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Cavalry Entered Jaffa

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

Next morning the Battalion passed their starting-point, the railway-crossing of the Ramleh-Ludd road, at 09.30 and struck eastwards for Jimzu and Jerusalem. By this time our cavalry had entered Jaffa and the right wing of the Turkish army was far to the north. The left of their Gaza force were retreating on or through Jerusalem, and the intention of our G.H.Q. now was to throw the 52nd and 75th Divisions across country to try and cut the road running north out of the Holy City. The 75th had been coming up on our right but some miles away and slightly in rear, so that while we were crossing the Judean Hills they were skirting the foothills and advancing through Enab to Biddu. The 155th Brigade was pushed up to Berfilyah and the 156th to Beit Likkia to protect the left flank of our march across the face of the enemy. The only road across the hills appeared on the map as an ancient Roman Road, but it was no better than a goat-track, and in places impossible of identification. Limbers had to be left midway between Berfilyah and Beit Likkia. Darkness came down and with it heavy rain, with a strong, driving south-west wind. The distance as the crow flies is twelve miles but the actual distance covered must have been nearer twenty. At 22.00 the Battalion reached Likkia, just occupied by the 156th Brigade, and bivouacked beside the road. The ground was sodden. The men were in light tropical uniform and drenched to the skin. No fires could be lit and so the hours passed until the Battalion got orders at dawn to move. Our objective was Beit Dukka and the establishment of defensive positions to the south and south-east of it. If ever a road disgraced its name it was this Roman Road of the maps. Here was no purposeful track, broad, smooth and white, keeping its way straight through every obstacle. It bent and twisted and turned. Often it crept underneath a great rock and lost itself. Fifty yards farther on one would find it, shy and retiring, slipping down the face of a slab of rock, always with the deceitful promise that over the next hill it would be better behaved. Instead it grew worse, until the column was walking in Indian file up steep hill sides and across the necks of the valleys. At 08.00 the 7th H.L.I. branched off to strike the town from the north, while the rest of the Brigade kept on, trying to identify their objective among the numerous villages which clung under the crests of the hills. The maps were not exact and the information from G.H.Q. was that Dukka was a village on a hill commanding considerable country. The village did sit on a hill, but, unfortunately, the hill was commanded on every side by much higher hills and Dukka was of no tactical value. So the Brigadier decided to move on Beit Anan, a similar village situated on the hill commanding Dukka from the south, and on the road to Kubeibeh, the ancient Emmaus. Scouts were pushing forward to search Beit Anan, and the head of the column had just appeared over a crest about 1500 yards from the village, when a brisk rifle-fire threw the leading companies into some confusion, and the second in command and scout officer had an experience they will not quickly forget, lying flat in the open being sniped at by a machine-gun. The enemy were not in any strength, but it was ten o'clock before the village was secured. Losses were not slight for they included Captain W.L. Buchanan, commanding No. 1 company, who was mortally wounded and died next day.

On being driven out of Beit Anan, the enemy retired up the neck of the hill to a walled garden situated on its very point and commanding Beit Anan, as well as the ridges running down from the garden itself. Later in the day the Turks occupied also the crest to the north-east of Dukka, from which a dropping machine-gun fire was kept up on the left of our position. No. 1 company, now commanded by Lieut. M'Lellan, was sent forward to the ridge, about 800 yards west of the enemy's position, where they remained that day and next night. No. 2 company held the front and left of the village. All day we could hear the thunder of the artillery of the 75th Division far to the south-west of us, beyond the hills, as they drove the Turks back on Jerusalem. Night fell with a bitter wind blowing and a chill rain which penetrated to the bone and tried No. 1 company to the limit of endurance. Tea and blankets were got out to No. 2 company but, though several attempts were made, it was impossible to get them to No. 1 company. For twenty hours those men, in their tropical kit, endured the enemy's sniping and machine-gun firing, and the bitter cold and hunger and misery, hearing in the early morning the wind-borne chimes of the chapel bell in Kubeibeh calling the brothers to matins, until dawn found many of them unable to speak. During the night a squadron patrol of Hyderabad Lancers rode across the hills from the 75th Division into our lines, a truly wonderful feat across unknown country held by the enemy. At dawn the problem was, had the enemy evacuated the garden. Lieut. Agnew, the scout officer, set out to find out and C.Q.M.S. Kelly and Sergt. Black volunteered to accompany him. This is one of the nastiest jobs one can be asked to do. If the place is held the chances are against the first of the patrol returning alive. No observation from without was possible as a high wall surrounded the garden, which belonged to the Summer House of the Latin Hospice of Emmaus. The wall was approached with some difficulty, climbed, and only then was it certain that the Turk had gone and had evacuated his stronghold. The Battalion then moved into the garden and occupied Kubeibeh.

