Topic: BatzP - El Buggar
The Battle of El Buqqar Ridge, 27 October 1917
Hatton account of El Buqqar Ridge
Below is an extract from S. F. Hatton, The Yarn of a Yeoman, Hutchinson, 1930 detailing the action at El Buqqar Ridge leading to the death of Major Lafone and the aftermath.
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I can only tell you how it all appeared to me.
The railway had now been pushed forward well beyond the wire to Karm, in preparation, as we afterwards understood, for an attack on Beersheba.
Our regiment, with the Sharpshooters supporting our left flank, and the Roughriders on our right, were to take up a line of cavalry outposts covering this railhead. This outpost duty, was, of course, nothing to us. We had done this scores of times, and when they read out in orders the usual gaff about green flares being sent up for danger and red flares for artillery, we just yawned heavily and prepared to move off.
In the dusk we rode out some five miles from Goz el Gelieb, a post well in advance of the wire, to take up a position of outpost covering the railway along the El Buggar Ridge. This high ridge of loose sand and sandstone overlooked the enemy positions by day, and we had held this as observation post many times before. The key positions on the ridge were two rising hills known as Points 630 and 720. These two posts were allotted to C and B Squadrons, my own Squadron "A" was to patrol the ground between during the night. The regimental Headquarters were three miles behind at Karm, and the reserves at least six miles back. But we had so often done "this turn" and seen not a vestige of the enemy, that no one worried very much about that, or the fact that the only means of communication with Headquarters was by signalling, lamp by night or helio by day.
Point 630 on the left was in command of Captain McDougall, a very fine soldier, known to many of us as one eye quaiss one eye mush quaiss." You see, he always wore a monocle and an Arab syce in trying to describe him to me had used that phrase meaning "one eye good, one eye not good."
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He found some sort of cover for his led horses, and occupied two shallow cruciform trenches just on the reverse slope of the hill with three of his troops; sent out picquets over the crest. With his remaining troop he occupied a small post on his right flank The garrison on the hill itself with Hotchkiss Gunners, signallers, etc., numbered about fifty.
Point 720, on the right, allotted to B Squadron, was in command of Major Lafone; "dear old Laffy" as he was affectionately known by all his men. This was a cone-shaped hill having a small ruined stone house on the summit. There were two shallow rifle pits on the right of the house, a small trench on the left flank and a slightly deeper cruciform trench, some hundred yards in the rear. About three hundred yards to the right flank was another small hill across a hollow which would give flank protection. Major Lafone occupied the trenches on the hill with two troops with a strong picquet on the smaller hill to the flank and placed one troop as a standing patrol about one mile to the rear.
In the centre, our Squadron, "A," under Captain Bullivant; "absent-minded Bully", formed a series of patrols and standing patrol. Mick and Nic's troops did the actual mounted patrolling, whilst " Bart's " and my own took up standing patrol positions to the rear.
One incident during this night will ever remain clear in my memory. We were rather short of water and a ''packal" , a goatskin filled with water - had been placed upon the sand, and I had given strict orders that it was not to be touched on any account. I was half asleep during the night when I distinctly saw one of my troop coming away from this packal with a water-bottle. I woke up and challenged several, but I never found out who it was - the incident annoyed me very considerably at the time as I placed such implicit trust in the lads under my command.
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We "stood to" about 3 a.m., and shortly afterwards from the direction of 630 I saw green and white flares going up into the graying dawn, and heard a muffled rattle of rifle fire. This went on for some time, and still we were under the impression that it was just a desultory engagement with a passing Turkish patrol.
I mounted my troop and rode in to join "Bart's," the other standing patrol.
Shortly afterwards Captain Bullivant rode up and said:
" I don't know what's happened as I can't get into touch with either "C" or "B" Squadrons, but there seems a devil of a lot of Jackos out there. Bartlett, you take your troop up to support 2 and 3 troops, and Hatton, you make a detour and see if you can reach Captain McDougall, I rather fear he's surrounded."
In the growing light I led my troop rapidly under cover of a ridge, and galloped away to the south intending to wheel again straight for the rear of 630. In extended order we wheeled out into the open plain and galloped with heads "remarkable close to the horse's neck," towards the hill. We were met with a murderous rifle and machine-gun fire. They had got the range, the bullets spattering amongst the horses' hooves like hailstones. Several saddles were quickly emptied, hut it was mainly the horses that had been hit. I wheeled them again to the right under cover and then out into the open about half a mile further round. The light was now good and, although I could see nothing of the enemy, they had us" severely "taped." We again rode clean into a rain of bullets, and realizing it was useless to go on, as I shouldn't have had a man left, I wheeled again into cover, and brought my men into action dismounted.
