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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XII — Demolition Raids

page 97

Chapter XII
Demolition Raids

After the two repulses of the British at Gaza, our front line was established along the line of the wadi Ghuzzi, except north of the mouth of the Wadi, where the infantry still held an advanced position along the sand-dunes south-west of the town. This line extended from the sea-cost in a south-easterly direction for about twenty miles across the undulating land to near the foothills of the mountainous country in Southern Palestine. Raids and reconnaissances were carried out into enemy territory, and all the time railway communication with Egypt was being improved until there was a double line from the Canal to railhead at Deir el Belah.

The water pipe-line was also pushed on, and, with the improvement of local wells and additions to the same, a satisfactory supply for the large number of troops and animals was assured. For the purpose of water supplies and with a view to future movements, posssession of all crossings over the Wadi Ghuzzi was maintained.

Training in the work of all branches of the army was constantly carried on, and every means taken to make the various units as efficient as possible. As events turned out, it was to be six months before the next forward operations on a large scale were to be carried out.

Before joining up with the I.C. Brigade, the 16th N.Z. Company was encamped at Lahfan some fifteen miles south-east from El Arish, and patrolled the country as far as Magdhaba, sixteen miles farther to the south. As reports had been received at Headquarters that a large force of Turkish cavalry was being concentrated in the low hilly country south of Beersheba, it was page 98decided to send a small force inland to blow in and block up all the wells at certain spots so as to prevent them from being made use of as watering-places for a mounted force of any size. Accordingly a force of about two hundred Cameliers, consisting of the 16th Company with the addition of a number of Australians belonging to the Second Company, all under the command of two British officers who knew the country, left Lahfan at 9.30 p.m. on Sunday, May 6, 1917, and travelling all night, in bright moonlight, along the Wadi El Arish, reached Magdhaba at 2 o’clock the following morning.

To avoid detection from enemy observers from the air, the camels were barracked close up to the foot of the cliffs in the dry bed of the Wadi near to the old Turkish headquarters, the concrete buildings of which were still standing. Signs of the battle of December 23 were seen on all sides in the shape of shells and shell-cases, remains of equipment, pierced walls, etc. Mounds of earth here and there told that many Turks had here fought their last fight, while a short distance away a wooden cross marked the spot where a New Zealand lad and an Australian Light Horseman slept together in their last sleep.

There was one well in the dry bed of the Wadi, and here on this day two parties of Bedouins had come to water their sheep, goats, camels and donkeys, and to carry back to their encampments somewhere away out amongst the sandhills, jars of water as supplies for cooking (but not washing) purposes until next watering day.

Then was enacted before our eyes a scene which might have been the one described in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which, three thousand eight hundred years before, had occurred about a day’s journey from where we were. "And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water." Our "Abimelech," clothed in much the same manner as his namesake page 99of old, with his wives and children, had completed the watering of their flocks from the well, and had filled with water their earthenware jars of native manufacture, which were loaded on the backs of their donkeys and camels in panniers made from the coarse fibres of the leaves of date-palms. The party had started to straggle away homewards through the sandhills, while the paterfamilias was coiling up his coarse rope, also made from the fibres of palm-leaves, and had begun to fasten on the back of the last camel a rich possession in the shape of an empty petrol tin, no doubt the spoils of war, when the modern "Abraham" appeared with his family and flocks from another direction. The latter seeing the rich possesion of "Abimelech," greatly coveted it, and straightway begged for the use of the petrol tin to assist him in drawing water from the well, which was about thirty feet deep. But "Abimelech" would have no dealings with "Abraham," and answered him scornfully, as a wealthy patriarch would be expected to do. Then the argument began, with their faces thrust forward and almost touching, their tongues shrilly giving utterance to their opinions of each other, and no doubt of each other’s ancestors also, while their open hands, upraised and waving violently backwards and forwards, emphasized their arguments.

