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Monday, 13 October 2008
The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Falls Account, Pt 2
Topic: BatzP - Beersheba

 The Battle of Beersheba

Palestine, 31 October 1917

Falls Account, Pt 2

 

The Capture of Beersheba, 31 October 1917

[Click on map for larger version]

[From: Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, Sketch 3 facing p. 50.]

 

As part of the Official British War History of the Great War, Cyril Falls; George MacMunn; and, Archibald Frank Becke, were commissioned to produce a commentary on the Sinai, Palestine and Syrian operations that took place. In 1930 their finished work, Military operations: Egypt and Palestine,  was published. Their book included a section specifically related to the battle of Beersheba and is extracted below.

Falls, C.; MacMunn, G.; and, Becke, AF, Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1930), pp. 52 - 62:

 

THE APPROACH MARCH OF THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS.

[52] The two tasks of the Desert Mounted Corps were, to "attack Beersheba from the east so as to envelop the enemy's left rear," and to "seize as much water supply as possible in order to form a base for future operations northwards." The first objective of the leading division (the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division from Asluj) was a line through Bir el Hamam and Bir Salim Abu Irqaiyiq, on the road running eastward to Tell el Mila and the Dead Sea at Qasr Zuweira. Next it was to swing up its right and advance to the Hebron road between Bir es Sqati and Tell es Sabe, a fortified hillock at the confluence of the Wadi el Khalil and Wadi es Sabe. Finally it was to hold a line north-east of Beersheba, with its left on the town mosque. The division, leaving Asluj at 6 p.m. on the 30th October, was to march by way of Thaffha, 11 miles south-east of Beersheba, and Iswaiwin, except for the 2nd L.H. Brigade, which was to take a wider sweep through Bir `Arara. The Australian Mounted Division was to follow by the former route, to be concentrated at Iswaiwin at 9.30 a.m., and to be prepared to advance either directly westward on Beersheba or northward to assist the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division. The 7th Mounted Brigade was to move eastwards from Esani through Goz Itwail es Semin, 7 miles E.S.E. of Beersheba, and establish a line of posts astride the Asluj road. Its mission was to observe the enemy's defences at Ras Ghannam, to follow the Turks if they retired, and to be ready to co-operate either with the remainder of the Desert Mounted Corps or with the XX Corps on its left.

The marches before the mounted troops were therefore long. That of the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division from Asluj to Bir el Hamam was 24 miles, that of the Australian Mounted Division from Khelasa through Asluj to Iswaiwin [53] 30 miles that of the 7th Mounted Brigade about 17 miles. Moreover, each man carried two days' rations for himself one day's forage, and a two days' emergency ration of grain in a sand-bag. Seeing that Australians, New Zealanders and the Midland Yeomen of the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades were big men, there must have been about twenty stone on every horse's back. But the horses of the whole corps were, if a little fine drawn, hard and fit, already inured to long marches and long periods without water, while horsemastership learned in the hard school of Sinai had reached a level so high that sore backs were seldom seen.

[Note: The marching-out state of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade has been preserved 95 officers, 1,763 other ranks, 1,727 riding horses, 144 packs, 243 draughts, 27 mules, 35 camels, 36 Hotchkiss guns, 12 (Vickers) machine guns. This was probably the strongest brigade.]

The head of the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division reached the cross roads east of Thaffha at 12.20 a.m. and halted while reconnaissances were carried out. Then the column split and pursued its march, the 2nd L.H. Brigade moving by the Bir `Arara track, the remainder of the division turning left-handed and marching on Iswaiwin, with the Wellington Regiment as advanced guard. It had been reported that there was a Turkish post at Goz esh Shegeib on this road; a little further north there was an encounter with a small body of the enemy, but the march was not checked. By 8.30 a.m. the troops were in position, the 2nd L.H. Brigade on the right north of Bir el Hamam, in touch with the N.Z.M.R. Brigade at Bir Salim Abu Irqaiyiq, the 1st L.H. Brigade in rear of the New Zealanders. One regiment of the Australian Mounted Division, the 8th A.L.H. (3rd L.H. Brigade), had marched in rear of the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division and turned off north of Iswaiwin on the track running into Beersheba. It had orders to reconnoitre the enemy's works about Ras Ghannam, and cover the concentration of its own division at Iswaiwin.

