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Saturday, 25 October 2008
Battle of Romani, Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916, Gullett Account
Topic: BatzS - Romani

Battle of Romani

Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916

Gullett Account 

 

Left to right: Lt Murray, Surveyor; Mr Gullett, Official War Correspondent; Lt O'Connor, Photographer.
 
[From AWM No B01393]


Gullett, HS,  The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918 (10th edition, 1941) Official Histories – First World War
Volume VII.

 

Chapter XI

The Battle of Romani

All Sinai nights are brilliant and early on the night of August 3rd a low quarter-moon added to the light from the stars. The white sand, over which the outpost line of the

2nd and 3rd Light Horse Regiments extended, reflected the illumination of the heavens, and gave the peering troopers fair observation for short distances. The line of British infantry posts, commencing at Mahemdia on Lake Bardawil, ran due south to Katib Gannit, beyond which the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel D. Fulton, formed the left flank of the Australian position. Fulton's right covered the great feather-edged dune known as Mount Meredith, and the end Regiment, under the temporary command of Lieutenant-Colonel G. H. Bourne extended south from that point towards Hod el Enna.

The outpost line of the mounted troops faced almost due east over the lower foot-hills of the Romani sand-dunes. Between the British stronghold and the Turks at Katia lay four or five miles of comparatively hard, undulating country covered with innumerable little hillocks and the short prickly bushes of the desert. While the ground presented no obstacle to a rapid night march, it afforded excellent cover for advancing troops and for riflemen creeping into position against the line of the light horsemen. The Australians stood across the inlets to those narrow gullies which sloped upwards through the sand-hills to the broad-topped elevation known as Wellington Ridge. From the summit of this ridge there was a long steady fall on the northern side towards the camps at Etmaler, Romani. and railhead. Wellington Ridge, therefore, commanded the advanced British base, and the enemy, if he gained it, would be established behind the infantry posts from Mahemdia to Katib Gannit. Chauvel had suggested more than once that infantry posts should be established on this ridge; but the work had not been deemed necessary.

As the 2nd Light Horse Brigade had returned towards Romani in the night from their last reconnaissance, they had observed a Turkish following movement. But a single shot, fired, probably by accident, in front of the outpost line near Hod el Enna at 10.30, was the first indication the Australians had of the close presence of the enemy. Soon afterwards two more shots were heard; then the stillness of the summer night was unbroken until just before midnight, when Australians near Hod el Enna reported that a party of thirty Turks had approached their position, and that they could see a larger force, estimated at 500, assembling a little further out. Communication by telephone had been established along the line and linked up with the camp at Romani, and at midnight the 1st Light Horse Regiment was called up from reserve and two squadrons were immediately put into the line on the left.

Subsequent information disclosed that the Turkish plan was to follow on the heels of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade on its return from reconnaissance, to march in the darkness up the gullies leading to Wellington Ridge, and to be in position there at dawn to charge down on the Etmaler and Romani camps. Having overwhelmed the camps, the enemy would have attempted to deal with the 52nd Division and the infantry posts before serious British reinforcements could arrive from Hill 70 and Kantara. But, discovering that the entrances to the gullies were held by the light horse, and uncertain as to the strength of the unexpected barrier, the enemy's advance-guard halted and waited for further orders and for the arrival of the main force. From midnight until nearly 1 o’clock the Turks maintained their silence. Then the night was suddenly disturbed by a wild babble of shouting and the customary Turkish battle-cry of " Allah! Allah!", with " Finish Australia! Finish Australia!'' as a variation. This was followed by a heavy burst of fire along the whole line, which was immediately answered by the rifles of the light horsemen. Neither side yet had definite targets.

Firing was continued for more than an hour. Constantly creeping in, the Turks were at about 2 o'clock within thirty or forty yards of the light horse line. Still they could not be clearly seen, and the Australians, shooting with quiet deliberation, were now aiming at the flashes of their rifles. Already there had been some exciting incidents. Mounted cossack posts had been thrown out in front of the Australian line, and the Turks crept or blundered into a number of these without being observed. Some of the men were bayoneted as they attempted to mount their horses. In front of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, two posts of eight men each, under Sergeants Bingham and Tolman3 (both Tasmanians), were almost entirely destroyed, and the sergeants were killed fighting on their ground. Major M. Shanahan,' of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, riding round the listening posts, found four Australians who had lost their horses and had been outflanked by the enemy. Taking two of the men on to his horse, and with a trooper hanging to either stirrup, he dashed safely through the Turks in the darkness.

