Posted 17 March 2006 - 07:49 am
Just to give a good background to the story, here is the Gullett version of the action.
The Es Salt Raid
On April 20th Chauvel received from the Commander-in-Chief his orders for the forthcoming operations. Allenby's project was an ambitious one. He aimed at gaining control of an area east of Jordan from the Dead Sea northwards along the Jordan to the Jisr ed Damieh crossing, thence east to Es Salt and Amman and returning by the Kissir station (south of Amman) and Madeba to the Dead Sea. This area, he estimated, then contained about 6,000 enemy of all arms. Preliminary operations were to be directed to the capture of the forces at Shunet Nimrin and Es Salt; when the country between the river and the line Jisr ed Damieh-Es Salt-Madeba had been occupied, Chauvel was to march against Amman. The Commander-in-Chief thought it " probable that during these operations considerable help may be counted upon from the Arabs, and the closest touch must be maintained with them." It was of importance that the harvest round Es Salt should be denied to the Turks during the first week in May. Chauvel, Allenby added, should make full use of the ability of his large mounted force. " Bold and rapid marches " must be made. "If the 6,000 or 7,000 enemy fighting force east of Jordan is destroyed, the Turks have no means of replacing this force except by withdrawing troops from west of Jordan " which was a risk unlikely to be taken. Finally, Allenby disclosed his hope that the operations might develop into the decisive overthrow of the whole Turkish strength in Palestine. "AS soon as your operations have gained the front Amman-Es Salt," he wrote, "you will at once prepare for operations northwards, with a view to advancing rapidly on Deraa."
The significance of a blow at Deraa is made apparent by a glance at the map of eastern Palestine. At that point the Hejaz railway threw out its western branch, which, crossing the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee, was the sole means of communication by railway between Damascus and the Turkish forces on Samaria and the plain of Sharon. The destruction of the line at Deraa, even temporarily, followed by a bold advance on Sharon and Samaria, would probably have brought the campaign to a dramatic conclusion and led on to a British mounted advance to Damascus and Aleppo. This project, almost fantastic in its boldness, and made at a time when Allenby was being ordered by the War Office to send more and still more of his troops to France, strikingly illustrates the irrepressible spirit of aggression and confidence which distinguished the British leader. At that time the outlook in France was extremely gloomy for the Allies. The German offensive, beginning in March, had cost the British nearly a quarter of a million casualties. Owing to the lack of available men these losses had not been fully replaced, and the position was not likely to improve for some time. As usual when the Western Front was menaced, subsidiary British campaigns in other countries were ruthlessly sacrificed. The War Office cabled to Allenby on April 21st: " The only possible means at our disposal is to call on you for battalions. It is therefore hoped that you can release another fourteen battalions, in addition to the nine already mentioned, to follow as soon as shipping becomes available."
This demand reached Allenby after he had decided upon the second raid into Gilead; but, as the cable shows, he had already been called upon for nine of his battalions, knew perfectly how critical was the situation in the West, and knew, too, that an Allied disaster there would, of course, terminate the war in Palestine and everywhere else. A leader less brave and resolute might have been content, temporarily at least, to abandon the offensive; but to Allenby's mind this was the one moment for striking every blow which could shake the prestige of Germany and her Allies. The capture of the 6,000 troops in the Es Salt area, and the Turks' final loss of southern Arabia and the Holy Places, would not be without effect in Europe. If Deraa could be seized, the Palestine campaign brought to a sudden close, and the advance continued to Aleppo would then be possible for the mounted troops-the Turks in Mesopotamia would be isolated, and their collapse made certain. All this was possible to a man of Allenby's driving force, and was achieved by him a few months later. But, had it been accomplished in May, the story of the war from then to its close must have been very different.
But although Allenby thought of Deraa at that time, it is clear that he did not seriously look for such a development of the raid. A swift and complete Turkish collapse east of the river would have made the dash possible, and his reference to the vital railway junction was merely intended to point that out to Chauvel.
Chauvel's scheme for the raid was bold and simple. Shea's Londoners, who were to make the frontal attack at Shunet Nimrin, and the Australian Mounted Division were to cross into the Ghoraniye bridgehead after nightfall on April 29t11, to be in readiness for the advance on Es Salt at dawn. On the previous night Ryrie, crossing with the 2nd Light Horse Brigade at Ghoraniye, had marched south down the east bank of the Jordan, and had re-established a bridgehead at Makhadet Hajla, from which the Australians, supported by Indian detachments, were to operate on the right flank of the infantry attack at Shunet Nimrin. A strong factor in the failure at Amman a month before had been the Turkish regiments which had crossed the Jordan from the direction of Nablus at Jisr ed Damieh. Allenby did not anticipate that the enemy could now detach many troops from his western front; he expected the fight at Shunet Nimrin to be a swift and decisive affair, all over before the enemy could send supports. But as a preliminary measure Chauvel resolved to seize the Damieh crossing and deny it to the enemy. This task was allotted to the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Grant, who, while the Londoners fell on the position at Shunet Nimrin, was to gallop up the valley on the east of the river at dawn on the morning of the 30th. Grant was to be closely followed by Wilson's
3rd Light Horse Brigade, which was to assist, if necessary, in winning the ground at Damieh, and then, swinging up the Damieh-Es Salt track, to ride with all speed on Es Salt. The 5th Mounted Brigade, following after Wilson from Ghoraniye, was to strike at Es Salt by the Umm esh Shert track, which had been followed by Bell in the previous raid. Having won the town, Hodgson was to send a mounted force down the main road from Es Salt to Shunet Nimrin to take the Turks in rear, and to cut off their retreat when they had been forced back by the Londoners. Anzac Mounted Division, with the exception of the and Brigade at Makhadet Hajla, was at the outset to remain in support of the 60th Division in the valley.
