The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XIII. — Of the Breaking at Beersheba of the Turkish Line
Of the Breaking at Beersheba of the Turkish Line.
The Turkish forces in Southern Palestine in October consisted of nine divisions and one cavalry division, with an approximate strength of about 50,000 rifles, 1,500 sabres and 300 guns. This force was organised and controlled by a German staff, but owing to want of agreement in the Higher Command as to whether the Bagdad or the Palestine front should receive preference in reinforcements and material, the general state of efficiency was not high.
Our forces consisted of the Desert Mounted Corps (Australian Light Horse, Yeomanry and New Zealand Mounted Rifles), XX. and XXI. Infantry Corps and attached troops.
General Allenby's plan was to strike at Beersheba with his cavalry, seizing the town with its wells and the high ground surrounding it. The XX. Corps was then to deliver its attack against the Turk's open flank at the foot of the hills about Hareira and roll up the enemy line from east to west.
In order to deceive the enemy up to the last moment as to the real point of our main attack, to keep him in his main positions and to draw reinforcements away from his left flank, an attack by the XXI. Corps, preceded by several days' bombardment, was to be thrown against the Gaza defences, twenty-four hours previous to the commencement of the attack by the XX. Corps.
As the attack on Beersheba required a march of some 70 miles on the part of the cavalry, entirely in country where water was scarce, much preliminary work was necessary.
During the course of the many reconnaissances by the mounted troops all available sources of water had been carefully noted and their capacity measured. Among the best sources of supply were old wells at Khalasa, Abu Ghalyun and Esani, and measures were taken at once to develop these to their fullest extent. The Division's Field Squadron, page 167under protection of a brigade, cleared the wells and installed pumps with oil-engine power. Frequent special reconnaissances of the high ground around Beersheba were made by the Commander-in-Chief, corps and divisional commanders, and a very thorough knowledge of the country over which the troops were to pass in the ensuing operations was gained by an innumerable number of officers. The work was heavy for the cavalry, as each reconnaissance entailed two nights and a day of ceaseless movement and wakefulness, without sleep or rest, during which time it was not uncommon for regiments to cover seventy miles or more. Apart from fatigue, the absence of water caused severe hardship to the horses and no little discomfort to the men. No water for horses was available from the afternoon of the day on which the Brigade moved out till the evening of the following day, when, as a rule, they got a drink at Esani, on the way back to Shellal. The men started with full waterbottles, and got one refill from the regimental water-cart.
The scattered squadrons were invariably bombed by the enemy, generally with effect, and the Turk's light guns brought out to concealed positions from which they had previously registered all high ground, wadi crossings, etc., added to the general discomfort.
It was now that the benefit of the constant patrolling and reconnoitring was felt. The Turk had become so accustomed to our mounted troops riding about the plains that our preliminary movements to the south to obtain a concentration point from which to descend upon Beersheba passed unnoticed. Every care was taken to conceal these movements, however, and no marches were made in daylight. A further protection came from the air service, now far ahead of the enemy's in speed, numbers and personnel; for our airmen kept the enemy planes away and forced them to fly so high that they apparently saw nothing.
The extension southwards began on October 22nd, when the 2nd Light Horse Brigade moved to Esani and the Camels to Abu Ghalyun.
From then onwards work on water development was carried on at high pressure night and day, tracks were page 168improved and marked, and supply difficulties successfully contended with.
On October 24th the New Zealand Brigade moved to Esani, and on 29th to Asluj.
During these last days ceaseless preparation had been going on night and day. No fewer than 20,000 camels were employed in the preparations for the flank attack. In addition the resources of the military railway were strained to their fullest capacity, whilst the roads were thronged with every kind of transport. Still the movement was kept secret from the enemy. By day the area was comparatively calm, but as soon as night fell it became a buzzing line of industry as train followed train, and convoys rolled eastwards in the choking clouds of dust. The needs of the army, which had been sadly lacking hitherto, were now pouring into the country.
By the evening of October 30th, the day upon which the XXI. Corps, with the Navy, began the great bombardment of Gaza, the concentration of the Desert Mounted Corps was complete, consisting of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Australian Mounted Division and the Yeomanry Division, together with the I.C.C. Brigade and an extra Yeomanry Brigade (the 7th Mounted Brigade), in all eleven brigades, each with its horse artillery battery, a total of approximately twentyeight thousand mounted men.
The mounted units were disposed as follows:—The Anzac Mounted Division at Asluj ready to encircle Beersheba; the Australian Mounted Division at Khalasa, with orders to follow the Anzac Division to the vicinity of Beersheba, where it was to come into action on its left; at Esani was the 7th Mounted Brigade, and at Shellal the Yeomanry Division, with the Camel Brigade close by.
