Topic: BatzS - Magdhaba
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
As part of the Official British War History of the Great War, Captain Cyril Falls and Lieutenant General George MacMunn were commissioned to produce a commentary on the Sinai, Palestine and Syrian operations that took place. In 1928, their finished work, Military Operations, Egypt and Palestine - From the outbreak of war with Germany to June 1917, was published in London. Their book included a section specifically related to the Battle of Magdhaba and is extracted below.
MacMunn, G. & Falls, C., Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1930), pp. 251 - 258:
The Turkish Retirement and the Affair of Magdhaba.
The Turkish garrison at El Arish was believed to 1,600 strong and known from the reports of the RF.C. to well entrenched. Twenty-five miles southeast of the town, on the banks of the great Wadi el Arish, "the River of Egypt," were further camps at El Magdhaba and Abu Aweigila, protecting the Turkish railhead at El Kossaima. The Turkish defences at El Arish covered all the water in that area) between them and the British railhead there was none. An advance upon E1 Arish therefore necessitated the establishment of a very large supply at railhead and the concentration of large numbers of camels to carry it forward. Preparations were not complete till the 20th December. By that date material to lay the railway to Rafah was in sight, and the War Office had despatched eight tanks and some heavy guns and howitzers to Egypt.
On the very day that all was ready for the advance, the R.F.C. reported that the enemy had evacuated his position. Though it was not certain that some resistance would not be encountered, there was now no need to rely upon the slow advance of the infantry. The A & N Z. Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade Which had completed its concentration and received its title only the day before - To this brigade was attached the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery of mountain artillery, which had Indian personnel. The brigade at this date consisted of three battalions.) were ordered to move on E1 Arish that night. After a march of 20 miles the town was surrounded on the morning of the 21st and found to be indeed empty of Turks. ["Sinai": Kress, i, p. 24. "As our troops were not strong enough to defend the town of El Arish, which was unhappily situated and exposed to the fire of British warships, we were obliged in December to evacuate this place also."] The local Arabs professed unbounded joy at their departure and the arrival of the British. The 52nd Division reached El Arish on the 22nd. Mine-sweeping was at once commenced in the roadstead and the construction of a pier begun. By the 23rd the first ship from Port Said was landing supplies in boats.
The night march of the mounted troops to El Arish, otherwise uneventful, marked the escape from the desert. As they rode in the darkness the men, to their delight, felt their horses pass from the sand which they had known so long to firm soil. And with morning light, though sand dunes mile on mile lay to south and east of them, their eyes were gladdened by green patches of cultivation, with wheat and barley just sprouting, and many palms.
General Chetwode, commanding the Desert Column, arrived at E1 Arish by boat on the 22nd December and at once gave orders for the pursuit of the enemy. To render this possible he had arranged for a special camel convoy with rations and fodder to arrive at E1 Arish at 4.30 p.m. that day. There was still uncertainty as to the movements of the Turkish force which had evacuated E1 Arish; whether it had moved along the coast to Rafah or south-east along the Wadi el Arish in the direction of the railway at Kossaima. Nor was it known whether Rafah and the posts along the wadi were held in strength. The first orders issued to General Chauve1 were to move down the wadi on Magdhaba and Abu Aweigila with the bulk of his force, while sending a detachment of the Camel Brigade to operate against Rafah. During the afternoon, however, an aeroplane report was received which showed that there was a considerable garrison at Magdhaba. General Chetwode thereupon cancelled the Rafah enterprise and ordered General Chauvel to advance on Magdhaba with all available troops of his divisions [That is, less the 2nd L.H. Brigade, which had which had been withdrawn for a rest, and the Ayr and Leicester Batteries.] and the Camel Brigade.
There was at this date no running water in the wadi nor had the bold reconnaissances of the Australian Field Squadron, working up to it at night while E1 Arish was yet held by the Turks, found any by such boring as they had been able to carry out. Water had therefore to be carried for the needs of the force. This caused an unexpected delay, for the long camel train carrying it was crossed in the darkness by the incoming columns of the 52nd Division, which thus checked the advance. General Chauvel's force was, therefore, unable to move out until midnight.
The ground was firm, the night clear and cold, so that the march, once begun, was swift. At 3.50 a.m. on the 23rd December the bivouac fires of Magdhaba came in sight, and an hour later the force halted in an open plain, 4 miles from the settlement. Day broke while General Chauvel with his brigadiers and staff was making a reconnaissance of the enemy's position; the fires then disappeared and the whole valley was shrouded in smoke, which made observation very difficult. It appeared, however, that the Turkish position lay astride the Wadi el Arish, that it was roughly square, about two miles from east to west, and rather less from north to south, and consisted of about half a dozen redoubts and certain connecting entrenchments. At 7.50 a.m. a report was received from an airman that he had been fired on from one of the redoubts north of the wadi and from several points in its bed. Another welcome report from the air was that there was no sign of reinforcements for some distance beyond Ruafa, 8 miles southeast of Magdhaba, and only a handful of troops there. General Chauvel's time was therefore limited only by his scanty water supply and not by any threat from the enemy.
