CHAPTER IV. TRAINING THE ARMY

Those of us who were fortunate enough to witness the nature of the preparations for the first of General Allenby's great and triumphant moves in Palestine can speak of the debt Britain and her Allies owe not merely to the Commander-in-Chief and his Headquarters Staff, but to the three Corps Commanders, the Divisional Commanders, the Brigadiers, and the officers responsible for transport, artillery, engineer, and the other services. The Army had to be put on an altogether different footing from that which had twice failed to drive the Turks from Gaza. It serves nothing to ignore the fact that the moral of the troops was not high in the weeks following the second failure. They had to be tuned up and trained for a big task. They knew the Turk was turning his natural advantages of ground about Gaza into a veritable fortress, and that if their next effort was to meet with more success than their last, they had to learn all that experience on the Western Front had taught as to systems of trench warfare.

And, more than that, they had to prepare to apply the art of open warfare to the full extent of their powers.

A couple of months before General Allenby took over command, General Chetwode had taken in hand the question of training, and in employing the knowledge gained during the strenuous days he had spent in France and Flanders, he not only won the confidence of the troops but improved their tone, and by degrees brought them up to something approaching the level of the best fighting divisions of our Army in France.

This was hard work during hot weather when our trench systems on a wide front had to be prepared against an active enemy, and men could ill be spared for the all-important task of training behind the front line. It was not long, however, before troops who had got into that state of lassitude which is engendered by a belief that they were settling down to trench warfare for the duration of the war - that, in fact, there was a stalemate on this front - became inspired by the energy of General Chetwode. They saw him in the front line almost every day, facing the risks they ran themselves, complimenting them on any good piece of work, suggesting improvements in their defences, always anxious to provide anything possible for their comfort, and generally looking after the rank and file with a detailed attention which no good battalion commander could exceed.

The men knew that the long visits General Chetwode paid them formed but a small part of his daily task. It has been said that a G.O.C. of a force has to think one hour a day about operations and five hours about beef. In East Force, as this part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was then called, General Chetwode, having to look months ahead, had also six worrying hours a day to think about water. For any one who did not love his profession, or who had not an ardent soldierly spirit within him, such a daily task would have been impossible. I had the privilege of living in General Chetwode's camp for some time, and I have seen him working at four o'clock in the morning and at nine o'clock at night, and the notes on a writing tablet by the side of his rough camp-bed showed that in the hours when sleep forsook him he was planning the next day's work.

His staff was entirely composed of hard workers, and perhaps no command in this war ever had so small a staff, but there was no officer in East Force who laboured so long or with such concentration and energy and determination as its Chief. This enthusiasm was infectious and spread through all ranks. The sick rate declined, septic sores, from which many men suffered through rough life in the desert on Army rations, got better, and the men showed more interest in their work and were keener on their sport. The full effects had not been wholly realised when the War Cabinet selected General Allenby for the control of the big operations, but the improvement in the condition of the troops was already most marked, and when General Allenby arrived and at once directed that General Headquarters should be moved from Cairo, which was pleasant but very far away from the front, to Kelab, near Khan Yunus, there was not a man who did not see in the new order of things a sign that he was to be given a chance of testing the Briton's supremacy over the Turk.

The improvement in the moral of the troops, the foundations of which were thus begun and cemented by General Chetwode, was rapidly carried on under the new Chief. Divisions like the 52nd, 53rd, and 54th, which had worked right across the desert from the Suez Canal, toiling in a torrid temperature, when parched throats, sun-blistered limbs, and septic sores were a heavy trial, weakened by casualties in action and sickness, were brought up to something like strength. Reinforcing drafts joined a lot of cheery veterans. They were taught in the stern field of experience what was expected of them, and they worked themselves up to the degree of efficiency of the older men.

The 74th Division, made up of yeomanry regiments which had been doing excellent service in the Libyan Desert, watching for and harassing the elements of the Senussi Army, had to be trained as infantry. These yeomen did not take long to make themselves first-rate infantry, and when, after the German attack on the Somme in March 1918, they went away from us to strengthen the Western Front, a distinguished General told me he believed that man for man the 74th would prove the finest division in France. They certainly proved themselves in Palestine, and many an old yeomanry regiment won for itself the right to bear 'Jerusalem, 1917' on its standard.

The 75th Division had brought some of the Wessex Territorials from India with two battalions of Gurkhas and two of Rifles. The 1/4th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry joined it from Aden, but for some months the battalion was not itself. It had spent a long time at that dreary sunburnt outpost of the Empire, and the men did not regain their physical fitness till close upon the time it was required for the Gaza operations.

The 60th Division came over from Salonika and we were delighted to have them, for they not only gave us General Bulfin as the XXIst Corps Commander, but set an example of efficiency and a combination of dash and doggedness which earned for them a record worthy of the best in the history of the great war. These London Territorials were second-line men, men recruited from volunteers in the early days of the war, when the County of London Territorial battalions went across to France to take a part on a front hard pressed by German legions. The 60th Division men had rushed forward to do their duty before the Derby scheme or conscription sought out the cream of Britain's manhood, and no one had any misgivings about that fine cheery crowd.

The 10th Division likewise came from Salonika. Unfortunately it had been doing duty in a fever-stricken area and malaria had weakened its ranks. A little while before the autumn operations began, as many as 3000 of its men were down at one time with malaria, but care and tonic of the battle pulled the ranks together, and the Irish Division, a purely Irish division, campaigned up to the glorious traditions of their race. They worked like gluttons with rifle and spade, and their pioneer work on roads in the Judean hills will always be remembered with gratitude.

The cavalry of the Desert Mounted Corps were old campaigners in the East. The Anzac Mounted Division, composed of six regiments of Australian Light Horse and three regiments of New Zealand Mounted Rifles, had been operating in the Sinai Desert when they were not winning fame on Gallipoli, since the early days of the war. They had proved sterling soldiers in the desert war, hard, full of courage, capable of making light of the longest trek in waterless stretches of country, and mobile to a degree the Turks never dreamed of. There were six other regiments of Australian Light Horse and three first-line regiments of yeomanry in the Australian Mounted Division, and nine yeomanry regiments in the Yeomanry Mounted Division. The 7th Mounted Brigade was attached to Desert Corps, as was also the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, formed of yeomen and Australians who had volunteered from their regiments for work as camelry. They, too, were veterans.

All these divisions had to be trained hard. Not only had the four infantry divisions of XXth Corps to be brought to a pitch of physical fitness to enable them to endure a considerable period of open fighting, but they had to be trained in water abstinence, as, in the event of success, they would unquestionably have long marches in a country yielding a quite inadequate supply of drinking water, and this problem in itself was such that fully 6000 camels were required to carry drinking water to infantry alone. Water-abstinence training lasted three weeks, and the maximum of half a gallon a man for all purposes was not exceeded, simply because the men had been made accustomed to deny themselves drink except when absolutely necessary. But for a systematic training they would have suffered a great deal. The disposition of the force is given in the Appendix.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Appendix v].