The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter VII. — Of the Crossing of the Canal and the Advance into the Sinai Desert
Of the Crossing of the Canal and the Advance into the Sinai Desert.
After a long and weary march across the sand in the darkness the Canal was reached at daylight. There was some excitement at the sweet water canal near Kantara. The only means of crossing this was a railway bridge with planks laid between the rails. There were no sides to the bridge, and it was a matter of crossing in single file. The majority of the horses took it quietly, but some, whose owners had evidently been visiting the feed bin in unauthorised hours, were feeling above themselves. One long sergeant of the 1st Squadron let his horse go. thereby saving himself a ducking, to the audible regret of those watching. In the end all were safely across with the loss of one horse killed.
Kantara East was reached at 7 a.m., and after halting for an hour the Brigade rode on to Hill 70, about five miles east of Kantara, and bivouacked, thus completing a forced march of 37 miles. All sorts of rumours were flying about, some that the Turks were advancing on Kantara, after having smashed the Yeomanry at Quatia; others that they had retired again. Reliable news was scarce, and beyond the fact that Duiedar had been successfully defended, nothing could be learnt.
On the 25th the Regiment moved to the head of the military railway that Sir Archibald Murray was beginning to push across the desert, and camped at what was known as the "Loop," later called "Canterbury Post."
The Anzac Mounted Division had taken over the outer line of No. 3 Section Canal Defences, and established posts of Light Horse at Dueidar and Romani, fifteen and twenty miles respectively from the Canal, with the Canterbury Regiment guarding Railhead.
Patrols and escorts were now the order of the day, but there was no sign of the enemy. Daily patrols visited page 93Duiedar and Romani, connecting there with the Australian Light Horse.
Rations and water were short for men and animals, all supplies of both these necessaries having to come by rail from Kantara. Probably nobody yet realised the difficulty of keeping a large number of men and animals in the desert, and Headquarters at Kantara had not reached the height of efficiency they were to attain in later days. However, there was very little grumbling, everybody still hoping for a chance of a brush with the enemy.
But there was very little to vary the monotony of the patrols till May 10th. when the Regiment was ordered to Romani. Kits had arrived during the stay at the Loop, and everything had to be moved. Fortunately camels were plentiful at this time, and the whole camp, with tents and baggage, were moved in one load. This was the only occasion during the whole campaign when sufficient transport was available to move everything with the Regiment, and it was only possible now because the camel camp was close by at Railhead, and the camels had to go to Romani for water, whether required by the Regiment or not.
One night only was spent at Romani, and on the 11th the Regiment moved across to Bir et Maler. Here there Were no wells, but plenty of water could be obtained two or three feet from the surface. Fatigue parties soon got to work, some digging wells, and others fixing the horse troughs. These consisted of a piece of canvas about twenty yards long stretched by a rope on each end, the sides being held in an upright position by wooden pegs at regular intervals. The pegs were composed of three pieces of wood which fitted into each other, forming three sides of a square, and when dismantled were easily packed. Sometimes when sandbags were plentiful foundations were built for the troughs, but usually the troughs were resting on the sand. The water at Bir et Maler was brackish, and not fit for human consumption. However, it was all there was for the horses, and although some of them at first refused to drink, nothing better being available they soon took to it.
The old game of looking for the enemy continued, but the patrols were now in new and more interesting country. There were occasional hods with clumps of palms where welcome shade from the sun could be obtained; the battle grounds at Katia, Hamisah and Oghratina, where many of the Yeomanry fought their last fight only a short time before, were full of interest. In these places small mounds of empty cartrige cases marked the Yeomanry positions, and enabled us to form some idea of their fight. As battles measured by the ! standard of the Great War these had been unquestionably minor affairs only; nevertheless they provided valuable instruction, for this was the first time mounted troops had been engaged on the Sinai front.
So the Regiment learned to live in the desert, even as the Bedouin lived, and to realise, in this waste of sands, man's dependence on his horse. And here it was that the horsemastership so earnestly impressed on all ranks by that capable veterinarian, Major Stafford, came to that high pitch of excellence which stood the New Zealand Mounted Brigade in such good stead in the years to come, a standard that eventually impressed itself upon the whole Anzac Mounted Division.
