The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter VI. — How the Regiment Returned to the Horses
How the Regiment Returned to the Horses.
Even from the outbreak of war the protection of the Suez Canal was realised to be of vital importance to the British Empire and her Allies, and early steps were taken to increase the Egyptian Garrison. In February, 1915, notwithstanding the presence of a large force of British troops, Australians, New Zealanders and Indians, a Turkish column actually reached the Canal and launched upon it several pontoons. They were driven back with some loss and retired to Palestine, but the fact remains that they proved that the Turks could reach the Canal. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if the minds of the Young Turk Party, dominated by their German masters, should not have turned at once to the conquest of Egypt after the great victory they believed that they had won at the Dardanelles. At the very least it was reasonable to expect that every effort would be made by Germany's ally to compel Britain to keep the troops from the Dardanelles in Egypt, and not send them on to France, where reinforcements were urgently required; and grave fears, in the light of the 1915 raid, were felt for the safety of the Suez Canal. The evacuation of Gallipoli had released a great Turkish force from the Peninsular, and it also gave to England a large force of men for whom there was no lack of fresh employment. In February Germany's titanic blow fell on Verdun, and the whole Allied line in France was desperately in need of reinforcements, and British fortunes in Mesopotamia had reached their darkest hour. Additional troops were imperatively needed, both for East and West.
In accordance with this situation orders reached Egypt that the great force was to be reduced as quickly as the reorganisation of the shattered divisions made their embarkation practicable, and they were to be transported without delay to the posts of danger. The Suez Canal, of course, must be made safe, and enough troops left to deal page 80with the Senussi on the western desert, but beyond that and the care of the Soudan every man must be made ready to embark.
Such was the situation when the N.Z.M.R. Brigade returned to its old camp at Zeitoun. Orders were received for all mounted troops to be re-equipped as soon as possible, for they were urgently required for the defence of the Delta against the Senussi on the west and for the Suez Canal on the east.
Shortly after the Brigade's arrival in Zeitoun, Major J. H. Whyte was transferred from the Wellington Mounted Rifles to the command of the Regiment. Major Powles, who had been in command during the evacuation, returned to Brigade Headquarters to his old appointment of Brigade Major, and Lieutenant Gibbs, who had acted as Adjutant for some months, now had his appointment confirmed.
And now began the work of reorganising. It was nearly nine months since officers and men had left their horses, and there was much discussion on nearing Egypt as to page 81whether the horses would be still at Zeitoun, and if there, whether they would be fit to be ridden. The first glance at the well-kept horse-lines, with their overhead cover for protection from the sun, gave assurance, and great was the delight of the old hands when they found their horses in the pink of condition, the result of the devoted care and attention of a band of transport drivers and reinforcements, assisted by native labour, and good indeed it was to see the shining happy face of many an "old hand" as he wandered down the lines and recognised his own beloved horse.
The Regiment had always been proud of its horses and its horsemastership, and a rigorous overhaul of the reinforcements began, each man being individually tested before beingposted to a squadron. Many of the old hands, returned from Hospital, were waiting at the camp to rejoin, but with the large influx of newcomers, officers and men were, to a certain extent, strangers to each other, and it was necessary, if the old mounted efficiency of the Regiment were to be regained page 82that both should be allowed time to discover each others peculiarities and to learn to work together. Instinctively the old hours of training in the desert, that had been in force for so many weary months before Gallipoli, were again resumed. Horses and all necessary equipment, also much that seemed unnecessary, were issued, and the old work was entered into with a new spirit—the old hands keen to display the knowledge that had been taught them before the great adventure of Gallipoli, the reinforcements keen to learn and to prove themselves worthy of the Regiment. No man in the Regiment who had fought on Gallipoli ever forgot that he had enlisted as a mounted soldier, and during the darkest days while fighting and taking his full share as infantry soldiers, in his heart he looked upon the campaign there as something aside from his proper role, almost a sporting digression. The trenches had seen many an interesting discussion as to when and how the campaign would be finished if only the horses could be sent over from Egypt. Though for the time being they became superb infantrymen they never forgot their horses.
