War Memoir of Robert Ellwood

Ellwood: Magdhaba was a very interesting experience for me. We conditioned our horses – it was a long trek – we conditioned our horses to only have one drink a day and extended that up to 16 or 12-14 hours or something between drinks and we left camp about four in the afternoon I think. We marched all night and marching was interesting. It was a matter of marching for an hour – no marching for 50 minutes – and then having a 10 minutes halt.

There were big long camel trains, supply column I think. They used to have two fantaasies, one on each side full of ten gallons of water, that was the load for a camel, twenty gallons, and generally, the camel is a very tame and nasty natured type of individual growls and grumbles and blew bubbles and all the rest of it, badly, but on this occasion, he must have gone berserk, because he just opened his mouth and he made a grab for this native who was his keeper, or whatever you like to call him, he grabbed him by the shoulder and he lifted him, they’ve got big long necks, you know, and he just shook him like a terrier shaking a rat and then dropped him and went to kneel on him with his knees and stomp him out. But they prevented him and he was taken away, he must have had a shoulder like a piece of mashed potato. The only time I saw a camel attack a man.

But something I’d like to tell you about is the feeling for your horses and man.

When you went into the night and getting near the early morning the horse and the man used to both get sleepy and when orders would come through to halt for the ten minutes the men would just throw themselves down – with their greatcoats on if it was cold – and they’d dig their spur in the sand with the horses rein underneath it so that he wouldn’t pull away and both the man and the horse would have a ten minute snooze and on many, many occasion the horse would be awake when the whistle came for mounting and the horse would waken his owner up just by jerking at his foot, you know his leg which was stuck in the ground – the spur rather. And there was a great feeling between the two of them. I’ve seen horses and men, many of them lying down together having a rest at the ten minutes too. Anyhow that’s departing from the other thing.

We were very tired and we arrived at Magdhaba – it was a fortification barracks – I think it served as a brigade a Turkish brigade – and we went in , attacked it and cleaned the place up and that was one occasion I told you where I was miraculously saved from being killed by this flying bullet when I was sitting on a mound and one of the things that I saw about it. The old man said to me – we were in charge of the prisoners – and the old man lead the parade of what was left – we didn’t sustain many casualties it was a good show – and he marched off with the show at night no just around dusk. We’d fought all day and the thing caved in about, I suppose about four or five o’clock and he marched off with the regiment back to camp because we had a long way to go and there was no water and all that sort of business. The men were all tired and we’d cleared up our casualties and the old man said to me see that everything is evacuated OK and one thing and another and during the process I had to go along the Turkish trenches and two things I’ll never forget. I saw two women, I don’t know what they were – Turkish wives or whatever they were – but they both had holes in their head. And one in particular was a pregnant women and I can still see that infant kicking inside and its something I’ve never been able to get out of my mind.

But anyhow we cleaned up the show and I was – I forget what squadron it was – I was put in charge of the prisoners. We had about, must have had about seven or eight hundred prisoners including the whole of the brigade staff. And the old man said to me look after things Ellwood and see that everything goes all right, that’s what it amounted to. And the squadron leader took over the whole show and I was there to supervise it. That was part of my job you see. I was there to see that everything went well and was done properly. And we marched through the night with the officers in a small batch on the side of the column and the column of prisoners and protected with both flanks by our pickets or our sentries or whatever you like, you know. And we marched back to – I think we were outside of El Arish if I remember rightly.

Anyhow it was a long journey but coming back – something that I have never forgotten and it was very, very – to me it had a significance, I could be wrong. But during the march past something happened to only a few people and it was of such importance or such unusual thing that it was never spoken of but it leaked out and then became more public but I am as sure as I am of sitting here that I rode over a dead city buried – at least an old fashioned dead city buried at least oh a couple of hundred feet below the surface of the sand. Mind you and not only did I see it but as I say it gradually filtrated or leaked out that others had seen it but only – it wasn’t recognised, it wasn’t seen by everybody that had marched down. Do you follow what I mean? In other words I have the feeling that somehow there was a city or a town covered by the winds and the sand for many generations. And they’ve been doing a lot of excavation of course in Egypt around about the desert there for a long time. But I’ll never forget that. I still have the feeling – it wasn’t mental exhaustion because we were more mentally exhausted through our night escapades and one thing and another than we were that night and yet it was something that happened on that night and that night only and only visible and only known to a few people and some of those people came from as high as headquarters. That was Divisional Headquarters not only Regimental Headquarters. So you can just have your own opinion of what it was. Or whether it was a mental aberration or exhaustion or what but not to me. There were things there, I could see the steeple of a church even now. And I could see carts, old fashioned carts in the road way and oh.

Turnbull: And you could see people?

Ellwood: No, no I never saw any movement of any description. None whatever. No I never saw even the remains or a sign of anything. It was just a dead city and I suppose it covered an area of 100 acres, somewhere about that.

Turnbull: Did you speak with anyone about it at the time?