But the flocks of "Abraham" wanted water, not arguments, and crowded around the mouth of the well, the animals in the rear endeavouring to push their way to the front, with the result that a goat was pushed over the brink and fell down the well. With its mouth full of water the goat began to bleat loudly, and when its owner heard the frantic gurgling cry, he abandoned his argument, and ran to the mouth of the well. "Abimelech," seeing the way clear, gathered up his rope and petrol tin in his arms, kicked his camel to its feet and disappeared over the sandhills as quickly as he could. page 100The owner of the goat also had a coarse rope, and fastening it round the waist of one of his sons, a lad of some sixteen or seventeen years of age, lowered the youth fully clothed down the well. With the assistance of some of our men who were interested spectators, the youth with the goat in his arms, was pulled safely to the surface. That morning we thought the cool fresh water in this well was the best we had sampled in the whole of the Sinai Desert, but after witnessing this scene we began to think the water might not be all we had imagined it to be—some goats, in the past, might not have been rescued, even in this unhygienic manner.

At 7.30 p.m. on May 7 the column of Cameliers moved off just as the moon rose. After travelling about ten miles it came to a Turkish light tramway and a formed metal road which were followed for some hours. In the moonlight the column moved in silence along a wadi which led in amongst hills of limestone formation. A thick fog came on, and occasionally the white tops of the hills appeared like ghosts of real ones in the uncertain light. No signs of human habitations were seen, and no sound was heard save the swishing sounds of the camels’ feet, and the occasional barking of a dog or jackal in the distance. Daybreak showed a small tableland ahead about eight hundred feet high above the flat land on both sides of it. The advanced guard divided into two parties so as to surround this plateau, while the main body proceeded to cross over the top of it. The country beyond was concealed from view, but when near the top edge the latter party heard the whistle of a railway engine, and all hands hurried to the crest of the ridge to find at the foot of the hill a cluster of buildings with a railway running to the north, and an engine and train of trucks with a party of Turkish soldiers and labourers at the siding.

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Our right flanking party had been observed by the Turks, who swarmed into the trucks and the train at once moved off to the north in the direction of Beersheba. Our left flanking party had farther to go than the other, but it made a dash to intercept the train. On the hill-top the main body were interested spectators of an exciting race between the camels and the locomotive but the latter won, and an exchange of rifle shots took place as the train moved away, but with no effects evident on either side.

This railway line had been built south from Beersheba for a distance of forty miles as far as this point which was called El Auja, and construction work had been carried on for another twenty miles farther south, past Kossaima, a former Egyptian Border Police post just across the political boundary between Palestine and Egyptian territory.

The Turks had been in earnest when they made an advance towards the Suez Canal in 1916, but in contrast with the British system, their construction of permanent lines of communication did not keep pace with the movements of their army. Even after they were driven out of the Sinai Peninsula, they could have used the completed portion of the line as a means of supply to a mounted force which, under a capable and enterprising leader, could have threatened or even cut the lines of communication well behind the British front line, or at least compelled the invaders to use up a much larger proportion of their forces in guarding their right flank and rear in South Palestine.

The labour party disturbed at El Auja by the Cameliers had been engaged in pulling up the railway line and transporting it for the purpose of using it elsewhere behind their own lines. Evidently the party consisted of forced labour, as one of its members, an Armenian, concealed himself when the alarm was given page 102and was discovered by our men. It was gathered from him that his home was in Armenia, and that his parents, wife, and children, had been massacred before his eyes, and he himself carried off to work in a labour battalion for the Turks.

At El Auja our demolition party blew up a well-built railway viaduct of eight spans, constructed of lime-stone, and also blew in the wells in the settlement. The route of the railway formation was then followed south to Birein, and on to Kossaima, at both of which places the wells were blown in.

Kossaima appeared to have been an important Turkish post on the road to the Canal. A splendid spring of water gave a continuous flow, the first of its kind we had seen in the country. A large reservoir had been constructed, and from this a line of six-inch pipes had been laid for some miles in a south-westerly direction. The railway formation had also been continued for several miles past the post.

