Topic: AIF - 5B - ICC
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
ICC, AIF, Commentary
The Battle of Magdhaba by Steve Becker
The Allied Victory at Romani in August had for the moment relieved any direct pressure of a Turkish invasion of Egypt. This and the present advances to Mazar in September had taken the Allied Army towards the major enemy stronghold in the Sinai at El Arish and allowed the strong mounted units of the Army to carry out a number of lighting strikes at isolated Turkish posts in the Sinai.
By the end of November 1916 General Archibald Murray, the Commander and Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force now felt that he was ready to take this opportunity and advance on El Arish and to clear the region of the enemy, which would not only relieve the pressure on Egypt of invasion by the Turkish Army but also keep large numbers of Turkish troops from moving to other fronts. General Murray was also aware that there were at present only two Turkish Divisions in the Palestine-Sinai Area. These Divisions the 3rd and 27th were know as Arab Divisions which were recruited from the local population and thought to be less then trustworthy, both were under strength and combined contained between 6,000 to 10,000 men.
On the 19th December the Camel Brigade was officially formed and began to assemble around El Mazar, General C.L. Smith VC MC slowly organized this scatted companies into the new Battalions with the attached Hong Kong and Singapore Battery of Mountain Artillery for an advance on El Arish. This organization was in such a hurry that no Machine Gun Company or Field Ambulance was attached and only ten companies had arrived in time to take part in the advance. The last unit to arrive was the 14th company under Capt Tolmer and was made up of ex-Light Horsemen many of whom had served on Gallipoli, they had left Abbassia on the 13th of November with the new 2nd Battalion HQ and with the 15th New Zealand company had been on patrol in the area of El Geeila and the Canal till called to the Brigade on the 16th December. The 1st Battalion detached the 4th company less one section under Lt J William’s to Bir El Abd while Lt William’s section came under command of the 1st company.
The Camel Brigade at this time consisted of the following companies;Camel Bde HQ Gen Smith VC
1st Camel Battalion Maj Langley4th Co Capt Denson
6th British Co Capt Pettit
7th British Co Capt Gregory
12th Co Capt Smith
2nd Camel Battalion Maj Bassett3rd Co Capt Naylor
5th British Co Capt Wilson
14th Co Capt Tolmer
3rd Camel Battalion Capt Wright1st Co Lt Cashman
11th Co Capt Creswell
15th NZ Co Capt McCullum
HK&S Battery Maj Moore
To carry out the Raid on El Arish the Command of the Desert Column was given to General Philip Chetwode and consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division under General Harry Chauvel composed of the 1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and attached was the new Imperial Camel Corps Brigade.
The Turkish Garrison at El Arish was believed to be around 1600 strong from the 27th Division and well entrenched while smaller enemy garrisons were situated at El Magdhaba and Abu Aweigila along the Wadi El Arish which protected the Turkish rail head at El Kossaima.
Air reports continued to come in on the enemy during December and the latest report on the 20th stated that the Turks appeared to be withdrawing from El Arish and General Murray ordered the force to advance to El Arish and confirm this report. He allocated the 52nd Lowland Infantry Division for the occupation but it was slow in moving thus allowing the swifter mounted units of the Desert Column to move on El Arish that night.
The Camel companies had a quiet night as they had been assigned to travel on the longer southern route as the horses of the Light Horse Brigades were still not accustomed to the smell of the Camels and in the morning of the 21st after a night march of 23 miles from Mazar units of the Desert Column had surrounded the town and it was found to be clear of the enemy. The sight which greeted the Cameleers in the morning was a long line of exhausted of dehydrated Scotties from the 52nd Division who had been left behind by there Battalions during the night, water was given to these men but the Cameleers were told to leave them as they had to push on to the town.
The settlement of El Arish was like an oasis in the desert with palm trees, grass and the many white roofs of the mosque and the houses, the troops took advantage of this to rest after a long night march.
