DEVILS ON HORSES:
THE NEW ZEALAND MOUNTED RIFLES BRIGADE
article by Terry Kinloch
Founding member of the NZMRA. Current serving officer with the New Zealand Army.
Author of two books on the history of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
"Echoes of Gallipoli: in the Words of New Zealand's Mounted Riflemen"(Exisle, 2005). "Devils on Horses: in the words of the ANZACS in the Middle East 1916-19"(Exisle, 2007).
Throughout the war reinforcements were continually
being trained and sent from
New Zealand to bring the Brigade
back up to strength.
Above the hat badge of
the 14th Reinforcements.
Clifton Bellis, a New Zealand veteran of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns in the First World War,attended the fiftieth commemoration of Anzac Day at Gallipoli in 1965. He wrote:
In conversation with two Turkish officers who were on the Sinai front, they told me that the Anzacs were always referred to by the Turkish soldiers as ‘ devils on horses’ , the reason for this being that they never knew where they would strike next. The Turks’ reconnaissance planes would report no movement at enemy camps at sundown, yet by daybreak the Anzacs would be attacking a position twenty miles away from their base, which the Turks had never thought possible.
Amongst the men the Turks were talking about were the members of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade. When the Main Body of the NZEF sailed from New Zealand in October 1914, a quarter of its men (1,940) and more than half of its horses (2,032) belonged to the NZMR Brigade . The brigade was arranged in three regiments (the Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury mounted rifles regiments, each of 549 men and 608 horses) and medical, engineering and support units. Each regiment contained three squadrons and a machine gun section. A squadron of 158 men fielded four troops, each consisting of eight four-man sections. Within each section, one man was responsible for holding the horses when the other three dismounted for action. The structure of the brigade in 1914 is illustrated below.
The mounteds, as they were commonly known, expected to win their laurels in a short, sharp, victorious fight against the Germans in Europe. Many of them believed that they would be away for just a few months. Instead, the brigade did not return to New Zealand for nearly five years. During that time, the mounted riflemen fought, not the Germans, but the Ottoman Turks in Gallipoli, Egypt , Palestine , Syria and Jordan . The timeline below summarises their war.
NZMR BRIGADE WAR DIARY 1914
Expeditionary Force offered by New Zealand government
Departure of NZEF Main Body from New Zealand
NZEF Main Body disembarked in Egypt
Arrival of NZMR Brigade at Gallipoli
Defence of Anzac
Attack at No. 3 Outpost
Capture of Sari Bair foothills
Defence of Chunuk Bair
First attack at Hill 60
Second attack at Hill 60
13 September-10 November
Resting of brigade on Lemnos
Evacuation of brigade from Gallipoli
Formation of Anzac Mounted Division
Defeat of Turks at Battle of Romani
Capture of Magdhaba
Capture of Rafah
Failure of first attempt to capture Gaza
Failure of second attempt to capture Gaza
Gaza-Beersheba Line broken in Third Battle of Gaza
Defeat of Turkish counter-attack at Ayun Kara
Failure to hold bridgehead across River Auja
Capture of Jericho
Failure of first attempt to capture Amman
Failure of attempt to capture Es Salt
Capture of Amman
Ottoman Empire signs Armistice
Suppression of Egyptian revolt in the Nile Delta
NZMR Brigade disbanded
Last NZMR contingent sails from Egypt for New Zealand
The Turk was a tough and courageous fighter, especially effective when fighting from defensive positions. He could never be taken for granted, and he inflicted defeats on the New Zealanders throughout the war. In addition to this human enemy, the mounteds also had to contend with venomous snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and giant tarantula spiders, in their beds and in their boots. They lived and fought in blistering heat and numbing cold, often made worse by suffocating sandstorms and freezing rain. They lived for years amongst an indifferent or outright hostile local population. Their food was often poor, and clean water was a luxury for much of the war. They enjoyed few of the compensations available to the rest of the NZEF in France and Belgium. Leave was available, but almost never further afield than Egypt. Rest periods in friendly French villages, or in England, were an impossible dream for the mounteds. To add insult to injury, their efforts were often belittled at home. Some ill-informed New Zealanders considered them to be little more than tourists in uniform, enjoying the sinful pleasures of the East while the New Zealand Division fought the ‘real’ war in France and Belgium.