Luckily I found myself in some sort of formation with the rest of the squadron and some Roughriders, who came up and did gallant work in reinforcing us; but many became casualties. It was difficult indeed to get any cover and we seemed to be under
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an enfilading fire from all quarters. There being no proper communication we had no idea what was happening to either; "B" or "C" Squadrons; all we knew was that there was nobody behind and a devil of a lot in front. Unfortunately the Hotchkiss gun in my troop jammed with the sand - rather a failing of these guns, I'm afraid — and we were dependent on rifle fire; but we could not get a target and could really only let off rounds vaguely in the direction we judged the bullets to be coining from. We were absolutely at a loss as to affairs even in our own
No. 1 Troop somewhere on my right had the whole of their Hotchkiss team wiped out, all six being killed or wounded; as one man was hit, immediately another had taken his place; in fact, of this troop only three came out unscathed.
The action went on all through the day and, without a bite or any further water, we fought on till late in the afternoon. We had managed to get our wounded back except one, a new lad named Puncher, and I was rather worried about him. He had been shot down during the first attempt to reach 630 in the early morning, and his exact whereabouts from where we were was difficult to calculate. Towards the end of the afternoon the firing seemed to have lifted a little, and I discussed the possibility of getting to him. His pal, Jim Carroll, and Hazelton, a Lancashire lad, volunteered to go out and find him.
Just before Puncher was hit he called out to me under a shower of shrapnel: ''Is this a scheme, sergeant, or the real thing?" and as he fell, Jim Carroll had shouted in his rich Irish brogue: "Jack, I'll have four or five of they bastards for you." I think he did, too.
Carroll and Hazelton went to the rear and, making a circuitous route, found him, and got him back so that he could receive medical attention, and he was taken down the line to hospital.
About 5 p.m., after continuous engagement since
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3am, we saw infantry reinforcements marching gross the plain. The Turk apparently saw them too, and withdrew his forces.
It was only on a reassembly of the Regiment that could get any idea of what had actually taken place. It appeared that our outpost of little over two hundred effective rifles had been attacked by a Turkish force of nearly 5000 troops; several battalions of infantry, two regiments of cavalry and guns. This was a powerful raiding expedition, whose object had been to destroy the railhead, and so delay any projected advance of Allenby's troops. We had held them successfully throughout the day, and whilst our losses had been heavy indeed, theirs had been very much greater. Most important thing of all - they had failed in their objective, and General Allenby's plans were not delayed a single day.
As my own squadron collected it was pitiful to notice the number of led horses. Mick, who had had charge of one of the patrolling troops, had been dreadfully wounded in the stomach and his life despaired of - our squadron had lost a third of its men, but what of "C" and "B"?
The story of the resistance put up by these two posts is an epic, and I will endeavour to give you a brief outline of the doings at Points 630 and 720.
As the dawn broke over 630, Captain McDougall saw large numbers of enemy troops marching to his front, attempting to establish themselves on the crest of the hill. A heavy fire was opened by the little garrison of fifty. The Turks retired and attempted to work round the flank. Here the machine-guns played havoc with them, and the Hotchkiss from the outlying picquet also took terrible toll of the enemy. Corporal H Jeacocke, now well known as the famous Surrey cricketer, did devastating work with his Hotchkiss team, lying in an exposed position himself on the parapet, to get a better view of his objectives.
Soon, however, the gun teams were put out of
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action, all six at one gun being dead or wounded, and at another the gun jammed as the last man of the team began to work it.
Captain McDougall with his dead and wounded was faced with the extreme difficulty of setting a message through, and also of getting ammunition up from the rear. I have it on good authority, that about this time a Turk approached near enough to shout "Ablooka! Ablooka!" - Surrender - to which McDougall in the Yeoman language replied: "Ablooka be b--d," and with a dead man's rifle fulfilled the Mosaic law with the body of the challenger.
Trooper Finlay, a bluff jovial cove, jumped from the trench and, under heavy fire, dashed to the rear commandeered a horse, and still under heavy shell and machine-gun fire galloped back to Headquarters. Captain Carus Wilson, in charge of the led horses' dashed through heavy fire, loaded with the horse holders' bandoliers of ammunition, up to the firing trench. His perilous journey accomplished, he ran back and again attempted to reach Captain McDougall with two heavy boxes of Hotchkiss ammunition. He dropped one into the part of the trench held by Lieutenant Matthews, and as he went to reach his squadron leader, fell into the trench at Captain McDougall's feet, badly wounded through the thigh at point-blank range.
Had the Turks found sufficient resolution to rush the trench nothing could have saved the post, but Captain McDougall with his handful of men, surrounded by dead and wounded, managed to bluff the Turk off, and so hang on. Towards noon Sergeant Randall attempted the dangerous task of getting a message back to Headquarters, and jumped from the trench with bullets spattering all around him. He ran like an Olympic champion and, safely reaching Headquarters, he was able to give such accurate information, that our artillery began to shell the Turk and kept him down throughout the terrible afternoon.