The brigades of the Australian Mounted Division moved from their camps north of Jericho soon after dark on the evening of the 29th. They left all tents standing, and campfires and lights burning as usual. The dust was deep in the valley, and the regiments rode through choking clouds towards the river. The London battalions had already crossed, and the light horsemen, as they advanced through the bridgehead to a temporary halting-ground on the north, passed the waiting infantry standing silently in their fours. Amman had brought home to the Australians the sharp contrast between the lot of horsemen and that of infantry in an operation which imposed long and heavy marching; and when this night in the bridgehead they smothered the gallant Cockneys in dust, and thought of the grim frontal attack which was before them at Shunet Nimrin, their hearts went out to them in sympathy and admiration. The mounted men got hard fighting in plenty; but at worst there was always a sporting and exhilarating side to their campaigning, which was lacking to the foot-marching and the plain, more or less brute-force, tactics of the infantry.
Shortly before dawn Hodgson's division was ready to move, and the 4th Brigade, with the 4th Regiment leading in open " artillery " formation, began to ride up the plain. Already the Londoners were closing in upon the Turkish trenches about the foot-hills. Further south Onslow, with a force made up of his own 7th Regiment, one squadron of the Hyderabad Lancers, a battalion of the Patiala infantry, the
20th Brigade of Royal Horse Artillery, and a section of machine-guns, had at 2 a.m. attacked the Turkish left at Kabr Mujahid, and Kabr Said. The demonstration only partially served its purpose, for although the enemy heavily shelled the positions occupied, he made no effort to divert his infantry against them.
Meanwhile, as Grant's brigade rode north through a belt of scrub which reached the horses' withers, they heard, just as dawn began to show, a sudden burst of bombing on their right under the dark shadow of the mountain, and knew that the Londoners had begun their stern work in the foot-hills.
The bombing was followed almost instantly by shafts of machine-gun fire; and then the noise, gathering into a roar of small-arm fire, told that the fight was raging. The enemy had at the outset been taken completely by surprise; the 6oth, silently rushing the outposts, had burst with their bombs into a camp behind, where they killed many Turks. But before they had won any of the main defences, the enemy garrison was awakened and ready; the outlying trenches and strong posts were cleverly concealed in the crops of bearded wheat, and the Londoners suffered severely as they endeavoured to get to close quarters.
The eastern side of the Jordan valley, from the Wadi Nimrin up to the track from Jisr ed Damieh to Es Salt, a distance of fifteen miles, offered no serious natural obstacles to rapid mounted movement. Immediately north of the Wadi Nimrin the plain is some five miles wide; further north it is narrowed down by the encroachment of the foot-hills on the east and the mud-hills along the river; and beyond the Umm esh Shert track a high feature, known as " Red Hill," juts out from the Jordan and dominates the plain. Grant's brigade (which was supported by the Notts Battery and by the " A " and " B " Horse Batteries of the Honourable Artillery Company), moving while it was still dark, was quickly extended on a wide front covering nearly the whole of the plain. Enemy fire was expected from guns opposed to Smith's Camel Brigade on the west side of the river, but was not greatly feared. If Grant was stopped-as he could easily have been it would be with machine-gun and rifle fire from the foot-hills of Gilead on his right, or from Red Hill and the mud-hills on his left, at one of the narrow places through which his horsemen had to pass. Even a brief delay would have warned the Fourth Turkish Army Headquarters at Es Salt, and would have roused a stiff opposition on the tracks leading up to Gilead from Umm esh Shert and Jisr ed Damieh. Chauvel's whole scheme therefore depended upon the element of surprise. That surprise was absolute. The Turks were prepared at Shunet Nimrin, but had not given a thought to the possibility of a dash up to the plain. A thin line of posts, lightly held. extended across the plain from El Haud to the Umm esh Shert ford; but these offered no resistance, and were ridden over by Grant's advance-guard.
