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El Arish and First Battle of Gaza

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

El Arish and First Battle of Gaza.

El Arish, the ancient Rhinocolura, lies near the mouth of the Wadi el Arish, which runs away southward into the heart of Sinai and is believed to have been the River of Egypt, the southern boundary of Biblical Palestine. The wadi hardly deserved the name of river to-day, but during the winter months it is sometimes covered with water to the depth of a few inches, flowing slowly down to the sea. Along its banks the inhabitants plant their crops among the palm trees, watering them assiduously from wells, with the assistance of tiny donkeys, about the size of goats, each carrying two enormous water jars. The town is the capital of the Mudirieh of Sinai, and boasted a British resident and a force of Beduin police, but was abandoned with the rest of the province when Turkey declared war. The country round the town is almost completely bare of scrub, a mass of tumbled hills of sand, rounded slopes and razor-like crests, alternating with deep valley between almost sheer cliffs. Here and there are palm or other evergreen trees, and in the low ground round the wadi are numerous fig trees.

The town itself was a disappointment to the men, who could not but expect some of the amenities of civilization in a place of whose military importance they had heard so much. At the western end was an ancient fort, now in ruins from a bombardment by our monitors, one or two more pretentious houses with plaster fronts, and the mosque whose white minaret, though not of any great height, we had seen through a gap in the sand hills from many miles to westward. But most of the buildings were single-roomed, flat-roofed huts, with tiny slits for windows. The troops were not allowed into the town but a glimpse could be obtained from without of the few streets, paved only with the desert sand. From a little distance, however, el Arish was surprisingly beautiful. It matched exactly with the grey yellow of the sand, which swept up to it and rose behind it unrelieved by the distraction of scrub, while the white dome of a little tomb, the faded plaster of the mosque and the occasional dark green of a low tree among the buildings, gave just the right contrast in color. Seen in the clear light of dawn, or in the evening glow, it had a haunting beauty which all who knew it will remember.

The inhabitants were a picturesque set of villains; dressed in their flowing robes surmounted by ancient goat skins, and with a dark fillet round their head-dresses, they brought back to one memories of old Bible pictures—and there was hardly one of the men whose bearded features would not have made a splendid model for a picture of Judas Iscariot. The women were usually veiled, and those of them at any rate who were allowed outside the walls presented no very startling attractions. But the old crones who came down to draw water at the wells would burst into scandalized but very human cackles of merriment, when the gallant Lowlander on well-guard filled their water jars with a cheerful "Saida bint"—"Good day, maiden." A knowledge of Arabic by the way was an acquisition on which every man prided himself; and the writer lost much ground in the estimation of his batman for his refusal to arrest a wandering member of the Egyptian Labor Corps, whom that zealous youth asserted to be a German spy, "because he could not understand Egyptian." The el Arish children were as friendly and talkative as children all the world over, though one regretted their inveterate habit of demanding backsheesh. The fair hair of some of them led our historians to daring theories about French great-grandfathers who had tarried and wooed while on Napoleon's lightning expedition. For the information of future travelers it is only fair to state that there will be no Scotch ancestors. It was a real pleasure to see human beings living their ordinary lives, catching fish and watering crops in unmilitary and restful unconcern. We lay in the el Arish area for a couple of months, with changes of camp every week or so, and we learnt afterwards that this was a period of special training to fit us for the fighting which was expected in Palestine. It must be admitted that we had not recognized it as such at the time, outposts, guards and fatigues of every kind did not seem to leave us overmuch time for training. Still we did manage to fit in a good deal of work with the smaller formations, and one or two days of Brigade and Divisional training to boot. Two night operations—yes, we will say it now—a most detestable form of exercise, linger specially in the memory. Night work in this sort of country is always difficult because there are so few landmarks. A Brigade can be moved on a compass bearing with every chance of success if the mover has the necessary elementary knowledge. But the commander of a smaller unit, say a platoon, going to or returning from a certain place in the dark, rarely has any knowledge of the right bearing to work on, and if the night is cloudy, he is surrounded by a Stygian darkness in which he soon feels a little doubtful of his uncharted way. He begins to zigzag a bit, peering through the gloom for some familiar landmark. The men, who for the most part would be completely lost in three minutes on their own, are critical and unsympathetic, and rightly, for this is what an officer is paid extra for. They whisper caustic comments in the rear. All sense of direction seems suddenly to fail the unhappy man, and he sinks into the depths of a misery which few others can equal. At last a light shines out ahead. Making towards it with a wild hope he sees the darker marks of bivouacs against the sand, and suddenly recognizes his own company lines. With a heart full of thankfulness he halts and dismisses his men, and retires to his own hole fondly believing that no one but himself knows what had happened.

