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"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess

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Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Bir el Mazar, Sinai, 17 September 1916, Idriess Account
Topic: BatzS - El Mazar

Bir el Mazar

Sinai, 17 September 1916

Idriess Account


Ion Llewellyn Idriess produced a book call The Desert Column. Published in 1932, it claimed to be an account of the ordinary trooper with the Light Horse during the Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine campaigns. His many vignettes are well written and have become oft quoted to add colour to dry history. The particular book was based upon his copious diaries which he kept despite his circumstances. Even today, one can still feel the grit of the desert upon the pages. It is most transforming and immediate while reading each new entry.

Idriess, IL, The Desert Column, (1932), pp.  82 - 84:


September 15th — To-night we are going out on a twenty-five mile stunt, to attack the Turkish advance garrison at Mazar, which is forty-four miles east of Romani. (Their base is at El Arish, miles farther back.) We attack at dawn. What an agonizing trip in the sandcarts and cacolets the poor devils of wounded will have!

September 16th — We left Fatia this morning at 2 a.m., arriving at this oasis, Ge’eila, at dawn. Wells have been dug. A Taube just buzzed overhead but got the shock of her life when four ‘planes instantly rushed her. She fired a startled burst from her machine-gun and fled. I’m afraid our chance of surprising Mazar is gone.

3 p.m. —We hear now that when the Taube fired she killed a man and horse of the 10th Light Horse. Unlucky poor chap. We are to move out at sunset, cover the long dry stage, and attack at dawn, first surprising a chain of entrenched outposts placed a mile out fronting their redoubts. We have to gallop them down.

September 18th—Arrived back here at six yesterday morning, dead beat, a truly awful trip. Here goes. At sunset we rode straight out into the desert. Night came in utter silence. The 3rd Brigade was riding across to our right, somewhere, to attack Mazar from the east. The Camel Brigade, with guns of the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery, was mooching across the desert to destroy a Turkish post at Kasseiba; after which they were to get right behind the threatened position. We believed the 1st Brigade was somewhere away to the left. Our brigade had a squadron of En Zed machine-gunners. The travelling was in among and up and over steep sandhills all night, many of the gullies were pitch black and precipitous, a man didn’t know into what pit he was falling should his horse roll down. “No smoking!" “No talking!”

The old 5th was the advance guard for the 2nd Brigade, our own troop riding on the extreme left flank screen, so we kept our ears and eyes wide open; that is, as much as we could; most of us had already been two nights without sleep. Presently the moon came and made all the desert silver except the hillsides and donga gullies which gaped blacker than before. We in the screen, responsible to guard the main column against surprise, strained our eyes at the bushes that looked so like men. We never knew what second might bring a storm of bullets from some outpost or redoubt. Our orders were that if we rode on an outpost to immediately open fire and let no man escape. So we rode on, careful to keep the shadowy horsemen to right and left of us always in sight, and to keep with the nearest visible spider lines of men that stretched back in touch with that indistinct, long black shadow winding low down in the hills. Occasionally the column would halt, we would know by a warning “hiss!” and sight of the shadow horsemen behind halting, and we’d tumble off our horses, but keep staring to front or flank. Presently there came a very unusual halt, almost two hours. The Heads were giving the Camel Corps time to detour away around Mazar and cut the Turkish communication wires with El Arish.

Presently, we spied the shadows moving up on us, all magnified, all silent. We leapt on our horses and moved off again. At long last there came steel in the east, and presently a pink glow. Thank God for the dawn. Once the sun was up, it would drive the sleep from our eyes, not the sleep but the intense craving for it. We strained eyes and ears, for we must be almost on the Turkish outposts. Would the rifles never crack! Suddenly we half wheeled our horses and slung up the rifles as a patrol of camel men dashed from the bushes urging their monstrous steeds with hoarse, low cries. But a troop galloped between them and Mazar and laughingly cut them off.

But the Turks were aroused. Men jumped up from the bushes ahead like wallabies and mounting fast camels were away for their redoubts. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! The game had started. Even the horses knew!

We pressed on, expecting the bullets. Soon the regiment galloped into action, one squadron within two hundred yards of the Turks. We all thought that now would come one great gallop of the brigades down the bill and into Mazar. But the order never came.

“Bang! bang! crash! crash sang the anti-aircraft as they slung their shells at our circling ‘planes.

“Bang! bang! bang! Bang!” answered the Somerset Battery.

“Rut-tut-tut-tuttuttuttuttuttuttut,” came the machineguns’ throaty chorus.

C Troop was ordered to canter north in search of some strong outpost that threatened our flank. We had to keep them occupied lest they be reinforced by machine-guns.

This little “private” stunt kept C Troop out of the fight, as it happened. ‘We cantered away as the sun bounced out of the hills and lit up the stunted bushes. Presently we cantered on a cunning little redoubt, so craftily winding in and out among the bushes that ‘it was impossible to see it until we rode right on it. If it had been held by determined men, it would probably have wiped us out! But the Turks had fled back to their main positions. A coarse desert grass had been packed into the trench sides to prevent the sand filling in. We admired its neat and businesslike air, and the cunning way in which the apparently growing grass hid the lips of the tiny trenches.

We rode warily on, the fight flaring up and down away to our right and in the air, but around us was only the occasional hum of long-range bullets, everywhere about us low sandhills densely covered with scrub—and the expectancy of sudden death everywhere.

We found quite a number of outpost trenches, but the Turks had all cleared away back to their big redoubts in Mazar. We turned to rejoin the regiment, climbed a hill and gazed down on Mazar, and to our intense surprise saw a smoke-puff, then flash of flame, then bang! bang! bang! bang! crash! crash! crash! crash! We were actually gazing at a Turkish antiaircraft battery in action. We turned and galloped for the regiment and the guns. What a wonderful target! We had a fairly long ride and wondered at the peculiar firing: it would almost die down then roll out to a long hoarse growl, to die down again to regimental firing, only to break with a sudden intensity and ripple distantly away.

We trotted up to our led horses but to our intense surprise were told not to go into the firing-line. We saw General Chauvel and the Old Brig, earnestly discussing the situation. We wondered what on earth had happened.

Across the desert where the 3rd Brigade was, the firing broke out like the wind-swept roar of a bushfire. Brigadier Royston sent word that he could take his position, but at the cost of an awful lot of men as the enemy in front were unexpectedly numerous and in strongly entrenched positions. Also, it was not certain that the Camel Corps had succeeded in getting to the rear of Mazar.

Additional Reading:

Bir el Mazar, Sinai, 17 September 1916

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1919


Citation: Bir el Mazar, Sinai, 17 September 1916, Idriess Account

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Sunday, 27 September 2009 11:33 PM EADT

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