The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XIV. — How the Brigade Rode Through the Plain of the Philistines
How the Brigade Rode Through the Plain of the Philistines.
Early on the morning of the 10th November the Brigade moved to Beersheba. Plenty of rations and water were now available, and men and horses were soon fit to move out again. At 4.30 p.m. on the 11th the three New Zealand Regiments rode out of Beersheba for the last time on what proved to be a very long and tiring march, made worse by bad leading and bad communication in the column. At one stage thirty-one miles took thirty hours to cover. The route lay past Tel esh Sharia and Tel el Hesy to Hamame, at which latter place, about fifteen miles north-west of Gaza, the Brigade rejoined the Division. The dust during this time was appalling, the route taken, being across the natural formation of the country, was intersected with deep wadis which could only be crossed in single file, while in some cases the transport and ambulance wagons had to travel many miles extra till they found crossing places. At Hamame the Brigade rejoined the Anzac Mounted Division and rested on the 12th, finding plenty of good fresh water for men and horses by digging in the sand on the sea shore. Adjoining the village of Hamame lay Medjel, a populous Arab city, which might almost be called the modern Ascalon, for a few miles away on the sea shore lie the extensive ruins of that once famous city*.
One of the five capital cities of the Philistines, Ascalon is mentioned many times in Biblical history. Here it was that Samson killed his thirty Philistines, and here Herod the Great was born, and in later times the city was captured and held by Richard 1st of England. No trace now exists of its once busy harbour, but judging by the massive ruins Ascalon must have been a strong place indeed.page break page break page 175
A few miles up the coast is Esdud, the Ashdod (or Azotus of the New Testament), one of the places where the giants, the mighty sons of Anak dwelt. Ashdod has the record of having stood a siege longer than any other city in history, for Psametik I. of Egypt besieged it for 29 years before it surrendered. On the beach still lie the great stone walls of the castle built by Richard I. in the year 1192 to defend his landing place.
On the ride through the plains from Beersheba we passed by Tel el Hesi, the ancient Lachish, one of the Canaanitish cities captured by Joshua. An illustrated account of its capture and sack by Sennacherib formed a bas-relief on the walls of the palace of Nineveh, and is now in the British Museum.
Eleven miles inland from Ascalon stands up on high Tel es Safi, once the famous crusading fortress of Blanche Garde, and whose native name means "shining hill." And white and shining it is to-day with its sheer cliffs of white limestone crowned with the ruins of the old castle. It was the ancient Gath, and must have been a very strong city, practically impregnable one would think in those days of slings and bows and arrows. And a little further north lies the modern Jewish village of Akir, once Ekron, which with Ascalon, Ashdod, Gaza and Gath formed the five capital cities of the Philistines.
On November 13th the advance was resumed, the Brigade crossing the Nahr Sukereir close to Ashdod by a fine old stone bridge with a roadway measuring 64 feet in width, and evidently dating from the time of the Crusaders.
The Regiment bivouaced that night close to Yebna, the Biblical Jamnia, and once the capital and seat of learning of the Maccabees. It lies on the banks of the Wadi es Surar, which takes its rise beside Jerusalem, and is called in the Book of Judges "the valley of Sorek," up which the Philistines sent the Ark of God when they returned it to the Israelites.
On the 14th the New Zealand Brigade crossed the Wadi Es Surar (known as the Nahr Rubin where it enters the sea) close to the sandhills, and with the 1st Light Horse Brigade page 176on its right attacked the Turks in the orange groves of Wadi Hanein and the hills between these groves and the coast.
The Brigade advanced with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles on the right and the Wellingtons on the left, the Aucklanders being in reserve.
The Canterbury Regiment was soon well into the orange groves, and the Wellington Regiment was hotly engaged along the hills, which here, running parallel to the groves for about a mile, turned westward until merged in the sandhills. Along this ridge the Wellington Regiment slowly forced its way, and at noon General Meldrum sent in the Aucklanders on the left and the two regiments then advanced side by side against a very stubborn and determined enemy counter attack, which Kress von Kressenstein, our old friend of Sinai days, had launched.
