Topic: BatzS - El Mazar
Sinai, 17 September 1916
There was a Turkish garrison at Bir el Mazar, only twenty miles short of El Arish on the direct track, believed to be 2200 strong and made up of Romani survivors. It was decided to mount an attack on this on 17 September, but there was no water supply for horses between Mazar and Salmana and it was necessary to improvise one to avoid a dry round trip of 37 miles. The mid-September weather was still hot.
Seven hundred camels no less, each carrying a twenty-gallon fantass of water, were to rendezvous with Chauvel's troops ten miles east of Salmana on their return journey. This was only one oddity in this untypical and, in the end, controversial operation.
On 15 September, Chauvel's three Australian brigades marched to Salmana. They were sighted there on the 16th and machine-gunned by a German aircraft which no doubt informed the garrison at Mazar of its discovery. After dark, the 2nd Brigade, now once more under Brigadier General Ryrie and the 3rd Brigade under Royston, marched on Mazar while the 1st Brigade followed about seven miles in rear.
The attack on Bir el Mazar.
[From: Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine.]
At dawn, Ryrie's 5th and 7th Regiments dismounted and advanced to within 700 yards north and west of the Turkish trenches. There was stiff resistance from enemy mountain batteries and rifles. The 3rd Brigade swept right round the position and began attacking it from the south and east so that the Turks were virtually defending on all sides, A battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps should have attacked with them, but was late due to a difficult passage through single-file gullies and soft sand.
That was the situation soon after daylight, according to Gullett's Official History. Despite the absence of the camels, all ranks were confident of carrying the position. They had carried harder ones. From this point, however, differences in reported events and perceptions appear in Gullett's account and Colonel Richardson's history of the 7th Regiment.
Richardson said the regiment was checked close to the Mazar ruins where the enemy was strongly entrenched in commanding positions, but it seemed possible to assault the place and preparations were in progress, Then the 7th received a message that the 3rd Brigade had been held up and was withdrawing. 'Some of their troops crossed our frontage and being in close formation, received concentrated fire from the enemy and sustained a number of casualties. Our field guns had opened fire, but although the enemy were firing in plain view from our position, and messages were sent to that effect, no attempt was made to shell them.'
Gullett said that the Anzacs' field guns had not up to this time come into action, but Richardson said he saw them firing. According to Gullett, Royston had advised Chauvel of his 'unfavourable view of the project' and after the 3rd Brigade had been held up for 'nearly three hours', at 7 am Chauvel decided to break off the engagement. But Richardson sounds as it the 3rd Brigades withdrawal was a surprise to him: he was not preparing to leave, but was preparing to assault the enemy. This begs the question of whether the 7th got the message to break off at the same time.
When the order did come, the 7th could not leave the front line until they got a man, badly wounded in the abdomen, away in a sand cart. In the rescue three more men were wounded and 'our casualties for this ineffective little action were 1 killed 5 wounded: and two men subsequently died of wounds'. Richardson was not happy. 'As no bivouac had been indicated, it was presumed that Ge’eila would be the place, but we arrived there only to find it deserted. Much trouble was experienced watering the horses from buckets and at 8 p.m., it was decided to return to Salmana.' He concludes:
The Mazar stunt was most strenuous and tested the endurance of men whose vitality had been greatly decreased by the fighting, fatigue and heat of the last few months'. One suspects he wanted to add, 'for nothing'.
Gullett acknowledges the engagement was always afterwards referred to in terms of strong disapproval by regimental officers who participated. Not only officers. Idriess says:
'We retired at midday furious about it all, certain that a determined gallop would have ridden down the redoubts ... We swore at the Heads, whomever they might be. With this little lot, we should have eaten Mazar.'
It seems that different beholders, Rashomon-like, interpreted the same things in different ways, and as a whole the abortive battle could be seen in two ways. Either as an unimportant sideshow, not worth the sacrifice of any more lives, or, however it was, the Light Horse should not have been committed if it was not intended to win. The withdrawal diminished their proud service.
Chauvel has absolute right to the last word. He had categorical orders from General Lawrence that if 'the garrison was not taken by surprise and overrun in the first rush, he was to consider the operation a reconnaissance in force and withdraw'. On no account was he to seriously involve his brigades. When 'Galloping Jack' Royston, the last man in the army to vacillate before unfavourable odds, took a poor view of his chances after being held up for three hours, Chauvel’s duty was clear to him. He would doubtless also have been influenced by the wretched prospects for his wounded, so far from aid, should the engagement prove expensive. He acted, and a commander in battle does not argue his case.
But there could be no equivocation over the scheme for watering the horses. It was a shambles.
That the 700 camels were in place and on time says something for the project, but the watering of 3000 desperate horses calls for expert handling, experience and skill. The Light Horse had their own methods and equipment, in which long canvas troughs were instrumental, but the supply camels carried only buckets. At one or two horses per bucket, it seems an entangling, burdensome method, even with quiet and biddable animals. Idriess described it:
By Jove. I was thirsty. The heat of the sand rose up to a man's face.
After another nine miles, we were surprised to see a long convoy of camels coming towards us between the hills. I don't know whether the horses sighted the fantasses or smelt the water in them but a faint ripple of neighing, seldom heard now, broke out down the column. Horses threw up their heads, open-mouthed, sniffing eagerly...
We met the convoy - the horses went mad - they rushed it - at sight of the water we could not hold them - they swarmed like mad things, pawing, panting, jostling, straining. Two of us held back the sections horses while the other two vied around the fantasses for water, but immediately we got our buckets full, all horses rushed us. A dozen gasping mouths into one bucket, struggling animals, shouting men, rattling of stirrup irons, pressure of horses' bodies, spilled water - open-mouthed men trying to catch the splashes - plunging circle after circle around each fantass, horse holders with straining arms finally dragged over the sand ... the horses struggled to lick wet sand, frantic-eyed, swollen-tongued.
There was not sufficient water - not even a squadron in our regiments got a drink! And the regiments coming behind - there had been other regiments in front.
The regiment pushed on rapidly and ... passed all the Camel Corps making for water, water, water! How my bones ached! I thanked Christ when the sun went down. Eventually, we saw lights among the black palms of Salmana. The horses were frantic - they couldn't go faster than they did. Within the oasis, spelling troops had filled the water troughs - the horses rushed these troughs, their heads in rows went down, stayed down. We could not drag them away. They felt like the weight of elephants. The water was brackish, too.
Two days later, the Turks abandoned Mazar. Some strange imperative caused them to throw away the fruits of victory: this was the third time.
Extracted from the book produced by Lindsay Baly, Horseman, Pass By, East Roseville, N.S.W. : Simon & Schuster, 2003, Ch. 6.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: El Mazar, Sinai, September 17, 1916