The unopposed capture of the town promptly allowed the British to use it as an advance base and the rail and water pipe lines were advanced towards the town. El Arish was also used to ship in supplies and move up the remainder of the Infantry which arrived on the 22nd December, it also gave General Murray an important base which would prove invaluable in the months ahead and on the arrival on the 22nd of General Chetwode who quickly ordered General Chauval to pursuit the withdrawing enemy. Patrols were sent out to establish in which direction the enemy had gone as they could move to the east and the border post at Rafa or along the Wadi to El Magdhaba, this was soon evident when word came in by air of the increased garrison at El Magdhaba and Chetwode ordered Chauval to take his Division and the Camel Brigade and advance on El Magdhaba that night.
The Garrison at El Magdhaba now consisted of about 1700 men from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 80th Turkish Infantry Regiment 27th Division under the command of Khadir Bey there was also a number of irregular units and a small Turkish Camel company and one battery of four guns from a mountain artillery unit completed all the available troops.
Magdhaba was a small settlement on the north side of the Wadi El Arish which at this time of year was dry and contained the only wells for many miles. The town itself lay partially in the wadi and was about 20 miles from El Arish and over 30 miles from Rafa. The enemy had heavy fortified the surrounding area with six large redoubts, these were placed to cover all the approaches and to strengthen them a number of trenches were dug to cover the redoubts. The four guns were placed to the north of the wadi near the village to cover the open ground to the north-west which was flat and open of hard sand bare of all cover for over four miles, to the north-east the ground was covered with low scrub bushes while to the south the terrain was broken by a large number of sand dunes.
At El Arish the troops prepared for the march but there was a scarcity of water in the town until more wells could be dug, a supply column of camels from the Camel Transport Corps was dispatched from Mazar in the afternoon and the troops would have to wait until it arrived to draw rations. This column subsequently got mixed up with the 52nd Infantry Division as it struggled up to El Arish with the supply column arriving during the night but few of the animals got a full drink before they had to leave at midnight.
The men and animals of the Camel Brigade had no time to water and since they carried five days supply on them in their fantasise they were not in immediate need of resupply. The Brigade was ordered to be concentrated in the wadi El Arish by 10 pm and all seven companies moved into their order of march, meanwhile there was some delay in moving as the mounted units continued to be resupplied before beginning there march, the 3rd company under Capt Fred Naylor along with the 7th company were detailed to remain behind and to help defend the town while the 4th company less one section was still at Bir el Abd.
It was well after midnight when the force finely set out with the Light horse regiments leading setting a brisk pace as they moved off towards Magdhaba, the night air was clear and cold and the firm ground allowing the horses to move swiftly. Meanwhile the Camel Brigade moved slowly along the wadi as the men fought off the effects of another night in the saddle and the bitterly cold night sent a chill to the bone, there was no smoking on the ride when a few puffs on a weed would have made all the difference. The Camel Brigade was slower then the Light Horse but the troops maintained their distance without a problem as the Division followed the main trail from El Arish to Magdhaba which ran along the telegraph line and the wadi.
At 3.50 am the lights of the camp fires at Magdhaba could be seen in the distance as the troops push on till around 5 am when a halt was called 4 miles from the objective there the troops rested till morning when General Chauvel and staff made a reconnaissance of the enemy and found that the smoke from the camp fires covered the town and the surrounding area, but the number of redoubts was obtained along with the extent of the enemies position.
The Camel Brigade had halted near the Inverness battery and dismounted as the camels and their holders moved to the rear, this like the Light Horse regiments required that every one in four men in the company be used to hold the animals and so were left out of battle while the remainder of the men would carry out the attack, the holders moved the camels into the wadi out of sight as the battalions sorted their companies out and began to move forward to the form up point, some of these companies were at full strength having just arrived in the desert while most had been in the field for some time and unit strength was low.
