Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Twenty-Seven — The Grand Finale
The Grand Finale
On August 12th Major C. Dick again assumed temporary command of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, Lieut.-Colonel Whyte having been evacuated to hospital, and four days later the Regiment returned with its Brigade to the heat and discomforts of the Jordan Valley, there to take part in operations preliminary to the great final offensive. On the Brigade being placed in Divisional Reserve about a mile to the north of Jericho, on August 18th, the W.M.R. resumed training till the end of the month, and parties were detailed to assist in the destruction of mosquitoes. On the 28th General Allenby presented decorations, Lieutenant Ebbitt receiving a Military Cross and Sergeant Bowie a Military Medal.
On September 5th Brigadier-General Meldrum took over command of the left sector of the Jordan Valley Defences, in which, besides the N.Z. Brigade, were the 1st and 2nd British West Indies Battalions, the 38th and 39th (Jewish) Fusiliers, one battery of R.F.A., and the 10th Indian Mountain Battery. The New Zealanders were placed in the outpost line five miles north of Jericho, where they patrolled vigorously night and day and kept the enemy under close observation.
At this time General Allenby was making preparations to carry out an offensive on a large scale in order to inflict a speedy and decisive defeat on the enemy prior to the advent of the rainy season. Having reorganised the fresh troops which had replaced those sent to France in April (thirteen Indian Cavalry Regiments had replaced eight Yeomanry Cavalry Regiments, and Indian Infantry had replaced British), the Commander-in-Chief carefully considered the strength and dispositions of the enemy forces and the topography of the country held by them in order to select the most vulnerable point on which to launch his main attack, the situation being generally as follows:—The IVth Turkish Army of 6000 rifles, 2000 mounted troops, and 74 guns faced the Jordan Valley Force, the greater part of it being east of the River Jordan, whilst the VIIth and VIIIth Armies comprising 17,000 rifles and 268 guns, confined to a comparatively small area, continued the line and formed a very strong position page 218westward to the sea. In addition, the Turks had a garrison at Maan, east of the Jordan, and posts along the Hedjaz railway further north, and a general reserve of only 3000 rifles and 30 guns, which were distributed along the lines of communication of the VIIth and VIIIth Armies over the plain of Esdraelon to Haifa. The only road which connected the enemy forces east and west of the Jordan crossed the river at Jisr Ed Damieh, the crossing there being of vital importance to the enemy to enable him to transfer troops to either side of the river as circumstances required—an advantage which had greatly assisted the Turks during the two previous operations. The capture of Damieh and the roads converging on it was, therefore, to be an important part of the general operations.
A review of the foregoing dispositions disclosed that the strength of the main enemy position west of the Jordan was in sharp contrast to the weakness of the scattered reserves in rear—a fact which drew special attention, for it was obvious that Liman von Sanders had built up a strong forward position at the expense of his reserves, long lines of communication in rear of the VIIth and VIIIth Armies being practically unprotected. This was the weak point in the enemy defence system. In order to reach it, however, it would be necessary in the first instance to break the enemy line with infantry on our extreme left to enable a strong force of cavalry (for which the country in the rear was suitable), to pass through and attack and capture El Afule in the Plain of Esdraelon and Beisan in the Valley of Jezreel, two vital points on the enemy lines of communication. On this being accomplished, the situation from the enemy's point of view would indeed be desperate. His VIIth and VIIIth Armies, with communications cut and attacked by two corps of British Infantry in front, would have little chance of escape, more especially if the Damieh crossing were captured, whilst his IVth Army, harrassed by the Jordan Valley Force in front and threatened by our cavalry and the Sherifian Arab Army in the rear, would be in danger of capture or destruction.
The plan evolved by General Allenby was, therefore, briefly as follows:—To make a gap with Infantry in the enemy line on our extreme left to enable a strong force of cavalry to pass through and dislocate communications in the rear, whilst the XXth and XXIst Corps of Infantry attacked the VIIth and VIIIth Turkish Armies in front. For this part of the operations three of the four Mounted Divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps to be withdrawn secretly from the Jordan Valley and to be concealed in page 219orange groves at Jaffa in rear of the special striking force of Infantry and Artillery which was to make the gap in the enemy line. The remainder of the Jordan Valley force, which included the Anzac Division, to attack and pin down the IVth Army and to use every means to prevent the enemy withdrawing troops to reinforce other parts of the line, and to protect the right flank of the XXth Corps when its advance began. Further, should the main blow at the Turkish right succeed, the Valley Force would be sent to capture the Jisr Ed Damieh Crossing and deny to the enemy, on the west of the river his one means of retreat.
