Irishman Major John Howard Alexander came from the Royal Engineers in 1916 to become O.C. Anzac Mounted Division, Field Engineers. His innovation and design enhanced, and greatly improved water pumps of the day. His developments allowed the Anzacs to cross the Sinai Desert with great speed. By driving "Spear Point Pumps" with either sledge hammers or monkey-pulley bars the Engineers were able to penetrate quickly through loose sand to access water tables found in depressions beneath Hods. A process that bypassed the time consuming traditional well-digging with pick and shovel.

Above: A section from a technical drawing, signed by "JHAleaxander-Major R.E." shows the detail of design made by Alexander for development of the Spear Pump and couplings for both the earlier "G.S. (General Service) Lift and Force Pump" and the "Worthington Pump". These items were fabricated either in factories in Cairo or by the Engineers in Desert Workshops. A double brass gauze perforation allowed the Spear Pump to be driven down without clogging with sand.
Camels proved too slow in keeping up with the Mounted Riles advance - horses took over the duties with new tack also designed and constructed in the desert by Alexander and his Engineers. (note cone shape gauze tip of the "Spear" head.)
Photograph center of Major John Alexander seated, surrounded by his support Officers. Left to right. Lieutenant Howard Alexander, Formerly of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles and Lieutenants Mascallan and Broadbury.


Tools for Desert Victory
Major Alexander and his Anzac
Engineers innovate to conquer
the arid Sinai.
Click photo above for larger
image and

description of parts.

The Engineer who defeated the Turk
by Steve Butler

Why had I not heard of John Howard Alexander before? Now, one hundred and thirty years after his birth in Dublin in 1880, I finally discover records and photos that tell the tale of the soldier who was arguably the man most responsible for the defeat of the Central Powers in the Middle East during World War One.
Major John Alexander, Irishman and Anzac, has become my new hero, that he has slipped through the fingers of previous historians and researches is a mystery.
Perhaps because he was an Irishman and attached to the Anzac Mounted Division that Australian and New Zealand historians researched only records of men only from their respective countries. Obviously no British historian had thought to look for one of their own among the countless records of Anzac antipodean troops.
Even in the book on the official history of the New Zealand Engineers, with the rather unimaginative title "Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919" is there much reference of the Officer Commanding the Anzac Division's Field Engineers - we can find a few fleeting mentions of his name in Chapter XVI where the book covers the New Zealanders in the deserts. Titled: "NZ Field Troop Engineers in Palestine", the chapter alludes to the problems and events of the water crisis and the beginnings of solving the problem by Major Alexander and his men of the Anzac Division.
Here perhaps arrives the confusion of names. Chapter XVI was written in association with one Howard G. Alexander, who is also mentioned a number of times in the chapter. This Alexander was a New Zealander and had transferred from the Canterbury Mounted Rifles into the Anzac Mounted Division Engineers. Trooper Howard Alexander CMR was promoted to become Lieutenant Howard Alexander in the Anzac Field Engineers - his name could have been easily confused with the O.C. Anzac Field Engineers, Major John Howard Alexander.
The book also outlines the problems the Army was having trying to supply water to the tens of thousands of men and animals in the advance to push the enemy away from the Suez Canal and out of the Sinai Desert:

"Frequently a Field Troop was called on to water two or more Brigades as they might be occupying the only available water in the locality, which was being operated by the Division's forces. When one considers that in action a Brigade strength has to be watered inside of two hours it will readily be understood how inadequate the deep well pump was for the purpose. The worst factor was that it could only be transported by waggon and the country into which our forces were about to advance was impassable in most places for wheeled transport to reach the wells.
After the trials of installing the deep well pump and realising its inadequacy, the O. C. Anzac Field Squadron, Major Alexander, called a conference of all Field Troop officers, who were instructed to make experiments and improvise a more efficient means of raising water from the deep wells. All realised the plight the Division would be placed in for water unless some more efficient method than the deep well pump could be provided."
page 277 N.Z. Field Troop Engineers in Palestine.

