Topic: BatzS - Bir el Abd
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 1916
[Click on map for larger version.]
Colonel Eustace Graham Keogh was commissioned by the Directorate of Military Training to produce a survey of the Sinai and Palestine campaign for training purposes of the Army in 1954. The result was his book called, Suez to Aleppo, published in Melbourne in 1955. This particular book was little used in the study of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign because of the embargo placed upon it by the Army which meant that its pages were only available to those who were members of the Army. Consequently the value of this small work has never been brought to the attention of the public and consequently is often ignored as a source by many scholars of this period. It is a fine book written specifically from a military point of view and thus looks at issues as the men would have done so at the time when these events were being recorded.
Keogh, EG, Suez to Aleppo, (Melbourne 1955)
Although the Egyptian Expeditionary Force won the battle of Romani, the engagement reflects little credit on the commander responsible for its conduct. His forecast of von Kressenstein's course of action was correct and his general plan to meet it - to let the enemy commit himself deeply and then destroy him with a strong flank attack - was perfectly sound. But his arrangements for putting his plan into elect left much to be desired.
Reference to Map 7 on page 65 shows that the vital ground was the area Katib Gannit-Railhead-Canterbury Hill-Etmaler. If the enemy effected a strong lodgement in that area he would be on the right rear of 52 Division in the main position, and in control of its dumps and its principal water supply reservoir. Anzac Mounted Division would have been either driven back against the rear of 52 Division or been forced away from the main position in the other direction. The security of that vital ground should, therefore, have been the first consideration in formulating the detailed plan for the battle.
It was expected that the main weight of the attack would develop south of Katib Gannit and fall on Anzac Mounted Division. When the New Zealand Mounted Brigade was taken from the division to form part of the counter-attack force only two ALH brigades were left, and between them they could put not more than 1,800 m on the ground. Since this slender force was to receive the main impact of the enemy's blow, it was taking a grave and unnecessary risk to stake everything upon the light horsemen being able to parry the blow. It seems reasonable to suggest that if it was at all possible another body of troops should have been provided for the defence of the vital ground.
The whole of 52 Division was allotted to the defence of the sector Katib Gannit-Mahemdia. Since the enemy was not expected to make a strong or sustained effort in that sector, it is hard to understand why so many troops were retained there in a purely static role. Possibly it was thought that the stationing of 156 Infantry Brigade - the reserve Brigade of 52 Division - near Romani provided sufficient security for the vital ground. But that brigade was not detailed for the defence of the vital ground, indeed for any pre-determined task. It remained under the command of 52 Division and, as we have seen, that formation was planning to employ it in a different direction at the very moment when the vital ground was in danger of being lost. It might have been lost, too, if it had not been for the tenacity of the mounted troops and the initiative of two relatively junior officers, the commander of the Gloucester squadron and the commander of the infantry battalion of 156 Brigade who entered the fight on their own responsibility. If it had been lost the Turks could have shifted their communications further to the north where they would have been protected by the Katia position. If they had done that the counter-stroke could not have been developed and 52 Division would probably have been rolled up from right to left. All these risks could have been avoided by a more sensible allotment of troops and a sounder system of command.
There was no overall or co-ordinating commander in the battle zone. General Lawrence's plan to control the battle from Kantara was faulty to an extreme degree. The gamble he made with his slender means of inter-communication was altogether unjustified. When the telephone line was cut he might just as well have been in Cape Town as in Kantara. From that moment he lost control of his battle and exercised no influence whatever over the course of events until the crisis was past. Each divisional commander fought his own battle quite independently. With his right rear endangered by the retirement of the light horsemen who were being very heavily pressed, the commander of 52 Division was planning a counter-attack which at that stage of the battle could have had no effect at all. It seems true to say that throughout the first day Chauvel was the only commander at divisional level and above who had a clear idea of what was happening. His coolness and skill, and the fighting qualities of his troops, were the principal factor, in the successful outcome of the battle.
