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Remembered Today:

The Final Battles of the NZMR Brigade


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The following is summarised from my book "Devils on Horses: in the Words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-1919" (Exisle, 2007).

The Turkish government had lost interest in the Middle East by 1918. Its army in Palestine was effectively abandoned, and it began to fade away through desertion and illness. General Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), realised that the Turkish forces in Syria were qualitatively and numerically weak, immobile, poorly deployed and entirely reliant on their limited railway network. He knew that most of the enemy army was deployed in front-line trenches, with few mobile reserves. If his EEF could break through this thin defensive crust, its greater mobility should allow it to wreak havoc in the relatively-undefended Turkish rear areas. Allenby also understood that, if he could cut the single railway track linking Dera to southern Anatolia, the enemy would be trapped.

Allenby decided to smash open the Turkish defences on the coast using infantry and massed artillery. Three mounted divisions would then ride north towards Haifa, supported by an infantry advance along the Judean Hills north of Jerusalem. A smaller force in the Jordan Valley would block the key Jordan River bridge at Damieh, seize Es Salt and cut the Hejaz Railway at Amman. Aircraft would bomb headquarters, bridges and other bottlenecks at critical times, and the Hejaz Arabs would attack the Turks along the railway and capture the railway junction at Dera.

Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) was selected to make the ‘great ride’ (as it was subsequently known), after the infantry of 20 and 21 Corps had broken the enemy front line on the coast. Chaytor’s veteran Anzac Mounted Division was to form the core of the force operating from the Jordan Valley. Knowing that the Turks were very wary of the DMC, Allenby created the impression that Chauvel’s horsemen were concentrating in the Jordan Valley, when, in fact, the opposite was occurring.

On 5 September 1918 General Chaytor took over responsibility for the Jordan Valley. Shortly afterwards, the 11,000 troops still with him in the valley were christened "Chaytor’s Force". In addition to his own Anzac Mounted Division, Chaytor took command of the 20th Indian Brigade, the 1st and 2nd battalions of the British West Indies Regiment, and the 38th and 39th (Jewish Volunteer) battalions of the Royal Fusiliers.

Chaytor’s 11,000 men faced a similar number of Turks. The Turkish 4th Army had spent the summer of 1918 busily improving the defences astride the northern part of the Jordan River, and in the foothills below Amman and Es Salt. Up on the Amman plateau, the Turkish 2nd Corps was responsible for the Hejaz Railway. Seven infantry battalions were down the line at Ma’an, and eight others were spread along the track between there and Amman.

As soon as the main coastal advance began, Chaytor was to watch for any signs of an enemy withdrawal from the Jordan Valley. As soon as the enemy moved, Chaytor was to pursue him and seize the bridge at Damieh. Once the bridge was secured, mobile elements of Chaytor’s Force would climb up onto the Es Salt-Amman plateau to deal with the Turkish 2nd Corps. Lastly, Chaytor’s Force was to be prepared to advance northwards along the Hejaz Railway towards Dera in the unlikely event that Allenby’s coastal advance was held up.

The Hejaz Arabs opened what became known as the Battle of Megiddo by attacking the railway between Amman and Dera on 16 September. 20 Corps then attacked along the spine of the Judean Hills. These were precursors to the main event, which began with a massive artillery bombardment in the early hours of 19 September 1918. British and Indian infantry quickly broke through the stunned Turkish front-line defenders on the coastal plain, and the cavalry immediately began their ‘great ride’ to the north. In the Jordan Valley, the horsemen and infantry of Chaytor’s Force were placed on three hours’ notice to move. The Turks facing him made no move to withdraw for three days, and Chaytor’s patrols were heavily engaged by artillery and machine guns whenever they ventured too close to the enemy trenches.