Weary and worn and sad at heart at leaving behind so many beloved comrades, and with the added depression of a feeling of bitter disappointment at having been given a job which they had failed to do, the Regiment was inspired by the presence of fresh, fit and enthusiastic reinforcements, and the unbounded pleasure of the "old hands" can well be imagined when for the first time each troop "led" off the lines and "prepared to mount."
So the task of reorganisation became an easy one. These were not the untried squadrons which had camped here in 1914. They were a "band of brothers." On the Peninsular they had engaged in every form of infantry fighting, and had lived for months in trenches only a few yards from the enemy. They had engaged in some of the fiercest fighting known anywhere in the War, and their discipline had been tested in desperate night operations and in the evacuation. They were all masters of the craft of fighting on foot, and the old mounted rine training came back instinctively.
It was now that the services of the permanent staff N.C.O.s were sadly missed, for with one exception they had page 83all fallen on Gallipoli. Horsemanship being an essential accomplishment for a mounted man, daily riding tests were held, and much care, judgment and patience were exercised in the selection of suitable men from the reinforcements to complete to full establishment the squadrons and machine gun sections.
Indifferent horsemen were sent to the regimental "Detail Squadron" for further instruction. This Detail Squadron and those from the other regiments were formed into a Training Regiment which was drawn upon as required by the units in the field. All training units were later on moved to Moascar, which became for the rest of the War the training depot for the New Zealanders and the Australian Light Horsemen.
At Zeitoun there had been built up during 1915 most excellent Instructional Schools, carried on by selected officers from the British Army. These schools were to the troops in Sinai and Palestine what the training camps on Salisbury Plain and the cadet battalions at Oxford and Cambridge were to the troops in France.
On January 18th, 1916, the usual routine was changed, the whole Brigade being inspected by Colonel R. H. Rhodes, who had come from New Zealand on a special mission for page 84the Government. His visit was particularly welcome to the Canterbury Regiment, for he had been for many years in the C.M.R. (Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry), and at the outbreak of war held command of this one of the parent regiments of the regiment in the field. By this time rumour had it that the Brigade was to move to the Canal, and on the. 22nd orders were received to march the following day.
The route lay through the ancient land of Goshen, past the towns of Nawa and Belbeis, Abou Hamad, Kassassin, Abou Sueir and Moascar, and so through Ismailia, to Serapeum on the Suez Canal, close to the Great Bitter Lake. The trek was not completed till the 29th, on which day as the Brigade rode through Ismailia it was inspected by General Sir Archibald Murray, Commander-in-Chief in Egypt, who was accompanied by General Godley and the Brigade's old commander, General Russell. Throughout the journey the weather had been most unsettled, with heavy rain storms and wind and very cold nights. One cheerful evening was experienced, tot at Abou Sueir, the ancient Pithom—the treasure city which the Israelites of old made for Pharoah—a large dump of creosoted railway sleepers was found; fires were quickly going in all directions, clothing was dried and all hands had a hot meal.
However, once in camp the Regiment quickly settled down, and the discomforts of the trek were forgotten in the work of training now recommenced. Rifle shooting, machine gun training, tactical exercises, boxing matches, swimming in the Canal, filled up the day, and the hardships and strain of Gallipoli faded away into the dim past.
Lieut.-Colonel J. Findlay, the Regiment's Commanding Officer, re-joined on February 19th from hospital. He had been seriously wounded at Anzac on the night of August 6th, when leading the Regiment against the Turkish machine guns at Walden Point. He was beloved by all ranks, and his arrival on the lines was heralded by much cheering. "Old John," as he was affectionately known, was to carry the Regiment right through to the end of the War, and to achieve the reputation among the Australians and New Zealanders of being the finest regimental commander in the page 85Anzac Mounted Division, a reputation second to none, for it must be remembered that the Anzac Mounted Division was the original cavalry formation in the Sinai campaign, and the parent of all cavalry formations that came after, among whom it gained for itself the name of being the finest cavalry division in the E.E.F. To much valuable experience gained in the South African War Colonel Findlay brought an alert mind extraordinarily "quick in the uptake," as the Scotch would say, enabling him with ease and surety to keep abreast of the changing vicissitudes of a modern war. No task was too hard nor day too long for this keen soldier, nor was any matter concerning the good of the Regiment or the comfort of the men too small or too unimportant to be given his full and closest attention.