On the positive side, their casualties were a fraction of what the rest of the NZEF suffered in the war. According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records and NZEF casualty rolls, 599 men in the NZMR Brigade lost their lives as a result of the Gallipoli campaign. Around 521 others died during the remaining three years of fighting. Two thousand mounteds were wounded during the war, and many hundreds of others suffered from debilitating sickness.
At the end of it all, they came home and were forgotten. Today, when one thinks about New Zealand’s involvement in the Great War, it is Gallipoli, the Somme, and Passchendaele that come to mind. It is not generally known that 17,723 New Zealanders, nearly one fifth of the total embarked strength of the NZEF, were mobilised for service in the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade during the war.
Mounted riflemen (and the Australian equivalent, the light horse) were not cavalry. They were not trained in the traditional cavalry role of attacking enemy cavalry on horseback with swords or lances. Instead, mounted riflemen used their horses to move quickly around the battlefield. When they gained contact with the enemy, they dismounted and fought him on foot with rifles, bayonets and machine guns. They did perform some secondary cavalry tasks such as reconnaissance and providing security for the infantry. Mounted rifles regiments were much smaller in size than infantry battalions. After taking out horse holders and others, a complete mounted rifles brigade of three regiments could put only as many riflemen into a firing line as a single infantry battalion. The brigade was well equipped with modern rifles, but it had only a few Maxim machine guns at first. Its mobility meant that heavy artillery support was not usually available.
The mounteds could travel far and quickly. This high degree of operational mobility had a down-side: they could ride into trouble quickly, but they lacked the firepower and numbers to as easily disengage from enemy contact. Mounted rifles units, when operating independently, could run the risk of being isolated and destroyed by superior enemy forces – and it did not take a very large enemy force to outnumber or out-gun a mounted rifles regiment. The need to water the horses regularly meant that a sustained assault was not possible, at least in the desert. The horses were very vulnerable to enemy fire, especially when concentrated under cover during dismounted action. All of these factors made the command of mounted riflemen a delicate balancing act of risk versus benefit.
NZEF commander Major General Godley appointed Colonel Andrew Russell, a Hawkes Bay farmer with formal British military training and some operational experience, to command the brigade in 1914. The three regimental commanders, lieutenant colonels Mackesy, Meldrum and Findlay, were sound leaders with extensive experience gained over many years, although only Findlay had served in the South African War.
As with the rest of the NZEF in 1914, the men of the brigade were all volunteers. Not all of them came from the land. In the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, for example:
There were lawyers and schoolmasters and students; there were bushmen and farmers and stockmen; there were tradesmen and labourers and clerks; one single tent in the Epsom camp included a schoolmaster, a barber, a coach driver, an accountant, a carpenter, a farm labourer, a commercial traveller, a farmer and a lawyer.
The NZEF convoy was diverted to Egypt in November 1914 to help guard the Suez Canal against Turkish attack, and also to gain better training grounds than would be available in the United Kingdom. This was expected to be a short-term diversion, with onward travel to the Western Front expected at any time. Their time in Egypt was indeed brief, but for a different reason.
The NZEF was committed to the Gallipoli invasion in March 1915. After being left behind for the landings on 25 April (these were considered to be ‘an infantry and artillery job’), New Zealand’s mounted rifles brigade and the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade were called forward in early May, without their horses. Most of the mounteds were excited at the prospect of some fighting at last, even if it had to be as infantry. Generals Hamilton and Birdwood had wanted 1,000 mounted riflemen and light horsemen as individual reinforcements to build up their weakened infantry battalions on Gallipoli, but they received two complete brigades instead. As it turned out, this was a good decision, as the extra men and the brigade headquarters staffs proved to be very useful on the peninsula.
