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The New Zealanders at Gallipoli

Chapter IV. The Defence of the Suez Canal

page 47

Chapter IV. The Defence of the Suez Canal.

The New Zealand troops detailed to assist in the defence of the Suez Canal were the Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago Infantry Battalions and the New Zealand Field Ambulance. At 7 a.m., on January 26, the entrainment commenced; everybody working with a will, the last train cleared Helmieh Siding at 3 in the afternoon. Brigade Headquarters, the Auckland and Canterbury Battalions, and two
Black and white photograph of people in front of a building.

[Photo by the Author
En route to the Suez Canal.
Tel-el-Kebir is the scene of the famous battle fought by Lord Wolseley in 1882

sections of the Field Ambulance detrained at Ismailia; the Wellington and Otago Battalions and one section of the Field Ambulance going on to Kubri, about twelve miles north of Suez.
A glance at the map will show that the defence of Egypt from the Turk was strengthened by two great natural obstacles—natural from a military point of view—the arid wastes of the Sinai Desert, and the chain of salt lakes connected by the Suez Canal. In those days, when trained men were not plentiful, it was natural that this long ribbon of sea water—nowhere less than sixty-five yards wide—should be page 48
Black and white map.

Egypt and the Suez Canal.
This map shows how the troops defending the Suez Canal could have been quickly reinforced from the camps near Cairo.

page 49 selected as the line of resistance, although much elaborate fortification had been made on the eastern bank, more particularly at Kantara. In the matter of heavy artillery we had the advantage, as the Turk had to bring his guns over miles of soft sand, whereas we employed ships of the Royal Navy, which, with their powerful guns, could move up and down the defence line, easily outranging the most powerful Turkish artillery.
About thirty miles south of Port Said a few low sandhills cut off Lake Menzala from the Balah Lakes. Across this narrow isthmus ran the old
Black and white photograph of the Ghurka badge and weapon.

The Ghurka badge and weapon.

caravan route, through Kantara, from Syria to Egypt. This was the classical way for an army attacking Egypt. So Kantara was made extra strong and garrisoned by Indian regulars.

Based on Ismailia itself were three sets of posts. A few miles north was El Ferdan, where a company and two platoons of the Auckland and Canterbury Battalions were stationed; the second group was nearer Ismailia — two posts, one called Battery Post, with two platoons of New Zealanders as part of its garrison, the other, Ismailia Ferry, with one company; in reserve at Ismailia were Brigade Headquarters, with the remainder of the Canterbury and Auckland Battalions not absorbed by the posts.

Between Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake was an important stretch of the Canal, only about seven miles long, but comprising the two posts of Toussoum and Serapeum. At the latter post, two platoons of the Canterbury Battalion (the 12th Nelson Company) were instrumental in helping to stave off the most determined attack ever made by the Turks on Egypt.

page 50

South of Serapeum the Canal widens into the Great Bitter Lakes and the Little Bitter Lake, the defence of this part of the line naturally being entrusted to the Navy, assisted by two French cruisers. Between the lower lake and Suez, a distance of about fifteen miles, the Wellington and Otago Battalions were distributed—units at different times being posted at Shalouf, Baluchistan, Ghurka Posts, El Kubri and Suez.

About midnight on the night of our arrival at Kubri, a party of Turks made a great show of liveliness, evidently to draw fire and so obtain some information as to our strength and dispositions. But nothing came of these diversions, which occurred periodically.

Waiting for the Turk.

Some of our posts were on the Sinai side of the Canal, some on the Egyptian side. Up and down we were connected by telephone to all these posts and the batteries. The Turkish intelligence system was very active, whatever its efficiency, for on one night the wires from Kubri were cut no less than five times, although the line was being specially watched.

Black and white photograph of a ship in the Suez Canal.

In the Suez Canal.

