The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter XVII. — Down by Jericho
Down by Jericho.
For a few days after the return from the heights of Moab, the warmth of the valley 'down by Jericho' was pleasant and comforting. But on April 17th. the first Khamsin of the season began to blow and lasted for 48 hours. The temperature henceforth rose to an unbearable degree and the dust and flies by day and mosquitoes by night made life particularly unpleasant. There were no tents or sun shelters and shorts were prohibited to all mounted men owing to the danger of septic sores where the knee rubbed the saddle.
With the lessons of Salonica before them our medical officers began an anti-malarial campaign. Swamps were drained, all running water canalised and water that could not be drained off or made to run was treated with crude oil to prevent the malaria-carrying mosquito from breeding. This work entailed a great deal of labour and the Regiment daily found its quota.
A bridge-head formed by the 1st Light Horse Brigade guarded the Ghoraniyeh bridges and outpost positions were formed to cover the various fords. Working parties consisting of all available officers and men were continually digging and wiring at these posts. Bach garrison comprised one officer and twenty to twenty-five men on duty for twenty-four hours, and the Regiment took its turn in finding them.
On April 2nd the Brigade re-crossed the Jordan. The Canterbury Regiment camped about two miles southeast of Jericho, close to the site of Joshua's Gilgal, and reinforcements soon made good the wastage caused by the raid upon Amman. Lieutenant G. J. H. Reid now became Adjutant.
On the 30th what appeared at first to be a strong reconnaissance developed into a big fight. The object was to envelop the right of the enemy forces at Shunet Nimrin and capture Es Salt. The troops engaged were the 60th Division, the Australian Mounted Division and the Anzac Division. The infantry were to attack Shunet Nimrin, while the Australian Mounted Division ascending the hills to Es Salt attacked the strong force of Turks holding the foot hills at Shunet Nimrin. The advance over the plain was made under heavy shellfire from Shunet Nimrin and both the infantry and the Canterbury Regiment were held up by strong posts of the enemy in the foothills. Casualties were heavy and the Regiment lost forty-five horses, besides a number slightly wounded.
May 1st saw the New Zealand Brigade in Corps Reserve for the attack on Es Salt. Being in reserve is not always an easy job. It usually means being pushed into the nastiest place of the fight in an endeavour to help some other unit in difficulties. Or it means being rushed about from flank to flank. It proved to be the latter this time. At mid-day the Regiment was ordered out to co-operate with the 179th Infantry Brigade in the attack on El Haud. The Regiment was to attack from the north via the Wadi Abu Tarra. The advance was made in column of troops from the shelter of the bridge head, on to the open plain at walking pace.
For three miles ahead stretched the plain sprinkled with a little grass, a few small patches of scrub, rocks and stones, broken here and there by small stony watercourses. Beyond, the line of hills rose abruptly; those to the right front strongly held by the Turks, while slightly to the left front a deep dark gully showed up. This was our objective. Before long a black puff ball shell burst in the air, followed half a minute later by another. The Turk was ranging. Colonel Findlay extended the line and increased the pace, first to a slow trot, then to a steady canter. The Turks for their part, were not slow, and soon had sixteen guns firing, varying high explosive and shrapnel with his old favourite, universal. The horses liked it no better than their riders, but the latter had much to look out for. While the horse fought to in-page 222crease the pace, the rider had to maintain his place in the ranks with an open ear for orders, keeping his excited mount under him on his feet, and an eye on his troop leader for change of direction. Once in the gully, sheltered from the final disappointed roar of shells, men and horses were quite happy, but surprisingly short of breath. Meanwhile the tailend of the column, the pack and led horses, had prudently halted, taking the role of spectators and allowing the squadrons the whole stage to themslevs. Then when things quietened, they came on unobtrusively and rejoined the Regiment.
But no sooner had the comparative shelter of the gully been reached than orders were received to return over the plain to Umm Es Shert. So the shelling had to be faced all the way again.
