Topic: AIF - 2B - 6 LHR
Battle of Romani
Sinai, 4 - 5 August 1916
6th LHR, AIF, Unit History Account
[From: Berrie, Under Furred Hats, plate facing p. 64.]
Lieutenant George Lachlan Berrie produced a unit history published in 1919 called Under Furred Hats (6th ALH Regt) which included a section specifically related to the Battle of Romani and is extracted below.
Berrie, GL, Under Furred Hats (6th ALH Regt), (Sydney 1919), pp. 74 - 82:
On the 19th of July the Regiment, in conjunction with the rest of the Brigade, which now included the Wellington Mounted Rifles in place of the 5th, moved out for a further reconnaissance of Bir el Abd. A strong Turkish force had put up a remarkable feat in reaching Oghratina unobserved. Our column had passed Katia on its out ward march when an aeroplane dropped a message to the effect that the enemy were in strong force at Oghratina. But for this timely information it is certain that the screen at least would have met with casualties, if not disaster.
Falling back to Katia the Regiment bivouacked and outposted there for the night. A determined reconnaissance next day showed that the enemy's forward positions covering Oghratina were well advanced, and reached a strong natural position on a ridge behind Hod um Ugba. We withdrew at sundown and arrived back at Romani well towards mid night. It seemed obvious that the enemy was pre paring for another desperate attempt to reach the Suez Canal.
Also we soon saw that our tactics were calculated to gradually draw him on to Romani, while delaying the final battle as long as possible.
We now began what was probably one of the most strenuous periods in our existence. Working on alternate days with the 1st Brigade our programme was as follows:-Moving out just after midnight we halted in the big gap known as the Booby Hatch, the main gateway to the Romani and Et Maler positions, till dawn.
Thence we moved on till the screen was pulled up by the enemy outposts. Watching and worrying these outposts, driving them in where possible, flanking demonstrations and occasional attacks on any positions that appeared to offer any chance of success. This was the daily programme until darkness covered our weary withdrawal back to Et Maler.
And daily we endured the pitiless heat of midsummer, the eye-racking glare of the never ending sand, and an unquenchable thirst. Yet the spirits and energy of the Regiment remained un checked. As soon as the returning column passed a point beyond the earshot of the furthest enemy outpost, troop after troop broke into a chorus of song, and the remaining miles back to Et Maler reminded one of the end of a day's picnic, rather than the grimness of its actual reality.
On the 28th of June we reached our usual positions be yond Katia, and shortly after midday D Troop of C Squadron, commanded by Lieut. R. Black, being then posted on a ridge towards Urn Ugba, received orders to attack the hod in conjunction with a squadron of the Wellington Mounted Rifles working on the northern flank.
A well timed gallop enabled us to make at least half a mile of ground. The enemy fire from the ridges behind Um Ugba was nullified by the speed with which we moved, and finally we dismounted for action behind a rise overlooking the hod, and here we were joined by a section of our Machine Gun Squadron, under Lieut. Cunningham.
The hod now lay only a few hundred yards below us. It appeared to be occupied by a handful of snipers only, but from the ridges to the east and south, machine gun and rifle fire played on us from a convenient range of about 800 yards. At a concerted signal from the Wellingtons, D Troop advanced in extended order on the hod; Lieut. Cunningham at the same time removing his machine gun to a small eminence which enabled him to reply to the fire opened on to us directly the advance began. Lieut. Cunningham's superb handling of a particularly efficient crew, and his characteristic disregard of personal danger, ex posing himself repeatedly to locate targets, was probably our salvation.
Walking quietly along we must have presented a splendid target to the enemy guns on the ridge behind the hod, but repeated bursts from the gun in our rear kept them moderately quiet until when, about a hundred yards from the hod, we doubled for the shelter of the palm trees in the cup-like hollow.