For about a mile the horsemen rode slowly through the high, dense scrub, but at daylight the ground cleared and the pace was increased from a walk to a trot. The horsemen were now disclosed to the enemy gunners on Red Hill and to the west of the river; these had already been aroused by the firing at Shunet Nimrin, and shrapnel began to burst over the scattered squadrons. One of the first shots maimed Grant's horse; but a change was soon made, and the advance quickened in speed until the brigade was clattering along at a hand gallop. As the gun-fire increased, each troop and each individual man instinctively drew apart, until the galloping brigade, spread out over the whole floor of the valley, presented a picture from which all formation or control seemed suddenly to have departed. On either flank, where the men rode on ground broken with many wadis, this apparent chaos was intensified. The horses, excited by the shells, fought strongly for their heads; about their bodies and necks nosebags stuffed with feed, bundles of rations, reserves of canteen stores and firewood, quart-pots, and spare bandoliers, bounced and pounded, until many of even the most expertly tied knots were loosened, and the plain was strewn with every kind of light horseman's campaigning possessions. The safety of galloping horses in open formation under shell-fire was never more strikingly demonstrated. In the long gallop only six men were killed and seventeen wounded.
With the screen of the 4th Regiment setting a gallant pace, the brigade went on until the Damieh-Es Salt track had been reached and crossed. Over the last two or three miles the fire had slackened, the guns having been turned on to Wilson's brigade as it followed; and Grant's regiments wheeled unmolested to the left and pressed in on a line astride the track through the mud-hills towards the ford. As the pace was steadied, order returned as by a miracle to the brigade, and each troop and squadron in a few minutes found itself complete and again in fighting order.
Grant took up his headquarters on the foot-hills at a point where the track began its ascent, and waited anxiously for reports from the regiments probing for the Jordan. The advance-guard of the 4th Regiment had pushed north as far as the great Nahr ez Zerka (or, as it is better known, the Wadi Yabbok) which drains the eastern tableland, from beyond the Hejaz railway, and falls into the Jordan about a mile and a half north of the Damieh crossing. Here good water was found. A squadron then endeavoured to work down the wadi towards the bridge, but was held up by unexpected opposition, and was forced later in the day to fall back for two miles. Two squadrons of the 12th were also stopped as they attempted to push on to the bridge by the Es Salt track. As the screens advanced, they found the mud-hills bolder and the passages deeper than they were further south, and soon progress was confined to a few broad winding wadi passages studded with large bushes. Enemy resistance quickly developed along the whole front, and the light horsemen were checked and held when still a mile and a half from the stream. They were then spread over a line eight miles in length, with both flanks exposed; and, as they were not within sight of the ford, they could offer no resistance to the crossing of enemy troops from the west.
But, although the position was not altogether satisfactory, Grant was astride the track and in a position to resist an enemy advance unless it was made in overwhelming numbers. At 6.30 a.m. Wilson came up with the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. After a brief conference between the brigadiers, in which Grant expressed the opinion that he could hold his ground, Wilson began to climb to Es Salt by the road from the Damieh crossing. The track as it leaves the plain rises sharply, and for a mile or two the regiments went up, leading their horses in single file. Wheeled-transport was impracticable, but Wilson was supported by six guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery, carried, together with their ammunition, on a train of 360 camels. Twenty-nine cane cacolets for the wounded completed the column. Each man carried 230 rounds of ammunition, while for each Hotchkiss gun there were 3,100 rounds, and for each machine-gun of the machine-gun squadron, 5,000 rounds.
Grant's line-if line it could be called, seeing how the squadrons and troops were scattered, and in the rough mud hills had very little contact-then extended from the Zerka in the north, towards Red Hill in the south. Further efforts to gain the river and establish a definite bridgehead proved unsuccessful. The three batteries were pushed in until they were able to cover the bridge at Damieh and the track leading down from the hills on the west side; but the range was extreme, the targets indefinite, and the defensive power of the guns small. As the day wore on, the weakness of the brigade's position became increasingly clear to the three regimental leaders, and Grant himself was frankly uneasy. The weak spot was at Red Hill, behind which (as was afterwards disclosed) the enemy was at that time throwing a pontoon bridge across the river. Smith's Camel Brigade on the west had been ordered to demonstrate strongly while the light horse moved up the valley in the morning. Red Hill was to have been vigorously shelled, and Mills' 4th Battalion was to advance from the Mellahah posts; but the artillery work was feeble and useless, and, although Mills carried out his orders and moved forward about a mile and a half, the enemy crossing at Red Hill was not molested.