The strength and purpose of the Turkish attack were now unmistakable, and Meredith was quick to appreciate that his scattered, slender line must be pierced and broken. The posts ran over a number of sand-dunes "so steep that detours of up to half-a-mile " were necessary to move from post to post. Contact was precarious. Bourne therefore withdrew his right flank squadron under Major G. Birkbeck6 and sent it with two machine-guns to the support of his left. But this movement over the sand-hills in the darkness was difficult and slow, and meanwhile Shanahan on the left, and Fulton towards Katib Gannit, were heavily pressed. Shanahan was ordered to hang on at all costs, and his men, now exposed on their right flank, fought with fine tenacity. At about I a.m. the telephone wire between Bourne and Brigade Headquarters was broken; communication between squadrons was almost impossible, and from then until dawn the resistance depended upon the wits of squadron and troop leaders and the resource and resolution of the men. At about 2 o'clock Bourne threw in the last troops of his reserve squadron under Captain C. C. Stodart. The Turks, many of whom had discarded their boots to increase their speed over the loose sand, were then fiercely assailing Mount Meredith, and, although still held, were firing at point-blank range in overwhelming numbers upon the light horsemen. At the same time substantial enemy forces began to cross the front towards Hod el Enna; and it became clear that, obstructed on his first line of approach, he was aiming to outflank the Australian right and strike for the railway by way of Mount Royston. All ranks of the light horsemen were fully conscious that the safety of Romani and the whole British advanced force was in their hands. The old Gallipoli spirit was again aflame, and every man was resolved that the Turk, if he gained ground, must pay a heavy price for it. Romani was in its earlier and most critical stages almost entirely a soldier's battle.

At 2.30, after a brief lull in the attack, the enemy-who had now assembled his main flanking force, estimated at about 8,000 rifles-raised another great shouting and charged with the bayonet on Mount Meredith. The slender moon had set, and the darkness, except quite close to the sand, was intense; but the enemy was now massed and definitely located, and was giving the Australians a good target. Fulton's line had up to this time been standing firmly. Repeated attempts by the Turks to scale the almost perpendicular southern slope of Mount Meredith had been frustrated by a handful of men under Lieutenant G. P. Edwards,' of the 1st Regiment, who, posted on the crest, shot the assailants in large numbers, and sent their bodies rolling down the wall of sand. Flanking attacks, however, were more successful, and at about 3 o'clock Mount Meredith was abandoned to the enemy. The defence of the position had fallen mainly on the 1st Regiment, and Granville's men suffered severely. During the morning Lieutenant W. McQuiggans was killed, and Captain F. V. Weir: Captain A. L. Fitzpatrick, Captain G. H. L. Harris, and Lieutenant W. M. Nelson were wounded. The loss of Mount Meredith left Shanahan's squadron on the right with both its flanks exposed, but as Birkbeck had not yet completed his movement from the direction of Hod el Enna and his location was uncertain, Bourne ordered Shanahan to stand his ground. Casualties became heavy, and Lieutenant A. S. Righetti,18 of the reserve squadron of the 2nd, was killed. Shanahan's squadron, assailed on three sides, was compelled to give ground, and by 3.30 had been forced back to the led horses.

View from southern end of infantry position at Romani looking south over Wellington Ridge. The 3rd A.L.H. Regiment, which was at first holding a line beyond this ridge, was gradually driven back on to the ridge, and, at a later stage, withdrew somewhat to the north-west (left) to Hod Diuk. In the shaded dip shelter was found for the horses of two regiments during the fight.

Bourne had already selected a reserve position on the ridge behind, and now gave the order to withdraw. The situation was critical. Already the Turks, with bayonets fixed, were closing on the Australians and the horses, and a few light horsemen, encumbered by their boots and leggings in the deep sand, were taken prisoner. So close was the fighting that a light horseman, endeavouring as he believed to lift a comrade up behind his saddle, discovered that the man was a Turk. But with perfect steadiness the Australians all along the line broke away mounted from the confident Turks, and retired bearing their wounded. "The bullets," wrote Bourne, “were making little spurts of flame all round us, owing to the phosphorus in the sand. Here we experienced for the first time the moral effects of turning our backs on the enemy, and the question arose in our minds as we rode, 'Can we re-form?' The order 'Sections about-Action front!' was given as we reached the position, and was splendidly carried out. 'This high test of discipline gave us renewed confidence." Fulton's line conformed, pivoting on the infantry post at Katib Gannit, and the men, scooping out holes in the sand, settled down still full of fight and assured of reinforcements at dawn. Bourne on the right was reinforced by a squadron of Granville's 1st Regiment, and soon afterwards "to our great relief Birkbeck's party could be seen laboriously making its way through the heavy sand on our right." But the Turks speedily followed and resumed their pressure, while a machine-gun party on the captured heights of Mount Meredith swept the light horse line. Dawn disclosed the enemy in masses, and gave the Australians a rare target at close range; but it also revealed their own slender line in detail to the Turks, and they were smothered by a greatly superior weight of fire. At the same time the enemy appeared in large numbers on the right, outflanking the entire 1st Brigade, and began to enfilade both the light horse line and the led horses. The reserve position was therefore abandoned, and the riflemen, in perfect conformity, retreated slowly up the slope on to Wellington Ridge. Troop covered troop, maintaining a deadly fire with the utmost steadiness, and frustrated every effort of the Turks to use their overwhelming advantage in numbers by hand to hand fighting. Lieutenant P. S. R. Woodyatt was killed and Major Shanahan wounded about this time; but holes, speedily dug in the sandy firing lines, and the undulating surface of the ground, gave exceptional cover, and casualties were surprisingly light. Soon after daylight the Turks opened with their artillery, sweeping the line on Wellington Ridge with shrapnel, and the infantry posts and the camps with high explosive from the 5.9's. The shrapnel was at once effective, but the damage caused by the high explosive in the loose deep sand was purely local. The light horsemen were anxiously waiting for the sound of their own batteries, which, however, did not begin to fire until some time later. So confused had been the struggle in the darkness that neither side had ventured to use its artillery until after daylight. Sorely pressed, but fighting stubbornly, and, despite the loss of ground, still convinced of their capacity to hold the enemy, the men of the three regiments were cheered at about 4.30 by the sight of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade advancing to their support over the sand-hills from Etmaler. Already by their calm and dogged work in the night Romani had virtually been won.

