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Ayun Kara: a battle and its legacy

Gail Romano, Associate Curator War History

Ayun Kara: a battle and its legacy in two countries

Happy Christmas, Happy New Year. Thirteen years passed and the memory of the New Zealand and Australian troops, Anzac, remains carved in our hearts. You won the highest praise for your splendid valour right throughout the campaign and no less than your valour in battle was your chivalry to the people of the country. We wish you all well. We wish you a safe and pleasant life.’1

Every year after the end of the First World War until at least 1930, a version of this Christmas message from Richon LeZion in what was then Palestine was sent to selected New Zealand newspapers to be published in honour of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.2 The simple but powerful message from ‘a grateful old farmer’ specifically recognised the New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) action on 14 November 1917 'one of the toughest battles of WWI in the last of Israel'. 3 This saw the community of Richon LeZion and the surrounding countryside liberated from Ottoman control. However, it also underlines the impact of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War.

The legacy of that battle continues today in a way similar to that of the liberation of Le Quesnoy in northern France by New Zealand one year later. The present development of the New Zealand Living Memorial Museum in Le Quesnoy is testament to the strength of the ongoing relationship between Quercitains and New Zealanders, described recently by the mayor of Le Quesnoy, Marie-Sophie Lesne, as being almost like that of ‘brothers’. Ironically, despite the enormous historical and social importance of the Le Quesnoy action to those in that region, the story of New Zealand’s feat faded into the background in this country long before the First World War centenary commemorations came around. Arguably it still barely registers in our collective story of self. The same has been true of New Zealand’s significant role in freeing the communities of Ayun Kara, Richon LeZion, and Nes Ziona just one year before the success at Le Quesnoy. The New Zealand Silver Fern Memorial project proposed for Nes Ziona is in planning. Local monuments to the New Zealanders were erected in Palestine and northern France in the years following the war, and the current New Zealand-led commemoration projects honour the deep connections that the local communities feel to this country on the other side of the globe.

NZMR shoulder title. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY.\u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-807102\"target=\"_blank\"\u003e2016.56.7\u003c/a\u003e

NZMR shoulder title. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY.2016.56.7

The Mounted Rifles have largely been the forgotten men of the First World War. Once the war ended, the return of the ‘Mounteds’ from Egypt was so long delayed that they did not arrive back until well into the second half of 1919.4 In fact it was popularly joked at the time that in 1925 the War Office suddenly realised, ‘Great Scott! The New Zealand Mounted Rifles have been forgotten. They are still in Egypt.’5 In reviewing the book The Story of Two Campaigns in December 1921 the Auckland Star observed ‘There was, in fact, during the war, a disposition to disparage the mounted regiments’, based on a ‘lingering notion that their lot was easier or their work of less value than that of the infantry divisions.’6 This is a sad and remarkable reflection of the public tendency to quickly form opinion on poor and inadequate information. As early as 1916 dismissive and disrespectful references were being made. Men were hurt to receive occasional parcels from Patriotic Societies at home in which a card had been placed expressing the hope that the parcel would ‘would not reach the cold-footed mounteds in Egypt.'7 A published response in September 1917 from a group of mounted men attempted to rebut the disparaging gossip, but many troopers ‘decline(d) to speak of their experiences for fear that people may imagine that they (had) some charge to reply to.’8

Advance through Philistia: situation at 6 p.m. on 11-11-17 as known at G.H.Q.E.E.F. NB Ottoman army positions in green, NZMR circled, Ayun Kara \u0026 Nes Ziona indicated by arrow. A.H. Wilkie, Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1924, Auckland, 167ff.\u003ca href=\"https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Moun-t1-body-d2-d9.html  \"target=\"_blank\"\u003eNZETC\u003c/a\u003e

Advance through Philistia: situation at 6 p.m. on 11-11-17 as known at G.H.Q.E.E.F. NB Ottoman army positions in green, NZMR circled, Ayun Kara & Nes Ziona indicated by arrow. A.H. Wilkie, Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1924, Auckland, 167ff.NZETC

While Egypt was a staging post for the majority of New Zealand’s troops bound for the continent, it was the war theatre for three of New Zealand’s mounted regiments: Auckland (AMR), Wellington (WMR) and Canterbury (CMR). These men fought on Gallipoli as infantry and then returned to Egypt, to ‘the rigorous campaigning of the desert and the torment of the sands.’9 Unlike in the larger theatre of Western Europe, there were few war correspondents following and witnessing the Sinai and Palestine campaign so the desert war was neither as widely reported nor as well understood as that in the north. Many back home did not realise the privation and stresses of the extreme fighting the men experienced. General Edward Chaytor, New Zealand Commander of the Anzac Mounted Division, later told audiences, ‘During one period of the fighting the heat in the shade was 123 degrees. An endeavour had been made to register the heat in the sun, but no thermometer could stand the strain. All the water available was more or less bitter, and the drinking of the mineral water in the lighting area had incapacitated numbers of men. At one period the horses had to go 72 hours without water, and it spoke volumes for the care of the men for their horses when it was remembered that they lost very few.’10 

