CHAPTER XI. TWO YEOMANRY CHARGES

In front of the mud huts of Mughar, so closely packed together on the southern slope of the hill that the dwellings at the bottom seemed to keep the upper houses from falling into the plain, there was a long oval garden with a clump of cypresses in the centre, the whole surrounded by cactus hedges of great age and strength. In the cypresses was a nest of machine guns whose crews had a perfect view of an advance from Katrah. The infantry had to advance over flat open ground to the edge of the garden. The Turkish machine-gunners and riflemen in the garden and village were supported by artillery firing from behind the ridge at the back of the village, and although the brigade made repeated efforts to get on, its advance was held up in the early afternoon, and it seemed impossible to take the place by infantry from the south in the clear light of a November afternoon. The 6th Mounted Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General C.A.C. Godwin, D.S.O., composed of the 1/1st Bucks Hussars, 1/1st Berkshire Yeomanry, and 1/1st Dorset Yeomanry, the Berkshire battery Royal Horse Artillery, and the 17th Machine Gun Squadron - old campaigners with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force - had worked round to the left of the Lowlanders and had reached a point about two miles south-west of Yebnah, that place having been occupied by the 8th Mounted Brigade, composed of the 1/1st City of London Yeomanry, 1/1st County of London Yeomanry, and the 1/3rd County of London Yeomanry. At half-past twelve the Bucks Hussars less one squadron and the Berks battery, which were in the rear of the brigade, advanced via Beshshit to the wadi Janus, a deep watercourse with precipitous banks running across the plain east of Yebnah and joining the wadi Rubin. One squadron of the Bucks Hussars had entered Yebnah from the east, co-operating with the 8th Brigade. General Godwin was told over the telephone that the infantry attack was held up and that his brigade would advance to take Mughar. This order was confirmed by telegram a quarter of an hour later as the brigadier was about to reconnoitre a line of approach. The Berks battery began shelling Mughar and the ridge behind the village from a position half a mile north of Beshshit screened by some trees. Brigade headquarters joined the Bucks Hussars headquarters in the wadi Janus half a mile south-east of Yebnah, where Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. F. Cripps commanding the Bucks Hussars had, with splendid judgment, already commenced a valuable reconnaissance, the Dorset and Berks Yeomanry being halted in a depression out of sight a few hundred yards behind. The Turks had the best possible observation, and, knowing they were holding up the infantry, concentrated their attention upon the cavalry. Therein they showed good judgment, for it was from the mounted troops the heavy blow was to fall. Lieut. Perkins, Bucks Hussars, was sent forward to reconnoitre the wadi Shellal el Ghor, which runs parallel to and east of the wadi Janus. He became the target of every kind of fire, guns, machine guns, and rifles opening on him from the ridge whenever he exposed himself. Captain Patron, of the 17th Machine Gun Squadron, was similarly treated while examining a position from which to cover the advance of the brigade with concentrated machine-gun fire. It was not an easy thing to get cavalry into position for a mounted attack. Except in the wadis the plain between Yebnah and Mughar offered no cover and was within easy range of the enemy's guns. The wadi Janus was a deep slit in the ground with sides of clay falling almost sheer to the stony bottom. It was hard to get horses into the wadi and equally troublesome to get them to bank again, and the wadi in most places was so narrow that horses could only move in single file. The Dorsets were brought up in small parties to join the Bucks in the wadi, and they had to run the gauntlet of shell and rifle fire. The Berks were to enter the wadi immediately the Bucks had left it. Behind Mughar village and its gardens the ground falls sharply, then rises again and forms a rocky hill some 300 yards long. There is another decline, and north of it a conical shaped hill, also stony and barren, though before the crest is reached there is some undulating ground which would have afforded a little cover if the cunning Turks had not posted machine guns on it. The Dorset Yeomanry were ordered to attack this latter hill and the Bucks Hussars the ridge between it and Mughar village, the Berks Yeomanry to be kept in support. There seems to be no reason for doubting that Mughar would not have been captured that day but for the extremely brilliant charge of these home counties yeomen. The 155th Brigade was still held fast in that part of the wadi Janus which gave cover south-west and south of Mughar, and after the charge had been completely successful and the yeomanry were working forward to clear up the village a message was received - timed 2.45 P.M., but received at 4 P.M. - which shows the difficulties facing that very gallant infantry brigade: '52nd Division unable to make progress. Co-operate and turn Mughar from the north.'