The head of the Australian Mounted Division reached Asluj at 8.30 p.m. on the 30th and remained there three and a half hours to water its transport, the 8th A.L.H., as previously stated, moving off with the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division. The division reached its area of concentration without incident, and advanced a short distance from Iswaiwin towards Ras Ghannam, the 5th Mounted Brigade remaining [54] at Iswaiwin in corps reserve. The 7th Mounted Brigade reached Goz Itwail es Semin at 5 am without on the 31st. The South Notts Hussars then took up without opposition a line from a mile and a half south of Ras Ghannam to Goz es Na'am. Patrols pushed forward towards Ras Ghannam found the trenches strongly held. Between 8 and 9 a.m, the Brigade got touch with th 4th L.H. Brigade on its right and the the XX Corps Cavalry on its left.

Thus the great march had been successfully accomplished, and the troops were in position for the next move. The enemy may have been aware of the concentrations at Asluj and Khelasa, but he was completely surprised by the appearance of two cavalry divisions to the east, not having contemplated that the British mounted troops would move, at any rate in such numbers, so far from water. The bombardment of the XX Corps had already alarmed him as to his western defences. Now there was observed a bustle about Beersheba as the few troops available took up positions to the east. But Ismet Bey was already in a hopeless situation unless the reinforcements which he demanded arrived speedily. They were refused, and he was bidden not to evacuate Beersheba. Perhaps Kress recalled the British withdrawal from Gaza seven months before, when the garrison had been in even worse straits than it was here. But in war fortune seldom bestows such favours twice.

Mention must be made of one small independent force also on the move in the early morning of the 31st, which was to have an effect altogether disproportionate to its size. It was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel S. F. Newcombe, RE, and consisted of 70 British camelry and a few Arab scouts, with ten machine guns, a number of Lewis guns, a supply of explosives, and three days' rations. Colonel Newcombe was, it will be recalled, the first head of the British Mission to the King of the Hejaz. Being in Cairo in September, he proposed to Sir Edmund Allenby that he should take a small party through the desert east of Beersheba - country which he had surveyed before the war and in which he knew some of the inhabitants [Note: The survey had been carried out as far north as the Wadi es Sabe, but Captain Newcombe (as he then was) had acquired a good knowledge of the country north and north-east of Beersheba.] to raise the Bedouin against the Turks [55] at the moment of the British attack, carry out raids, and block the Hebron road after Beersheba had been captured. Sir Edmund Allenby gave permission fort his bold enterprise to be attempted. Colonel Newcombe's detachment left Asluj on the 30th, and after an extremely rapid march through the hills reached Es Semua, 20 miles north-east of Beersheba. On the evening of the 31st he moved down to the Hebron road, captured a few prisoners, and cut the telegraph to Jerusalem. He heard that night from the Bedouin of the capture of Beersheba, and determined to hold the Hebron road, so as to cut off the enemy's retreat to the north, hoping for a speedy advance by the British cavalry. His further adventures will be recorded when we come to the British operations in the hills north of Beersheba.


THE ATTACK OF THE DESERT MOUNTED CORPS.

At 9.10 a.m. the N.Z.M.R. Brigade (Br.-General W. Meldrum began its advance on Tell es Sabe, Canterbury Regiment on the right, Auckland on the left, each with four machine guns. The mound of Tell es Sabe was the best defensive position on the eastern side of Beersheba. Though low, it commanded all the ground to the east and also that south of the Wadi es Sabe. It was flat-topped with steep flanks, strewn with boulders, and upwards of 20 acres in extent. Several machine guns on its top raked all the plain. [Note: The tell was held by one battalion (300 strong or a little more) and one machine-gun company.] On the right of the New Zealanders the 2nd L.H. Brigade (Br.-General G. de L. Ryrie was ordered to advance on Bir es Sqati, establish itself astride the Hebron road, and thus protect them from counter-attack from the north.  The advance began swiftly, in full view of Major-General Chaytor, who had established his headquarters near Khashim Zanna. From this point of vantage he could see, within an hour of the opening of the attack, the 2nd L. H. Brigade 2 miles north of Bir el Hamam, with patrols beyond the Wadi Hora, an the New Zealanders across the Wadi es Sabe.

