The only road to the east is the Jerusalem/Jericho/Amman road, which crossed the River Jordan by a bridge about seven miles from the point where it flows into the Dead Sea; this road bridge is at El Ghoraniyeh. About mid-way between El Ghoraniyeh and the Dead Sea is an ancient ford at Makhadet Hajlah. There is an old monastery at Hajlah a few hundred yards back from the river on our side.
The plan was for the main crossing to be made at El Ghoraniyeh by the 2/17th Battalion, to be followed by the 2/20th, and Brigade Headquarters also stood at Ghoraniyeh. A secondary crossing would be attempted at Hajlah by the 2/19th Battalion, supported by the London Irish.
The road bridge to Ghoraniyeh had, of course, been destroyed and the attempt to get rafts across was discovered almost before it had started – the Turk being there in strength and very much on the alert. The start was made soon after midnight on the 21st and half an hour later, 0045 on the 22nd, to say that success seemed unlikely is an understatement.
At about 0115, word came from Hajlah that the 2/19th Battalion had got swimmers across without an alarm being raised and another message shortly after reported the first three rafts safely across. The Brigadier at once stopped operations at Ghoraniyeh, switched his Headquarters to Hajlah, and instructed the 2/20th to get to Hajlah with all speed.
At Hajlah, the 2/19th swimmers, led by Lieut Jones, took stout cords across to the other side and then pulled stone ropes across and tied these to trees or rocks on the far bank. Using these ropes, rafts were then pulled across. Each raft carried twelve – three rows of four (from front to back), the centre row of four being Lewis Gunners. Something like 300 were across before the Turk knew what was happening.
The London Irish reached Hajlah at midnight on the 21st, just as the attempts to cross started. Next morning, the pontoon bridge was completed at 0730 hours, by which time the whole of the 2/19th were already across. The London Irish used the bridge immediately – “A” Company (Capt Gray) and “D” Company (Capt Manning), under Major Crabbe, crossed and took over the left section of the bridgehead at 0800 hours. A composite company (what was left of “B” and “C” Companies after the Guard of Honour had been found by them) under Lieut Cuolahan, together with Battalion Headquarters, crossed at 1030 hours under long range machine gun fire.
At 1315 hours, the 2/19th Battalion and the London Irish tried but failed to take high ground which overlooked the pontoon bridge. Resistance was stubborn and there were too many machine guns for our present strength. At midnight, strengthened by the 2/20th Battalion from Brigade Reserve, this high ground was taken.
On the 23rd, our 179th Brigade passed through us and worked north to Ghoraniyeh and another pontoon bridge was quickly put under construction there. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade passed through in the early morning and quickly cleared the plain up to the foothills about four miles away. About thirty prisoners and some machine guns were handed over to us “for safe custody” by the Auckland Mounted Rifles.
Among the prisoners handed over was a German Medical Officer who had a gunshot wound in one ankle and we were very impressed by his appearance. He looked as if he might have just stepped off the Unter den Linden. His dignity made quite an impression as did the pleasant manner in which he told us, not boastfully but with friendliness, that if we were to drive in to Damascus and beyond it was not important, because Germany had already won the war in France – the British and French Armies had been separated, Amiens was occupied and hundreds of thousands of prisoners taken. This was our first news of the German offensive on 21st March 1918 when our Fifth Army was in bad trouble. I don’t think we believed it – and in any case we had our own problems but of course it was close to the truth.
Late on the 25th, the Brigade was in Divisional Reserve at Shunet Nimrin, which is the point where the road enters the foothills of the Mountains of Moab. The other two brigades were pushing on up into the hills towards Es Salt and Amman.
A few miles beyond Shunet Nimrin, the road becomes unsuitable for wheeled traffic and we were all busy improving the road and tracks to aid the passage of mules and camels. On the 27th, the Guard of Honour re-joined from Jerusalem, having marched eighteen miles that day to get back to us.
On the 28th, the 2/17th Battalion and ourselves, both under Lieut Col Dear DSO of the 2/17th, left at 1400 hours and were on the move until 2200, when they halted for thirty minutes and then pushed on for another ninety minutes, before they halted for the rest of the night, under orders of the 18th Brigade.
On the 29th, orders were received for an attack on Amman next morning. The plan called for “A” and “D” Companies to advance along and clear the open ground known as Citadel Hill as far as Wadi Amman – the start to be at 0200 hours on the 30th. The other half of the Battalion, under Capt Crosby, was attached to the Imperial Camel Corps and was under their orders for the attack.
