CHAPTER XVII. A GREAT FEAT OF WAR
The officer who was mainly responsible for the success of the Auja crossing was Major-General J. Hill, D.S.O., A.D.C., commanding the 52nd Division. His plan was agreed to by General Bulfin, although the Corps Commander had doubts about the possibility of its success, and had his own scheme ready to be put into instant operation if General Hill's failed. In the state of the weather General Hill's own brigadiers were not sanguine, and they were the most loyal and devoted officers a divisional commander ever had. But despite the most unfavourable conditions, calling for heroic measures on the part of officers and men alike to gain their objectives through mud and water and over ground that was as bad as it could be, the movements of the troops worked to the clock. One brigade's movements synchronised with those of another, and the river was crossed, commanding positions were seized, and bridges were built with an astoundingly small loss to ourselves. The Lowland Scots worked as if at sport, and they could not have worked longer or stronger if the whole honour of Scotland had depended upon their efforts. At a later date, when digging at Arsuf, these Scots came across some marble columns which had graced a hall when Apollonia was in its heyday. The glory of Apollonia has long vanished, but if in that age of warriors there had been a belief that those marble columns would some day be raised as monuments to commemorate a great operation of war the ancients would have had a special veneration for them. Three of the columns marked the spots where the Scots spanned the river, and it is a pity they cannot tell the full story to succeeding generations.
The river Auja is a perennial stream emptying itself into the blue Mediterranean waters four miles north of Jaffa. Its average width is forty yards and its depth ten feet, with a current running at about three miles an hour. Till we crossed it the river was the boundary between the British and Turkish armies in this sector, and all the advantage of observation was on the northern bank. From it the town of Jaffa and its port were in danger, and the main road between Jaffa and Ramleh was observed and under fire. The village of Sheikh Muannis, about two miles inland, stood on a high mound commanding the ground south of the river, and from Hadrah you could keep the river in sight in its whole winding course to the sea. All this high ground concealed an entrenched enemy; on the southern side of the river the Turks were on Bald Hill, and held a line of trenches covering the Jewish colony of Mulebbis and Fejja. A bridge and a mill dam having been destroyed during winter the only means of crossing was by a ford three feet deep at the mouth, an uncertain passage because the sand bar over which one could walk shifted after heavy rain when the stream was swollen with flood water. Reconnaissances at the river mouth were carried out with great daring. As I said, all the southern approaches to the river were commanded by the Turks on the northern bank, who were always alert, and the movement of one man in the Auja valley was generally the signal for artillery activity. So often did the Turkish gunners salute the appearance of a single British soldier that the Scots talked of the enemy 'sniping' with guns. To reconnoitre the enemy's positions by daylight was hazardous work, and the Scots had to obtain their first-hand knowledge of the river and the approaches to it in the dark hours.
An officers' patrol swam the river one night, saw what the enemy was doing, and returned unobserved. A few nights afterwards two officers swam out to sea across the river mouth and crept up the right bank of the stream within the enemy's lines to ascertain the locality of the ford and its exact width and depth. They also learnt that there were no obstacles placed across the ford, which was three feet deep in normal times and five feet under water after rains. It was obvious that bridges would be required, and it was decided to force the passage of the river in the dark hours by putting covering troops across to the northern bank, and by capturing the enemy's positions to form a bridgehead while pontoon bridges were being constructed for the use of guns and the remainder of the Division.
Time was all-important. December and January are the wettest months of the season at Jaffa, and after heavy rains the Auja valley becomes little better than a marsh, so that a small amount of traffic will cut up the boggy land into an almost impassable condition.