Topic: AIF - NZMRB
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
NZMRB Unit History Account
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Guy Powles along with Major A Wilkie produced in 1922 a book called The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, in which included a section specifically related to the Battle of Magdhaba and is extracted below. A copy of this book is available on the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Association website.
Powles, CG, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, 1922.
Now the Wadi El Arish is what the ancients called the “River of Egypt.” It is a great dry watercourse coming from the heart of the Sinai Peninsula and there flows down it, two or three times in each year, a great “spate of water.” This usually occurs in December or January, at which season there are great thunderstorms among the mountains. For the rest of the year the wadi is dry; though, as we proved afterwards, water can be obtained at certain places by well digging. Our intelligence reports showed that the Turks were building a railway from Beersheba through Magdhaba, which lies some 30 miles up the wadi from El Arish, and was intended to reach the Suez Canal by way of the route which lay through the mountains.
There was always a danger of an attack by the Turks along this route so that it was necessary that the country to our south should be constantly patrolled. This work was undertaken by the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, which had been formed from New Zealand, Australian, and Yeomanry reinforcements.
The equipment of this fine body of men included the ‘Dhurra’ bag carrying five days grain for the camel, and a cylindrical five-gallon tank holding the rider’s five days water supply. Food for five days and spare clothing, were carried in a canvas ‘‘Pikau’’ bag slung over the saddle. Strapped over all were blankets, overcoat, rifle, &c., the full weight carried being about 3201b, including the man.
The camels were swift trotting and were supposed to be able to go five days without water. New Zealand contributed two companies, the first of which—the 15th Camel Company— was formed in July under the command of Captain J. G.
McCallum, a very keen and efficient young officer, who, backed up by the natural aptitude of the New Zealand soldier to fall in with existing circumstances, very soon had his company fit to take the field. Later a second company was formed, a gain from volunteers and surplus reinforcements. The two companies took part in all operations undertaken by the I.C.C. Brigade until June 1918, when they were reorganised, and formed the 2nd N.Z. Machine Gun Squadron in the final operations.
The Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Archibald Murray, came out to Mazar and rode round the outposts, going to the Auckland Regiment who were “farthest east” on the Old Road, and laid his plans for the advance upon El Arish.
More Yeomanry Regiments had by now arrived and with the addition of the Camel Brigade, the mounted force available for future operations had considerably increased. So all available troops were formed into a force called “The Desert Column” under the command of Lieut.-General Sir Philip Chetwode, who had so successfully commanded a cavalry brigade in the retreat from Mons, and a cavalry division later on in France. Plans were laid and orders issued for the advance and attack upon El Arish, when information came that the Turks were evacuating the town.
The Anzac Mounted Division immediately prepared to march out, and on the evening of the 20th of December concentrated at a point on the Old Caravan Road about 15 miles from El Arish, and an all-night march began. The plan was that El Arish was to be completely encircled by dawn — the 1st L.H. Brigade, crossing the wadi to the south of the town, were to close the exits to the north and east; the camels arid the N.Z. Brigade to close all escape to the south; while the Yeomanry advanced from the west.
The N.Z. Brigade, with whom marched the Divisional Headquarters, was guided by Lieut. Finlayson of the Auckland Regiment who had previously led patrols into this vicinity; and so excellent was his judgment and skill in finding his way that when daylight appeared the column was found to be within 200 yards of the small sand hill to which he had been asked to guide it. As soon as communication could be obtained with the other brigades it was found that all had reached their allotted positions before dawn and so completely isolated the town; and soon afterwards our patrols entered the town and found that the Turks had gone.
The praise for this bloodless victory was in a great measure due to the horses, for the Turk was beginning to feel a wholesome dread of the speed and wide striking range of our mounted arm. He preferred to abandon rather than to defend the well prepared and excellently sited trenches at El Arish. He was so apprehensive about the security of his line of retreat that he made his exit good before the mounted troops could attack. His fears were soon realised however, at Magdhaba, where his retreat was abruptly terminated.
