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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter XXII — Tul Keram to Tiberias

page 206

Chapter XXII
Tul Keram to Tiberias

The ex-Cameliers, the Fifth A.L.H. Brigade with its Second N.Z. Machine-gun Squadron, had been detached from the Australian Division, and attached to the 21st Corps, along with the French Cavalry Detachment, the Regiment Mixte de Marche de Cavalerie (R.M.M.C.), whose fantasic uniforms formed a marked contrast to the khaki of the Colonial Mounted Forces.

During the darkness of the night of September 18, the Brigade had moved into its allotted position. There was a feeling of tenseness among all ranks, as they waited for daylight and the signal to start on what was to be the greatest adventure of the whole campaign. Their training camp had been on the main Jaffa-Ludd road, and every night for weeks, from darkness till dawn, that road had seen a continuous procession of men, horses, guns and transport, all moving towards the coastal area. They knew by this time that they were a unit in perhaps the biggest cavalry force operating together, that had ever assembled in any war.

The horses and men were fit, the equipment was complete to the last buckle; orders were to move forward with all speed, and anyone who had the bad luck to fall out by the way, had to be left to his own devices. While travelling as light as possible (not even a blanket being carried), each horse was carrying in the neighbourhood of twenty stone, as it was expected to outdistance the wheeled transport during the next twenty-four hours.

The Brigade’s mission was to gain at all speed a certain objective which was twenty miles away from its starting point.

The roar of the British artillery at 4.30 a.m. on the 19th, made known to all ranks that the big movement had page 207begun. The Brigade moved off and crossed the River Auja at the allotted ford, which indicated that the guns and infantry had been successful in the first phase. Then a big delay while wire was cut, and trenches filled in; then away at a brisk trot through devastated trenches, dead and wounded men, abandoned equipment and guns, and all the vast carnage and waste of war.

Every now and then parties of Turks were encountered fighting a hasty rearguard action. The face of a shrapnel-swept spur of a hill was traversed at a gallop, the guns, ammunition-boxes, and gear of the gunners rattling on the pack-horses, and the swords of the Light Horsemen clanking at their horses’ flanks. They were passing over the same ground on which on another September day in the year A.D. 1191 Richard the Lion Heart of England, with an army of 100,000 Crusaders had defeated 300,000 Saracens under their renowned leader Saladin. But Richard on his march from Haifa to Jaffa was able to move at the rate of only three miles a day.

There was no stand up fight for the Fifth Brigade until well on in the afternoon, but merely sharp bursts of rifle fire on the flank. At length the town of Tul Keram, the Headquarters of the Eighth Turkish army, came in sight. As the hasty retirement of the Turks in trains and lorries in the direction of Messudie could be seen, the French Colonial Cavalry was detached to pursue a battery of guns retiring from the town. Away they flung in a wild gallop, the multi-coloured Arab stallions that they rode, together with the weird head-dresses and cloaks of the Spahis, making an ever to be remembered sight. The Turkish battery attempted to wheel into action as this spectacular regiment dashed at them, but the gunners, in the act of serving the guns, were cut down as these fearless horsemen dashed among them, their big fair-haired lieutenant in the forefront page 208actually beheading one gunner as he closed the breach of his gun.

Now up the hills on the opposite side of the town scrambled the Brigade, while overhead roared the aeroplanes of our forces, mercilessly bombing and machine-gunning the retreating enemy. As one flight of planes exhausted their supplies of bombs and ammunition, and tore away to their base to refill, another flight appeared out of the blue, and repeated the dose. In the gorge the scene of carnage was indescribable. In sheer desperation hundreds of Turks threw away their arms, and ran to-wards our Brigade, realizing that here only was there safety from these war birds which swooped down almost between the high sides of the gorge, and raked the enemy ranks with the fire of their machine-guns.

In Tul Keram itself an enemy force still offered resistance, no doubt trying to cover the retreat of the main body up the gorge. A Light Horse troop galloped across to capture the railway station, but as they neared the town, Turks rushed from buildings on the high ground, and poured a withering fire into the ranks of the Light Horse; many riderless horses galloped away, including that of the officer of the troop. Retribution swiftly followed. Being on an equal height with the Turks across the gorge at a distance of about 1,900 yards, the New Zealand gunners quickly got the range, and as the Turks had left the shelter of the buildings, very few of them got back. The Light Horse troop was avenged tenfold.