The 7th the leading regiment of the 2nd L.H Brigade, advancing from Bir el Hamam at a gallop, speedily gained the Hebron road at Bir es Sqati, the pace of its [56] advance rendering the shrapnel fire from the hills above Beersheba innocuous. Just beyond the road, however, it was held up in a small wadi by the enemy on the heights and was unable to make further progress. The Turkish commander had withdrawn his 3rd Cavalry Division (only 1 100 strong) into the hills to prevent the envelopment of Beersheba, and it fulfilled its task. Despite the criticisms directed against him by Kress, it is difficult to see how he could better have employed this force, and it is probable that had he kept the division in the Beersheba defences the place would have fallen earlier and the garrison been annihilated.

Welcome news was received from Br.-General Ryrie that there was water in the little wadi which enters the Wadi es Sabe at Bir el Hamam, and in the Wadi Hora. These pools were the result of a recent rain-storm and had already been reported from the air.

The task of the New Zealanders was a stiff one, and the advance of the brigade, from the moment when the Auckland Regiment was within 800 yards of Tell es Sabe, was slow. The Somerset Battery was in action at a range of 3,000 yards, but could do little to keep down the fire of the machine guns upon the mound. At 10 a.m. Major-General Chaytor ordered the 1st L.H. Brigade (Br.-General C. F. Cox) to despatch a regiment to cover the left flank of the N.Z.M.R Brigade. The 3rd A.L.H. moved up to Kh. el Watan on the Wadi es Sabe and obtained touch with the New Zealanders. Br.-General Meldrum arranged that the regiment should advance south of the wadi and swing in upon the mound from the south while his own brigade pressed the attack from the east. A little later the 2nd A.L.H. was ordered up on the left of the 3rd to stiffen the attack, which was making slow progress. At 11 a.m. the Inverness Battery came into action against Tell es Sabe, and, covered by its fire, the Somerset Battery boldly moved up to within 1,300 yards and opened fire with increased effect. Enemy aircraft were now circling above the battlefield and dropping bombs, which caused a good many casualties to horses.

At 1.30 p.m. General Chauvel ordered the Australian Mounted Division to place the 3rd L.H. Brigade (Br.-General " Battery H.A.C., with orders to move upon the right of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade. But its support was not required. The diversion of the 1st L.H. Brigade across the wadi had already begun to make its weight felt. Moreover the Canterbury Regiment had crossed the Wadi el Khalil, and, though galled by fire from the hills, was threatening Tell es Sabe from the north. Soon after 2 p.m. the Auckland Regiment began its assault, advancing by a series of short rushes from cover to cover. At 2.40 a small outlying hummock east of the tell was captured with 60 prisoners and two machine guns, which were turned against the main position. At 3 o'clock the Aucklands made their final dash and within a few minutes Tell es Sabe was in their hands. Another 70 prisoners and two more machine guns were captured. At once the Turkish artillery began to shell the mound, while several aeroplanes swooped down upon it and dropped bombs. Major-General Chaytor then ordered the 1st L.H. Brigade to advance on the final objective, from Point 1020, north-east of Beersheba, to the mosque.

The attack had so far been successful, but the natural strength of Tell es Sabe and the stubborn resistance of its small garrison had seriously delayed the Desert Mounted Corps, and even now the New Zealand Brigade was unable to advance beyond this point. West of Beersheba the XX Corps had all its objectives, and could without doubt have captured Beersheba itself before the mounted troops. The objective, had, however, been allotted to the Desert Mounted Corps, and Sir Edmund Allenby, who had come up to General Chetwode's headquarters at El Baqqar, ordered General Chauvel to capture it before nightfall. General Chauvel, who had already realized that he was behind his programme, ordered Major-General Hodgson to direct the 4th L.H. Brigade (Br.-General W. Grant) to attempt to enter the town from the east. General Chauvel had hesitated for a moment whether to employ the 5th Mounted Brigade, which was in [58] reserve and was armed with the sword unlike the Australians, but as the 4th L.H. Brigade was closer in he decided that it should attack. "Put Grant straight at it!" was his order to Major-General Hodgson. [Note: "Australian Official History," p. 393. The records are lacking in Information here. At 3.30 p.m. General Chauvel sent or message to the Australian Mounted Division ordering it to attack Beersheba with one brigade, but without mention of mounted action. It is General Chauvel 's recollection that he gave no orders to Br.-General Grant, but spoke only to Major-General Hodgson. B.-General Grant, however, states that Major-General Hodgson took him to the corps commander, who directed him to "take the town before dark," without giving him instructions as to how the attack was to be carried out, and that he himself was therefore solely responsible for the mounted charge. {For copies of the letters, see: "Put Grant straight at it."}]