Canvas bucket. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY.\u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-777278\"target=\"_blank\"\u003e 2014.77.1\u003c/a\u003e

Canvas bucket. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY. 2014.77.1

Australian Trooper Ion Idriess, in an affecting description of horses which had been deprived of water for days, wrote of them swarming ‘like mad things, pawing, panting, jostling, straining.’11 British General Sir Archibald Murray who commanded the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) from January 1916 to mid-1917, wrote ‘I have known the Canterbury Mounted Rifles cover forty miles of heavy desert sand in thirty hours. On May 31st, 1916, the New Zealand Mounted Brigade was in action at Bir Salmana, covering sixty miles in thirty-six hours.’12 While casualty figures did not compare to those on the continent, many New Zealand soldiers lost their lives. War it was, as frightful and as harrowing as that on the Western Front, just in different terms. And the NZMR were much praised for their dedication and endurance. Murray sent a message of appreciation to the men after one trying period: ‘Whatever I ask you people to do is done without the slightest hesitation, and with promptness and efficiency. I have the greatest admiration for all concerned,’ later writing, ‘Fortunate indeed is a commander in the field who has at his disposal New Zealand mounted troops …’13 Maj. Oliver Hogue of the Australian Light Horse remarked on the Australians’ admiration for their New Zealand colleagues: ‘… I heard at Jericho an English Staff officer, who ought to know, exclaim, “The New Zealanders are absolutely the pick of the whole Palestine army,” and the Australians, without hesitation or dissentient voice, heartily agree.’14

Action of Ayun Kara 14-11-17. A.H. Wilkie, Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1924, Auckland, 167ff. \u003ca href=\"https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH1-Moun-t1-body-d2-d9.html\"target=\"_blank\"\u003eNZETC\u003c/a\u003e

Action of Ayun Kara 14-11-17. A.H. Wilkie, Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1924, Auckland, 167ff. NZETC

The worst and bloodiest day in the whole of the Sinai-Palestine campaign for this small but much-respected force came at Ayun Kara. The Ottoman troops were retreating north following the allied success at Beersheba and Jaffa, actions that ultimately saw the capture of Jerusalem and the downscaling of the Ottoman army ambitions.15 The allied troops moved north behind them with an immediate objective to sever the railway line and take control of the road between Jaffa and Jerusalem to destroy the advantage these communication lines still provided the Ottoman troops.

This Israeli commemorative video reflecting on the battle includes views today of the landscape in which the New Zealanders engaged the entrenched Ottoman troops. ‘קרב עיון קרא - The Battle of Ayun Kara’, presenter Michal Levy, translator Dalia Lahav-Jones, producer Yeshekel Zilberstein, [2019].

As part of this offensive the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were to capture the village of Ayun Kara. About noon on November 14 as they were approaching their goal, the Mounteds ‘were fiercely attacked in the open rolling country that is characteristic of the maritime plain of Palestine. There was practically little or no cover, and the men could not entrench themselves. So they simply had to hang on to this rise in the ground that takes its name from a small neighbouring village of the fellaheen, or peasants. Auckland Regiment held the left, which rested on the edge of the sandhills, Wellington the centre, and Canterbury the right. The Turks evidently wanted to gain time, and they launched a division against this small handful of New Zealanders, with the evident intention of annihilating them. They attempted to turn the New Zealanders left flank, and Auckland and Wellington had the worst of the fighting, the heaviest falling on Auckland.’16

New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron regimental badge. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY. \u003ca href=\" https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_humanhistory-object-807114\"target=\"_blank\"\u003e2014.77.1 \u003c/a\u003e

New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron regimental badge. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. © Auckland Museum CC BY. 2014.77.1

All afternoon the fighting was fierce, mostly close range with bayonet and grenade the New Zealanders supported only by the small number of machine gunners attached to the regiments and four guns of the Somerset Battery. Before the fighting was done, in desperation the AMR’s Commanding Officer called in ‘all the cooks, signallers, gallopers, horse holders and batmen in his regimental headquarters and sent them into the firing line.’17 AMR trooper Benjamin Marle wrote ‘The casualties were something awful, and the most astounding thing is that any of us are left to tell the tale. When we got a view of the Turks retreating we fully realized what we had been up against. I don’t think I am exaggerating a bit when I say there were eight Turks to every man of us.’18 One Auckland survivor called their survival ‘more of a miracle than anything else. If we had retired it would have meant disaster to us, and probably to the rest of the brigade’, adding, ‘How the position was held I do not know… When the Turks unexpectedly retired towards nightfall our ammunition was almost exhausted, and our line was very thin.’19 While exact numbers are not known, the New Zealanders at Ayun Kara numbered 700-800. Near 50 are known to have died and about 140 wounded. Around 40 horses were lost. An assessment by the British official historian that ‘the bulk of the much-depleted 3rd [Infantry] Division was engaged against the New Zealanders’ suggests an Ottoman force of between 1000 and 1500 men.20 A video published by the New Zealand Defence Force in 2017 describes the battle.