Immediately heavy cross fire was directed at us, but we reached the hod with the loss of one man (Trooper R. B. Smith) slightly wounded. The Wellingtons had meantime advanced to the north and were coming through the main hod. About a dozen snipers who had sheltered there retreated as we made the first palm trees. One attempted to make the hill top behind, and was brought down running. The remainder, retreating northwards, were captured by the Wellingtons, and during a double across an open space between the palm groves, our second casualty occurred, Trooper F. J. Collins receiving a bullet in the back. Our machine gun, in spite of two casualties, still gave us splendid covering fire, and the horses had meantime been brought to the western end of the hod.
Mounting here, we retired at the gallop, enemy fire again proving in effectual as we crossed the open ground to our original starting point.
The machine gun crew got out with the same careless dash that had characterized them throughout the afternoon.
Their horse-holders galloped right to the forward position they occupied, and in a few seconds both gun and crew, followed by a futile stream of fire, had made a safe position further towards Katia.
Upon the withdrawal of the Regiment that evening, a listening post of Corporal R. Thorne and 2 men under Lieut. Pearce, remained behind on a ridge overlooking Hamisah to ascertain any enemy movements during the night. Lieut. Pearce was shot dead at close range by a sniper.
Corporal Thorne, discovering his officer to be dead, decided to withdraw. Finding almost immediately that all retreat through Katia was cut off, he plunged into the enemy country to the south of Hamisah. But whenever he attempted to strike a direct course to Romani, strong Turkish patrols blocked the way.
By dint of riding all night, and by superb bushmanship, he succeeded, in spite of several hairbreadth escapes, in bringing his party right round the flank towards Dueidar, eventually making to Hill 70 by 9 a.m. Lieut. Pearce's body was recovered next day and brought to Et Maler for interment.
The same tactics continued 24 hours in and 24 hours out of camp and each day the enemy advance came gradually closer.
By the 3rd of August they had taken possession of Katia and Hamisah and the ridges on either flank, and a general battle seemed inevitable. We reached our camp that evening at nine o'clock, praying alternately for a good night's sleep and for the speedy culmination of the fortnight's constant strain.
The latter came a few hours later.
Awakened partially by the sound of distant rifle fire, and thoroughly a few moments later by the order to "stand to," we turned out at 12.30 a.m., and made ready for the events of the day. Holding our horses and formed up ready to move out, we dozed till 4 a.m., while the gradual approach of intermittent rifle fire to the south warned us that the day had arrived.
At 4 a.m. the whole Regiment mounted, and moving out at the gallop went to the support of the 1st Brigade, which had been bearing the brunt of the attack since midnight. In less than a mile S.E. of Et Maler we dismounted for action, and advancing several hundred yards on foot under heavy fire, rifle, machine gun and shrapnel, took up a line which we held against repeated attacks till 7 a.m.
The enemy appeared to be having things much his own way.
All around Romani -and Et Maler positions his artillery roared, aeroplanes, unopposed, bombed our camps, led-horses and railhead depots, to their own sweet will; in ,effectively, nevertheless, thanks mainly to the heavy sand.
The 1st Brigade withdrew at the gallop shortly after 7 o'clock, and when soon 'afterwards our firing-line dropped back to the led horses and we also mounted, and pursued by heavy shelling galloped out and away towards the railway line, the ordinary man in the ranks might have been pardoned for imagining that Jacko had scored a bit of a win.
But an inspiring figure had been amongst us all the morning, and with such a leader how could we lose. Brig.-Gen. Royston had taken command of our Brigade on the departure of General Ryrie for England in June.
"Galloping Jack," as he was popularly called, came to us with a reputation, and never did leader make good or enhance a reputation like he on that 4th day of August.
Wherever the fire was hottest, wherever a word of command, or the sight of his heroic figure, a cheery word of encouragement, or the example of his extraordinary dash and courage were required, General Royston appeared at the opportune moment. None of those whom he led that day can ever remember him without that thrill which makes every good soldier know that it was worth while.
By nine o'clock we had occupied a new position to the right of Wellington Ridge and gradually the tactics of our retirement became apparent.
Drawn on by our withdrawal the attacking force had attempted to cross the precipitous sand mountains towards the railway line, while their efforts to reach our camp at Romani and Et Maler had been completely held up. A large force was quietly allowed to occupy a hod almost surrounded by steep sand hills where they were compelled to remain by our frontal fire and a barrage of shrapnel in their rear. Heat, thirst and exhaustion now had their effect.