The provision of desert patrols, post guards, Canal patrols, listening and examination posts, took up most of the time. The work was hard but full of interest. The Turk was not far away, and it was exhilarating making preparations for his downfall. On both sides of the Canal, trenches had to be dug page 51 and sandbagged, and strong posts of tactical importance constructed. Every day it was regretted that though the Turks were quiescent, armies of mosquitoes were extremely active. Ships of all the Allies and the neutral nations passed slowly through the Canal, carrying many civilian Australians and New Zealanders to and from the south. After the heat of Cairo, the daily dip was a great boon, particularly as the ladies on the passing vessels threw many luxuries to the soldiers in the water. Especially at Ismailia were the surroundings agreeable. The men in their spare time bathed in Lake Timsah, lolled in the shade of the high acacias, and marvelled at the masses of bougainvillea climbing in its purple glory among the dark green trees.

On January 28, the “Willochra” discharged the infantry of the Second Reinforcements at Suez, from whence they travelled by rail to Cairo. The ships carrying the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, together with the New Zealand transports “Verdala” and “Knight of the Garter,” steamed
Black and white photograph of trenches on the Suez Canal bank.

[Lent by Major Brunt, W.I.R.
Trenches on the Canal Bank.

up through the Canal to the accompaniments of tumultous cheering, which burst forth anew when their escort was discovered to be the Australian submarine AE2, steaming awash between the banks lined with enthusiastic East Lancashires, Indians, Australians and New Zealanders.

The end of January drew near and still the Turks did not attack. Occasionally the outposts on either side saw shadowy page 52 forms and fired into the dark. Our Intelligence Department had gleaned some knowledge of the enemy's dispositions. It was known that about forty miles east of the Canal, opposite Serapeum, he was concentrating in a deep valley, from whence it was believed he intended to advance in two columns—one on Kantara and the other on Serapeum. These were the obvious routes, the only other feasible one being by way of Kubri.

The troops were very fit and well dug in. Every man–English, Indian, and Colonial—was a volunteer in the strictest sense and eager to try conclusions with the enemy. On the last day of the month we were greatly cheered by the news that the “Blucher” had been sunk in the North Sea.

It was discovered that the Turkish column, marching by way of the old caravan road towards Kantara, moved at nights, using the telegraph line as a guide. The Indians had prepared elaborate fortifications and wire entanglements out from Kantara, then skilfully altered the direction of the telegraph line, so that it might end in carefully concealed barbed wire and pointed stakes.

Black and white photograph of the Taranaki section of Kubri fort.

[Lent by Major Brunt. W.I.R.
The Taranaki Section of Kubri Fort.
The wire running out is an alarm wire connected with the wire entanglements in front.

Affairs of outposts gradually became matters of frequency over the length of the line. The Turk was making a show of reconnaissance from Kantara to Kubri, but everywhere a warm welcome was awaiting him.

Our First Battle.

At last, on the night of February 2/3, it was obvious that the great attack had commenced. At Kantara the enemy page 53 made an early morning attack on the outposts, which was easily repulsed. Then their main body came down the deceiving telegraph line. To the intense delight of the Indians the enemy walked straight into the trap, and were scattered to the four winds of the desert by carefully posted machine guns. It was quite evident that Kantara would not fall. But the enemy maintained a certain measure of activity, advancing and digging in just out of range. He showed no anxiety for a closer acquaintance, but appeared content to throw a few shells at the posts and occasionally at the shipping on Lake Timsah. This continued all day, until he was evidently ordered to the attack. It was a miserably feeble effort which rapidly converted itself into a hasty retirement.

Some of the Canterburys were at El Ferdan, upon which post four small enemy field guns opened a desultory fire, but were quickly put out of action by a few well directed rounds from H.M.S. “Clio.”

Down at Kubri the troops were on the alert. H.M.S. “Himalaya” used her searchlights all night, flinging her ghostly beams of light far over the desert and preventing any surprise attack. A few shots were fired by the outposts but well-directed fire from the “Himalaya” deterred the Turk from making any organized advance.

The only place at which a comparatively serious attack was pressed home was in the neighbourhood of Toussoum and Serapeum. On the evening of February 2, the 12th Nelson Company of the Canterbury Battalion was holding a section of 800 yards. On their left the line was taken up by the 62nd Punjabis. At about 3.25 next morning the enemy opened fire with machine guns, and at 3.30 it was evident that
Black and white photograph of the Suez Canal where the pontoons were launched from.

