Yunus was again visited, but the Turks had retired to their strong positions at Weli Sheik Nuran.page 143
They were taking no more risks with isolated positions. Magdhaba and Rafa had taught them the folly of that. At Weli Sheik Nuran they held a strong position, well entrenched and wired. 'The ground in front was open, and here was first seen the series of deep holes in the ground about five feet in diameter by which the Turk hoped to ward off the dreaded horsemen. From the high ground east of the village was obtained the first view of Gaza, which all were soon to know more intimately.
Everything pointed to our attacking Weli Sheik Nuran, but the Turks again retired, this time across the Wadi Ghuzze to the Gaza-Beersheba line. The Brigade also moved forward from Sheik Zowaiid to the beach at Rafa.
The desert was now far behind, and all reconnaissances were into grass covered country or among cultivated fields with green crops showing above the ground.
The country around Rafa and up to the Wadi Ghuzze, which was now the limit of our patrolling, was an open down with no fences and very few trees, but a wealth of wild flowers. Along the coast lay a strip of sand-dunes from two to five miles in width.
In Khan Yunus, most probably the "Darum" of King Richard's times, lay the ruins of a great crusader castle. Here also was the first deep well to be harnessed with a modern pump and engine by our engineers, and which, gave an almost unlimited supply of good, sweet water.
While at Rafa the Desert Mounted Column held the first meeting of the Rafa races, open to all horses of the mounted regiments, and a Canterbury horse, running under the name of the popular D.A.D.M.S., won the "Promised Land Stakes."
On March 11th the Regiment carried out a reconnaissance in the direction of Gaza. To a student of history this is always an interesting name. Gaza, whose history goes back 4,000 years or more, standing as it does near the edge of the desert, is the first town reached after crossing the desert; or, from the east, the last before commencing the desert journey. It is said to have sustained more sieges and been sacked and destroyed more often than any other town in the page 144world. Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks and Frenchmen have all taken and retaken this town.
Gaza was one of the few cities that dared to defy Alexander the Great, and held up his advance upon Egypt for two months.
It is mentioned in the 10th Chapter of Genesis, and again many times in connection with Samson, the strong man of Israel who fought the Philistines. It was at Gaza that, being warned that his enemies were upon him, he rushed away with the city gates, and it was here that, blind and friendless, he performed the last great act of his life by pulling down the Temple of Dagon and destroying some three thousand Philistines.
In the evening the Regiment withdrew and returned to camp.
On March 25th a final reconnaissance of the crossings over the Wadi Ghuzze was made, and the Regiment went into bivouac at Deir el Belah.
The capture of Gaza presented a similar problem, though a more difficult one, to that of Rafa. From our Railhead to Gaza was 20 miles. The town was held by a strong garrison, and reinforcements could be sent from Beersheba, on the east flank of our attacking force, and from Huj, eight miles northeast. Both of these places were on the Turkish railway system, and in addition there was the Gaza-Beersheba line, strongly entrenched, which would have to be pierced.
The British force, now greatly increased in numbers and called Eastforce, consisted of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division (Australians and Yeomanry), the 52nd, 53rd and 54th Infantry Divisions, the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, and two extra Yeomanry Brigades, all under the command of Major-General Sir C. M. Dobell.
His plan was as follows:—The Anzac Mounted Division by a night march was to place itself across the main road and communications on the north of the town, and to be ready to co-operate in the attack upon the town by the infantry who were to operate from the south. The Imperial Mounted Division was set the task of holding off enemy reinforcements from the direction of Huj; and the 54th Division those who might advance from Beersheba or the railway leading to that town. In order to protect the lines of communication back to Rafa the 52nd Division took up a position towards the east of Khan Yunus. The 53rd (Welsh) Division was selected to make the attack on the town from the south.
At 2.30 a.m. on March 26th the New Zealand Brigade left its bivouac at Belah with the Anzac Mounted Division and crossed the Wadi. There was a heavy fog, but skilful leading on the part of the advanced guard (2nd Light. Horse Brigade) took the Division through the Gaza-Beersheba line just east of Ali Muntar, the hill overlooking Gaza. A small enemy post was encountered and mopped up, and the Division page 147pushed on and at 9.30 reached Beit Durdas, to the northeast of Gaza. The fog was so dense that this advance was quite unknown to the Gaza defenders, though the column was fired upon by several enemy planes.