From May until December 1915, Russell’s mounted rifles regiments had their full share of the fighting on Gallipoli, and they suffered heavy casualties. The original brigade that left Egypt for Gallipoli was effectively destroyed in its first three and a half months on Gallipoli. The mounteds earned a reputation for dogged defence, initiative, and resourcefulness, especially as scouts. They fought early, hard actions at The Nek and at No. 3 Outpost . On 19 May, a week after their arrival on the peninsula, the New Zealand regiments helped to fight off a massive Turkish attack (‘The Defence of Anzac’) at The Nek. The Aucklanders bore the brunt of the assault at The Nek, losing 23 men killed and about the same number wounded. The reliability and discipline of the mounteds in this action first marked them out as superior troops.
The mounteds made the foothills and valleys of the Sari Bair range to the north of Anzac Cove their own from almost the day they arrived. Led by Major Percy Overton, Russell’s ‘patrol master’, New Zealand mounted riflemen scouted the ground thoroughly, providing evidence that this area was lightly defended. Their reports suggested that the area was a likely option for a break-out from the Anzac perimeter, and contributed to Hamilton’s decision to stage his next major offensive there.
The mounted brigade played an important role in the battles for the Sari Bair range in August. Old No. 3 Outpost, Destroyer Hill, Table Top, Bauchop’s Hill, Walden’s Point and Chunuk Bair were all fought over by the mounteds, and they suffered heavy casualties. Their work in securing the western foothills of the range was described by the Australian official historian, Charles Bean, as a ‘magnificent feat of arms, the brilliance of which was never surpassed, if indeed equaled, during the campaign’. British praise was equally generous:
It would be difficult to praise too highly the conduct of the New Zealand troops engaged in these encounters. Thanks to the dash and initiative displayed, which was never surpassed in the whole Gallipoli campaign, the majority of the Turkish outposts north of Anzac had now been accounted for, and the way was clear for the advance on Chunuk Bair.
The success of the mounted regiments merits further comment. They attacked and seized six enemy posts at the point of the bayonet (their rifles were unloaded), at night, entirely without covering fire, and often in the face of heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire. Only a few of the officers and men had traversed the very difficult country before, and the regiments had to make converging attacks in the dark while adhering to very tight timings. This latter aspect was the only one in which the brigade failed, with the last of the posts being declared secure two hours late. Nonetheless, the mounteds had once again shown themselves to be reliable and determined fighters.
On 8 August 421 men of the Auckland and Wellington mounted rifles regiments reinforced Lieutenant Colonel Malone’s Wellington Infantry Battalion on Chunuk Bair. The two regiments were decimated as they hung on to the crest for another 30 hours in the face of fierce Turkish counter-attacks. On 9 August, they were replaced by two British battalions. Only 95 mounted riflemen walked off the hill.
The NZMR Brigade (including the attached Otago regiment and the Maori Contingent) had 1,900 fighting men on 5 August. 500 men of the 5th Reinforcements arrived during the battle, bringing the total fighting strength to 2,400 men. Within a week the brigade had lost 151 men killed, 485 wounded and 53 missing – a total of 689 casualties.
After the failure of the August offensive, the weakened brigade had one more ordeal to endure. At Hill 60, 236 more mounteds lost their lives between 21 and 30 August. Their efforts throughout August earned them high praise, and boosted their self-confidence in spite of their terrible losses. When they were evacuated to Lemnos Island for a month’s rest in September, only about 250 mounted riflemen left Gallipoli from an initial strength of almost ten times that number. The rest were dead, already evacuated sick or wounded, or on their way home, unfit for further service. The losses of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment throughout the Gallipoli campaign are illustrated below. The other regiments suffered similar casualty rates.
The Destruction of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment on Gallipoli
Decreases in fighting strength are due to men being killed, wounded or sick. Significant increases are due to the arrival of reinforcements, with lesser increases reflecting the return of men from hospital. Source: Wellington Mounted Rifles Regimental War Diaries, WA 42/1, Archives New Zealand.