These two regiments, after some very hard fighting, in which they suffered many casualties, and with their right well covered by the Canterbury Regiment, eventually broke the Turk's attack about dusk, and the whole Brigade bivouacked where it stood.
Jaffa, the principal port of Palestine since the days of the old Philistines, is a picturesque city built upon a hill overlooking the sea. The word Jaffa means beautiful, and the citystill deserves its name. A great sweep of green orange groves comes in from the plains melting into the gardens of the town.
At the foot of the old city (which covers the hill) is the solid stone quay of the Crusaders, and sheltering it a few hundred yards out, and protecting it from the prevailing winds, is the reef of Andromeda, and the rock to which she was tied is still shown. Here also is shown Simon the Tanner's house, and curiously enough the principal houses along the beach by the quay are still used as tanneries.
To the north of the old city spreads the Zionist Colony of Tel Aviv (the hill of Spring) with its modern buildings and great Jewish college.
The Regiment had been but a day or two in Jaffa when the inhabitants who had been expelled by Jemal Pasha, began to flock back to their homes. They came from the inland villages where they had taken refuge, on foot, on camels, and on mules and donkeys, one and all showing the signs of great privations. Food had been exceedingly scarce, and many Jewish families had literally been starved to death.
The New Zealand Brigade took up a protective line covering the town, along the river Auja, and the Regiment moved to Sarona, a German colony some two miles north of Jaffa. The inhabitants seemed a prosperous farming community and from them straw was obtained, which, with the aid of an old chaffcutter, was soon turned into excellent chaff for the horses, who were suffering from the bare grain ration, which was all that the supply services had been able to bring up since the break through at Beersheba. Rations too were scarce, and a welcome addition to the 'bully beef was made by taking over a number of bacon pigs from the German farms.
To prevent the withdrawal of troops of the Turkish VIII. Army, who were holding the line of the Auja River in the Plain of Sharon, to assist the VII. Army in its defence of Jerusalem, an attack was ordered by General Allenby. The page 179Anzac Mounted Division received orders to cross the Auja and to establish bridge-heads north of the river covering the crossings.
The only troops available were the N.Z.M.R. Brigade, the remainder of the Division being engaged holding the enemy further east to the foothills.
Early on the morning of November 24th the Canterbury Regiment, with the 8th Squadron leading, crossed the Auja at the mouth, followed by the Wellingtons, and a brilliant little action followed. So rapid were the movements of the two regiments that the Turks were taken completely by surprise. The Canterbury Mounted Rifles, at a gallop, seized the hills on the far side of the ford and then rushed the village of Sheikh Muannis. The Wellington Regiment, moving through the Canterburys, galloped eastward and captured Khurbet Hadrah, which commanded the bridge on the main road. About 30 prisoners were taken with a machine gun and ammunition.
At dusk the 161st Brigade (54 Division) took over the line held by the N.Z.M.R., and asked that mounted men be left at the bridge and the village of Sheikh Muannis to patrol in front of the posts established by them.
So two squadrons of the Auckland Regiment and one squadron of the Wellington Regiment were placed in advance of the infantry posts. The 1st squadron of the Canterburys, under Major Hurst, took up a position in front of the ford at the mouth of the river.
The enemy was not long in accepting the challenge made by our crossing the river, for just before dawn on November 25th he heavily attacked the Auckland squadrons in front of the bridge-head at Khurbet Hadrah.
He was driven off, but, bringing up large reinforcements and many guns as the light grew, again came on. This attack rapidly grew in intensity and spread to Sheikh Muannis, where at about 8.30 a force of some two thousand Turks, covered by an accurate shell fire, made a very determined advance.
In order to save the horses of the three squadrons engaged, the horseholders, while the men on foot held off the Turks, took the horses down the river to the ford at its mouth, all other crossings being under hot fire.page 180
The infantry were ordered to fall back across the river, and as soon as this became known General Chaytor ordered the New Zealand squadrons to fall back also as soon as the infantry were clear; in order to enable this to be done Colonel Findlay, with the remaining two squadrons of the Regiment, crossed over the ford on the beach and attacked the enemy's right, sending the 10th Squadron under Major Acton-Adams to the help of the 2nd Wellington Squadron at Sheikh Muannis.
