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From Tahta to the Auja

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

Two companies, one of the Royal Irish Regiment and one of the 7th Dublin Fusiliers, arrived at 10 p.m. on the 1st of December to relieve us, and about 11 p.m. 7 officers and 320 N.C.O.'s and men, all that now remained of the Battalion, turned their backs on Tahta. It was with mixed feelings that we moved off in the pitch darkness: regret for the many good fellows who had lost their lives in the last two days: thankfulness that we ourselves had escaped: joy that at length there was a prospect of a few days' absence from the enemy's attentions: and hope (vain, it must be admitted) that we were going to get a rest.

Marching by easy stages, we reached Ramleh about midday on the 3rd. On arrival our hopes of a rest were at once fulfilled. We were told that we were moving in three days' time, and that meantime we had to re-equip and reorganize. Consequently we spent most of our time doing kit inspections and issuing equipment. Our condition at this time was not enviable. We had left Gaza on 7th November in drill clothing, carrying packs, haversacks, and gas-masks. It was soon discovered, however, that we had far too much luggage, and the packs were dumped next day, and the gas-masks two days later. We had now been touring the country, with frequent opposition from the enemy, for nearly a month with nothing more than what we could carry in our haversacks. Most of our boots were like those you sometimes see washed up by the tide on the seashore, and in many cases the sole and upper had parted company, and could be persuaded to bear with one another a little longer only by a skilful, if highly unauthorized, use of a puttee. We had little or nothing except what we were wearing, and that was not at all suitable for the cold we were now experiencing.

Our three days were, therefore, busy ones. We were issued with serge clothing, greatcoats, socks, and shirts and boots, but not nearly as much as we would have liked.

When we had turned east at Ramleh to assist in the downfall of Jerusalem, the cavalry, moving along the coast, had occupied Jaffa. One of the Divisions in our rear had followed them, and a line had been taken up on the north bank of the River Auja, covering the town. These dispositions had not met with the approval of the Turks, and they had made themselves most objectionable and driven our troops back to the south bank of the river. This left Jaffa within shell-fire, and it was necessary that we should recover the north bank and form a bridgehead. This little job was to be entrusted to the 52nd Division.

We moved to Selmeh on 6th December, and bivouacked in a ploughed field. The rain came on just about the time we arrived, but fortunately we were able to get our bivouacs erected before we got very wet. It rained, however, all that night and all next day, and as no one could remain in his bivouac the whole time, everyone got thoroughly soaked. The following day broke with no signs of clearing. No description of the scene is possible. Picture a very large ploughed field, saturated with water, which collects in pools in every hole. Add four battalions soaked to the skin. Some men are crouching beneath the shelter of canvas bivouacs, which no longer keep out the rain: others are wandering about trying to get warm, and they sink over their boots in mud at every step they take. Everyone looks thoroughly depressed and miserable. Battalion Headquarters have selected the side of a slight hollow for their bivouacs, and a raging stream has formed in the depression, which gradually rises until it is over the floor of the bivouacs. The only sign of relief is the Doctor patiently fishing for his field boots in the stream. It is amusing to recall now, but will those who experienced it ever forget it.

It cleared from wet to showery on the morning of the 9th, and someone discovered some sandy soil on the other side of the village, where even if it continued to rain the water would not lie, and to this we proceeded in the afternoon. It was a queer procession, as we carried everything, and our coats and blankets were too wet to roll and had to be carried over our arms. We looked more like a gang of Russian refugees on the trek in a film drama, than a part of the British army.

The next two or three days were fortunately dry, though bitterly cold, and we were able to get our things dried, and our rifles and equipment cleaned. We remained in this area for a week, but little can be recorded of our doings. The battle of the Auja was approaching, and expectancy was in the air. Training was carried on for two or three hours daily, and all the officers reconnoitered the river and the Turkish positions beyond.

The river Auja is a winding stream, some 30 to 40 yards in width, and varying in depth very largely according to the season of the year. It was only the three or four miles before it entered the sea that concerned us, and the Turks had taken good care to destroy all the bridges, except a stone one near Khurbet Hadra, and this one was naturally strongly guarded. At the mouth of the river there was a ford, but its exact position was doubtful, and very little was known of its practicability for troops. Some said it was 18 inches deep, others 4 feet.