The NZEF was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915. 599 men of the NZMR Brigade were already dead, or would soon die from wounds or sickness as a result of the campaign. Another 970 had been wounded. The survivors returned to Egypt to rebuild their strength.
With Russell having left the mounted rifles brigade to take up the command of the New Zealand Division shortly before the evacuation, Brigadier-General Edward Chaytor had taken over the command of the mounted rifles brigade, which was quickly remounted on its New Zealand horses. In April 1916 the majority of the NZEF (including a squadron of the disbanded Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment) went to France, leaving the NZMR Brigade behind in Egypt to help defend the Suez Canal against the Turks. Many of the riders had already tasted defeat at the hands of the Turks on Gallipoli, and they felt they had a score to settle.
The NZMR Brigade was one of four mounted brigades making up the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (commonly known as the Anzac Mounted Division). At first it was the only mounted formation in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) under the command of General Sir Archibald Murray. Murray was responsible for the defence of Egypt (which really meant the defence of the Suez Canal) against the Turks, who were expected to follow up their success at Gallipoli with an invasion from Syria (the southern part of which, Palestine, is now Israel). Murray decided that the best place from which to defend the canal was from the Syrian border, and this is what he set out to do in mid-1916. The mounted troops had made the most of the intervening months to learn the art of desert survival.
The Anzac Mounted Division led the way across Sinai in 1916, almost single-handedly defeating the Turks at Romani, Magdhaba and Rafah. The Battle of Romani, in August 1916, was their first fight as a mounted brigade. The battle was won, but a complete victory was denied through stubborn Turkish resistance and poor command decisions at critical times. The New Zealand brigade performed well enough for its first effort, although one British cavalryman described them as ‘marvelous fellows, but very slow’. In the finale to the Romani battle at Bir el Abd, the Anzac Mounted Division was launched at a stronger-than-expected and very aggressive Turkish rearguard, and the New Zealanders came close to being pinned down and destroyed. They escaped through the execution of a textbook fighting withdrawal, supported by covering fire from their horse artillery and machine guns.
By Christmas 1916, the EEF had reached the southern border of Syria. Along the way, the NZMR Brigade played an important part in two small-scale battles at Magdhaba and Rafah that resulted in the capture of two unsupported Turkish rearguard regiments. Rafah has been described as ‘New Zealand’s day’. Murray had abandoned the fight when the New Zealand mounteds made a final bayonet charge under intense enemy fire, covering three hundred yards ‘in two grand rushes’ and captured a key part of the enemy redoubt. One Australian Light Horse brigade commander was reportedly heard to shout to his troopers to ‘attack at once or those N.Z. b... s will take the lot!’
In early 1917, Murray’s army invaded southern Syria. The Anzac mounted troops played a leading role in the eventual capture of Gaza and Beersheba, and in the pursuit of the defeated Turks across the Plains of Philistine and up into the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem. At the first battle of Gaza, the New Zealand mounted rifles and the Australian light horse were close to capturing the town when Murray ordered them back, fearing a Turkish counter-attack. Before they withdrew, some enterprising Wellington troopers made good use of a captured German field gun to blast an enemy post in a house into submission, by sighting through the open breech. Not being trained artillerymen, they were as dangerous to themselves as they were to the enemy. The first round ploughed up the ground in front of the muzzle, while the recoiling gun ran backwards over the amateur gun crew and tried to climb a tree.
In the reorganisation of the EEF that followed the failure of Murray’s second attempt to take Gaza, Chaytor took over the command of the Anzac Mounted Division. He handed over the NZMR Brigade to the Commanding Officer of the Wellington regiment, Bill Meldrum. In the Third Battle of Gaza in October 1917, the New Zealanders captured the important redoubt of Tel el Saba, from where they watched the now-famous Australian Light Horse charge into Beersheba.
