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The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919

Chapter IX. — How the Regiment reached the River of Egypt over against the Borders of Palestine

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Chapter IX.
How the Regiment reached the River of Egypt over against the Borders of Palestine.

Another quiet period now ensued. The Turks had no inclination for another advance, and the British Forces had to wait for the railway, which was being pushed rapidly forward. There had been a serious outbreak of cholera in the Turkish army in this area, and there was a fear of it breaking out among our troops. It may be mentioned, to show what a clean fighter the Turk is, that he had marked wells and areas as being cholera infected. These notices were written in both Turkish and English. By camping on clean ground and by a careful system of inoculation, only a slight outbreak occurred.

On August 20th the Regiment took over the duties of advanced regiment from the Auckland Mounted Rifles, and once more was split up into squadron camps, the 1st being at Barda, 10th at Hod Hisha, and the 8th three-quarters of a mile north of Bir el Abd. Constant patrolling was carried out, but nothing occurred. The Regiment in turn was relieved by the 5th Australian Light Horse a week later and returned to Hod el Amara.

Everything was very quiet. No leave was granted owing to the cholera scare. On September 11th a return was made to the old camp at Bir et Maler, where duties were light—a few odd patrols, but otherwise only camp fatigues to attend to. There had been some talk of sending officers and men to the seaside to recuperate, and on September 20th three officers and ninety-five men left for a week at Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria. This was an ideal place for a rest camp, situated on the open beach, and everybody had a turn there. Those remaining in camp did only enough work to keep themselves and animals fit.

By the middle of October a warning was issued for another move. Kit inspections were almost a daily affair.

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Quartermasters laboured to make up shortages, and wondered how everyone seemed to be in possession of most unnecessary gear. However, in a week even the Regimental Quatermaster seemed to think the Regiment properly equipped and ready to move out.

On the 23rd October a move was made to Bir el Abd, a long ride which the horses felt severely, and the following day to Willega, to relieve the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, and then after two days to Mosefig. A squadron went on to Hill 157, and a detached troop to Bir Geisi.

Enemy planes came over daily, but there was no other sign of the Turks. The Regiment escaped bombing, but, being in a line for the anti-aircraft guns, received more than its share of shellcases and duds.

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The Sergeant's Mess on the move.

The Sergeant's Mess on the move.

It may not be out of place to give the various distances travelled, as measured on the map. Broken country, and deviations made for various purposes, of course increased them, sometimes to double the map distance.

Thus Hill 70 to Dueidar 7 miles
Thus Hill to Bir et Maler 15 miles
Thus Hill to Romani 17
Bir et Maler to Katia 7 miles
Bir et Maler to Mageibra 14 miles
Bir et Maler to Oghratina 14 miles
Bir et Maler to Bir el Abd 24 miles
Bir et Maler to Salmana 31 miles
Bir et Maler to Mazar 46 miles

The railway was progressing steadily, and had now passed Salmana and made necessary a further move, so on November 13th a trek was made to Mazar, with the 8th Squadron on outpost at Malha. But the railway construction soon pushed the Brigade on again, and on the 25th Mustagidda was reached, the 8th Squadron having rejoined from Malha. There was still no sign of the enemy, though he was reported to be holding El Arish and Masaid with a strong force.

Those who had been casualties in the August fighting now began to rejoin, as the following extract from the War Diary will show:—

"Lieut.-Colonel Findlay, C.B., resumes command and Lieut. Gibbs resumes as Adjutant. Temp. Lieut.-Colonel P. M. Acton-Adams relinquishes temp, rank of Lieut.-Colonel and command of Regiment and resumes 2nd in command of Regiment. Temp. Captain D. T. Wood relinquishes temporary appointment of

Adjutant and is posted to 2nd in command 1st Squadron.?

Major H. C. Hurst relinquishes 2nd in command of Regiment and is appointed O.C., 1st Squadron."

On December 3rd the 1st Squadron moved to Zoabatia, and on the 4th the 8th Squadron to Arnussi, relieving squadrons of the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment.

The weather was much cooler. Football became the rage, and regular matches were played between squadrons and regiments. It was really wonderful how the N.C.O.s managed to have footballers available about a camp, though men for fatigues were always scarce.