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At the end of the day Captain McDougall brought the remnant of his gallant little garrison out as the reinforcements arrived; there were less than a dozen survivors; but in front of their trench were over two hundred Turkish dead. For the heroic defence of 630 Captain McDougall gained the D.S.O., and, mark you he richly deserved it; Captain Carus Wilson, Mr Matthews and Mr Abrahams the MC, whilst amongst the decorations for the rankers were a DCM for Sergeant Randall and an M.M. for cheery Trooper Finlay.
And now to 720 - the post held by "B" Squadron under Major Lafone; but a word first of the Major " Laffy" always had that peculiar mannerism, possessed, I believe, in common with the Prince of Wales of fidgeting with his tie. He was exceptionally fond of his men and withal possessed a rather dry sense of humour. I remember on one occasion a new officer rather fancying " his weight'' had gone into "B" Squadron mess-hut at Geneffa and in a high-falutin modern-mannered voice had called, "Any complaey-ents." The tone of his voice struck the troopers as so affected, that they promptly gave him the "bird," "blew him out one," "cut him off a slice of cake," or "gave him a raspberry" - whichever expression you prefer. "Laffy" had ordered two or three offending ones before him and, after remonstrating fairly mildly, had finished up by saying : "You know, I really can't have my junior officers presented with the Order of the Royal Richard."
The post of 720 had no sooner expressed amazement at the appearance of the flares on 630, than they could discern in the half-light large bodies of horsemen riding towards them. They rapidly opened fire and caused them to turn about whilst further Turkish cavalry, who had somehow ridden round to the rear of the post, were given an equally hot reception until, realizing their mistake, they also retired in disorder.
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As it grew lighter, the little post saw a large body of Turkish infantry massing for an attack. Heedless of losses, on they came, attempting to carry the hill with the bayonet; they formed an easy target and dropped in dozens. "Laffy" with a rifle was calling his score: " Eight, nine, ten - missed him - eleven." Their assault was held up, so a squadron of Turkish Lancers came through to the attack. They charged, but their saddles were emptied like knocking down nine pins. Corporal Rangecroft - a prominent member of the Catford Bridge Rugger Club - (How are you, Rangy! - I have often scragged you in a tackle since then) with his Hotchkiss swept off a line of about thirty shouting, "That's the stuff to give the b__s." Twice more they came, infantry and cavalry together but still the little post beat them off. Then they brought up their artillery and started heavily shelling the trenches and the stone house. Sergeant Broster who, at great risk, had got back with a message to Headquarters, arrived back at the trench at 7.30, with a verbal message that Major Lafone was to hang on. The right flank was driven in, so that the main garrison was now unprotected on its flank, and as the firing line developed, the whole of that hill was so swept with rifle and machine-gun fire from about two thousand troops, that all the garrison who could not find shelter in the shallow trenches, became casualties.
Lieutenant Van den Bergh, in face of increasingly desperate odds, and with nearly all his men killed or wounded, showed invincible courage and light heartedness in his defence of the stone house, but he was soon mortally wounded, his last words with a wistful wan smile being, "Give my love to my mother." Lieutenant Stuart rushed across to take his place, he was soon wounded also, and Major Lafone on hearing this rushed to the rifle pits by the stone house. "Laffy" now sent his last message: " My casualties are heavy, six stretchers required. I shall hold on to the last, as
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I cannot get my wounded away." He constantly cheered on his survivors, remarking: "The infantry will soon be up," but a glance behind showed not a vestige of movement on the desert plain. The wounded had drunk all the garrison water, and as the sun rose higher thirst became intense.
A body of enemy cavalry creeping round the flank attacked the waiting led horses; they had come badly under fire earlier in the day and every horse holder had about ten horses apiece. Squadron Sergeant-Major Dixon, in charge, managed to get a Hotchkiss into action and successfully beat them off. Alas! the horses were waiting for riders who would never return; for about eleven o'clock, under cover of machine-gun and artillery fire, the Turks launched a final attempt against the stone house. There were only wounded here, but under "Laffy's" enthusiasm they fought till they were killed. As the enemy came on and on, Major Lafone marched out into the open firing point-blank from the shoulder, and at twenty yard's beat back this last attack, only to fall desperately wounded. His last words to Sergeant Broster were: "I wonder if there is any chance of the infantry getting up in time?"
Thus died a hero and a gentleman.
The little garrison fought on until there were only three survivors, and these, helping as many wounded as possible, made a dash for Karm. Looking back, they saw the Turkish cavalry sweep over the hill, but the post had been held to the bitter end, and long enough to render its capture useless to the enemy.
The following morning two hundred and eight dead Turks were counted in and around the position.
It would be impossible to mention all the heroic deeds that were done that day - October 27th - two after the Feast of Crispian, nor can I append a list of those who received decorations for their services.
S. F. Hatton, The Yarn of a Yeoman, Hutchinson, 1930
Citation: The Battle of El Buqqar Ridge, 27 October 1917, Hatton account of El Buqqar Ridge