Two more stiff fights took place at Ayun Kara, just south of the modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv, and across the river Auja, in what is now a northern suburb of the same city. The battle at Ayun Kara was the worst single day in the mounteds’ war since Gallipoli, with 44 men killed and 141 wounded. 41 horses were also killed. The Auja fight, which took place ten days later, resulted in another 54 casualties. One veteran, Trooper O’Neill, dismissed all of these battles, stating that, as far as he was concerned, the greatest victory won at this time was the capture of the wine cellars near Jaffa ‘which they held against all comers for over a week’.
Moving down into the inhospitable Jordan Valley in 1918, the Anzac Mounted Division captured Jericho and the western banks of the Jordan River. From the Jordan Valley, the New Zealand brigade took part in two unsuccessful raids across the river against the Turks in the highlands around Es Salt and Amman, and along the Hejaz Railway. The first raid in March 1918 was particularly costly, with 38 New Zealanders killed, 122 wounded and 13 posted as missing. In both raids, the division was extracted from threatening situations by well-conducted fighting withdrawals and by the fighting skill and tenacity of the troopers. On 23 March, the Auckland regiment made a rare mounted charge against Turkish cavalry:
Without a second’s hesitation, Lieutenant Tait with his 20 men armed only with rifles, galloped at the sabres. The Turks showed some spirit, and attempted to ride the North Aucklanders down but they broke and fled before the troopers who fired as they galloped forward. The Arab horses of the Turkish cavalry were no match for the swift and powerful mounts of the riflemen.... No less than 20 of the Turks were shot down during this wild ride, and seven were taken prisoner. The Aucklanders had only one casualty, the gallant troop leader, who was shot dead.
In the finale to the First World War in the Middle East, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade crossed the Jordan River once again in September 1918 to play a major role in the capture of Amman and the entire Turkish 2nd Corps. With its armies in Palestine, Syria and elsewhere soundly defeated, the Turks sued for peace at the end of October 1918.
The Anzac Mounted Division here ended a very fine fighting record. It had taken a gallant part in practically every engagement since the E.E.F. had set out from the Canal two and a half years previously. In its hour of triumph, malaria and the flu epidemic swept through the New Zealand brigade, killing dozens of men (including some Gallipoli veterans). Eleven Canterbury mounted riflemen died of disease while on Gallipoli as part of the occupation force.
Their return to New Zealand was delayed because of a lack of shipping, and most of the men of the brigade took part in the suppression of riots in Egypt before finally returning home in mid-1919.
Roll-over map: Regions in New Zealand relating to the formation of the Mounted Rifle Squadrons. (roll cursor over map for squadron locations).
4th July : ... this night ... glory be, saw a wonderful sight on the starboard horizon, the Southern Cross. It made home seem so much nearer. They came home without their faithful horses. One quarter of the 6,265 horses sent overseas to serve with the brigade became casualties during the war, including 370 which were killed by enemy bombs and artillery fire. New Zealand’s quarantine regulations prohibited the return of horses from the Middle East, so most of the surviving horses were passed on to British Army garrison units at the end of the war. A few older animals were sold to local Egyptians or Arabs, or shot. One horse, a mare named Bess, did make it home.
So ended the career of the soldiers’ best friends – the lovely horses. It was a sad parting for many of the lads who had had only the one horse throughout the campaign.
On their return to New Zealand, it was acknowledged by some that their war service had not received due recognition:
These men of ours played a glorious part in the smashing of Turkey, and their name will ever be associated with one of the most brilliant campaigns in history.... The Mounted Brigade has never had from the public the credit that was its due.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade received glowing praise from senior commanders during the war and from many commentators afterwards. The formation was considered by many to be one of the best brigades to fight on Gallipoli. In August 1915 General Hamilton wrote of them:
Those New Zealanders and Australians, and, best of all, the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and above all the last named, are the flower of our troops or of any other troops in the world.
In Egypt, General Murray considered the Anzac Mounted Division to be the best force under his command. Lord Allenby wrote in 1926 that none of the troops he commanded during the war were better than the New Zealand mounted riflemen:
Their discipline in camp, their dash in action, their endurance in retirement and their vigour in pursuit were unsurpassable. Everything they were called upon to do they did with the greatest efficiency....