At Umm Es Shert the Regiment remained till late in the afternoon of the 2nd, digging trenches and generally improving the position. Then orders came to move out at short notice to support the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade who were in difficulties holding the road from the Ed Damieh ford to Es Salt. This Brigade had been holding the valley of the Jordan and protecting the communications of the troops attacking Es Salt, but were being slowly forced back. For page 223the next twenty-four hours the Regiment held a small portion of the line here, and then sending the horses back to Umm Es Shert on the Jordan plain, proceeded dismounted up the mountains to Es Salt, to help the withdrawal of the Australian Mounted Division.
The mountain track was climbed on foot during the night of the 3rd, and the Light Horse Regiments successfully withdrawing, the Regiment walked down again the following morning, bringing some prisoners the Australians had captured and suffering a considerable shelling from the Turks. Neither prisoners nor escort thought it was quite fair. On arrival on the flat the Regiment connected up with the infantry in the foothills, and held this line till all the Australians had passed through. Then the horses were brought up to the foothills, and acting as rearguard the Regiment withdrew across the plain to Ghoraniyeh, arriving at 4 a.m. on the 5th. During these four days the Canterbury Regiment had been under constant shellfire, and was occasionally bombed by aeroplanes but had escaped with light casualties.
These operations were, as was later heard, made at the instance of our so-called Allies, the Arabs. These followed their usual tactics and did not show up with their promised support, though probably they would have appeared in thousands, looking for loot, it the attack had been successful. General Allenby in his despatches says "As the assistance of the Beni Sakhr had not materialised, the Ain es Sir track was still open to the garrison of Shunet Nimrin. Further Turkish reinforcements were known to be on the way. It was evident that the Shunet Nimrin position could not be captured without losses, which I was not in a position to afford…… The raid has undoubtedly rendered the enemy apprehensive of further operations east of the Jordan, and has compelled him to maintain considerable forces in the Amman Shunet Nimrin area."
In camp, working parties and outposts took up the time of officers and men, and frequent bombing by enemy aeroplanes kept life from becoming monotonous. Our own planes were seldom seen, owing to the difficulty experienced by them in rising out of the valley. The anti-aircraft guns page 224expended a lot of ammunition and were cursed nearly as much as the aeroplanes were, owing to their habit of landing spent shrapnel and shellcases among the camps.
An arrangement had been come to by which a limited number of officers and men, who were unfit but yet not hospital cases, were to be sent to the Best Camp at Port Said, and would be replaced by available reinforcements from Ismailia. This wise provision commenced about this time and thenceforward regular drafts were sent away. It proved a great boon and undoubtedly saved many men from hospital who, though not ill enough to be evacuated, required a spell from the continuous strain and work. Many of the cases ©I sickness at this time were nothing more nor less than exhaustion, both physical and mental.
On May 27th the 8th Squadron left for a tour of duty at. the School of Instruction, Richon; and the following day the time in reserve being up, the Brigade moved to a camp about five miles south of Bethlehem. Here was comfort. A limited number of tents were available; a canteen was handy and the men were able to supplement their food supply considerably, for in the colder climate of the hills the scale of rations, though ample in the valley, required additions.
On June 3rd, the King's Birthday, an official ceremony was held at Bethlehem, at which the Regiment was represented by a troop. But the stay here was all too short and on the afternoon of the 13th the Brigade again rode out to the Valley, halting en route at Talaat ed Dumm for twenty-four hours. The temperature this day at Jericho, just below, registered 125 degrees, and to the men, coming in the night from the cool hilltops, was a trying change. Several men suffered from heatstroke, including Major Wain, who had just re-joined from New Zealand.
On arrival in the Valley the camp of the 9th Australian Light Horse Regiment at Ain Ed Duk was taken over.
The actual duties in the line were easy, one outpost only being found, but the odd jobs that came along were legion. The medical people, for example, were endeavouring to stamp out or reduce to a minimum, malaria which rages in the Valley during the summer months. Every day fifty or more men were supplied from the Regiment to work under their directions. All units out of the line found their quota towards this necessary work. The three or four streams that entered page 226the plain from the hills were gradually straightened and cleaned. Small marshes were drained, and as far as possible it was ensured that there was no stagnant or non-flowing water to become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. In addition to this work roads and camps were improved. It was now very hot. The official return of temperatures taken at Jericho showed that the daily average for June was 119 degrees and July 112 degrees in the shade. Flies were few, killed by the heat, in fact for this reason June and July are much freer from many insects than May or September, but mosquitoes revel in the hot nights. Work of any sort, even at night was very trying in this climate. Though traffic was kept to well defined tracks away from camp areas, dust was everywhere. For no known reason, and without a breath of wind, the dust would gradually rise. Looking down on to the plain from the hills, nothing could be seen but dust, which hung like a fog over the valley. It was impossible to sleep at night with any degree of comfort owing to the heat. As many men as could be spared were sent to rest camps, but this only made it harder for those remaining. Insects of all descriptions haunted the bivvies and snakes were numerous. One cheerful optimist informed us that there were eightyseven different varieties of snakes in the Valley, but he did not think they were all of a poisonous nature.
