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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
el Qatiya, Sinai, 23 April 1916, Gullett Account
Topic: BatzS - El Qatiya

el Qatiya

Sinai, 23 April 1916

Gullett Account

 

Left to right: Lt Murray, Surveyor; Mr Gullett, Official War Correspondent; Lt O'Connor, Photographer.


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

 

Chapter VII

The Advance to Romani


Like so many British campaigns, the advance into Sinai was to he marked by an unfortunate preliminary tragedy. The 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade, under Brigadier General E. A. Wiggin which advanced to Romani on April 7th, was ill-suited for its mission. Its raw material in officers and men was of the best; but it was indifferently trained for actual warfare, and possessed few of the essentials for isolated work in the desert. Its men were recruited almost entirely from the farmers of the English shires, and its officers, with the exception of a few regulars, were drawn from the landed gentry.

The wealthy young men of England, when they respond whole-heartedly, as they always do, to the nation's call to arms, tend to treat their newly acquired military responsibilities in a very sporting manner. They do not in the least mind dying for England, but they like to go to war casually and, if possible, in comfort. They ask that the wretched business shall not, except as a last resort, too seriously alter their regular habits of life, So it was with the ill-fated yeomanry brigade under General Wiggin's command. They rode gaily out into the desert to " have a crack '' at an enemy whom they respected as a man but despised as a soldier. They moved in great comfort. The officers included a number of young men of noble families and more who were heirs to great riches, and their messes were laden with good things. They established brigade headquarters at Romani and standing outpost camps at Katia, five miles away, Oghratina, six miles still further east, and Hamisah, four miles south of Katia. With slight exception among the officers, all ranks were utter strangers to the desert, and a sharper contrast than that between the desert of northern Sinai and the soft and gracious English countryside is scarcely to be discovered in the world. But the strangeness of their surroundings only heightened the zest of the yeomanry for campaigning. The sun was not yet excessively hot; the men were well and fit, the horses in good condition; the enemy, except in harmless numbers, was apparently far away in southern Palestine; and the brigade, conscious that it was the venturesome vanguard of Murray's army, was very well pleased with itself and its prospect.

The enemy made no secret of his knowledge of the yeomanry camps. German airmen patrolled the area almost daily and bombed the Katia camp on April 20th and both Katia and Romani on the 21st. The Bedouins had the full run of the British lines, and were always prowling through them; but, when questioned about the enemy, they said there were no Turks within a distance of many miles. The situation was as familiar to Major-General the Hon. H. A. Lawrence,' who was in command of the No. 3 Section, or northern sector, of the Canal Defences, as it was to Wiggin, inasmuch as Lawrence visited Romani on the 19th and Oghratina on the 20th. On April 22nd Wiggin learned from the natives that there was an enemy force 200 strong at Mageibra, about fourteen miles from Romani across the desert to the south-east; and he asked Lawrence by telegraph for permission to attack. Lawrence agreed, and Wiggin at once moved out in the early afternoon for Hamisah, where he picked up the garrison of the Warwickshires. On the night of the 22nd Wiggin, with two squadrons of Warwickshires and one squadron of the Worcesters, made a reconnaissance to Mageibra. The British commander's information was misleading, and probably had been purposely supplied to him by Bedouins acting as agents for the Turks. On the early morning of the 23rd, therefore, Wiggin's brigade was split up as follows; - Three squadrons with brigade headquarters at Mageibra, two squadrons of the Worcesters at Ogliratina, one squadron of the Gloucesters at Katia, and the rest of the brigade in camp at Romani. Already at that time the whole oasis area from Oghratina to Romani, and as far west as Dueidar, was overrun with a force of Turks numerically stronger than the British brigade, and supported by a number of light guns. Yet until after the Turks opened fire at Oghratina, Katia, and Dueidar, Wiggin was not aware of an enemy's presence. The Turk is a fine infantry raider; and that night, with the Germans to plan for him, as they probably did on this occasion, he showed his quality. Dawn found him in strength at Oghratina, at Katia six miles further west, and fourteen miles still nearer the Canal at Dueidar. Marching in that country is exhausting and slow, but the Turks when they reached their objective were still fresh enough to attack with resolution.