Finding no cover for his horses, Major Acton-Adams sent them back to the ford at the beach, being prepared, as were the other Squadron Commanders, to get their men out on foot when the need came. Great use was made by our men of their machine guns in holding off the great masses of Turks, but they were given no help whatever by the artillery, who were caught on the move, changing positions with the incoming infantry division. But just as the Khurbet Hadrah position was being evacuated some guns of the 161st Brigade and of the Somerset battery (attached to the N.Z.M.R.) opened fire, but too late to influence the battle.
The evacuation of Sheikh Muannis was most skilfully carried out with the help of the Somerset battery firing from a position on the south side of the river at not more than 1,400 yards range. All the infantry were first sent across the river by means of a boat and the weir-head at a flour mill. Then followed the 2nd Wellington Squadron and two troops of the 10th Squadron. As soon as they were clear the remaining two troops of the 10th retired towards the mouth of the river, giving each other support from position to position.
The full force of the Turk attack now fell upon the 1st and 8th Squadrons of the Canterbury Regiment, who were covering the ford from positions on the hills immediately to the north of the river's mouth.
Colonel Findlay ordered the Regiment to fall back, and, handling his men in a masterly manner, soon had the troops from Muannis safely across. It was a very difficult movement, a withdrawal in broad daylight, when in close contact with a fresh enemy and under heavy fire.
Major Hurst's squadron formed the rear-guard, holding the hills to the last, with the help of Lieutenant Edridge and his page 181machine guns, until all others were safely across. The Squadron then began its own retirement, troop by troop, falling back to fire positions, so covering each others movements until the ford was reached.
The last troop to reach the ford was commanded by Lieutenant Livingstone, who handled his men with the greatest skill and courage, held off the advancing Turks to the last possible moment, and then, sending his men across, he was killed as he followed them through the water.
The Regiment had many times broken off an action when in close contact with the enemy by moving rapidly at night, but to do so in daylight in open country, with the added difficulty of extricating men fighting on foot, and the care of the wounded, requires a very high standard of discipline, courage and skilful tactical handling.
The Turks were evidently content with their success, and made no attempt to cross the river, but the Regiment was kept ready to move at half an hour's notice. Guards, patrols and fatigues took up the time. A number of reinforcements marched in, which helped considerably. Even so the Regiment was sixty men below strength, but was expected to do, and did, the work of a full strength regiment, either in holding a line or in the matter of finding fatigues.
Under date December 3rd, 1917, the following entry occurs in the War Diary:—
"Stood ready to move at short notice. Two snipers detailed for duty to watch for signalling to Turks from Sarona. J.B.H." This entry recalls the story that rumours of lamp signalling at night were rife. It was said that the Germans in the farm colony of Sarona were in communication with the Turks. One very dark night an excited messenger rushed into New Zealand Brigade Headquarters on the outskirts of Jaffa saying that signallers out in front repairing lines had distinctly seen signalling from a house, and were prepared to guide a force to the place. The———Mounted Rifles, being in reserve that night, were immediately ordered to send off a troop on foot with the guide. The darkness was profound, and the troop after stumbling through orchards, scrambling through innumerable cactus hedges, and falling foul of a battery page 182of 18 pounders, at last sighted a house very dimly lit on the rearward side. Elaborate precautions were taken by the troop leader, and after a triumph of intricate minor tactics the house was successfully surrounded, and there from a window in front were most unmistakable flashings. With his heart in his mouth and thoughts of a M.C. in his mind, the troop leader wormed his way to the window, stood cautiously up, and peering in saw Colonel Findlay and three others seated at a table, in the centre of which stood a lamp. It was the Colonel's deal, and as he dealt with his back to the window his moving arm——; but the troop leader did not wait for more. Hurriedly and very silently he gathered in his men and retired to camp.