[Lent by Cant. Saunders. 12th Nel. Reg
Where the Attack came.
This is the part of the Canal where the pontoons were launched. The 12th Nelson Company was holding a line near the fir trees.

page 54 he was making an attack a few hundred yards on our left. Thirty men of the Nelsons were at once doubled over to assist the Indians, but were surprised to find no troops there! The enemy, in five pontoons, was already crossing the Canal! The handful of New Zealanders opened fire and drove back the boats. The other platoons of the Nelsons kept up a steady long-range fire. Soon both banks of the Canal were ablaze with the spluttering of rifles fired by soldiers undergoing their baptism of fire. The rival artilleries now came into action, and by dawn the battle raged over the two and a half miles
Black and white photograph of the pontoons being lifted out of the Suez Canal.

Lifting the Pontoons.
The fir trees on our side of the Canal are discernible. The pontoons were sunk by rifle fire. The large holes were made with axes to render the boats unserviceable.

of Canal in the neighbourhood of Toussoum and Serapeum. The Turk made attempt after attempt, but our infantry easily accounted for the men in the pontoons; the field artillery scattered the bridge-making squads; and when it was fully light, the ships' guns caused such consternation in the enemy's reserves that gradually the attack melted away. page 55 Everywhere in front of the line between Toussoum and Serapeum lay dozens of enemy dead.
At noon the Punjabis
Black and white photograph of the grave of the first man killed in action.

The First Man Killed in Action.
The last resting place of 6/246 Private William Arthur Ham, 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion.

counter-attacked with considerable effect, took many prisoners, and cleared a large area of the enemy. In the afternoon the New Zealanders were ordered to close on the 22nd Indian Brigade Headquarters, and during this movement we suffered our first New Zealand casualties—one sergeant being wounded and a private of the 12th Nelson Company died as the result of wounds received in action—the first soldier of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to be killed on the field of battle. The troops spent an expectant night, but nothing further materialized.

Captured Turkish Orders.

From daylight on the morning of the 4th, parties cleared up the battlefield, burying hundreds of Turks. Captured orders showed that the attempt was to have been made on a grand scale, but something must have sadly miscarried. The following extracts dealing with the main attack reveal Turkish Orders at their best: “By the grace of Allah we shall attack the enemy on the night of February 2/3, and seize the Canal. Simultaneously with us the right column will attack Kantara; the 68th Regiment will attack El Ferdan and Ismailia; the left column will attack Suez; and one company from the 10th Division will attack Shallufa. The champions of Islam, from Tripoli in Africa, from the left wing will page 56
Black and white photograph of captured pontoons at Ismailia.

[Photo by the Author
Captured Pontoons at Ismailia.

advance to Serapeum and the south of Serapeum…. As soon as it is dark the heavy artillery battery will take up its position. Its task is to destroy the enemy's warships in Lake Timsah. If it gets the opportunity, it is to sink a ship at the entrance to
Black and white photograph of a Turkish prisoner.

[Lent by Capt. Boxer, N.Z.M.C.
A Turkish Prisoner.

the Canal.…. Three regiments will proceed to the Camp of the Bridgemakers; the detachments will take pontoon and engineer soldiers from the companies selected as attack column … The advances from the ‘place of preparation’ is to be made simultaneously in eight columns at a place to be fixed, and in a straight line; a pontoon is to be given to each squad; each squad is to send forward a party to reconnoitre.…. page 57 The march to the Canal is about four or five kilometres, and is to be accomplished without halt. The pontoons are to be launched in the Canal and the passage across is to begin immediately…. The first duty of the detachments which cross is to occupy the slope of the western bank. The two companies collected on the western bank are to advance 500 or 1000 metres from the Canal and take up a favourable position facing west. After all the battalions in the first line have been mustered they are to continue the march. The 2/75th Regiment is to seize Toussoum and occupy the hill with small force. The 74th Regiment is to
Black and white photograph of the bows of Turkish pontoons.