Position of 5th Yeomanry Brigade, and attack by Turks at about 5.30 a.m. on 23rd April, 1916.

The morning of the 23rd favoured the Turkish plans. A heavy mist enfolded the sand-dunes, making observations beyond a short distance impossible. The soft sand muffled all sound of movement. The two squadrons of Worcesters under Major Williams-Thomas at Oghratina stood to arms before daylight, and then, despite the fog, withdrew their patrols. The Turks crept up through the fog at dawn, and opened a very heavy fire from light guns, machine-guns, and rifles at point-blank range. Thanks, doubtless, to the Bedouins, they appeared to know, even in the fog, the exact location of the camp. They advanced confidently and boldly. The British were completely surprised. First assailed when the fog lifted at 5.30, the force resisted in a confused struggle for about two hours; then, when most of the firing parties had exhausted their ammunition, the Turks overwhelmed the positions in a rush from all sides. The yeomanry casualties in killed, wounded, and prisoners were fifteen officers and 187 of other ranks.

Having secured their prisoners, the Turks pressed on immediately to Katia. At Katia the Gloucesters, under Captain M. G. Lloyd-Baker, to the number of five officers and ninety other ranks, stood to arms half-an-hour before dawn. Horses were saddled and a patrol of eight men was sent out, which returned at about 5 o'clock, having seen no sign of the enemy in the mist. A few' minutes later an enemy patrol about twenty strong came into contact with the yeomanry outpost line; a few shots were exchanged, and the Turks withdrew. At about 5.30 heavy fire was heard in the direction of Oghratina. The posts were connected by telephone at 6 o'clock Oghratina reported that the enemy had been beaten off, but an hour later telephoned again that they were heavily attacked from all sides. The wire was then cut, but firing continued until 7.30, when it suddenly ceased. Oghratina had been overwhelmed. A few minutes later a strong enemy patrol approached the Katia camp, but on challenge retired; the mist then became so dense that the Gloucesters, straining their eyes in expectation of attack, could see nothing beyond a distance of a hundred yards.

The fog lifted at about 8 o'clock, and before 9 Corporal Tippett, who had been out with a patrol towards Oghratina, reported two long lines of men, about 300 in each, and also troops on camels, about a mile and a half away, marching towards Katia. Wiggin had orders to avoid serious engagement with a superior force, but this instruction was either not communicated to the outlying posts or was not acted upon. Lloyd-Baker was indifferently placed on a little flat piece of ground in a palm hod surrounded by sand dunes. He was menaced by an infantry force greatly outnumbering his squadron; but he had his horses saddled. The way was clear towards Romani, or towards Wiggin's force at Hamisah, with which he was in touch by telephone; or he could have led his men mounted out of camp, and fought the advancing enemy with safety as opportunity offered in the open. But he decided to stay where he was and fight in his camp, relying upon the fire-strength of his ninety men, and, as he was justified in believing, on the certainty of support from the camp at Romani or Wiggin's three squadrons at Hamisah. Perhaps, too, he thought he could ride out on his horses at any time, if the enemy proved too strong for him.

The Turks, however, speedily demolished any chance of mounted escape. Shortly before 9 o'clock three or four light guns opened fire on the camp from a knob to the east. The first twenty bursts went over; but the gunners, getting correction from good observation, then shortened their range and poured round after round into the yeomanry horses. In less than ten minutes most of the animals were killed. Then came a German aeroplane, whose observer turned the gun-fire on to the hastily formed British line. Simultaneously the Turkish riflemen opened heavy fire on the camp at from 800 to 1,000 yards.

