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Before the end of our time of preparation, however, methods were evolved to deal with this nuisance, and the enemy was kept in ignorance of our movements and intentions with that success which always attended the efforts of General Allenby in this direction. An enemy staff document, subsequently captured by us, and dated just prior to the commencement of the operations, stated that: 'An[Pg 6] outflanking attack on Beersheba with about one infantry and one cavalry division is indicated, but the main attack, as before, must be expected on the Gaza front.' How far wrong was this appreciation of the situation will be apparent later on. The same document also stated that we had six infantry divisions in the Gaza sector, whereas at the time there were only three.
The Royal Air Force was an important factor in denying information to the enemy during the latter part of our time of preparation. One of the first things the Commander-in-Chief had done on his arrival at the front, was to re-equip the force completely. Hitherto the German Flying Corps had done what it liked in the air over our lines. For several months on end our troops had been bombed, almost with impunity, every day. Our own pilots, starved alike of aeroplanes and of materials for repairs, gingerly man?uvring their antiquated and rickety machines, fought gallantly but hopelessly against the fast Taubes and Fokkers of the German airmen, and day by day the pitiful list of casualties that might have been so easily avoided grew longer.
In four months all this had changed. Our pilots, equipped with new, up-to-date and fast machines, met the Germans on level terms, and quickly began to obtain supremacy in the air. By the end of October this supremacy was definitely established, and the few enemy pilots who crossed our lines at that time flew warily, ever on the look-out for one of our fighting machines.
The country occupied by the opposing armies varied considerably in character. The district near the coast consisted of a series of high dunes of loose, shifting sand, impassable for wheeled traffic. Farther east the ground became harder, but it was still sandy[Pg 7] and heavy going for transport. Eastwards again, towards Beersheba, the country changed to a wilderness of bare, rocky hills, intersected by innumerable wadis (dry river beds). These wadis were, for the most part, enclosed between limestone cliffs, sometimes 100 feet or more in height, and impassable except where the few native tracks crossed them. The whole of this part of the country was waterless, except for three very deep wells at Khalasa and one at Asluj (all of which had been destroyed by the Turks), and some fairly good pools in the Wadi Ghuzze at Esani and Shellal. In Beersheba itself there were seven good wells.
Northwards of the enemy's positions, between the Jud?an mountains and the sea, stretched the great plain of Philistia, a strip of rolling down-land fifteen to twenty miles wide, admirably suited for the employment of mounted troops.
The appointment of General Allenby, himself a cavalryman, to the command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, presaged the employment of cavalry on a much larger scale than had hitherto been attempted. From his first study of the problem before him, the new Commander-in-Chief realised the predominant part that cavalry would play in the operations, and devoted himself, with his customary energy, to organising a force suitable for the work in prospect.
For the advance across the Sinai Desert from the Suez Canal, a special force had been organised, under the command of Sir Philip Chetwode. This force, which was known as the Desert Column, consisted of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (which then included the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Brigade), the 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry), and the 42nd and 52nd Infantry Divisions.
The 2nd Mounted (Yeomanry) Division, which had arrived in Egypt in April 1915, had been sent to Gallipoli dismounted. After the evacuation of the peninsula, part of this division had been remounted. The 5th Mounted Brigade had taken part in the advance across Sinai, and other units of the division had been employed in the campaign against the Senussi, and in the Fayoum and other parts of Egypt. Most of these scattered units had been collected prior to the first battle of Gaza, and organised into two divisions of four brigades each, including a new brigade of Australian Light Horse (the 4th) which had been formed, partly out of Light Horsemen who had returned from Gallipoli, and partly out of reinforcemen
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