[Photo by the Author
Bows of Turkish Pontoons.
The pontoons are of German make, as the spelling of “the home port” indicates.

take the direction towards Timsah and the west, and is to advance as far as the railway line….If the regiments meet with opposition from the enemy while occupying these positions, they are at once to execute a fierce bayonet charge…. At first I will be at the little hill on which are two sandhills; later on I shall go towards Toussoum.” All of which showing that even early in the War the best laid plans of Turk and Hun went very much astray. Instead of executing fierce bayonet charges and taking up favourable positions facing west, the broken remnants of the champions of Islam had in large measure fled a considerable distance east—going so far page 58 and so quickly that an aeroplane reconnaisance of sixty miles showed great clouds of dust still hastening towards the desert sanctuary.
The enemy's total casualties were about 3000 in killed, wounded and prisoners. The British loss was 18 killed and 83 wounded. The naval casualties were also infinitesimal—
Black and white photograph of Turkish prisoners captured on the Suez Canal.

Turkish Prisoners captured on the Canal.
This picture, which shows the physique of the Turk, was taken by Lieut. A. E. Forsythe, (12th Nelsons) who was killed on Gallipoli.

one man killed on the “Swiftsure” and ten wounded on the “Hardinge.” Thus was the enemy's much-heralded attack brought to confusion. From that day the Suez Canal, thanks to the efforts of the British and Indian troops and the Allied navies, has been open day and night to the ships of friendly nations.

Three weeks of waiting ensued. There was certainly work to be done, but the Canal is just the Canal, and men get very sick of it. Any change is welcome to the soldier. It was a relief to climb into the troop trains on February 26 and eventually arrive in the old encampment near Zeitoun.

Return to Zeitoun.

The New Zealand and Australian Division was now feeling its feet, and towards the end of March the Third Reinforcements arrived and were promptly drafted to the units re- page 59 quiring them, particularly the Field Engineers and Divisional Train. Among them was a Maori contingent of 14 officers and 425 other ranks, eager to prove that they were too good for garrison duty. Egypt had never seen their betters as regards drill, physique and discipline.

About this time the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force came into being. The air was full of rumours; soon it became manifest that the two Colonial Divisions—the 1st Australian Division and the New Zealand and Australian Division —were, as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, to be called on to engage in a most important enterprise. Bustling administrative officers from the two Divisions commenced addressing their letters to Army Headquarters as A.N.Z.A.C., little realizing they were unconsciously creating a word destined to ring with glory down the ages.

How the prospect of humbling the Turk appealed to these young crusaders from the far South! What an atmosphere of anticipation pervaded the camp when it was learned that the Division was to be paraded for the last searching inspec-
Black and white photograph of a cosmopolitan group of soldiers.

[Photo by the Author
A Cosmopolitan Army.
In this picture are Australian Signallers. Ceylon Rifle Planters, British, French, and Australian Officers.

by the illustrious soldier to whom Britain had entrusted the confounding of the Turk. There was a certain element of romance in these young, untried divisions from the New World daring to confront one of the oldest and most warlike of the Old World races.
page 60

An Inspection on the Desert.

Just a year before, Sir Ian Hamilton, reviewing the New Zealanders and Australians in their own lands, expressed the wish that some day these wonderful horsemen might be shown to the world. By a strange chance, here they were in Africa, soon to be led by him in their first great visit to Europe, Surrounded by his staff, here again he sees them in the desert. Squadron after squadron go the 1st Light Horse Brigade, the pride of all Australia; then the New Zealand Mounted Rifles—men from the Waikato, the Wairarapa, the Waitaki. and every country district in between—prance gaily past in a cloud of dust and locusts; following the mounted rifles come the divisional artillery, all New Zealanders—with their cap badges blackened for war and their guns bedaubed with multi-coloured paints in a manner to make an old battery sergeant-major go crazy. Here are the handy men of the army—the divisional engineers with their great pontoons, and their confreres the signallers—wise men with buzzers and telephones and other signalling paraphernalia bedecking their horses and waggons. Following the “fancy troops.” in solid ranks of khaki and with bayonets flashing in the desert sun, come the infantry brigades of the Division. These are the men who trudge all day in the desert and at night dig themselves in, bivouacking and trudging on again next morning. The New Zealand Brigade marches brilliantly: every man is a prouder man than when he left New Zealand, for the infantry alone out of our Division participated in the defence of the Canal.