In the tragic engagement which followed, the folly which first sent the brigade alone into the desert, and which afterwards divided it into isolated camps, ignorant of the enemy's movements, was redeemed by the magnificent fight to the death carried on by the slender force of yeomanry officers and men. Scooping out little shelter-holes in the sand, the Gloucesters maintained rapid fire against the rapidly increasing Turks, who, appearing first from the east, spread swiftly round the camp. For a time the British were confident they would receive reinforcements. Shortly before 11 o'clock the two other squadrons of Gloucesters were seen to be advancing on the left of the camp from the direction of Romani; about the same time a squadron of Worcesters from Hamisah, under Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. C. J. Coventry, advanced towards Katia on foot, having dismounted about three-quarters of a mile away on the west. Coventry and his men succeeded in joining up with Lloyd-Baker's force.

The Turks continued to receive reinforcements. At about I 1 o’clock a body of enemy horsemen from I 50 to 250 strong appeared about three miles away on the right flank of the Katia post; these men were apparently riding yeomanry horses captured at Oghratina. After dismounting in a hod they joined the Turkish firing line. The enemy guns had ceased fire at 10.30 a.m., but at 12.30 p.m. they re-opened at about 2,000 yards, and the riflemen, constantly creeping forward in small parties under good cover, came within 300 yards. At 2 o'clock the camp was under concentrated punishment from guns, machine-guns, and rifles. The hospital tent was set on fire; casualties rapidly diminished the gallant yeomen's resistance, and ammunition was running very low. The dislike of the Turk to bayonet work in the open was never more clearly demonstrated. He advanced to within fifty yards of the British, determined if possible to use his rifles in disabling every man before risking a charge with the steel. The remnants of the yeomanry now had a good target, and they punished the Turks heavily as long as ammunition lasted. Shortly before 3 o’clock, when the Turkish cordon was complete, the guns ceased fire. The British fire had diminished to an occasional splutter from the few rifles still in action. The Turks then rushed swarming into the camp, as the yeomanry got the order to retire, but not before the single machine-gun possessed by the squadron had been buried. Three of the five officers under Captain Lloyd-Baker, including Lord Elcho, were wounded and made prisoners. Captain Lloyd-Baker and 2nd Lieutenant W. A. Smith fought to the end and were killed. Of the men, seventeen were definitely known to have been killed and many wounded, while fifty-six men were posted as missing. Colonel Coventry's squadron shared fully in the gallant fight, and the inevitable fate, of Lloyd-Baker's men. One officer was killed, Coventry and three others were taken prisoners, and fifty men reported missing. About twenty unwounded men of the garrison attempted to escape, but only nine evaded the enemy. Lloyd-Baker's decision to stand upon his ground was influenced by the fact that he had in the camp between thirty and forty dismounted men without horses, and a quantity of stores which he was loath to abandon. Moreover he received by telephone the definite promise of support from both Hamisah and Romani. Wiggin with two squadrons had followed Colonel Coventry from Hamisah. His force attacked the Turks' left flank and drove it back a few hundred yards, but without giving any relief to the garrison.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke, advancing with two squadrons from Romani, had a sharp little engagement with the enemy to the north of Katia, but was driven off. But at no time after Coventry came up was the counter-attack pushed with that resolution which alone would have saved the men at Katia Had the relief fought with anything like the splendid spirit of the men in the camp, Lloyd-Baker's party would probably have been saved.