Immediate steps were taken to patrol the country to find out what, had become of the garrison, and a line of out-posts was formed well to the east of the town. During the day the Desert Column Commander, General Chetwode, arrived on the beach at El Arish by motor launch from Port Said. Reliable information soon showed that the El Arish garrison had retired to Magdhaba and plans were put in hand for the advance of the Division to this place. The defence of El Arish was handed over to the Yeomanry and to the 52nd Division as they came up, and the Anzac Mounted Division concentrated after dark on the evening of the 21st at a point about five miles south of El Arish on the wadi. Here supplies were issued which had been brought from railhead by camel; and the Division resumed its march about midnight.
The weather was cold but the going admirable, and good progress was made.
Each hour was divided into 40 minutes riding, 10 minutes leading to warm the men, and 10 minutes halt.
The fires of the enemy camp at Magdhaba having been observed at 3.50 am.
the force continued to advance until 10 minutes to five and then halted and dismounted in an open plain some four miles from its objective, while the Divisional Commander went forward to reconnoitre. The number of bivouac fires indicated a considerable force and the brightness of the lights was very misleading as to distance.
The position appeared much closer than it really was.
This showing of lights by the enemy clearly indicated how impossible he thought that tired horses and men after an all night march of 30 miles could possibly set out immediately upon another 30 mile march to the position to which he had retired.
As dawn broke, the bivouac fires disappeared, and a haze of smoke obscured the valley from view for some time. Reconnaissance of the enemy's position was therefore very difficult, and though our aeroplanes were assisting it was not until 8 o ‘clock that orders could be issued for the attack.
A message which helped to a decision, though entirely unofficial, was that which fell from an aeroplane of the Australian Flying Squadron. The author had flown over an enemy position and had been given such a hot reception there that his feelings prompted him to advise his friends in the Light Horse,—for home consumption only— "the (bastards) are there all right.” This important message however fell near D.H.Q. and the latter immediately took full advantage of its principal information without questioning the pedigree of the Turks concerned.
General Chaytor with his own brigade and the 3rd L.H. Brigade was given orders to move on Magdhaba by the north and north-east and to endeavour to cut off all retreat. The camels advanced straight on Magdhaba following the telegraph line and the 1st L.H. Brigade was for the present in reserve. The Division’s batteries soon got to work but targets were extraordinarily hard to find. The enemy’s batteries and trenches were exceedingly well concealed, but by 10 o’clock the N.Z. Brigade had closed well in and the news was brought in by an aeroplane that the enemy were beginning to retire and that there was a possibility of their escaping our enveloping movement. So the 1st L.H. Brigade was ordered to move direct on to Magdhaba, but meeting severe shrapnel fire as it trotted over the open plain, was compelled to change direction and take refuge in the wadi bed, up which it advanced against the enemy’s left, detaching one regiment to move round to the south of the enemy’s position. By 12 o’clock all three brigades and the Camel Brigade were hotly engaged, but on account of mirage and dust-clouds good observations were impossible.
The greatest assistance was, however, given by the aeroplanes whose reports, frequently brought in, and often given verbally by the observer, whose pilot brought him to ground by Headquarters, showed estimated positions, strength, and movements of the enemy at various points. The information generally indicated that he was preparing to evacuate. The country favoured the enemy who took full advantage of the many folds in the ground to conceal himself. Much drawing of fire was necessary before he could be located.
With the Auckland Regiment in reserve the N.Z. Brigade had advanced with Wellington on the right and Canterbury on the left in “Line of Troop Columns” accompanied by the Vickers and Lewis Guns. On arriving at a point about 2000 yards from the enemy position four enemy mountain guns and many snipers opened fire upon the advancing troops, but they pushed forward to a point 1600 yards from the enemy where they dismounted to attack on foot. But the advanced screen under a Wellington officer had pushed up to within 400 yards where they dismounted in a covered position. At noon the situation was as follows :— The New Zealanders were engaged with and had partially enveloped the enemy’s right; the 3rd L.H. Brigade was still held in reserve by General Chaytor, with the exception of the 10th L.H. regiment, under that well-known New Zealander of the 2nd contingent, Lieut-Colonel “Barney” Todd, D.S.O., which was engaged in making a wide turning movement to the south to intercept any retirement by the enemy. The I.C.C. was attacking direct on the village and the 1st L.H. Brigade was working on to the enemy's left by way of the wadi bed.
