Topic: BatzP - El Burj
El Burj, Palestine, 1 December 1917
As part of the Official British War History of the Great War, Captain Cyril Falls was commissioned to produce a commentary on the Sinai, Palestine and Syrian operations that took place. In 1930, his finished work, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine from June 1917 to the end of the war, produced in two parts, was published in London. This is Falls account of El Burj.
Falls, C, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine from June 1917 to the end of the war, Part I, London, 1930, pp. 234 - 236:
On the night of the 30th November the 4th L.H. Brigade, having been relieved by the 74th Division at Tahta and in the Wadi Zeit, had relieved the left of the 156th Brigade east of El Burj. The 3rd and 4th L.H. Brigades were now in line side by side, with the 7th Mounted Brigade in support, awaiting relief by the 5th Mounted Brigade, which had now reached Qaryet el 'Inab. Major-General Hodgson took over command of the front from north of Beit Sira to south-west of Shilta.
About 1 a.m. on the 1st December the Turks renewed their attacks, both at Tahta against the 157th Brigade and north-east of El Burj against the 3rd L.H. Brigade. At Tahta they succeeded after two fruitless attempts in driving the right company of the 5/H.L.I., which had lost half its strength, off two hundred yards of the ridge in front of the village. Br.-General Hamilton Moore forbade an immediate counter-attack and ordered the rocky ground to be first thoroughly searched by Stokes mortars. At 4.30 a.m. a company of the 5/Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and the company of the H.L.I. reoccupied the position with little difficulty.
The other Turkish attack penetrated the line of the 8th A.L.H. north-east of El Burj, but four separate onslaughts with stick bombs were driven back by a squadron under Major A. Crawford on a rocky hill. A squadron of the Gloucester Hussars, still attached to the 3rd L.H. Brigade, was rushed up to fill gaps in the line, and the Hong Kong Battery came into action. Next a company of the 4/Royal Scots Fusiliers from Beit Sira, led by Lieut.-Colonel N. G. Stewart-Richardson with a small party of bombers, arrived on the scene just as the Turks were launching a new assault. A bombing party under 2nd Lieutenant S. H. P. Boughey attacked the enemy bombers engaging Major Crawford' squadron and after a fierce struggle forced them back. The Turks continued to attack with desperate bravery, but another company of the 4/Scots Fusiliers came up and the enemy, galled by the steady fire of the 3rd L.H. Brigade and assailed by a shower of bombs from the Fusiliers fell back to cover. The Scotsmen, infuriated at losing their hard earned rest, vented their rage upon the enemy, pursuing him without respite. Boughey outran his men and forced twenty-five Turks to surrender. A moment later he was shot dead. He received the posthumous reward of the Victoria Cross.
Australians, Scotsmen, and Yeomen held their position till dawn, when it was found that the attacking force was at their mercy, since its retreat was barred by a barrage laid down by the machine guns of the 3rd L.H. Brigade. Six officers and 106 other ranks surrendered, while over one hundred dead were found upon the ground. The prisoners belonged to the Storm Battalion of the 19th Division. They had proved themselves troops of high quality, and were far better equipped than most Turkish troops at this period, wearing shrapnel helmets and carrying 1917 Mausers. It appears from Turkish of the 54th Division also took part in the attack. The battalion, 600 strong, was almost annihilated.
On the morning of the 3rd December a last attempt 3 Dec. was made by the 74th Division to recover Beit 'Ur el Foqa. This attack was carried out by the 16/Devonshire, 229th Brigade, and launched from the head of the Wadi Zeit at 1 a.m. At 3.30 the village was captured with 17 prisoners and three machine guns. But heavy counter-attacks were launched before consolidation could be carried out, and the battalion was galled by machine-gun fire from the neighbouring ridges. Bombing and hand-to-hand fighting continued all the morning. The 74th Division was, in fact, learning over again the lesson which had been impressed upon Major General Barrow when he had had time to study the ground, that Foqa was untenable while the Zeitun Ridge, Jonquil Hill, and the hills to the north were in the enemy's hands. Soon afternoon Lieut.-Colonel A. C. Mardon obtained permission to withdraw through Tahta. The losses were heavy, numbering 286, and included three company commanders.
It was obvious that local attacks of this nature were not worth their cost, and General Chetwode, who had now had time to reconnoitre the front, ordered them to stop. The Turks had been defeated and fought to a standstill; he had now all the fresh troops of his own corps up - the 10th Division having relieved the 52nd - and could afford to mature his preparations for the capture of Jerusalem.
THE BATTLE FROM THE TURKISH SIDE.
Falkenhayn's aim was now to take pressure off the Seventh Army and delay an attack on Jerusalem until the reinforcements which he was expecting had arrived. These consisted of the 20th Division, which was to join the Eighth Army; the 1st Division, the Caucasus Cavalry Brigade, the Asia Corps, and from east of Jordan the 7th Cavalry Regiment and 150th Regiment, destined to support the Seventh Army. The 20th Division, as we have seen, was in action on the 27th November. The leading battalion of the Asia Corps was expected at Nablus on the 12th December, and the 70th Regiment of the 1st Division at Jenin about the same date. The troops from over Jordan began to arrive in Jerusalem on the 1st December.
The 19th Division was placed under the orders of the Eighth Army for good reason, though its attack was intended to assist the Seventh. The Marshal feared that if he handed it over to Fevzi Pasha the latter would draw it closer to his own front, whereas he wished to make a divergent attack against the British left and the gap at Suffa. The plan was brilliantly conceived, but it failed to take into account the fatigue of this very fine division after its long marches. "On the 1st December," writes Colonel Hussein Husni, "our attack gave out and was stopped before positions which Falkenhayn could not penetrate."'
Yet the Marshal did not despair. He was quite convinced that the British would never reach the Nablus road at Bire. He " fixed his attention on the daily change of the enemy's dispositions," confident that Jerusalem could not be taken until the British shifted their attack further south and drove the XX Corps from its position south of Nabi Samweil. Sir Philip Chetwode, we shall see, was of the same opinion. It was the Marshal's misfortune that, while his III Corps, not thought worthy of defending Jerusalem, had defended the Nablus road with courage and devotion, his XX Corps, selected for the greater task, was to fail abjectly when put to the test.
Citation: El Burj, Palestine, 1 December 1917, Falls Account