Suddenly, spinning down the grade from the town came a railway hand-trolley manned by half a dozen Turks making a desperate effort to rejoin the main body. As their plight was so hopeless and the shooting so easy, a humane machine-gun officer poured a sharp burst of bullets into the ballast ahead of the fast travelling trolley. The effect was ludicrous. The Turks literally page 209flung themselves off the trolley, and scrambled like rabbits into a culvert, while the trolley, left to its own devices, careered away into the gorge.

Prisoners accumulated so rapidly that they became an encumbrance, and Brigadier Onslow, gathering a large body of them together, sent them under the charge of a few Light Horsemen back to meet the oncoming infantry, who had made remarkable progress, and were now not far in the rear of the Light Horse Brigade. Three thousand prisoners in all were rounded up by the Brigade at Tul Keram, while quantities of guns, munitions, and transport vehicles, were also captured.

But other work awaited the Brigade. When the horses had been watered and fed, the Brigade moved off again at midnight, this time to strike across the hilly country to the north-east, to cut the railway line running north from Nablus, which was the main line of communication of the Turks with their rear. Only goat-tracks were in existence, and these wound their way round rocks, up and down rough hillsides, and crossed deep stony beds of wadis, but the long slender column pressed on through the darkness, till next morning it struck the Turkish railway line at Ajje, some twenty-five miles behind the Turks’ front line. The railway line was destroyed, thus effectively blocking any railway communication between the enemy front line and the north, and the column, gathering in any parties of Turkish troops it encountered, returned safely by dusk on the 20th to Tul Keram without having suffered any casualties. The Air Force had previously severed the nerve lines leading from the brains of the Turkish army to the members of its body that carried out the commands of the brain, and now the main artery that had supplied the material supplies for these same members had also been cut, and so the whole body was rendered useless as an organized fighting force. Had page 210 page 211the Turks any idea of the nature of this raid they could and would have made things very difficult for the Fifth Brigade.

Early on the morning of the 21st, the Brigade followed the road to Nablus which, situated fifteen miles behind the centre of the Turkish front line, had been the headquarters of the Seventh Turkish army during the last six months, and during that time our infantry had been unable to advance its line to any great extent owing to the rough nature of the country, and the determined resistance of the Turks. Now, however, the 53rd and 10th Divisions had driven back the enemy along the whole front of their sectors, and the Turks, pursued from the south by the 10th Division, were falling back by way of Nablus, and attempting to escape towards the north, or by way of the Wadi Fara, towards Jisr ed Damie, a bridge over the Jordan River, which was captured on the 22nd by Chaytor’s Force (included in which was the N.Z.M.R. Brigade), thus blocking the retreat of the enemy to the eastern side of the river.

After some sixty hours of continuous marching and fighting, the Fifth A.L.H. Brigade, on that sweltering day (21st), found the hot dusty limestone gorge from Tul Keram a most uninviting place, as the bodies of the victims of the bombing operations of our air force, men horses and oxen, had lain in this "Valley of Death" for about two days, and were still unburied. Having overcome the feeble resistance in the gorge, the Brigade at last came within sight of Nablus, the Shechem of the Old Testament, lying between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, where Abraham had built the first altar after his arrival in the Promised Land.