May 7th and 8th were occupied in cutting a canal from the sea to the western end of the Sabkat el Bardawil. the great salt marsh which stretches for some 50 miles along the coast between Port Said and El Arish. The Arab name means Baldwin's Marsh, after the Crusader King Baldwin, of Jerusalem, who died nearby in 1118 A.D., and it is the Lake Serbonis of Herodotus, and was the Pelusiac arm of the Nile through which all the Mediterranean trade reached Egypt in those ancient days. Upon its banks stood the city of Pelusium, whose site is now known as Tel el Farama, and whose glory faded away after the earthquake which closed this branch of the mighty river for ever. The object of this canal was to flood the Bardawil so as to furnish an additional protection to the Suez Canal, but as fast as the cutting through the sand was made the waves filled it up again and the project was abandoned.
On May 15th and 16th a regimental reconnaissance was carried out to Oghratina, and patrols were pushed forward page 98as far as Bir el Abd. An enemy camel patrol was sighted, but refused to stay to be interviewed. The 1st Squadron carried out a separate patrol to Mageibra, but did not sight anything. On the. 16th a khamsin was blowing, and the heat was almost unbearable. By midday, in the shade of the palms at Oghratina, the thermometer registered 129 degrees, and the 1st Squadron reported 124 degrees at Mageibra. Men and animals suffered severely. No drinking water, other than the water bottles carried by each man, was available, and the flow of brackish water in the shallow wells was insufficient for the horses. The sand carts of the Ambulance were soon full of men, suffering from the extreme heat, and at 6.30 p.m. the Colonel decided to return to Bir el Maler, which was eventually reached in the early hours of the morning of the 17th. As a result of the heat, four officers and nineteen men were evacuated to hospital, and many more were unfit for duty for some days.
This, the first experience of a khamsin in the desert, was an eye-opener to all. There were no shower-baths or cool drinks available now. There was a job to do, and khamsin or no khamsin, the work had to be done. Riding on, dripping with perspiration, dazzled by the glaring soft yellow sand, praying for a cool breeze and meeting instead a. continuous blast from a glassy furnace that seemed to burn the skin, racked by an insatiable thirst, and with the water in the waterbottles too hot to drink, is it to be wondered at that men, unaided by a compass, lost all sense of direction. One could well understand the stories hitherto laughed at, of men who went mad in the desert. This was a typical reconnaissance, though the heat was abnormal, and the report sent in by Colonel Findlay will show how the thorough knowledge of the country to be fought over was built up. The total distance was thirty-six miles as the crow flies, probably about fifty miles in actual riding.
Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment.
BIR ETMALER. 17th MAY, 1916. Report on Reconnaissance to Hod ed Dababis. REFERENCE MAP, KATIA, 1/100,000.
The Regiment, less one squadron (1st), moved out of camp at Bir Etmaler at 1400 on Monday, 15th May, 1916, and marched via Hod Umm Ugba to Oghratina, arriving there at 1830.page 99
Signal communication was maintained throughout. At Hod Umm Ugba there is one good well (built) and good water, but barely sufficient to water one troop. At Oghratina good shelter for one regiment in palm trees. Camped half a mile west of Hod, near position of Yeomanry camp. Position not good for regiment—too many men required for outpost duties, but the position best available. Camped here for the night, and moved out at 0430, reaching Hod ed Dababis at 0600. At Hod en Negiliat good shelter for a regiment. No wells dug. Plenty of water at Hod ed Dababis. No wells made, but easily obtainable. Passed through Hod el Atsham en route. No made wells, but water obtainable although very brackish. Shelter here for one regiment. At 0515 after leaving Oghratina, captured an unarmed Turk two miles N.E. of Oghratina. Lt. Priest examined prisoner through interpreter. Report attached. Advanced guard pushed on to Bir el Afein. Three built wells. Water foul. Cleaned out one well without improvement. At 0700 the advanced outpost sighted three Turks on camels two miles east of Bir el Afein. Patrol pursued-them to Bir el Abu, but did not come into touch with them. One built well at Bir el Abu, but very brackish.
Communication was maintained by telephone to Brigade Headquarters, and to W.M.B. Regiment on Hill 102 by heliograph. Failed to get any communication with the Light Horse Regiment. Waited until 1200 and then decided to return, advising Brigade Headquarters our intentions. Weather very hot. Outposts and Signallers suffered severely. Halted at Hod el Atshaw for ten minutes and then moved to Oghratina. At Hod Dababis defence position good for a Brigade or a Regiment.
At Bir el Abu about 20 fresh camel marks were noticed moving to the east. Reached camp 2200. Horses stood journey well.
J. Findlay, Lt.-Colonel.
Commanding Canterbury M.R. Regt.
