We enjoyed a few days of peace until 4th January, when we were relieved by the 6th Royal Welsh Fusiliers of the 53rd Division and marched via Shafat to El Aziriyeh, the ancient Bethany. This is on the east side of Jerusalem, just round the southern shoulder of the Mount of Olives.
The line here was still quite close to the city and we had no doubt we were to do here what we had just done in the north – provide a lot more space between the city and the Turk.
On the edge of the village of El Aziriyeh is a small mosque with a bright blue dome, standing on a rocky spur which juts out from the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. We must have names for places – and preferably names, which are easily recognised, so these became Blue Dome Mosque and Blue Dome Spur. The courtyard of the mosque, which was enclosed by a stone wall, was used as Battalion Headquarters.
The hill positions, which we took over from the 53rd Division, had already been named by them or by their predecessors for I see that at the end of January 1918, we had “A” Company (Capt Gray) on Kent Ridge, Sussex Ridge, Scraggs Hill and Rally Post; “B” Company in Support position at El Aziriyeh and “C” Company (less two Lewis Gun Teams attached to “D” Company) also in Support at El Aziriyeh.
Every day work was proceeding in improving tracks and the Jericho Road and making new tracks, in preparation for an advance on Jericho and the Jordan Plain. Good drafts continued to reach us every few days and the War Diary on 31st January notes – “Battalion strength: 18 Officers and 632 Other Ranks”.
One morning, early in February – I think about the 10th – there was one unusual incident, which had for me a remarkable after-war sequel. Visibility was reduced to about 50 yards by thick mist or low cloud and, for about twenty minutes, we listened to the engine of an aeroplane as it circled overhead, obviously lost and trying to get sight of the ground. Its last circle sounded as if it was about to crash on us and it hit the end of Blue Dome Spur. We found what was left of the machine and the pilot about 200 yards from the mosque.
A few weeks after I got home in the spring of 1919, I ran into an old school friend – Horace Bennett – and after congratulating each other on having survived and exchanging news on where we had been, he then said – “But we lost Charles”. I could scarcely remember his younger brother because when my friend and I had gone into the army in the first weeks of the war, Charles was just a child – to “men” of 17 years a babe of fifteen belongs to a different world. But I found that Charles Bennett was the pilot who crashed into Blue Spur in February 1918. I wonder what the odds are against a happening such as this.
I wish I had words adequate to describe the beauty and grandeur of the views from the Mount of Olives. Looking towards Jerusalem, that is to the west, the whole city is laid out at one’s feet – the ancient walls enclosing the Old City; the vast paved area, which is the site of King Solomon’s Temple and which now has at its centre the great Dome of the Rock – more usually called the Mosque of Omah; and the Mosque of El Aksa which is after the Kaaba at Mecca, the most holy place in the Moslem world. And, of course, Jerusalem has the most sacred of all places to both Christian and Jew.
Looking half-right, we see Nebi Samwil six miles away, like a hand pointing up into the sky. Straight ahead, beyond Jerusalem, is the country around Heart and Liver Redoubts and Deir Yasin where the battle for the city was fought.
To the left – that is to the south – one cannot quite see Bethlehem. Although only five or six miles away, there is higher ground in between which screens Bethlehem from view.
Between the city and the Mount of Olives is the Vale of Kidron with the Garden of Gethsemane and running along the bottom is the road to El Aziriyeh (Bethany) and the Jordan Valley.
Now turn your back on Jerusalem and look east. At your feet, the ground falls away, fold after fold for fifteen miles or so to the Jordan Valley. The ridges all seem to run across your front, that is from north to south and although, in general, the ground is falling away all the time – falling about 4,000 feet in the fifteen miles, there are here and there a few great masses towering up into the sky. The most notable of these are three, which dominate the whole area for miles around and were the bastions of the new Turk line. From the left, they are named Talaat ed Dumm, Jebel Ekteif and El Muntar.
The vital road from Jerusalem to Jericho is dominated by Talaat ed Dumm.
Looking down into the Jordan Valley, one is too far away to see anything in great detail, but the line of the River Jordan can be picked out by the vegetarian along its banks. The northern end of the Dead Sea, where the river runs into it, can be clearly seen.
To the left of the Jericho Road is a great wadi of enormous depth and with sheer sides of rock most of the way. At no place between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley is it possible to cross from one side to the other. This for most of its length is the Wadi Farah but when it gets to within a few miles of the Jordan Valley, it becomes the Wadi Kelt. Although impassable, the distance across, at ground level, is not great.