General Wiggin, when the fate of Katia and Oghratina became clear, decided to retire at once towards the Canal. He ordered Colonel Yorke to join him without returning to the camp at Romani, and the brigade, having abandoned much of its equipment, rode that night as far as Bir el Nuss. The Turks, after destroying the two posts, at once withdrew east with their prisoners, leaving the British wounded to the customary brutality of the Bedouins, who at once stripped them naked, refused them water, and taunted them with the cries " Finish British! Turks Kantara! Turks Port Said!" Simultaneously with the attack on Oghratina, another Turkish column appeared before the little British infantry post at Dueidar, twenty miles further west, and only twelve miles from the Canal. At Dueidar, a small British redoubt, protected by a few strands of barbed wire at a distance of zoo yards, was held by about 100 Royal Scots Fusiliers of the 52nd (Lowland) Division and a troop of yeomanry. A few hundred yards away, at a little oasis, was a further small body of Royal Scots in reserve. The garrison at the redoubt stood to arms before dawn, and the troop of yeomanry went out, reported all clear, and returned to the lines. Apparently the Turks intended to rush the post with bombs and bayonet, for just on dawn, when the British camp had settled down again, they appeared at the barbed wire. As they picked their way in strength through it, still unseen, a fox-terrier belonging to a man in the fusiliers began to bark excitedly and rushed towards the wire. The alarm was instantly given, the garrison turned out and poured rapid rifle fire into the advancing enemy. Reinforcements were rushed up from the oasis, and further aid summoned from Hill 40 in the neighbourhood; and after a sharp brief engagement, in which the Turks and some Arabs who accompanied them suffered heavily, the enemy was driven off, leaving seventy dead and thirty wounded on the ground. The British had two officers and eighteen men killed. This enemy column, about 300 rifles strong, had traversed the desert on camels, which they had left a few hundred yards from the position.

The merit of the Turks' achievement was that they crossed nearly the whole of the desert of northern Sinai, and broke and routed a mounted brigade. They certainly had a marked superiority in numbers, but the British had the mobility of their horses and a clear line of communication. That the brigade was so faultily and dangerously disposed before the attack. and so indifferently handled during the fighting, does not detract from a singularly fine piece of work done by the enemy. The Turks had no thought of remaining in the oasis. Their movement was a true raid; having succeeded beyond their expectations, they proceeded at once to advertise and exaggerate in Palestine and Syria the importance of their victory. The British prisoners were hurried back into Judea and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem as evidence to the Arabs, and the many other races and religions of the Holy City, of the invincibility of Turkish arms. Coming so soon after Gallipoli, and with the Turkish star ascendant at the time in Mesopotamia, the success upon Sinai was of great political and moral value to the enemy.

The Turks were either particularly well advised as to Murray's plans, or especially lucky in their attack on the yeomanry. When the blow fell, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade under Ryrie was already moving eastwards to support the British force in the oasis district. On April 10th, General Murray had cabled a highly cheerful dispatch to the War Office. He reported that the broad-gauge railway was already laid for twenty-six kilometres east of the Canal, and that it was expected to reach a point three miles west of Romani by April 26th. " I shall then have," the dispatch continued, "two mounted brigades and part of the 52nd Division in occupation of the whole district, and hope to be able to give the quietus to small enemy forces in the neighbourhood." The dispatch also informed the War Office that all water-supplies within thirty miles of the Canal were now patrolled by the British, and that a mobile force was ready to go out and deal with enemy forces approaching them, or to demolish the wells if that should appear necessary. In brief, Murray by the middle of April believed he had finally denied the enemy all approach towards the Canal except by the northern or Katia route, and he was satisfied that the blocking of that route was well in hand. "Katia," he added, " is already occupied, and should be finally secured against every attempt on the part of the enemy by the end of this month."

The 2nd Light Horse Brigade had arrived at Salhia on April 8th, and was followed two days later by the New Zealand Brigade and the headquarters of Anzac Mounted Division. Every effort was made to hasten the complete equipment of the two brigades, and there seems to have been a general feeling that the yeomanry were dangerously “in the air," and should be reinforced as speedily as possible. On April 22nd the 5th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland), under Lieutenant-Colonel L. C. Wilson reached Kantara under orders from the 52nd Division, while the rest of the

2nd Brigade was ordered to leave Salhia on April 23rd, reach Kantara that evening, and march immediately towards the Katia area. Early on the morning of the 23rd Wilson received news of the attack upon Dueidar, and was ordered to scour the post without delay. Major D. C. Cameron, advancing at a smart pace with the leading squadron, reached Dueidar after the Turks had been driven off, and immediately took up the pursuit. The enemy, however, had a good start on his camels, and Cameron's horses, handicapped by the deep sand, were unable to come up with the main body, which retreated to the southeast. Cameron, after picking up a few enemy stragglers, returned to Dueidar at dusk.