This village was mainly a colony of Franciscan brothers, Italian and Spanish, who had a magnificent church and hospice and under whose shadow the native houses were built. They welcomed us effusively and State calls were exchanged by Colonel Morrison and the Brother Superior. The latter esteemed us highly and, although the 75th Divisional Staff afterwards occupied his hospice, even the glamour of Staff scarlet failed to dim his eyes to the worth of the plain Scots battalion who first entered Emmaus. The monastery kept a pig but it was sacrificed on the altar of friendship and Battalion Headquarters blessed the hand of S. Francis. In the monastery garden on the hill-top the Battalion rested for three days, that is, rested from fighting and marching, but the time was not wasted. The Division set to work on the Roman Road with pick and shovel and gunpowder and in the three days made it passable for 60-pounder guns from Berfilyah to Biddu.


On the 22nd the 75th Division crossed our front at Biddu, about two miles away, and that night they took the Hill Mizpah and the Mosque of Nebi Samwil with the bayonet. This created a very sharp salient in the enemy's line defending Jerusalem and its northern exit on the west. The Turk held firmly to his positions north-east and south of this wedge, and counter-attacked Nebi Samwil with vigor. On the 24th the 52nd Division tried to deepen and lengthen the salient, thrusting it right across the Jerusalem road. The plan was that the 155th Brigade should capture El Jib and Nebala, and, that being done, the 156th should attack Kulundia, establishing a defensive flank to the north, while the 157th Brigade pushed right across the road and carried Er Ram. Our line of advance was to be round the southern face of Nebi Samwil, but heavy machine-gun fire from a Turkish position at Beit Iksa prevented this. The route was changed and we kept close under the north-western slopes of the ridge. The worst part of the day was the moving across the open valley to the shelter of the Nebi Samwil ridge. The enemy had guns at Beitunia and at Lifta and behind El Jib, and he did not spare his gunners that day. Fortunately for us he used mostly percussion shrapnel and his percentage of duds was high. At 16.25 the advance was abandoned as the attacks of both the other brigades were held up, and the Battalion was ordered to assist the 155th which was attacking El Jib and Nebala. This attack was not proceeded with and at 21.30 the Brigade took up an outpost line from Beit Izza to Khurbet Neda.

The position was the crest of a slight ridge running across the south of the long valley in front of El Jib, and distant some 3000 yards from that town. By day the companies withdrew into the bivouac area on the reverse slope of the hill, leaving observation posts well supplied with machine and Lewis guns on the ridge. A mountain battery had taken up its quarters close to our transport lines, and the enemy's search for it made us acutely uncomfortable. On the 27th November he shelled the bivouac area heavily, killing two men and wounding the Adjutant, Lieut. L.H. Watson, and eight others. That night the 21st and 23rd London of the 60th Division arrived to take over, and the Battalion moved back through Biddu and Kubeibeh to a rest area below Beit Anan, where No. 1 company had spent such a terrible night on the 20th. Rumors of rest and reserve, of letters and cigarettes, were current. A liberal rum ration added cheerfulness and the Battalion settled down to await relief by a brigade of the 74th Division. Then a long march back and a month of rest and food and sleep would make the men fit for anything.

That relief never came. Our line at the time ran from north of Jaffa, through El Yehudiyeh, Deir Tureif, and Beit Ur El Tahta to Nebi Samwil, where it was swung back almost to Saris, and the enemy threw all his reserves from Damascus against it in a last attempt to save Jerusalem. He made his effort at Tahta, where the town and its prolonged ridge to Khurbet Hellabi were held by the Yeomanry, who proved unequal to the strain. Fortunately the 4th Australian Light Horse got up after a day's hard riding and stopped the gap. They were in no condition for a prolonged defense, and on the night of the 29th the battle-worn 52nd Division was again taking over the work of danger. The 5th occupied the line from the village of Tahta to the ruins at Hellabi with No. 2 company, under Captain Morrison, on the right and No. 1, commanded by Captain N.R. Campbell, who had returned from D.H.Q. for duty, on the left.

