Topic: BatzS - Suez 1915
Suez Canal Attack
Egypt, January 28 - February 3, 1915
Brereton, THE BATTLE OF THE SUEZ CANAL
Illustration of the Canal Attack
[From: Brereton, C. B., Battle of Suez Canal, Reveille, Sydney. 1 July 1934, p. 25.]
The following is an extract from:
Brereton, C. B., Tales of Three Campaigns, London, Selwyn & Blount, 1926, pp. 32 - 52.
THE BATTLE OF THE SUEZ CANAL
A MAN'S first battle is an important event, and people situated as we were might be expected to spend some of their time wondering how they would feel and behave when face to face with death; but, as a matter of fact, we were so busy day and night working, sleeping, and amusing ourselves, that we thought little of it. In spite of the fact that it was so evident, we did not realize that we were on the eve of a first engagement, or we might have suffered the ordeal of waiting for it, which is thought to be the worst part.
As we gained experience of war, we found that soldiers seldom know when they are on the eve of a battle, and that expected events rarely come to pass. So we thought little of it when, on the morning of the 2nd February, my company was told off for duty, one platoon to Battery Post, another to Ismailia on police duty, and two platoons to proceed by rail to Ein Ghusein, to march from there to the Canal. These were the ordinary duties of the Brigade at the time.
A hot dust-laden khamsin had been blowing for three days, preventing our airmen seeing the movements of the enemy, and we believed he would be unlikely to shift, and we had no fresh information of any sort. When the two platoons entrained a very youthful Englishman was doing Railway Transport Officer at Ismailia, always a worrying job, and just then even more so than usual. Apart from such trifles as the heat and flies, and the dust and smells common to Egypt, his particular worry was about gun ammunition belonging to an Egyptian Battery of ten-pounders in position near Tussoum. He explained:
“They have not a round of ammunition at the guns and they must have this. Will you give me your word that you will take it to the Canal, and I will warn them to meet you and take it from you?”
He was a pleasant young fellow and I readily promised, and certainly it seemed reasonable that the guns should have some ammunition with a threatening enemy so close in front; in fact, how they came to be there at all without it was a riddle. The R.T.O. was much relieved, and we took the stuff along.
We soon reached Ein Ghusein, a few miles south, and crossing the Sweetwater Canal, marched two miles against a hot gale of wind that we could almost lean against. It was hard pushing for heavily loaded men, and we were glad enough to see our destination. A belt of firs a chain or two wide is nearly continuous along this part of the Canal, but with gaps of a few hundred yards in some places.
We reported to Headquarters 103rd Indian Brigade, and were allotted 800 yards of front along the Canal. The Brigade Major gave careful and sensible instructions, and sentries were placed at the water's edge every IS0 yards, with two pickets in rear. Our information was, “The enemy may be expected to patrol the opposite bank in ones or twos, or even to try to swim across to gain information, and this latter must be prevented. His patrols are to be closely watched, and only fired at when departing. No attack is likely.”
It would have been much more exciting for us if we had known that 12,000 Turks were even then marching towards the Canal in three columns of a Brigade each, one of which was to strike the point we were on-Turkish regular troops at that, and described in their orders as “The champions of Islam.” But we were in perfect ignorance. We were in a comfortable spot; the high bank of sand thrown up to form the Canal gave us shelter from the wind, and we were accustomed to living on the desert without tents. The firs gave us firewood, and there was plenty of food and water. It was very cheery during the evening with bright fires burning, and we were a happy little party of just a hundred men and officers. The men were pleased to be away from ordinary camp restrictions and “on their own,” and it reminded them of “camping out” in New Zealand; they were as happy as kings.
The officers and sergeants had plenty to do, taking the numerous precautions adopted for night outposts. The ground on either flank was continuously held by Indian troops, Punjabis and Gurkhas, with a territorial battery of fifteen-pounders a short distance on our right; and just beyond, among the fir trees, was Brigade Headquarters. For some strange reason no trenches had been made anywhere; not a shovelful of sand had been moved and there were no tools or material on the ground. It was a little after one in the morning before we were satisfied that everything had been done, and Sergt.-Major Glanville and I had a cup of tea and turned in, simply lying down on the sand in our overcoats when we finished our supper.
