Topic: AIF - DMC - Medical
The Battle of Rafa
Sinai, 9 January 1917
Butler, DMC Medical Services, AIF, Unit History, Account
Evacuating the wounded on camels after the Battle, 10 January 1917
In 1930, A. G. Butler along with R. M. Downes and F. A. Maguire, published a history of the Desert Mounted Corps Medical Services, AIF during the Great War called: Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914 - 1918. Vol. 1 Gallipoli Palestine and New Guinea. The book included a chapter on the work performed by the Desert Mounted Corps Medical Services, AIF during the Battle of Rafa, Sinai, 9 January 1917 which are extracted below.
Butler, A.G. Downes, R. M. & Maguire, F. A., Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services 1914 - 1918. Vol. 1 Gallipoli Palestine and New Guinea, (Melbourne 1930), pp. 593 - 597:
Rafa now remained the only position retained by the nemy in Sinai, and its capture was decided upon. After a few days’ rest in the pleasant surroundings of EI Arish, on January 8th the Anzac Mounted Division, without the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, but including the Camel Brigade, assembled under General Chetwode on the eastern side of the Wady el Arish. With it was the 5th Yeomanry Brigade, whose field ambulance was under the direct orders of the Desert Column Headquarters. Medical arrangements for the force were in he hands of the A.D.M.S., Anzac Mounted Division, who had under him the 1st and 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulances, the New Zealand Field Ambulance, and the 1/1 Welsh Field Ambulance, together with Nos. 1 and 2 Welsh Ambulance Convoys. The column moved off at four o'clock in the afternoon, with all the mobile sections of the field ambulances marching together in rear of the ammunition camels of the first-line transport, instead of in their usual positions in rear of their own brigades. At 9.15 p.m. the village of Sheikh Zowaiid was reached, and here a main dressing-station was formed by the tent division of the 1st Light Horse Field Ambulance. Here also the two ambulance convoys remained, together with part of the sanitary section to attend to the local water-supply. The 5th Mounted Field Ambulance rejoined its brigade. The march was resumed at 1 a.m., the point of assembly was reached at daylight, and the brigades, each followed by its field ambulance, surrounded the enemy's position.
Few scenes could have appeared more unwarlike than that which the dawn unfolded. The matting tents of the Bedouins, with their camels, sheep, and donkeys grazing peacefully, and the smoke of their fires mingling with the wreaths of mist rising from the wet green slopes, made a picture which brought to mind the stories of the Old Testament. Rafa is merely a small village and police post on the Egyptian frontier, comprising a few mud huts and separated from the sea by a belt of sand dunes 2.5 miles wide. It lies thirty miles from El Arish in a gently undulating country which, though sandy and quickly cut up by traffic, was no longer the soft sand of the desert but at this time of the year was covered by green grass, wild-flowers, and young barley, which made a pleasant change to the eye. About a mile and a half to the south-west of the village was an eminence, El Magruntein, from which the ground sloped gently on all sides; this the Turks had strongly fortified and garrisoned with a force of 1.900 men.
The attack commenced at 8.30 a.m., and the course of the fighting was in striking similarity to that at Magdhaha and later at Gaza. Resistance was strong, and progress slow. As the day advanced, the situation became menacing for the attacking troops, thirty miles from their base and with all enemy force on their flank; moreover, Turkish reinforcements were reported to be advancing from Khan Yunus and Shellal. At 4.30 p.m. a preliminary order was given for a general withdrawal, but, before any order had reached the actual firing line, the fine assaults which have made this battle notable had changed the situation, and at 4.45 p.m. the most important positions had been captured. At 5.30 p.m. the battle was over. In view, however, of the general situation the brigades, with 1,500 prisoners of war, were withdrawn to Sheikh Zowaiid.
The rapid changes in the military situation had involved the medical service in considerable difficulties. Early in the attack advanced dressing-stations were opened by the mobile sections at three points to the south and south-east of the position and about three miles from it. For the first time the absence of cover resulting from the unbroken slope of the country prevented sandcarts and sledges from reaching the regimental collecting posts, so that it was necessary for the ambulance bearers to carry the wounded a considerable distance to the transport. The improvised portable stretchers were of great value. Casualties reaching the dressing-stations steadily increased throughout the morning. At 2.30 p.m. it was apparent that there would be a large number of wounded, and orders were sent to Sheikh Zowaiid to send forward cacolet camels and No. 1 Welsh Ambulance Convoy towards the nearest advanced dressing-station -that of the Welsh Field Ambulance.
At about 4.30 p.m. orders for retirement reached the A.D.M.S., Anzac Mounted Division, and he was further informed from Desert Column Headquarters that wounded who could not be collected at once were to be left behind. A few minutes later came the added instruction that any sandcarts and sledges which arrived at the advanced dressing-stations from the firing line were not to return. These orders were passed by the A.D.M.S. through brigade headquarters to the bearer detachments behind the assaulting troops, while verbal orders were given to the dressing-stations to pack up and retire as quickly as possible. The New Zealand Mounted and 1/1 Welsh Ambulance advanced dressing-stations, with their wounded, left for Sheikh Zowaiid, as did also part of the transport and equipment of the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance. The number of wounded in that dressing-station was. however, beyond the capacity of the transport available for their evacuation; word was also received by the A.D.M.S. that large numbers still remained uncollected in the field.
Reconsideration of the peremptory order concerning the transport for the wounded was obtained from the General Staff, Desert Column, and arrangements were made for No. 1 Welsh Ambulance Convoy - at this time five miles away - to be sent forward to divisional headquarters. By 5.30 or 6 p.m. clearance of wounded from the battlefield to the advanced dressing-station of the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance was in full swing. Divisional headquarters set out for Sheikh Zowaiid at 7 p.m. leaving on the battlefield the A.D.M.S., Anzac Mounted Division, with a general staff officer, together with one and a half squadrons of light horse, to control the collection and evacuation of the wounded. The 3rd Light Horse and New Zealand Brigades remained near the captured position till 9 p.m., when, the field having been cleared, they also left for Sheikh Zowaiid.
The medical situation in the captured position at this time was an extraordinary one. Some 100 or more wounded, British and Turk, lay in the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance advanced dressing-station, with few blankets, no food, and no lights, all these conveniences having, in the confusion, gone back to Sheikh Zowaiid on the equipment camels. The 5th Mounted Field Ambulance, with a large number of wounded, was in a similar plight. No. 1 Welsh Ambulance Convoy, long overdue, had not arrived – the convoy had indeed received such alarming reports from retiring parties, that it had returned to Sheikh Zowaiid. All telephonic communication had accidentally been cut off, the enemy was close at hand, the night was a bitter one. Cold, hungry, and hourly expecting capture, the wounded suffered severely.
Happily, the enemy held off, but it was not till early next morning that, on the arrival of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at Sheikh Zowaiid, the Welsh ambulance convoy received orders to return to Magruntein. At 8 a.m. the wounded were sent to Sheikh Zowaiid, and early the same afternoon all the sandcarts of the 52nd Division arrived from El Arish and evacuated them to the receiving station there. Some of these sandcarts went out close to Rafa to bring in a number of wounded Turks who had been missed, and arrived back at Sheikh Zowaiid at 5.30 a.m. on January 11th without molestation, although the rearguard had come in. After treatment and a night's rest at Sheikh Zowaiid the remainder of the wounded were evacuated in the 1st Light Horse Field Ambulance transport and two Welsh ambulance convoys to El Arish, where they arrived at 6 p.m. Thence they were taken away to Kantara on January 12th by ambulance train, which now came within three miles of El Arish.
The total number of wounded from this action was 415 British and 162 Turks and Germans.