Jericho cannot be seen from the Mount of Olives as it is too close to the last line of hills and is, as it were, tucked under the last ridge.
Beyond the Valley, which is about ten miles across with the River running down the middle, is the reverse of what we have on the Jerusalem side. Fold after fold of hills climbing up from 1,400 feet below sea level to about 2,500 feet above, so that it is about 4,000 feet up to Amman, high up in the Mountains of Moab. From the Valley to Amman, the distance is about 25 miles on foot – or 15 miles as the crow flies.
It was in this vast wilderness between Jerusalem and Amman, where everything is on a gigantic scale and where the fantastic comes to be accepted, as normal, that the 60th (London) Division was to fight its last battles during the next three months – to early May. And to be broken up in June 1918.
During 18th and 19th February, we were closing up on the Turk defences at Talaat ed Dumm, Jeel Ekteif and El Muntar. We were perhaps four miles east of Jerusalem and these Turk defences were about nine miles from the city. The Division had 181 Brigade on the left and they were north of the Wadi Farah, then 180 Brigade in the centre with our left on Wadi Farah and 179 Brigade on the right.
The objective of the Brigade was Talaat ed Dumm and for the 179th Brigade, it was Jebel Ekteif. To their right, El Muntar would be taken by the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (known as the Anzac Mounted Division) in cooperation with 179 Brigade and this Mounted Division would then get through the gap of six miles between El Muntar and the northern end of the Dead Sea. They would clean up the Jordan Valley, west of the River and far north to cover Jericho.
During the 18th, a lot of ground was cleared without serious opposition, but the 19th produced stiff resistance. During both these days, the Battalion was led by “A” and “D” Companies under Major Crabbe. The most serious resistance on the 19th was met by the 2/20th Battalion, who were thrown back three times from Arak Ibrahim and the high ground east of it until, after heavy artillery preparation, they carried it at the fourth attempt.
The advance this day represented a gain of about three miles at it deepest – and the Brigade was now in a position from which its start line for the assault on Talaat ed Dumm on the following dawn could be reached. A fairly heavy counter-attack came in at dusk on our two companies – falling mainly on “D” Company. The Turk came over three times before, at about 2100 hours, he finally decided that enough was enough.
Before dawn on 20th February, the 2/19th Battalion and ourselves – the front line battalions of the Brigade – were in position in the Wadi Sidr below Talaat ed Dumm. Our leading companies were “B” and “C” – Captains Murray and Standrick. They were a little perturbed to find no one on their flanks but, recognising that the men involved were few in relation to the immense area, decided they would take for the top as soon as our guns opened.
“B” Company went up in two waves – the first wave under 2/Lieut Edwards consisting of bayonet men only, and the second wave Lewis Gunners and Rifle-Grenade men, leaving a small nucleus of signalers and a carrying party under CSM Parkes. Climbing as fast as the slope would allow, they reached the shelter of a line of rock quite near the crest and stopped for a short breather. They then rushed the top; the Turk faded away and they were left in position and possession.
The weight of fire had sounded heavy but casualties were amazingly light. Capt Murray was away on his right flank getting Lewis Guns into position when he was shocked to find no one on his right where “C” Company should have been. Then a Runner arrived with news that “C” had suffered heavily, that both Officers were casualties and the Company not far from its start line. Sending word to 2/Lieut Edwards to take over “B” Company, Capt Murray sprinted down the hill to “C” Company where he found Capt Standrick killed, Lieut Patrick badly wounded and quite a number of casualties, It seemed that “C” Company had received a concentration of fire – which may well have accounted for the comparatively easy passage of “B”.
Capt Murray brought “C” along and got them into position on the right of his own Company and heard, at once, that 2/Lieut Edwards was now a casualty – so he found himself with two Companies and no Officers. However, he coped all right (I think Captain Murray would have coped with almost anything) and the rest of the day was fairly uneventful.
The taking of Talaat ed Dumm was complete by 0715 hours but 179 Brigade were delayed in their attack on Jebel Ekteif by the extreme difficulties of the country. About 0830, the Civil Service Rifles stormed the first line defences and this enabled the two brigades to co-operate. The London Irish, on the right of 180 Brigade, and the Brigade Artillery were, from this point on, able to give strong support to the left of 179 Brigade. They took the summit of Jebel Ekteif at about noon.