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade performed consistently well in the three and a half years that it took part in combat operations. On Gallipoli it helped fight off the heaviest Turkish attack ever launched there, within just a few days of its arrival on the peninsula. Its work in securing the approaches for the infantry in the August Sari Bair offensive is one of the few successes in that overall failure. From Romani to Amman, the New Zealanders took part in every major battle fought by the EEF in Egypt and Syria. The brigade did not beat the Turks in every encounter, but, when it lost, it was not through a failure of resolve or of tactical command. There are many factors that contributed to the effectiveness of the brigade, only a few of which can be addressed here.
The New Zealand brigade was particularly fortunate in its commanders, particularly at senior level. Russell was an able commander who led the brigade on Gallipoli with skill. He was one of the few senior officers to come off the peninsula with his reputation intact. Chaytor was a careful planner and a brave commander, of whom it was written by an Australian that he was ‘one of those rare soldiers who did everything in this prolonged campaign so surely, thoroughly and yet so quietly and with such apparent ease that it might be said that no task set him between the canal and Amman was big enough to test his full capacity’. Meldrum, the last commander of the brigade, earned a reputation as an aggressive fighting leader who nonetheless tried to secure his battle objectives at minimum cost in lives.
When compared to the NZEF as a whole, the ranks of the mounted brigade included a slightly larger proportion of men with previous war experience. Most of this came from the South African War, where over 6,500 men served in ten New Zealand mounted rifles contingents. This experience must have contributed something to the effectiveness of the brigade when it began similar mobile operations against the Turks. Too much should not be made of the influence of the earlier war; only 160 mounted riflemen in the Main Body had previous war experience, and their numbers must have declined as the First World War dragged on. Chaytor’s South African War experience was perhaps of the greatest significance. He gained experience in commanding mounted troops in prolonged, long-distance dispersed operations. He also learnt how to exploit ground, and how to preserve men and horses in demanding climates. He also forged important relationships with other commanders, most notably Chauvel, and these stood him and his command in good stead in the First World War.
The training of the mounted rifles brigade was another key factor in its performance. Before the war, the mounted rifles regiments were considered by some observers to be the best-trained troops in the Territorial Force. General Hamilton, the British Army’s Inspector-General, wrote of them in 1914:
New Zealand is fortunate in being able to muster at a very moderate expense such a fine body of men as the mounted rifles. The higher commands are in capable hands, the instructors are able, and all ranks are animated with a keenness and initiative that deserve high praise .... I should esteem myself lucky indeed if ever I had the good fortune to encounter Continental cavalry in reasonably broken ground with them at my right hand.
This is not to say that the mounteds had nothing to learn. Most importantly, the majority without South African War experience lacked a good understanding of the importance of the care of horses over prolonged operations in harsh conditions. Lieutenant- Colonel Arthur Bauchop, the future commander of the Otago regiment, wrote in The Cavalry Journal in 1914 that ‘The New Zealand mounted rifleman, although a good rider, cannot be considered a good horsemaster’.
Before and after Gallipoli, the operational tempo permitted thorough and ongoing training of both officers and men. Mainly for logistical reasons, the war in the Middle East proceeded in a very stop-start manner, with relatively long quiet periods between active operations. The EEF’s advance across Sinai to the border of Syria proceeded at the pace with which the railway and water pipeline was laid across the desert. The mounted brigade’s first fight at Romani took place more than three months after the brigade began desert operations in Sinai, and four more months passed between that battle and the next, at Magdhaba. It took another nine months for the EEF to break through the Gaza-Beersheba line. This slow operational tempo allowed the regiments to be rotated out of the front line regularly for weeks at a time, for rest and for training.