We had hardly seemed to have closed our eyes when we were awakened by the popping of machine- guns, and to our surprise a few hundred yards on our left we plainly saw the constant flashes of two guns, the alarm clock that had so suddenly aroused us. We went quickly to the left picket which was nearest to the firing, but though everyone was on the alert, nothing could be seen in the darkness in front, and
the guns were still a couple of hundred yards away.
The night was cloudy with a moon.
As I was speaking to Mr. Forsyth, in charge of No. 10, a staff officer rode up and inquired in a sarcastic tone, “What are you firing at? Nothing, I suppose,” I replied, “We are not firing, but someone else seems to be. What do you think of that?” pointing to the gun-flashes which made a continuous blaze a little way to our left front. This seemed to arouse our mounted friend, and he remarked with great emphasis, “By God! They are enemy! We haven't a machine-gun within ten miles.” With this cheerful remark he galloped off down the Canal, only to return again even more quickly in a few minutes, decidedly perturbed, exclaiming, “By God! I was nearly shot a hundred times!” And no wonder, if he had ridden twice through the stream of bullets there must have been down there among the trees. What he had hoped to find was a puzzle, but perhaps he had a legal turn of mind and wished to have material proof that our friends, whom we could see spitting fire so industriously, were also spitting bullets.
This firing began at 3.20 a.m., and there were still about two hours of darkness. For a few minutes I was busy giving instructions for the men to dig for their lives, and for the withdrawal of sentries before dawn to prevent their being caught down at the water's edge when daylight came. We also had to arrange the distribution of ten cases of reserve rifle ammunition, and while seeing to this we came on an amusing scene. The Egyptian gunners had at last arrived for their ammunition, and were trying to load it on mules which were kicking and biting. One had his load on the saddle, certainly, but it was under his girths, and he was bucking about and kicking strenuously. The Gippy is a notorious coward and would not go near, and our men looked on, laughing loudly.
Returning to No. 10 platoon, to my great amazement I found the place vacant, only the overcoats lying where the men had been. In a few moments a man came and said that Mr. Forsyth had taken half his platoon farther along the canal, thinking something unusual was happening there. This ground had been occupied earlier in the night by Indian troops. We followed our guide as hard as we could run, and as we did so we realized for the first time that we were under fire; bullets were passing and others fluttering down at our feet, evidently spent after a long journey; but, perhaps because we were very interested in following Mr. Forsyth's party, the fact seemed commonplace and natural. We found the party about 300 yards away, extended behind a number of tree stumps conveniently embedded in the sand at the water's edge; and in front of us was the dark mass of the enemy in boats crossing towards us, and only about fifty yards away. It was hardly necessary to order fire to commence, and in a moment we were shooting into the dark objects in front. The people in the boats did not fire, and though suffering cruelly, made no sound. It was apparent that they were trying to get back to the bank they had just left, and that there was confusion in the boats.
Very soon the boats that were not sunk had struggled back and the men who were able escaped up the bank. Then we saw what struck us as a very strange sight.
A line of figures suddenly appeared right across our front, every man fully exposed on our skyline and digging frantically. The shovel blades seemed to be in the air all tile time, every action being visible against the sky. It was very odd to think that these men, so busily engaged in the homely task of digging, were THE ENEMY we had come so far to meet. We certainly had never expected to get such a fine view of them. They were exactly 120 yards away, working very close together, and appearing an easy target. For about twenty minutes we did our very best to stop their digging, but perhaps we accelerated it. Anyhow, try as patiently as possible, I could not bring a man down; and others did not seem to have better luck. Some must have been hit, but the work continued furiously, until in a short time they were out of sight, and we had comparative quiet until daylight, with plenty of time to look round. There was no high bank at this place and no cover for a long distance back; but it seemed a mistake to remain at the water's edge where the tree stumps indicated our position, but would hardly keep out bullets, so we moved the little party back about twenty yards up a slight bank, and there scratched a sheltering groove a foot deep in the level desert.
There was time to think out a plan and I told the men to keep perfectly still when it came dawn, and not to fire until the word was given, which would be at least a quarter of an hour after we could see the enemy. Then everyone was to kill a man if possible.