It was a hot bright afternoon. The dispositions having been made, the Bucks Hussars and Dorset Yeomanry got out of the wadi and commenced their mounted attack, the Berks battery in the meantime having registered on certain points. The Bucks Hussars, in column of squadrons extended to four yards interval, advanced at a trot from the wadi, which was 3000 yards distant from the ridge which was their objective. Two machine guns were attached to the Bucks and two to the Dorsets, and the other guns under Captain Patron were mounted in a position which that officer had chosen in the wadi El Ghor from which they could bring to bear a heavy fire almost up to the moment the Bucks should be on the ridge. This machine-gun fire was of the highest value, and it unquestionably kept many Turkish riflemen inactive. 'B' squadron under Captain Bulteel, M.C., was leading, and when 1000 yards from the objective the order was given to gallop, and horses swept over the last portion of the plain and up the hill at a terrific pace, the thundering hoofs raising clouds of dust. The tap-tap of machine guns firing at the highest pressure, intense rifle fire from all parts of the enemy position, the fierce storm of shells rained on the hill by the Berks battery, which during the charge fired with splendid accuracy no fewer than 200 rounds of shrapnel at a range of 3200 to 3500 yards, and the rapid fire of Turkish field guns, completely drowned the cheers of the charging yeomen. 'C' squadron, commanded by Lord Bosebery's son, Captain the Hon. Neil Primrose, M.C., who was killed on the following day, made an equally dashing charge and came up on the right of 'B' squadron. Once the cavalry had reached the crest of the hill many of the Turks surrendered and threw down their arms, but some retired and then, having discovered the weakness of the cavalry, returned to some rocks on the flanks and continued the fight at close range. Captain Primrose's squadron was vigorously attacked on his left flank, but Captain Bulteel was able to get over the ridge and across the rough, steep eastern side of it, and from this point he utilised captured Turkish machine guns to put down a heavy barrage on to the northern end of the village. 'A' squadron under Captain Lawson then came up from Yebnah at the gallop, and with his support the whole of the Bucks' objectives were secured and consolidated.

The Dorset Yeomanry on the left of the Bucks had 1000 yards farther to go, and the country they traversed was just as cracked and broken. Their horses at the finish were quite exhausted. At the base of the hills Captain Dammers dismounted 'A' squadron, which charged on the left, and the squadron fought their way to the top of the ridge on foot. The held horses were caught in a cone of machine-gun fire, and in a space of about fifty square yards many gallant chargers perished. 'B' squadron (Major Wingfield-Digby) in the centre and 'C' squadron (Major Gordon, M.C.) on the right, led by Colonel Sir Randolf Baker, M.P., formed line and galloped the hill, and their horse losses were considerably less than those of the dismounted squadron. The Berks Yeomanry moved to the wadi El Ghor under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from the village and gardens on the west side, and two squadrons were dismounted and sent into the village to clear it, the remaining squadron riding into the plain on the eastern side of the ridge, where they collected a number of stragglers. Dotted over this plain were many dead Turks who fell under the fire of the Machine-Gun Squadron while attempting to get to Ramleh. The Turkish dead were numerous and their condition showed how thoroughly the sword had done its work. I saw many heads cleft in twain, and Mughar was not a sweet place to look upon and wanted a good deal of clearing up. The yeomanry took 18 officers and 1078 other ranks prisoners, whilst fourteen machine guns and two field guns were captured. But for the tired state of the horses many more prisoners would have been taken, large numbers being seen making their way along the red sand tracks to Ramleh, and an inspection of the route on the morrow told of the pace of the retirement brought about by the shock of contact with cavalry. Machine guns, belts and boxes of ammunition, equipment of all kinds were strewn about the paths, and not a few wounded Turks had given up the effort to escape and had lain down to die.

The casualties in the 6th Mounted Brigade were 1 officer killed and 6 wounded, 15 other ranks killed and 107 wounded and 1 missing, a remarkably small total. Among the mortally wounded was Major de Rothschild, who fell within sight of some of the Jewish colonies which his family had founded. Two hundred and sixty-five horses and two mules were killed and wounded in the action.

