CHAPTER XVII. A GREAT FEAT OF WAR

From the story of how Jerusalem was made secure (for we may hope the clamour of war has echoed for the last time about her Holy Shrines and venerable walls) we may turn back to the coastal sector and see how the XXIst Corps improved a rather dangerous situation and laid the foundations for the biggest break-through of the world struggle. For it was the preparations in this area which made possible General Allenby's tremendous gallop through Northern Palestine and Syria, and gave the Allies Haifa, Beyrout, and Tripoli on the seaboard, and Nazareth, Damascus, and Aleppo in the interior. The foundations were soundly laid when the XXIst Corps crossed the Auja before Christmas 1917, and the superstructure of the victory which put Turkey as well as Bulgaria and Austria out of the war was built up with many difficulties from the sure base provided by the XXIst Corps line. The crossing of the Auja was a great feat of war, and this is the first time I am able to mention the names of those to whom the credit of the operation is due. It was one of the strange regulations of the Army Council in connection with the censorship that no names of the commanders of army corps, divisions, brigades, or battalions should be mentioned by correspondents. Nor indeed was I permitted to identify in my despatches any particular division, yet the divisions concerned - the 52nd, 53rd, 54th, 60th, and so on - had often been mentioned in official despatches; the enemy not only knew they were in Palestine but were fully aware of their positions in the line; their commanders and brigadiers were known by name to the Turks. On the other hand, in describing a certain battle I was allowed to speak of divisions of Lowland troops, Welshmen and Londoners, allusions which would convey (if there were anything to give away) precisely as much information to the dull old Turk and his sharper Hun companion in arms as though the 52nd, 53rd, and 60th Divisions had been explicitly designated. This practice seemed in effect to be designed more with the object of keeping our people at home in the dark, of forbidding them glory in the deeds of their children and brothers, than of preventing information reaching the enemy. Some gentleman enthroned in the authority of an official armchair said 'No,' and there was an end of it. You could not get beyond him. His decision was final, complete - and silly - and the correspondent was bound hand and foot by it. Doubtless he would have liked one to plead on the knee for some little relaxation of his decision. Then he would have answered 'No' in a louder tone. Let me give one example from a number entered in my notebooks of how officers at home exercised their authority. In January 1917 the military railway from the Suez Canal had been constructed across the Sinai Desert and the first train was run into El Arish, about ninety miles from the Canal. I was asked by General Headquarters to send a cablegram to London announcing the fact that railhead was at El Arish, the town having been captured a fortnight previously after a fine night march. That message was never published, and I knew it was a waste of time to ask the reason. I happened to be in London for a few days in the following August and my duties took me to the War Office. A Colonel in the Intelligence Branch heard I was there and sent for me to tell me I had sent home information of value to the enemy. I reminded him there was a G.H.Q. censorship in Egypt which dealt with my cablegrams, and asked the nature of the valuable information which should have been concealed. 'You sent a telegram that the railway had reached El Arish when the Turks did not know it was beyond Bir el Abd.' Abd is fifty miles nearer the Suez Canal than El Arish. What did this officer care about a request made by G.H.Q. to transmit information to the British public? He knew better than G.H.Q. what the British public should know, and he was certain the enemy thought we were hauling supplies through those fifty miles of sand to our troops at El Arish, an absolutely physical impossibility, for there were not enough camels in the East to do it. But he did not know, and he should have known, being an Intelligence officer, that the Turks were so far aware of where our railhead was that they were frequently bombing it from the air. I had been in these bombing raids and knew how accurately the German airmen dropped their eggs, and had this Intelligence officer taken the trouble to inquire he would have found that between thirty and forty casualties were inflicted by one bomb at El Arish itself when railhead was being constructed. This critic imagined that the Turk knew only what the English papers told him. If the Turks' knowledge had been confined to what the War Office Intelligence Branch gave him credit for he would have been in a parlous state. While this ruling of the authorities at home prevailed it was impossible for me to give the names of officers or to mention divisions or units which were doing exceptionally meritorious work. Unfortunately the bureaucratic interdict continued till within a few days of the end of the campaign, when I was told that, 'having frequently referred to the work of the Australians, which was deserved,' the mention of British and Indian units would be welcomed. We had to wait until within a month of the end of the world war before the War Office would unbend and realise the value of the best kind of propaganda. No wonder our American friends consider us the worst national advertisers in the world.

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.