Orders for the attack were at once issued. The 3rd L.H. and N.Z.M.R. Brigades under Br-General Chaytor were to move north of Magdhaba and attack from the north-east; the Camel Brigade (Br.-General C. L. Smith) to advance straight on Magdhaba north of the E1 Arish road; the 1st L.H. Brigade was to be held in reserve. The signal for the advance was to be the opening of fire of the artillery, consisting of the Inverness and Somerset Batteries R.H.A. and the Hong Kong Battery. As the troops began their advance a further report from the air showed little movement within the area of the defences, though the rifle pits in the redoubts were being reinforced. Nothing could be seen of the Turkish artillery,
By 9.25 Br.-General Chaytor was established 3 miles north of Magdhaba. He ordered Br.-General Royston, commanding the 3rd L.H. Brigade, to send a regiment right round the position, through Aulad Ali, and cut off the enemy's retreat to the south and south-east. General Royston led the 10th A.L.H. and two sections of the Machine-Gun Squadron forward at a gallop, and was just in time to catch a number of prisoners in the wadi, portions of the garrison having already begun a retirement. At 9.55, without waiting for the Camel Brigade's attack to be pushed home this arm being necessarily slower in movement than the Light Horse, since it could not advance mounted so close to the position — General Chaytor directed the Canterbury Regiment on Hill 345, on the south side of the wadi, and the Wellington on its right against Magdhaba itself. The Inverness and Somerset Batteries now for the first time located the enemy guns by the dust of their discharge.
At 10 a.m. an airman dropped a message on General Chaytor's headquarters reporting that the enemy was making off and might yet escape the enveloping movement. [This retreat was inexplicable at the time, as, on the one hand, a large number of prisoners were captured by the 10th A.L.H. in its sweep and, on the other, it was speedily found that all the redoubts were held and prepared to make a stout resistance. It is made clear by a statement of the Historical Section, Turkish General Staff, that a number of Arab soldiers left their position in a body.] The report was at once sent to General Chauvel, who ordered Br. General Cox commanding the 1st L.H. Brigade move straight on Magdhaba. General Cox led out his brigade at the trot. He speedily came under shrapnel from the enemy's mountain guns, whereupon he changed direction slightly and increased his pace to a gallop The enemy opened heavy fire with machine guns and rifles. The range was over a mile, but it was clear now that there had An no general evacuation of the position and that a further mounted advance ^1n face of the musketry fire would involve heavy casualties. General Cox therefore swung his two regiments right-handed at the gallop and took cover in a tributary of the main wadi. Thence, at 10.30, he began a dismounted attack with the 3rd A.L.H. up the wadi's broad bed.
At 11.50 a.m. General Chauvel reported the situation to the Desert Column. The N.Z.M.R. Brigade (less Auckland Regiment in reserve) was attacking from the north. The 3rd L.H. Brigade (less 10th A.L.H.) was still held in reserve by General Chaytor. The 10th A.L.H. was moving round the eastern flank of the position at Aulad Ali. The Camel Brigade (less one battalion in reserve) was advancing directly on the village. The 1st L.H. Brigade on its right was working up the wadi in the same direction. The artillery was in action, but had difficulty in obtaining targets owing to the nature of the ground and to mirage. Immediately afterwards General Chaytor threw into the fight the remainder of the 3rd L.H. Brigade, ordering it to fill the gap between the Wellington and Canterbury Regiments and to attack the most easterly of the Turkish works. The 8th and 9th A.L.H. advanced at a gallop and dismounted under heavy fire to advance against the redoubt on foot.
Fire from the redoubts was now very hot, and little progress was being made. The Camel Brigade in particular, which had to advance over ground dead flat and devoid of cover, was seriously checked, and it was upon the fire power and weight of numbers of this force that General Chauvel had chiefly relied for the success of the attack. At 1.50 p.m. the G.O.C. had bad news from Bir Lahfan, 14 miles down the wadi from Magdhaba. There he had left a held troop of engineers to dig for water, and he now learned that none was obtainable Unless Magdhaba was taken there was no water nearer than El Arish, and most of the horses had had none since the beginning of the march. He therefore reluctantly decided that it was necessary to break of the action, as there appeared no immediate prospect of capturing Magdhaba. At 1.50 p.m. he telegraphed an account of the situation to the Desert Column and stated that he proposed to order a withdrawal.