The desert here was just the same as that nearer to the Canal. Everywhere stretched the apparently limitless sea of sand, with ridge after ridge, dune after dune, in ceaseless monotony; in places covered with a stunted scrub, but bare of other vegetation. At localities where wells had been sunk centuries ago there might be a small grove of date palms, but these were few and far between.

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It was in a small hod near Bir el Abd that the first signs of the Roman occupation of the highway into Egypt came to light, in the shape of a stone watering trough some 50 feet in length and with the plaster still in a perfect state of preservation. As it lay close to the old caravan route, it had apparently been a stopping place for the Roman caravans moving to and from Egypt. This example of the characteristic care of the Romans for water supplies was but the forerunner of many wonderfully preserved examples we were to see as we journeyed into Palestine.

On the Salt-marsh. The Sabkhet el Bardawiz.

On the Salt-marsh. The Sabkhet el Bardawiz.

The few glories of the desert are the sunset and the dawn. The colouring then requires a Kinglake to •describe. Night after night on outpost one watched and marvelled at the wondrous tints. As the sun sinks below the rim of the horizon, the whole sky glows with coloured bands of light, then these gradually fade out, leaving a clear blue sky studded with innumerable stars. During the night in autumn and winter there is much lightning, or rather curious balls of fire which hang and glow on the dark distant hills. At dawn streaks of colour spread over the sky, and begin to brighten the darkness, then quickly comes a full blaze of light across the sky, the colouring is gone, and it is page 122broad daylight. There is no twilight and everything in the desert stands out in sharp contrasts of black and white.

At Mustagidda the Regiment was not far from the sea, but in between lay the Sabkhet el Bardawil, and from here our patrols penetrated as far as Masmi some three miles from El Arish. spying out the country.

It soon became evident, that there would be another advance. The railway had now passed Mazar, and was approaching Hill 133, where huge dumps were growing and large water tanks were being erected. Side by side across the desert General Murray, with that wonderful completeness in organisation so characteristic of him, had brought the Nile water in steel pipes. After passing under the Suez Canal the water was held in storage tanks and filtered and chlorinated before being sent across the desert by relays of pumps at approximately twenty-mile intervals. This pipe line Sir Archibald eventually took right into Palestine. Perhaps he was inspired by the old tale of Herodotus, who says, in speaking of the difficulties experienced by Cambyses in crossing the desert, that "there is another tale, an improbable story, but, as it is related, I think I ought not to pass it by. There is a great river in Arabia called the Corys, which empties itself into the Erythraean sea. The Arabian King, they say, made a pipe of the skins of oxen and other beasts, reaching from this river all the way to the desert, and so brought the water to certain cisterns which he had dug in the desert to receive it. It is a twelve day journey from the river to this desert tract. And the water, they say, was. brought through three different pipes to three separate places." Surely, though old Herodotus says, "it is an improbable story," it is truly a remarkable fact that it was to become true some 2,000 years later.

On December 20th the Regiment moved out to Ghurfan el Gimal. As it was only five or six miles all baggage, overcoats, etc., were sent by camel transport. A large concentration of infantry, artillery and transport at this place, the present head of the railway, looked as if a big move was imminent. The Regiment settled down to await baggage, but was suddenly ordered off, word having been page 123received that the Turks were evacuating El Arish, and a long night march over heavy sandhills followed. This night is remembered as probably the coldest yet experienced in the desert. At 3 a.m. a halt was made for an hour on a high sandhill called Um Zugla. How everyone regretted that the overcoats were on the camels, but "once bitten twice shy," never again was the Regiment caught without them. At dawn Masmi was reached, after covering about thirty miles since leaving camp. From the top of a high sand ridge the Turkish position covering El Arish could be seen, but the Turks had gone. Along the beach for two
The busiest men in the Regiment—farriers at work.

The busiest men in the Regiment—farriers at work.

or three miles stretched great groves of palm trees, while nearer us lay the town. East of the town is the Wadi el Arish, which is the Biblical "River of Egypt." It is usually a dry watercourse, but floods heavily during the rainy season. It was up this Wadi that the garrison of El Arish had retired to Magdhaba.

The weather had now completely changed, and heavy thunderstorms made things uncomfortable for everybody, though the fall in temperature was most grateful.