Diary entry written by John Alexander and only recently made available by the Australian War Memorial Museum:
Item transcribed from hand written document by Steve Butler June 2010.

Water Supply Material

by Major J.H. Alexander RE

Remarks ’re’ “Water Supply Materials” for confidential Diary – to be attached to sheet of photographs and drawings showing special “Racks and Carriers” made by 1st Field Squadron A+N.Z. Mtd. Division.

I put up herewith a report which gives the results of my recent experiments and experiences in dealing with the problem of Water Supply in “Sinai Peninsula” – I commenced in June sinking “Well Sets” 4’ x 4’ x 4’-6” made of corrugated iron and timber framing, for watering the Mounted Brigades.
These “Well Sets” were prepared in Camp and tied up in bundles and carried on Camels to required site and there “knocked” together and sunk. – I soon found that that with very little extra trouble we could carry and sink similar “Well Sets” but 6’ x 6’ x 6’ which gave us more than double the water area.  So we used this “section” from that time on until early September [1916].
In the meantime I had been experimenting with a 2 ½” diameter “Spear Point” made by a firm in Cairo (and paid for by the 5th Regiment ALH privately) this is similar in construction to the lower portion of the Service 1 ¼” Norton Tube Well Set except that we got the holes in the metal pipe covered first with a fine brass gauze and then a covering of perforated brass sheet over that.
I had a special “Double Brass Coupling” made with a gas-thread at one end, to connect to the Spear Point; and a L.C.C.-thread at the other end to enable any G.S. Lift and Force Pump hose to connect up with it – It proved so satisfactory that I asked C.E. No.3 Section to have a quantity of them made so that I could water the “Anzac Mounted Division” without carrying any more “Well Sets” on Camels. – We are now doing all the watering of the Division by means of these Spear Points and have proved so successful I have cut out all the “Well Sets” from our “Water Supply Material” together with their Camels etc and we now only carry 12 “Well Sets” by Rail in case of emergency. – these remain at my Headquarters with D.H.Q. wherever it happens to be, and are available at any time if required. –

"Palestine C. 1918 Australian Army Officer Major Alexander inspecting an aerial torpedo dropped by German aircraft."

Editor's note: The above photograph, reference: AWM HO3852 would appear to have mistakenly called Alexander, an Australian Army Officer, rather than a Anzac Mounted Division Officer. Major Alexander was an Irishman with the Royal Engineers.

I have since had a special “Driving Cap” made for sinking these 2 ½” Spear Points, and their extension pieces; and it is used with the ordinary Norton Tube “Pulley Bar and Monkey”, or if these are not available, it can be used with a 10 or 12lb hammer and a special “Spoon” we have designed and made for the purpose (see drawings).  But each Field Troop carries a Norton Tube Well Set, and the 10lb hammer and spoon are only necessary when a Regiment or Squadron go away on detached duty and sink a Spear Point themselves.
Our ordinary procedure is to drive the Spear Point into the bottom of an existing well if there is one, (and in many places we have come across these wells made by the Turks during there advance upon Romani in August last) – if there is not a well, we dig a hole until we come to moist sand if possible and then insert the Spear Point and drive it, and “erect” around the top of same with sand bags.
In ordinary wells, of our own, or Turkish construction, we can as a rule pump them dry in anything from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the reality – But a Spear Point driven down to the bottom of any of these wells has in all cases given us a Continuous flow of water, the most remarkable case so far that we have encounted was at GERERAT (on El Arish map 1: 125000) where we pumped the Turkish well dry in 15 minutes, then inserted a Spear Point and one extension piece and pumped from a depth of 24 feet a continuous stream of water into canvas reservoirs, from 0800 until 1600 without ceasing, and the water was still coming strong.  This is the greatest depth at which we have yet had to pump, and an ordinary G.S Lift and Force Pump was used.
The average depth at which we find water from Romani Eastwards is about 9 feet.
Having proved the ability of the Spear Point method of producing water we then made (in our Camp) a set of “Racks and Carriers” for carrying on Pack Horses all our Water Supply Materials: (see sheet of drawings) as I found during the fighting at “Romani – Katia – Abd” – during August and later at “Mazar” in September, we could not keep up with the Mounted Brigades with our Water Supply Material when carried on Camels as they were much too slow.: My scheme now provides for all Water Supply Material to be carried on Pack Horses, each Field Troop having 10 of these. – 5 of which go forward with the advance troops and have the water prepared by the time the Brigade arrives in Camp – the other 5 Pack Horses pick up the remainder of Water Supply Gear from our old Camp and “Trek” with the Rear Guard when watering is complete, so that the pumps etc are travelling at the same rate as the Mounted Troops – This method I may say is working with excellent results.
In extracting the “Spear Pumps” and extension pieces from the sand we reverse the pumping operation – and pump water from the trough down into the Spear – which forces the sand away and facilitates greatly the extraction of same.
Some of the advantages of the “Spear Point” as compared with sucking “Well Sets” are as follows:
  1. Saving time – Money – Labour – and Camel Transport.
  2. Pace of movement.
  3. “Spear Points” can be pulled up and used again, whereas the Well Sets are left in the ground in most cases.
  4. “Spear Points” can be allotted and easily carried by a Squadron or Regiment going on detached duty.
  5. “Open Wells” are liable to be contaminated, whereas Spear Points are not.
  6. Spear Pumps only weigh a fraction of the Well Sets.
  7.  The expense in regard to Spear Points is only a “First Cost” as they are used again. – the timber from the Well Sets is a constant outlay.
  8. From June to September, the Anzac Mounted Division alone, use corrugated iron for Well Sets to the value of over £500, not withstanding framing or time in construction.

