CHAPTER XVIII. BY THE BANKS OF THE JORDAN

We have seen how impregnable the defences of Jerusalem had become as the result of the big advance northwards at the end of December. As far as any military forecast could be made we were now in an impenetrable position whatever force the Turk, with his poor communications, could employ against us either from the direction of Nablus or from the east of the Jordan. There seemed to be no risk whatever, so long as we chose to hold the line XXth Corps had won, of the Turks again approaching Jerusalem, but the Commander-in-Chief determined to make the situation absolutely safe by advancing eastwards to capture Jericho and the crossings of the Jordan. This was not solely a measure of precaution. It certainly did provide a means for preventing the foe from operating in the stern, forbidding, desolate, and awe-inspiring region which has been known as the Wilderness since Biblical days, and doubtless before. In that rough country it would be extremely difficult to stop small bands of enterprising troops getting through a line and creating diversions which, while of small military consequence, would have been troublesome, and might have had the effect of unsettling the natives. A foothold in the Jordan valley would have the great advantage of enabling us to threaten the Hedjaz railway, the Turks' sole means of communication with Medina, where their garrison was holding out staunchly against the troops of the King of the Hedjaz, and any assistance we could give the King's army would have a far-reaching effect on neutral Arabs. It would also stop the grain trade on the Dead Sea, on which the enemy set store, and would divert traffic in foodstuffs to natives in Lower Palestine, who at this time were to a considerable extent dependent on supplies furnished by our Army. The Quartermaster-General carried many responsibilities on his shoulders. Time was not the important factor, and as General Allenby was anxious to avoid an operation which might involve heavy losses, it was at first proposed that the enemy should be forced to leave Jericho by the gradually closing in on the town from north and south. The Turks had got an immensely strong position about Talat ed Dumm, the 'Mound of Blood,' where stands a ruined castle of the Crusaders, the Chastel Rouge. One can see it with the naked eye from the Mount of Olives, and weeks before the operation started I stood in the garden of the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria hospice and, looking over one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, could easily make out the Turks walking on the road near the Khan, which has been called the Good Samaritan Inn. The country has indeed been rightly named. Gaunt, bare mountains of limestone with scarcely a patch of green to relieve the nakedness of the land make a wilderness indeed, and one sees a drop of some four thousand feet in a distance of about fifteen miles. The hills rise in continuous succession, great ramparts of the Judean range, and instead of valleys between them there are huge clefts in the rock, hundreds of feet deep, which carry away the winter torrents to the Jordan and Dead Sea. Over beyond the edge of hills are the green wooded banks of the Sacred River, then a patch or two of stunted trees, and finally the dark walls of the mountains of Moab shutting out the view of the land which still holds fascinating remains of Greek civilisation.

But there was no promise of an early peep at such historic sights, and the problem of getting at the nearer land was hard enough for present deliberation. It was at first proposed that the whole of the XXth Corps and a force of cavalry should carry out operations simultaneously on the north and east of the Corps front which should give us possession of the roads from Mar Saba and Muntar, and also from Taiyibeh and the old Roman road to Jericho, thus allowing two cavalry forces supported by infantry columns to converge on Jericho from the north and south. However, by the second week of February there had been bad weather, and the difficulties of supplying a line forty miles from the railway on roads which, notwithstanding a vast amount of labour, were still far from good, were practically insuperable, and it was apparent that a northerly and easterly advance at the same time would involve a delay of three weeks.

New circumstances came to light after the advance was first arranged, and these demanded that the enemy should be driven across the Jordan as soon as possible. General Allenby decided that the operations should be carried out in two phases. The first was an easterly advance to thrust the enemy from his position covering Jericho, to force him across the Jordan, and to obtain control of the country west of the river. The northerly advance to secure the line of the wadi Aujah was to follow. This river Aujah which flows into the Jordan must not be confused with the Auja on the coast already described.