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The day after arrival at Masmi one of the wood-gathering parties took eleven prisoners, who were evidently stragglers from the retreating enemy. At short notice on the evening of the 22nd the Regiment moved to the Wadi el Arish, and the early hours of the morning of the 23rd found the Mounted Division riding steadily towards Magdhaba.

The fires of the enemy camp at Magdhaba having been observed at 3.50 a.m. the force continued to advance until 10 minutes to five, and then halted and dismounted in an open plain some four miles from its objective, while the Divisional Commander (General Chauvel), with the brigade commanders, went forward to reconnoitre. The number of bivouac fires indicated a considerable force, and the brightness of the lights was very misleading as to distance.

This careless showing of lights by the enemy clearly indicated how impossible he thought it that tired horses and men, after an all-night march of 30 miles, could possibly set out immediately upon another 30 miles march to the position to which he had retired.

General Chaytor with the New Zealand Brigade and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was given orders to move on Magdhaba by the north and north-east and to endeavour to cut off all retreat. The Camel Brigade (for these operations taking the place in the Division of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade) was to advance straight up the Wadi, following the telegraph line, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade was for the present to be in reserve. The Division's batteries soon got to work, but the targets were hard to find. The enemy's guns and trenches were exceedingly well concealed, but by 10 o'clock the New Zealand Brigade had closed well in. News then coming in that our aeroplanes could see the Turk withdrawing east, the 1st Light Horse Brigade was sent in direct on Magdhaba. By 12 o'clock all three Brigades and the Camel Brigade were hotly engaged, but on account of mirage and dust clouds good observation was impossible.

General Chaytor sent forward the Canterbury and Wellington Regiments—the Wellington on the right and the Canterburys on the left, and to the left of them the 10th Light Horse Regiment. Steady progress was made over country flat and bare of cover beyond small bushes.

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By one o'clock the progress of the two regiments had caused a gap to appear between them, and into this gap General Chaytor sent the 8th and 9th Light Horse. The line now pressed strongly forward, each squadron moving forward by rushes, covered by the fire of the Lewis and machine guns, and by 3 o'clock were within five hundred yards of the enemy trenches.

The beginning of the Advance on foot at Magdhaba.

The beginning of the Advance on foot at Magdhaba.

More ammunition was brought up, and, under cover of the machine guns, ground was gained in short rushes, until, with a final charge with fixed bayonets, the nearest trenches were reached. The Turks immediately began to surrender, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade on the west and the 10th Light Horse Regiment, on the east pressing in, the whole system of redoubts enclosing the houses of Magdhaba surrendered.

It had been a race against darkness and water, for if Magdhaba had not fallen there was no water nearer than El Arish, and if darkness had fallen before the trenches were captured most of the Turks would have got away.

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One of the decisive events of the afternoon was the capture of a battery of four mountain guns by Lieutenant A. B. Johnstone, with his troop of the 8th Squadron. This battery had given much trouble and was still firing when Johnstone with six men rushed the emplacement, and the garrison consisting of 2 officers and 15 men surrendered. Casualties were light in spite of the prolonged nature of the fighting; among those who fell was Lieutenant H. A. Bowron, of the 10th Squadron, who was hit during the early advance over the bare plain.

The sufferings of the wounded were again accentuated by the long distance they had to be carried to Railhead, a matter of just over 50 miles, and from Magdhaba to El Arish the journey had to be made by cacolet. From El Arish to Railhead the most serious cases were taken in sand carts or carried on improvised sledges, both of which means of conveyance through rough country were infinitely better than the dreaded cacolet.

Magdhaba was a mounted man's action; it would have been impossible for infantry. As Gullett says in his history of the Australians in Sinai and Palestine—"The unqualified success at Magdhaba supplies a classical example of the right use of mounted riflemen. In scarcely more than twenty-four hours the Light Horsemen, New Zealanders, and Camels had ridden upwards of fifty miles, had fought, mounted and dismounted, twenty-three miles from their water supply and fifty miles from Railhead, and had surprised and annihilated a strongly placed enemy. The engagement brought out all the effective qualities of these mounted men: the excellent discipline of the silent night-ride, the rapid approach before dismounting, the dashing leadership of the junior officers, the cleverness of the men, while maintaining their advance, in taking advantage of all cover, the effective use of machine guns and Lewis guns, and the eagerness of the troopers for bayonet work as they got to close quarters."