Mouth Of Wadi El Arish

But in Brigade night operations platoon commanders and even company commanders and greater men still abandon themselves with the rest to an appalling nightmare of moving in sudden jerks through a gloom full of whispered oaths and the creaking of rifles and of ill-fitting equipment. There are long chilly halts, when the men rub their bare knees to keep them warm or drop into an uneasy doze—then sudden orders passed along in a hoarse undertone, and a frenzied effort to change formation and keep touch with the swaying line. And so it goes on hour after hour till at long last there is a spurt or two of fire and the crackling of blank, a lumbering charge, and then much gathering together of platoons and companies, and we have learnt our lesson and may go to bed.

On January 10th tents sufficient for half the battalion were sent up and pitched. They were a most welcome shelter from sand-storms and other rigors of the Sinai winter. The order to camouflage them caused some difficulty. A party went down to the wadi and with infinite labor brought up some semi-liquid mud in waterproof sheets, but it was impossible to secure enough in this way. Finally the work was done by mixing cocoa, which could not be used for its legitimate purpose owing to lack of fresh water, with sea water and daubing the tents with the product.

On the same day 900 men reported to the A.P.M. to escort the Turkish prisoners taken at Rafa down to Cairo. These numbered some 1400, including thirty Turkish officers, a German officer and some German gunners. The trip was a strictly business one and no one had much chance of enjoying Cairo. The party returned on the 16th.

The broad, dry bed of the wadi gave a fairly hard surface and all the morning would be dotted with maneuvering infantry and cavalry, while even guns and camelry were not uncommon. In the afternoon it was usual to find several games of football in progress. Ever since the worst heat of summer had departed, football had been played in the Battalion wherever a flat bit of Sabkhet could be found—while the men were always glad to kick a ball about even in the heavy sand. Now with better opportunities the Battalion played several matches, defeating among others a battalion of the 42nd Division, while company and platoon matches were common. The Brigade even produced a rugger side and played some strenuous games with Australians and others.

On the whole, most of us have pleasant memories of el Arish and its fig trees—on which, true to the traditions of extreme solicitude for other people's interest which distinguish the British army, we were not allowed to hang up our clothes to dry, for fear of breaking the branches—just as we might not cut down palm boughs for bivouac poles in forgotten desert hods for fear of injuring the trees. Our moves were frequent but we always found a proportion of tents, and after a wet night in the outpost line there would usually be enough sun to dry our clothes during the next day. Leave to Cairo brought a most welcome change to those fortunate enough to get it, while the remainder could console themselves with football and bathing, and the Brigade and Divisional "stunts" kept us fit and healthy. Those whose duty brought them into connection with the camels had their fill of excitement, and one still recalls a picture of an infuriated camel chasing all and sundry round the camp, with a fantasy on one side of its pack and a company store man, who had mounted to preserve the balance, uttering lamentable cries on the other. The arrival of the gippy driver and the complete fearlessness with which he seized the trailing rope and beat the furious beast into submission with a pole, gave a foretaste of the courage which some of these men showed under shell-fire in later days. By the 3rd of March, by the way, the thermometer had risen to above 80 inside the tents. While at el Arish, "Padre" Campbell, who had been with the Battalion since we left Leven, returned home to his parish, and his place was taken by "Padre" De la Bere. The 42nd Division left Sinai for France and there was a reorganization of the Desert Column, which now included the 53rd Division, who passed through the 52nd Division at this time and were the leading infantry on the march towards the border. General Chetwode, who had arrived from France, took command of the Desert Column.