On December 4th the Regiment went into the line and relieved a battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps, the change over being completed by midnight. The line consisted of a series of posts running from Hill 246 to Hill 265, between Jaffa and the foothills. The trenches were, in many cases, badly sited and afforded little cover. The horses remained behind, and a certain number of men were detailed to look after them. Sniping went on continuously, but caused few casualties, though the trenches were much damaged by shell fire. Owing to heavy shelling it was impossible to bring up rations and water to the trenches till after dark. The wet season had now arrived, and was to continue with very little intermission for the next two months. "With shell fire, rain and shortage of rations the Regiment's stay in the trenches was not very pleasant. There was nothing to build up the trenches with, and they fell in or were blown in by the shells as fast as the men could dig them out, and to add to the general unpleasantness, everybody was wet through all the time.
It was found necessary to relieve some of the men in the trenches who were feeling the effects of the strain and continual exposure, so, on the 8th a change over was made with the men looking after the horses, these being the only ones available. The change over was a case of "out of the frying pan and into the fire."
These men, besides looking after four or five horses each, had to do fatigues and cart rations and water to the trenches, the latter at night.page 183
Owing to the continual rain, the tracks and country generally became absolutely waterlogged. It was simply asking for trouble to go anywhere. The Australians talked about the "black soil plains" of their country, but even they were silent now. The trenches were simply gaps in the earth, half full of liquid mud, and fell in as fast as they were dug out. While this fighting was being carried on along the banks of the Auja to the north of Jaffa, the fighting in the mountains for Jerusalem was steadily continued. Bad weather, absence of roads, and want of transport (though some two thousand Egyptian donkeys did much to help), delayed and hampered the troops.
Three infantry divisions, the 60th, 74th and 10th, were at this time within a few miles of Jerusalem on the western side, with their right resting on the railway in the Wadi Surar. On their right flank was the 10th Light Horse under command of Lieut.-Colonel Todd, and this regiment had the honour of being among the first British troops to enter the Holy City. The forces in the mountains had been helped by the Yeomanry and Australian Mounted Divisions, who fought on foot, leaving their horses on the plains.
On December 8th began the last great act in which the Holy City was to pass from the hand of the Moslem, who had held it since the days of the Crusades. At dawn, in the midst of rain page 184and wind, the 60th Division (London Territorial), with the 74th Division (Dismounted Yeomanry) on its left, stormed the formidable hills to the east of the Wadi Surar; and by nightfall all the strong positions to the west of the city, so laboriously and so skilfully dug out of the solid rock, were in our hands.
During the night the 53rd Division pushed up the Hebron road and occupied Bethlehem.
General Allenby's report goes on to say:—"Towards dusk the British troops were reported to have passed Lifta, and to be within sight of the city. On this news being received, a sudden panic fell on the Turks west and southwest of the town, and at 5 o'clock civilians were surprised to see a Turkish transport column galloping furiously cityward along the Jaffa road. In passing they alarmed all units within sight or hearing, and the wearied infantry arose and fled, bootless and without rifles, never pausing to think or to fight.
"After four centuries of conquest the Turk was ridding the land of his presence in the bitterness of defeat, and a great enthusiasm arose among the Jews. There was a running to and fro: daughters called to their fathers and brothers concealed in outhouses, cellars and attics, from the police who sought them for arrest and deportation. 'The Turks are running', they called; 'the day of deliverance is come'. The nightmare was fast passing away, but the Turks still lingered. In the evening he fired his guns continuously, perhaps heartening himself with the loud noise that comforts the soul of a barbarian; perhaps to cover the sound of his own retreat. Whatever the intention was, the roar of the gun fire persuaded most citizens to remain indoors, and there were few to witness the last act of Osmanli authority.
"At 2 o'clock in the morning of Sunday, December 9th, tired troops began to troop through the Jaffa gate from the west and south-west, and anxious watchers, peering out through the windows to learn the meaning of the tramping, were cheered by the sullen remark of an officer, "Gitmaya mejburuz" (we've \ got to go); and from 2 to 7 that morning the Turks streamed through and out of the city, which echoed for the last time their shuffling tramp. On this same day, 2,082 years before, another race of conquerors, equally detested, were looking their page 185last on the city which they could not hold; and inasmuch as the liberation of Jerusalem in 1917 will probably ameliorate the lot of the Jews more than that of any other community in Palestine, it was fitting that the flight of the Turks should have coincided with the national festival of the Hanukah, which commemorates the recapture of the Temple from the heathen Seleucids by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C."