The whole Division was delayed as much by the almost incredible difficulties of the ground as by Turk resistance but, by dusk, the day’s advance was about three miles.
Once the Division had taken Talaat ed Dumm and Jebel Ekteif and the Anzac Mounted Division together with (I think) the London Scottish had taken El Muntar, our great strength in mounted troops had no trouble in clearing the Jordan Valley for some miles – in fact, there was really no line on which the Turk could stand before the River Jordan.
The last we saw of the Turk this day, the 20th, was at 1800 hours when about 400 were seen withdrawing and were heavily machine-gunned and scattered by “D” Company.
2/Lieut Edwards was wounded in his first action as an Officer. He was one of the colour-sergeants left at Chelsea to help train the 2nd Battalion on its formation and had been with “B” from the start.
Capt Standrick was a great loss. He had been with us from the early days in France and had been with the 1st Battalion before coming to us. He was one of the “characters” of the Battalion. He had a ready wit and very considerable ability and our occasional efforts to amuse ourselves during dull periods would often find him providing the best “effort” with a stump speech – or, give him a “text” and he would preach a sermon at the drop of a hat. A wonderful ”turn”, which I recall after a gap of more than fifty years was the night he was given as his text “Goosey, Goosey Gander”. What he deduced from that old nursery rhyme, of the deplorable habits of that gander, would have made Sherlock Holmes sound like a beginner in the science of deduction.
The night of 20th/21st February passed in some discomfort with heavy rain and high winds, but soon after dawn conditions improved. Rain was slight and there was a heavy mist rising from the Dead Sea.
We moved forward at 0800 hours without opposition until we were looking from the last ridge on to the Jordan Valley, with Jericho looking a much more attractive spot than it turned out to be on closer inspection. We were perhaps a mile to the right of Jebel Kuruntal – traditionally the Mount of Temptation, which has a rock face as sheer as the side of a house, dropping many hundreds of feet to the valley below. At the foot of Jebel Kuruntal is Jericho.
Away to our left, that is to the north, the Anzac Mounted Division soon cleared the valley for a few miles beyond Jericho and in front of us all the ground up to the line of the river.
We remained in this position for three weeks or so but sent detachments down into the valley for specific tasks. For instance, on 1st March, “D” Company left for a position beyond Jericho to act as escort to a 60 Pounder Battery an, on the 4th, “A” Company relieved “D” of this duty. From March 5th to 8th, a composite half company (50 other ranks) under Lieutenants Hurley and Cuolahan made an extensive reconnaissance of the Plain as near as possible to the River Jordan. Also the scouts were busy under Lieut Antill.
On 15th March, a Guard of Honour of 100 left for Corps Headquarters on the Mount of Olives. HRH The Duke of Connaught presented Honours and Awards at a big ceremonial parade and it was, of course, fitting that we should provide the Guard of Honour for our Honorary Colonel. The Guard Commander was Capt Crosby (with 70 of his own “C” Company and 30 from “B”) and had with him Lieut CS Williams and 2/Lieut Caton.
Late the same day, orders were received for operations against Es Salt and the Hedjaz Railway at Amman; operations to being in five days’ time.
The plan can best be described as a giant raid – to cross the River Jordan and the five miles of the Valley to the foothills, then to drive twenty miles or more into the mountains of Moah to Amman (about 4,000 feet higher than the Jordan Valley) where we would blow in a tunnel, thereby blocking the Hedjaz Railway for the rest of the war. We would then return to the river.
Our Divisional Commander would command the operation and the troops assigned to it would therefore be known as “Shea’s Group”. In addition to its own 60th Division, he would have also the Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, a Brigade of Mountain Artillery, the Light Armoured Car Brigade and two Bridging Trains.
I have said that when one looked east from the Mount of Olives, one was struck by the vastness of everything; the words “awesome” and “colossal” come to mind. So I have given the composition of Shea’s Group and the task of this “Raiding Party” to illustrate what is meant when I suggest that everything had suddenly become “larger than life”. Hitherto, one had thought of a raid as involving ten or fifteen men, or perhaps one hundred – quick in and quick out; say, fifteen minute from start to finish. Everything here really was much larger than life size.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th, we had very heavy rain; the Jordan overflowed its banks and the Wadi Kelt was a torrent. However, the morning of the 20th was fine and bright – and sun helmets were issued!