Ellwood: Not until it began to leak out that others had seen it. And then you were very, very cautious who you spoke to in case you were laughed at. You were disbelieved by 90% of the people excepting those who actually saw it. But it was never openly discussed or made public. Anyhow probably I’m making too much of it Doctor. It was something that impressed me and I’ve never forgotten it as a matter of fact and I was all through the whole show I never saw anything like it before or afterwards. And I was always just as tired as anybody else mentally. Anyhow we arrived back early the next morning I think it was. It was a long march and to keep our horses away from the water when they smelt it was a man sized job.

Turnbull: Magdhaba was about 27 miles away and it was a long practically unknown and waterless track, but spite of that and the fact that the column had just had one nights march, General Chetwood decided to surprise the Turks there at dawn on December 23rd, with the mounted troops of his command. viz: the First, Third and the New Zealand Brigades and the Imperial Camel corps. the 18th Brigade, Honk Kong and Singapore Mounted Battery. After a long and tiresome wait for to come up we accordingly started on the night of the 22nd for Magdhaba, C squadron second regiment being the advanced guard. The enemy position was very difficult to locate, his trenches were beautifully sighted. The attack was open by the Camel Brigade. The first Brigade went in on their right, the third brigade a New Zealand Brigade on their left. Practically enveloping the position. The situation was that the Turks were sitting on the only water within miles of the position I’d have to be taking we would go thirsty for at least 24 hours. That much you think is a pretty fair assessment of the situation.

Ellwood: Yes.

Turnbull: The Turk had ever proved himself as splendid and stubborn fighter and in this case we found the job much more difficult than had been anticipated. This regiment was not engaged as a unit, having been detailed as Brigade, reserve and split up in several jobs. The final result however was largely contributed to by the energy of Major Markwell, who gathered up some details of third regiment, in addition to three troops of B squadron . the second regiment under Major Chambers and successfully led them against the chief remaining enemy redoubt. Major Birkbeck skilfully led two troops right round the position and threatened a mounted attack from the enemy’s only line of retreat. This manoeuvre decided the Turkish command to hoist the white flag. The entire force surrendering. Lieutenant Gurrin of this regiment and his troops just beat the third brigade into Magdhaba itself. The enemy forces of about 2,500 was captured or killed and the first regiment was detailed to clear up and battle field and bivouac for the night. The second regiment was detailed to escort the prisoners to Ell Arish. Another night march thus being necessary. during the previous 84 hours we had practically no sleep so the journey back was by no means a pleasant one, men fell fast asleep on their horses or camels some falling off. Most of us experienced optical delusions induced by what of sleep. Now you never spoke to Bourne about your

Ellwood: That puts to rest my ideas doesn’t it. Optical delusions.

Turnbull: But you are still very much convinced by what you saw?

Ellwood: Very much so. It was a very strenuous time and we also had very strenuous times other periods too. But of course those things are at that time about that time, it may have been the influence but they we occupied or one of the units, I don’t know who it was, occupied a position which we looked upon, our show and me in particular, as mount Sinai. and when they woke up in the morning or I don’t know when they woke up but when morning came they found they were standing on a mosaic of some description exposed just a very small portion of it. Probably as big as your hand. or something else. And it wasn’t long before there were people there with shovels and notes books and sketching and a few other things and removed all the sand from this mosaic. It measured about from here to that door there and probably about half the size of this and it was supposed to be the floor of some church. I forget the name of it now and the bones of ah I forget, St. Peter or somebody was supposed to be underneath it. but it wasn’t long before it was very very hush up affair and how I come to know about it was that I was sent there to protect the place against any ah sight seers or anybody without the authority of headquarters. And it was well protected and it finished up by being broken up after it had been sketched and one thing and another and hush hush back to Australia. And before it got half way home it leaked out to Allenby what had happened. And he kicked up a shindig. Because the British government would have grabbed it you see and instead of that, Chauvel was Chauvel and Padre Woods who was the chief chaplain at uh corps headquarters, and between the two of them they had the whole thing hush hush and on its way to Australia before the British people knew that we were under their command of course and they were have grabbed it – at the present time it has been put together and is on exhibition in the museum down there. Do you remember it?

Turnbull: That’s the one I the War Memorial is it?

Ellwood: Yes. Do you remember that. They called it afterwards I think it was Mount Chelaw. Instead we always looked upon it as Mount Sinai and our trip to Magdhaba may have come before that or after that I am not sure which, but it may have had an influence on me in mentioning what I thought I saw what I saw in our return from Magdhaba. They uncovered a church on the top of Mount Sinai or Mount Chauvel, no not Mount Chauvel, ah ah the name of a waddy there, it took the name of a waddy. anyhow that knocks my idea in the head doesn’t it.

Interviewer; Well not necessarily.

Ellwood: its recorded there but I still got my opinion about it. but those things I mean they are so you have something like that happen to you there are so real in your imagination that you think they are real.

Turnbull: But you are convinced they’re real

Ellwood: I’m convinced. that I rode over…it was the old fashioned type building I can see one of the carts that was in the streets there. An old fashioned cart with the sides…