Meanwhile the remainder of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade had reached Kantara at 6.30 on the evening of the 23rd, after a six and a half hours' march from Salhia. Ryrie was at once informed of the enemy successes, and was ordered to make all speed to Hill 70, to cover the retreat of the yeomanry. The brigade clattered across the pontoon bridge over the Canal in the bright moonlight of Easter Sunday (St. George's Day), and rode eastwards into the desert by the famous Royal road of the ancients. "The only entry into Egypt is by this desert," says Herodotus, and that entry was now to be denied to the Turks by the Australian light horsemen. The brigade was in fine trim for operations. The men were fresh and touched with excitement, the horses were in perfect condition. As the column hurried through the magical moonlight across the desert, all ranks felt the influence, as they so often did in the long campaign which followed, of the teeming associations of the route which since the birth of time had been trodden by mighty armies and great personages. Here the desert air had resounded with the huge marching hosts of the Pharaohs, the Persians, the Macedonians under Alexander, the legions of Rome, and the matchless revolutionaries of France under Napoleon. With the crossing of the Canal in strength was launched the amazing enterprise of the men of one of the world's youngest Christian peoples for the conquest of patriarchal Palestine. The idea seemed so unreal and ludicrous that many officers and men laughed aloud in the night as they pondered it.

Although the brigade was in sound campaigning condition and high spirits, it rode out indifferently equipped for a severe campaign. When Ryrie reached Kantara, he was without transport for his ambulance. All that offered for the purpose was a batch of seventy camels; and scarcely a man in the ambulance had ever handled camels. Moreover, the gear supplied with the camels was old and defective. But the ambulance men, with the cheerfulness and adaptability which always distinguished them, struggled bravely with the strange animals, and after a wild scramble marched gaily out to time with the brigade. All ranks were entirely without tents, and were limited to one blanket each. The brigade had no sanitary supplies, and was faced, at least for a few days, with short rations. Riding in their khaki and large slouch hats, without a single splash of colour, on their long-tailed horses, these young men from the new continent were perhaps the least pretentious force that ever appeared on the old Sultani road. They paced along in the night, silent except for an occasional order passed up and down the column to regulate the speed, and for the jangle of clashing stirrup-irons, in marked contrast to the richly-clad, many-coloured army pageants which had ridden the track so often all down the ages.

As the brigade advanced into the desert, it was met in the night by scattered yeomanry parties who had missed Wiggin's camp at Bir el Nuss and were hastening back towards the Canal. Ryrie thus realised for the first time the full extent of the Turks' dramatic success. The yeomanry were badly shaken. They could give no account of the situation ahead beyond declaring that the Turks were advancing in great strength.

Half-an-hour before midnight, after nearly twelve hours in the saddle, Ryrie reached Hill 70, seven miles east of Kantara, and remained there awaiting orders. Next morning, the 24tI1, he pushed on to railhead, and Chauvel, with Anzac Mounted Division Headquarters and the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, arrived at Hill 70. At railhead Ryrie found a British officer in charge of some hundreds of natives of the Egyptian Labour Corps, who had not been advised of the disasters at Katia and Oghratina.

On the 24th Chauvel was ordered to take over the command of all troops east of Hill 70, including the infantry at Dueidar, and during the day he shifted his headquarters to Hill 40. His first step was to order a complete change in the arrangements for the defence of the oasis. A month before he had pointed out to the High Command the folly of establishing small isolated posts at places like Hamisah, Oghratina, and Katia, and now, with the full concurrence of General Lawrence, he proceeded to form one strong camp at Romani, and to control the oasis area to the east and south by a system of daily reconnaissances in strength. Chauvel showed in this decision that sound sense of a position which always marked him, and a particular appreciation of the difficulties and possibilities of the Katia district.