On December 11th the Commander-in-Chief, followed by representatives of the Allies, made his formal entry into Jerusalem. The historic Jaffa gate was opened after years of disuse for the purpose, and he was thus enabled to pass into the Holy City without making use of the gap in the wall made for the German Emperor William in 1898. The General entered the city on foot—and left it on foot.
For this occasion the Brigade sent a troop as a bodyguard to General Allenby. The troop was commanded by 2nd Lieutenant C. J. Harris, Canterbury Regiment, and was composed of one sergeant and ten men from the Auckland Regiment, nine men from the Canterbury Regiment, and nine from the Wellington Regiment, with three from the Machine Gun Squadron and one from the Signal Troop; a total of one officer and thirty-three other ranks.
On this day the Brigade was relieved in the front line by the 162nd Brigade (infantry), and marched to bivouacs in the vicinity of Ayun Kara; but the Auckland Regiment was sent into Jaffa, where it came under the orders of the 52nd Division; and on the 12th the Wellington Regiment was sent to the village of Beit Dejan, on the Jaffa-Ramleh road, where it came under orders of the 54th Division.
On the night of the 9th Colonel Findlay's headquarters were rudely disturbed by a Turkish officer, who had, in the darkness and rain, stumbled through our posts. He was discovered when he fell through the adjutant's biwie. It was hard to say who was the more surprised, but the remarks of the Adjutant showed that he, at all events, was not pleased. The Turk sat and sobbed bitterly, while a man was being procured to escort him to Brigade Headquarters. Poor devil, he was evidently about the end of his tether, owing to fright and exposure.page 186
On the evening of the 10th the London Battalion took over the trenches and the Regiment moved back to Ayun Kara, arriving about half past one on the morning of the 11th.
It is worthy of note that in this same month of January, King Richard I. marched his forces from Ramleh to Ascalon over this self-same route, and that he too experienced to the full the discomforts of a winter's march on the plains of Palestine. His old chronicler says:—
"At dawn of day the men with the tents were sent forward, and the rest of the army followed; the sufferings of the day before were nothing to those which they now endured from fatigue, rain, hail and floods. The ground, too, was muddy and soft beneath them, and the horses and men had the greatest difficulty to maintain their footing; some of them sunk never to rise again. Who can tell the calamities of that day? The bravest of the soldiers shed tears like rain, and were wearied even of their very existence for the severity of their sufferings. When the beasts of burden fell, the provisions which they carried were either spoiled by the mud or dissolved in the water. This day was the 20th January, in the year 1192, and they encamped for the night, every man as well as he was able."
The new camp was a vast improvement on what had been experienced lately. The Regiment was bivouaced on the sandhills just clear of the black soil plain, on sand so hated in Sinai, but now welcomed as an old friend, for it was dry and clean, though the prevailing westerly winds did pile it up over the bivvies.
The higher authorities allowed no let-up in training, which was supposed to start at once, but the weather was more considerate, and till after Christmas the rain effectually precluded any systematic training being undertaken. Great endeavours were made to keep Christmas Day according to custom. Major Acton Adams had managed, by fair means or otherwise, to get to Cairo, and returned with everything needful. The weather excelled itself on Christmas Day, as the page 188rain literally fell down. But the day was celebrated to the best of our ability. The carol-singers, led by Eric Harper, a well known Christchurch solicitor (who at a later date was killed in action down by Jericho, a loss much regretted by all who knew him both in the Regiment and at home), visited the different squadron lines in the evening and put a finish to the day.
Fodder, good water and covers, combined with easy exercise and plenty of grooming, rapidly built the horses up again. The men also, considering what they had gone through, were in good health. They endured much. First there had been the long rides, with the dust so thick that only the outline of the troop in front could be seen, then the heavy fighting, followed by the long chase, which culminated in the trenches north of Jaffa. To weather so hot as to be almost unbearable, succeeded the last month of bitter cold and wet. All this time living on monotonous diet of bully beef and hard biscuits, and often without either, whilst the water question was always serious, these grand men laughed at it all and looked forward to the next advance.
