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The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919

Chapter XVIII. — How the Regiment Crossed the Jordan for the Last Time

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Chapter XVIII.
How the Regiment Crossed the Jordan for the Last Time.

But the pleasant time was ended, and on August 16th the Valley was entered again. The Regiment did not return to its old camp, but took over that of the 9th Hodson's Horse near the Auja bridge head. Here all the old work recommenced. In addition to the numerous fatigues, officers and N.C.O.'s had to make themselves acquainted with the line, and by the time this was fitted in with patrols, etc., their day and most of the night was used. Time passed quickly and early in September rumours were floating round about a "big push." Lectures were given to all hands. The choice of subjects and the order in which they were given indicated something doing in the near future. Everybody was quite sure of this when the doctor gave the final lecture and chose "First Aid" as his subject. Little things like this, and the sudden interest shown by troop leaders in everybody having their "field dressings" in possession could point only to one thing.

The situation in Palestine at this time, early September, may briefly be described as follows:—

The Turkish armies were occupying a line from the sea to the Jordan of some forty-five miles with a depth of about fourteen miles. This line was held by the VIIIth Turkish Army with headquarters at Tul Keram on the plain of Sharon, and by the VIIth army stretching across the Judean Plateau to the edge of the mountains where they descended abruptly into the Jordan, with headquarters at Nablus.

Across the Jordan Valley and along the foothills of Gilead and Moab the line was held by the IVth Turkish Army under Djemal Pasha with his headquarters at Es Salt. His troops were estimated to number six thousand rifles, two thousand cavalry and seventy-four guns. Further to the south another Turkish force of six thousand rifles and thirty guns was operating against the Arabs about Maan.

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The Commander in Chief resolved to attack this long line on the plains north of Jaffa with the XXIst Corps supplemented by the 60th Division of the XXth Corps and a number of heavy guns.

The line across the Judean hills was to stand fast until the XXIst Corps had broken through and the mounted attack was well under way. The latter was to be made by the whole strength of the Desert Mounted Corps less the Anzac Mounted Division and was to follow through the gap on the plain of Sharon made by the XXIst Corps. In the meantime General Chaytor, in command of the Anzac Mounted Division with certain other troops added, was to hold fast the Turkish IVth Army, prevent it from sending any troops to reinforce other parts of the line, and to use every endeavour to protect the right of the XXth Corps holding the Judean hills; when it advanced he was to seize the bridge over the Jordan at Ed Damieh, move across the river and, capturing Bs Salt and Amman, was to co-operate with the Arabs in smashing the Maan force.

Realising that his hopes of success lay in surprise, General Allenby proceeded to mislead the enemy as he had done at Gaza. The Mounted troops, Australian Mounted Division, Yeomanry Division and 5th Cavalry Division, were marched over the hills from the Jordan to concealment in olive groves in the vicinity of Jaffa, during many nights.

The camps they left remained standing with fires kept alight by parties of the Egyptian Labour Corps. On the horse lines were dummy horses and the illusion Of activity in the Valley was kept up by squadrons of mounted men quietly riding up to Jerusalem during the night and then coming down again by day amidst clouds of dust in full view of the Turkish troops across the Jordan. When Fast's Hotel at. Jerusalem, which had been taken over by the Canteens Board for a hostel for officers, was suddenly emptied of its lodgers and sentry-boxes placed at the doors, on which G.H.Q. notices were posted, all Jerusalem soon buzzed with the news, and its leakage to the enemy was a matter of days only, and he became more convinced than ever that the next attack of the British would be again across the Jordan or along the Nablus page 232road. Such were the preparations that occupied the early days of September leading up to the great moves which were to fulfill the aims of the Commander-in-Chief with a completeness rare in military history.