The XXIst Corps' plan was as follows: At dawn on December 21 a heavy bombardment was to open on all the enemy's trenches covering the crossings, the fire of heavy guns to be concentrated on enemy batteries and strong positions in the rear, while ships of the Royal Navy bombarded two strong artillery positions at Tel el Rekket and El Jelil, near the coast. When darkness fell covering troops were to be ferried across the river, and then light bridges would be constructed for the passage of larger units charged with the task of getting the Turks out of their line from Hadrah, through El Mukras to Tel el Rekket. After these positions had been gained the engineers were to build pontoon bridges to carry the remainder of the Division and guns on the night of the 22nd-23rd December, in time to advance at daylight on the 23rd to secure a defensive line from Tel el Mukhmar through Sheikh el Ballatar to Jelil. On the right of the 52nd Division the 54th Division was to attack Bald Hill on the night of 21st-22nd December, and on the following morning assault the trench system covering Mulebbis and Fejja; then later in the day to advance to Rantieh, while the 75th Division farther east was to attack Bireh and Beida. This plan was given to divisional commanders at a conference in Jaffa on December 12. Two days later General Hill submitted another scheme which provided for a surprise attack by night with no naval or land artillery bombardment, such a demonstration being likely to attract attention. General Hill submitted his proposals in detail. General Bulfin gave the plan most careful consideration, but decided that to base so important an operation on the success of a surprise attack was too hazardous, and he adhered to his scheme of a deliberate operation to be carried through systematically. He, however, gave General Hill permission to carry out his surprise attack on the night of December 20, but insisted that the bombardment should begin according to programme at daylight on the 21st unless the surprise scheme was successful.

A brigade of the 54th Division and the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade relieved the Scots in the trenches for three nights before the attempt. Every man in the Lowland Division entered upon the work of preparation with whole-hearted enthusiasm. There was much to be done and materials were none too plentiful. Pontoons were wired for and reached Jaffa on the 16th. There was little wood available, and some old houses in Jaffa were pulled down to supply the Army's needs. The material was collected in the orange groves around the German colony at Sarona, a northern suburb of Jaffa, and every man who could use a tool was set to work to build a framework of rectangular boats to a standard design, and on this framework of wood tarpaulins and canvas were stretched. These boats were light in structure, and were so designed that working parties would be capable of transferring them from their place of manufacture to the river bank. Each boat was to carry twenty men fully armed and equipped over the river. They became so heavy with rain that they in fact only carried sixteen men. The boat builders worked where enemy airmen could not see them, and when the craft were completed the troops were practised at night in embarking and ferrying across a waterway - for this purpose the craft were put on a big pond - and in cutting a path through thick cactus hedges in the dark. During these preparations the artillery was also active. They took their guns up to forward positions during the night, and before the date of the attack there was a bombardment group of eight 6-inch howitzers and a counter battery group of ten 60-pounders and one 6-inch Mark VII. gun in concealed positions, and the artillery dumps had been filled with 400 rounds for each heavy gun and 700 rounds for each field piece. The weather on the 18th, 19th, and 20th December was most unfavourable. Rain was continuous and the valley of the Auja became a morass. The luck of the weather was almost always against General Allenby's Army, and the troops had become accustomed to fighting the elements as well as the Turks, but here was a situation where rain might have made all the difference between success and failure. General Bulfin saw General Hill and his brigadiers on the afternoon of the 20th. The brigadiers were depressed owing to the floods and the state of the ground, because it was then clear that causeways would have to be made through the mud to the river banks. General Hill remained enthusiastic and hopeful and, the Corps Commander supporting him, it was decided to proceed with the operation. For several nights, with the object of giving the enemy the impression of a nightly strafe, there had been artillery and machine-gun demonstrations occurring about the same time and lasting as long as those planned for the night of the crossing. After dusk on December 20 there was a big movement behind our lines. The ferrying and bridging parties got on the move, each by their particular road, and though the wind was searchingly cold and every officer and man became thoroughly drenched, there was not a sick heart in the force. The 157th Brigade proceeded to the ford at the mouth of the Auja, the 156th Brigade advanced towards the river just below Muannis, and the 155th Brigade moved up to the mill and dam at Jerisheh, where it was to secure the crossing and then swing to the right to capture Hadrah. The advance was slow, but that the Scots were able to move at all is the highest tribute to their determination. The rain-soaked canvas of the boats had so greatly added to their weight that the parties detailed to carry them from the Sarona orange orchards found the task almost beyond their powers. The bridge rafts for one of the crossings could not be got up to the river bank because the men were continually slipping in the mud under the heavy load, and the attacking battalion at this spot was ferried over in coracles. On another route a section carrying a raft lost one of its number, who was afterwards found sunk in mud up to his outstretched arms. The tracks were almost impassable, and a Lancashire pioneer battalion was called up to assist in improving them. The men became caked with mud from steel helmet to boots, and the field guns which had to be hauled by double teams were so bespattered that there was no need for camouflage. In those strenuous hours of darkness the weather continued vile, and the storm wind flung the frequent heavy showers with cutting force against the struggling men. The covering party which was to cross at the ford found the bar had shifted under the pressure of flood water and that the marks put down to direct the column had been washed away. The commanding officer reconnoitred, getting up to his neck in water, and found the ford considerably out of position and deeper than he had hoped, but he brought his men together in fours and, ordering each section to link arms to prevent the swirling waters carrying them out to sea, led them across without a casualty. In the other places the covering parties of brigades began to be ferried over at eight o'clock. The first raft-loads were paddled across with muffled oars. A line was towed behind the boats, and this being made fast on either side of the river the rafts crossed and recrossed by haulage on the rope, in order that no disturbance on the surface by oars on even such a wild night should cause an alarm. As soon as the covering parties were over, light bridges to carry infantry in file were constructed by lashing the rafts together and placing planks on them. One of these bridges was burst by the strength of the current, but the delay thus caused mattered little as the surprise was complete. When the bridges of rafts had been swung and anchored, blankets and carpets were laid upon them to deaden the fall of marching feet, and during that silent tramp across the rolling bridges many a keen-witted Scot found it difficult to restrain a laugh as he trod on carpets richer by far than any that had lain in his best parlour at home. He could not see the patterns, but rightly guessed that they were picked out in the bright colours of the East, and the muddy marks of war-travelled men were left on them without regret, for the carpets had come from German houses in Sarona. How perfectly the operation was conducted - noiselessly, swiftly, absolutely according to time-table - may be gathered from the fact that two officers and sixteen Turks were awakened in their trench dug-outs at the ford by the river mouth two hours after we had taken the trenches. The officers resisted and had to be killed. Two miles behind the river the Lowlanders captured the whole garrison of a post near the sea, none of whom had the slightest idea that the river had been crossed. An officer commanding a battalion at Muannis was taken in his bed, whilst another commanding officer had the surprise of his life on being invited to put his hands up in his own house. He looked as if he had just awakened from a nightmare. In one place some Turks on being attacked with the bayonet shouted an alarm and one of the crossings was shelled, but its position was immediately changed and the passage of the river continued without interruption. The whole of the Turkish system covering the river, trenches well concealed in the river banks and in patches of cultivated land, were rushed in silence and captured. Muannis was taken at the point of the bayonet, the strong position at Hadrah was also carried in absolute silence, and at daylight the whole line the Scots had set out to gain was won and the assailants were digging themselves in. And the price of their victory? The Scots had 8 officers and 93 other ranks casualties. They buried over 100 Turkish dead and took 11 officers and 296 other ranks prisoners, besides capturing ten machine guns.