At 7.50 am reports was received by aircraft that they had been fired on by the Turks and that there was no sign of the enemy reinforcements beyond Ruafa 8 miles south-east of Magdhaba which held a small garrison. General Chauval was now limited to the time he could spend at Magdhaba as the animals had not drunk for some time and with a battle to be fought during a hot day and little water at Magdhaba meant that the town would need to fall quickly or the animals would be in trouble.
Orders for the attack were issued at once with the 3rd Light Horse and NZ Mounted Brigades moving to the east and north-east to attack while the 1st Light Horse Brigade was held in reserve, the Camel Brigade was directed to pin the enemy frontally and allow time for the envelopment by the Light Horse. There were only three batteries of artillery available to Chauvel these were the Somerset and Inverness batteries of the RHA and the Camel Brigades own Hong Kong and Singapore Battery and these were deployed near the Camel Brigade to bring fire on the enemy’s redoubts and to search for her guns. The action would commence once the mounted troops were in position and the battle would start with the artillery commencing fire.
As the Light Horse manoeuvred into position the companies of the Camel Brigade moved forward on foot but the Camel Brigade was at a disadvantage with over four miles to travel before they could reach the enemies defences. They set off at 9 am with the 3rd Battalion leading followed by the 1st Battalion then the 2nd Battalion in reserve, the going was without interference as they approached to within enemy artillery range with the companies strung out over a wide area of desert.
The Camel Brigade deployed 3rd Battalion under Captain Charles Wright to lead the attack with the 1st company under Lieutenant John Cashman and the attached one officer and seventeen men of the 4th company in front, the 15th New Zealand Company under Captain John McCallum in support and the 11th company under Captain Randolph Creswell in battalion reserve. The 1st Battalion under Major George langley was in direct support of the 3rd Battalion with the 6th company under Captain Hubert Pettit and the 12th company under Captain George Smith in Battalion reserve while the 2nd Battalion under Major John Bassett was held in reserve with the 5th company under Captain Charles Wilson detached to guard the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery and Brigade HQ leaving only the 14th company under Captain James Tolmer with the 2nd Battalion as a Brigade reserve.
By 9.25 am the New Zealand Brigade was in position with the 3rd Light Horse Brigade as they moved to secure their area. The artillery opened fire at 9.55 am as they searched for the enemy’s battery when the New Zealand Brigade decided to attack not waiting for the Camel Brigade to get into position but due to the terrain and the heat affect observation for the guns was limited. At this time the attacking companies were still moving into position with the 1st company on the right closest to the wadi while the 15th New Zealand company was on the open left flank both deployed on a one section frontage in three lines with the Lewis guns on the open left flank to enable them to engage the enemy redoubt and cover the advance, to the 3rd Battalion’s rear deployed Maj Langley’s 1st Battalion with its 6th company in support and the 12th company in reserve.
At 10 am a message was dropped by plane reporting the enemy was withdrawing and Chauvel seeing the Camel brigade was still not near the enemies defences quickly ordered the 1st Light Horse Brigade into action. Meanwhile the 1st company was still progressing in extended order as they moved up right across the barren surface in parallel ranks 200 yards apart until the Turks started to target them forcing the men to ground where they lay exposed to the enemy fire for some time before they commenced moving in section rushes of 25 yards covered by each section shooting at the enemies redoubt in the distance. Capt Wright seeing the 1st and 15th NZ Company held up along the wadi ordered the 11th company forward but as they approached they soon found themselves exposed to the enemies fire and joined the 1st company sheltering in the sand.
As the companies had approached the enemy redoubts they came under a violent fusillade from rifle fire, machine guns and artillery and the mistaken reporting of the enemy came home to the leading squadrons of the 1st Light Horse Brigade as a intense fire was directed at them forcing the Brigade into the wadi as they retired out of range while the 3rd Light Horse Regiment was sent into the attack dismounted along the wadi around 10.30 am.