  • By the middle of September the troops in the Jordan Valley consisted of:—
  • The Anzac Mounted Division, less one Squadron
  • 20th Infantry (Imperial Service) Brigade
  • 1st and 2nd Battalions British West India Regiment
  • 38th and 39th Battalions Royal Fusiliers (Jewish Battalions)
  • 18th Brigade Royal Horse Artillery
  • A/263 Battery Royal Field Artillery
  • 198th Battery Royal Garrison Artillery
  • 29th and 32nd Indian Mountain Batteries
  • 2/75 m.m. Turkish Guns
  • 2/5.9 Howitzers
  • No. 6 Trench Mortar Battery
  • 96th, 102nd and 103rd Anti-Aircraft Sections

Detachment A. T. Company the whole being known as "Chaytor's Force," General Chaytor now commanding all troops in the Jordan Valley.

All the troops leaving the Valley went by night, and those entering it came by day. Everything had been done so quietly that it seemed impossible that the Division formed the major part of the troops here. The day patrols were increased both in number and size, and night patrols seemed to be everywhere. What was lacked in numbers was more than balanced by activity.

On the morning of September 19th the attack commenced in the coastal sector. Our patrols kept in touch with the enemy in case they showed any inclination to retire, but they had evidently learnt little of what was happening on the other portions of the front. On the 20th the enemy fell back from some of their advanced positions west of the Jordan but their retirement was orderly and covered by a strong rearguard. On the river and to the east they still presented a bold front. During the evening of the 21st the Regiment moved out via the Wadi Obeidah to join up with the Brigade at Kh page 233Fusail on the west bank of the Jordan. From here the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade rode on towards Jisr Ed Damieh to seize the bridge. Auckland Mounted Rifles were in advance following the old Roman road up the river and brushing aside all opposition arrived in the vicinity of the grossing at daybreak, seizing the Nablus—Es Salt road.

The Jisr ed Damieh. Crossing the Jordan for the last dash upon Amman.

The Jisr ed Damieh. Crossing the Jordan for the last dash upon Amman.

The Wellington Mounted Rifles were acting on the Canterburys' left towards El Makhruk, which they seized at daybreak, capturing the headquarters of the 53rd Turkish Division. Shortly after daylight the enemy attempted to advance on Wellington's left, and the 10th Squadron was sent to support them. The attack did not develop and the Turks' fleeing from the attacks of the XX Corps, eventually retired into the hills. Everything was quiet for a time, and then, at 10.30 a.m. the 1st Squadron co-operated with Auckland and one company of the British West India Regiment in an attack on the bridge at Jisr ed Damieh. After a spirited attack culminating in a fine bayonet charge the Turkish resistance page 234broke and heavy casualties were inflicted on them as they retired. The bridge was captured intact, and the 10th Squadron having now rejoined, chased the remaining Turks into the foothills below Es Salt. In the evening the Regiment withdrew across the bridge, leaving the 1st Squadron to hold the crossing against a possible counter-attack.

Only a miracle of good fortune could now save the IV Army from destruction. To offer further resistance to "Chaytor's Force" was to reduce the already slender chances of escape, and the withdrawal in the night became a flight, as they marched hurriedly for Amman. Here they might hope for a time to resist, as they had done so successfully during the Amman raid, and so give the six thousand Turks at Maan time to join the IV Army.

Shortly after mid-night General Chaytor received information of the general withdrawal of the enemy and ordered his whole force to be in readiness to advance early in the morning. He directed General Meldrum to leave some troops to hold the Damieh bridge, and climbing up the mountains as rapidly as possible, to ride for Es Salt, while the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and all available artillery clambered up the Shunet Nimrin-Es Salt track.

The New Zealand patrols were out before daybreak and collected a few stragglers lurking in the foothills. At mid-day the ascent of the mountains commenced, the Canterbury Regiment forming the advanced guard. "Wire entanglements were met with, stretched across the road and backed by a machine gun but the enemy were quickly outflanked and rushed. Spiritedly led by Major Hurst, who now commanded the Regiment, the ' advanced guard stopped at nothing, overcoming without pause the scattered opposition put up by the beaten enemy. An attempt was made to hold Es Salt but by half-past three in the afternoon the Regiment passed through the town and occupied a line on the hills to the east, having captured this day two hundred and fifty men, three field guns, and many machine guns.