On the 7th of March we left our tents and moved eastwards again, having for some of the distance the great boon of the wire road which part of the Brigade had constructed. So unused were we to such firm going that some of us were afflicted with blisters and pains in the front of the calf; but this was a light price to pay. The pack drivers had to keep off the road with their animals, as had the camel escort, which was hard on them. Arrived at el Burj, we obtained permission to go for a bathe, and moved off by companies through enormous sand hills. However, before half the Battalion had been down, we were suddenly warned to take up an outpost line, although we had been previously informed that we should not be required to do so. The consequence was a long march carrying greatcoats and blankets and a very difficult posting of picquets in the dark. Moreover, the dinner ration of fresh meat could not be cooked because the ration and water camels could not find us, and the men, who badly needed a meal, had to go hungry. It is rumored that a Staff officer, not unconnected with the affair, who visited us incognito, heard a lurid but truthful account of how the business struck us, from a chance met subaltern, who in the darkness had no idea that he was entertaining angels.

Bedouin Sheiks, Belah

After a broken night's rest the Brigade moved on at dawn, the Battalion supplying the advance guard, and reaching its bivouac area at 1.15. The scenery as we advanced began to show a most welcome change. In the hollows by the side of the track little patches of dwarf barley appeared and a thin crop of green stuff began to transform the familiar sand. Our bivouac area was a valley which from a little distance looked almost like a meadow at home. On a nearer approach the vegetation was found to be very thin, and the soil still sandy, but it was spotted with delightful little flowers, and in the village of Sheikh Zowaid near by, were fruit trees and cactus hedged enclosures well covered with fresh grass; while to the south of us were some big areas of young crops. The effect of this change was immediate, and the least poetical and imaginative among us felt a thrill of joy in the relief from the desolation of eternal sand. To the north a high barrier of sand hills hid the sea, a barrier which runs right along the coast as far as Jaffa and beyond. But in the distance it was beautiful enough, and served to remind us of what we had escaped.

Unfortunately the dust storms were even worse here than among the heavier sand and the place swarmed with centipedes, scorpions and other undesirables. But we were not in a mood to be critical when we retired to rest beneath the stars, with the fresh smell of living flowers in our nostrils, or woke at dawn to hear little crested larks do their best to imitate their brethren overseas, though they could but manage a few gentle notes and that from the ground.

An Australian trooper on arriving at a very attractive grass enclosure at Sheikh Zowaid found a notice to the effect that this area was reserved for the Headquarters of such and such a Division, obviously the work of a zealous A.D.C. His annoyance at not being able to secure this area for his own regiment's resting place made him add to the notice in large letters, "Please keep off the gwass."