As a preliminary to Grant's advance, the 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment under Granville had ridden forward before dawn to seize the Umm esh Shert crossing. While one squadron, under Major 0. B. Ryrie moved directly on the position, another squadron, under Major G. H. L. Harris, advanced on the right to endeavour to cut off the enemy's escape towards Red Hill. The Turks, without offering resistance, retreated across the river; but there they held a good defensive position and were supported by guns. Ryrie's squadron with four machine-guns then occupied Red Hill without opposition, and the balance of the regiment was ordered up the Umm esh Shert track to Es Salt. The position in the afternoon, therefore, was that Red Hill was very weakly held by this one squadron, with superior enemy forces immediately across the river. Between Red Hill and the left flank of Bailey's 11th Regiment (of the 4th Brigade) was a gap of two or three miles. Grant realised that the enemy, if they re-occupied Red Hill, were practically astride his communications with the south. Late in the afternoon, when General Chauvel motored up the plain to Grant's headquarters, the brigadier emphasised the danger of the Red Hill position and the exposed condition of his left flank, and pressed for an additional regiment to reinforce the squadron on the hill. Chauvel fully appreciated the danger, but, after communicating with his chief of staff, told Grant that no troops could be spared at that stage for the purpose.
Grant's advanced squadrons reported during the afternoon that the enemy was showing considerable movement across the river, and from brigade headquarters troops and transport could be seen descending the main track towards the crossing at Damieh. Already there were many indications of a strong counter-attack; and at 5 p.m. Chauvel, who had taken the brigade under direct control of Desert Mounted Corps, ordered Grant to withdraw from the Nahr ez Zerka, and to cover the Jisr ed Damieh-Es Salt track until seriously attacked. Chauvel was completely alive to the dangerous position of the brigade, for he instructed Grant that he was not to be "compromised" in an effort to cover the road. Grant therefore pulled his regiments back from the mud-hills near the river, and rested them on the foot-hills, which left the Turks clear to enlarge their bridgehead east of the river. At the same time he shifted his headquarters slightly to the south, and " A " and " B '' Batteries of the Honourable Artillery Company were withdrawn to the same position, since, with the menace at Red Hill, it was not deemed safe to leave them forward on the plain. Red Hill was still occupied by the squadron of the 1st Regiment. During the night it was discovered that the Turks had completed the pontoon bridge immediately behind the hill. Grant's line was therefore in momentary danger of a serious blow from troops using this bridge, which was some miles to the south, and, while his horsemen could retire eastwards into the hills, the position of the three batteries was already delicate. In their advanced positions they had been exposed to a sudden enemy advance, but had a good stretch of plain ground for their escape to the south. From their new position, in the folds of the foothills, the way to the south was broken by many rocky valleys and steep wadis debouching from the range. During the night they were shut up in pockets close to brigade headquarters, and the only way out was for some distance directly towards the enemy.
The day as a whole had gone unfavourably for Chauvel. Es Salt had been brilliantly captured by Wilson's brigade; but the infantry had been decisively checked at Shunet Nimrin, and so far nothing had been seen of the Arabs. To win the Shunet Nimrin position the 60th Division, supported at the outset by the Anzac Mounted Division fighting under Shea's command. had to advance on a line from the lid1 El Haud on the north of the road, and then southwards through Tel el Musta to Makkar ed Derbasi. The hills to be taken nowhere reached a thou5and feet; but they rose sharply from the plain, were packed close together, and, in addition to the trenches made by the enemy, contained numberless fissures and many groups of ancient caves, all giving perfect shelter to their defenders.
By 1.30 a.m. on the 30th the Londoners were within 800 yards of the foot-hills, and still undiscovered. At 2 a.m. the 180th Brigade advanced in the dark on the main position astride the road, while the 179th Brigade assaulted El Haud. At the outset, as we have seen, they overran the enemy's outposts; but they could make no impression upon the main positions beyond. Between the scrub from which they debouched and the foot-hills was a stretch of naked plain, and rising abruptly in front of this were hills occupied by between 4,000 and 5,000 of the enemy. The first surprise rush having failed, the undertaking was hopeless, unless the enemy could be menaced from the rear, or completely cut off from his supplies. The official story of the attack of the 2/19th Londoners on the first morning is, in brief, the story of all the bloody and profitless fighting by this gallant division during the days which followed. " The battalion," wrote Shea, "reached the caves on the western slope of Makkar ed Derbasi with little opposition, but was then held up by the precipitous nature of the country, the only approaches to the summit being two narrow paths swept by machine-gun and rifle fire; and though a small party reached the enemy's trenches by these paths and captured a machine-gun, only one of the party succeeded in getting back, and he was severely wounded." Again and again, during that day and the days which followed, the Londoners made heroic and costly attempts to shift the enemy; but at no time was his position dangerously challenged. Two weak brigades of troops, which had been marching and fighting without a break for many months, were attempting a task which, if it was to have been swift and decisive, needed the strength of two fresh divisions. Only overwhelming numbers and a strong flanking movement could have won immediate success at Shunet Nimrin. During the first day Shea endeavoured to use the Anzacs on his right and left; but the Australians and New Zealanders were at once held up, and, with the exception of a squadron of the 6th Light Horse Regiment, were nowhere actually engaged.
This squadron of the 6th under Major S. A. Tooth (known as " Tooth's Detachment ") was detached from its regiment, placed under orders of the 179th Infantry Brigade, and allotted to cover the left flank of the Londoners' assault. In the subsequent fighting Tooth's little party, which was reinforced by two companies of Patiala infantry, frequently made close touch with the enemy, but, owing to the failure of the general attack astride the Es Salt road, it was never seriously committed.