When dawn came, and before it was light enough to shoot with any accuracy, we saw a long line of enemy rifles very close together, held upright above the bank of sand that concealed them, looking like the teeth of a ragged comb. They began to shoot at once, but we lay still with our rifles aimed, and our eyes fixed on the enemy until it was clear day, and I gave the word to fire. By this time, many Turk heads were showing, and many must have been killed; anyhow, we fairly dusted their parapets with bullets.
The fight for fire superiority was very short, although the Turk is a brave man, and many persisted, bringing their rifles slowly down to the horizontal, while at the same time raising their heads until their eyes were nearly visible, when five or six of our bullets would strike the sand in front of each man's face, causing them to disappear. We soon had the situation well in hand, and then we continued to fire at the smallest target to prevent the enemy's getting the upper hand again. This would have been fatal to all of us, as we had no cover and were greatly outnumbered.
On the bank just opposite there were four boats aground and scattered above them a great number of prostrate figures, some in heaps of four or five. Behind their front trench were a number of small sandhills fringed with scrubby bushes which concealed their supports, who were able to fire at us through a gap in their front line, but they were 300 yards away and we did not waste many bullets on them. We did not dare to raise our heads or move for fear of disclosing our position, except to work the bolts of our rifles, and this became more and more difficult on account of the sand getting into the mechanism, until at last the bolt had to be hammered forward slowly and painfully with the fist. My watch stopped and none of us knew the time, and the sun poured down on our backs, which began to ache steadily in the bowed position. Bullets were passing thickly, but the most noticeable sound was the continual sharp cracking near our ears which, though we did not know, is caused by passing bullets at short range. We could hear the English Territorial battery firing on our right, but nothing of our Egyptian gunners, with their precious ammunition.
At the most exciting time in the fight, a soldier close by became very uneasy and restless. He had discovered that he was sharing his narrow shelter with a particularly hairy and repulsive scorpion. When his comrades realized what was the matter they gave him plenty of advice. One called out, “Shoot the -,” which would have been perfectly simple if the insect had crawled out in front, but that was what he just would not do, preferring to snuggle up close to the soldier. The poor man was unable to move much for fear the enemy across the Canal would spot him, and he was too much upset to deal with the enemy at home. At last a friendly voice said, “Cut him in two with your bayonet,” and he drew his weapon and got rid of his tormentor with his first blow.
The volume of rifle fire became intense an hour or so after sunrise, indicating that a considerable battle was in progress. Before daybreak we heard sounds of serious fighting about half a mile on our left, where the Gurkhas were, and we guessed that the Turks were getting a severe handling, judging by the blood-curdling and unearthly screeches that reached us.
The Gurkha is a smiling, happy little fellow, but fierce and bloodthirsty. His favourite weapon being his kukri, he has to get to close quarters. His method is to grasp his opponent's beard, and shear him through the left shoulder to his vitals. Should he not be bearded, the nose is used as a handle instead.
Apparently some of the Turks had managed to cross, and the Gurkha was using his knife and causing the awful yells which sounded like a soul in torment escaping from the body. We saw one of these knife wounds next day, the flesh of the poor Turk being stripped to the bone from the shoulder to the wrist by a badly aimed blow.
By this time the Turks in the nearest trench were reduced to firing their rifles without aiming or showing their heads, with the effect generally of blowing up a little cloud of dust near the muzzle. For some time we wondered what caused these sudden puffs of dust just below their parapet.
Just as we were congratulating ourselves that the enemy had no guns, we heard a shell whine over and burst a long way in the rear, and we knew he was ranging on us. I must confess that my heart sank, and I put my hat on. There were no steel hats then, but one could not go bareheaded with shrapnel about. The third or fourth shell burst on the trees in the rear, and for a few hours the shooting continued with great regularity and perfect timing, traversing backwards and forwards practically harmlessly, its extraordinary accuracy being our salvation, as there were no shorts. The Egyptian battery did not fire a shot during the battle, and possibly the ammunition had not reached it, but at about 2 o'clock in the stillness of the following night, when everyone else was making up for lost sleep, they fired it off very rapidly and effectively so far as noise went.
We found four Turks were sheltering in holes at the water's edge just opposite, under the bows of a boat, and they fired at us from time to time, until at last they lost their nerve, and three of them tried to escape singly up the steep twenty-foot bank. As each scrambled up on hands and feet he was riddled with bullets and rolled back again. The fourth man remained concealed until next morning.