Mughar was a great cavalry triumph, and the regiments which took part in it confirmed the good opinions formed of them in this theatre of war. The Dorsets had already made a spirited charge against the Senussi in the Western Desert in 1916,[1] and having suffered from the white arm once those misguided Arabs never gave the cavalry another chance of getting near them. The Bucks and Berks, too, had taken part in that swift and satisfactory campaign. All three regiments on the following day were to make another charge, this time on one of the most famous sites in the battle history of Palestine. The 6th Mounted Brigade moved no farther on the day of Mughar because the 22nd Mounted Brigade, when commencing an attack on Akir, the old Philistine city of Ekron, were counter-attacked on their left. During the night, however, the Turks in Akir probably heard the full story of Mughar, and did not wait long for a similar action against them. The 22nd Mounted Brigade drove them out early next morning, and they went rapidly away across the railway at Naaneh, leaving in our hands the railway guard of seventy men, and seeking the bold crest of Abu Shushe. They moved, as I shall presently tell, out of the frying-pan into the fire.

[Footnote 1: The Desert Campaigns: Constable.]

The 155th Infantry which helped to finish up the Mughar business took a gun and fourteen machine guns. Then with the remainder of the 52nd Division it had a few hours of hard-earned rest. The Division had had a severe time, but the men bore their trials with the fortitude of their race and with a spirit which could not be beaten. For several days, when water was holding up the cavalry, the Lowlanders kept ahead of the mounted troops, and one battalion fought and marched sixty-nine miles in seven days. Their training was as complete as any infantry, even the regimental stretcher-bearers being taught the use of Lewis guns, and on more than one occasion the bearers went for the enemy with Mills bombs till a position was captured and they were required to tend the wounded. A Stokes-gun crew found their weapon very useful in open warfare, and at one place where machine guns had got on to a large party of Turks and enclosed them in a box barrage, the Stokes gun searched every corner of the area and finished the whole party. The losses inflicted by the Scots were exceptionally severe. Farther eastwards on the 13th, the 75th Division had also been giving of its best. The objective of this Division was the important Junction Station on the Turks' Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, and a big step forward was made in the early afternoon by the overcoming of a stubborn resistance at Mesmiyeh, troops rushing the village from the south and capturing 292 prisoners and 7 machine guns. The 234th Brigade began an advance on Junction Station during the night, but were strongly counter-attacked and had to halt till the morning, when at dawn they secured the best positions on the rolling downs west of the station, and by 7.30 the station itself was occupied. Two engines and 45 vehicles were found intact; two large guns on trucks and over 100 prisoners were also taken. The enemy shelled the station during the morning, trying in vain to damage his lost rolling stock. This booty was of immense value to us, and to a large extent it solved the transport problem which at this moment was a very anxious one indeed. The line was metre gauge and we had no stock to fit it, though later the Egyptian State Railways brought down some engines and trucks from the Luxor-Assouan section, but this welcome aid was not available till after the rains had begun and had made lorry traffic temporarily impossible between our standard gauge railhead and our fighting front. Junction Station was no sooner occupied than a light-railway staff under Colonel O'Brien was brought up from Beit Hanun. The whole of the line to Deir Sineid was not in running order, but broken culverts were given minor repairs, attention was bestowed on trucks, and the engines were closely examined while the Turks were shelling the station. The water tanks had been destroyed, as a result of which two men spent hours in filling up the engines by means of a water jug and basin found in the station buildings, and the Turks had the mortification of seeing these engines steam out of the station during the morning to a cutting which was effective cover from their field-gun fire. The light-railway staff were highly delighted at their success, and the trains which they soon had running over their little system were indeed a boon and a blessing to the fighting men and horses.

