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Last Days in Palestine, North of Jaffa

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The operations of 22nd December brought to an end our fighting in Palestine. Jaffa was now well protected from everything, except perhaps aeroplanes, and we now settled down to enjoy a rest after our labours. In any case the force of our blow was spent. In little over a month the entire army had moved forward nearly 100 miles. Beersheba, Jaffa, and above all Jerusalem, were in our hands.

The cost had been heavy to us, but considerably heavier to the enemy. We were still full of fight, technically known as the "offensive spirit," and could have gone on considerably farther, but our communications were becoming precarious. The railway was being pushed on as fast as possible, and by this time was near Mejdel, though Deir Sineid was still railhead. A narrow gauge railway ran from Deir Sineid to Ludd, and this we had put in order and were working with captured engines and rolling stock. Neither line, however, was entirely satisfactory. In dry weather all went well, but when it rained the communications were invariably cut.

A spell of very bad weather now broke, and for three days it rained continuously and very heavily. The narrow gauge railway was flooded and ceased to be of any service until after the New Year. On the broad gauge line, the railway crossing over the Wadi Ghuzzeh was washed away, as was also a bridge over the Wadi Hesi between Gaza and Deir Sineid, and from Deir Sineid onwards the line was flooded. Thus for three days the whole country north of Gaza was cut off. Fortunately large dumps of foodstuffs had been formed at Deir Sineid and Ramleh, and by means of camel transport, for every other means of transport broke down at one time or other, we were able to be fed.

Christmas Day was miserably wet, and owing to the conditions we were lucky to get a full ration of bully and biscuits for our Christmas dinner. Mails were out of the question until the railway was in full working order, and after all it was probably better to have a complete ration than a dilapidated and rain-soaked parcel, which might or might not contain food. We managed to get about £11 worth of canteen stores from the Brigade, not very much to go round the Battalion, but rather a feat considering the adverse conditions.

The Divisional Christmas Card was a memo dealing with the scheme of defense and the digging of a permanent line. This foretold much labor for us in the near future, but as we did not hear of it at once it did not disturb our festivities.

On 26th December the weather cleared, but from now onwards it was always bitterly cold. Nothing will persuade those who have not been in the East that we were not continually luxuriating in the rays of a blazing sun and that the skies were always cloudless. The months of December, January and February, spent under the doubtful shelter of two waterproof (?) sheets, would disillusion them; and it is a very serious question whether they would apply the term "luxuriating" to the weather in May, June, and July.

There is very little to be said about our sojourn in this part. A draft of 107 arrived on the 26th December, and the companies which had been organized into two platoons since the fight for the ridge at the Wadi Hesi, expanded again into four platoons. On the 28th we heard the plans of a proposed raid, but that was postponed, and finally cancelled altogether the next day. On the 30th we commenced digging support trenches for the firing line battalions, and we were digging daily until we relieved the 7th H.L.I. on the morning of 6th January.

The line consisted of two valleys with a long ridge running towards the enemy in the centre. "D" Company took the right of the sector in Lyle's Post, a knoll in the middle of the right valley, which was completely commanded by Pimple Hill some 800 yards in front. This was a high peak, its name describes its shape, which was held by day with an observation post, but was unoccupied by night. It was rather an uncomfortable spot, because, while it commanded a magnificent view of the surrounding country, the Turks knew we had a post on it, and it came in for periodic shelling.

"A" Company held the main ridge, or Moore Ridge as it was called in compliment to our Brigade commander. "B" Company held a knoll in the left valley, known as Christmas Hill from the fact that it was occupied in a re-adjustment of the line on that day. This was an extremely hot spot, and was continually getting more than its fair share of shelling. On 7th January Lieut. Gardiner, who had joined us on 20th December, and one man were killed by a shell at this post while reconnoitering.

Our life in the line was very uneventful. The digging of the posts was not nearly completed, and we were continually digging and wiring. In this we had the assistance of the 7th H.L.I. Our two main difficulties were in getting the trenches to stand and drainage. The Lyle's Post and Christmas Hill trenches were in sand, and required almost complete revetting. The Moore Ridge trenches were in clay, and every time it rained they had to be bailed out with buckets. A few days in this part of the line made us all very efficient sanitary engineers; if it did not teach us where to dig drains, it certainly taught us where not to dig them.

A beautiful cookhouse was dug at Lyle's Post, partly to conceal the fire and partly to give the cooks shelter from the daily heat. The night after it was completed with much labor it rained; in the morning the degtchies, which had been filled the night before ready for breakfast, were under three feet of water and mud. After much vain fishing with bivouac sticks, the degtchies were rescued, but it was only after several hours' drain-digging that the cookhouse was cleared of water and the bacon discovered in a far corner.

On the night of 21st January we were relieved by 7th H.L.I. and retired to their quarters farther back. We remained in reserve till 5th February, the specialists doing training and the remainder of the Battalion furnishing working parties to 7th H.L.I. During this period we were strengthened with the addition of 14 officers and 283 other ranks. Of these, 8 officers and 170 other ranks had been casualties in the recent operations, and the remainder were fresh from the United Kingdom. About this time the native village of Jelil yielded to our acquisitive pioneers an upholstered sofa and arm-chair. These became very precious in the eyes of headquarters mess and wherever we went they went also, excepting when they were lent to a relieving unit, the terms as to return being carefully arranged. Later on, when the sunny weather returned, the sight of officers lounging at ease in comfortable pieces of European furniture brought envy into the minds of those who sat on benches or sand bags. But take comfort when you can get it is a good maxim for soldiers.