Immediately the Turks had been discovered in front of the outpost line, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which at about 11 p.m. on August 3rd had returned to Etmaler, was turned out in readiness for action. At this time the brigade was under the temporary command of Brigadier-General J. R. Royston, in the absence of Ryrie, who was on brief leave in England. But Chauvel was in no hurry to commit his only reserve. He knew the quality of his old command in the 1st Brigade; hard pressed as the three regiments were, he deliberately left them unsupported throughout the night, so that he might have the 2nd Brigade intact to deal with the situation as it should be discovered at daylight. At dawn he personally led the brigade out at the canter from the palm hods at Etmaler, and moved towards the firing line. Already it was plain to him that the main menace to Romani was no longer on the front of Meredith's brigade. The danger was further west, where the strong Turkish left flank, driving in between Etmaler and Mount Royston, was marching for the railway behind the British position. He therefore ordered Royston to send the 6th and 7th Light Horse Regiments in on the right of the 1st Brigade to deny this flanking movement. The Wellingtons were not at once committed to the fight, but were thrown in soon afterwards. The Australians left their horses about a mile from the positions which they themselves were to occupy, and advanced on foot in one long line. They were heavily enfiladed as they pressed forward, but suffered very few casualties. Enemy machine-gun fire from the flank kicked up the sand immediately in front of the troops, and enemy shrapnel, bursting too high, pitched just over and fell behind them.

Able now to perceive the actual position, the Turks developed their attack with great rapidity and force. Increased machine-gun fire swept the light horse front. Artillery became very active, and at about 5 a.m. aeroplanes flew over and heavily bombed the British camps, railhead, and Anzac Mounted Division Headquarters. The Turks had lost six priceless hours; the heat was already becoming fierce; their troops, short of water and beginning to suffer acutely from thirst, were exhausted by forced marching arid hours of futile fighting in the heavy sand; and they were still denied the position on Wellington Ridge which they had expected to gain in the coolness of the night without meeting resistance. Soon after dawn they made a weak demonstration from the east against some of the British infantry posts; but this activity was designed merely to pin down the 52nd Division, and was never developed.

The two light horse brigades now engaged in a desperate attempt to deny Wellington Ridge to the enemy. Soon after 6 a.m. the Leicester Battery opened fire from near Etmaler, and succeeded in driving the enemy machine-guns off their commanding position on Mount Meredith. Other British batteries came into action a little later, and their well-directed shrapnel thinned and harassed the advancing Turkish lines. But the enemy, with his greatly superior numbers and his strong flank movement to the west, steadily made headway. Chauvel, however, recognised that, although the fight was extremely critical, the Turks were with wonderful precision conforming to his own and General Murray's hopes and anticipations. The sun and the heavy sand were now the Ottoman's most formidable enemies. Although his enveloping movement was succeeding, its progress was slow, and every minute his left flank was becoming more and more exposed to the contemplated attack of Chaytor's Section Mounted Troops from Hill 70. Provided the two light horse brigades could save the camps and railhead, it was imperative that they should not risk a hand to hand encounter, which against such odds might end in their destruction and give victory to the enemy. Accordingly Chauvel, riding about the position with that complete calm which always distinguished him in action, and giving confidence and steadiness to his staff and men, fought his gradual withdrawal without grave concern. Provided the light horse resistance was maintained, each hundred yards the Turks advanced brought them nearer to defeat. It was inevitable that, unless they very speedily won the hods and the water at Etmaler and Romani, the great assaulting wave must spend itself and perish on the burning sand.