From the camp at the foot of Jebel Kuruntal the whole plain of the Jordan Valley could be seen, a sunscorched piece of the earth, notable because it was 1,200 feet below sea level and to the historian one of the most interesting places of ancient history. In the plain, midway between the hills and the river, lies the dirty modern city of Jericho. Between it and the hills is a small patch of irrigated land, practically the only cultivation on the plain, the water being drawn from Ain Sultan.
Near the spring is a large mound, covering several acres, being all that remains to mark the site of the ancient Jericho of the day of Joshua. Two miles south of this the Wadi Kelt cuts its way through the plain. Just where the wadi emerges from the hills, another group of mounds marks the Jericho of Herod, guarding the old Roman road to Jerusalem, which page 227rises steeply up the gorge of the Wadi Kelt. Four or five miles east of Jericho the River Jordan cuts the plain in two. For a mile on each side of the river the ground is much broken by wadis and ravines descending steeply to the riverbed. The Jordan itself is a muddy looking river, thirty to fifty yards wide, between dense belts of tamarisk and other trees. The distance from its source to the Dead Sea is about sixty miles, but so winding is its course that the actual length of the river is one hundred and thirty miles. At the back of the camp rose steeply the hill called Kuruntal, the Hill of The Forty Days, the reputed site of the temptation of Our Lord. Halfway up the hill a monastery clings to the face of the almost perpendicular cliff.
On June 26th the Turks enlivened matters considerably by using a long range gun, impartially shelling camps, dumps and roadways. On one occasion this great gun, from far across the Jordan, threw a shell on to the top of Jebel Kuruntal. The Turk, being some thousand or more feet above our camp, had a good view of all the Jordan Valley from the hills on both sides and from now till the final operations this gun caused a lot of trouble. It was sometimes said to have been put out of action by being bombed, but the next day usually gave the lie direct to this. On the last night of the month the Regiment formed a chain of posts, connecting with the 53rd Division on the tops of the Judean hills, in an endeavour to catch a supposed spy, who was reported to be trying to get through to the Turks. No spy was caught but all hands had some strenuous hill climbing.
On July 10th the 8th Squadron rejoined from Richon. They had had an easy time, and were much refreshed by the spell.
The Turks attacked the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade holding the line on the west side of the Jordan at the Auja river during the early hours of the 14th, pushing well in behind the advanced posts before being checked. The New Zealand Brigade stood to, ready to move, but were not required till one o'clock in the afternoon, the 1st Squadron of the Canterbury Regiment then being sent to the Wadi Auja, near where it entered the plain, to deal with any Turks page 228who attempted to get water there. Just before dusk the 8th and 10th Squadrons cleared the ground between the posts held by the 1st Light Horse Brigade, being shelled heavily whilst doing so. After dark the Regiment withdrew to camp, leaving the 10th Squadron to watch the Auja Gorge during the night. During this action a great capture of German infantry was made.
Guards and picquets were numerous but the stay on the Judean highlands was enjoyable. The Christ College Old Boys in the Regiment held a dinner in Jerusalem at the Grand Hotel, a happy function, and Colonel Findlay resumed command of the Regiment. Cricket matches were played and sports meetings held. The Canterbury Regimental cricket team won the Brigade tournament, though suffering badly from nerves in the final match. Success was achieved also at the Brigade sports and horse show, the Regiment winning eight events out of the sixteen on the card. The sports and show were quite the biggest thing in this line that we had attempted since leaving New Zealand and the Colonel forgave the Regiment a lot of its sins for the success achieved.