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The New Zealanders and the Battle of Nahr el Auja - 24 November 1917

The following summary is based on a chapter in my recently-published book entitled ‘Devils on Horses: In the Words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-19’ (Exisle Publishing). This battle took place in what is now Tel Aviv.

In the days after the fight at Ayun Kara on 14 November 1917, the New Zealanders established an entrenched line along the south bank of Nahr el Auja. General Allenby ordered Harry Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) to establish several bridgeheads across this river to convince the Turks that the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) intended to continue advancing up the coastal plain. This should force them to keep their 8th Army on the coast, away from Allenby’s real objective of Jerusalem.

The Auja river averaged 15 metres in width, with steep, muddy banks. It was slow-moving, but too deep to cross easily except at a few fords (including one at the mouth of the river). Three kilometres upstream at Jerishe, a dam at a flour mill offered a crossing point for men on foot. The main crossing point was a stone bridge on the Jaffa–Nablus track at Hadra, two kilometres further inland. All these crossing points were in Turkish hands. The ground on the north side of the river rose gently for 1,000 metres to the village of Sheikh Muwannis and the ruins of Khurbet Hadra.

The Anzac Mounted Division received the job of establishing the bridgeheads, but only the New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade was available. Infantry and machine gunners from the 54th Division were ordered to take over the bridgeheads once the NZMR Brigade had established them.

The crossing began at 1 p.m. on 24 November 1917. The horsemen of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles (CMR) Regiment waded across the ford at the river mouth. The 8th (South Canterbury) Squadron galloped north for three kilometres along the coastal sand dunes to a knoll, driving 20 Turks away on its arrival. The 10th (Nelson) Squadron wheeled inland and captured Sheikh Muwannis. The Wellington regiment followed the South Islanders across the ford and captured Khurbet Hadra and the nearby stone bridge at 3.30 p.m. Twenty-nine Turkish prisoners from the 31st Regiment, 3rd Division, and a couple of machine guns were captured, at no cost to the attackers other than one wounded horse.

Two infantry companies from the 54th Division then crossed the Hadra bridge and occupied Khurbet Hadra; another two companies crossed at Jerishe and moved into Sheikh Muwannis. At the request of the infantry commander, the mounted riflemen placed outposts forward of Khurbet Hadra and Sheikh Muwannis after dark. The 1st (CYC) Squadron defended the crossing point at the river mouth and the rest of the NZMR Brigade returned to the south bank for the night. The divisional engineers spent the hours of darkness building a pontoon bridge across the river at Jerishe.

All was quiet until the early hours of the next morning, when a heavy counter-attack was launched by the Turkish 3rd and 7th infantry divisions. By 5.45 a.m., enemy pressure had forced the mounted riflemen right back onto the supporting infantry line in Khurbet Hadra. At 8 a.m. the British infantrymen were ordered back across the river, and the New Zealanders’ horses were sent back to the ford at the river mouth. Some of the British soldiers were killed by enemy machine gun and artillery fire as they crossed the bridge; others who tried to swim the river drowned under the weight of their packs and ammunition. Once the infantry were clear, the mounted riflemen crossed the bridge to the south bank.

The Wellington squadron in front of Sheikh Muwannis had just as hot a time. The village came under increasingly strong attack from about 6 a.m. and, three hours later, 2,000 Turks forced the Wellington squadron back into the village. The Canterbury regiment re-crossed the ford to attack the enemy’s right flank, but without effect. The British infantry withdrew across the river at the Jerishe dam, using the new pontoon bridge and boats. As soon as the infantry were safe, the horsemen galloped for the coastal ford, leaving two dismounted Nelson troops as a rearguard.

A section of machine gunners crossed the ford to support the squadrons, and two Wellington squadrons galloped across to the coast to provide further support from the south bank. As soon as the horsemen from Sheikh Muwannis were across, the South Islanders began their own fighting withdrawal, stepping back through successive fire positions.

The Turks advanced to within 400 metres of the river, but made no attempt to cross. The New Zealanders moved back to high ground overlooking the south side of the river and dug in, expecting the enemy, now reported by air reconnaissance to be 5,000 strong, to chase them across the river. The Turks, satisfied to have regained the river line, spent the afternoon digging in along the high ground on their side of the river. At 7 p.m. the NZMR Brigade was relieved by infantry battalions and moved back to bivouac.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission records indicate that ten NZMR men were killed in action that day, with another man dying of wounds two days later. The Turkish 3rd and 7th divisions suffered 437 casualties, including about 86 fatalities.
11/7/2007, 7:22 am Link to this post Send Email to Terry Kinloch   Send PM to Terry Kinloch
ghosken Profile
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Re: The New Zealanders and the Battle of Nahr el Auja - 24 November 1917

Thank you for that, Terry. Very interesting.
11/7/2007, 9:21 am Link to this post Send Email to ghosken   Send PM to ghosken

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