The enemy were occupying trenches on the north side of the river. The ground was marshy near the bank of the stream, except for a narrow strip of sand about half a mile in breadth which ran along the seashore. The trenches in the marshy ground had been flooded out by the recent rains and it was very doubtful whether they were occupied or not. On the shore there was a post just at the enemy's end of the ford. There was also a large work in a sand ridge about 1000 yards beyond the river, and here individuals could be seen working daily. Beyond this again, Tel er Rekkit, a prominent sand hill, appeared to be strongly held, and there were innumerable small trenches covering it. Farther inland the enemy occupied Shiek Muannis, a prominent village which commanded the whole river.

The problem was how to get at the enemy. To find out his exact dispositions and strength was a matter of considerable difficulty, as most of our reconnaissance had to be done from our own side of the river. Colonel Anderson of 6th H.L.I., accompanied by Lieut. Hills, swam across the river at the mouth, located the ford, and brought back valuable information about its practicability, but beyond this our information was confined to what we could see for ourselves, and what our aeroplanes brought back. It was sufficient, however, to let us judge that, provided we could land a sufficient force on the other bank, we could give a very good account of ourselves.

The plan of operations was one of the most complicated we have ever had the pleasure of carrying through. At 8 p.m. on the night fixed for the operations, the 7th H.L.I. was to cross the river at Mawson's Post, first on rafts, and as soon as a bridge could be constructed, on it. This crossing, which was about 1000 yards from the mouth of the river, would land them in the marshy ground which it was hoped was not held, and here the Battalion was to assemble. So soon as it was ready, one company was to move down the river to the ford and drive the enemy out of his post there. The remaining companies were to advance on the large work about 1000 yards from the river and capture and consolidate it. Meanwhile the other two brigades of the Division were to cross the Auja higher up, and occupy Shiek Muannis and the ground round Khurbet Hadra. The operation was to be covered by a barrage from the time the troops started to advance from the far side of the river, but the actual crossing was to be carried out in absolute silence. At 12.10 a.m., by which time all the first objectives were to be in our hands, the 6th H.L.I. and the 5th A. &. S.H. were to cross the ford, and advancing along the shore, taking all the Turkish positions on the way, to take Tel er Rekkit.

Such a scheme required careful preparation. It depended very largely on secrecy for its success, and, to get all the material necessary for the bridges down to the river bank in readiness for the night, required careful management. Again, with so many units carrying out almost independent actions on a dark night, a very small error in the time table or routes of the various battalions might have led to disaster.

All was ready for the night of 20th December, and the night before, we left our bivouac area at Selmeh, and moved to a concentration area near Summeil. Here in the orange groves the whole Brigade was to be assembled in readiness for the following night. For its purpose the position chosen was ideal, but it could hardly be called the acme of comfort. Our job for the next 24 hours was to crouch beneath the trees in case of disclosing our presence to any inquisitive enemy plane. As it was, it rained heavily on the 19th and, after a very heavy march in the dark, we reached our new quarters about ten o'clock. The groves were separated by a narrow lane, and here the entire transport of the Brigade had contrived to get itself into the most inextricable confusion. There was no room for two limbers to pass abreast, and they could be turned only by separating the two halves and turning one at a time.

The Battalion was quickly stowed away, but it was 4.30 a.m., just at dawn, before the last limber was unloaded and sent away. The scene of limbers hopelessly locked, plunging mules, serenely indifferent camels, cursing transport drivers, and dripping unloading parties who could not find the limbers they were to unload, will not be soon forgotten by those who were there.

It cleared on the morning of the 20th, but our lot was not enviable. We were all soaked to the skin, and it was quite impossible to light a fire or get anything hot to eat or drink. We could only sit beneath the dripping trees and shiver. Even the best oranges we had yet come across did not appeal to us, they seemed so cold. Blankets, packs and bivouac sheets were dumped in the morning, and the rest of the day was spent in cleaning rifles and ammunition and trying to get warm.

Our role in the evening's work was that of Brigade reserve. "A" and "D" Companies, under Captain Morrison, were told off to act as immediate support to the 7th H.L.I., if they found any difficulty in getting their objectives, and these two companies moved off at 8 p.m., followed by 6th H.L.I. and 5th A. & S.H., the remainder of the Battalion bringing up the rear. The preliminary move was to a position of readiness under the cliffs on the shore about 800 yards from the ford.

The whole operations were carried out with complete success, the only hitch being a slight delay in getting some of the bridges across higher up the river, which caused the barrage at the last moment to be postponed for half an hour. The rains of the night before had probably lulled the enemy into a sense of false security. The trenches in the marshy ground were unoccupied, and he certainly was not expecting us in other places, as in more than one place prisoners were taken in their night raiment before they had time to arm themselves. The river had risen with the rains, and at the ford the water was over the waists of those who crossed.