Through his faulty deployment of his troops and his failure to establish a proper command organization, General Lawrence was forced to employ Sector Mounted Troops, not in the decisive counter-stroke for which they were intended, but in what was virtually a local counterattack to retrieve the position on Mount Royston. Further, owing to the uncertainty which prevailed a Kantara, 3 ALH Brigade meandered about through the first day without accomplishing anything. Even then Lawrence did not go forward to supervise the execution of his orders for the counter-attack which was arranged for the second day. As a result the actions of the formations were uncoordinated, and von Kressenstein was able to extricate his force from a dangerous situation.
The two brigade ambulances of Anzac Mounted Division were responsible for evacuating their casualties to railhead, troth which point responsibility for their care, treatment and evacuation rested with Sector Headquarters and GHQ Notwithstanding all the notice given by the enemy of his impending attack, and the expectation that a big battle was about to take place, the arrangements for the transport of the wounded from railhead to Kantara were deplorable. No ambulance trains were provided. One lot of wounded arrived at railhead at 1000 hours when there was an empty train in the siding. But, despite the protests of the medical officers, it was used for the transport of prisoners while the wounded men were allowed to lie about for hours in the blistering sun.
Casualties were taken to Kantara in open trucks, the journey occupying from six to fifteen hours, during which time the men were without lights or attendance. Not a few of them died en route from neglect and exhaustion. Some of them remained in Kantara for two days, almost entirely without attention or food.
One historian naively explains away this Crimean staff work on the grounds that: "At the period of the battle of Romani no ambulance trains had yet been taken across the Canal." Why were not ambulance trains takes across the Canal? There was plenty of notice that they would be required. And if ambulance trains could not be taken across, why was not some rolling stock specially prepared for the transport of wounded? And if that much could not have been done, it is really very difficult to explain why proper attention during the journey and at Kantara was not provided.
The non-existence of proper arrangements for the care of their wounded created amongst all ranks of Anzac Mounted Division, the formation most concerned, a feeling of resentment and distrust towards the higher command which lasted for a long time. It was a good demonstration of how not to go about building up the morale and confidence of the troops.
With the slender means of transport available, which strictly limited the size of his striking force, the venture was for von Kressenstein a gamble in space and time. He would have to win quickly or not at all. Since he had neither the time nor the troops to develop a deliberate attack on the fortified front of 52 Division, and simultaneously hold Katia and his open flank securely, the only course open to him was to make his thrust against the British right. He accepted the risk to his own flank which this course entailed in the hope that he would have won the battle before danger developed in that quarter. He could, perhaps, have reduced the risk by allotting a smaller force to the holding attack on 52 Division, and putting mare troops into protective screen on his open flank. However, he had to act on the information he had at his disposal when making his plans. At that time he did not know that 52 Division was incapable of rapid movement on the desert. Besides, he had to make sure that the whole of that division was pinned down.
On the whole von Kressenstein conducted his attack with skill and, determination. His ruse of advancing in the dusk close on the heels of the withdrawing patrols of Anzac Mounted Division is worthy of note. That division had fallen into the habit of sending out and withdrawing its patrols in accordance with a fixed routine, a procedure which gave von Kressenstein the chance to effect a surprise. The danger was partly averted by the alertness of the sentries, though the attack did develop sooner and in greater strength than expected. In view of the proximity of the enemy and his evident intention to attack, Anzac Mounted Division should have guarded against surprise by sending out a few patrols after dark each night.
Although he had suffered a severe defeat and the loss of nearly 4,000 prisoners, von Kressenstein kept his force in hand and conducted a skilful retreat through previously prepared positions. With the exception of one mountain battery he got all his guns away, which was a creditable performance on ground where the going for wheels was very heavy. In retreat the Turks showed remarkable recuperative powers. Given a drink - they appeared to suffer no ill effects from the brackish water - a meal and a little rest, they were again ready to put up their usual stubborn defence. And from first to last they showed an astonishing capacity for making long and rapid marches over the desert.
Battle of Romani, Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916
Bir el Abd, Sinai, 9 August 1916
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Romani and Bir el Abd summary, Keogh Account