On the 29th, 30th and 31st another reconnaissance was made, this time by the whole Brigade, accompanied by an 18-pounder gun (mounted on wheels with ped-rail attachment) from the Ayrshire battery. The object was to endeavour to find out the strength of the enemy at Salmana, but to avoid a serious engagement. This meant night work, and night marching in the desert is not easy. With a compass, a map and the stars as a guide, there were thirty miles to travel into the desert to find a pinprick on the map, not the simplest matter if one could go straight on a given bearing, but sometimes the route led north, south and east in the space of a few miles. It was just as if one were keeping a sailing ship at sea on her course; due allowances and careful calculations had to be made at every turn, together with a very strict and accurate estimate of the distance marched. It was indeed surprising to find how many men possessed an inborn sense of direction and locality.page 100
The Brigade marched out of Et Maler at 10 p.m. on May 29th, and, travelling all night, reached Dababis, at 7 o'clock the next morning, and rested there all day.
Leaving Dababis at 9 p.m. on the 30th the Brigade advanced. The Canterbury Regiment led, with the 10th Squadron as vanguard. Passing through Bir el Abd, which was found all clear, the 1st Squadron was ordered to attack Salmana from the north, while the 10th Squadron pushed straight on, the 8th Squadron being held in reserve. Auckland Mounted Rifles were on the right. At 4.30 a.m. shots were exchanged with an outpost of the enemy near Salmana. but the post very soon bolted, leaving four dead. The situation was just developing when orders were received to retire. Evidently the staff had learned all they required about the enemy's strength, but the men were disappointed. However, orders were orders, and the return journey was at once commenced. Stopping to feed and water horses at Dababis and at Oghratina, the Regiment eventually arrived at Bir et Maler at 11.30 p.m. on the 31st.
At half past six on the morning of June 1st sounds of loud explosions at the Australian Light Horse camp at Romani were heard. These were caused by enemy aircraft bombing the camps in return for the New Zealand Brigade's visit to Salmana. A number of men and horses were killed and wounded in the 1st Light Horse Brigade camp, and thenceforward for the rest of the campaign the Turk lost no opportunity of dropping bombs upon the horses. Being bombed from the air is probably the worst experience that men undergo in modern warfare. One sees a plane flying at anything from three to eight thousand feet up; then comes the sound, a whirr, gradually rising to a shrill shriek of the descending bomb, then the explosion and a cloud of thick blackish grey smoke slowly rising from the ground. If the bomb falls into horse lines the sight is not a pleasant one. Men and animals are gashed and torn in an indescribable manner. A curious thing about bombs from the air is that one falling even a mile away seems by the sound to be dropping from directly overhead.page 101
On June 4th Major Wain, the second in command, was invalided, and Major Acton-Adams was appointed in his place. This caused a general shuffle of officers. Major Hurst took command of the 1st Squadron, with Captain D. S. Murchison as second in command. Major Hammond remained with the 8th, with Captain Blackett as second; while Major Bruce took over the 10th, with Captain Gorton as his second in command. During this month also Colonel Findlay temporarily commanded the Brigade, handing over for the time the command of the Regiment to Major Acton Adams.
On June 5th and 6th a special reconnaissance was carried out to Bir el Abd, but beyond a few fresh camel tracks, no trace of the enemy was seen.
Reconnaissances, in strength, now seemed to be the fashion. One was carried out to Mageibra on the 10th and 11th, in which a night fog had to be contended with, of so great a denseness that members of the 1st Squadron to this day still talk of it! and on the 14th and 15th reconnaissances were carried out to Katia and Hamisah, in conjunction with the Australian Light Horse.page 102
The march to Mageibra on the 10th and 11th was most trying to all concerned. The difficulties of travelling in the desert by night are very great, but with a dense fog added they become well nigh insuperable. All sense of direction is lost, and the problem of keeping in touch between troops and between the advanced guard and the main body is an additional worry. Everything is so black that one cannot distinguish the man riding alongside. All one is able to see is a darker mass in the fog. At last, worried as to your present position, you halt, and, with the aid of an electric torch, if you have one, or a carefully shaded match, consult your map. You work out the different bearings you have been travelling on and the time occupied in marching, and then decide your approximate position, and you go on, trusting to luck and a sight of the stars if the fog should lessen.
Days in camp were full of work; "stand to" in the morning added to the strain, while patrols and fatigues took up all the rest of the day. The hot weather, lack of suitable food and scarcity of drinking water was affecting everybody. Sick parades had largely increased, and many men were suffering from septic sores. Yet very few men were evacuated to hospitals. "Stand to" meant that the camp was aroused an hour and a half to two hours before daylight. All horses were saddled and everything and everybody ready to move out at a moment's notice. The vitality of man is supposed to be at its lowest during these hours, and according to theory, though it was not found so in practice, this is the time selected by an enemy to attack a hostile force. About this time a message from General Headquarters gave great pleasure to all ranks. General Murray, in a letter to the Divisional Commander, said: "Whatever I ask your people to do is done without the slightest hesitation and with promptness and efficiency. I have the greatest admiration for all your Command."