Our party camped for the night at Kossaima, and next day set to work to make a landing-place for an aeroplane. The heat was intense, there was not a movement in the air, nor a cloud in the sky, and the rays of the sun beat down unmercifully. An Egyptian Sergeant of the Border Police force who had accompanied the demolition party, was standing watching the men at work, when he collapsed and immediately expired, evidently from heat apoplexy. The working party kept on at their labour until the landing-place was completed.

The patrols of our party searched all Bedouin camps in the neighbourhood for arms and ammunition, and confiscated all the supplies of these that were discovered, the result being a motley collection of weapons of all ages and types of construction, many being more dangerous to the party firing than to the party fired at. One page 103member of a patrol returned to camp with two old-fashioned pistols and a supply of hens’ eggs, which he considered he was entitled to seize under the heading of "possible explosives." The breakfast of his group next morning benefited from the legal fiction.

The raiding party returned via Magdhaba to its camp at Lahfan without any casualties, having been away for six days, during which time it had penetrated over fifty miles into Turkish territory. An aeroplane kept in daily touch with it, and the only means it had of communicating with its base was by means of carrier pigeons, a supply of which was carried with it in crates on transport camels.

By May 22, 1917, the 16th N.Z. Company I.C.C. had joined up with the rest of the Imperial Camel Brigade at Rafa, and the whole force took part in another demolition raid, on a much larger scale than the former on the same railway. The Anzac and the Imperial Mounted Divisions and the I.C. Brigade made a reconnaissance in force on the railway running south from Beersheba. The task of the Imperial Mounted Division was to distract the attention of the Turkish forces from the job in hand, by making a demonstration towards Beersheba. The Anzac Division had the northern sector of fifteen miles of railway line, including a stone bridge of eighteen spans, assigned to it for demolition purposes, and the I.C. Brigade had the remainder of the line as far as El Auja to deal with. This latter portion included a stone bridge of twelve spans.

The I.C. Brigade left its camp at Rafa on the evening of May 22, and proceeded south-east along the border line between Egyptian and Palestine territories. A hot wind was blowing, and the long column of animals raised a suffocating dust. After travelling for some hours the column halted about midnight, and word was passed down the line that a halt would be made for two page 104hours. At once camels were barracked, and the men lay down in their overcoats beside their animals to get a short sleep. Almost immediately a second order came along to get mounted. There was a gap between two battalions about the middle of the column, across which the first order had passed, but at which the second order stopped, with the result that half of the Brigade mounted and rode on in the darkness, leaving the other half to slumber peacefully. At daylight the head of the column turned up the Wadi Abiad, leading into the hills, and a halt being made, the Brigadier found to his amazement that he had lost half of his Brigade. While messengers were sent back post haste to find the missing tail, the members of the head of the column boiled up and had their breakfast by the time the missing companies arrived. The march was immediately resumed, so that the rear half who had the benefit of a few hours’ sleep went without breakfast, while the front half who had breakfast, went without sleep—there are always compensations in every position in this world.

The Wadi wound for miles in among the hills, and finally narrowed down, until the dry bed of a creek formed the only track for the camels. At length after midday the railway was reached at a railway siding near which there was a viaduct of twelve arches, solidly built of limestone blocks cemented together. The engineers got to work with their explosives and did their job so effectively that only four arches were left standing. Several miles of the railway were also destroyed by blowing off several feet of every alternate rail on both sides of the line with slabs of gun-cotton. The force then retired, and an hour or two after dark halted for the night near the mouth of the Wadi Abiad. No one needed to be rocked to sleep that night, and for some merciful reason reveille was not till 9 o’clock next morning.

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El Auja, Viaduct, blown up by I.C.C.

El Auja, Viaduct, blown up by I.C.C.

Esbeita Viaduct, blown up by I.C.C.

Esbeita Viaduct, blown up by I.C.C.

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Turkish Cavalry near Gaza (Captured photo.)

Turkish Cavalry near Gaza (Captured photo.)

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During the return to Rafa that day, parties of Bedouins were passed watching their flocks of sheep and goats grazing on the scattered herbage. Strict orders had been issued that the property of these people must not be interfered with, but that night at Rafa savoury odours of mutton chops floated about the New Zealand lines at tea time, but no questions were asked as to their source.