During the hottest of the fight a tiny torpedo-boat came down from the north with several of her people on deck. We were astonished to see this vessel steaming into such a severe rifle fight, although she was so low as to be out of sight of most of the firers. She certainly was a gallant little ship, firing a gun with a big bang as she passed. Just then the voice of one of my sergeants was heard. “Get under cover, you - fools, or you'll get shot.” They must have thought it was a general at least, for the deck was bare in a moment.
During the day there was time to notice the faces of the men in our neighbourhood. All eyes were fixed on the enemy and never taken off for a moment, but the expression was one of keen enjoyment, as would be seen at a theatre when the play was of an extraordinary and interesting nature. Two or three Gurkhas were among us constantly grinning. Away on our left I could see the faces of the Indian soldiers, and their gleaming teeth were most noticeable. In this fight we were having a good time and the enemy was under the harrow. For some hours he tried to strengthen his front line, but the supports were shot as they came up in driblets. At times we had little to fire at, and sometimes men fired at a Turk rifle and struck it out of its owner's hands, which was not likely to make him less nervous. For a short time men ran along their trench, giving us a target so like our “Running man” used in training, that at first we thought it was a ruse, and they were carrying dummies to draw fire. They were real men, however, and very hard to hit, although only 130 yards away. Our easiest shooting was during the last three or four hours of the fight, when they tried to escape one or two at a time from a particular point in their trench. It was becoming intolerable to them on account of the fire from some of the rest of my company, who were shooting down the length of their trench at long range. Most likely their officers were dead. The only German officer left on the field was found shot through the head in this trench. Major von Hagen must have been a brave man, but it was of him that the Illustrated London News said, “He was prepared for any eventuality except the one that befel him,” referring to the contents of his pockets, where, among other things useful in Egypt, was a white flag carefully folded in a khaki case. Some movement generally warned us when a man was about to try a run for his life, and as they foolishly went from the same spot, several rifles were waiting, and the man seldom got ten yards. Only one actually escaped by crawling a couple of hundred yards, and then flying for his life. He bounded along, arms and legs in the air together, and no wonder, with most of us firing and swearing at him. Another tried the same trick, but Forsyth brought him down with his first shot at 250 yards. The men laughed and clapped their hands at this. The effect was comical, because his hat spun six feet straight up into the air as he fell with a bullet through the top of his head. Several good shots were applauded during the day.
My bugler went away two or three times on messages, and I asked him later what it was like, and he replied, “Verra warm, verra warm, sir,” which we were soon to learn was no exaggeration.
About midday two companies of Punjabis crossed the Canal at Brigade Headquarters and moved down towards the enemy under cover of the steep bank, but the enemy shrapnel followed every move and we could see them ducking their heads at the bursts. This fire must have been cleverly controlled by someone on a telephone, as the Punjabis appeared to be perfectly concealed from the view of the enemy.
Nothing could have been finer than this attack by native troops; not the least hurry or any confusion, but looking exactly like a drill movement, with the long firing line, supports and reserve. The only differences were the spurts of sand about the poor fellows' faces as they lined the ridges, and the wounded and dead jerked back by their ankles down the sloping sand hills to have their wounds examined. This attack ran into something much too heavy, and it was necessary to retire with the enemy pressing pretty hard, but not hard enough to disturb the retirement in the slightest. It might have been taken as a model of a company in action, attack and retirement. We did our best to help them by rifle fire, and when the retirement began we were able to shout a warning to a small party which was in danger of being cut off.
Curiously enough a hundred or two of the enemy who had succeeded in crossing the Canal about half a mile to the left were firing into the Punjabis diagonally across our front at the same time. Most likely they were the people operating the telephone to their guns, as they would be able to see every movement as well as we did.
Native troops in action appear to like to have white men and officers near them. I was the senior officer for some distance, and at short intervals during the day voices could be heard calling, “Majure, Majure!” followed by a question in their language. Not understanding, we shouted some sort of reply, which seemed to satisfy the questioner for a time.
The two enemy machine guns which had fired before daylight were not seen or heard again. What became of them is a mystery, as they were not captured. Dead Turks with Turkish bayonets in their bodies were found where they had been firing. These may have been the gunners who made the fatal mistake and gave the alarm, or possibly they were guides who were thought to have failed in their duty.
