Topic: AIF - NZMRB - WMR
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 1916
WMR Unit History Account
Major Alexander Herbert Wilkie, Adjutant of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, a unit which was part of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, wrote an account of this unit in 1924 called Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment - 1914 - 1919, in which included a section specifically related to the battle of Bir el Abd and is extracted below. A copy of this book is available on the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association website.
Wilkie, AH, Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment - 1914 - 1919, (Auckland 1924).
Owing to the heavy work which had fallen to the 1st and 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigades during the previous month and in resisting the main Turkish attack on the 3rd and 4th of August, orders were issued that the men and horses of these brigades were to be rested as much as possible, the men having had little sleep for three nights. On the 6th and 7th, therefore, they remained in their respective camps whilst the other mounted troops kept in touch with the enemy, and at the same time the 42nd and 52nd Infantry Divisions were advanced to garrison Katia and Abu Hamra respectively.
With that thoroughness and foresight which were characteristics of the Turkish organisation throughout the Romani operations, the enemy had constructed a series of defensive positions as he advanced, these now proving of immense value to fall back on during his retreat. His numerical strength was also favourable to him at this time, apart from the fighting qualities of his troops, for it debarred any interference with his flanks and enabled him to protect his guns and to retire the latter in comparative safety well in rear of his column. In consequence, the Turks fought a stubborn rearguard action with the mounted troops which followed up close on his heels, till he was driven to a strong position at Bir El Abd, twenty miles north of Romani, on 8th August.
A general advance was then decided on, and the 1st and 2nd A.L.H. Brigades, resting near Romani, were placed under the command of Brigadier General Royston, and ordered to cooperate with the other mounted troops. Leaving Romani on the morning of the 8th, Royston's Column (as it was then called) reached Katia later in the' day, where orders were received for the operation, these being generally as follows :- Royston's Column to continue its march during the night and to be in position early next morning to the north-west of Bir El Abd in readiness to attack at dawn on the' left of the N.Z. Brigade, the latter to move along the telegraph line direct on Bir El Abd with the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade on its right; the Mobile Camel Column to operate in the direction of Bir Bayud; the Yeomanry to be in reserve.
Royston's Column, with the Ayrshire Battery attached, left Katia at 11 p.m. on the 8th and, marching practically all night, it reached high ground to the north-west of Bir El Abd, where it came under the fire of a 5.9 gun at 5 a.m. on the 9th. The 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade (Lieut.-Colonel Meredith) then took up a position on the northern portion of elevated ground in sand dunes facing the east, and the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade (Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum) continued the line southward on their right, at the same time joining up with the New Zealand Brigade, which had taken up a position west of and over looking Bir El Abd. The Turks were at that time holding a line about ten miles in length, facing west, with their right resting near the Sabhket el Bardawil, and their left at Bir Bayud. From this position our line was violently bombarded, and the Ayrshire Battery came into action.
At about 5.30 the W.M.R. (Major Spragg), in advance of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, pressed forward on foot to capture a high ridge about half a mile from the first position taken up. Heavy fire was encountered during the advance, but when the Regiment bad gained its objective it quickly gained superiority of rifle fire over the enemy, although it suffered from 'enemy artillery fire, which rained shrapnel and H.E.
shells all 'along the line. Meanwhile the N.Z. Brigade, on the right, had been heavily engaged, and later in the morning the W.M.R., in advance of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, made a further advance to capture a ridge on their left front. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron was on the left, and the 9th on the right of the front line, the 6th Squadron being in support. The 7th A.L.H. Regiment acted in conjunction with the W.M.R. and with the machine guns it gave a covering fire as the W.M.R. advanced. The enemy brought heavy rifle and machine-gun fire to bear on the advancing line, but the W.M.R. pressed the attack over the intervening ground - a distance of some four hundred yards - and captured their objective. The latter then drew fire of every description, high-explosive shells, shrapnel, and bullets tearing up the ground along it, and most of the casualties in the W.M.R. during the day were inflicted there.
Fortunately, the soft sand minimised the effect of the high-explosive shells; otherwise the casualties would have been much greater.
Meanwhile the New Zealand Brigade, after having advanced resolutely in the centre, became heavily engaged, and at 8.30 the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, then some distance away on the right, was ordered to get into close touch with it; but this Brigade made little headway.
About noon the enemy burned two store depots, and his movements indicated that he intended to retire, but a little later he changed his plans. Finding that he could hold his position, and that his flanks were not threatened, he became aggressive, and with his great numerical strength he reinforced his line with fresh troops from time to time, counter-attacking with great determination, and our advance was completely checked.
At the same time the enemy used his big guns with great effect, high-explosive shells landing on the Ayrshire Battery, of which four men and thirty-seven horses were killed and seven men and seven horses wounded. His shells fell also in the valleys where the led horses were sheltered, and it was found necessary to move them further back. At 1.30 p.m. the enemy delivered an attack with three battalions on the left of the New Zealand Brigade. The gap which had existed there had been filled by the Warwickshire Yeomanry, which met the attack, assisted by the Leicester Battery, and the pressure was relieved.
At 2 p.m. the enemy launched a determined attack on Royston's Column, supported by heavy artillery fire, driving back the right flank. The Ayrshire Battery was ordered back, but, owing to the casualties which had occurred among the horses, it had been rendered immobile. All reserves were called up and put into the fight so that the guns could be withdrawn, as the battery was comparatively close to the enemy.
At 2.47 p.m. the left flank - 1st Brigade - began a gradual retirement. At the same time enemy pressure forced back the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade for nearly a mile, and the enemy advanced in that quarter. The attacks on General Royston's left were pressed also, and the General reported at 2.48 p.m. that he was just holding on, but would probably have to retire. All his men were then in the firing line.
At 4.30 p.m. Brigadier-General Royston's left (1st A.L.H. Brigade) was being very strongly counter-attacked, and a vigorous attack by from 3000 to 4000 of the enemy was being made on his right (2nd Brigade). Orders were therefore given to evacuate the wounded, and for the whole line to withdraw, steadily, keeping touch.
This was done in perfect order by General Royston's Column, but owing to the gap between it and the N.Z. Brigade, and the withdrawal of the 3rd Brigade on the right, the N.Z. Brigade's position became very much exposed. As a withdrawal then would have meant heavy casualties, this Brigade held on until after dark. That night the W.M.R. bivouacked at Oghratina.
During the day Sergeant Patterson, of the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron, and Trooper K. A. McGregor, of the 6th W.M.R. Squadron, displayed great coolness, pluck, and presence of mind in assisting and rescuing wounded in the face of an intense bombardment of high-explosive shells, machine-gun and rifle fire.
Royston's Column ceased from this date, General Royston taking command of the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade, Colonel Meldrum retaining command of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade.
The W.M.R. casualties during the day were:- Three other ranks killed, three officers and twenty-six other ranks wounded.
On 10th August an outpost line was established to watch the enemy, and on the following day the W.M.R. reconnoitred the ground occupied by Royston's Column during the fight. The Turks were found in strength close by, but they were busy burying their dead. Next day the enemy were found to have retired beyond Salmana, and here a note, written by a German with a sense of humour, was found, confirming this and asking the mounted troops not to press them too hard over the waterless desert! The prisoners captured during the Romani, Katia, and Bit El Abd operations amounted to four thousand, including fifty officers, of whom some were Germans and Austrians. We also captured a large number of rifles, quantities of stores and ammunition, and two complete field hospitals. Enemy casualties were estimated at eight thousand.
Citation: Bir el Abd, Sinai, 9 August 1916, Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, Unit History Account