The 4th L.H. Brigade had the 11th A.L.H, holding a long line of posts astride the Iswaiwin-Beersheba track, in touch with the 7th Mounted Brigade. The 4th and 12th Regiments were east of Iswaiwin. Horses had been fed and rested, though not watered, after their long march the previous night. Squadrons were dispersed to escape the bombs of the German aeroplanes, so that it was after 4.30 p.m. when Br.-General Grant had them ready, and the sun went down just after the attack was launched. The 4th A.L.H. deployed north of the Iswaiwin-Beersheba track, the 12th south of it. The 11th A.L.H. was ordered to concentrate and follow the other two regiments as a reserve. Similar orders were sent by General Chauvel to the 7th Mounted Brigade on the left ; and the 5th Mounted Brigade, hitherto in corps reserve, was ordered to advance on Beersheba in rear of the attacking troops.

The 4th and 12th A.L.H. then advanced at a trot, but soon quickened pace to a gallop, each on a frontage of one squadron. The men, having no swords, carried bayonets in their hands. The 4th A.L.H. had all three squadrons in the charge, but one squadron of the 12th had been directed to co-operate with the machine-gun squadron (less one subsection following each regiment) which was to move along a wadi on the left of the track and protect the left of the advance against attack from the neighbourhood of Ras Ghannam, where the enemy could be seen in some strength in his trenches.

As the charging squadrons swept down the gentle slope towards Beersheba, enveloped in a cloud of dust, the 12th A.L.H. came under machine-gun fire from these trenches. [59] The Notts Battery, which had unlimbered at the point of deployment, found the range with its second shot and quickly drove the enemy from the position. The Principal Turkish trenches on the front of the charge faced south, and there was only one shallow trench facing east, across which the 4th A.L.H. swept without checking. At the next group of trenches there was a short fight. Two squadrons of the 12th A.L.H. swept straight on into Beersheba, but the remainder of the attacking force dismounted after passing through the trenches and attacked with the bayonet. The Turks fought grimly, and a considerable number were killed. Meanwhile the leading squadrons had reached the town, capturing prisoners and guns en route. When the 11th A.L.H. reached Beersheba, Br.-General Grant ordered it to push through the town and hold it against attack from the north, west, and south-west. On its way through the regiment captured about 400 prisoners who were retreating from the southwest. The 4th A.L.H. took up a line from the Wadi es Sabe to the mosque, the 11th A.L.H. from the mosque to the Khelasa road, while the 12th A.L.H. remained in reserve near the railway viaduct.

Finding the enemy evacuating his trenches at Ras Ghannam, the 7th Mounted Brigade had also advanced, and reached Beersheba by 6.30 p.m. On the right the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division with the 3rd L.H. Brigade attached had also reached its final objective, and by 6 p.m. was holding a line of outposts through Bir el Hamam, Bir es Sqati, Point 1020, and to within a hundred yards of the mosque. Though the haste with which the Turks in Beersheba retreated up the Gaza road and to the north prevented them from carrying out a tithe of the destruction they had planned, yet the water supply in the town would not itself have sufficed for the needs of all the horses. The pools discovered by the 2nd L.H. Brigade, and others in the Wadi es Sabe, were therefore exceedingly valuable. But this supply was not to last for long,

The total captures by the Desert Mounted Corps in the day's fighting were 70 officers and 1,458 other ranks. Of these over a thousand were captured by the 4th L.H. Brigade, either in the course of the charge, or from the troops who retired from the southern front and were intercepted by the 11th A.L.H. Nine field guns were also [60] captured. The brigade's own casualties were very small, owing to the enemy having been driven out of that part of the Wadi es Sabe immediately west of Tell es Sabe before the charge: 2 officers and 29 other ranks killed, 4 officers and 28 other ranks wounded, and one missing. The high proportion of killed to wounded in this small total was Br.-General Grant reported, due to the close fighting round the Turkish trenches. The total casualties of the corps were extraordinarily light, being under two hundred.