With the Londoners beaten off, no news from the Arabs, and Grant far from happy at Damieh, Chauvel had little to cheer him on the evening of the first day's fighting. But early in the night came news of Wilson's fine work at Es Salt; and. with the town in his possession and the main road blocked behind Shunet Nimrin, there was still a chance of success.
Wilson's ride on Es Salt was one of the cleanest and most decisive pieces of light horse work in the campaign. After the brigade, with the 9th under Scott leading, had left Grant's position and led their horses up the first two miles of track, the country improved and mounted progress became relatively easy. The climb carried the regiments through a rapid and interesting change in climate and season. The Jordan valley was already dry and parched; the little patches of crops on the foot-hills were turning from green to yellow; still higher up the mountain-side the wheat was just bursting into ear; and by noon on the plateau the light horsemen found the wheat short and young, the vines in tender leaf, and the country studded with wild flowers.
Wilson had about fourteen miles to cover, and over nearly half of that distance the screen of the 9th saw nothing of the enemy. On either side the route was commanded by hills, and small enemy parties might easily have delayed the advance long enough to warn and prepare the numerous troops concentrated about the enemy's Fourth Army base at Es Salt. But soon after dawn the 4th Brigade had cut the telegraph wire from Nablus to Gilead on the Damieh track, and Wilson was close to Es Salt before the enemy suspected his coming. A few miles from the town the brigade scouts under Lieutenant T. N. Rickaby2 saw three Turkish horsemen, and a little further on a troop of cavalry. Two Australians crept up within twenty yards of the three Turks before they were discovered, shot one and captured the others. A dash was then made at the troop, but the men escaped, some mounted and some on foot, over the rocky ground. The brigade was now, after a climb of 4,000 feet in ten miles, on the tableland of Jebel Jelaad, and a little further on the enemy was discovered in some sangars on a high ridge about 1,000 yards long, immediately to the left of the track. On either side of this ridge, at distances of from 1,200 to 1,400 yards, were two detached hills also occupied by the enemy, and covering his main central position.
Instant action was necessary if Es Salt was to be occupied before dark. The advance had been handicapped by the very slow climbing-pace of the battery camels, and it was now growing late in the afternoon. About this time Wilson's wireless intercepted a message from Chauvel to Hodgson saying that Es Salt must be taken that night; Wilson, therefore, although lie was out of touch with division, decided at once to attack. Rifle and machine-gun fire was opened upon the three positions, but the Turks stood firm. Mounted work was impossible off the track. Wilson then sent a dismounted squadron of the 9th Regiment against the hill on the right, two troops of the same regiment and a squadron of the 10th against the position on the left, and ordered the remaining Western Australians of the 10th and a squadron of the 9th to prepare to assault the sangars on the main ridge in the centre. The readiness with which the light horsemen swung from their saddles and went forward as infantry was noticed with pleasure by their reserved brigadier. Moving smartly and taking advantage of the broken ground, the men of the 9th quickly drove the Turks from the hill on the right, and in a few minutes rifles and machine-guns at effective ranges had a stream of cross-fire playing on the sangars in the centre. At the same time the other party, assisted by overhead rifle and machine-gun fire and one gun of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery, carried the hill on the left. While these two advances were in progress, Wilson placed the remaining men of the 9th and 10th in readiness for a bayonet assault on the centre, and at the same time ordered the 8th under Major Shannon to prepare for a mounted dash at the town, two miles away, as soon as the resistance was broken. After five minutes' bombardment of the sangars by three of the Hong Kong guns, assisted by twelve machine-guns, the attack was ordered. The situation was ideal for sustained covering fire. The two squadrons of Western Australians, boldly led by Major Timperley, and the men of the 9th had first to descend into a deep gully and then climb the hill on the other side to the Turkish positions; thus gun and machinegun fire could be maintained until the light horsemen were within a few yards of the sangars. Doubling down the rocky slope, the men dashed at the hill with the bayonet, shouting as they went. So heavy and concentrated was the supporting fire, especially from the machine-guns, that the Turks were forced down behind their stone shelters, and the Australian casualties during the climb were slight. Many defenders bolted as the light horsemen closed; others, including a few German officers and men, fought to the finish and were killed on their ground. As the Australians gained the summit, and before the hand-to-hand fighting had ceased, Wilson with his pennant gave the signal to release the eager squadrons of the 8th, who were already on their horses. The regiment moved instantly at the trot, and, ignoring fire from a hill held by the enemy a little further on, were soon galloping down on Es Salt. They encountered opposition from some fifty or sixty Turkish riflemen in sangars, but these were quickly flanked and broken, and the rush on the town continued.