The period of wet weather was prolonged, and the accumulation of supplies of rations and ammunition did not permit of operations commencing before February 19. That they started so early is an eloquent tribute to the hard work of the Army, for the weather by the date of the attack had improved but little, and the task of getting up stores could only be completed by extraordinary exertions. General Chetwode ordered a brigade of the 60th Division to capture Mukhmas as a preliminary to a concentration at that place. On the 19th the Division occupied a front of about fourteen miles from near Muntar, close to which the ancient road from Bethlehem to Jericho passes, through Ras Umm Deisis, across the Jerusalem-Jericho road to Arak Ibrahim, over the great chasm of the wadi Farah which has cliff-like sides hundreds of feet deep, to the brown knob of Ras et Tawil. The line was not gained without fighting. The Turks did not oppose us at Muntar - the spot where the Jews released the Scapegoat - but there was a short contest for Ibrahim, and a longer fight lasting till the afternoon for an entrenched position a mile north of it; Ras et Tawil was ours by nine in the morning. Tawil overlooks a track which has been trodden from time immemorial. It leads from the Jordan valley north-west of Jericho, and passes beneath the frowning height of Jebel Kuruntul with its bare face relieved by a monastery built into the rock about half-way up, and a walled garden on top to mark the Mount of Temptation, as the pious monks believe it to be. The track then proceeds westwards, winding in and out of the tremendous slits in rock, to Mukhmas, and it was probably along this rough line that the Israelites marched from their camp at Gilgal to overthrow the Philistines. On the right of the Londoners were two brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division, working through the most desolate hills and wadis down to the Dead Sea with a view to pushing up by Nebi Musa, which tradition has ascribed as the burial place of Moses, and thence into the Jordan valley. Northward of the 60th Division the 53rd was extending its flank eastwards to command the Taiyibeh-Jericho road, and the Welsh troops occupied Rummon, a huge mount of chalk giving a good view of the Wilderness. This was the position on the night of 19th February.

At dawn on the 20th the Londoners were to attack the Turks in three columns. The right column was to march from El Muntar to Ekteif, the centre column to proceed along the Jerusalem-Jericho road between the highway and the wadi Farah, and the left column was to go forward by the Tawil-Jebel Kuruntul track. The 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade were, if possible, to make Nebi Musa.

The infantry attack was as fine as anything done in the campaign. I had the advantage of witnessing the centre column carry out the whole of its task and of seeing the right column complete as gallant an effort as any troops could make, and as one saw them scale frowning heights and clamber up and down the roughest of torrent beds, one realised that more than three months' fighting had not removed the 'bloom' from these Cockney warriors, and that their physique and courage were proof against long and heavy trials of campaigning. The chief objective of the centre column was Talat ed Dumm which, lying on the Jericho road just before the junction of the old and the new road to the Jordan valley, was the key to Jericho. It is hard to imagine a better defensive position. To the north of the road is the wadi Farah, a great crack in the rocks which can only be crossed in a few places, and which a few riflemen could cover. Likewise a platoon distributed behind rocks on the many hills could command the approaches from all directions, while the hill of Talat ed Dumm, by the Good Samaritan Inn, and the height whereon the Crusader ruins stand, dominated a broad flat across which our troops must move. This position the 180th Brigade attacked at dawn. The guns opened before the sun appeared above the black crest line of the mountains of Moab, and well before long shadows were cast across the Jordan valley the batteries were tearing to pieces the stone walls and rocky eyries sheltering machine-gunners and infantry. This preliminary bombardment, if short, was wonderfully effective. From where I stood I saw the heavies pouring an unerring fire on to the Crusader Castle, huge spurts of black smoke, and the dislocation of big stones which had withstood the disintegrating effect of many centuries of sun power, telling the Forward Observing Officer that his gunners were well on the target and that to live in that havoc the Turks must seek the shelter of vaults cut deep down in the rock by masons of old. No enemy could delay our progress from that shell-torn spot. Lighter guns searched other positions and whiffs of shrapnel kept Turks from their business. There are green patches on the western side of Talat ed Dumm in the early months of the year before the sun has burned up the country. Over these the infantry advanced as laid down in the book. The whirring rap-rap of machine guns at present unlocated did not stop them, and as our machine-gun sections, ever on the alert to keep down rival automatic guns, found out and sprayed the nests, the enemy was seen to be anxious about his line of retreat. One large party, harried by shrapnel and machine-gun fire, left its positions and rushed towards a defile, but rallied and came back, though when it reoccupied its former line the Londoners had reached a point to enfilade it, and it suffered heavily. We soon got this position, and then our troops, ascending some spurs, poured a destructive fire into the defile and so harassed the Turks re-forming for a counterattack as to render feeble their efforts to regain what they had lost.