[Note: Killed.    Wounded.
1 Officers .    6    15
Other Ranks .    47    129

[It must be understood that the Light Horse and Mounted Rifles when acting dismounted did not attempt to push home an attack against strong opposition. The "Australian Official History" (p. 235) thus defines their tactics:

["The extreme caution displayed at most stages of these dismounted " attacks, and the relatively light casualties usually suffered, may be somewhat puzzling to those who have served only with infantry. But the explanation is simple . A light horse line is a slender striking force, and leaders dare not commit it to a decisive charge unless the odds of battle are strongly in its favour. A premature assault against a strongly placed enemy might in a few minutes have ended in the complete destruction of the attacking regiments."]

That Beersheba fell before the day was out was almost certainly the result of the brilliant charge by the 4th L.H. Brigade, even though, as we now know, Ismet Bey had already issued orders for withdrawal to the north and the formation of a rear guard upon the line of the Wadi es Sabe. Even supposing that this rear guard could have been dispersed during the night, which is not probable, the charge was none the less important. Beersheba without its wells would not have been a valuable possession, and it was the 4th L.H. Brigade which was entirely responsible for their preservation. Nor would the losses of the Turks have been nearly so heavy had they been allowed to carry out an orderly retirement. As it was, more than half the dismounted troops in the town were captured or killed, while out of 28 guns 9 fell into the hands of the Desert Mounted Corps and 6 into those of the XX Corps. Only the 3rd Cavalry Division withdrew without loss. The corps commander himself narrowly escaped capture.

Yet another result was the effect on Turkish morale, an effect greatly increased by the charges of the Yeomanry [61] pushed home with the sword in their case - which will be 1917 recorded in the accounts of the next fortnight's fighting. Till now the Turks had looked upon the British mounted troops as chiefly valuable for reconnaissance, or raids in superior numbers on isolated posts, as at Rafah, and had considered that the Turkish infantry had little to fear from them. Nor perhaps had it much to fear even note, unless the men lost their nerve, but that is precisely what was to happen at Maghar, at Abu Shushe, and on several other occasions. The commanders of the British mounted troops first learnt from this incident their own strength, and that in this theatre there was likely to be brilliant opportunity for the cavalry arm even in frontal attack, whereas mounted infantry tactics were never likely to achieve decisive success. A page had been turned in the annals of the campaign.

NOTE.

Of no action in the course of the campaign have we a fuller account from the Turkish side than of the capture of Beersheba. Several chapters of Turkish "Yilderim" are devoted to the battle and its lessons, and the subsequent reports of Kress and of Ismet Bey, commanding the III Corps, are included. The 27th Division consisted of two regiments, the 67th and 81st, which defended Beersheba from the west, the former south of the Wadi es Sabe, the latter north of it. From the Khelasa road to Ras Ghannam was the 48th Regiment, 16th Division. In reserve was the 3rd Cavalry Division (6th and 8th Regiments), and the 2nd Regiment of the 24th Division. This division had moved south from Tell en Nejile, and another regiment, the 143rd, was in the hills about 6 miles N.N.W. of Beersheba, but it was under the orders of the XX Corps and took no part in the action.

When Ismet Bey perceived that he had to face an attack by the mounted troops from the east he placed one battalion of the 48th Regiment and a machine gun company at Tell es Sabe, first one and then apparently a second battalion of the 2nd Regiment south-east of the town, and moved the 3rd Cavalry Division into the high ground to the north-east, to guard the Hebron road and prevent Beersheba from being surrounded from the north. At noon he had reports from Essad Bey, commanding the 3rd Cavalry Division, and also from the air that there were "two to three cavalry divisions to east and south," and so informed the commander of the Eighth Army. According to the Turkish version Kress replied: "No, they are only two cavalry brigades." A little later, in response to a more detailed report and a demand for instructions, Kress is stated to have telegraphed: "Beersheba will be held. The battle will be continued."