Here the N.Z. Machine-gunners had some really interesting experiences. At extreme range they engaged the outer defences of the town. Working forward in relays well up on the rough rocky sides of the gorge, page 212the gunners magnificently handled their guns under most difficult conditions. At last, getting into effective range, they engaged a couple of Turkish field-guns which could be seen on the main street at the crest of the hill which is the entrance to the town. This action developed into a private duel. Covering each other, and now and again taking machine-gun swept corners at a hand gallop, the gunners closed the range to seven hundred yards, when the odds became in favour of our machine-guns, and the Turks gave up the contest. Meanwhile the Light Horsemen were working round on the slopes of Mt. Ebal, and were enfilading the garrison, while up the Jerusalem-Nablus road were advancing the men of the Irish Division. At regular intervals a long drawn out scream through the air was followed by an earth-shaking explosion as the heavy artillery to the southward dropped their high-explosive shells into the city. These were still falling on the Mt. Ebal side as the N.Z. Gunners, escorted by the French Cavalry, entered the town, riding triumphantly to the centre where a halt was made; horses were watered from the local copious supplies, and within a few minutes afterwards, the invaders were briskly trading with the natives, who were non-combatants, and looked on with indifference at the military proceedings, as if at a show put on for their benefit.

Nablus, the ancient Shechem of the Old Testament, is one of the few towns in Palestine that has a name of Greek or Roman origin. When the Roman Emperor, Vespasian, conquered the country in a.d. 67 the town was destroyed, and when later on it was rebuilt, it was named Flavia Neapolis in honour of the Emperor. The name Neapolis (new city) gradually became corrupted to Nablus. The town has had many and exciting experiences from the times of the Patriarchs, but never did it witness such a scene as on September 21, when page 213the Turks retreated headlong through the town towards the north, followed closely by the Irish Division, and cut off from one line of retreat by the Australian, French and New Zealand Mounted men, while artillery thundered between the Mounts of Ebal and Gerizim (which once heard the voices of Joshua and the priests of the Israelites reciting the curses and the blessings as ordered by Moses), while from the air the British aeroplanes hailed down their devastating bombs and machine-gun bullets that destroyed troops and transport, and blocked with their debris the other line of retreat leading down the Wadi Fara to the Jordan Valley, making the Wadi another "Valley of Death."

Lying on the ground that night at Balata the troops of the Fifth Brigade were grateful to the heavy artillery of the 10th Division, which did outpost duty by dropping an occasional shell in the direction of the disorganized retiring foe.

Moving north to Jenin next day, the Brigade discovered why no enemy aeroplanes had troubled it so far. These machines had been kept on the ground by our air force until the arrival of the Third A.L.H. Brigade which found twenty-four Turkish planes burned in their aerodromes. It is said that an amusing incident happened on the plain outside Jenin. A German doctor had remained at his post tending the wounded, until he saw the Light Horse charging down on the town. Hastily mounting a horse, he galloped away to try to catch up with the retreating forces. One of our airmen, in a spirit of deviltry, pursued him, swooping low over him and terrifying his horse so much that the poor beast collapsed in terror. The doctor continued on foot, and ran across an open space towards the Afule road, the airman still harassing him by putting a few bursts of machine-gun fire around him, until at last the doctor gave in, and stood and shook his fist and sword at the airman, page 214then turned and walked back to the approaching Light Horsemen, to whom he freely expressed his opinion about our mad air force.

On the 24th of the month the Fifth Brigade moved north to Zerin on the Plain of Esdraelon where it rejoined the Australian Division with which it was to take part in the forthcoming sweep north into Syria. At Zerin was a great pool fed by a huge gushing spring of the purest water, which pours from a cave in the hillside. This is probably the same pool near which Saul’s army camped before its defeat by the Philistines, when Saul and his three sons were killed. How the horses of our men revelled in it. Jaded men and horses waded into it, and enjoyed to the full one of the brightest interludes of the strenuous days they were passing through. What a different picture these khaki clad Colonials and their horses made from that seen, as is supposed, at this same pool, when Gideon of old tested his army of 10,000 selected men by a "drinking test," and reduced them to 300 for a night attack on the Midianites and Amalekites, "who lay along this same valley like grasshoppers for multitude, and their camels were without number, as the sands by the seaside for multitude." But our boys, always keen sports, recked not of the ancient history of the spot, or of the doings here of heroes of old, but, after seeing that their horses were thoroughly satisfied, set to work to try to catch the small fish which were present in the pool in large numbers, improvising nets from the material that had been issued to them for mosquito-netting. They little knew that they were following the example of the Crusaders, who are said to have been miraculously fed for three days on the fish caught in the springs at this place.