The approach to Es Salt was down a number of little valleys between rough, stony hills. The squadrons, taking different routes, were in places obstructed, and the penetration became an affair of isolated galloping thrusts by troop-leaders. The first troop to enter was very dashingly led by Lieutenant Charles Foulkes Taylor, a young Western Australian, who had only recently received his commission and was temporarily detached from the 10th Regiment. Taylor, revolver in hand and his men at his heels, raced along the cobbled winding streets, shooting as he went and scattering the startled natives. The few hundred Turks still in the town were in a state of disorganisation. Troops armed with revolvers used them freely and effectively; others, bayonet in hand, took the enemy on the point. Taylor, whose ammunition had given out, dashed at a German staff officer who was trying to organise resistance among the now panic-stricken Turks, compelled him to surrender, seized his revolver, and with a few men charged after a column of transport which was urging teams along the road towards Amman. Here many vehicles were overtaken on the narrow track beside a wadi, and the light horsemen forced teams and carts over the edge of the roadway, whence they tumbled and bounced down into the deep bed of the water-course. Two miles out, Taylor's party, now reduced to six, was stopped by organised machine-gun fire.
The troop had, however, in a few minutes overridden and captured upwards of 200 armed enemy troops and a great quantity of material. By now the rest of the regiment had gained the town, and a covering line of the 8th and 9th Regiments was at once pushed out to the north and east. By nightfall brigade headquarters had been established on the outskirts of Es Salt. In the subsequent search of the town twenty-eight new machine-guns still packed in their cases were discovered, and the booty also included a great quantity of ammunition and small arms, five motor lorries, and much other transport and war material.
As Wilson was preparing for the attack on the sangars two miles away, he received a message from the General Officer Commanding the 5th Mounted Brigade, stating that the yeomanry, who had advanced by the shorter route from Umm esh Shert, were within a few miles of Es Salt, and proposed to attack on the following morning at dawn. The Australian leader replied that he was already within striking distance and was committed to the assault. When the town had been taken, Wilson was unable for some time to locate the headquarters of Australian Mounted Division, which was also marching by the Shert track, or to pick up Hodgson's wireless; but he succeeded in making touch by wireless with Chauvel. The original plan was that, as soon as Es Salt was captured when it was expected that both the 3rd Light Horse and the 5th Mounted Brigades would be on the position-the advance should be continued along the Amman road to the junction of the track from Ain es Sir and Shunet Nimrin at Hill 2900, about seven miles from Es Salt. Wilson's position was already precarious; but he decided, when the moon rose at 10 o'clock, to send Major A. C. N. Olden,' of the 10th Regiment, with two squadrons and four machine-guns to the desired position. Olden met with no resistance until within 2,000 yards of his objective; there he was held up by a strong enemy force, and remained in observation.
On the night of the 30th, therefore, Grant was astride the track east of the Jordan at Damieh; Wilson had gained his objectives at Es Salt; the 5th Mounted Brigade was close to Es Salt, and Ryrie's 2nd Brigade, followed by Cox with the 1st, was pushing up the track from Umm esh Shert. The infantry had failed in the attack at Shunet Nimrin; but, if the Arabs fulfilled their promises and seized the rough alternative route from Shunet Nimrin to Ain es Sir, joining up with Olden's men about Hill 2900, the Turks in the foot-hills would be completely isolated. The fate of Chauvel's enterprise depended on Grant's position at Damieh and on the work of the Arabs.
The Arabs may be dismissed at once. With their customary caution and fear of the Turks, the Beni Sakr tribe-which was not yet supported by the Hejaz men operating under Emir Feisal around Maan-withheld cooperation until the British should clearly demonstrate that they were about to achieve a decisive success. Instead of closing the track to Ain es Sir at once and pressing on towards Naaur as arranged, they stood off until the Turks should be routed at Shunet Nimrin and the mounted brigades had captured Es Salt. When on the morning of the 30th the first attack of the infantry failed, they remembered the fate of the first raid to Amman, folded up the tents of their great camp at Madeba, and dispersed to their districts. This left the Ain es Sir track open to the Turks at Shunet Nimrin. Before the operations began, they had improved the route until it was fit for wheeled traffic; now, pushing on with the work, they were able during the rest of the fighting to draw supplies and munitions from Amman and Ain es Sir, and so were independent of the main road which had been cut by Wilson.
But the absence of Arab assistance on the first day, even coupled with the non-success of the infantry, was, although disappointing to Chauvel, of small concern compared to the disaster which befell Grant's brigade early on the morning of May 1st. Grant had feared an attack during the night, but the front remained quiet, and dawn disclosed no enemy movement. Chauvel, on learning of the pontoon bridge at Red Hill, decided to attempt to seize it in the early morning. The Camels were to advance up the west side of the river, while the light horse squadron on the hill was to move towards the bridge from the east. Grant was asked to cooperate, and one squadron of the 11th Regiment under Major Costello was sent to assist the squadron of the 1st. From Grant's headquarters at about 6 a.m. considerable Turkish movement could be seen on the western road which led down to the Damieh bridge, but the battery commanders reported the targets beyond their range. A little earlier, patrols of the 4th Regiment towards Nahr ez Zerka in the north had been held up by considerable bodies of enemy horsemen. " B " Battery was moved a short distance to the south to cover the left flank of the line, but was still located on rough ground about the foot-hills.