On this morning of November 14 the infantry were operating with Desert Mounted Corps' troops on both their wings. The Australian Mounted Division was on the right, fighting vigorous actions with the enemy rearguards secreted in the irregular, rocky foothills of the Shephelah which stand as ramparts to the Judean Mountains. It was a difficult task to drive the Turks out of these fastnesses, and while they held on to them it was almost impossible to outflank some of the places like Et Tineh, a railway station and camp of some importance on the line to Beersheba. They had already had some stiff fighting at Tel el Safi, the limestone hill which was the White Guard of the Crusaders. The Division suffered severely from want of water, particularly the 5th Mounted Brigade, and it was necessary to transfer to it the 7th Mounted Brigade and the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade. On the left of the infantry the Yeomanry Mounted Division was moving forward from Akir and Mansura, and after the 22nd Mounted Brigade had taken Naaneh they detailed a demolition party to blow up one mile of railway, so that, even if the 75th Division had not taken Junction Station, Jerusalem would have been entirely cut off from railway communication with the Turkish base at Tul Keram, and Haifa and Damascus.

Between Naaneh and Mansura the 6th Mounted Brigade was preparing for another dashing charge. The enemy who had been opposing us for two days consisted of remnants of two divisions of both the Turkish VIIth and VIIIth Armies brought together and hurriedly reorganised. The victory at Mughar had almost, if not quite, split the force in two, that is to say that portion of the line which had been given the duty of holding Mughar had been so weakened by heavy casualties, and the loss of moral consequent upon the shock of the cavalry charge, that it had fallen back to Ramleh and Ludd and was incapable of further serious resistance. There was still a strong and virile force on the seaside, though that was adequately dealt with, but the centre was very weak, and the enemy's only chance of preventing the mounted troops from working through and round his right centre was to fall back on Abu Shushe and Tel Jezar to cover Latron, with its good water supply and the main metalled road where it enters the hills on the way to Jerusalem. The loss of Tel Jezar meant that we could get to Latron and the Vale of Ajalon, and the action of the 6th Mounted Brigade on the morning of the 14th gave it to us.

The Berks Yeomanry had had outposts on the railway south-east of Naaneh since before dawn. They had seen the position the previous day, and at dawn sent forward a squadron dismounted to engage the machine guns posted in the walled-in house at the north of the village. From the railway to the Abu Shushe ridge is about three miles of up and down country with two or three rises of sufficient height to afford some cover to advancing cavalry. General Godwin arranged that six machine guns should go forward to give covering fire, and, supported by the Berks battery R.H.A. from a good position half a mile west of the railway, the Bucks Hussars were to deliver a mounted attack against the hill, with the assistance on their left of two squadrons of Berks Yeomanry. The Dorset Yeomanry were moved up to the red hill of Melat into support.

At seven o'clock the attack started, the 22nd Mounted Brigade operating on foot on the left. The Bucks Hussars, taking advantage of all the dead ground, galloped about a mile and a half until they came to a dip behind a gently rising mound, when, it being clear that the enemy held the whole ridge in strength, Colonel Cripps signalled to Brigade Headquarters at Melat for support. The Dorset Yeomanry moved out to the right of the Bucks, and the latter then charged the hill a little south of the village and captured it. It was a fine effort. The sides of the hill were steep with shelves of rock, and the crest was a mass of stones and boulders, while from some caves, one or two of them quite big places, the Turks had machine guns in action. When the Bucks were charging there was a good deal of machine-gun fire from the right, but the Dorsets dealt with this very speedily, assisted by the Berks battery which had also moved forward to a near position from which they could command the ridge in flank. A hostile counter-attack developed against the Dorsets, but this was crushed by the Berks battery and some of the 52nd Division's guns. Two squadrons of the Berks Yeomanry in the meantime had charged on the left of the Bucks and secured the hill immediately to the south-east of Abu Shushe village, and at nine o'clock the whole of this strong position was in our hands, the brigade having sustained the extremely slight casualties of three officers and thirty-four other ranks killed and wounded. So small a cost of life was a wonderful tribute to good and dashing leading, and furnished another example of cavalry's power when moving rapidly in extended formation. To the infinite regret of the brigade, indeed of the whole of General Allenby's Army, one of the officers killed that day was the Hon. Neil Primrose, an intrepid leader who, leaving the comfort and safety of a Ministerial appointment, answered the call of duty to be with his squadron of the Bucks Hussars. He was a fine soldier and a favourite among his men, and he died as a good cavalryman would wish, shot through the head when leading his squadron in a glorious charge. His body rests in the garden of the French convent at Ramleh not far from the spot where humbler soldiers take their long repose, and these graves within visual range of the tomb of St. George, our patron saint, will stand as memorials of those Britons who forsook ease to obey the stern call of duty to their race and country.