On the 24th the Regiment moved on to Suweile and was ready for the attack on Amman, so filled with bitter memories in the minds of all the Anzac Mounted Division and all ranks page 235and all tanks eagerly looked forward to adjusting the score with the Turk. At Suweile the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade was joined by the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, a battalion of British West Indians and a battalion of Jews.

During the night a party of Aucklanders, by a fine ride in the dark, reached the railway line to the north of Amman and blew up the railway line at Kalaat Ed Zerka and so temporarily blocked the escape of the enemy.

Major Hurst, who commanded the Regiment on its last dash upon Amman.

Major Hurst, who commanded the Regiment on its last dash upon Amman.

Early on the 25th the Brigade moved towards Amman and got in touch with the enemy about two miles northwest of the town, where they held two strong posts guarding the approaches. The Wellington and Auckland Mounted Rifles were in the line, their right flank joining up with the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade who were attacking from the west and there was much friendly competition between the two Brigades as to who should be the first into Amman.

The Canterbury Regiment with one section of the Machine Gun Squadron was ordered to move forward to a position of page 236readiness from which to break through and take the enemy in rear. At noon the Regiment was off but the advance was temporarily held up by the fire of about two hundred Turks on a ridge supported by machine guns; but nothing could stop the men now and though shelled by a battery of light guns they soon took the position. The 1st Squadron was then brought up on the left and the whole Regiment again went forward. The Citadel, which during the raid upon Amman had put up such a stubborn resistance to the attack of the Camel Brigade
Canterbury Mounted Rifles riding through Es Salt.

Canterbury Mounted Rifles riding through Es Salt.

and Infantry Battalions, now gave some trouble, but was gallantly rushed by the 10th Squadron and some of the 8th at the point of the bayonet. Its garrison of nineteen officers and one hundred other ranks (mostly Germans including the commanding officer and staff of the 146 Battalion) with six machine guns surrendered. The commanding officer, a German, caused some amusement. He was wounded and apparently could not speak English—but being asked by Major Hurst if he would like some brandy he said "yes" and after the drink spoke English fluently.
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Immediately the stone tower was captured, the whole regiment rushed the town and by 4.30 p.m. were through and out to the railway station. The enemy troops were fresh and stiffened by Germans, but nothing could stand up against such an irresistible attack. Not even in the days of Gallipoli had the Regiment displayed more dash, and much of its success in these last days was due to the fine leadership of Major Hurst.

This officer, the beau-ideal of a cavalry leader had been offered a command with promotion in March, 1916, in the Infantry Division—but his duty to his commanding officer and to the Regiment weighed so greatly with him that he refused to transfer. On foot or on horseback he was a dashing, resourceful and yet careful leader, for added to his vigorous body and active mind was a sound practical judgment.

The Regiment's captures consisted of over one thousand two hundred prisoners, fourteen machine guns, and a large amount of war material.

Owing to sickness and casualties the strength had been much reduced and the Regiment was only three hundred and fifty strong, yet had taken prisoners over three times its own strength.

The change to the cooler climate of the hills was telling its tale in the sick parades. Malaria was rampant, and now that the excitement of the fighting was over the men simply collapsed. Remaining near the town till the 29th, collecting prisoners and war material, advantage was taken of the proximity of Hill 3039 to do up the graves of those who had been killed in the first attack on Amman. A cairn was built on the top of the hill as a memorial to those of the regiment who had fallen in the different fights for the town.

General Chaytor immediately prepared for the destruction of the Turkish force at Maan. This force, alarmed at the news of the fate which was overtaking the IV. Army, was endeavouring to march north along the Hedjaz railway, and numbering some five thousand to six thousand was in no danger from the Arabs, but with Amman in our hands its supplies were cut off.