Chauvel had shown his faith in the light horse when he left the 1st Brigade unsupported through the long hours of darkness. In that precarious retirement not a single Australian troop had been thrown into confusion. Hour after hour, fighting bitterly all the way and sometimes engaged in hand to hand struggles, the crooked, patchy line had held together, elastic but unbreakable. Not an acre of ground gained by the enemy had been gained quickly or cheaply. Almost every minute and yard of the way the Turks, with all their superior numbers, had been compelled to use each scrap of cover and to creep forward foot by foot. If daylight had subjected the Australians to heavy punishment, it had also made contact easy. The fight was still a troop-leader's and a soldier's fight, but the position was now beginning to give full scope to the staff work of division and brigade. Soon after daylight a considerable enemy body, which had crept up behind Mount Meredith, rushed over the lower slopes of the hill and reached cover in a valley at the foot of Wellington Ridge, within 300 or 400 yards of the light horse line. As the morning wore on, the Australians were heavily punished, and among those to fall were Major E. Windeyer and Lieutenant P. V. M. Ryan, of the 7th Regiment, both severely wounded. Harassed by heavy shrapnel fire, as well as by rifles and machine-guns at close range, they continued to give ground, and at about 7 a.m. the Turks gained possession of Wellington Ridge. The 1st Brigade (less the 3rd Regiment, which remained in the line) was then withdrawn to a position slightly to the north of Etmaler camp, and resistance to further Turkish progress fell for some time upon the 3rd, 6th, and 7th Light Horse Regiments and the Wellingtons, all of which were now slowly falling back by alternate squadrons. The retirement was distinguished by many acts of individual gallantry. Despite the immediate presence of the enemy, all wounded were carried back over the heavy sand. Corporal Curran, of the 7th, after bearing in a number of men, was killed while still engaged in this noble work.

In possession of Wellington Ridge, the Turks were within 700 yards of the Etmaler camp; if they could have pressed forward immediately, the crisis of the fight would have been reached. Riding along the firing line at this time Royston met Lieutenant-Colonel W. Meldrum, a dour fighter of Scotch descent, who was in command of the Wellingtons.

"You can give them no more ground,'' said Royston, "or we shall lose the camps." If they get through my line here," replied the New Zealander grimly, “they can have the damned camps." The Turks were six hours late in reaching Wellington Ridge, and that six hours had exhausted the troops and confused the tactics of their leaders. The enemy's communications were by this time disorganised, and possibly some time elapsed before he appreciated that his outflanking movement between Etmaler and Mount Royston was proving so successful in withdrawing the Australians from his immediate front on Wellington Ridge. But probably it was sheer exhaustion which caused him to halt his advance when he gained the ridge, and so gave Chauvel invaluable breathing space for nearly an hour. When the enemy won the ridge, he stopped short of the crest; it was nearly 8 o'clock before his riflemen appeared on the sky-line and began to pour a heavy fire into the camp at Etmaler. Fortunately these troops made a very definite artillery target, and the Ayrshire and Leicester Batteries were immediately laid on to them. Quickly finding the range, the British gunners swept the Turkish line and cleared the crest, and the enemy did not again show over the top until late in the afternoon. Having gained his intended point of deployment on the ridge, he was too enfeebled to exploit his advantage. After their eight hours' ordeal, the light horsemen had triumphed, and the position was safe.

With the Turks held on Wellington Ridge, and with their left flank open towards Mount Royston, the time was now ripe for Chaytor's counter-stroke. But Chaytor was under Lawrence's direct control, and Lawrence was no longer in touch with the Romani situation. Early in the morning the direct telephone-wire from the battleground to Kantara had been cut, presumably by an enemy agent, and the alternative line by way of Port Said was found to be so slow that it was practically worthless. Only after a long delay was Chauvel able to join up with Lawrence, advise him of the position, and ask that Chaytor should be ordered to advance on Mount Royston, and Antill with the 3rd Brigade on Bir el NUSS. Rut by that time Chaytor was on the march from Hill 70 to Dueidar, and his direction was twice changed before he was finally directed on Mount Royston. And, despite all the warning the Turks had given, Antill, who was moving to orders and who was in no way to blame, did not approach the Romani district until the day's fight had ceased. Unfortunately Murray's fears were proved to have been well founded: Lawrence might almost as well have been in Cairo as at Kantara.

