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The Middle East Devils in detail

JOANNA MOSS, a Wellington civilian with a special interest in the Sinai/Palestine area, talks with Terry Kinloch. author of Devils On Horses. Moss says Anzac Day 2011 brought a fresh realisation that the efforts of New Zealand’s mounted rifles regiments in the World War I Sinai/Palestine campaign have not received due recognition. These soldiers have been called “the finest body of men ever to serve overseas”, yet many New Zealanders have never heard of the campaign, let alone the horsemen. A ready glance at library shelves reveals many World War 1 books on Gallipoli and the Western Front, but you have to look hard to find much information about the Sinai/Palestine campaign. Moss says Kinloch’s detailed Devils on Horses is, therefore, an important addition to the official World War 1 history of the Sinai/ Palestine campaign by C. Guy Powles and the associated three individual regimental histories published in the 1920s (some available online at supplemented by individual soldier biographies. Lt Col Terry Kinloch began studying medicine and served in the Territorials before joining the New Zealand Army as an officer in 1983. He joined Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles, which provided a squadron to the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment in World War 1. The many campaign photos on the regimental headquarters walls stimulated his interest, and a book he bought on the unit’s history further whetted his appetite to write about New Zealand’s World War I mounted riflemen. It has been a 20-year journey into military history for Kinloch. In 2000­01 he was posted to Sinai as the New Zealand contingent commander in the Multinational Force & Observers. His previous book, Echoes of Gallipoli, also dealt with New Zealand’s mounted riflemen, but focused on their involvement with the Gallipoli campaign. During his career Kinloch has gained an understanding of the importance of terrain in warfare, and its effect on tactics, logistics and equipment. He brings this knowledge to bear in both his books.

Your book on the Sinai Palestine Campaign filled the last major gap in New Zealand military history.

How did you come to write it?

Christopher Pugsley’s Gallipoli book made some mention of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, but I felt there was more to tell. I started collecting materials from 1984 until around 1999. New Zealand’s various archives are full of diaries and official records, some of which had never been opened since they were lodged. I began writing in 2000, and it took about seven years to completeboth books.

What impact did your Sinai service have on writing the book?

I was based at North Camp near El Arish, close to several World War 1 battle scenes in the Sinai. From there I was able to travel around and visit the battle sites. In terms of the campaign’s 14 major battles, I’ve visited all the sites except those on the West Bank and in Gaza. If I had not gone to Sinai I probably
would not have written the book. To my mind, a military historian has to walk the ground; otherwise you can’t do the story justice. In Sinai you appreciate the importance of water in desert campaigning, and the influence of it on where you fight. By living there myself, albeit in much better conditions, I came to understand the limitations; for example, just how hard it is to run in boots in the deep, loose sand that our troops encountered.

How different is a book written by a soldier as compared to one by a civilian?

Well I’m a soldier writing about other soldiers. I think that gives me a deeper understanding of the hardships, the nature of orders, the tactics employed, the confusion and the mistakes that are part of the reality of conflict. Soldiers know what an enemy can do to them and just how difficult fighting is. Civilians
sometimes fail to appreciate that mistakes will be made, and that you are fighting an enemy with a mind of his own. Commanders always have limited information, and that information is never enough; they make the best decisions they can.

After World War 2, the lack of detailed information on World War 1 battles was acknowledged and Sir Howard Kippenberger was instructed to prepare detailed accounts of all the major World War 2 battles. Just how deficient are the World War 1 books on the Sinai Palestine campaign written in the post-war decade?

Everything is covered in terms of the major events and the commanders involved, but the context is missing – the wider reasons behind the campaign and the respective roles of the other players (the Turks and Germans, the Australians and the British). Overall the “official history” is a very uncritical piece of work, and some things are not treated adequately. Basically these are books written by officers for the soldiers of the campaign. They assume huge amounts of information; at the end of
the campaign every soldier was given his own copy of his regiment’s history. I tried to give plenty of context to individual battles and the campaign overall, and to make it readable to the modern-day civilian. I was also very conscious of the need to fill in the gaps for history’s sake.

So what sorts of people buy your book?

I wrote it primarily for the descendants of the soldiers, usually people with no background knowledge, to help them understand the campaigns their forebears fought in. Many readers have appreciated the value of family diaries and have decided to have them lodged with archives. It has been gratifying hearing
from people who’ve read the book and say they now understand what their relatives went through all those years ago.

What aspects of the book are the most meaningful to you? What was unexpected?

I’m glad the information is now out there and available to people. It needed to be there. In researching, I was unprepared for all the details that were available in terms of the volume of diaries,
official records and the photographs that were retained (some of which I used in my book). The topography of the hills between the Jordan Valley and the heights around Amman was unexpectedlysevere, as was the impact of tropical disease on the soldiers. When I first saw the Jordan Valley and the
approaches from it to Amman, I was astonished at how steep it all was. And then to factor in that our soldiers had to take horses, camels and guns up that slope in pouring rain and in the face of the enemy, it was almost unfathomable.

Which battle stood out to you?

The first Battle at Amman was probably our hardest fight. The fighting took place over several days, a very long way from British bases in the Jordan Valley with very little support available. The fighting did not go our way, and we had to withdraw a very long way in dreadful conditions, at night, and under the noses
of the Turks. It was a case of carrying wounded men out in blankets, of strapping men with broken bones onto horses – quite a few of them did not survive.

The New Zealand Mounted Rifles have been described as “the finest body of men ever to serve overseas”. This is a huge claim, how would you sum it up?

I wouldn’t really want to compare them with other contingents, but they were very successful. They were a close-knit bunch, and their relatively low casualty rates meant hard-won experience was
retained. Although they faced a tough enemy in the Turk, they were not exposed to the full horror of the industrial warfare on the Western Front. There was more room in the open spaces of the Middle East for initiative and leadership, and our mounted riflemen took advantage of these opportunities. It was a lengthy campaign and the soldiers became bored, and just plain weary and frustrated. By the time the troops were facing their final battle, General Allenby noted they were “ghosts”, a shadow of their former selves. They had little endurance left in them. But, luckily for us, the Turks were in worse shape.

What lessons did the New Zealanders learn from the Sinai Palestine campaign given that they would fight in the Middle Eastern desert in World War 2?

Our experiences in the desert campaign of 1916-1918 taught us much about fighting in harsh conditions, and we quickly learnt what we needed to know. A small number of mounted riflemen took that experience into the Western Desert in World War 2, but this time their mounts were armoured vehicles. The climate was the same, but the enemy was much more capable, and the requirements of maintaining vehicles were quite different from keeping horses fit. The supply chain was better, and water was less of a problem.



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