I also put up a sheet of drawings showing what we find to be the “Wearing Parts” of G.S. Lift Force Pumps and also of “Worthington Pumps”, in the case of the latter the metal used for the handles and Pins or Spindles is much too soft and wears out very quickly-.

As I am using my draught horses (which under ordinary conditions would draw my tool carts etc) for carrying the Water Supply Material, the only extras required for each Field Troop is Pack Saddles and the necessary compliment of the “Racks and Carriers” – I have left the set of models of these with D.O.W. Cairo who has since supplied us with requested number for the Division.
J.H. Alexander.  Major R.E.
At C.R.E. Anzac Mounted Division.
“Anzac Mounted Division” comprises
3 A.L.H. Brigades
1 N.Z.M.R. Brigade
5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry)
Imperial Camel Corps.

To increase the speed of the advance across the Sinai, Alexander removed slow moving Camels from the equation. Pack horses were detailed to carry the heavy loads of pumps, metal sleeved hose, steel pipe extensions and monkey bar pipe driving gear. All this eqipment required new and innovative horse tack for portage. This was designed by Alexander and his team, and made by the Anzac Field Engineers.

The compilation of photographs at the right outlines the variations types of transport harness developed by Alexander to move the "Water Materials" across the Sinai.

Stocky draught horse crosses proved to be the most able animal to carry the weight and keep in touch with the fleet footed front line combat steeds from the Anzac Squadrons.
The men themselves preferred these stockier mounts as it required less effort to lift the loads up onto the pack animals backs. However robust horses of this type were not in plentiful supply and the Engineers still required Camels to bring up additional supplies, such as the cumbersome corrugated iron and canvas troughs that were required to house water once the advance teams had found a source.

This selection of ten photographs is reproduced from John Alexander's Diary.
Photo Numbers start from number 1 on the right hand column, counting down to 5 - the left hand column numbers begin at number 6 down to 10:

Roll-over image and click-on individual photographs to see enlargements. See descriptions below.

number 5 number 4 number 3 number 2 number 1 number 10 number 9 number 8 number 7

"N.B.  Under ordinary conditions each Pack Horse would carry a pair of Carriers – for 2 Pumps or 2 Troughs etc etc.
When I took these photographs I had only made one set of models, and therefore had to put an “odd” Carrier on the horse for each photo, so as to balance the load."