The district in which we had been carrying out these raids was the scene of archaeological surveys by C. L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence (afterwards Colonel Lawrence of Arabian fame) in the early part of 1914. Captain (afterwards Colonel) S. F. Newcombe, who was in charge of the survey, led a raiding party of Cameliers on October 30, 1917, into the northern part of this same district behind the Turkish front line in the direction of Hebron (see Chapter XIV). Woolley and Lawrence in their book, The Wilderness of Zin, published in 1915, give a full description of ruins, mostly Byzantine, found in this region in the vicinity of El Auja, Birein, Kossaima, Muweilleh, and Esbeita, all of which were visited by the Cameliers in 1917, who by their destructive operations added their quota to the ruins in the district, which may prove of interest to archaeologists in the distant future. This district is generally supposed to be the position reached by the Children of Israel, from which Moses despatched a party of twelve representatives of the Tribes to spy out the Promised Land, and from which the Israelites were sent back into, the Wilderness for a further term of wandering for forty years, before they again advanced into Palestine. Lawrence in Chapter IV of The Wilderness of Zin, states: "The roads running out to north, south, east, and west, together with its abundance of water and wide stretch of tolerable soil distinguish the Kossaima Plain from any other district in the Southern Desert, page 106and may well mark it out as the headquarters of the Israelites during their forty years of discipline."

The Fourth Battalion I.C.C. (in which was included the 16th N.Z. Company) seemed to get its fair share of demolition work at different periods during the campaign. In March, 1918, it formed part of Shea’s Force which crossed the Jordan River, climbed under most difficult conditions the steep rocky mountain slopes of Moab to attack the old historic town of Amman on the Hedjaz railway, and the Battalion, swinging round the right rear of the troops facing Amman, ran the gauntlet of shells and machine-gun fire, until, well on in the afternoon, it reached the railway between Libben and Kissir stations.

A party of troopers selected from the Battalion had previously been trained in demolition work, and these at once set to work with slabs of gun-cotton to blow out sections of alternate rails. Several miles were thus dealt with, and the running of the Damascus-Medina express must have been thrown somewhat out of joint for some time after.

The noise of the explosions attracted the attention of the Arab inhabitants of the village of Sahab, a few miles away, and a large party of them, some on horseback, some on foot, and all carrying rifles, came over to enjoy the fun. One Arab who could speak about as much English as the writer could speak Arabic, had a pair of field-glasses hung round his neck. I asked him to "shufti" (show) them to me, which he readily did, and I showed him mine. He pronounced mine to be very good, and I replied that his were "kwaiyis ketir," (very fine). The latter were Zeiss prismatic glasses, and on one side of the barrel was engraved the name, "Capt. A. L. Gore, 1/8 Hamps. Reg." I asked the Arab where he had got the glasses, and he replied "Turkish officer, prisoner." As the Arabs had more page 107gold coins than we had silver ones, there was no use trying to buy the glasses from him with money. The only coinage the Arabs coveted was ammunition, but this we objected to barter with as we thought there was a big risk of our receiving the "change" in the form of lead if we happened to be worsted in our contest with the Turk. Some months later I met a Hampshire sergeant at Port Said when on leave, and asked him if he ever knew an officer called Capt. Gore. The sergeant said that Capt. Gore had been his officer, and three days after the Suvla Bay landing on Gallipoli in 1915 the regiment had to retire. Captain Gore went back to hurry up stretcher-bearers to get all the wounded away before the retirement was carried out, and was never seen or heard of again, and now some three years later, an Arab, some thousands of miles away on the border of the Arabian Desert was met with, using his field-glasses.