The situation was uncomfortable. Grant had only about 800 rifles available for the firing line. Both Cameron and Bourchier were of opinion that the enemy had strongly reinforced his bridgehead during the night, and that, if the light horse regiments were boldly attacked, their long thin line could offer no effective resistance. About 7 a.m. these two officers, accompanied by Grant, climbed the hills behind brigade headquarters on a personal reconnaissance of the whole position. With the contested ground showing in detail below them, Grant decided that, for the safety of his brigade and the holding of the track, his line must be shifted a few miles to the south, its left pivoting on Red Hill and its right covering the track as it led up through the foot-hills. At that time the 4th Regiment was on the right, the 12th in the centre, and one troop of the 11th on the extreme left, with two squadrons of the 11th (less one troop) in reserve.
As Grant, Cameron, and Bourchier walked down from the hills, rifle and machine-gun fire burst suddenly from the whole front, and in a few minutes it was clear that the Turks were attacking in great strength. Their plan was admirably laid. They had during the night passed about 4,000 infantry over the Damieh bridge, and formed then] up ready for the assault in the mud-hills on a front of 2,000 yards astride the Es Salt track. At the same time they had concentrated about 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry along the Nahr ez Zerka, and had gathered a further force to cross the river over the pontoon bridge and attack Red Hill.
The forces east of the river fell simultaneously on the 4th and 12th Regiments. Wave after wave of infantry in open order, and very boldly led, debouched from the mud-hills and struck straight across the plain. At the same time the infantry from the Zerka smashed down upon the open right flank of the light horse line, while the cavalry, making a detour into the hills, endeavoured to cut in behind the Australians. The plain offered very little cover, and Grant's men in the foot-hills found the Turks an easy target; heavy and accurate shooting cut down the leading wave, and temporarily checked the advance. A squadron of the 11th was sent to cover " B " Battery on the left, and the three batteries, at once opening a rapid fire, began also to inflict heavy casualties. But the Turks had clearly sensed Grant's weak spot, and by S o'clock a force echeloning to the south struck strongly for the open ground between the Australian left and Red Hill. About the same time enemy guns, emerging by the track from the mud hills, boldly took up positions in the open and began a heavy fire on the British batteries and brigade headquarters. Bailey, with the 11th Regiment, was soon warmly engaged in an endeavour to hold up the enemy's right, and two troops of the 12th, together with the brigade's scouts and signallers, grooms and batmen, were sent to his assistance. Already the position was critical. About this time a strong Turkish force crossed the pontoon-bridge to attack Red Hill, and engaged the two weak squadrons of the 1st and 11th Regiments. Two armoured cars attached to Grant's brigade came into action in the gap on the left; one was almost immediately knocked out by a direct hit from a shell, but the other with its machine-guns contributed solidly to the work of the light horsemen until it ran out of ammunition.
To the north the 4th Regiment was being forced further into the hills, and by S.30 o'clock the enemy, advancing down the plain, were close to the Es Salt track. The " A " and Notts Batteries were removed to positions south of " B " Battery, where they again came into action and, assisted by heavy machine-gun fire, all at short range, so mauled the enemy that the advance was checked for about an hour. But during the pause the Turks were building up their lines for a renewed assault. At 10 o'clock the two light horse squadrons on Red Hill were overwhelmed by a large enemy force and swept from that position out on the plain east and south-east. There, however, they were able for a time not only to check the Turks on Red Hill, but also with their machine-guns to enfilade the column which was marching down between the hill and the left flank of Grant's extended line. Further north, about IO 30 am., the Turks renewed their attacks with great vigour. The light horse right was forced south of the Es Salt track, and the enemy infantry from the north began to follow its cavalry into the foot-hills in an endeavour to get behind the Australian brigade. Disorder was now showing in Grant's command. Communication with the south had been cut by shell-fire, and the enemy, with rifles and machine-guns, was so close that contact between units was difficult.
The position of the guns had become serious.
The enemy riflemen were within 500 yards of Grant's left flank on the plain and within 1,000 yards of his line along the foot-hills. To escape the wadis and reach level ground, the batteries must travel towards the river before swinging south, and this meant facing the Turkish fire and certain destruction. Grant first ordered " B " Battery to withdraw; and after a great strain on the teams, and much man-handling, the guns, with the exception of one which was overturned and had to be abandoned, reached a position of safety. The other two batteries continued fiercely to fling out their shrapnel at rapidly shortening range, but the Turks were widely scattered over a considerable depth, and their losses were not destructive. About 11.30 a.m. the brigade and regimental limbers were ordered to retire, but the teams were speedily shot down, and the vehicles had to be abandoned. It was clear now that " A " Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company, and the Notts Battery, were doomed to capture. Despite sustained punishment from all arms, the enemy pressed in to within 200 yards of the guns and the light horse firing line; Grant therefore ordered the destruction and abandonment of the guns, and the retirement of all troops into the hills. The gunners removed the breech-blocks and sights, and did such demolition as was possible in a few minutes; and the force withdrew slowly, firing as it went, up the slopes of the range to a position to which the horses had already been taken. Part of the ambulance had also to be abandoned after many of the horses had been destroyed in the efforts made to remove the vehicles.