The necessary concentrations to carry out the plan commenced early in September.
Major-General Sir E. Chaytor was given command of a composite force in the Valley, and on that force, which was reduced to a minimum, devolved the great responsibility of executing one of the most difficult tasks to be undertaken preliminary to the launching of the attack—the task of concealing from the enemy the fact that large numbers of mounted troops were being withdrawn from the Valley, and also of bluffing the Turks to believe that the main attack would be made from the Jordan Valley instead of the left flank.
In carrying out these deceptions the Jordan Valley force was entirely successful, for although the Anzac Division were the only white mounted troops left, its incessant activities gave every indication of the presence of a large force in the Valley. In this connection the W.M.R. were constantly employed, in addition to the routine work previously enumerated. They reconnoitred the enemy positions and maintained ceaseless vigilance to observe his every movement; they constantly engaged his attention and gave him no rest. In addition to these aggressive measures, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Regiment were utilised to deceive the enemy further by camouflage, which included the construction of lines of dummy horses and the erection of hundreds of empty tents for the benefit of hostile airmen. As a result of these activities, in which the whole force was engaged, the Turks were completely bluffed. They saw our men moving by day, but they did not see the large numbers of mounted troops which melted away at night to strengthen the left flank. They shelted the mock camps and assembled large numbers of troops facing the Valley, and when the great blow was struck on the coastal flank in the opposite direction no one was more surprised than the German Commander-in-Chief, Limen page 220von Sanders, who, to avoid being captured by our cavalry, escaped in his pyjamas.
Apropos of the fact that the Anzac Division comprised the only white mounted troops left in the Jordan Valley during the month of September, when the heat and unhealthy nature of that inferno are notorious, and when it was thought impossible for white men to live there, inquiries were made in the House of Commons as to whether the Jordan Valley was being held, and, if so, what troops were there. The reply to the first question was in the affirmative, and to the second that the troops were black. The New Zealanders and Australians had evidently changed in colour!
Right up till the time of the commencement of the offensive the W.M.R., along with its other multifarious duties, provided the observation day post at Wick, two thousand yards north-west of its position in the Wadi Obeid, and the night standing patrol in the vicinity of Tel El Truny, some three thousand yards northwest. The enemy shelled the positions held by the New Zealanders from time to time, and our patrols were invariably sniped at.
At that time the troops in the Valley were warned of the deadly effects of the malignant malaria which infests that locality. It was said that the first attack of this form of fever entailed at least serious illness, while a second brought permanent incapacity or death. The Turks themselves believed that it was impossible to live in the Valley in the month of September, and their airmen dropped notes to the troops there to the effect that the latter were quite welcome to the Jordan Valley in the meantime, and the the Turks would bury them all later! Notwithstanding these uninspiring prospects, the New Zealanders performed their duties most thoroughly. On reconnaissance and patrols they traversed the most deadly country to reach their objectives. Besides the inevitable artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire, swarms of death-dealing mosquitos were encountered. The stamina of the troops was tested to the utmost, but the men did all that was asked of them. Finally, however, after the operations at Amman, they were fever-stricken in hundreds, with a high percentage of deaths. The mortality would undoubtedly have been very much greater but for the work of Major Hercus, of the New Zealand Medical Corps, and others in combating the mosquito pest by draining swamps and clearing infested areas with petroleum.page 221
The Surra fly, which has disastrous effects on live stock, is another scourge in the Jordan Valley. In one season 40,000 Turkish camels died from surra fever. The care bestowed by our men on the horses, however, kept the annuals, not only alive, hut fit for active service.
By September 15th General Allenby's concentrations near the coast had been completed, the success of the withdrawal of the cavalry from the Jordan Valley being specially commented on by the official historian of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force as follows:—
"The way in which this preliminary concentration was carried out and concealed from the enemy was one of the most remarkable achievements of the whole operations. A hostile aeroplane reconnaissance on the 15th reported as follows:— 'Some regrouping of cavalry units apparently in progress behind the enemy's left flank; otherwise nothing unusual to report.' And this at a time when three cavalry divisions, five infantry divisions, and the majority of the heavy artillery of the force were concentrated between Ramleh and the front line of the coastal sector, there being no less than 301 guns, in place of the normal number of 70."