Men in the NZEF signed up for the duration of the war. In contrast, in the South African War, it was usual for men to serve for one year before they were replaced by a new contingent. This factor, combined with the relatively low casualty rate experienced by the mounteds after Gallipoli, meant that hard-won experience was retained, and there was little need to constantly re-train new men.
In 1918 Chaytor declined the opportunity to re-equip the Australian and New Zealand regiments under his command with swords, thereby avoiding a significant additional training burden for what he believed to be an unnecessary change.
The horses were a major contributing factor to the success of the mounted rifles brigade. The mounteds rode New Zealand horses almost exclusively, and they were well served by them. An efficient remount and veterinary service maintained the horses in good fighting condition throughout the war, although remounts stopped coming from New Zealand in late 1916. New Zealand’s horses gained a reputation for toughness and endurance that was second to none. At least once, New Zealand horses went 72 hours without water, and they regularly had to put up with very poor rations. The horsemastership of the New Zealanders had to be high to preserve the horses under these conditions. The men got used to the idea of having to keep one horse fit and well day after day, week after week, and the incidence of sore backs and other horse maladies was maintained at a low level throughout the war.
The mounteds were good, and they knew it. They were aware that their predecessors had performed well in the South African War, and they considered themselves to be the elite of the Territorial Force. They took this high opinion of themselves to the Middle East in 1914. They guarded their reputation fiercely, and anyone who let them down was left in no doubt of his error. When they were beaten, they did not blame themselves. When they were successful, their confidence grew. On occasion, easy successes or misleading intelligence led them to stick their necks out a little too far. Each time, they were reminded never to under-estimate the Turkish Johnnies.
The men stuck together in the face of hostile or indifferent locals and occasional criticism from home. Letters from home referring to the ‘cold-footed mounteds’ enjoying the pleasures and sun of Egypt, while the infantry fought the ‘real’ war in Europe, caused great offence and served to unite the men. They fought their war in a hostile and alien environment, where the local population either ignored them or took advantage of them. Leave in Cairo or Alexandria lost some of its appeal after the initial novelty wore off, and many men on leave soon yearned to return to the comradeship of the regiment. The small size of the mounted units, and their low losses after Gallipoli, allowed the men of the sections, troops and squadrons to develop strong bonds over the years. This cohesion contributed greatly to their morale and their effectiveness. A low incidence of disciplinary problems is symptomatic of a successful and happy force, and this is true of the mounteds. They stuck together, and incidents of crime within the units are relatively uncommon. Adjacent units of other nationalities were less safe from predation by New Zealand ‘hunters and gatherers’, but most serious disciplinary lapses occurred while men were on leave, away from the regimental environment. There were a few notable and serious lapses of discipline, but these occurred either before major combat operations (for example, the Wazzir riot in Cairo in April 1915) or afterwards, most notoriously in the so-called Surafend massacre after the Armistice in 1918.
The men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, our ‘devils on horses’, fought a long, hard war against a stubborn and tough enemy, in a hostile environment with few redeeming features, and in the face of public indifference from home. They put up with boredom, extremes of climate, disease, poor food, and bad water. They played a full part in the defeat of the Turkish Army. They were amongst the last of New Zealand’s fighting men to be repatriated after the war, and when they did get home they were forgotten. The cost in lives lost or blighted never approached the horrendous casualty lists of the Western Front, but it was nonetheless significant. Today, over one thousand one hundred New Zealand mounted riflemen lie buried in neat but lonely cemeteries, or are commemorated on memorial walls, in Turkey, Egypt, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Syria, on Lemnos Island and in Malta, Gibraltar, England and New Zealand.
The seeds of their success were sown in the South African War, where several key commanders gained valuable practical experience of how to conduct dispersed and prolonged operations in difficult country. The Middle Eastern theatre of war permitted mobile operations, the enemy was not formidable enough to prevent them exploiting their advantages, and there was ample time to train between major operations. Their equipment, especially their horses, was up to the job, and the casualty rate and operational tempo were both low enough to allow hard-won experience to be retained.