At this time the fire from the enemy mountain guns and from his rifles and machine guns was very heavy, but the guns were very badly served and the small arms fire most inaccurate.
As the attack developed, at 12.30, General Chaytor sent in the 8th and 9th L.H. Regiments between the Wellington and Canterbury regiments, where there was a gap of some 800 yards.
About 1 o‘clock word was received that water could not be found at Bir Lahfan, which meant that there was no water for the horses nearer than El Arish, 30 miles away, and it was realised that the enemy was in a very strong position with redoubts well sited and fully manned. Considerable doubt was felt therefore if the position could be taken before dark. But about 2 p.m. things began to improve; both 1st L.H. and N.Z. Brigades making progress—the 1st L.H. Brigade capturing some trenches and about 100 prisoners.
By 3.30 p.m. the New Zealanders with fixed bayonets were swarming over the trenches to the east of the houses and the Turks were surrendering in all directions.
At four o ‘clock General Chaytor was enabled to report that his men held the buildings and redoubts on the left and that the 10th L.H. advancing from the south had captured two trenches on that side, so that all retreat to the Turks was cut off.
As darkness came on fighting had practically ceased and prisoners were rounded up and collected, and horses watered at the captured wells.
One of the decisive events of the afternoon was the capture of a battery of four mountain guns. This was effected by Lieut. Johnston, Canterbury regiment. After the surrender of the first batch of prisoners Lieut. Johnston and six men pushed on to where the battery was still firing; he attacked the position and after firing a few rounds the garrison consisting of two officers and 15 men surrendered.
The Auckland regiment, with the 1st L.H. Regiment (from the 1st L.H. Brigade) and one squadron from the 3rd L.H. Brigade were left to clear the battlefield; and the three brigades began their 30 mile ride back to El Arish, stopping at Bir Lahfan where a convoy of camels bad arrived laden with much needed water for the men, who had left El Arish the night before carrying one water bottle per man only.
It must be remembered that they had been marching and fighting for 30 hours without pause and for most of them it meant the third night without sleep. To pass one night without sleep is trying; two nights is absolutely painful; but the third night without sleep after heavy fighting with all the added strain and excitement that it means—is almost an impossibility. Men and horses were dropping off at the oddest times and in the oddest of positions, and many men and horses came down in the dust; and this long night ride may safely be regarded as one of the most trying of the many wearisome marches experienced by the brigade. Apart from the intense cold which penetrated to the bone the lightly clad horsemen, the men were fatigued to such a degree that words fail to adequately describe. They had been called upon to make a superhuman effort immediately following their long march from Mazar; and had succeeded in performing all that had been asked of them.
Dense clouds of dust almost blinded the tired horses, which collided with one another in the dark. Many a man fell asleep, and letting his reins slack, was taken by his horse — who feeling the loss of control had quickened his pace—far in among the troops in front. This caused much amusement and especially so in the case of the Italian Liaison Officer who was among those who fell asleep on their horses. He was riding with the Headquarters of the Division behind one of the brigades and though clad in khaki wore a cap of a different colour and shape from the British cap. Three separate times did his horse take him away in amongst the horses of the leading brigade; and three separate times did tired and dosing troopers wake up with a start to find a stranger riding with them; and three separate times was he brought back to Divisional Headquarters under arrest as a spy! He was a cavalry officer and had lived in England and in New Zealand and was a most popular man amongst all who knew him, but these repeated arrests distressed him considerably and added to the amusement of all concerned and helped to pass away the weary hours.
