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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter IV — Historical Setting

page 45

Chapter IV
Historical Setting

New Zealand was represented in almost every major operation in the Great War, but no sphere had such a remarkable history as that portion of the Middle East in which the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the New Zealand Cameliers campaigned, and in perhaps no other sphere were so many parts of the far-flung British Empire represented.

Viewed on the map, the Sinai Peninsula looks like a huge wedge driven home to its full length between the continents of Africa and Asia, with such effect that these two huge masses of land were split apart, the cleavage being denoted by the long strip of water known as the Red Sea. If this is so, it must have been some titanic God of War that drove it home, as this gigantic wedge has been the passage-way for forces of war as far back as human history extends. Across this peninsula have marched armies of the earliest kings of Egypt of whom any record has been discovered, over four thousand years before the birth of Christ. And since that time the sands of this desert have seen moving across them the armies of a great procession of Egyptian kings of some thirty dynasties—Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman armies in their turn, crossed this desert, all bent on conquest; Byzantine armies, Arabs, Turks, Crusaders followed each other through the ages across these sands; Napoleon led his French army from Egypt to Acre in 1799, and after his repulse at the latter town by Sir Sidney Smith and his Turkish allies, retreated to Egypt over these same wastes. And now in 1916, an armed host composed of men drawn from almost all parts of the British Empire, took its page 46place in the procession, and, driving before it a determined enemy, overcame the difficulties of sand, climate and transport in a manner never dreamed of by any of its predecessors.

These trackless areas had been crossed of old by Abraham, by the sons of Jacob, by the children of Israel in their exodus from Egypt, and by Joseph and Mary and the Christ Child.

The adjoining country of Palestine was the cradle of the three great religions of later civilization—the Jewish, the Christian, and the Mahometan. Here were their holy places, to these were directed the thoughts and aspirations of their adherents, and now an army which contained followers of all these three religions, was marching to liberate the land from the race that had held it in subjection for centuries, in spite of the united efforts of Christendom to wrest it from the hands of its oppressors.

The sands of this desert, unchangeable in the mass throughout the ages, but changing in detail with every wind that blows, have seen the coming and going of patriarchs and pilgrims, ambassadors and armies, traders and tourists, but never had they seen a host so varied in character and equipment as poured across them from 1916 to 1918.

Here were English, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh divisions of infantry, brigades of British Yeomanry and Artillery, Australian Light Horsemen and New Zealand Mounted Rifles, two battalions of British West Indian troops (B.W.I.’s), two battalions of Jews—the Royal Fusiliers, to whom a facetious student of heraldry gave the name of the Jordan Highlanders, and for them suggested the badge of three gilt spheres, pendant from a bar horizontal, and bearing the motto, "No advance without security." (The B.W.I.’s and the Royal Fusiliers formed part of Major-General Chaytor’s force in the page 47Jordan Valley and in Transjordania in September, 1918.) Two companies of Rarotongans from the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, proved themselves the best lightermen along the Palestine Coast. South Africa was represented by a brigade of Field Artillery, and half a battalion of Cape Corps Infantry. France supplied one regiment each of Tirailleurs and Legion d’Orient, and two squadrons each of Spahis and Chasseurs d’Afrique, while Italy sent one company each of Royal Carbinieri, Bersaglieri, and Cacciatori.

The names of the Indian forces which took part in the campaign are an education in the composition of the Indian Empire. Here were found representatives of no less than twenty-four different regiments. Squadrons from the Central India Horse, Hodson’s Horse, Jacob’s Horse, Poona Horse, Deccan Horse, Jodhpore Lancers, Mysore Lancers, and Hyderabad Lancers, helped to swell the ranks of our cavalry. Our infantry received additions to its strength from the Ghurka Rifles, Punjabis, Sikhs, Scinde Rifles, Baluchistan Infantry, Mah-ratta Light Infantry, Dogras, Kashmir Infantry, Guides, Kumaon Rifles, Deccan Infantry, Alwar Infantry, Gwalior Infantry, and Patiala Infantry. The Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery added to the strength and mobility of our artillery. India’s contribution to the forces of the Empire in its time of need was indeed a splendid one.

The military camp at Moascar near Ismailia in the Suez Canal Zone seemed to be a centre through which moved units or individuals from most of the "sideshows" in the Eastern Hemisphere. Gallipoli veterans were our comrades, men from Mesopotamia and from the "Dunster mystery" Expedition to the Caspian Sea were met here; troops came up from Aden, where they had some brisk and by no means one-sided conflicts with page 48the Turks; some regiments came up from the malaria-infested regions of German East Africa, still carrying the effects of that dread disease with them; men who had taken part in the conquest of German South-west Africa in 1915 were with us; troops were drafted from Salonika to form part of our force. These were land forces, and all the time British vessels of war of all shapes and sizes, came and went past our Detail and Training Camp beside the canal, silent and grim, with never a word of their mysterious doings in the odd corners of the East, such as backing up the troops of the Sherif of Mecca, as did the Dufferin and M.31 at Yenbo on the Red Sea coast; bottling up the German raider, Konigsberg, in the Rufigi River in East Africa; penetrating in the form of light-draft river gunboats as far up the Tigris as Bagdad and beyond; supplying explosives for the destruction of Turkish railway stock, and compelling the Turks themselves, who were within range of her guns, to carry out the explosions, as did the Doris at Alexandretta in Syria; clearing the Indian Ocean and Eastern Seas of raiders, etc., etc.

To an observer this position in the Canal Zone gave some idea of the vastness of the operations of the war, and when it was considered that all these operations had to be directed, and the equipment and supplies forwarded largely from the Mother Land, at the same time as she carried on the main war in France and Belgium, it gave one some respect for the brains that controlled the war machine, although at the same time, we freely used our privilege of grousing and criticizing the management, especially as regards such important matters as our animal comforts, food and clothing.

And along with these varied forces moved the Cameliers, mounted on the animals that had, for as far back as recorded history goes, been the natural means of locomotion in these desert places; and south and west page break
Camel Company Camp, Arnussi

Camel Company Camp, Arnussi

Two Companies at Rhum

Two Companies at Rhum

page break
Camel Patrol in Sinai

Camel Patrol in Sinai

Mid-day Halt.

Mid-day Halt.

page 49in Egypt, and east and north in the Sinai Peninsula and Palestine, they carried out their patrols, and took part in all the military operations of the campaign.