In an address to the Brigade the following day General Chetwode (who now commanded the forces east of the Canal and called the Desert Column) said that the mounted men at Magdhaba had done what he had never known cavalry, page 127la the history of war, to have done before, i.e., they had not only located and surrounded the enemy's position, but they had got down to it as infantry and had carried fortified positions at the point of the bayonet. But the work was not yet finished. Prisoners had to be collected and horses watered. Time did not permit of mueh being done, so a regiment was left to clean up the battlefield, and the column started on its long ride home. It was a bitterly cold night and men and horses were tired. It must be remembered that they had been marching and fighting for thirty hours without pause, and for most of them this was the third night without sleep. To pass one night without sleep is trying; two nights is absolutely painful; but the third night without sleep, after heavy fighting with all the added strain and excitement. is
A Camp near El Arish.

A Camp near El Arish.

almost an impossibility. Men and horses were dropping off at the oddest times and in the oddest positions. The, dust was intense, and to the lightly clad men bereft of their overcoats, the cold seemed to penetrate to the bone. Men saw or fancied they saw plantations, towns with large buildings lighted up, precipices or a gradually closing wall. A man would halt, thinking he was on the edge of a cliff, then seeing others riding on he knew it to be imagination only. But all journeys end, and Masmi was reached at 6 o'clock on the morning of Christmas Eve. The result of the raid was one thousand two hundred and eighty-two prisoners, four page 128mountain guns, machine guns, rifles, ammunition and stores of all description.

Christmas Day was wet and cold, but the men were rested as much as possible and rapidly recovered from their fatigue of the previous days, and received with equanimity just when they were preparing their Christmas breakfast, a bombing by an enemy plane in retaliation for the raid upon Magdhaba. Two days after Christmas a new camp on the beach at Masaid was set up. A peculiarity of the beach here was that there was a plentiful supply of fresh water in the sand only a few yards from the sea, obtained by digging into the sand to the depth of a few feet.

In the new camp by the seaside in the palms, with the help of a few tents, the men were very comfortable. The weather continued bleak and cold with a strong north-west wind that blew continuously. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining supplies, it was decided to move back to the Railhead at Kilo 139. Advantage was taken of January 1st, 1917, being a comparatively fine day, to move. The new camp was very uncomfortable and seemed exposed to every wind that blew. The watering arrangements for animals were poor, and did not seem capable of improvement, so after three or four days much relief was felt when the Regiment moved back to Masaid. A fine day was not chosen for this move, and everybody got a thorough soaking But Masaid was a comfortable camp, and all hands enjoyed to the full the luxury of living in a tent again. The cool clean air and bracing sea breezes improved the standard of health wonderfully, and everyone felt, lying here on the borders of Palestine, that something had been attempted and done. And one earnest wish filled every heart—the continuance of the advance into Palestine.

El Arish was found to be rather different from the villages of Egypt. The houses were of the same type, low and flat topped, but with their light yellowish plaster made from the clay found in flats of the "river of Egypt," they looked much more clean; and the town, to men wearied of many months in the desert, had a bright and cheerful appearance.

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The Wadi el Arish is for 10 months of the year a dry water course, with its shingle beds and low alluvial flats, much resembling a New Zealand river." But in December and January heavy rains in the mountains of Sinai cause it to flood heavily, and much joy did it give to both men and horses to splash through quickly running water over a hard shingle bottom.

Crossing the Wadi el Arish.

Crossing the Wadi el Arish.

Long reconnaissances were made daily to get into touch with the Turk, and the men of the 1st Light Horse Brigade on the north side of the town were full of tales of long rolling downs covered with turf which lay stretching north towards Palestine.

And then came reports of an enemy position at Rafa, where stood the customhouse on the border line between Egypt and Palestine. These reports were confirmed by aeroplane observation and photographs, and showed a formidable system of trenches and redoubts.

Rafa lies on the boundary line between Turkey and Egypt so that one might say that the battle of Rafa was fought on the borders of Asia and Africa. Here in ancient days there occurred a great battle between Antiochus and Ptolemy, in which one hundred elephants were used. It is now but a small village containing a Customhouse and Police Barracks, and two stone pillars belonging to the series of boundary pillars that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Akaba.