On the night of 20 September, the Turks in the valley finally withdrew, closely followed by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. Patrols probing towards the Jordan River were held up by heavy enemy fire and the Aucklanders halted to allow the rest of the brigade to join them. The New Zealanders then pressed on towards the Damieh bridge, which was strongly defended. At dawn on 22 September, a large enemy column was crossing the Damieh bridge, and an AMR squadron made a dash for the bank to try to stop them. The desperate Turks counter-attacked fiercely, stopping the New Zealanders in their tracks. A second Auckland squadron reinforced the first, but the Turks threatened to outflank them both. Before long, Brigadier-General Meldrum’s brigade was under attack from three directions and Turks were reported to be approaching from the fourth direction. ‘Fix Bayonets’ Meldrum decided to attack. A bold bayonet charge by the West Indians, supported by the Aucklanders and two Canterbury squadrons, and covered by artillery and machine-gun fire, resulted in the capture of the vital bridge by noon.

By noon on 22 September all the crossing points on the lower Jordan River had been taken. The New Zealanders had captured 786 prisoners, six artillery pieces, nine machine guns and 200 tonnes of ammunition. Unwisely, as it turned out, the column bivouacked at the crossing point that night. As soon as the sun set, swarms of mosquitoes rose from the swamps and attacked the men, making sleep impossible. As Chaytor’s men tried to rest, the Turks abandoned their formidable defensive positions at Shunet Nimrin and elsewhere, and set out for the railway escape route at Amman.

At midday on 23 September the Anzacs and the mobile infantry companies headed up into the hills towards Es Salt, which was captured by late afternoon (along with 538 prisoners). Chaytor received orders that night to push on for Amman, to cut the railway north of the town and to make contact with the Arab forces approaching from the south.

The Anzac Mounted Division began its final advance towards Amman at 6 a.m. on 25 September 1918. The attack was a frontal one, with no attempt being made to outflank the defenders lest they abandon the town and escape. When Chaytor sensed that the enemy resistance was weakening, he decided to launch an immediate divisional dismounted attack. The Canterbury regiment galloped into Amman, supported by the rest of the brigade, racing the Australian light horsemen for the honour of capturing the town. When Hill 3039 and the high ground beyond the town around the railway station were captured by the Australians, the defence collapsed. The New Zealanders took over half of the 2563 prisoners captured in the town, as well as 300 emaciated horses, 25 machine guns and six artillery pieces.

On 27 September, Australian scouts located a large force of Turks near Ziza Station, 25 kilometres south of Amman. Two squadrons of the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment rode south to destroy the railway and to confront the Turks on 29 September. At Ziza, they found 5000 Turks surrounded by twice as many armed Arabs. A Turkish envoy told the commander of the light horse regiment that the Turkish commander wanted to surrender his force, but not until a stronger Allied force arrived to protect the Turks against the Arabs. Chaytor ordered the rest of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade to make a forced march to Ziza to reinforce the single regiment there, and the New Zealand brigade was told to ride south in support at first light the following day.

The Arabs demanded that they be allowed to either attack the Turks if they had not surrendered, or to disarm them if they had. The Australian commander refused and warned them that if the Arabs attacked the Turks, his light horsemen would fight them. The commander of the 2nd LH Brigade, Brigadier-General Ryrie, galloped two regiments through the encircling Arabs and into the Turkish position. Ryrie warned the Arabs that any attempt to attack the Turks would be blocked with force. He even allowed the Turks to keep their weapons that night, to maximise the firepower available to hold off the Arabs.

When the New Zealand brigade arrived at Ziza at 5.30 a.m. on 30 September, General Ryrie felt strong enough to disarm most of the Turks at Ziza. The two strongest battalions of Anatolian Turks were permitted to keep their weapons and ammunition in case the frustrated Arabs attacked the column during its march to Amman. As 4068 able-bodied prisoners marched off under Australian escort, the New Zealanders remained behind to guard the 534 sick and wounded prisoners and the captured materiel, until the railway to Amman was repaired. The angry and disappointed Bedouin gave up their bloodthirsty designs and disappeared towards Damascus, looking for easier prey.

The sick and wounded prisoners were loaded onto a train and sent north to Amman. One hundred and fifty tonnes of captured stores and 240 tonnes of ammunition were also sent into Amman. On 1 October the New Zealand brigade rode back to Hill 3039, leaving the Canterbury regiment at Ziza to guard the station and some stores.