On the 16th we took over an extended picket line in sandy country but overlooking a good deal of barley. While we were here the Desert Column Race Meeting was held at Rafa. Several of the Battalion horses were entered, and did not disgrace us, though we could hardly expect a win against the pick of the Anzac, Yeomanry, and Gunners' mounts. Several of the Battalion managed to be present at the meeting, which was a great success. Meanwhile rumors that something was going to happen kept coming in, and Colonel Morrison was away for several days reconnoitering the country to the east and north-east. All our surplus stores were dumped and a guard of the bootless left with them, and we moved off from Sheikh Zowaid on the morning of the 25th of March, reaching Rafa about midday. Here a halt was made, and tea was issued. At five o'clock the Division moved on and crossed the frontier into Asia as dusk was falling. It was rather an impressive moment and the pipers, rising to the occasion, played "Blue bonnets o'er the Border." Behind was the sunset in a sky of brilliant crimson. In front stretched great uplands of a dim green, while we, the new Crusaders, crossed over to the lilt of the pipes, whose music astonished Palestine now heard for the first time; and with us in great columns moved guns and cavalry, camels and transport, half seen in a haze of hanging dust. These of course are after thoughts, at the time one's point of view was rather different. One asked oneself whether two mobiles in one day was fair, one wondered where the devil we were going to, and one cursed the dust and the weight of one's pack. Suddenly we found ourselves moving between hedges up what might well have been a dusty country lane at home—for the kindly darkness hid the unfamiliar leaves of the cactus which bordered it. Mysterious, silent figures loomed up on either side to watch us pass. Another mile and we turned through a gap and received orders to bivouac in a real field, and heard that we were at Khan Yunis—"John's Inn."

The spell of home was soon broken for those who were detailed to unload the camels. The drivers were tired and had "barracked" their charges in a careless mass instead of in proper lines. The camels were tired too, and a tired camel stretches its long neck down to the dust. Then comes an angry private and falls over the neck in the dark and camels and men hate each other, each giving audible expression to their emotions after their kind.

We waked at dawn on the 26th to the noise of heavy firing in the north, and found a green and pleasant world blanketed in mist. The 53rd and 54th Divisions, with the cavalry, were attacking Gaza and this mist, the dispatches afterwards told us, just prevented their complete success. We passed an uneventful day—listening and wondering. Some of us made our way down into the village and examined the fruit trees and enclosures and the square huts of which it was composed. The features of the inhabitants inspired, if possible, even less confidence than those of the citizens of el Arish; but the men were dignified and aloof, and we remembered that we were now in Turkish territory.

In the evening we received sudden orders to be ready to move by 6.30 p.m. and at 6.15 we were told to get off at once. In consequence the camels and loading parties got a very bad start and the latter at any rate set off at a feverish double in an effort to find the remainder before it got too dark. They managed indeed to catch up, but their troubles were not over. The dust was appalling in the narrow lanes. The whole Battalion was moving in what was aptly described as "short sharp rushes" alternately with long periods of steady doubling, while the camels, who lose their heads as soon as they are asked to increase their dignified rate of 2-1/2 miles an hour, were floundering along at its side. Their loads, hastily packed and wildly hurled from side to side in their disastrous progress, again and again came sliding to the ground, to be painfully reloaded in the dark by furious escorts and despairing drivers. Sometimes the maddened beasts broke away and galloped off, shedding their precious burdens as they went, determined—as one of the men observed—"to finish this —— mobile in clean fatigue." The other half of our live stock, the pack mules, who are impervious to fear, but possessed of seventy devils of contrariance and misplaced humor, on the excuse of the near proximity of their bête noire, the camel, indulged in their most violent antics, kicked, jibbed or bolted, blocking the track and causing a halt which had to be followed by a wild sprint to regain touch. Frenzied messages to the front were met with sympathy, but the orders were to push on, and they could not lose touch with the 7th in front. Our progress could perhaps best be compared to a Marathon race in Hell.

At last, however, came a halt which enabled us to close up, and soon after we got into open country where there was less dust and the fresh smell of flowers and herbs revived us. At 1 a.m. we reached Inserrat and halted, receiving orders to lie down where we were, ready to move at a moment's notice. The ground was a ploughed field, very hard and lumpy, but we were soon asleep, save for those unfortunates who spent the remainder of the night searching for lost camels on which were all their household goods.