The month of June was memorable for the fact that leave to go to Port Said was granted to ten per cent, of all ranks for two days at a time.
But relief was in sight, and a return was made to Hill 70 for a spell. Leaving camp at 10 p.m. on the 23rd the Regiment page 103marched all night and arrived at Hill 70 at daylight on the 24th. Here was more comfort. Tents were plentiful and some shelters were provided for the horses. Fresh water was available from a pipe line that had been laid from Kantara. Arrangements were rapidly completed for squadrons to camp for a week at a time at Kantara, so that the men could have the benefit of the bathing in the Suez Canal. The 10th Squadron was the first to go, being relieved by the 8th, who in turn were relieved by the 1st, the place of the absent squadron being taken by a squadron of the Warwickshire Yeomanry.
On July 3rd the 1st and 8th Squadrons went to Dueidar to act as supports to the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment, who were carrying out a raid on Bir el Jefeir. Nothing exciting occurred, and both squadrons returned the following day.
On the 17th two members of the old main body, Sergts. D. A. Lusk and A. J. Black, left to join the New Zealand section of the Imperial Camel Corps, both receiving commissions as 2nd Lieutenants. Lieutenant J. G. McCallum went to the same unit with the rank of captain to command the New Zealand Company. Sorry as the Regiment was to lose them, yet it was promotion well earned by all three. McCallum led his company with conspicuous success till he fell, mortally wounded, at Rafa six months later.
While at Hill 70, Lewis guns were issued to each troop, and the machine guns were withdrawn from all regiments and formed into a separate unit, consisting of 8 officers and 221 other ranks with 12 Maxim guns, which were replaced by Vickers guns later in the campaign. This doubled the original machine gun power of the Brigade. 2nd Lieut. R. P. Harper was promoted Captain, and took over the command of the New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron, in which Lieutenant Gordon Harper and Sergt. Craven, both of this Regiment, were appointed section commanders, the latter being promoted 2nd Lieutenant.
On the evening of July 18th the country to the east of Romani had been reported clear of the enemy except for small parties, both by British airmen and by the Light Horse page 104reconnaissances which were made daily from Romani by the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, to the latter of which the W.M.R. was at this time attached. On the following day, an air reconnaissance with General Chaytor, the Brigade Commander, as observer, discovered long lines of Turks approaching westward in the vicinity of Bir Bayud, Jamiel and Bir Salmana on a frontage of approximately eight miles.
Immediate steps were taken by the Divisional Commander to keep in touch with the enemy and to draw him on to the Romani position, which was now held on a frontage of about six miles by the 52nd Division, who had their left resting on the sea at Mahemdiya and their right on the huge sand-hill Katib Gannit. This position, well dug in and wired, covered Railhead, but was open on its right or southern end where it was guarded by the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades. Further south on the old road was Dueidar, held by the 5th Light Horse Regiment and backed up by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade at Hill 70. The 5th Light Horse Regiment was included in General Chaytor's command, taking the page 105place of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, still attached to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade. Hostile aircraft flew over the camps, but no bombing occurred, although the horse lines must have provided a splendid target. On the 29th a patrol under Lieuts. Macfarlane and Mathias went to Bir el Nuss to watch the enemy, returning three days later after an interesting trip.
Very little news was available, but what there was served to show that the Turk meant to make a bold bid for Egypt. Daily he pressed forward, from Bir el Abd to Oghratina, thence to Er Rabah and so on to Katia, steadily consolidating his positions as he advanced. By the end of the month it was known that he might attack any day. Every would-be tactician in the Regiment had his own idea of what the Regiment's role should be when this occurred. The idea that found most favour was that General (Chaytor's force should make a flank attack from the south, while the infantry defended Romani. The man who put this forward had a friend, who. in turn, had received it from the General's batman. Sick parades were nil, and the few men detailed under the doctor's orders to remain at the camp grumbled and growled. They pointed out how even the Medical Service had deteriorated when a blank fossil like that could not tell the difference between a fit and an unfit man. Even the M.O. grew short tempered during those days of waiting, and woe-be-tide anybody within reach if he discovered even a cigarette butt during his daily inspection of the camp.