Also, about the same time Turkish intelligence reports actually announced an increase of cavalry in the Jordan Valley.
To our interpid airmen must be given the credit for withholding from the enemy any indication of the concentration of the special force near the coast, for, with the up-to-date machines with which they had been provided, they were masters of the air, and the winged warriors of the Turkish force were allowed to observe only those parts of our line which suited our purpose.
On September 16th the troops in the Jordan Valley were consolidated and designated "Chaytor's Force," which consisted of the following units:—Anzac Mounted Division (less one squadron with Desert Corps), A 263 Battery R.F.A., 10th Indian Mountain Battery Brigade; 96, 102, 103, Section A.A. guns; 195, heavy battery; 2 sections captured Turkish 75m.m. guns, one section captured Turkish 5.9 guns, 1st Battalion British West Indies, 2nd B.W.I., 38th Battalion Royal (Jewish) Fusiliers, 39th Battalion Jewish Fusiliers, 20th Indian Infantry Brigade, 26th Machine-gun Squadron, 35th A.T. Company R.E.
The hurried consolidation of this force compelled the immediate organisation of the Infantry in order that a mobile force should be in readiness to participate in an advance with the mounted troops or to furnish garrisons in the defences.
Aeroplane co-operation was arranged with the 142nd Squadron of the Air Force, which remained in Jerusalem to operate independently page 222 with Chaytor's Force, in order to communicate to our troops, by a code of signals, the position and approximate number of hostile troops in country where it might be impossible or undesirable to drop messages.
The extremes of heat in the rainless Jordan Valley are in direct contrast to the intense cold and heavy rain of the Mountains of Moab, as experienced during the first operations against Amman. For this reason it was difficult to decide on a uniform kit to suffice for the alternate route. A blanket or great-coat with a water-proof sheet, however, is always useful, and these were ordered for the pending operations. Supplies were to consist of two days' and one emergency rations for the men and two days' feed for the horses. In view of the fact that the force would be required to penetrate new country where the dreaded mosquito would surely be encountered in swarms, mosquito nets were issued to the men; but as the nets were only large enough to cover one's face, the wily and ubiquitous mosquito was able to pay his unwelcome attentions to other parts of the body.
On September 18th the enemy opened fire from the Mountains of Moab, across the Jordan Valley, with a heavy gun known to our troops as "Jericho Jane," which shelled the town of Jericho. The effective range of this gun was exceptional, for it burst shrapnel at a distance of at least ten miles and caused numerous casualties among the astonished natives in the town and scattered them broadcast.
General Allenby's great blow fell on the right flank of the enemy line with mighty force on the morning of the 19th, his cavalry pouring through the breach made in the line like a relentless tide to smash the Turkish communications in rear. At this time the New Zealand Brigade was maintaining pressure on the enemy in front of it, and on the following day the A.M.R. were thrust forward northward along the Valley to Kherbet Fusail.
On reconnoitring further on the 21st the A.M.R. located the enemy holding a strong line covering the bridge at Mafid Jozeleh, whereupon the artillery was sent forward, and the Jewish Fusiliers were sent towards the Umm Esh Shert Ford.
The task assigned to the column was of the utmost importance—to advance to the vicinity of Jisr Ed Damieh and to cut the Jish Ed Damieh-Nablus Road west of the Jordan River, to capture (1) El Makhruk, where the 53rd Turkish Division had its headquarters and (2) the crossing over the Jordan at Jisr Ed Damieh.
The possession of the crossing was of vital importance to the enemy at this stage. He was retreating from his right front, where General Allenby had dealt him a staggering blow, and the crossing afforded his only means of escape to the east of the river. The responsibility of denying this advantage to the Turks devolved on General Meldrum's column. The position was strongly held, and it presented many difficulties to an attacking force. In addition, large bodies of enemy troops were converging there. Swift and bold measures were essential to effect the capture of the objectives, and to gain close contact with the enemy before daylight appeared. The squadron commanders of the W.M.R. at this time were: 2nd, Major Hine; 6th, Major Davis; and 9th, Major Wilder.