Notes for photographs above Illustrating the “WATER SUPPLY MATERIAL” and special “Racks” and “Carriers” for use on “Horse Pack Saddles” being successfully used by the Anzac Mounted Division. – Sinai Peninsula – October 1916.

  1. “Rack” to carry one Spear Point 2 ½” and one extension piece 4ft long.
  2. “Carrier” for G.S. Lift and Force Pump, the handles of the Pump lock the Pump onto the Carrier.
  3. “Carrier” for “Worthington Pump, the lever handles of which lock the Pump onto the Carrier.
  4. “Carrier” for two lengths of armoured hose for G.S. Pump or “Worthington”.
  5. “Carrier” for 600 Gallon Canvas Troughs or 2,300 Gallon Canvas Reservoirs.
  6. G.S. Lift and Force Pump and Worthington Pump attached to Spear Point by Brass Unions also various fittings by themselves.
  7. Two complete “Well Sets” 6’ x 6’x 6’ being carried on three Camels.
  8. “Carrier” for Trough Standards (with mesh wire-netting.)
  9. Photo taken “Katia” during well sinking operations when Turks drove us back and this Camel carried these two Well Sets 4’ x 4’ x 4’6” for 1 ½ Miles successfully where we sunk it.
  10. The set of models “Racks and Carriers” made by Anzac 1st Field Squadron in Camp.
  11. Horse carrying G.S. Pump and set of Trough Standards.
  12. Spear Point – Extension Piece, Brass Couplings – Driving Gear etc.
  13. G.S. Lift and Force Pump and a Worthington Pump with their Spear Points attached.
  14. Another view of Spear Points connected to G.S. Lift and Force Pump and Worthington Pump.
  15. 15. A wire Basket which fits on top of “Pack Saddle” with a clip and carries the Brass Couplings wrapped in a sandbag.


International Soldier.
A man like John Alexander does not just appear on the world stage without a history from somewhere, and when I discovered this man was a fluent speaker of both French and Zulu I knew this was a man of intrigue and substance. Where was the tale of this man to begin. Certainly it would be preferable to start from his home town of Dublin, but my search took me via the Internet to the website of the "South African Military History Society" and to an article written by Mr Ken Gillings of Westville, Durban. The article "The 'Death' of Bhambatha Zondi - a recent discovery" is a powerful piece of South African action during a rebellion in Natal after the Boer War in 1906. A story of a little known history outside of Africa. However the rebel leader who is the central part of this story is linked to John Alexander by items that were presented to the author by an English woman, who recovered a trunk in an attic belonging to a "Lieutenant Colonel John Howard Alexander" - The items in the trunk included a lock of hair and typed reports relating to the death of Bhambatha Zondi.
I include here an excerpt from the article about the contact made by Ken Gilling's and a Warwickshire woman on his webpage:
"...Then, on 9 February 2002, the writer received an e-mail from Mrs Linda Atkins of Ashorne Hill Management College, Leamington Spa, in Warwickshire, UK. An old trunk belonging to a Lt Col John Howard Alexander DSO MC had been discovered in the attic. Col Alexander was born in Dublin in 1880. His military records indicated that he had served in the Royal Engineers and had been awarded his Military Cross on 26 June 1916, and his Distinguished Service Order on 4 January 1919. He had been Mentioned in Despatches on four occasions - on 31 May 1916, 29 September 1916, 6 July 1917 and 12 January 1918. In 1918, he was Deputy Controller of Baghdad Railway. Apparently, Col Alexander managed Ashorne Hill during the Second World War for the British Iron and Steel Confederation when the Staff was evacuated from London. His American wife was in charge of the catering and housekeeping. The colonel's records also indicated that he had served as a temporary major (substantive captain) in the Union Defence Force in 1912, and that he was fluent in English, isiZulu and French. Mrs Atkins also found a letter addressed to him as Maj J H Alexander, Royal Engineers CRE Anzac Mounted Division. His role in South Africa has still to be researched, but there are spears mounted on the wall in the Great Hall of the Conference Centre at Ashorne Hill which indicate that he must have played a role in Natal at some stage of his career."

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