What a procession of warring forces ever since the dawn of recorded history have marched to battle on this page 215Plain of Esdraelon—Egyptians and Canaanites, Assyrians and Persians, Israelites and Philistines, Greeks, Romans and Jews, Saracens and Crusaders, Turks, Arabs and French have all in their turn, striven for mastery here, and now the scattered remnants of an Eastern army, which four days ago, with its modern equipment of aeroplanes, artillery and motor transport, had occupied an apparently impregnable position fifty miles to the south, were being gathered in in their thousands, with almost no loss to the conquerors, by an army organized and equipped in far off lands, and transported over thousands of miles of ocean.

If some magical power could call together the countless numbers who, through all the centuries of the past, from the scattered lands of the east and west, had fought together on this small plain, and could marshal them together in their diverse costumes, with their varied weapons of war, what an assembly it would be. No other level space of ground of equal size on the surface of the earth, could muster such a gathering of the harvest of war. Is it to be wondered at that the writer of the Book of Revelation should select this plain as the site of the battle of Armageddon, the final battle between the forces of good and evil? It is from Megiddo, the supposed site of Armageddon, that Lord Allenby has taken his title, Viscount Allenby of Megiddo.

But this district has a greater interest than as a battlefield for contending armies. In a humble carpenter’s home in a small town overlooking this same plain, was reared the Son of Man, Whose influence over the world, more than nineteen hundred years after He died, still outweighs the influence of all the kings, and all the armies that fought for mastery throughout the ages on that plain within sight of Nazareth.

On again moved the Fifth Brigade, through the junction station of El Fule, with its abandoned railway page 216yard full of stores, transport, and jumble of equipment, up the steep winding road fringed with capsized lorries, and simply littered with papers, no doubt records which the Turkish H.Q. Staff were trying to save when so swiftly overtaken by the Indian Lancers. And so the Brigade passed through the streets of Nazareth, of sacred memories. It was moonlight, and the ancient city was sleeping peacefully among the hills, and it was not without a little doubt as to the propriety of the proceedings that some of the troops dismounted and "commandeered" bags of barley from a mill, but their gallant horses were ever their first consideration.

Serious thoughts ever kept passing through the minds of thoughtful troopers as they passed these places of Biblical interest, and even the unlettered wished to know the stories attached to these towns. As a Brigade was passing through Nazareth, a padre remarked to the men in the section beside which he happened to be, "It is very interesting to see this old town, my lads." "What place is this, padre?" queried a Light Horseman. "Oh, this is Nazareth," replied the padre as he prepared to push on. "Hey, padre, hold on," called the trooper. "What’s the strength of this ’ere Nazareth joint?" In an idiom well known to all ranks he was merely asking what was the history of Nazareth.

On moved the Mounted Force across the battlefield where in 1187 King Guy, the Christian King of Jerusalem, and practically the whole of his knights and followers were captured or slain by Saladin and his Saracens, thus putting an end to the Crusaders’ hopes in Palestine.

The Division made a halt during the night of the 25th at Kefr Kenna, the Cana of the New Testament, where the miracle of changing wine into water was performed at the wedding feast, but no wine or wedding feasts were apparent to our troops that night. Perhaps page 217any intended weddings were postponed indefinitely when the Australians and New Zealanders were seen approaching.

On the evening of September 26 the troops gazed down on ancient Tiberias, nestling by the side of the beautiful sea of Galilee. Down the winding road moved the Division. From a thousand feet above sea-level it quickly dropped down until it reached the shores of Galilee, over six hundred feet below sea-level. And into the lake rode the troops up to their horses’ flanks, for Galilee water is as sweet and fresh as that of the Dead Sea is bitter and salt.

A novel encounter took place at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, near Semakh, where the German machine-gunners put up such a desperate resistance to the men of the Fourth A.L.H. Brigade. When Semakh was finally overcome, some German gunners attempted to escape in a motor boat, but were pursued by one of our fighting aeroplanes. The boat was armed with machine-guns, and after our airman had missed with a couple of bombs, a duel with machine-guns took place between the Galilee navy and a British aeroplane actually flying below sea-level. The plane won.