The country around was interesting to us all. Esdud (Ashdod) was our present railhead, while a few miles north was Akir, the old Biblical Ekron. Like most of the towns on the plains of Palestine, Esdud is a city set on a low hill composed of the ruins of several previous cities which had been sacked and destroyed in the innumerable sieges which all these towns have experienced.
Considering the difficulties of bringing up supplies, the railway was being pushed forward in a wonderful manner. Bridges had to be built over the larger wadis, and many culverts put in. Wet weather or fine, still the work of con-page 190struction went on, and a railhead was pushed forward to Surafend, near our old camp at Ayun Kara.
On January 12th, 1918, the Brigade moved back to this camp through pouring rain. The new camp was well situated on the slope of a hill of sand, now always looked for. Ayun Kara, or as it is more often called, Richon le Zion, is a Jewish settlement, one of the first founded in connection with the Zionist movement some years ago. It seemed a fairly prosperous place, despite Turkish misrule and three years of war. A noticeable feature are the wine vaults, which enjoy the reputation of being the third largest in the world. It has also extensive orange groves, and its mulberry trees are said to exceed twenty thousand in number.
A regiment from our Division had been holding a portion of the front line in the hills at Nairn, about ten miles east of Ludd, and it was now the Canterburys' turn for this duty. The Regiment relieved the 2nd Australian Light Horse here on the 20th. All the horses, except the Hotchkiss guns and ammunition packs, were sent back to Ayun Kara. Fourteen officers and two hundred and eleven other ranks remained at Nalin, and the balance of the regiment looked after the horses. Er Ramleh and Ludd, the two towns passed through on the road to Nalin, are situated about three miles apart in a huge olive grove, about eight miles east of Jaffa. At Ramleh, supposed to be the town of Arimathea of Biblical fame, the most noticeable feature is the "Tower of the Forty Martyrs," the only remaining portion of an early Christian church. Otherwise the place is uninteresting, consisting only of a narrow, crooked and dirty street. At Ludd is an old Crusaders' ehurch, and in a crypt beneath the altar one sees the reputed tomb of St. George of England. Nalin is perched on the top of a high hill and looks picturesque enough from a distance, but loses all its beauty on closer acquaintance, and becomes a characteristic native village of the hills. The country round about consists of rocky hills, the foot-hills of the Judean range, and valleys running towards the plains. The view from the top of any of the hills is magnificent, showing the whole plain of Sharon to the blue sea beyond. It is a country of wonderful contrasts; within a few miles page 191are hills and plains, orange groves and vineyards, fertile fields and barren sand dunes, inhabited by the most industrious yet poorest people in the world, with a history stretching back to the earliest ages.
The defences at Nalin consisted of a series of stone sangars, owing to the ground being too rocky to dig trenches, and much work was necessary to provide any protection in case of attack. The natural formation of the country, being steep and broken, was good from the Regiment's point of view, as it was here purely on the defensive. There were no roads, and the existing goat tracks had to be made into roads, so there was plenty of work for all to do. Regimental Headquarters established themselves in a cave, reported to have been, in happier days, the spot where Judas Maccabeus gloried and drank deep, no doubt on water, for there was no vestige of anything else about these rocks.
But water, though at present a superfluity, was likely to be the opposite the next summer if the Turkish line held, so the adjacent hills and valleys were explored, and numerous cisterns were found, probably a thousand years old, cut deep into the limestone rock, holding some millions of gallons of good water.
Once settled down there were generally fifty to eighty men working on the roads, whilst the remainder improved the defences. The infantry held positions on both sides, and much interest was taken in the shooting of the Hotchkiss and Lewis guns.
In several shooting matches held to try out the respective merits of these weapons, the Lewis proved the more reliable on the day.
On February 3rd the 6th Australian Light Horse took over the line, and the Regiment returned to Ayun Kara.
* With reference to the great endurance shown by the horses, see an article written in the field by Major Stafford—the Regiment's veterinary officer—in Appendix A.