The airmen reported this force as having reached Ziza some 16 miles to the south of Amman and close to the Kastal railway station, and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was sent page 238to reconnoitre. The Turks were found almost surrounded by a great host of the Beni Sakr tribe, and soon surrendered to General Chaytor. During the night of the 29th-30th the Regiment moved south to Kastal, taking over an outpost line from the Auckland Mounted Rifles. At Kastal were a large number of prisoners, the remains of the 2nd Turkish Army Corps. They were in a deplorable condition through lack of food and water, and had even drunk the water from the boilers of the engines lying at the railway. Dead and dying lay about everywhere. In addition to other duties, our men had the job of looking after these prisoners, a comparatively light task. The hardest work was to keep the Arabs, who were swarming over the countryside, from robbing and murdering the unfortunate Turks.

On October 2nd the 8th Squadron went south to occupy Madeba, but found the Arabs already there, so returned to Kastal. Late in the afternoon of the 3rd, the Regiment was relieved by the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment and moved to Kissir, the first stage of the return journey to the Valley. Leaving here again early next morning, Jericho was reached via Ain Es Sir, halting for one night at Shunet Nimrin. At the latter place was seen the long range gun that had been so annoying during the long months of the summer. Now "Nimrin Nelly," as it was known, was lying upside down in a small wadi, where the Turks had thrown her when their retreat was cut off.

Malaria was now raging through all the troops. Shunet Nimrin, where the Regiment had camped, had been a large bivouac of the Turks and the one night there seemed to have infected the whole Brigade. Since September 20th, eighteen officers and one hundred and fifty other ranks suffering from the disease had been evacuated to hospital, and the figures for the whole force must have been enormous. There had been for the last nine months a certain amount of malaria in a comparatively mild form, but the disease now was of a most malignant type with a high percentage of deaths. On the ride down to Jericho it was no uncommon sight to see one man riding, leading four or five horses.

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Major C. Hereus, of the New Zealand Field Ambulance and later D.A.D.M.S. Anzac Mounted Division, says:—

"The arrival of the warmer weather in April found the Division in the Jordan Valley, that unique scorching valley some 1,200 feet below the level of the Mediterranean, notorious for subtertian or malignant malaria, and in which with brief respite we were to spend the summer. The portion of the valley within our lines was crossed by several streams issuing from the hills and making their way down to the Jordan (the Auja, the Mellahah, the Nueiameh, the Kelt) and also contained the Jordan with several extensive marshes in the jungle which fringed its banks. The problem was a difficult one, the area involved was large, and the climatic conditions were trying. The Wadi el Mellahah was a particularly dangerous stream commencing in marshes in No Man's Land and running in a swampy valley choked with reeds across our line down to the Wadi Auja just before the latter entered the Jordan. Its whole valley was swarming with anopheles larvae. A working party of one thousand men was put on to work and within a week the marshes in No Man's Land were drained as far as the enemy would permit; and the stream within our lines was canalised and cleared and the reeds cut or burnt out. No breeding could be demonstrated three days after the. work was completed. The work in the other wadis consisted of canalising, cutting down jungle, filling in holes and oiling stagnant pools.

The work when once carried out required constant attention and maintenance and the Sanitary Section with the unit malarial squads, were continually employed on the maintenance work, special working parties being provided for the initial work. Two large swamps on the east bank of the Jordan, one at El Ghoraniyeh bridgehead, the other at El Henu ford, were found to be prolific breeding places and were drained and oiled. A large amount of this extensive work was carried out by the Indian Infantry Brigade. Breeding was also found to be rife at Ain es Sultan the source of Jericho's water supply, situated about one-and-a-half miles north of Jericho. Here there was an area of several acres in extent consisting of banana plantations and other cultivated land copiously irrigated by the over-flow from the Ain es page 240Sultan spring. With the aid of a company of E.L.C. six hundred strong working for two months, breeding was suppressed in this area.