Threatened on their western flank by a regiment of New Zealanders and a body of Scottish Infantry coming up from Kantara, they gave up the unequal struggle and hoisted the white flag. Even at this dramatic moment General Royston appeared then, as always, at the gallop, and never a throat among us that was too cracked to cheer as he disappeared in a cloud of sand: At sundown we advanced a short distance on foot finally taking up a position where we out posted for the night, the led horses being brought up close under cover of darkness.
Daylight found us again in the saddle, and advancing towards Katia by a route which circled to the south.
The enemy had, during the night, decided on a general retirement. We soon came into touch with his rear guard, which made a very half-hearted attempt to stay our progress. Each hod yielded up its complement of prisoners; abandoned wounded freely marked the line of re treat, and the dead on Wellington Ridge testified to the effectiveness of the delaying action of the previous day. At Hod el Enna our largest capture took place, three hundred of the exhausted and demoralized enemy surrendering without firing a shot. Our advance towards Katia continued till midday. The sweltering heat was merciless; what wonder, after the happenings of the previous fort night, capped by the just-gone twenty-four hours, that physically, the Regiment, both horses and men, was near breaking point. The horses suffered worst. They had had nothing to drink since the evening of the 3rd inst ; we at least had started the battle of Romani with one full water bottle.
Few felt inclined for such food as remained in the haversacks. And the most trying time of the whole strenuous fortnight was yet to come. We had to wait. It mattered not why, but for several hours we crouched under our horses, taking, when possible, advantage of their shadows, the only shade available in a wilderness of burning sand.
At two o'clock the welcome order to mount was passed along, and we moved off to take part in a general attack upon Katia. The long straggling hod was evidently strongly held by the Turkish rear guard, and the flanks from Hamisah to Hill 245 were almost impregnable owing to the numerous sandbag redoubts built by the Turkish army during its occupation of Katia. Five mounted Brigades took part in the general assault the 1st, 2nd and 3rd L.H. Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade and the 5th Brigade 'of Mounted Yeomanry. Dismounting two miles from Katia and directly opposite the main hod, the Regiment advanced, at first steadily, and finally in short rushes. The enemy guns sought vainly for our led horses, but the machine guns and rifles concealed on the edge of the hod played effectively on our ranks as we doubled across the dry swampy ground fronting the oasis. We reached a small line of sand eminences several hundred yards from our objective and waited there preparatory to making the final assault. But it all depended on the success of the flanking attack towards Hamisah, and this failed.
All credit to the tactics of the Turks and their determination at all costs not to be outflanked. For in the now pitiable condition of semi-exhaustion our men found themselves in, it was impossible to carry Katia by a direct frontal attack.
For several hours we lay behind the sparsest of cover and returned when possible the resolute fire of the Turkish machine guns. Towards sundown, the in evitable happened, a withdrawal was ordered, and just prior to retiring Colonel Fuller was wounded.
It seemed as if the withdrawal must be attended with heavy loss. Many men were too exhausted to do anything but walk slowly away from Katia, and parties carrying wounded men moved under fire for upwards of half a mile. But the sun was now setting behind us, and made a blur of the weary and dispirited figures making their way slowly to where the led horses had been left.
More than anything though, our safety was made possible by the heroic work of Lieut. Cunningham and his machine guns. With his usual disregard of personal safety, he posted his guns in commanding positions, and during the hottest fire coolly superintended their effective use.
Shortly after dark the Regiment had re assembled. and started back for Et Maler. Both horse and men seemed to make a final call on their waning resources of endurance. But the horses, first at the water troughs and later with their nose..
bags, found life worth living again, and the men soon briefly forgot in the oblivion of sleep the agonies of the last two days. The total casualties for the 4th and 5th of August amounted to 7 killed and 45 wounded, of which several died later, including Sgt. M. Johnston, of Molong, N.S.W., who in death, as in life, set an everlasting example to his Regiment.
Citation: Romani, Sinai, 4-5 August 1916, 6th LHR, AIF, Unit History Account