The ridge was about 1400 feet high, covered with rocky out-cropping and fell sheer away to the valley below; the same valley which saw the slaughter of the Amorites that day when Joshua stayed the sun's going down. The enemy held the ridges across the valley and from them directed an accurately ranged machine-gun fire in enfilade. No trenches could be dug. On the left was a short sangar or breastwork of stones, which afforded both protection and cohesion of forces, but between that and the village the men sheltered behind rocks and in the natural depressions of the ground, thereby making a line which it was very difficult to keep intact. The Battalion had taken over from the Australians by 01.00 and at 03.00 the enemy began his attack. A succession of bombing rushes came up the hill and engaged the whole line. These were repulsed by bomb and rifle fire but not without loss. On the left, Bloody Post, a little in advance of the sangar, took its toll of the defenders. Captain Campbell was hit, Lieut. M'Lellan was killed instantaneously by a bullet, Lieut. Pitchford got a bomb splinter through his steel helmet, and No. 1 company was left with one officer. The fighting was not so heavy on the right but at six o'clock a strong and concerted attack developed on the whole Battalion front, and, with bomb and bayonet, forced back the right of No. 1, making a breach at the junction of the companies. The position was dangerous in the extreme but the men fought stubbornly and Major Neilson with Headquarters Company restored the line by a bayonet charge. Dawn came and the front held firm. In the last attack 2nd Lieut. C.T. Price of No. 2 company had been killed and Lieuts. J.S. Agnew and Gilchrist wounded. The casualties in the ranks were thirteen killed and twenty-two wounded, amongst them C.S.M. Milne of "B" Company and Sergt. Black of "A" Company, both serious losses to the battalion.

All day the enemy was quiet but night brought renewed activity. The Brigadier had given Colonel Morrison a company of the 5th A. & S.H. for use in the line, which, with a company of the 5th K.O.S.B.'s and an adequate supply of trench-mortars and artillery support, gave greater hope of security. Just after midnight a general attack of no great weight commenced, but the enemy did not push it home, although the steepness of the sides of the valley prevented the full effect of our artillery fire, and the machine-guns posted in Tahta and firing up the valley made little impression. Soon after 02.00 the enemy attack forced back the right of the line and Colonel Morrison had to throw in the Brigade Reserve Company of the Argylls which the Brigadier had authorized him to use. They recovered the crest of the ridge without opposition or casualty. The enemy's attacks were half-hearted and by dawn had ceased entirely. During the night Lieut. Sillars was killed, and Captain Moir and Lieut. Girvan wounded, the total casualties being six killed and sixteen wounded. Next night the 1st Royal Irish of the 10th Division relieved us and the Battalion went into well-earned rest.

On the 7th November the Battalion marched out from Regent's Park with 29 officers and 699 men. By the 1st of December it had lost 25 officers and 368 men, more than half its total strength. In the three weeks the men had not ceased from fighting and marching. They had been often on half rations, without tobacco or home mail, never sufficiently clad and without any real rest or sleep. The fighting had been mainly night attacks, over unknown and unseen ground, to positions which had to be located by the enemy's fire. Nothing tries troops like fighting in pitch blackness. Every man is a law unto himself and the only things that tell are grit and discipline. The Battalion might be weary and footsore, hungry and tired, battle-weary and nerve-wrecked, yet the men always had that little reserve of heart left which lifted them through the most trying day or the most deadly night.

Sketch showing route taken by Battn. between Gaza and Jaffa novr-decr. 1917

The month of November, 1917, marked a great change in the Battalion. The good days of Sinai, when war meant only an enemy aeroplane in the grey morning, were gone. Then we knew that to-morrow would be like to-day and that there would be no gaps in the ranks when next the earth swung into the morning sunlight. But November tore old associations to shreds. We left Major Findlay and Lieuts. Townsend and Scott beyond the pleasant orange-groves of Herbieh, sleeping among old comrades on the bare ridges of Sineid. Captain Buchanan left us on the road to Emmaus. Lieuts. M'Lellan and Price and Sillars lay on the rocky hill-top of Bethhoron. With them a goodly company of non-commissioned officers and men, who marched with us and drilled with us and fought with us and died gamely with their faces to the enemy.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918

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