Captain Blair also rejoined from hospital in February, and Major Whyte returned to the Wellington Regiment. Captain Blair took over the duties of Adjutant and Lieutenant Gibbs again became Signalling Officer. Lieutenant Robin Harper, of the machine gun section, was appointed Brigade Machine Gun officer and his brother, Lieutenant Gordon Harper, took over the regimental section.
It was during this period that the New Zealand Division was being formed at Moascar in preparation for its move to France, and to complete the Division it was necessary to form a new infantry brigade and some batteries. To fill these new establishments many officers, N.C.Os and page 86men were taken from the Mounted Brigade and from the Brigade's surplus reinforcements, and the Regiment lost many tried soldiers who had worthily upheld its honour in the desperate fighting on Gallipoli. The officers taken from the Regiment were Majors Blair and Studholme, Captains Free and Wray. Lieutenants Louden, Bishop and Williams. From those on the roll at Zeitoun there were taken Captains Harris, Orr and Talbot, and Lieutenants Hayter, Hayhurst, Jones, Stallard, Dailey, Morrison, Garland, Riley and Harley.
On March 5th we received orders to relieve the 22nd Brigade, A.I.F., in the trenches at Railhead, Ferrypost, and the move was completed by the 7th, the Regiment going into squadron camps. The 8th Squadron, under Major Hammond, and Headquarters were in the centre, calling their camp "Hagley Park"; the 10th Squadron, under Major Hurst, were about 1½ miles north-west, the camp being known as "Nelson Camp"; while the 1st Squadron, under Major Acton Adams, were about two miles south-east of Headquarters in a camp called "Sphinx Post."
There was no doubt about being in the desert now. As far as the eye could see not a tree was to be seen, nothing, but miles of sand extending in broken ridges to the horizon. In some places, sharp bold ridges and small hills of sand appeared, but these changed in appearance and height with every wind that blew.
The Brigade was now close to that "Oldest Road in the World "—the Darb El Sultani or the King's Road, along which from time immemorial had marched invaders from east and west, Egyptians and Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians, Greeks and Romans, Crusaders and Saracens, and Napoleon in his attempted conquest of Syria. The Child Christ, fleeing with His parents from the wrath of Herod, came down this road to Egypt.
Sinai, across which this great highway runs, lies as a bridge between Asia and Africa. It is a great waterless tract of burning sand and arid mountains. The Darb el Sultani begins at Kantara (or in Arabic "the crossing"), just where the Nile inundations fail to reach the line of the Bitter Lakes, and, leading across the sands, follows the coast page 87to Southern Palestine. The only other road between Asia and Africa across the Sinai Peninsula strikes south-east and crosses the mountains.
Along the former there are wells in the sand formed by the winter rains, scanty though they be; and along the latter those who passed by in ancient days cut great cisterns in the rock which, filled occasionally by passing thunderstorms, gave sufficient water for small caravans.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who lived some 400 B.C., remarks that "the only entrance into Egypt from Phoenicia is by the desert. Now the whole tract between Jenysus (El Arish) on the one side, and Lake Serbonis and Mount Cassius on the other—and this is no small space, being as much as three days' journey—is a dry desert without a drop of water.
"I shall now mention a thing of which few of those who sailed to Egypt are aware. Twice a year wine is brought into Egypt from every part of Greece in earthen jars, and yet in the whole country you will nowhere see, as I may say, a single jar. What then, everyone will ask, becomes of the jars ? This too I will clear up. The burgomaster of each town has to collect the wine jars within his district and to carry them to Memphis, where they are all filled with water by the Memphians, who then convey them to this desert tract. This way of keeping the passage into Egypt fit for use by storing water there was begun by the Persians as soon as they became masters of the country."
General Sir Archibald Murray, the Commander-in-Chief in Egypt, decided that to protect Egypt the oasis area along the Darb el Sultani, the same route the Persians used, should be held, and, to prevent the Turks from advancing through the mountains, the rock eisterns should be emptied. How he provided his own armies with water in this dry region we were soon to see.
