With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter XXI — The Big Break Through
The Big Break Through
In preparation for the next big movement the whole of the Australian Division was now armed with swords, and while the Light Horsemen were being trained in the use of the arms blanche, the New Zealand ex-Cameliers transferred their attention from camels, rifles, and Lewis guns, to horses and Vickers machine-guns. During the strenuous days of the next move their minds no doubt often reverted to the comforts they enjoyed in their old corps.
While the new Brigade was being trained for the part it was to take in the next military operations, General Allenby was training the minds of the Turkish leaders to misread his intentions regarding his next big movement. On previous occasions General Allenby’s blows had been struck on the flank of his army on which the Cavalry Divisions were placed, so it was necessary to impress on the minds of the Turks that the Cavalry were in force in the Jordan Valley. For this purpose dummy horse-lines filled with dummy horses were set up near empty camps for the benefit of the Turkish aerial observers. Horse covers, or even light scrim stretched on a few light poles formed the bodies, while sand-bags, with pointed ears, and stuffed with hay, made quite pre-sentable horses’ heads when viewed from a height in the air. At the same time the one Mounted Division left in the valley, the Anzac Mounted Division under Major-General Chaytor, made a series of demonstrations so as to induce the enemy to believe that another attack across the Jordan was planned.
Fast’s Hotel, a large modern building erected on the Jaffa Road, outside the western wall of Jerusalem not far from the Jaffa Gate, was suddenly emptied of all its occupants, guards were put in charge of it, and the rumour was circulated that the whole building was required immediately for the Advanced Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief. This rumour was intended to reach Turkish ears, and no doubt it did so.
That all these plans bore fruit is proved by Turkish documents captured after the big break through. In an enemy map issued the day before the advance of the British force, three of our infantry divisions and two page 202cavalry divisions are shown in entirely wrong positions in the British territory, while their captured aeroplane reports state at the same time that, "no essential changes had taken place in the distribution of the British forces."
After darkness had fallen on the night of September 18, the troops moved to their allotted positions, like competitors in a race getting into their places to make a fast break-away when the starting signal was given. Everything was done by the clock, and it was most essential that each unit should move exactly at the time laid down for it, otherwise the whole great movement might be held up, or delayed for hours. As brigade after brigade filed into their respective positions, one could not help marvelling at the wonderful organizing work of the staff that had provided for all these movements, and worked out the time-table for each unit.
At 4.30 a.m. on September 19 the startled Turks were awakened by the crash of over three hundred British guns pouring their iron hail on the enemy’s trenches near the coast. An intense bombardment of a quarter of an hour was followed by infantry attacks. The 60th Division next to the sea swept aside all opposition, and moved north up the plain, while the 7th, 75th, and Third Divisions, breaking the enemy line in front of them, swung round to the right, and forced the right flank of the Turks back into the hills.
At daylight on the 19th, every telephone centre and every aerodrome behind the Turkish armies were heavily and systematically bombed by our air force, which completely disorganized the signal communications of the enemy, so the Turkish Headquarters, fifty miles back at Nazareth, was completely ignorant of what was happening in its front line.
The way had been opened for the cavalry. The Fifth Cavalry Division swept directly north, followed closely by the Fourth Cavalry Division, and by evening page 203these forces were twenty-five miles from their starting point of that morning. The Australian Mounted Division (less the newly formed Fifth A.L.H. Brigade) left its camping ground near Ludd that same morning and followed up the coastal plain. The objective of these three cavalry divisions, now that they had left the Turkish front line well behind them, was to press on at utmost speed through the hills of Samaria, seize the passes leading to the Plain of Esdraelon, spread down the Valley of Jezreel to the Jordan, and so effectively cut off the retreat of the Seventh and Eighth Turkish armies when our infantry had driven them from their front line positions.
In selecting the route for the cavalry, General Allenby had thesame problem to decide as confronted the Egyptian Pharaoh, Thothmes III, in the year 1479 B.C., before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, when he led his army through the same country to meet the army of the kings of Syria and Palestine which awaited him on the Plain of Esdraelon on the northern side of the mountain passes. After this long interval of time, nearly thirty-four centuries, an account of Thothmes’s council of war has been discovered in Egypt, probably the earliest recorded account of such a nature in the world. "They (the officers) spoke in the presence of His Majesty, ‘How is it that we should go upon this road (the narrow Musmus Pass) which threatens to be narrow, while they come and say that the enemy is there waiting, holding the way against a multitude ? Will not horse come behind horse, and man behind man likewise? Shall our vanguard be fighting while our rearguard is standing yonder in Aruna, not having fought? There are yet two other roads; one road, behold it comes forth at Taanach (the present road through Jenin), the other, behold it will bring us upon the way north of Zefti, so that we shall come out to the north of Megiddo (the page 204one through Abu Shushe). Let our victorious lord proceed upon the road he desires, but cause us not to go by a difficult road.’" They were in favour of exercising caution, but Thothmes believed in surprise tactics. "I swear," he said, "as Ra loves me, as my father Amen favours me, as my nostrils are filled with satisfying life, My Majesty will proceed upon this road of Aruna. Let him who will among you come in the following of My Majesty. Shall they think, among those enemies whom Ra detests, ‘Does His Majesty proceed upon another road? He begins to be fearful of us,’ so will they think," and "He went forth at the head of his army himself, showing the way by his own footsteps, horse behind horse, His Majesty being at the head of the army."1 Thothmes surprised his enemies, and won a complete victory.
And now in 1918, General Allenby, also using surprise tactics, poured a division of cavalry through this same pass, which anticipated by an hour or two the arrival of a Turkish force sent by Liman von Sanders to occupy the position. The three British Cavalry Divisions seized all the strategic points from Haifa on the coast to the Jordan River, captured railway rolling stock, aeroplanes, artillery, and military stores of all descriptions, and proceeded to collect as prisoners the fragments of the broken Seventh and Eighth Turkish armies as they endeavoured to escape to the north.
In addition to the magnificent performance of the cavalry force in advancing over fifty miles of enemy country in twenty-four hours, an attempt was made of such a sensational nature which, if it had been successful, would have been handed down as an outstanding feat in the annals of the British army. When the Plain of Esdraelon was reached by the cavalry, a raid was made on Nazareth to attempt to capture the Turkish page 205Commander-in-Chief, Marshall Liman von Sanders, and his staff, in their Headquarters fifty miles behind the main Turkish army which was still holding its front line position in the Judaean Mountains. At dawn on September 20, the 13th Cavalry Brigade was detached from the Fifth Cavalry Division, and entered Nazareth soon after daybreak. Liman von Sanders, still in ignorance as to what was happening to his Seventh and Eighth Armies, was awakened by the news that the British were entering the town, and he is said to have hurriedly departed in a motor car, clad only in his night attire.
1 The Amarna Age, Baikie (A. and C. Black) Ltd.