The powers of endurance of the human brain have their limits and rebel when overtaxed; and on this journey “visions” in various forms appeared to most of the riders. Although the route of the march was practically bare, yet streets and houses well lit up, and curiously shaped animals were seen. The Divisional Commander, usually the most staid of men and who was riding with his staff, was suddenly seen to set spurs to his horse and accompanied by the officer who was riding beside him galloped off to one side in the darkness. The column had gone on its way stumbling and grumbling for a mile or more before the General and his companion quietly slipped back into their places; and it was some time before the explanation of their sudden leaving of the column could he got out of them. It appears that they both, at the same time, thought they saw a fox and thought that they were fox hunting and so went off at a gallop.
That many hundreds of men should see tall buildings lighted up and strange forms—each according to his fancy— is curious, but that two sober sensible well balanced men should at the same time experience the same hallucination is more than strange. Many discussions have followed these happenings and our wise ones laid it down that the brain had temporarily lost certain of its powers of endurance, which sleep alone could restore. Perhaps this phenomenon accounts for the story told in France of the “Angels of Mons” during the early stages of the war when the British troops were fighting continuously there.
The Brigade eventually arrived at its bivouac ground near Nasmi about three miles from El Arish at about six o’clock on the morning of Christmas Eve; and was almost immediately heavily bombed by enemy planes.
The losses during this action were astonishingly small considering the fighting done and the captures made. The list is an interesting one as showing what is taken from a beaten enemy who is out in the field far from civilization, and it is of course very incomplete, for darkness came on before the last Turk had surrendered, and there was not enough time to collect a quarter of the military material of value. The list is as follows :—
Large quantity of Hospital equipment.
Turkish orders and newspapers.
A number of plans of reservoirs, etc.
1282. Prisoners, including 43 officers 1 Battery Mountain Guns.
4 Machine Guns complete.
1 Broken Machine Gun.
6 Boxes of gun ammunition.
10,000 Rounds of S.A.A.
Component parts of an oil engine intact.
Telephone wire equipment.
Amongst the officers captured was Khadir Bey commanding the 80th Regiment, Izzet Bey commanding 2/80 Battalion and Rushti Bey commanding 3/80 Battalion. Many hundreds of Turks were killed and wounded yet our casualties in the whole Division were only 12 killed and 134 wounded, of which the N.Z. Brigade contributed two officers, and seven men; and 36 other ranks wounded only. The extremely light casualty list may be attributed to the great adaptability of our men to this class of warfare. The attack was well-planned and well carried out with great skill and boldness, every man showing a skill and intelligent appreciation of the situation and fearless confidence in himself and his comrades. And the fine and sturdy persistence of the Youth from the Southern Cross ultimately placed them in a position to charge with the bayonet; and the line of glistening bayonets at close range with determined men behind them, overcame the enemy who quickly collapsed and surrendered.
It is worthy of note that in an address to the Brigade the following day General Chetwode said “that the mounted men at Magdhaba had done what he had never known cavalry in the history of war to have done before, i.e., they had not only located and surrounded the enemy's position but they had got down to it as infantry and had carried fortified positions at the point of the bayonet.” The season was midwinter in this country; and though the days had been hot the nights had been growing bitterly cold. Throughout the whole of the desert campaign, after the camps at Romani had been left, the troops had had no tents; not even a sun shelter was issued to them. When in the palm groves a certain amount of shelter from the sun could be obtained, but men bivouacking out in the open suffered the full blast from the sun. Many unauthorised “bivvies” were acquired from time to time, pieces of sacking, pieces of canvas, Bedouin cloth, in fact anything that would serve as a sun shelter was pressed into use, to be thrown away again immediately a “stunt” came on. Now however with the bitterly cold nights and the prospect of winter storms coming, every effort was made to get tents from Egypt; but they were not forthcoming until some time after the winter storms had broken upon us.
Further Reading:New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, Roll of Honour
Citation: The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, NZMRB, Unit History Account