On 5th February we again took over from 7th H.L.I., and for the first four days in the line it poured continuously. "C" Company on Moore Ridge were flooded out of their trenches by the 7th, and work of any kind was quite impossible. On the night of the 8th there was a dry blink, and good progress was made in baling out and draining the trenches but the 9th was again wet, and it did not finally clear till the morning of the 10th. During this tour in the line there was nothing to note except the weather, and the less said about it the better. The enemy were much quieter, and there was very little shelling. Two Turks were taken prisoner outside the wire at Christmas Hill on the morning of the 7th, and a deserter was brought in by "C" Company on the 10th.

The 4th R.S.F. relieved us on the night of the 14th, and we went back for our long promised rest at Sarona, arriving there at 4 a.m. on the 15th. The Commanding Officer, Intelligence Officer, and the four company commanders, remained behind after the relief, and carried out a skeleton withdrawal scheme the next day.

Our sojourn in Sarona was the first time many of us had been under a roof since we left Southampton on 22nd May, 1915. Consequently, in order to celebrate the occasion we all developed colds. The original programme decreed that we were to spend a fortnight here, but owing to the visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, the period was extended to over a month. The time was spent in much needed training, even more needed disinfecting, and recreation. At this time we got the first chance of doing some musketry we had had for over six months.

Sarona had been a German colony and the village was well planned and clean. All the streets were lined with trees and a more pleasant spot would have been difficult to find. By order of the G.O.C. Division we held no afternoon parades. Some very fine football matches were played, there was Jaffa to visit, and the concert party as usual were ready with performances in the Town Hall. The sunny weather returned and with it a profusion of wild flowers. The country to the east of the village was most attractive to explore—cactus lanes, orange groves, olive and almond plantations, the latter a mass of blossom, and from the hills one viewed almost unsurpassed landscapes of the Judean Hills rising behind the Crusaders' great castle at Ras el Ain.

The Germans had seen to it that the village had its wine factory and, there, red wine of various qualities (mostly poor stuff) and cognac (wholly bad) had been made. The sappers converted the factory into baths, and in parties of thirty the men had hot baths, each man having an old wine vat to himself.

On the 21st February we got a draft of 17 new officers, seven of whom were sent about a fortnight later to the 5th A. & S.H. At the end of February our strength was 49 officers and 1043 other ranks, of whom 2 officers and 80 other ranks were detached.

On 18th March H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught visited Sarona in order to present decorations to the 52nd Division. The following officers, N.C.O.'s and men of the Battalion received their medals on this occasion. D.S.O.—Major D.E. Brand: M.C.—Captains T.A. Fyfe and E. Mullen (7th, attached 5th H.L.I.), and Lieut. Sweet: D.C.M.—C.S.M. J. Coubrough, C.S.M. J.J. Twentyman, Sergt. J. Bryden, and Sergt. W. Sykes: M.M.—Sergt. D. Smith, Sergt. R. Lyon, and Pte. J. Drummond.

In Sarona

On the same day the social event of the Sarona season took place in the form of a fancy dress ball given by our officers to all other officers within reach. Jaffa was ransacked for costumes. According to the invitation the guests arrived in pairs, one as a lady, the other representing his own sex. They were received by Major Craufurd as a stately omda, and by the second in command as a "bint" with head-dress, yasmak gown and beribboned pyjama trousers. There was a march past General Hill, who decided after some difficulty that the Quartermaster and Mullen were the best dressed couple, the former as a tin of Ideal Milk, the latter as an extremely pretty girl dressed in much flowing white. But there were many other striking costumes, Girot, in shabby black tail coat and life-like nose made of bread, representing one of the race that hopes to return to Palestine. Sweet, a monkey (tail and all); J.W. Parr lived again one of his days as an A.B. at the Crystal Palace. Colonel Gibbons of the 7th and his Adjutant, Blair, were not recognized for long in their coster costumes. Colonel Anderson of the 6th arrived as a pirate mounted on a donkey. His fierce mustachios, jersey, boots and cutlass made him a terrifying sight, while his Adjutant, Speirs, made a most fascinating young girl, with whom even Generals showed a disposition to fall in love. The Flying Corps were of course in evidence and the squadron stationed behind us turned out en masse, including their energetic juggler. There were young ladies, old ladies, ladies of the harem and of the ballet; there were all races and colors. Pipers played the reels, an orchestra of eight from the Divisional band, with Pte. Williams at the piano, the other dance music. A well-stocked buffet did a roaring trade. And we all thought there had never been a night like it.

On the night of 19th March our Brigade relieved the 156th Brigade in the right sector of the line. We took over from 7th S.R. and were again in support to the 7th H.L.I. to begin with. The weather was now more perfect and the country at its best. Spring in Palestine is wonderful; in addition to the wealth of flowers, the oranges and lemons were delicious. Part of the line passed in front of a very large grove and there our limbers could fill up in a few minutes with oranges such as we had never tasted before. The Turk we saw little of; he was digging in, but some miles away, and his night patrols never came near us. We spent quite a pleasant fortnight training, with only an occasional work party at night. On the 31st of March Lieut. Legate left with a small advance party to sort kits at Kantara.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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