Soon after 7 o'clock a brigade of enemy infantry and some mounted troops advanced strongly between Mount Royston and Etmaler, and General Royston reported half an hour later that the enemy was enveloping his right. At the same time the first practical assistance was received from the troops to the west, when a squadron of Gloucesters of the 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade, which was holding a precautionary position covering the railway, engaged the extreme flank of the enemy. But the menace there was still serious and Chauvel was again obliged to extend his line to meet it. As the Australians fell back from Wellington Ridge, a battalion commander of the 2nd Division had on his own initiative taken over the extreme left of the Anzac line. A little later Chauvel asked for further support from the infantry there, and about two companies were put into the fight at the critical stage when he was obliged to extend his line towards Mount Royston. Between 10 and 11 o'clock the Wellington Mounted Rifles were on the left flank of the Anzac line, which extended from the right flank of the infantry north of Wellington Ridge to the sand-hills north of Mount Royston. Next to the Wellingtons were the 7th Light Horse, then the and, 3rd, and 6th in that order. The 1st Light Horse Regiment was in reserve. The position now became stationary along the whole front, except for a slight and fruitless attempt by the Australian right to occupy Mount Royston. It was plain that, unless the enemy possessed strong reserves and pushed at once with great vigour, his whole enterprise must fail. He continued to bombard the infantry posts, which presented a very clear target to his gunners, and also played shrapnel and machine-gun fire freely on to the light horse line and rear.

Up to this time the brigades of the 52nd Division had taken no part in the engagement, except to suffer bombardment in their posts. General Smith was obeying orders and holding his north-and-south barrier. At about 10 o’clock, after the advance across Wellington Ridge had been soundly checked, and there was still no news of Chaytor's Section Mounted Troops, Chauvel came to the conclusion that the main strength of the Turkish attack was exhausted; and, impatient perhaps at seeing his men still fighting an infantry battle, when a rare opportunity was developing for the use of his horses, proposed that the 156th Brigade should take over the line from the1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades. The 156th was at that time in reserve about two miles behind Etmaler, fresh, and far stronger in rifles than the two hard-fought light horse brigades. Chauvel's proposal was sent direct by a staff officer; the brigadier was asked to relieve the Australians, so that their horses might be watered, after which the mounted force would swing round the left flank of the enemy to cooperate with the New Zealanders and 5th Yeomanry Brigade in a general enveloping attack.

Obviously such a movement at that time must have had excellent prospects of completely destroying the whole Turkish force. But Chauvel's proposal only served to emphasise the wretched position brought about by the existence of two independent divisional commands and Lawrence's distant position. The leader of the brigade replied that he must take his orders from General Smith, who intended, when the proper moment arrived, to make a counter-attack eastwards from the infantry posts towards Abu Hamra, and that his was the reserve brigade for that movement. Chauvel, having no alternative, accepted the reply, and continued to use his men as infantry while the golden opportunity for cavalry fighting slipped away as the day advanced.

Soon after 11 o'clock the New Zealand Brigade (less the 5th Light Horse Regiment) established communications with the 5th Yeomanry Brigade, and it was clear that Chaytor, despite the delay caused by the break in the telephone wire, would arrive in time for an effective counter-stroke. Arrangements were made for an attack upon Mount Royston, which was now held by the enemy in considerable strength. Two guns of the Ayrshire Battery opened fire on the Turks in the hods on the left of the position, and the 42nd Division, which was asked to support the attack, immediately pushed forward its advanced brigade from Pelusium.

Early in the morning, when Lawrence was convinced that the main attack would be directed to the outflanking and destruction of the Romani stronghold, he had urged the 4znd Division forward to Pelusium. The 5th Light Horse Regiment under Wilson, who had orders to discover the enemy's left flank, had left Dueidar shortly after midnight and marched by Bir el Nuss towards Nagid. That place was reported clear by the advance-guard just before daylight; but soon afterwards two battalions of enemy, in all about 1,500 strong, were observed from a high ridge to the south marching northwards towards Hod el Enna. Seeing the light horsemen, this force took up a line on another high ridge, and opened fire on the Australians at an effective range with machine-guns and mountain guns. Wilson, satisfied that he had accomplished his object and definitely located the left flank of the enemy, retired on Bir el Nuss, where he received orders from the New Zealand Brigade to proceed to a point three miles along the road towards Dueidar and there await instructions. Unfortunately the regiment then lost touch with the brigade, and so was not available for the advance on Mount Royston later in the day. But the morning encounter with the enemy column at Nagid proved highly serviceable, as it satisfied Lawrence that no immediate blow was intended further to the west, besides delaying an important enemy reinforcement for two hours at a critical stage of the struggle. At nightfall Wilson, still without orders, decided to proceed to Dueidar; here he found the 3rd Light Horse Brigade under Antill, which had moved up during the day from Bally Bunion.

