Hard yakka for Bill Massey tourists in Si­nai cam­paign

Mounted New Zealand sol­diers in Si­nai found them­selves in a cam­paign gov­erned by wa­ter, writes

The Southland Times - - Flashback - Joanna Moss is Welling­ton re­gional co-or­di­na­tor for the New Zealand Friends of Is­rael, with a spe­cial in­ter­est in An­zac Is­rael. Joanna Moss.

The heat in sum­mer was so in­tense, up to 45 de­grees Cel­sius in June, that it melted some of the sol­diers’ gear and made fight­ing al­most im­pos­si­ble be­cause the metal was too hot to touch.

It has been a cen­tury since the New Zealand Mounted Ri­fles found them­selves at the turn­ing points of the Si­nai and Pales­tine cam­paigns in the Mid­dle East as a tiny part of the Al­lied forces.

While the Si­nai cam­paign (1916-17) was the first ma­jor step in the Al­lied sol­diers’ win over the Ot­toman Em­pire’s Turk­ish and Ger­man forces, in late Septem­ber 1918 the fight was not yet over.

The goal was to se­cure the Suez Canal – a vi­tal trans­port route be­tween the In­dian Ocean, the Mediter­ranean Sea and Europe – to avoid the need to travel around Africa and push the Ot­toman forces back to­wards Turkey.

The New Zealan­ders tak­ing part in the cam­paign were dis­parag­ingly called ‘‘Bill Massey’s tourists’’ but there was far more sand and thirst than tourism.

The New Zealand Mounted Ri­fles, joined by the NZ Ma­chine Gun bat­tal­ion and reg­i­ments of the Aus­tralian Light Horse Bri­gades, com­pleted their cam­paign in Jor­dan in late Septem­ber 1918.

Bill Massey’s tourists faced hard labour, a com­bi­na­tion of end­less sun, sand, heat, thirst, mos­qui­toes, flies and bore­dom cou­pled with ra­tions that lacked nu­tri­tion and be­came mo­not­o­nous to eat.

The heat in sum­mer was so in­tense, up to 45 de­grees Cel­sius in June, that it melted some of the sol­diers’ gear and made fight­ing al­most im­pos­si­ble be­cause the metal was too hot to touch.

Win­ters brought snow. Es­sen­tially, it was a cam­paign gov­erned by wa­ter, where progress could be made only when wa­ter could be as­sured for man and horses alike.

These troops re­mained be­hind in Egypt af­ter the main body left for the Western Front, af­ter Gal­lipoli, es­sen­tially to guard the canal.

In Jan­uary 1916, they trekked east­ward from Cairo along the coastal route to Rafah and into Gaza.

In early 1917, there was an im­passe over Gaza for sev­eral months be­fore Gaza was fi­nally taken in Oc­to­ber.

From there the troops went in­land to take Tel Sheva, the an­cient mound out­side Beer­sheba, paving the way for the des­per­ate Aus­tralian charge in the dusk on Oc­to­ber 31, to cap­ture the wells.

Wa­ter re­mained scarce and so they pushed on north­ward.

The Ki­wis then fought alone at the bat­tle of Ayun Kara be­tween Ness Ziona and the mod­ern city of Ris­hon LeZion on Novem­ber 14 to ce­ment a last­ing link with its in­hab­i­tants be­cause of the Ki­wis’ hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts. The Turks were on the run and New Zealand sol­diers en­tered the an­cient city of Jaffa two days later to find the place aban­doned and in a des­per­ate state. A month later, the fo­cus had switched to the Judean Hills but the Ki­wis re­mained in the coastal re­gion ini­tially while Bri­tish Gen­eral Al­lenby’s forces took Jerusalem on De­cem­ber 9.

By mid-Fe­bru­ary 1918, the Ki­wis were in Beth­le­hem and head­ing down to Jeri­cho in the in­hos­pitable Jor­dan Val­ley.

They crossed the Jor­dan on March 24 but were forced to re­treat in April af­ter de­feat at Es Salt; which was later cap­tured.

The troops left the Jor­dan Val­ley in early Oc­to­ber and re­turned to their old camp­site in Ris­hon LeZion. But it would be a long time be­fore they would see home.

To­wards the end of the cam­paign, the ef­fect on the troops was ev­i­dent, they were a shadow of their for­mer selves. Many had malaria, and lice were ram­pant be­cause of a lack of wa­ter for wash­ing in.

They fought in iso­lated, harsh con­di­tions to­tally for­eign to them, a far cry from the green of colo­nial New Zealand.

New Zealan­ders played a small part in paving the way for the mod­ern state of Is­rael to be es­tab­lished and thrive.

There are 246 sol­diers who lie buried in Is­rael and Gaza, but along the way a lot more blood, sweat and tears was shed.

Mounted ri­fle troops and horses in the moun­tains of Pales­tine dur­ing the Si­nai and Pales­tine cam­paign (1916-1918) in World War I, by an uniden­ti­fied pho­tog­ra­pher. ALEXAN­DER TURN­BULL LI­BRARY


A New Zealand bat­tle­field mon­u­ment near Ness Ziona, Is­rael.


Negev Desert was a bat­tle­field in 1917.

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