Now come the newly joined 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, and, closely following, the waggons of the divisional train; finally the field ambulance, flying their great Red Cross flags. By this time everybody is covered with grey desert dust and the plain is obscured as if with the smoke of a great bush fire. The march past over, units make for home by the shortest route. Soon the horses are rubbed down and are munching their tibbin and crushed barley, while the men are crowding the showers preparatory to the call of the cookhouse.

page 61

That night we realized that at last the long-desired standard was attained—the New Zealand and Australian Division was pronounced fit for active service.

A Riot in the Ezbekieh Quarter.

Good Friday was a bad day for Australia and New Zealand. This was the occasion of the great riot. There were reasons for this outburst. On that holiday morning all troops were given leave for the day. There was nothing to do in
Black and white photograph of divisional head-quarters.

[Photo by the Author
Divisional Head-Quarters.
Showing Head-quarters cars and signallers on the old Suez Road. The officer in the foreground is Lt. Col. G. R. Pridham, D.S.O., R.E., the talented C.R.E. of the Division in Gallipoli and France.

the town, so some men got more than was good for them of the wretched liquors sold in those tenth-rate cafes and dancing houses. Soldiers under the influence of drink do not behave any better than their civilian brothers. They are necessarily high-spirited people and very fit. In retaliation for some real or fancied grievance, a few irresponsibles commenced throwing things out of a top-storey window. The red caps were not popular, and both sides receiving reinforcements, a melee ensued. Some fool fired the broken furniture lying in the street, and from this it was only a stage to firing the houses. An Egyptian fire brigade arrived, but the soldiers, by this time numbering thousands, cut the hoses and pelted the unfortunate firemen with their own gear. Realizing that only disgrace could come of the affair, the sane people gradually page 62 got the rioters away, and after about four hours of Bacchanalian revelry the city was again quiet. A legend has grown up that the work was a good one, and that the soldiers had determined to rid the city of those sinks of iniquity. It is almost suggested that the good work was the result of a religious revival among the troops. It must be admitted that it was a bad business; but without apologizing in any way, it may be honestly set down that throughout the four years of War this is almost only the only instance of excess participated in by the New Zealand troops.

Leaving Cairo.

The men of the Maori contingent were disappointed to find that they were not to join up at once with the Division. and after an entertainment and haka before Sir John Maxwell, the High Commissioner of Egypt, one of their officers made an eloquent plea to be sent on active service. The promise
Black and white photograph of kit inspection in the field ambulance lines.

[Lent by Capt. Boxer. N.Z.M.C.
Kit Inspection in the Field Ambulance Lines.

was made that the request would be acceded to after a short term of garrison duty at Malta, for which station they left Zeitoun Camp on the evening of Easter Monday, embarking on the s.s. “Runic” at Port Said.

Easter Monday was a most trying day. The khamseen blew, the breakfast dishes were full of grit, horses were page 63 fidgety in the driving sandstorm, everyone's temper was on edge. Egypt is a delightful place for the tourist, who can amuse himself indoors if the conditions be undesirable without. The soldier, on the contrary, must soldier on, khamseen or no khamseen, so over the drifting wastes of sand, artillery, engineers, infantry, divisional train and ambulance, wended their several ways to their different rendezvous in the desert. This was a new idea in the matter of parades—parading by ships—all to go on the “Lutzow” mustering in one place, those for the “Katuna” in another, and so on. Men, horses and vehicles were carefully checked by the known capacity of the transports already waiting in Alexandria Harbour.

Because the country was known to be mountainous and almost devoid of water it was recognized that in the initial stages of the campaign the mounted men must be left behind. This reduced the fighting strength of our division from four brigades to two. The mounted rifles for once were sorry they had horses, but hardly envied the infantrymen the daily long-distance route marches with the seventy pounds of pack and a rifle, dusty tracks, and an angry sun.

Everything comes to an end, even training in Egypt. In the week following Easter, all ranks were thankful to get aboard the troop trains in the dark and disappear into the black Egyptian night. The only regret was that their comrades of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and Australian Light Horse were left fretting in the desert camps.