At Beit Durdas General Chauvel established his Headquarters, and sent the 2nd Light Horse Brigade to establish a line to the sea; in the process of doing this they captured a Turkish divisional general and a number of prisoners. The New Zealand Brigade took up a position facing Gaza, having the 2nd Light Horse on its right and the 22nd Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) on its left.
Gaza was now completely encircled, and the mounted troops waited with impatience for the infantry attack to develop.
Owing to the 53rd Division being unable to move in the fog great delay had taken place, and it was 2 o'clock before orders were received to close in on Gaza.
Our intelligence reports had put the garrison at about two battalions of infantry, several batteries manned by Austrians, and some 200 cavalry, a total of about 4,000, and this estimate was confirmed by a deserter, who added that the nearest supports were at Huj, eight miles away, and that all the wells except three had been blown in. page 148Gaza lies in a hollow in the midst of orchards, each of which is surrounded by a tall and thick hedge of prickly pear. On the eastern side the town is shut off from the cultivated plain by a low ridge, which culminates at its southern end in the hill Ali el Muntar, the hill up which Samson carried the gates of the city, and which formed the key to the Turkish defence.
The Brigade advanced at a gallop with the Wellington Regiment on the right and the Canterburys on the left and Auckland in support. This ridge was seized and, dismounting, the men pressed on towards Gaza. "Wellington were soon among the prickly pear hedges and after some fine work captured two enemy guns. The Canterbury Regiment meanwhile made ground to the south along the ridge, attacking the garrison in Ali Muntar, who were desperately engaged with the leading battalions of the 53rd Division.
Everyone realised that it was now a fight against time; and the Turk was forced from his trenches, shot out of his hedges and driven back into the town. Such good progress was made that at 6.40 p.m. the 10th Squadron closed in on to the top of Ali Muntar simultaneously with the 53rd Division.
The position now was that Ali Muntar, the "keep" of Gaza, was in our hands, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was in the outskirts of the town to the north and the Wellington Regiment in the town on its east side. Everywhere the Turk was giving way, and the general opinion was that as soon as it was daylight the remainder of the garrison would surrender.
It can be imagined therefore with what astonishment orders were received for the whole Division to withdraw. General Murray's despatch gives the reason that the horses were in want of water, whereas they had all been watered and we were in possession of ample wells. Apparently the trouble lay with those who were out to the east watching for enemy movement from the railway line. They had imagined they saw overwhelming reinforcements coming towards Gaza, and had reported this to General Dobell, who thought that what had been gained could not be held.*page 149
Intense darkness and a strange country thickly intersected with prickly pear hedges made the withdrawal a difficult one and it was after midnight before the Regiment was on its way back to Belah. Major Stafford distinguished himself during this night by successfully bringing away the two field guns captured in Gaza by the "Wellington Regiment.
The Regiment now settled into camp at Belah, but had by no means an easy time. There were outposts along the Wadi to be found and working parties for road-making at the Wadi. Taking over an outpost line at night in strange country is a most difficult and tedious operation.
The Regiment would leave camp after dark with instructions to hold a line detailed on a map. Knowing nothing of the general formation of the country, on reaching the appointed place it was very hard to place the posts in the best positions, or where they could do most good in the event of being attacked. Usually two squadrons held the line in a series of detached posts, while the remaining squadron was held in readiness to support. Mounted patrols, each consisting of five or six men, were sent out at intervals during the night, patrolling, in open country, for two or three miles to our front.
The whole East Force was in a difficult position at this time. The right flank was always open to attack. For the page 150next six months precautions had to be taken against the possibility of an attack by a wide turning movement on our right directed against our line of communications. The desert afforded some protection, but an active mobile force could have given a lot of trouble. Considerable reinforcements were being brought up during this period, including several tanks which were concealed among the palm groves at Belah, and our artillery was being strengthened daily. The railway also had been brought right up to Belah; roads and cuttings were constructed into the Wadi, and everything pointed to another attack on Gaza. The Turks could be seen daily preparing fresh lines of trenches along the Gaza-Beersheba line.
On April 16th the Regiment left Belah and moved up the Wadi to Shellal, where the whole Division was concentrated.
* Whereas Gaza was practically at our mercy, and our invading troops held all the strong positions and were well placed to hold them.