Grant might, by concentrating on the hills above the guns, have kept the Turks away from them for some hours. But when he ordered their sacrifice he was faced by a disaster incomparably greater than the loss of two batteries. As the fight developed, it became clear that the enemy's chief purpose was not the capture of the guns or the destruction of the light horse brigade. In his strong thrust between Grant's left and Red Hill, he was rapidly approaching the track leading from Umm esh Shert to Es Salt, which was the one means of escape left open to the four mounted brigades upon Gilead. With the loss of the Umm esh Shert track those four brigades would have been completely isolated; to regain the west bank of the Jordan they must have cut their way out from Es Salt by the east, and passed south down the tableland, in the hope of ultimately finding a passage towards the northern end of the Dead Sea. Recognising the extreme gravity of the situation, Grant ordered the 4th and 12th Regiments on their withdrawal into the hills to proceed south with all possible speed and debouch on to the plain north of the Shert route. The high intelligence of the light horsemen in a crisis always contributed largely to success. Disorganised though they were the squadrons in the hills appreciated to the full the menace which the enemy's work had so swiftly created, and bent with all their native capacity to the difficult movement. In a few minutes many little columns of led horses in single file were picking their way along the side of the steep ranges. All the ridges and gorges ran east and west; the route of the horsemen led south. Bourchier and Cameron knew that, with their resistance withdrawn, Bailey with his miscellaneous supports was being desperately pressed on the plain, and was being steadily driven back. It was a grim race between Turks marching on the level plain and the men leading their horses on the heights. Twice Bailey was forced from his ground; but each time, with the assistance of the horses, he succeeded in breaking clear of the confident enemy thousands, and in taking up a fresh position. In these movements he was supported by part of the 12th Regiment in the lower hills. As he was driven to a position in the foot-hills almost due east of Red Hill, with his left extended towards the river, the men retiring along the side of the range began to emerge to his assistance. A strong firing line, rapidly built up, checked the advance and saved the day.
The break in the telephone wires early in the fight led to delay in communications between Grant and Desert Mounted Corps Headquarters; but as soon as Chauvel received news of the heavy attack at Damieh he realised its seriousness and acted promptly. Chaytor had so far taken no part in the operations, his brigades having been placed under the commands of Shea and Hodgson. In the morning he had his headquarters about two miles south of the Auja crossing of the Jordan, and Chauvel ordered him to take over the defence of the valley from the north, though he had available only one regiment of the New Zealanders and two regiments of yeomanry of the 6th Mounted Brigade, together with a battery of armoured cars and the No. 1 Australian Light Car Patrol. Riding at once up the plain, he quickly learned that the position was critical and that nine guns and much baggage had been lost. Pushing the cars with their machineguns into the fight on the left, he joined Grant on the position east of Red Hill. The light horsemen then had the situation at least temporarily in hand; but Chaytor decided to withdraw the brigade further south, and, selecting a superior position about a mile north of the Umm esh Shert track, he ordered it to be held at all costs. It was a naturally strong site in the foot-hills, and the Australian left had good cover in broken ground out on the plain. At the same time the New Zealanders and the yeomanry were moved up the valley to complete the line to the river, while the 2nd Regiment of Cox's brigade, which was in position on the plateau between the foot-hills and Es Salt, supported Grant's right by establishing a series of posts down the slopes of the range.
The Turks followed Grant s brigade on its withdrawal, but did not at once renew the attack, and during the night Chaytor's front was improved by strenuous digging and the building of sangars. Grant's casualties at Damieh had in the circumstances been very light. Including the gunners of the three Royal Horse batteries, they were: I officer and I other rank killed, 7 officers and 4 other ranks wounded, and 48 (chiefly made up of wounded and of ambulance men who remained with them) missing. All the guns of the Notts Battery and "A" Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company, and one of " B " Battery were lost-a total of nine; in addition, the Turks captured 2 wagons, 16 limbers, 4 ambulances, and a number of water-carts and motor-cycles. These were the only guns lost to the enemy during the long campaign in Palestine, and-except for those deliberately abandoned to the enemy in the Evacuation of Anzac-were the only guns covered by Australian troops to be lost in the whole war. It is not necessary to linger upon the depression in the brigade which followed the disaster. Happily all the officers and men of the batteries escaped capture; they were at once supplied with new guns, and were in action again in less than two days.