Although the report from the 5th Light Horse Regiment satisfied Lawrence as to the immediate safety of the Canal, his caution in holding back the 52nd Division so long had made it impossible for this urgently needed reserve to reach Romani on the 4th. While one infantry division (the 52nd) sat still in its posts right away from the Turkish attack, the other (the 42nd) was, considered as a mobile reserve, too distant to come into action.

In his endeavour to check the enemy's strong and sustained flanking movement to the west, Chauvel sent a squadron of the 6th Light Horse Regiment under Major D. G. Cross to his extreme right flank; later the balance of the regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel C. D. Fuller followed in support. As the regiment advanced to its position near Bir Abu Diuk, the troops were heavily shelled and also bombed from the air. Fuller soon had two squadrons in action with machine-guns against a body of about 2,000 Turks, who were moving past and round his front at a range of only 800 yards. Heavy casualties mere inflicted, but the enemy could not be arrested, and after a lively fire-fight the men of the 6th, who hung on until he was almost within bayonet reach, retired for about 700 yards. The 3rd Regiment was then sent round to the right of the 6th, and Fuller also had the assistance of a few infantry details who, having been in the neighbourhood overnight, had during the morning been put into small redoubts. But the Turks continued to envelop the right of the line, and the 6th Regiment was again pulled out and taken round beyond the 3rd. The enemy was now about 1,000 yards distant; he occupied low ground under the sand-hills at Mount Royston, on top of which he had established an observation post. Favoured by superior elevation, the Australians, although very extended and weak, harried the enemy whenever he showed a disposition to advance. Perhaps the Turks also overestimated the light horse numbers, for they halted and began to dig in.

The Gloucesters were now strongly placed on a knob to the west of Mount Royston, to the right front of the light horse, and they reported the enemy in strength on their front but making no effort to pass them on either side. Major J. H. Whyte, a New Zealand officer who was acting as brigade-major of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, then got into touch by heliograph with a body of troops just becoming visible, and asked “Who are you? " The welcome response was "Chaytor." Whyte signalled "We are 2nd Brigade and Gloucesters," and then, having given the positions of the British and the Turks, asked: "Will you attack Mount Royston? " The reply came; " Advancing to attack Mount Royston."

All these movements to the right naturally left Chauvel's line very weak in front of the enemy on Wellington Ridge. The 7th Regiment was now so close to Etmaler camp that during the afternoon the cooks, under heavy fire, served the men with tea as they lay in their little holes in the sand along the firing line. But the Turks, although they reinforced their troops behind the crest, showed no disposition to advance. At about 11.30 a.m. a mountain battery had shelled Etmaler, but, the dust raised by its action having been observed, it was promptly silenced by the Ayrshire Battery. A further demonstration was made against the line of infantry posts from the east, and a little later two considerable bodies entered Abu Hamra.

But the advance of the New Zealanders now made Mount Royston the vital point of the battle, as it was clear that, if Chaytor could smash the extended Turkish flank, the whole enemy force would be in extreme danger. Chauvel's horse artillery, together with two 18-pounder batteries of the 52nd Division, were therefore directed to fire on the hods and depressions round Mount Royston, and had a material effect in checking any further enemy advance before the arrival of the New Zealanders. Chaytor's force, as it approached Mount Royston, was reduced to the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, six troops of the Aucklands, and a few squadrons of yeomanry; but he hoped that the 12th Infantry Brigade of the 42nd Division, which was on the march across the heavy sand from Pelusium, would come up in time to support his blow at the enemy's flank. As he advanced he was met by Royston, of the and Light Horse Brigade, who had all day been galloping over the battleground.

As Chauvel was the brain of Romani, so this South African veteran soldier was the fighting spirit. In the course of a number of campaigns against Boers and natives Royston had become famous as a picturesque natural leader of men. He first came among the Australians as commanding officer of the 12th Light Horse Regiment; and any resentment the troops might have felt at not being led by an Australian was forgotten in the immediate recognition of his remarkable qualities as a fighting leader and his personal lovableness. Royston was then nearly sixty years old, and massively built; but despite his years and his weight he appeared as insensible to fatigue as he was utterly careless of danger. From the moment his force entered the fight at Romani he had fearlessly ridden up and down the exposed firing line. Parties of men crouching low in the sand were cheered again and again to see " Galloping Jack," as they called him, come racing up to them with yards of blood-stained bandage from a flesh wound trailing after him. " Keep moving gentlemen, keep moving," was his constant advice to his officers. And to the men,

" Keep your heads down, lads. Stick to it, stick to it! You are making history to-day." To a hard-pressed troop on the naked flank he cried: "We are winning now. They are retreating in hundreds." " And," said one of the light horsemen afterwards, "I poked my head over the top, and there were the blighters coming on in thousands." During a fight Royston was careless of sectors and units. He was that day as active among the regiments of the 1st Brigade as among his own men. Within a few hours he galloped fourteen horses to a standstill. On his own initiative he dashed over to meet Chaytor, and in a few sentences gave the Kew Zealander a grasp of the situation.