On the 30th, due to rain and difficulty country, daylight found “A” and “D” Companies on the ridge south of Citadel Hill and, although this was quickly corrected, they were held up at 0600 hours, while still 1,000 yards short of the Citadel, by heavy rifle and flanking machine gun fire.
At 1400 hours, instructions came from 181st Brigade to attack the Citadel at 1500 hours but although we made about 600 yards, we were stopped 400 yards short of this objective. Our guns were very few, due to the immense difficulty of getting through the impossible country from Shunet Nimrin and we needed a great weight of fire to prepare the way for an infantry assault if it was to have any real chance of success.
At about 1100 hours, one company of the 2/17th Battalion under Capt Ross had arrived, but the Brigadier General Commanding the 181st Brigade would not allow it to be used to support this attack on the Citadel. This was a strong company, whereas our “A” and “D” Companies together by this time numbered only 85 rifles.
Obviously, the BGC 181 Brigade had his reasons for holding back this company of the 2/17th Battalion and it must be said this situation may well have been causing him some anxiety. His Brigade, plus 2/17th Battalion and the London Irish, were at the apex of a thrust which had come twenty five miles up from the Jordan Valley to the Hedjaz Railway at Amman and the Turk had now had three days in which to bring up help by rail from the north into our left flank, and by rail from the south into our right flank – each flank now at least twenty five miles in length.
At 2200 hours on the 30th, orders came that, on receipt of the code word “Holiday”, the two companies would withdraw – and at 0110 on the 31st, the word came. The half battalion withdrew at 0200 hours after evacuating all wounded, burying the dead and destroying all enemy rifles and stores.
A few miles from Amman, our “B” and “C” Companies re-joined from duty with the Imperial Camel Corps and the Battalion stopped for the night at 2300 hours on the 21st. It will be seen that the Battalion had been in close action from 0200 hours on the 30th until the start of the withdrawal at 0200 on the 31st – and was then on the move continuously for 21 hours before stopping for the night. Next morning, 1st April, the Battalion moved at 0900 and reached Shunet Nimrin at 1400 hours.
The 180th Brigade held Shumet Nimrin as rearguard, while 179 and 181 Brigades passed through between 0430 and 0600 hours the following morning and then started to withdraw at 1400 hours. The 2/20th Battalion and the London Irish were rearguard for the brigade and it was good to see the two battalions, about 1,200 yards apart, carefully keeping pace with each other across the five miles of fairly level ground from the foothills to the wired Bridgehead, which was usually called “The Birdcage”. There were no problems during this time and we entered the Birdcage in the early evening. Our Brigadier held the perimeter wire.
Next morning, 3rd April, enemy mounted patrols were seen about 1,000 yards off and were of course, fired on and disappeared in the scrub. At 1300 hours, we were relieved by the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and proceeded to Kherbet Kakun, which we reached at 1800 hours. This is remembered as a very hot and exhausting march across the Plain, through Jericho, and the start of the climb up into the hills to the region of Talaat ed Dumm.
After three days resting, we returned to the valley as reserve to the cavalry holding the Bridgehead and to the Camel Corps holding the line of the Wadi Aujah ie the northern outposts on the Jordan Plain. This was our role until the 18th.
During the 18th and 19th, the Brigade took part in a “demonstration”, the purpose of which was to raise as much dust as possible on the plain to give the enemy the impression of converging columns gathering for attack. The enemy positions, at and around Shunet Nimrin, were heavily shelled at this time. We then moved back to Talaat ed Dumm, arriving just after midnight on the 20th. The Division, now in Army Corps Reserve, moved at 0330 on the 21st to a new camping area on the Mount of Olives.
The general idea was that we were now to have a long period of peace and everyone was kept busy “smartening up”.
After long months of intense activity, no one looking us over, even with the most sympathetic eye, could have failed to note that our turnout fell somewhat below that customary with troops about to relieve the Guard at Buckingham Palace. We were now camped within a few hundred yards of Corps Headquarters – and word was passed round that we must now get down to some real soldiering!
On the more serious side, there was the urgent need to train more specialists – Lewis Gunners and Signalers.
This peace time atmosphere came to an abrupt end. It lasted just five days for, on 27th April, we moved back to our old camping area near Talaat ed Dumm, where we spent one night.
The next seven days was a period of intense exertion for the whole Division – and was the last battle of the Division before it was broken up.