Before midday we realized that the enemy was beaten, and most of the fire was coming from the sand hills 200 or 300 yards away, not many being left alive in their front-line trench. Our backs ached abominably, and we were so sleepy under the hot sun that most of us had a short nap.
About 2.30 p.m. an order came to close on Brigade Headquarters. We were loath to obey it, because the ground was perfectly exposed, and we saw that other troops moving behind us as a result of the order were losing a good many men. There was no choice in the matter, so I got our little party of twenty-eight men back a short distance, and then we lay flat for a few minutes to get our breath again. So far we had not drawn fire. Some 150 to 200 yards away the high Canal bank would give us safety; but there was not the slightest cover between, and we were bound to come under the fire of 200 or 300 rifles on the way.
There are several ways of making this sort of crossing, but we had been watching the effect of doing it in driblets or singly, and it was not encouraging. Each man or little party had been fired at and many hit; so it seemed advisable for us to take a gamble all together in one rush. By doing this the other people are taken by surprise, and you get a good distance before being fired at, and then, on account of the large target, the firing is hurried and inaccurate. I had the place of honour when we started, and did my best to keep it, but a few passed me. None of us is likely to forget that run, with the bullets cutting the sand and whispering in our ears, so that it was difficult to avoid wondering where one would get it. I was running neck and neck with a soldier, when he suddenly took his hat in his two hands and held it before me to show the groove of a bullet that had just scorched his forehead, exclaiming, apparently pleased, “By Christ, that was close!” It was cruel hard work, and we realized as we ran that we had had nothing to eat that day, and were stiff with lying in one position for nearly twelve hours; but it was soon over, and we reached the bank crowded with Indian wounded. There we learned that Ham was hit. Forsyth was behind him, and when he fell on his face had turned him over so that he could breathe. Forsyth and another were anxious to bring him in, but I forbade it, thinking we had been lucky enough in losing only one man. The Indian officers could not understand having to move in and being shot at, and a captain offered to ride to Headquarters to have the order confirmed or cancelled. He had no spurs, and his attitude when he came under the bullets caused some laughter, and someone called him “Tod Sloan.” His head and body were hardly visible, but his heels were in great evidence, although he was unable to get his mount beyond a lazy canter with all his efforts.
As we had passed the worst place we went on and gathered up the rest of the two platoons. Brigade Headquarters told us we could rest awhile, and that apparently was the object of our being called in.
On the invitation of the Brigade Major I sat on a box beside him behind a sandbagged shelter to hear the news while he attended at the same time to the telephone and the Acting Brigadier. Being of a bright and cheery nature, he was quite equal to the task. Although Egypt was full of generals, and there were supposed to be thirteen on the Canal, it was left for the fight to be run by a Lieutenant-Colonel, just then very irritable in the top of a tall pine tree. It looked undignified and uncomfortable, and the sniping had annoyed him, so that it would have been unsafe to have asked if he were bird-nesting.
This was the sort of conversation that went on. The Brigadier, staring across the Canal, says: “Who the hell is that moving over there?” The Brigade Major to me under his breath, “How the devil should I know?” To the Brigadier in a loud voice, “Don't know, sir.” The Brigadier, very snappy, “Go and find out.” Rather crestfallen the Major replies, “Yes, sir,” and goes to the Canal bank grumbling, and returns to call out with apparent conviction, “A few of our men bringing in a wounded man, sir.” A growling sound, but unintelligible, comes from the tree, and we light our pipes and prepare for a talk; but just then a stray bullet strikes about six inches from our feet, throwing the sand painfully in our faces.
In spite of this the Major told the news that the enemy had made three attacks, and that they had completely failed and the battle was over. There were still a large number of bullets flying about, which we could hear striking some timber and iron lying near. The enemy was shelling the hospital, our only building, about half a mile away, very accurately and leisurely, plastering it with shrapnel, and the thin wooden walls gave no protection to the wounded. In desperation the poor fellows crawled out at the back, and were found fainting on the desert in all directions. This went on for hours, and curiously enough one shell lifted a small pine, and for a moment it could be seen suspended horizontally in the air. We were glad to have a meal and compare notes with the remainder of No. 10 platoon under Sergeant Guy, and No. 9 under Mr. Saunders. From their higher position they had fired along the enemy front trench, and could also see large parties sheltering behind the ridges and sandhills farther back. These men were enjoying themselves, smoking and kicking up their heels, but the controlled fire soon disturbed them.