The overwhelming nature of this victory is illustrated by a comparison of the losses on the two sides. Whereas ours were 37 all told, we counted between 400 and 500 dead Turks on the field, and the enemy left with us 360 prisoners and some material. The extraordinary disparity between the losses can only be accounted for first by the care taken to lead the cavalry along every depression in the ground, and secondly by rapidity of movement. The cavalry were confronted by considerable shell fire, and the volume of machine-gun fire was heavy, though it was kept down a good deal by the covering fire of the 17th Machine Gun Squadron.

I have referred to the importance of Jezar as dominating the approaches to Latron on the north-east and Ramleh on the north-west. Jezar, as we call it on our maps, has been a stronghold since men of all races and creeds, coloured and white, Pagan, Mahomedan, Jew, and Christian, fought in Palestine. It is a spot which many a great leader of legions has coveted, and to its military history our home county yeomen have added another brilliant page. Let me quote the description of Jezar from George Adam Smith's Historical Geography of the Holy Land, a book of fascinating interest to all students of the Sacred History which many of the soldiers in General Allenby's Army read with great profit to themselves:

'One point in the Northern Shephelah round which these tides of war have swept deserves special notice - Gezer, or Gazar. It is one of the few remarkable bastions which the Shephelah flings out to the west - on a ridge running towards Ramleh, the most prominent object in view of the traveller from Jaffa towards Jerusalem. It is high and isolated, but fertile and well watered - a very strong post and striking landmark. Its name occurs in the Egyptian correspondence of the fourteenth century, where it is described as being taken from the Egyptian vassals by the tribes whose invasion so agitates that correspondence. A city of the Canaanites, under a king of its own - Horam - Gezer is not given as one of Joshua's conquests, though the king is; but the Israelites drave not out the Canaanites who dwelt at Gezer, and in the hands of these it remained till its conquest by Egypt when Pharaoh gave it, with his daughter, to Solomon and Solomon rebuilt it. Judas Maccabeus was strategist enough to gird himself early to the capture of Gezer, and Simon fortified it to cover the way to the harbour of Joppa and caused John his son, the captain of the host, to dwell there. It was virtually, therefore, the key of Judea at a time when Judea's foes came down the coast from the north; and, with Joppa, it formed part of the Syrian demands upon the Jews. But this is by no means the last of it. M. Clermont Ganneau, who a number of years ago discovered the site, has lately identified Gezer with the Mont Gisart of the Crusades. Mont Gisart was a castle and feif in the county of Joppa, with an abbey of St. Katharine of Mont Gisart, "whose prior was one of the five suffragans of the Bishop of Lydda." It was the scene, on the 24th November 1174, seventeen years before the Third Crusade, of a victory won by a small army from Jerusalem under the boy-king, the leper Baldwin IV., against a very much larger army under Saladin himself, and, in 1192, Saladin encamped upon it during his negotiations for a truce with Richard.

'Shade of King Horam, what hosts of men have fallen round that citadel of yours. On what camps and columns has it looked down through the centuries, since first you saw the strange Hebrews burst with the sunrise across the hills, and chase your countrymen down Ajalon - that day when the victors felt the very sun conspiring with them to achieve the unexampled length of battle. Within sight of every Egyptian and every Assyrian invasion of the land, Gezer has also seen Alexander pass by, and the legions of Rome in unusual flight, and the armies of the Cross struggle, waver and give way, and Napoleon come and go. If all could rise who have fallen around its base - Ethiopians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Arabs, Turcomans, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Saxons, Mongols - what a rehearsal of the Judgment Day it would be. Few of the travellers who now rush across the plain realise that the first conspicuous hill they pass in Palestine is also one of the most thickly haunted - even in that narrow land into which history has so crowded itself. But upon the ridge of Gezer no sign of all this now remains, except in the Tel Jezer, and in a sweet hollow to the north, beside a fountain, where lie the scattered Christian stone of Deir Warda, the Convent of the Rose.

'Up none of the other valleys of the Shephelah has history surged as up and down Ajalon and past Gezer, for none are so open to the north, nor present so easy a passage to Jerusalem.'