By eight o'clock we had taken the whole of the Talat ed Dumm position, and long-range sniping throughout the day did not disturb our secure possession of it. Immediately the heights were occupied the guns went ahead to new points, and armoured cars left the road to try to find a way to the south-east to protect the flank of the right column. They had a troublesome journey. Some of the crews walked well ahead of the cars to reconnoitre the tracks, and it speaks well for the efficiency of the cars as well as for the pluck and cleverness of the drivers that in crossing a mile or two of that terribly broken mountainous country no car was overturned and all got back to the road without mishap.

Throughout the night and during the greater part of the day of February 20 the right column were fighting under many difficulties. In their march from the hill of Muntar they had to travel over ground so cracked and strewn with boulders that in many parts the brigade could only proceed in single file. In some places the track chosen had a huge cleft in the mountain on one side and a cliff face on the other. It was a continual succession of watercourses and mountains, of uphill and downhill travel over the most uneven surface in the blackness of night, and it took nearly eight hours to march three miles. The nature of the country was a very serious obstacle and the column was late in deploying for attack. But bad as was the route the men had followed during the night, it was easy as compared with the position they had set out to carry. This was Jebel Ekteif, the southern end of the range of hills of which Talat ed Dumm was the northern. Ekteif presented to this column a face as precipitous as Gibraltar and perhaps half as high. There was a ledge running round it about three-quarters of the way from the top, and for hours one could see the Turks lying flat on this rude path trying to pick off the intrepid climbers attempting a precarious ascent. Some mountain guns suddenly ranged on the enemy on this ledge, and, picking up the range with remarkable rapidity, forced the Turks into more comfortable positions. The enemy, too, had some well-served guns, and they plastered the spurs leading to the crest from the west, but our infantry's audacity never faltered, and after we had got into the first lines on the hill our men proceeded methodically to rout out the machine guns from their nooks and crannies. This was a somewhat lengthy process, but small parties working in support of each other gradually crushed opposition, and the huge rocky rampart was ours by three o'clock in the afternoon. Meanwhile two brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division were moving eastwards from Muntar over the hills and wadis down to the Dead Sea, whence turning northwards they marched towards Nebi Musa to try to get on to the Jordan valley flats to threaten the Turks in rear. The terrain was appallingly bad and horses had to be led, the troops frequently proceeding in Indian file. No guns could be got over the hills to support the Anzacs, and when they tried to pass through a narrow defile south of Nebi Musa it was found that the enemy covered the approach with machine guns, and progress was stopped dead until, during the early hours of the following morning, some of the Londoners' artillery managed by a superhuman effort to get a few guns over the mountains to support the cavalry. By this time the Turks had had enough of it, and while it was dark they were busy trekking through Jericho towards the Ghoraniyeh bridge over the river, covered by a force on the Jebel Kuruntul track which prevented the left column from reaching the cliffs overlooking the Jordan valley. By dawn on the 21st Nebi Musa was made good, the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Brigade were in Jericho by eight o'clock and had cleared the Jordan valley as far north as the river Aujah, the Londoners holding the line of cliffs which absolutely prevented any possibility of the enemy ever again threatening Jerusalem or Bethlehem from the east. This successful operation also put an end to the Turks' Dead Sea grain traffic. They had given up hope of keeping their landing place on the northern shores of the Dead Sea when we took Talat ed Dumm, and one hour after our infantry had planted themselves on the Hill of Blood we saw the enemy burning his boats, wharves, and storehouses at Rujm el Bahr, where he had expended a good deal of labour to put up buildings to store grain wanted for his army. Subsequently we had some naval men operating motor boats from this point, and these sailors achieved a record on that melancholy waterway at a level far below that at which any submarine, British or German, ever rested.