The strike of bullets could be observed a mile away. The enemy staff had approached the Canal mounted to within 1000 yards, until their gold braid was clearly visible, but they stampeded at the first round from our guns and were seen no more.
At one time a warning was given that the enemy were massing for a new attack, and Private Pike caused a laugh by saying, “The saucy bastards! They don't know I'm here.” Our veteran Sergeant Williams was wounded by a time fuse embedded in his back, and was the first N.Z. casualty in the war. He was so impressive in his language that the trembling stretcher-bearer could hardly bandage him for sheer awe.
When we examined the belt of pines we found how lucky we had been in our position a few yards in front of them. Nearly 30 per cent of the trees were cut down by shells, but fortunately they had failed to locate Brigade Headquarters or the Lancs battery.
At 4 p.m. we again took over the ground we had first held the evening before, and it was quite enough for our numbers. We were now ninety-eight all ranks on 800 yards, and one man to eight yards does not give much fire power. During the fight we had held 1300 yards. A hundred Indian sappers under a boyish English officer took over the gap on our left.
I noticed one of my N.C.O.s posting a sentry to relieve a Punjabi, and just as it was being done the native was hit by a bullet and carried away; but the corporal and his relief took over as casually as if it had been 100 miles from danger.
About 9 o'clock in the evening a general appeared at Headquarters and to my great amazement made minute dispositions for the fight which had just occurred. This was on a par with the mistake of having our hundreds of machine guns in camp instead of where they would have been useful. There was very little firing during the night, except that the Egyptian gunners burnt their powder and broke the silence.
Soon after daylight next morning the Swiftsure appeared, coming slowly down from the direction of Lake Timsah, and a mounted officer galloped to warn her that the enemy was still about the banks. She immediately opened fire with her heavy guns and twelve-pounders. It was curious and impressive to see this big battleship moving slowly along plugging the bank at fifty yards with her shells. She had a look-out hoisted high on her mast in a basket, and, as she passed the pontoons, the Turk, who was still concealed there, shot him dead. But he was quickly avenged by a twelve-pounder shell fired at the same instant. A few days later we asked a bluejacket on the Swiftsure what they did about the man who had killed their look-out, and he said, “We hit him in the teeth with a twelve-pounder.” I was curious enough to examine the spot afterwards, and all that remained was a blue enamel mug and a piece of leather equipment. When the ship was passing us we forgot all about the enemy, and everyone stood up on the banks, looking at the extraordinary sight and calling out greetings and chaff to the sailors. The ship's staff, beautifully dressed in blue, were walking up and down on the bridge with their telescopes under their arms as usual, as composed as if they were at a review. Only the dead sailor, with his head and arms hanging limp out of the basket, and the banging of her guns reminded us that the ship was in action. I informed her Commander that he had passed the most dangerous place, and he instantly gave the order, “Cease fire.”
Later in the morning we returned to Ismailia with an officer and soldier as prisoners. One had been shot through the body, the other through the leg, but for all that they would have outwalked us only that a man driving them with a string on each arm, like children playing at horses, restrained them when they went too fast. The main body of the enemy retired some miles, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
Unfortunately our friend, the young sapper officer, was killed in a white flag incident while clearing up the battlefield.
During the next few days we learned a good deal more about the battle. Their orders had been carefully written in great detail, evidently by a German, and if they had been obeyed, the attack must have succeeded to a limited extent. The boats, steel pontoons, with the name Constantinople printed on them, were to be carried by men the last mile or so without a halt ; and when the water was reached the crossing was to begin at once in perfect silence, and no shot was to be fired before they were across. On reaching the British side they were to attack right and left, and so sweep a gap 'in the defence. However, the orders were inaccurate in stating that the defence consisted only of a line of sentries.
Crossings were to be made at three points about half a mile apart with a brigade to each point, so that the attack covered about a mile of front between Serapeum and Tusum. In the light of these orders the foolish firing of the two machine-guns before the crossing had commenced is altogether unexplainable. Turkish papers stated that the attack failed on account of the “fierce fire of the enemy.”