The forcing of the passage of the Auja was a magnificent achievement, planned with great ability by General Hill and carried out with that skill and energy which the brigadiers, staff, and all ranks of the Division showed throughout the campaign. One significant fact serves to illustrate the Scots' discipline. Orders were that not a shot was to be fired except by the guns and machine guns making their nightly strafe. Death was to be dealt out with the bayonet, and though the Lowlanders were engaged in a life and death struggle with the Turks, not a single round of rifle ammunition was used by them till daylight came, when, as a keen marksman said, they had some grand running-man practice. During the day some batteries got to the north bank by way of the ford, and two heavy pontoon bridges were constructed and a barrel bridge, which had been put together in a wadi flowing into the Auja, was floated down and placed in position. There was a good deal of shelling by the Turks, but they fired at our new positions and interfered but little with the bridge construction.

On the night of the 21st-22nd December the 54th Division assaulted Bald Hill, a prominent mound south of the Auja from which a magnificent view of the country was gained. Stiff fighting resulted, but the enemy was driven off with a loss of 4 officers and 48 other ranks killed, and 3 officers and 41 men taken prisoners. At dawn the Division reported that the enemy was retiring from Mulebbis and Fejja, and those places were soon in our hands. H.M.S. Grafton, with Admiral T. Jackson, the monitors M29, M31, and M32, and the destroyers Lapwing and Lizard, arrived off the coast and shelled Jelil and Arsuf, and the 52nd Division, advancing on a broad front, occupied the whole of their objectives by five o'clock in the afternoon. The 157th Brigade got all the high ground about Arsuf, and thus prevented the enemy from obtaining a long-range view of Jaffa. A few rounds of shell fired by a naval gun at a range of nearly twenty miles fell in Jaffa some months afterwards, but with this exception Jaffa was quite free from the enemy's attentions. The brilliant operation on the Auja had saved the town and its people many anxious days. By the end of the year there were three strong bridges across the river, and three others substantial enough to bear the weight of tractors and their loads were under construction. The troops received their winter clothing; bivouac shelters and tents were beginning to arrive. Baths and laundries were in operation, and the rigours of the campaign began to be eased. But the XXIst Corps could congratulate itself that, notwithstanding two months of open warfare, often fifty to sixty miles from railhead, men's rations had never been reduced. Horses and mules had had short allowances, but they could pick up a little in the country. The men were in good health, despite the hardships in the hills and rapid change from summer to winter, and their spirit could not be surpassed.