At 6 o'clock in the evening of October 30th the Anzac Mounted Division moved off, and, following a track up the Wadi el Imshash, crossed the mountain range just east of Thaffa, which was reached at midnight, and the advanced guard halted for 2½ hours to enable the column to close up and the track to G. el Shegeib to be reconnoitred.page 169
The plain is much broken by the winding Wadi beds with steep banks. But though these obstacles slowed down the attack, they provided covered lines of approach, and the page 170Aucklanders, backed up by the Somerset battery, worked their way mounted to about eight hundred yards from the enemy main position, where excellent cover for horses was found. Good covering fire was also afforded, and the Canterburys slowly gained ground, against much machine gun and artillery fire, the latter coming from the high hills to the north.
The 3rd Light Horse Regiment of the 1st Light Horse | Brigade was now sent forward to support the Aucklanders' left, with whom were now the Wellington Mounted Rifles, and the Canterburys made ground to the right until, passing over the Wadi Khalil, the Regiment brought fire to bear on the rear of the Tel, but owing to heavy fire from the large Turkish forces in the hills to the north, could go no farther.
At 3 o'clock the Auckland Regiment rushed the hill, and soon afterwards the whole Brigade concentrated in the Wadi under shelter of the Tel to escape the heavy Turkish artillery fire.
By dark the town of Beersheba was in our hands.
Early on November 1st the New Zealand Brigade was on the move into the hills on the north-east. The Canterbury Regiment in the lead, came under fire, but by a brilliant piece of work, in which the 10th Squadron and Lieutenant C. M. Milne's troop in particular made a frontal attack, and the 1st Squadron came in on the enemy flank, captured an officer and 12 men with a machine gun. For his excellent work this day Lieutenant Milne was awarded a Military Cross. In the evening, being relieved by the Aucklanders, the Regiment returned to the Wadi to water the horses at a few scanty pools.
It was during this attack that Trooper Greenslade gave his life in a very gallant effort to carry wounded men to cover. The bringing in of wounded men from the firing line was a very difficult matter. There were no regular trenches, and the communication from front to rear lay through a shrapnel-page 172beaten zone. Greenslade was being helped by another man, and both men were hit, but Greenslade succeeded in placing his comrade out of danger, and then, in attempting to bring in the man they had been both going for, Greenslade lost his life. For this fine effort he was recommended for the Victoria Cross. The artillery fire continued all day without intermission; the rapidity with which the enemy switched his fire from one target to another showed magnificent observation and co-operation on the part of his artillerymen. Our artillery was a direct contrast; they gave us little support and their observation was bad. The Brigade was expecting to be relieved in the afternoon, but for some reason or other, the relieving brigade did not turn up. At dusk the artillery fire died down, and the night passed quietly. Our casualties had been serious, over 20 per cent, of the regiment being killed or wounded, besides thirty-two horses killed and many wounded.
No rations or fodder had been issued on the 5th, and in addition to being tired out everybody was hungry and suffering from the lack of water. The shortage of water was a serious matter for the horses, they having had none since early the day before. There still being no sign of the relieving brigade, it was finally decided to send the horses to Beersheba. After a long, weary ride, with tired men and exhausted animals, very little water was available there. Seemingly every animal in the desert Mounted Column was at Beersheba for water. Camels, donkeys, mules and horses were mixed up in hopeless confusion. The engineers, in an effort to cope with the rush, set a time limit for each unit. This being much too short, owing to sufficient pumps not being available to keep the troughs full, many animals got no water at all. At midday on the 6th the led horses arrived back at Kh el Ras, and there met the men from the line, who had been relieved by the Imperial Camel Corps. These men, tired, hungry and thirsty, had a strenuous five mile walk from Ras el Nagb, and were in a very exhausted state. Some of the horses, which it had been impossible to send to Beersheba, had been without water for forty-eight hours, and another fourteen hours were to elapse before they could be watered. The men fared very little better, many of them having had only one water bottle for the same time.page 173
During the 7th, 8th and 9th, the Regiment remained at Kh el Ras, but with short rations and forage, and ten hours trip to Beersheba for water for the horses.
The object of this exceedingly difficult fighting in the mountainous country to the north-east of Beersheba was to hold off the enemy's counter attacks, made with the full strength of all his available reserves.
It was evident that these attacks were made in the hope of driving the British right back on to Beersheba, and of attracting to this right flank General Allenby's reserves. But the British Commander refused to be drawn to the east, and, relying upon the Anzac Mounted Division and the 53rd Division to hold the enemy in check at Tel Khuweilfe, proceeded resolutely with his preparations for the assault on the left flank of the Turkish main position at the foot of the hills. Here the enemy's line was broken on the night of the 6/7th November, and at dawn on the 7th General Chaytor, with the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, rode through the gap made by the 74th and 60th Infantry Divisions, and by 11 o'clock was ten miles in rear of the Turkish front line.