Rishon LeZion was liberated the following day and ‘Crowds of residents of the … settlement held an excited and festive welcome for the heroes of the battles. In their honor, all the dignitaries of the city and its residents flocked to the place, men and women, and children. The grateful residents of Rishon always remembered the miracle of their liberation from Turkish rule and carried this memory with them for many, many years.’21 On the centenary of the liberation descendants of the Mounted Rifles were invited to Richon LeZion for the commemoration.

In an Israeli commemorative video to mark the battle, presenter Michal Levy asks during a visit to the Ramleh War Cemetery in Ramla, ‘Did they know what they were sacrificing their lives for? We will never know. But we will remember them forever because their victory in battle enabled the long process that led to the establishment of the state of Israel. And for that we are deeply grateful.’22

Monument to the New Zealanders paid for by the Jewish settlement of Richon LeZion completed early October 1918 shortly before the memorial service on anniversary of the battle. Unknown photographer, Peter Hatwell, WMR. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. No known copyright restrictions.\u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/record/am_library-photography-17436.\"target=\"_blank\"\u003e PH-ALB-380-p8-1\u003c/a\u003e.

Monument to the New Zealanders paid for by the Jewish settlement of Richon LeZion completed early October 1918 shortly before the memorial service on anniversary of the battle. Unknown photographer, Peter Hatwell, WMR. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. No known copyright restrictions. PH-ALB-380-p8-1.

Graves of WMR troopers killed at Ayun Kara 14 November, 1917. Edward Gordon Williams, photographer. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. No known copyright restrictions.\u003ca href=\"https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/collection/object/am_library-photography-16126\"target=\"_blank\"\u003ePH-ALB-214-p79-1\u003c/a\u003e

Graves of WMR troopers killed at Ayun Kara 14 November, 1917. Edward Gordon Williams, photographer. Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. No known copyright restrictions.PH-ALB-214-p79-1

Lest we forget

Kei wareware tātou


References:

1 ‘Chivalrous Anzacs’, New Zealand Herald, 16 December 1930, 8. Note the number of years, 13, is calculated using the Jewish (Hebrew) calendar (1917 = 5678 1930 = 5691). Reference.

2 Richon second oldest Jewish colony, founded in Palestine in 1882 on a parcel of land given by the local village of Ayun Kara.

3 קרב עיון קרא - The Battle of Ayun Kara, presenter Michal Levy, translator Dalia Lahav-Jones, producer Yeshekel Zilberstein, [2019].

4 ‘Soldiers Return’, Auckland Star, 8 August 1919, 6.

5 C. G. Nicol, The Story of Two Campaigns: Official War History of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914-1919, Wilson and Horton, 1921, Auckland, 239. Journalist Charles Gordon Nicol, who prior to enlistment was a sub-editor at the New Zealand Herald, was a member of the Auckland Mounted Rifles and was gravely wounded on Gallipoli on 11 July 1915 subsequently losing his right hand.

6 ‘Story of Two Campaigns’, Auckland Star, 31 December 1921, 13.

7 ‘Cold-footed mounteds’, Wairarapa Daily Times, 20 December 1917, 5.

8 ‘Palestine Campaign’, New Zealand Herald, 12 September 1919, 7.

9 ‘Return of Mounted Men’, New Zealand Herald, 8 August 1919, 6.

10 ‘Anzac Mounted Division’, Otago Witness, 9 December 1919, 61.

11 ‘… at sight of water we could not hold [the horses] … immediately we got our buckets full all horses rushed us. A dozen gasping mouths into one bucket – struggling animals, shouting men, rattling of stirrup irons, pressure of horses’ bodies, spilled water – open-mouthed men trying to catch the splashes from the buckets – plunging circle after circle around each [five gallon zinc water vessels], horse-holders with straining arms finally dragged over in the sand. It soon ended, but the horses struggled to lick the wet sand, eyed, swollen tongued.’ Trooper Ion Idriess, Australian 5th Light Horse Regiment quoted in Glyn Harper Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-18, 2015, Exisle Publishing, 488.

12 General Sir Archibald Murray, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., C.V.O., D.S.O, ‘Introduction’, in The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, Lieut.-Colonel C. Guy Powles, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, XII.

13 C. G. Nicol, 105; Murray in Powles, XII.

14 Oliver Hogue quoted in Harper, 537.

15 Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920, Allen Lane, 2015, 353.

16 ‘Kubeibe Ridge’, Auckland Star, 14 November 1925, 14.

17 Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses, Exisle Publishing Ltd, 2016 (pbk), 222.

18 Marle quoted in Kinloch, 226.

19 ‘Fighting in Palestine’, New Zealand Herald, 22 March 1918, 6.

20 Kinloch, 226; Andrew McRae, ‘Commemoration of the Battle of Beersheba in WW1’, RNZ, 31 October 2017. 

21 קרב עיון קרא - The Battle of Ayun Kara

22 קרב עיון קרא - The Battle of Ayun Kara

Cite this article

Romano, Gail. Ayun Kara: a battle and its legacy. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 9 November 2022. Updated: 11 November 2022.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Ayun-Kara