Ryrie's 2nd Brigade moved forward on the 25th, occupied Romani and Bir Etmaler, and found at once that these camps, although abandoned by the yeomanry after the fighting at Katia, had not been entered by the enemy. The Turks had withdrawn eastwards to Bir El Abd, sixteen miles from Katia, while the yeomanry were retiring westwards towards the Canal. And now were sown the seeds of the unfortunate and prolonged misunderstanding between the British yeomanry and the Australian light horsemen, which for upwards of a year did much to affect the happiness of the mounted troops in the campaign. The Australians were not favourably impressed by the spectacle of the fugitive parties of yeomanry whom they passed in their advance from the Canal to Hill 70. Nor was their respect for the British brigade increased when they reached its headquarters camp at Romani, and found that it had been abandoned, although not approached by the enemy. Moreover, the light horsemen discovered in the officers' messes of that camp evidences of good living which they deemed inconsistent with serious campaigning. This led them to a foolish, although a natural action. They had ridden out hurriedly at very short notice without full equipment, and on scanty rations. They had come to succour the yeomanry, finding the yeomanry fled, they helped themselves to any foodstuffs and military equipment which they could find in their camps.

Having established his headquarters at Romani, Ryrie pushed his regiments out upon reconnaissance to Katia, Oghratina, and Hamisah. Nowhere did he encounter the enemy. At Hamisah he found tents and other material abandoned in haste by the yeomanry, but inspection of the positions at Katia and Oghratina disclosed the resolution with which the British had sustained the unequal struggle against the Turks. At Oghratina the bodies of seventy British and twenty-five Turks were located, and at Katia the Australians buried thirty-three British dead and counted seventy bodies of horses and forty-eight of camels. In neither camp was there any evidence of early surrender. Both garrisons had fought valiantly as long as their ammunition lasted, and until the Turks had overwhelmed the survivors with bomb and bayonet.

The sudden smashing of the yeomanry brigade naturally caused excitement and anxiety at Murray's headquarters. There was no fear of a general Turkish attack upon the Canal; but it was only too evident that the yeomanry brigade had been pushed forward without a proper appreciation of the danger of its position, and that its disposition had been extremely hazardous. Steps were at once taken to complete the Anzac Mounted Division, and the movement of the 1st Light Horse Brigade from Upper Egypt was hastened. At the same time the advance of the 52nd Division to Romani was vigorously pushed. Murray's despatches to the War Office clearly indicate his concern, and also his consciousness that his confident forecast of April 14th had been badly at fault. Cabling the news of the reverse, he first mentioned the successful resistance at Dueidar, and then stated that the Katia garrison had been attacked by 3,000 Turks and after severe fighting had been withdrawn to Dueidar and Romani. In his first dispatch he did not mention Oghratina.

When that dispatch was forwarded, Murray may not have possessed all the facts of the yeomanry disaster; even if he did, he was to be forgiven perhaps for not at once sending the evil tidings to the War Office. At that moment the British Cabinet was hourly expecting news of the fall of Kut el Amara, with the loss of the garrison under the intrepid Townshend. On April 25th Lord Kitchener, ignorant of the confusion in Sinai, cabled to Murray, saying that there was "little or no prospect of saving Kut," and therefore "any success you can achieve during the next few days will be most valuable" as an offset to the failure in Mesopotamia. But the yeomanry misfortune, bitter as it was, served a very useful purpose. It was a grim lesson, but it was well learned. Never again in the whole campaign was a British force surprised and enveloped, a remarkable fact in a war of extended fronts and widely scattered units.
 

 

Further Reading:

el Qatiya, Sinai, 23 April 1916

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

 


Citation: el Qatiya, Sinai, 23 April 1916, Gullett  Account

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Sunday, 13 September 2009 10:33 PM EADT

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