In less than two weeks, the 11,000 men of Chaytor’s Force captured 10,332 prisoners, 57 artillery pieces, 132 machine guns, 11 train engines, 106 railway trucks, 142 vehicles and a vast amount of ammunition. The number of casualties in Chaytor’s Force was very small; between 19 September and 3 November, 29 men were killed and 103 were wounded. Most of these casualties were suffered by the Anzac Mounted Division, which lost 16 men killed and 56 wounded in September, and another four killed and seven wounded in October. The New Zealand brigade suffered eleven deaths.

Far more men fell sick than were injured or killed. Between 19 September and 3 November, 6920 men in Chaytor’s Force were listed as sick. In the Anzac division, 1088 men were sick in September; the number trebled in the following month. Nearly all of these men suffered from malaria. Most of the men of the NZMR and 1st LH brigades were infected at the Damieh bridge. These brigades evacuated 360 and 315 sick men respectively before 4 October. The number of New Zealanders who succumbed to the disease is believed to be between 50 and 60. At the same time, the global influenza epidemic arrived in the Jordan Valley, and this also killed a number of men.

Chaytor’s Force achieved spectacular results during its brief existence. The rag-tag collection of disparate units became an effective fighting force that carried out its intended role perfectly, and at very little cost. The destruction of the Turkish 2nd Corps as a fighting force was testament to the effectiveness of the small force.

With the Desert Mounted Corps by now well on its way to Damascus, there was no need for Chaytor’s Force to advance northwards along the Hejaz Railway. Chaytor received orders to rest, reinforce and re-equip his division, in anticipation of taking it to join the rest of the DMC at Damascus. On Thursday 3 October, those horsemen fit enough to ride headed back down into the Jordan Valley for the last time. The New Zealanders crossed the Jordan River on 5 October and rode on to Jericho. Three days later the men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade rode out of the Jordan Valley for the last time. After five days’ rest near Jerusalem, the NZMR Brigade arrived at Richon le Zion on 14 October 1918. Equipment and weapons were overhauled, and some training continued, but rest and recuperation were the priorities for the rest of the month.

While Chaytor’s Force was fighting the remnants of the Turkish 4th Army, Chauvel’s DMC rode northwards at a great pace. There were few Turkish reserves or depth defensive positions to stop them. Haifa fell on 23 September; by the next day, the Turkish 7th and 8th armies had effectively ceased to exist. The Hejaz Arabs captured the vital railway junction at Dera on 28 September. Seizing the opportunity that his early success presented, Allenby sent Chauvel’s horsemen riding towards Damascus, which fell to the Australians on 30 September. Still not satisfied, Allenby dispatched one of his mounted divisions towards Aleppo, 300 kilometres from Damascus. Aleppo was occupied by the Arabs on 25 October, and by the 5th Cavalry Division a day later.

The 2nd New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron rode with the Australian Mounted Division as part of this great mounted force. After playing a part in the capture of Nablus on 21 September, the machine gunners rode to Jenin. On 27 September they began a long ride through Nazareth, Tiberias and Kuneitra to Damascus. Three days later the New Zealanders reached the cliffs overlooking the Barada Gorge, through which the Damascus–Beirut road ran. The narrow road was packed with fleeing Turkish soldiers, animals and trucks. New Zealand machine guns killed and wounded hundreds of hapless men and animals before 4000 survivors surrendered. The machine gunners finished their war at Homs on 1 November 1918.

Seventy-five thousand prisoners were captured during Allenby’s last great offensive, including 3700 Germans and Austrians. The total distance covered in 38 days was more than 500 kilometres. Between 19 September and 31 October 1918 the EEF lost only 853 men killed, 4428 wounded and 385 missing.

By the last week of October, the Turks in Palestine and Syria were soundly beaten and EEF horsemen were approaching the borders of the Anatolian heartland. Turkey’s ally Bulgaria signed an armistice on 30 September and this cut the railway link to Germany and opened an invasion route into western Turkey for the large Allied army at Salonika. With no Turkish reserves to speak of, the road to Istanbul lay open. Germany could offer no more help and the treasury in Istanbul was empty. Further resistance was impossible, so the Turks decided to seek their own armistice. This was signed on 30 October 1918 and it came into force on the 31st. Within two weeks, Austria-Hungary and Germany had also signed armistices, and the war was over.

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