Of course, the war in the Middle East could have been won without them. In 1918, New Zealand’s contribution to Allenby’s great army of 140,000 fighting men numbered just over 2, 000 men. At the end of the war, they were outnumbered by Australian Light Horse regiments by more than five to one. The point is that our mounted riflemen punched well above their weight, as New Zealanders often do in times of war. They performed consistently well, and they deserved the praise given to them.
What they did not deserve was to be forgotten.
Clifton Bellis, ‘The Role of the Horse in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the 1914-18 War’, in D. Holden, TheNew Zealand Horseman (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1967), 56.
Adapted from Maj F. Waite, TheNew Zealanders at Gallipoli (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1919), 325-9, and L t- Col C.G. Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1922), 282-3.
The Turks prevailed in five of the twelve principal battles or actions fought against the Egyptian Expeditionary Force from 1916 to 1918.
In general, only persecuted minorities (mainly Jews and Christians) freed from Turkish oppression were genuinely pleased to see the New Zealanders and their allies.
Excluded are the casualties in the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment, which was never formally part of the NZMR Brigade.
In 1916 the regimental Vickers machine gun sections were grouped into a single squadron, and the regiments received Lewis guns, then Hotchkiss light machine guns, to replace them. These changes greatly increased the firepower of the brigade.
A single battery of horse artillery (six 13-pounderor 18-pounder field guns), provided by the British Army, was usually attached to the brigade.
Sgt C.G. Nicol, The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919 (Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1921), 3.
C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol. 2. The Story of ANZAC: From 4 May, 1915, to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1924), 576.
Brig- Gen C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, Military Operations: Gallipoli, Volume 2: May 1915 to the Evacuation (London: HMSO, 1932) 188.
Christopher Pugsley, Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984), 315.
The fighting strengths for 28 May and 22-30 August 1915 are missing from the war diaries, so strengths for these dates are estimated from other sources. Any slight inaccuracies in the daily records do not affect the overall impression.
Excluding the Otago regiment casualties.
The other three brigades, later reduced to two, were Australian Light Horse brigades.
Through no fault of their own, the infantry divisions of the EEF played a relatively small part in these battles.
T. Andrews, Kiwi Trooper: The Story of Queen Alexandra’s Own (Wanganui: Wanganui Chronicle, 1967), 147.
Quoted in Andrews, 160.
Ibid. , 191-2.
Lt- Gen Sir A.P. Wavell, The Palestine Campaigns (London: Constable, 1941, 3rd ed. ), 222.
Bess evaded the quarantine regulations by returning home via France and England. Three other horses returned to New Zealand from the Western Front.
NZ Herald, 12 Sep 1919.
Hamilton letter to Asquith dated 2 August 1915, PRO 30/57/63, The National Archives, London.
Quoted in NZ Herald, 28 Jan 1926.
To be fair, the mounted riflemen had the shortest distances to cover, over ground that at least some of them knew well, having observed and patrolled it for two months. Moreover , they caught the Turks almost completely by surprise, not giving them time to reinforce their weak outposts. Those who followed them enjoyed few of these advantages.
H.S. Gullett, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume VII: The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine 1914-1918 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1944), 354.
Of the 432 members of the Main Body with previous war experience, 37 per cent (160) were in the NZMR Brigade, which made up 26 per cent of the Main Body strength. New Zealand Expeditionary Force (Europe) 1914 – War Diary, App. 31.
General Ian Hamilton, ‘Report by the Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces on the Military Forces of New Zealand dated 4 June 1914’, in Maj- Gen A.J. Godley, ‘Defence Forces of New Zealand: Report of the General Officer Commanding the Forces for the Period from 20th June 1913, to 25th June 1914’, (Wellington: 1914) , paragraphs 102-5.
In addition to being a good rider, a horsemaster also knows how to keep horses fit and healthy for prolonged periods. Lt- Col A. Bauchop, ‘The New Zealand Mounted Rifles’, The Cavalry Journal, Vol. 9 (Jan 1914), 95.
Excluding the deaths in the Otago Mounted Rifles Regiment.