Private Ham died in Ismailia Hospital on the evening of the 5th February. The bullet that killed him first struck the wood of his rifle, and glancing off entered his neck, breaking the spinal column. He was buried next day in the civil cemetery at Ismailia, and our French friends promised to tend his grave. A great yawning hole of a hundred yards long, eight feet deep and eight feet wide had been foolishly dug there to receive our dead after the battle, but we did not bury him in it, and it was filled up again unused.
It must have been designed by a pessimist, and was anything but reassuring for troops to see, weeks before the battle. The men disliked the look of it intensely, and fairly shied whenever they passed.
A few evenings later the Bishop of Jerusalem confirmed a number of soldiers in the little hall of the “Culte Evangelique” in Ismailia. By contrast with the current events the ceremony was very impressive. It was my pleasure to act as guide to his lordship over the battlefield. The place had become rather shocking to ordinary standards, and I was curious to see whether a highly civilized man would be upset at the sights, if brought suddenly on some particularly gruesome spots without warning. However, his lordship never blinked an eye, but remarked casually, “Poor fellows.” He was more interested in souvenirs, and soon had a load of them.
There was enough gear about to load a train, and. among them hundreds of boots discarded to facilitate escape. They were wretched worn-out things ranging from heelless slippers to lace-up boots without a decent bootlace in the lot. The equipment was mostly home-made and poor in quality, and had been cut off in their haste to discard it. Several hundred dead were lying around, some with Turkish bayonets still in their bodies. It all pointed to a panic on a large scale, during the hours of darkness, probably when they were first fired at. Nothing else could explain the quantity of cut equipment and the weakness of their firing line, compared with their available troops.
They would have scored a considerable success if they had lined the bank of the Canal when they came up at 3.20 a.m. and had been satisfied to improve their cover until it was fully daylight, and then opened fire on us. They had sufficient men to cover all their three points of crossing with two men per yard in the firing line, and the same in reserve and support. This would give them a mile and a half of front with a great superiority of fire, especially with the assistance of their machine-guns.
Our little party of 100 rifles would have been opposed by 5000, including supports and reserves, and we should have been overwhelmed at once, and the crossing made in safety. Once over, the enemy might easily have swept up several miles of our position, but their success would have ended at that.
We fired 8000 rounds of ammunition from the reserve of ten cases, eighty rounds per man, and still had the regulation amount in our pouches. We scored a very good effect, judging by the number of dead in front, and the only criticism our shooting received was from Major Wallingford, who said jokingly that we wasted our fire, because many of the dead had ten bullets through them when one would have been sufficient.
For about four days the enemy remained in the hills twelve miles away, and a small effort on our part would have destroyed or captured the lot. It was talked of, and a demonstration was made, but it was rather farcical. A regiment of cavalry, a battery of artillery, and two companies of infantry from my regiment marched out into the desert until they came suddenly into full view of the whole Turkish army peacefully preparing their evening meal, and, according to the infantry officers, only 1000 yards away. There must have been considerable consternation on both sides, and our party naturally retired, followed by a few shells. On his return, the rear company commander reported that he had no stragglers, which was not to be wondered at.
Eventually the enemy faded away into the Sinai hills, taking with him all his heavy material, including his six-inch guns. Apart from the smallness of their army, such an attack was doomed to failure, on account of insufficient transport, especially of water. Not a drop of water remained in their water-bottles on the day they attacked, although they had plenty of bread. Possibly it was expected that even a partial success would give them a political rather than a military advantage. It certainly was a unique operation, and probably it will be a long time before the Canal traffic is held up again, even for twenty-four hours, while a battle is being fought across it.
Except for losing a couple of days attending to the Turks, our old task of training went on, the critics resuming their occupation, and the sun gained strength. A staff officer visited us one day when we were dug in, and supposed to be resisting an attack, and propounded the following conundrum: “How are you going to get up your ammunition?” The desert in rear was level and as bare as a table, but men might have been found to attempt to cross it under fire, although to have succeeded would have been miraculous. There was no other method.
On the 21st February we returned to our old camp at Zeitun. The Egyptians were very pleased to see us back again, believing that we had been defeated and were retiring.
Note: This book by Brereton details the history of the 12th (Nelson) Company of the Canterbury infantry Battalion, NZEF.