Bedouins, Khan Yunis

We were not allowed to sleep it off but had an early réveillé on the 27th and breakfasts were over soon after six. We then got orders to be ready to move at once and loaded the camels, but nothing came of it. We were now some way north of Deir el Bela, in a long valley running parallel with the coast line, whose sand dunes we could see a mile or two away to the west. In front and on our right were grass covered hills which cut off all view of what was going on towards Gaza, but we could still hear a good deal of firing. It was a very hot day with a khamsin blowing, and as we lay by our arms, kits made up ready for the order to fall in, we were soon extremely thirsty, though we dared not touch our water bottles, having no idea when they would be replenished, nor of course could we rig up any kind of sun-shelter. About 9 o'clock Colonel Morrison returned with the news that the 155th Brigade were moving into position to counter-attack an enemy force threatening the right flank of the 54th Division, and that we might be required to support the counter-attack or prolong it to the right. At ten we moved forward about a mile, and again piled arms, remaining in readiness to move. At two, half the horses were sent back to water; and we should all of us have been very glad to accompany them. Soon after some empty fantassies were sent off on camels in the hope of getting some water, but before they returned, at about six o'clock, we moved forward to take up an outpost position overlooking the Wadi Ghuzzeh, previously reconnoitered by the C.O. and Major Neilson. The country was extremely difficult, precipitous cliffs and narrow gullies, besides being completely unknown to us, and it was a really wonderful feat on the part of Colonel Morrison to indicate to each company its exact position in the dark on a wide front, seeing that he had only been once over it himself and that in a great hurry. Companies were all in position by 9 p.m. and were busy digging themselves in to very hard soil, sometimes almost rock. The Brigadier visited us and told us that the 54th Division would retire through us during the night, and that we must be prepared to stop any attempt on the part of the Turks to follow them, and must expect a good shelling in the morning. Meanwhile some water had arrived and everyone got a drink of tea, which put new life into us. The night was as cold as the day had been hot, but passed quietly save for a sudden outburst of rifle-fire to our right, which we rightly put down to someone with the wind up. The retiring troops passed through us in good order but very exhausted. As daylight gradually broke we got our first sight of Gaza and the country south of it, with which we were to become extremely familiar in the next seven months. We were a mile or so from the Wadi Ghuzzeh, with the extraordinary Hill of Tel el Jemmi away on our right, while the Red House among its fruit trees and the white dome of Sheikh Nebhan were conspicuous in the foreground. Behind them stretched Happy Valley, seeming to run right up to the tree-crowned summit of Ali el Muntar, while on its left were Kurd and Border valleys and the sand dunes, and on its right a tumbled mass of green uplands with sudden red cliffs marking nullahs and wadis. The position of the town itself was shown by the minaret of the mosque and one or two other taller buildings. The whole scene seemed utterly peaceful in the morning sunlight, not a shot was fired all day, and a big cloud of dust to the north-west made many of us think that the Turks were evacuating the place. During the morning cavalry patrols moved forward from our right flank and disappeared among the hills, apparently encountering no opposition, and some white ambulance sand carts went through in the same direction in order to attempt to pick up some of the wounded, which our men had been forced to abandon the night before. We never heard the result of their mission, but fear they had no success.

It was another very hot day, with a khamsin blowing, and the hard, shelterless hill-sides were a poor place to spend it on. About 4 p.m., however, we were relieved, and moved back to the bivouac area in Inserrat where we were able to take off our boots and enjoy a full night's sleep.

The history of the first battle of Gaza may be read elsewhere. The Division was in reserve, and had no part in it. It is said that the Turks were in two minds whether to hold the town or not, and in consequence a sudden attack might well have found them with divided counsels and have taken the place and a large number of prisoners with it. The water shortage, which brought the scheme to failure, would not have existed if we could have got possession of the town, which was well supplied with wells. As we did not do so on the 26th it is difficult to see how our Division could have been thrown into the fight on the 27th, considering that there was not enough water for the troops already engaged. Moreover, had the night march of the 26th to Inserrat been continued as far as Gaza, we should hardly have deserved the name of fresh troops by the morning of the 27th, and had our Division been used there would have been practically no infantry reserve east of the canal, and the risks of such a situation will be obvious to everybody.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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