By 11.50 General Chauvel dispatched a report to Chetwode telling him of the progress of the battle which was still going well but time was getting on and the enemy defences were still to be reached. Maj Langley had in the meanwhile seen the lack of progress by the 3rd Battalion and moved the 6th company forward on the 15th NZ companies open left flank to extend the firing line but they to found that the exposed surface could not be overcome when the enemy had all the advantages of position so they to found they could make little progress.
The Camel Brigade was still struggling across the open terrain in front of redoubt No 2 where the firepower of the enemy was at its best on that long flat surface. General Chauval had placed his chief reliance on this attack but the terrain and the skilful placement of the enemy of his defences all were contributing to its lack of progress. By midday this attack had died down as the amount of fire directed on them was too heavy, this fire despite its ferocity was very inaccurate but this mattered little when you’re under it. The 1st company at this time had taken cover in a wash out which lead into the main wadi it was arranged in depth but gave shelter to the men, meanwhile the 11th company was exposed the full fury of the enemies fire as the men pushed there faces into the compacted sand or looked for that all to rare tuft of grass or that small mound of sand to escape the swarm of bullets passing over head. The men quickly became exhausted by the advance with the weight of ammunition, the movement from position to position, the distance travelled and the hot sun along with a lack of water as their water bottles soon were empty, added to the fact that ammunition was limited to their basic load but with the constant firing and time in action this was running out and any resupply would be difficult and dangerous..
At 12.15 pm the word came in to commit the reserve as both Battalions were now in the sand and unable to move. This reserve consisted of only the 14th company under Capt Tolmer who took only 2 sections into the attack leaving the remainder under Lt Young but these were shortly committed in support after 20 minutes.
At 1.05 pm a report had come in of the lack of water at Bir Lahfan were a field troop of engineers had been sent to search for water this was a significant problem as there was no water closer then El Arish and unless Magdhaba should fall and this didn’t look like it would happen soon the horses would be in trouble. With reluctance General Chauvel telegraphed to Chetwode at 1.50 pm to say that the progress of the action was disappointing and that he was going to order the troops to break off the battle.
Meanwhile in front of redoubt No 2 the companies of the Camel Brigade were progressing and had gain touch with the left flank of B and C Squadron of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment about 100 metres from the enemy. A quick discussion ensured as the officers decided on the best approach as they had to cross a wide level stretch of open flat ground and in the end a charge was called. The men of the Light Horse and Camel Brigade leaped into action and with wild cheers the men surged across the open ground under a violent fire from the Turks dropping a number of men but the troops pushed on and as they made the enemy redoubt they quickly surrendered. This charge was under the protective cover of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment Machine gun section’s Lewis guns as well as the Vickers guns of the 1st Light Horse Brigade Machine gun Squadron who did valuable work protecting the charging men until they gained the Turkish works.
The 1st company (with the section of the 4th company) under Lieutenant Bill Cashman were the first into the redoubt along with the 11th company under Captain Randolph Creswell who set about clearing the trench but few of the enemy were prepared to fight it out as they appeared just as exhausted as our men. During the charge Lieutenant John Williams 4th Company was wounded along with a many men from the 11th and 1st companies including the Schuyler brothers from 11th company and Lieutenant Cashman’s batman Bert Hopkinson who had been shot multiple times. As the men sorted the mess out in the redoubt an intense fire was still coming from redoubt No 1 across the wadi. The captured Turks were found to be just as thirsty as our on men and pressure was applied to the remainder of the redoubts to increase there will to give in. In all there were 3 officers and 92 men taken prisoner and clearing the redoubt was completed by 2.30 pm.
One of the lucky soldiers was Pat Doyle 4th Company, who on jumping into the enemy’s trench found his rifle empty and grabbed the firearm of a Turkish soldier preparing to shot him down, but his weapon was also empty and all he received was a burnt hand from the hot gun barrel as he took the weapon from the surprised Turkish soldier.
