Topic: AIF - NZMRB - CMR
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
CMR Unit History Account
Colonel Charles Guy Powles along with Officers of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles produced in 1928 a collective work called The history of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919, 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 ed, The history of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919, 1928:
On December 20th the Regiment moved out to Ghurfan el Gimal. As it was only five or six miles all baggage, overcoats, etc., were sent by camel transport. A large concentration of infantry, artillery and transport at this place, the present head of the railway, looked as if a big move was imminent. The Regiment settled down to await baggage, but was suddenly ordered off, word having been received that the Turks were evacuating El Arish, and a long night march over heavy sandhills followed. This night is remembered as probably the coldest yet experienced in the desert. At 3 a.m. a halt was made for an hour on a high sandhill called Um Zugla. How everyone regretted that the overcoats were on the camels, but "once bitten twice shy," never again was the Regiment caught without them. At dawn Masmi was reached, after covering about thirty miles since leaving camp. From the top of a high sand ridge the Turkish position covering El Arish could be seen, but the Turks had gone. Along the beach for two or three miles stretched great groves of palm trees, while nearer us lay the town. East of the town is the Wadi el Arish, which is the Biblical "River of Egypt." It is usually a dry watercourse, but floods heavily during the rainy season. It was up this Wadi that the garrison of El Arish had retired to Magdhaba.
The weather had now completely changed, and heavy thunderstorms made things uncomfortable for everybody, though the fall in temperature was most grateful.
The day after arrival at Masmi one of the wood-gathering parties took eleven prisoners, who were evidently stragglers from the retreating enemy. At short notice on the evening of the 22nd the Regiment moved to the Wadi el Arish, and the early hours of the morning of the 23rd found the Mounted Division riding steadily towards Magdhaba.
The fires of the enemy camp at Magdhaba having been observed at 3.50 a.m.
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 (General Chauvel), with the brigade commanders, 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.
This careless showing of lights by the enemy clearly indicated how impossible he thought it that tired horses and men, after an all-night march of 30 miles, could possibly set out immediately upon another 30 miles march to the position to which he had retired.
General Chaytor with the New Zealand Brigade and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was given orders to move on Magdhaba by the north and north-east and to endeavour to cut off all retreat. The Camel Brigade (for these operations taking the place in the Division of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade) 71 was to advance straight up the Wadi, following the telegraph line, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade was for the present to be in reserve. The Division's batteries soon got to work, but the targets were hard to find. The enemy's guns and trenches were exceedingly well concealed, but by 10 o'clock the New Zealand Brigade had closed well in. News then coming in that our aeroplanes could see the Turk withdrawing east, the 1st Light Horse Brigade was sent in direct on Magdhaba. By 12 o'clock all three Brigades and the Camel Brigade were hotly engaged, but on account of mirage and dust clouds good observation was impossible.
General Chaytor sent forward the Canterbury and Wellington Regiments — the Wellington on the right and the Canterburys on the left, and to the left of them the 10th Light Horse Regiment. Steady progress was made over country flat and bare of cover beyond small bushes.
By one o'clock the progress of the two regiments had caused a gap to appear between them, and into this gap General Chaytor sent the 8th and 9th Light Horse. The line now pressed strongly forward, each squadron moving forward by rushes, covered by the fire of the Lewis and machine guns, and by 3 o'clock were within five hundred yards of the enemy trenches.
More ammunition was brought up, and, under cover of the machine guns, ground was gained in short rushes, until, with a final charge with fixed bayonets, the nearest trenches were reached. The Turks immediately began to surrender, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade on the west and the 10th Light Horse Regiment, on the east pressing in, the whole system of redoubts enclosing the houses of Magdhaba surrendered.
It had been a race against darkness and water, for if Magdhaba had not fallen there was no water nearer than El Arish, and if darkness had fallen before the trenches were captured most of the Turks would have got away.
One of the decisive events of the afternoon was the capture of a battery of four mountain guns by Lieutenant A. B. Johnstone, with his troop of the 8th Squadron. This battery had given much trouble and was still firing when Johnstone with six men rushed the emplacement, and the garrison consisting of 2 officers and 15 men surrendered. Casualties were light in spite of the prolonged nature of the fighting; among those who fell was Lieutenant H. A. Bowron, of the 10th Squadron, who was hit during the early advance over the bare plain.
The sufferings of the wounded were again accentuated by the long distance they had to be carried to Railhead, a matter of just over 50 miles, and from Magdhaba to El Arish the journey had to be made by cacolet. From El Arish to Railhead the most serious cases were taken in sand carts or carried on improvised sledges, both of which means of conveyance through rough country were infinitely better than the dreaded cacolet.
Magdhaba was a mounted man's action; it would have been impossible for infantry. As Gullett says in his history of the Australians in Sinai and 72 Palestine—"The unqualified success at Magdhaba supplies a classical example of the right use of mounted riflemen. In scarcely more than twenty four hours the Light Horsemen, New Zealanders, and Camels had ridden upwards of fifty miles, had fought, mounted and dismounted, twenty-three miles from their water supply and fifty miles from Railhead, and had surprised and annihilated a strongly placed enemy. The engagement brought out all the effective qualities of these mounted men: the excellent discipline of the silent night-ride, the rapid approach before dismounting, the dashing leadership of the junior officers, the cleverness of the men, while maintaining their advance, in taking advantage of all cover, the effective use of machine guns and Lewis guns, and the eagerness of the troopers for bayonet work as they got to close quarters." In an address to the Brigade the following day General Chetwode (who now commanded the forces east of the Canal and called the Desert Column) 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. But the work was not yet finished. Prisoners had to be collected and horses watered.
Time did not permit of much being done, so a regiment was left to clean up the battlefield, and the column started on its long ride home. It was a bitterly cold night and men and horses were tired. It must be remembered that they had been marching and fighting for thirty hours without pause, and for most of them this was 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. is almost an impossibility. Men and horses were dropping off at the oddest times and in the oddest positions. The, dust was intense, and to the lightly clad men bereft of their overcoats, the cold seemed to penetrate to the bone. Men saw or fancied they saw plantations, towns with large buildings lighted up, precipices or a gradually closing wall. A man would halt, thinking he was on the edge of a cliff, then seeing others riding on he knew it to be imagination only. But all journeys end, and Masmi was reached at 6 o'clock on the morning of Christmas Eve. The result of the raid was one thousand two hundred and eighty-two prisoners, four mountain guns, machine guns, rifles, ammunition and stores of all description.
Citation: The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, CMR, Unit History Account