Chaytor's task was now clear. The Turks on the flank, to the number of about 2,000, were halted on and around Mount Royston. They were held in front by the 6th and 3rd Light Horse Regiments, and were being vexed by the fire of the British gunners. The Somerset Battery, which was with Chaytor, joined in the bombardment, and early in the afternoon the New Zealanders and yeomanry, with the British infantry coming up in support, advanced dismounted on Mount Royston. As they trudged forward in the intense heat over the heavy sand of the complicated little ridges, they seldom found definite targets for their rifles; and for some hours the Turks, fighting stubbornly and shooting well, as they always did on the defensive, maintained their position. But all the afternoon the New Zealanders and the yeomanry steadily gained ground; at 6 o'clock the enemy, refusing as usual conflict with the bayonet, hoisted the white flag and surrendered in large numbers. Half-an-hour later about 500 prisoners and the mountain battery, which had been put out of action earlier in the day by the Ayrshire gunners, were captured.

Shortly before the collapse about Mount Royston, the enemy made his final effort to advance over Wellington Ridge, but, as his men showed on the crest, they were raked with shrapnel and dispersed. Chauvel had arranged for the 156th Infantry Brigade to advance on Wellington Ridge during the flank attack of the New Zealanders and yeomanry, and had given orders for the whole line of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades to advance immediately Mount Royston was captured. The infantry assault, however, did not develop; and, although the light horse line everywhere commenced to move as soon as success on Mount Royston was assured, darkness was now falling, and the position was considered too involved, and the Australians and Wellingtons too exhausted, for a night operation. Chauvel therefore decided to check the assault, and to rest on his line until daylight. But before the order was given the 3rd and 6th Light Horse Regiments on the right had advanced briskly and taken many prisoners. At nightfall the British line ran between Wellington Ridge and Etmaler to near Mount Royston.

Despite the break in communications, both Lawrence and Murray had been kept informed of the main developments of the fight. The Commander-in-Chief was quick to see the opportunity which the stand of the light horse opened to the British. One of his staff officers, telegraphing to Lawrence during the morning of the 4th, said: "The Chief is glad the enemy has committed his troops in heavy sand, and thinks you should strain every nerve to push out Douglas's infantry (42nd Division) and Chaytor's and Antill's cavalry, both striking the flank of his enveloping attack, and more especially to work round his left rear and thus prevent the possibility of the escape of this wing of the hostile force."

To this message Lawrence replied: "I am sending up Douglas's infantry as rapidly as traffic arrangements permit, but I do not expect to have more than two brigades available to operate from about Pelusium to-morrow morning, the 5th. Chauvel's cavalry have been hard pressed and fighting continuously since early last night, and since his line has been pressed back I have been compelled to send Chaytor's brigade to prolong and strengthen his right to the south of Canterbury Hill. Antill has been brought across to Hill 70 and will, if the situation permits, be able, I hope, to operate by Dueidar against the enemy's left, which appears to be entrenched about Hod el Enna. The heavy ground and the tiredness of the horses and difficulty about water supply will, I am afraid, make a bold encircling movement difficult. But as soon as the troops are in position and the situation has been cleared up more, I intend to push forward wherever possible. The enemy has been attacking the defensive line from the east strongly, and the works there have been heavily shelled. But neither these nor the attacks from the west have been pushed really home up to the present.'' Lawrence's opinion as to the attacks on the 52nd Division was distinctly at fault; and it is apparent that he was not so satisfied with the situation as Murray, and did not look upon it as one which offered an immediate opportunity for the boldest possible offensive.

As darkness fell on the day of the battle, the condition of the Turks gave them little prospect of a successful renewal of their enterprise on the morrow. Most of the prisoners taken had been without water for some hours - many of them all day - and the food in their haversacks consisted chiefly of green dates which they had gathered in the hods. After a heavy day's preparation with much skirmishing on the 3rd, they had marched and fought all night, and had been continuously moving and engaged throughout a day which was exceptionally hot even for that season on the desert. Everywhere they had been checked and severely mauled, while at Mount Royston they had been almost entirely destroyed. Many of them were suffering acutely from dysentery. Worst of all, their leaders were well informed as to the existence of substantial British reinforcements nearer the Canal, and all officers and men must have been depressed by a sense of failure and complete despair of any improvement in their position.