Ismet Bey, learning of the loss of the 67th Regiment's position and the virtual annihilation of two of its battalions, next despatched the third battalion of the 2nd Regiment to the south-west. He had now used up all his reserves, except for two companies of the 81st Regiment, north of Wadi es Sabe which he withdrew to Beersheba. All that stood between the British 60th and 74th Divisions and the town was the reserve battalion of the 67th Regiment and one battalion of the 2nd.

At 3 p.m., despite "the courageous and obstinate defence to the last [62] man" of Tell es Sabe, the hill was captured. At 4 p.m. the corps commander ordered a general retirement to "north of the town," and directed the engineer company attached to the 27th Division to destroy the water supply. The 48th Regiment was to retire first and take up a rear-guard on the Wadi es Sabe. Then came the charge of the 4th L.H. position Brigade, which entered the town when headquarters was on the point of leaving. Ismet Bey escaped on foot, gathered a score of men about him, beat off the attacks of some Australian troopers, and reached the headquarters of the 143rd Regiment. Thence he sent a message to Essad Bey to keep touch with the enemy, hold the high ground, and guard the Hebron road as well as the track to Tell esh Sheria through Kb. el Omry. The remnants of the infantry were reorganized as well as possible near Bir Abu Irqaiyiq Station, and reached Tell esh Sheria on the following morning. It is added that the destruction of the wells was not carried out, partly owing to damage done to "preparations" by the British artillery, but mainly owing to the Australian charge.

Kress ("Sinai," i, p. 43), complains that Ismet Bey had employed his reserves too soon and particularly criticizes the withdrawal of the mobile reserve, the 3rd Cavalry Division, to the hills. The only reflection on the action of the corps commander in the Turkish account is that he remained at the telephone in Beersheba, which was overlooked from all sides, and therefore could see nothing of the battle. He should, Colonel Hussein Husni suggests, have been at an observation post on the high ground to the north. For the rest the Turks put the blame on Kress and quote the following passage from his report:

"It was not possible to send reinforcements to Beersheba on the first day of the battle, to take up a more extensive position. Secondly, I had no idea that Beersheba would fall so rapidly, and did not see the necessity for these reinforcements. In addition, it was considered that the enemy's main attack would be against Gaza, and that the attack on Beersheba was a feint. Besides, a possible disembarkation on the coast had to be watched. Finally, lack of water precluded all idea of locating the Yilderim reserves north of and near Beersheba."

Regarding this last point, the Turkish report remarks that there was at Tell esh Sheria a well with a motor pump and a large reservoir, and that the wells at Kh. Abu Khuff and Bir Khuweilfe, 10 and 11 miles N.N.E. of Beersheba, contained more than enough water for an infantry division. The truth of this statement is proved by the fact that all the troops engaged in the hill fighting during the next week watered from these wells. But that is a minor question. The gist of the Turkish criticism lies in the following passage:

"The battle of Beersheba should have been fought on different lines. The group should have retained its mobility in preference to holding the front. It was unnecessary to accept a decisive combat against heavy odds at Beersheba. The army commander should have given the III Corps commander a 'directive,' some time before, and ... everything should have been so organized that the group could not be surrounded at once, and so that it could retire, in case of necessity, before superior forces to the Dhahriye-Abu Khuff line without loss."

Certain criticisms of Falkenhayn seem to show that he also believed the Eighth Army commander to have been at fault, and it was apparently for this cause that Kress, undoubtedly one of the greatest masters of desert warfare the war produced, was relieved of his command when the front had been stabilized, after the British capture of Jerusalem. Hussein Husni's summing up of Kress's action in the battle is contained in the sentence:

"He relied on Meinertzhagen's pocket book."

 

Further Reading:

Falls - the British Infantry

"Put Grant straight at it."

The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917

Australian and New Zealand Roll of Honour

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

 


Citation: The Battle of Beersheba, Palestine, 31 October 1917, Falls Account, Pt 2

Posted by Project Leader at 10:59 AM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 8 October 2009 4:54 PM EADT

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