Meanwhile, however, the 3rd A.L.H., steadily working up the wadi, had obtained touch with the Camel Brigade within 100 yards of Redoubt No. 1, north of the wadi, which had been the principal bar to progress on this flank. A wide level patch of the wadi's bed, devoid of cover, had to be crossed before the redoubt, which lay on the edge of the right bank, could be assaulted. But a spirited charge was carried out by two companies of the Camel Brigade in conjunction with the light horsemen. With loud cheers the former on the plain above, the latter from the wadi, dashed at the redoubt. They were met by heavy fire, and a high proportion of the losses incurred in the whole action were suffered here. But the enemy did not await the bayonet. The garrison sprang to its feet and surrendered, three officers and 92 other ranks being taken prisoner.
This was in fact the climax of the fight. When he learned what had happened, at 2.30 p.m., General Chauvel telephoned to General Chetwode that he had now no doubt regarding his ultimate victory. The G.O.C. Desert Column promised that if possible a convoy with water should be sent to meet the column on its return journey.
Soon after 2 p.m. General Chauvel had learnt from General Chaytor that the enemy showed signs of withdrawing from the buildings of the village and that success was now imminent on his front also. The 3rd L.H. Brigade was then in touch with the two New Zealand regiments and within 600 yards of the enemy's trenches. Meanwhile (though this was unknown to General Chauvel) the 10th A.L.H. had carried out its encircling movement with great success. After capturing 300 prisoners at Aulad Ali, it had crossed the Wadi el Arish, rounded Hill 345, swung north and attacked Redoubt No. 4. The ground here was hilly and afforded good cover, so that the light horsemen were able to approach in a series of mounted rushes till close to the Turkish trenches. One party actually galloped through Redoubt No. 3, though without capturing it
At 4 Pam Redoubt No. 2 was captured by the 1st LH Brigade, with Khadir Bey, commanding the 80th Regiment, who was in command of the garrison. The New Zealanders and 3rd LH Brigade also swept over the northern trenches and advanced on the houses and huts of the village. By 4.30 p.m. all organized resistance was over and the remainder of the garrison was everywhere surrendering in small batches.
General Chauvel at once rode into Magdhaba and ordered the Auckland Regiment to clear the battlefield, arranging that a small convoy should be sent up with its supplies The remainder of the force, which had been able to water some of its horses in Magdhaba, he ordered to assemble at once at his headquarters and begin the return march. On the way back water and food were drawn from the convoy sent up by the Desert Column Men and horses, after marching and fighting for thirty hours without pause, and having been in many cases three nights without sleep, were completely exhausted on their return to camp. The wounded suffered very severely on the jolting camel cacolets, and, to add to their discomfort, the night was very cold. The capture of a Turkish field hospital, however, enabled them to receive better attention before evacuation than would otherwise, in the conditions of the operation, have been possible.
Altogether 1,282 prisoners, including Khadir Bey and his two battalion commanders, were captured. Ninety-seven Turks were buried by the troops left to dear the battlefield. The garrison consisted of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 80th Regiment 27th Division), one mountain battery, and 50 camelry. Not more than the merest handful can have escaped. In addition to the four mountain guns, 1,200 rifles, a great quantity of ammunition, 40 horses and 51 camels were captured. The British losses were 146.
Killed Wounded. Officers 5 7 Other Ranks 17 117
51 horses killed or wounded.
The action will be remembered as a notable instance of the effective employment of mounted troops against isolated fortifications in open country. It proved also the value of the new Camel Brigade. Less mobile than the Light Horse, now that the shifting sands of the desert, for use in which it had been organized, had been left behind, and slower in coming into action, the dismounted strength of its three battalions almost equated that of two light horse Brigades. The Camel Brigade, when going into action, usually left the same proportion of its strength with the camels - one fourth - as the cavalry left with horses when acting dismounted. When acting, therefore, with the other mounted troops it greatly increased their offensive power. General Chauvel attributed his small casualty list to the bad shooting of Turkish infantry, even though firing was maintained up to very close quarters. His threefold superiority in artillery was also undoubtedly a factor The Inverness Battery fired 498 rounds during the action, a remarkable expenditure ammunition in this country, 50 miles from railhead
On the 22nd December a small column from No. 1 Section Canal Defences had found the country half-way between Suez and Nekhl clear of the enemy. AS a result of the occupation of E1 Arish and the destruction of their rear guard at Magdhaba, the Turks withdrew the remainder of their posts from Sinai. Bir el Maghara, Nekhl, Bir el Hassana, were all evacuated by New Year's Day. For the first time since the outbreak of war the Sinai Peninsular was now virtually clear of the Turks.
Citation: The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, Falls Account