The 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) were sent to the Katia oasis area in conformity with this plan, and the Australian Light Horse completed the destruction of the cisterns.page 88
There were rumours of the enemy being about, and patrols daily scoured the desert in front of the Brigade's position. There was little variation in the work. Patrolling by day far out into the desert and providing standing patrols by night were only varied by cleaning out and improving the trenches of our main line. The weather was hot and work in the trenches during the day was very trying. Sand storms were frequent, continually filling the trenches with sand. As often as this occurred they were dug out again. Any spare time was used in putting up wire entanglements. Yet probably this was one of the happiest times the Regiment had experienced since leaving New Zealand. Officers and men who had been on Gallipoli were rapidly recovering from that strenuous time, and the heat was not as yet too great for health and comfort.
Each squadron had its own allotted task and camp, and the rivalry between them to gain the approval of the CO. tended to keep everyone in a high state of efficiency. Horses were in the hardest condition, well groomed and well fed. It was here that men began to realise the necessity of keeping the horses perfectly fit, and, although regular stable hours were kept and horses groomed for 2½ to 3 hours daily, yet many men were to be seen at odd times giving their mounts an extra polish. And here it was that the page 89Regiment learned how to load and how not to load the "Ship of the Desert." For the desert on the east of the Canal is so soft that all wheels were left at Serapeum, and everything that everybody owned had either to be piled somehow on to a camel or be left behind.
Rations were plentiful but monotonous, consisting of tinned beef and hard biscuits. Water was very scarce, and all that was required for drinking and washing and for the horses came to the camps on camels, each carrying two fantasies, as the large tin vessels were called, holding fourteen gallons apiece.
On March 21st we were visited by H.R.H. Prince of Wales, who inspected the trenches and camps. Accompanied by Colonel Findlay, he rode round the front line to Sphinx Post, where he had lunch, and then returned through the camps. As many men as could be spared from patrol were in the camps to meet the Prince, who charmed all ranks by his genuine interest in all he saw.
Visits of inspection were made by Generals Godley, Russell and Chaytor towards the end of the month.
About this time rumours of another move passed through the camps, and the appearance of a brigade of the Australian page 90Imperial Forces lent colour to this. On the last day of March orders were received to move back to Serapeum the following day. Accordingly the Regiment handed over its lines to the Australians and rode to Railhead, where it joined the rest of the Brigade. A hot and dusty ride followed, back to the old camp at Serapeum. But the stay here was short, for on the 6th the Brigade was again on the march; this time to Salhia, which was reached on the 7th after camping one night at Moascar.
This move to Salhia. the place from which Napoleon set forth upon his attempt to conquer Palestine, and where he organised the army that reached Acre, was made for the purpose of concentrating the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (afterwards commonly called Anzac Mounted Division). It consisted of the following:—
- New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.
- 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade.
- 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade.
- 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade.
- 4 Territorial R.H.A. Batteries—2 Scottish and 2 English (The Ayrs and Inverness and the Somersets and Leicesters), equipped with the 18-pdr. guns.
The old training recommenced, varied by compass and map work for officers and N.C.O.s. A football match between the officers of W.M.R. and the Canterbury Regiment caused great excitement, though probably not much first-class football. The game resulted in a draw, no score; but it was freely asserted by both sides that the referee, a veterinary officer, always blew his whistle if either team seemed likely to score.
Here was experienced a heavy sandstorm that lasted the whole of one day. Tents were blown down and everything smothered in sand. Towards evening the storm subsided, but it seemed days before one felt clean again. The sand seemed to penetrate the very pores of the skin.
At 3 p.m. on April 23rd, Easter Sunday, orders were received to be ready to move at 8 p.m. to Kantara, on the Suez Canal. The Brigade was to travel as light as possible, and page 91any surplus baggage was to follow when transport could be arranged. Gift stores from New Zealand had been issued that day, but there was little hope of carrying them. No reason was given for this hurried move, but it subsequently became known that a Turkish force, under cover of a dense fog. had attacked and inflicted heavy losses upon the Yeomanry advanced posts in the desert at the wells of Katia and Oghratina.