On the British side the position was entirely different. The troops of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades were, it is true, very much exhausted. For twenty hours the men of the 1st had been heavily and almost ceaselessly engaged, and those of the 2nd for nearly as long a time. The 2nd Brigade had already been two nights without sleep. On an allowance of one quart of water to each man, they had been lying out all day under a fierce sun, with many hurried advances and fighting retirements in loose sand, over which walking was exceedingly laborious, even without rifle and ammunition equipment. Their casualties, if not destructive, had been heavy. But at nightfall they were still incomparably better placed than the Turks. Fighting as they were. right on their camps, many of them that night enjoyed their customary hot tea and full rations; and, weary as they were, they were sustained by that abnormal strength felt by troops conscious of victory. They had held their line, stopped the enemy, and saved the position. The dramatic intervention of the New Zealanders and yeomanry had sent a thrill through their ranks, and officers and men, vigilant in their line, awaited the dawn in full confidence that the defensive stage of the struggle was over, and that with the daylight they mould sweep the Turks before them.

The New Zealanders, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade were in even better condition for a renewal of the struggle. Thus the British had five brigades of cavalry ready for action against a beaten and disorganised force. But the main British superiority over the enemy on the night of Romani lay in its infantry. The 52nd Division on its line of posts had suffered very few casualties from gunfire, and the men, not having been in action, were comparatively fresh. Moreover, they were admirably placed for movement against the Turks; for these, based on Katia, now had their main force extended far past the right flank of the British division, while the 52nd Division, 7,000 effective rifles strong. was only between four and five miles from Katia-nearer to it than the bulk of the beaten army. The 42nd Division had crossed the Canal, and was based on Pelusium. Its 156th Brigade was forward, near Mount Royston, but had not arrived in time to play a serious part in that engagement, and had suffered only slight losses.

There was little rest that night for the light horsemen. After fighting until dark, the Australians were called upon for particular watchfulness along their slender line; and the watering of horses, the issue of ammunition and water and rations to the men, and the preparation for the bayonet advance which was decided upon for dawn, kept the tired troops constantly engaged. But they had now been long enough engaged in warfare to have acquired the capacity to sleep whenever a few minutes offered, regardless of the discomfort or the excitement of the moment. Troops fighting hotly at one moment would at the next, if orders permitted, be heavily and peacefully sleeping, and that night, if very few of the officers closed their eyes, most of the men snatched brief reviving spells of unconsciousness.

The two brigade ambulances worked throughout the night to relieve the wounded and prepare all mobile cases for transport by rail to Kantara. The hospital tents were overcrowded; the wounded lay out in the open under the surrounding palms, where twinkling lights showed the movements of medical officers and orderlies dressing their wounds and giving them refreshment. The surgeons engaged in the operating tents, which were placed deep in the hods, did their work to the accompaniment of bursting shells, the splash of shrapnel pellets on the palm leaves, and the whine of the 5.9's passing over towards railhead. But the occasional shells that fell among the ambulances mere probably the result of accident. Here, as at Gallipoli and, with occasional doubtful exceptions during the whole Palestine campaign, the Turks scrupulously respected the Red Cross. Only a few days before Romani was fought a German airman had dropped a message - which chanced to fall at the door of Chauvel's tent - asking the Australians to mark their ambulances more clearly, so that they should not be bombed. This chivalrous advice was acted upon, and subsequent bombers were careful to avoid them. Notwithstanding all the notice given by the enemy of his attack, the arrangements for the transport of the wounded from railhead to Kantara were deplorable, and should have led to drastic action against the officers responsible. The Mesopotamia scandals were repeated on a small scale. No hospital trains were provided. One lot of wounded reached railhead at 10 o'clock in the morning, when there was an empty train in the siding; but, despite the protests of the medical officer in charge, this was used for the transport of Turkish prisoners, and the light horsemen were allowed to lie about for hours under shell-fire in the blistering sun. They were then taken to Kantara in open trucks, the journey of twenty three miles occupying from six to fifteen hours, during which the men were without lights or attendance. A number of officers and men who had left the ambulances in a sound condition died from sheer neglect and exhaustion. Some of them remained for two days in hospital at Kantara, almost entirely without attention or food. Responsibility for this callous incompetence lay with No. 3 Section of the Canal Defences and General Headquarters, as Australian control ceased when the men were delivered at railhead. Strong protests led to an inquiry, which confirmed the charges: afterwards there was some improvement.

The supply of water for the horses always controlled the movement of the mounted brigades. At 7 o'clock on the evening of the 4th, immediately after clearing up the prisoners at Mount Royston, the New Zealanders and the 5th (Mounted) Yeomanry Brigade were on the march back to the wells at Pelusium, their position on the flank having been taken over by the 127th Brigade of the 42nd Division. Soon after dark water was also given to as many horses of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades as could be spared.


Additional Reading:

Battle of Romani, Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916

Bir el Abd, Sinai, 9 August 1916

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1919

 


Citation: Battle of Romani, Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916, Gullett Account

Posted by Project Leader at 4:36 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 8 October 2009 9:31 AM EADT

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