WARS – FIRST WORLD WAR, 1914–18
Sinai and the Holy Land
Another tale remains, of fighting in Egypt and Palestine, of sand, heat, and flies in Sinai, winter in the rocky wilderness of Judah, humid summer by the Dead Sea shore, and, for unlucky wounded, perhaps a journey to hospital of such exquisite torture as to turn young men grey-haired. But battle losses by the standards of France were not great. There were no months in trenches under massed guns, and clashes with the enemy were apt to be brief, adventurous, and even chivalrous, though they called for grim determination against a stubborn foe.
The Mounted Rifles Brigade (Auckland, Wellington, and Canterbury Regiments with supporting troops) under Brigadier-General E. W. C. Chaytor, in March 1916, joined with three Australian light horse brigades and four Royal Horse Artillery batteries to form the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (the “Anzac Mounted”) under the Australian Major-General H. G. Chauvel. The Division moved 20 miles into the Sinai Desert in April to help guard the Suez Canal. Patrols, reconnaissances, and one or two minor clashes ensued. Then, in the early hours of 4 August, 18,000 Turkish infantry attacked Romani. A superb Australian delaying action upset the Turkish timetable and when the 2nd Light Horse Brigade (with the Wellingtons under command) entered the fray the sun was pitiless and the Turks already flagging. The New Zealand Brigade shattered the enemy flank before dark and the whole Division followed through, fighting two sharp actions in the next week and bringing Turkish losses to some 10,000 men. Though other troops were engaged it was very much an Anzac victory.
This defensive success stimulated the British command to extend the railway and water pipeline along the coast and advance at least to El Arish. Next came a hard fight for Magdhaba, 23 miles up the El Arish wadi, on 23 December. In a brilliant action at Rafa on 9 January 1917, the Mounted Brigade attacked gallantly from the north, while the Imperial Camel Corps (including one New Zealand company and later another) pushed doggedly from the south. Australians and British yeomanry then closed in. (Both mounted and camel troops rode into action but usually fought dismounted.)
At Gaza on 26 March the British infantry were held up but the mounted troops, attacking skilfully late in the day, were on the point of success when the operation was mistakenly called off. A second attack a month later inevitably failed, with heavy loss of British infantry and also of Anzac horses, bombed and shelled in the horse lines. Trench warfare then developed on a 30-mile front to the hills at Beersheba.
Chauvel was now given command of the Desert Mounted Corps (including the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions and British yeomanry), Chaytor took over the Anzac Mounted, and Brigadier-General W. Meldrum of the Wellingtons commanded the New Zealand Brigade – all of them outstanding leaders who retained their commands to the end of the campaign. The desert army, with two other corps of infantry, was under General Allenby. A New Zealand Rarotongan Company gave valuable service to XXI Corps by landing supplies on beaches.
In an attack on Beersheba on 31 October the New Zealand Brigade seized the key redoubt at Tel el Saba and opened the way for the Australian light horse into the town. With Turkish reserves thus drawn to the inland sector, British infantry broke through on the coast and the Gaza-Beersheba line collapsed. After a pause to refresh the horses, the New Zealand Brigade made a stirring advance along the coastal plain in November, fighting two sharp actions. Then the Wellingtons, exceeding their orders, pushed on into Jaffa on the sixteenth.
Clothed and equipped for summer, the men found Jerusalem and the Judean hills in December and January bitterly cold. Jericho, falling to the Aucklands on 21 February 1918, was a town of pestilence. In miserable late-March weather the Division and the Camel Brigade, supported by an infantry division, crossed the flooded Jordan and scaled the heights of Moab in the most ambitious raid of the campaign-a difficult journey for horses and terrible indeed for camels slithering on mud and wet rock. Es Salt was taken, but at the end, after hard fighting and heavy loss, the garrison of Amman proved much too strong. A hill dominating the town from the south-east fell to the Mounted Brigade and the Camels and some of the Canterburys even set foot in the streets. But all was in vain and the journey back on 1 April became a long agony. Another raid in April, though it also gained Es Salt, similarly failed in its main purpose.
The Jordan Valley in summer became a humid, dust-laden oven, menaced by virulent malaria. There the Camel Corps was reduced in strength, and its New Zealand companies became the 2nd NZ Machine-gun Squadron, supporting the 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade – the only New Zealanders committed to Allenby's September thrust to the north. On the thirtieth the machine-gunners engaged the fleeing enemy in deadly fashion in the Barada Gorge outside Damascus and by 31 October, when the armistice took effect, they had reached Homs.
The Anzac Mounted Division had meanwhile exacted a stern revenge for its reverses at Es Salt and Amman, capturing both with ease by 25 September and amassing over 10,000 prisoners before turning back on 3 October. This grand finale to the operations of a magnificent body of horsemen came just in time. Many of them were already incubating malaria blown from the Turkish lines in the valley, and in the first week of October the disease struck viciously, emptying hundreds of saddles.
By degrees the New Zealanders found their way back through Jerusalem to a camp near Jaffa, where the Canterburys left in November to occupy Gallipoli–a proud distinction, though 11 men died there of sickness. Retracing their steps, the other units reached Rafa and sadly parted with their horses. There the Canterburys rejoined them and all expected to embark. But one last task awaited the Brigade. In the middle of March 1919 riots broke out in Egypt and, with the remaining Australian Light Horse, the New Zealanders were hastily re-equipped to deal with them, which they did firmly and effectively. In June and July they sailed for home, having suffered some 1,700 casualties in all, including over 500 dead.