As the British were unable to capture Amman, the whole force retired once more to the Jordan Valley. The morning after we recrossed the river the Battalion was encamped near Jericho. Our demolition party, with the remaining supply of a few tons of explosives loaded on the backs of transport camels, was encamped farther out in the plain. Three Turkish Taubes selected this morning to inspect Jericho and its neighbourhood, and attempted to bomb the lines of the demolition party. One of our men told us later that he was never much in love with the war, but when crouching down between two camels, each bearing between two and three hundred-weights of explosives, with three Taubes trying to drop bombs on them, he loved it less, and he said he made a solemn vow that if he lived he would be neutral in the next war. If the Taubes had been successful in their aims there were nearly enough explosives to have increased the depth of the Dead Sea until it was over the page 1081,300 feet mark below sea-level, but fortunately the Turks missed their mark.

The Imperial Camel Brigade was reorganized at the end of June, 1918, the ten Australian Companies being formed into a new Mounted Brigade, the Fifth Light Horse, and the two New Zealand Companies were formed into No. 2 N.Z. Machine-gun Squadron which was attached to this new Brigade. The six British Companies were retained as Camel Companies.

In July, 1918, two of these British Companies, consisting of three hundred men, under Colonel R. V. Buxton, were sent to help Colonel T. E. Lawrence and his Arab army to make another surprise raid on Amman, this time from the south. The party left Kubri on the Suez Canal on July 23, and marched across the Sinai Peninsula, a distance of over one hundred and sixty miles in seven days, arriving at Akaba, a port at the head of the Gulf of the same name on the 30th. From Akaba they proceeded to a station on the Hedjaz railway, called Mudawara, which they surprised on the morning of August 8, and captured the garrison of one hundred and fifty Turks and all the arms and stores in the position.

Having blown in the wells and destroyed a portion of the railway line, the detachment moved north, their track being roughly parallel with the Hedjaz railway line. This must have been the route followed by the Israelites on their way north to the Promised Land, before they crossed the Jordan River.

The Cameliers along with their Arab allies arrived at a spot about fifteen miles south of Amman on August 20, when they were observed by a Turkish aeroplane. Their object was to destroy the railway viaduct and tunnel at Amman, and to concentrate the attention of the Turks on that position, so as to give them the idea that another attack in force was meditated. Unfortunately page 109Turkish guards were stationed in the villages between them and their objective, and as their force was not strong enough to make a direct attack on the position, a retirement was made to Azrak out east in the desert. Their last camping-ground before retiring was left well strewn with British bully-beef tins, and well marked by motor tracks made by an armoured car which accompanied the expedition, so as to confirm the impression on the minds of the Turks that an attack in force was imminent. This fitted in with General Allenby’s schemes for misleading the Turks, and inducing them to believe that his next attempt to break through their lines would be on his right flank, as had been done at Beersheba.

Buxton’s force made its way south again, crossed the Hedjaz railway, and passing south of the Dead Sea, arrived safely at Beersheba on September 6, having covered nine hundred and thirty miles since it left the Suez Canal.

When General Allenby’s big final break through the coastal sector of the Turkish lines took place at 4.45 a.m. on September 19, 1918, the New Zealand Cameliers, now transformed into the No. 2 Machine-gun Squadron, once more took part in another demolition raid. The last formed of the Australian Brigades was said to have been selected for this very risky undertaking in a truly Australian fashion. The O.C.s of each of the other brigades in the Australian Division were said to have pressed the claims of their own units for the honour of carrying out this dangerous stunt, but the Divisional Commander said, "No, if anything happens to the demolition party, the last formed brigade will be least missed," and so the ex-Cameliers, the Fifth A.L.H. Brigade, with its N.Z. Machine Gunners, was selected.

During the lightning sweep of the cavalry up the coastal plain that September morning, the Fifth Brigade swung round to the right north of the town of Tul page 110Keram, where three thousand Turkish prisoners were captured. Without a halt except to water and feed the horses, the Brigade struck off north-east through the darkness, over the rugged limestone ridges, treeless, and trackless, but decidedly not rockless, to cut the main Turkish line from the north near Ajje, some twenty-five miles behind the enemy’s front line. When the possibilities were considered, the remarks of the Divisional Commander could be appreciated, but the Brigade successfully carried out the raid, cut the railway, and returned to Tul Keram the next day without a casualty.