This first foot in the door was just what General Chauvel was after and he quickly sent a report to Chetwode that the battle was no longer in doubt of victory and asked to dispatch a water column to meet him on the return. In fact around this time there were a number of successful attacks by our troops on redoubts No 3 by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and No 4 by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade as the enemy was now showing signs of collapse.
These attacks were at 2.30 pm, the Wellington Mounted Regiment, the 8th and 9th Light Horse regiments were still around 500 yards from their objectives, while the Canterbury Mounted Regiment was a little closer, these regiments now took time to reassess the positions and resupply with ammunition before the final push to their objectives. All Troops and Machine Gun sections had expended much of their ammunition during the advance and full magazines were required for the final assault.
While in redoubt No 2 the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and the 1st and 11th companies lined the trenches taking the enemy in redoubt’s No 1 and No 3 under fire as the 6th, 14th and 15th companies were directed towards the centre of the village. The 12th company was committed at this time but it failed to get into action before the battle ended. It was also around this time that Maj Moore moved the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery across the Wadi into a position to the west of No 2 redoubt and so as to provide direct fire onto the remaining redoubts and cover the advance of the Camel companies. The reserve ammunition was also brought up as many of the weapons of the 3rd Battalion had need of resupply.
This last advance by the Camel Brigade into the town was still under a heavy cross fire from the remaining redoubts particularly from redoubt No 1 across the wadi and the 14th Company was severely hit losing Cpl Percy Butcher mortally wounded while Pte Norman Huon was killed but the advance was helped by the use of the company Lewis guns under Sgt Francis Fitzhardinge who was active in using his guns to support the attack until he was wounded and by the direct fire of the guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery..
Around 4 pm both A and C Squadron of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment had moved to help the 2nd Light Horse Regiment in their assault on redoubt No 1 which with the advance by the camel companies and fire from the guns the last flames of resistance were failing.
It was also at this time that the capture of redoubt No 3 and No 6 by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was successful with a charge by these regiments which took these redoubts with many prisoners but cost the 8th Light Horse Regiment many deaths.
At 4.20 pm redoubt No 1 was finally captured by the 1st Light Horse Brigade with a charge by Major Markwell and Troops of A and B Squadron 2nd Light Horse and A and C Squadrons of the 3rd Light Horse regiments and where Khadir Bey commander of the Turkish garrison was taken prisoner, of whom a surrender was promptly guaranteed, but until that happened and the word was passed to the other redoubts the advance would continue as elements of the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and 3rd Light Horse Brigade moved through the eastern end of the village and across the wadi to attack the southern redoubts and assist the 10th Light Horse Regiment and during which Lt Johnstone of the 8th Squadron Canterbury Mounted Regiment took the four gun battery of Turkish artillery. This also allowing the lead companies of the Camel Brigade to complete their attack into the western end of the village and by 4.30 pm all resistance was ended.
The victory now allowed General Chauvel to dispatch those troops not needed back to El Arish while a number of Regiments cleared the battlefield of prisoners and war material. Those returning met the supply column on the track allowing them to water and rest while the remainder of the troops cleared the battlefield. Together over 1282 prisoners including the commanding officer and two Battalion commanders were taken while 97 bodies were buried of the enemy. The total casualties for the Anzac Mounted Division were 146 of which 5 officers and 17 men were killed most of whom fell to the 8th Light Horse Regiment.
The Camel Brigade officially reported only 1 man killed and 1 officer and 27 men wounded of which one died of wounds.
The records show the Australians in the Camel Battalion’s lost 1 man killed with 2 officers and 20 men wounded of which 1 man died from wounds.
The 15th NZ Company reported 15 men wounded for the battle but records show only four men are confirmed, while the casualties in the British companies were not recorded but only the 6th company came into action but was not seriously engaged.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Steve Becker for the manuscript on the Imperial Camel Corps.
Citation: The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, ICC, AIF, Commentary