"This in brief was the extent of the problem with which we were confronted. The measure of the success of the work carried out can be best estimated by the rise in the malarial incidence when we advanced into unprotected country. During the six months prior to the advance on September 21st the percentage of incidence of malaria in the Desert Mounted Corps was just over five and the majority of these cases were contracted in the front line where the evening breeze brought down hordes of mosquitoes from the Turkish positions and No Man's Land. In the reserve areas where the protective measures were fully operated the incidence of malaria was very low.

"On September 21st the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, the 1st Light Horse Brigade, and the 1st and 2nd B.W.I.'s moved forward into the Jisr ed Damich area, swampy ground in which no attempt had been made to cope with the mosquito menace. The air was full of hordes of peculiarly aggressive and blood-thirsty mosquitoes, laden with, as subsequent events proved, the parasites of malignant malaria. It was here that a great deal of infection was incurred, for the 2nd B.W.I. Battalion which remained in this area when the rest of Chaytor's Force moved eastward into Moab, suffered severely. By October the 18th, seven officers, seven hundred and nineteen other ranks of this unit (practically the whole strength) were evacuated with malignant malaria. Malaria began to appear in the mobile force in Moab on September 28th. The 1st Light Horse Brigade were the first to experience the epidemic, evacuating one hundred and twenty-six cases during the week. The New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade almost simultaneously commenced to evacuate large numbers of men acutely ill with the disease. The incidence reached a climax on October 4th when the 3rd Light Horse Regiment evacuated sixty-two, 1st Light Horse Regiment fiftyeight, and the New Zealand Mounted Brigade one hundred and forty-five. Many dramatic incidents occurred on the march back into Judea. There were cases of one man leading as many page 241as eight horses, all his mates having been stricken down, and many men fell from their saddles in high fever. This exceptionally high rate of malignant malarial cases was experienced until October 9th when the numbers fell abruptly. Additional proof that the Jisr ed Damieh area was responsible for the majority of the infections is supplied by the 2nd Light Horse Brigade which moved directly from the protected area into the hills. Their evacuations from malaria during the period September 21st to October 10th were fifty-seven as compared with two hundred and thirty-nine cases in the 1st Light Horse Brigade and three hundred and sixteen in the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade for the same period. It has been truly said that the last phase of the Palestine campaign was fought and won in the incubation period of malignant malaria (10 to 14 days).

"To people accustomed to ordinary benign tertian malaria the serious and dramatic nature of the malignant type was most alarming. The men attacked were suddenly prostrated in high fever, 105° and 106°F. being frequently reported, and they were often delirious and occasionally maniacal. Unless treated immediately and efficiently with quinine the mortality was high. Once again it was amply proved that prevention is better than cure."

October 8th saw the Regiment riding out of the Valley for the last time, bound for Jerusalem, which was reached on the 9th. A halt was made here till the 13th, and many took this opportunity to pay a last visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was expected that the Brigade would be sent to join the Desert Mounted Corps, at this time working north of Damascus, but there was evidently no need of more troops there. Prom Jerusalem the Regiment returned, via Latron, to its old camp at Ayun Kara. Here it was joined by a large draft of reinforcements. Nobody was sorry to see them, for during the last week or two every man had been looking after three or four horses. Then, besides doing camp duties, they were on horse picquet four nights out of five.

So ended the last operations of the Anzac Mounted Division across the Jordan, and in these the Canterbury Regiment had borne its full share. In nine days Chaytor's Force page 242had captured ten thousand three hundred prisoners and fiftyseven guns, one hundred and thirty-two machine guns, eleven railway engines, and one hundred and six trucks, and a great quantity of material, including wireless sets, motor lorries and other vehicles, and much ammunition. Owing to the dash and skill of all ranks, the casualties were light, though the wastage by malaria was daily becoming alarming.