At 2 a.m. we received word from Brigade that our services would not be required, and that we had better make ourselves comfortable for the night, a matter of no small difficulty, as it was piercing cold and we were lightly equipped for fighting. Thus ended one of the most brilliantly planned and executed actions we ever took part in. In effect it was an easy and cheap victory, but how difficult and costly it might have been is not hard to imagine. In the first place, it was entirely a night show, and the distances to be traversed were considerable: to that add the fact that the objectives were much scattered, and no reconnaissance was possible except from our own side of the river. Secondly, preparation of the smallest detail was necessary, and a very large amount of material was required to carry out the operations, and yet absolute secrecy was a vital necessity for the success of the plan. It would have been a comparatively simple matter to prevent our crossing, or at least to have made it a very costly and uncomfortable proceeding, had it been suspected, but its very boldness carried it through. The Turks, even if they did observe some preparations, probably thought that we would never attempt to cross the river.

In order to make the bridgehead in front of Jaffa more secure, it was determined to push forward another three or four miles, and about 11 a.m. on the 21st we received orders to cross the Auja, and move our bivouac to Tel er Rekkit. This we did in the afternoon, crossing by a bridge about half a mile from the river mouth. We arrived at the new area about 4.30 p.m. and were glad of a good night's rest.

The next morning the 21st Corps was ordered to advance along its whole front, and each Brigade of the 52nd Division had to take certain successive positions. The final objectives of the 157th Brigade were on a series of ridges about three and a half miles in front. Our Battalion, in order to protect the left flank of the 156th Brigade, was ordered to capture and hold a ridge on our right flank, to leave a garrison there, and to rejoin our own Brigade as reserve.

Jaffa From The Shore

Early on the morning of the 22nd a reconnaissance of the ground over which the Battalion was to advance was made from El Makras, but it was very difficult to locate our objective exactly. At 9.35 the signal for our advance, the 156th Brigade deploying from Muannis, was observed, and we moved off in artillery formation. "B" and "C" Companies in front, "D" and "A" in support. During the advance it was observed that the left of the 156th Brigade would cross our front, so a slight change of direction was made. We reached our objective about 11 o'clock, and "B" Company was ordered to garrison it, while the remainder of the Battalion reassembled preparatory to rejoining our own Brigade as reserve.

This was one of our bloodless victories. On our own front a few of the enemy were seen, but they were apparently only rear parties and were most unwilling to fight. They stood on a skyline and fired a few rounds at us, but the range was extreme, and only three of us managed to collect any lead and they were all very slightly wounded. After that the enemy disappeared and was seen no more. On our right, in front of the other Brigades, there was a little shelling, but not sufficient to do much damage, or prevent them from obtaining their objectives.

By one o'clock we were in reserve behind the centre of our own Brigade, but we were not required. The 6th H.L.I. occupied El Haram, a prominent white mosque near the shore, without difficulty. The 5th A. & S.H. passed through Jelil, a native village which had been set on fire in the morning, without opposition. The 7th H.L.I. prolonged the line inland, and joined up with the 156th Brigade on our right.

By three o'clock in the afternoon the whole affair was over, and we were ordered to bivouac near Jelil. Considerable difficulty was experienced in selecting a bivouac area which would not be in view of the enemy from one position or another, but one was at length found, although there were some readjustments to be made the next day.

That night we learned that our commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, had died in hospital at Alexandria. He had not been feeling very well after our sojourn in the hills, and while we were at Selmeh had taken a chill, and the medical officer had persuaded him on 12th December to go to the Field Ambulance at Jaffa for a short rest. All who knew him know how unwillingly he would go, and it was only after innumerable promises that he would not be sent farther than Jaffa that he consented. He got no better, however, at Jaffa, and was finally persuaded to go to Alexandria, where he died on the night of 22nd December of a slight attack of dysentery accompanied by pneumonia. It was hard to believe the Colonel had died: he was the outstanding figure in our Division, a Colonel under whom it was an honor to serve. He had trained us in Scotland before and after the outbreak of war; he had commanded us in Gallipoli and in the desert. His love of his Battalion had kept him from going on home leave, and now, after having brought us through the never to be forgotten advance from Gaza to the Auja, and having been in the last engagement of any consequence we had in Palestine, the rigors of the campaign had killed him. One lost many friends and gallant soldiers in the course of the campaign, but the blank left by the death of our honored Colonel seemed different to all others.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

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

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