"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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Wady Fara, an action fought on 21 September 1918 north-east of Nablus, Palestine, following Allied successes in the battles of Sharon and Nablus (q.v.), chiefly remembered for providing an early and graphic demonstration of the destructive effects of air power against ground troops. After Allied mounted troops had burst through the Turkish defensive line north of Jaffa on 19 September and pushed rapidly north towards Haifa as well as east towards Lake Tiberias, the Turkish Seventh Army in positions around Nablus faced being surrounded unless it withdrew east across the River Jordan. The main escape route was along an old Roman road which followed the precipitous valleys of the Wady Beidan and Wady Fara, much of it bounded by steep barren hills and sheer drops.
Map detailing the route taken by the Turks through Wadi Fara
Shortly before 6 a.m. on the 21st, a reconnaissance patrol of two Bristol Fighter aircraft from No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, sighted huge enemy columns streaming away from Nablus along this route. They immediately swooped down to attack, scoring five direct bomb hits on transport vehicles and expending 600 rounds of machine-gun fire into the mass of troops, horses and wagons. A Turkish retreat in this direction was fully anticipated, so that one of the Bristol machines had been specially fitted with a radio and given instructions to signal the map reference of any suitable target found. The remainder of No. 1 Squadron at Ramleh, twenty kilometres south-east of Jaffa, and the 40th (Army) Wing of the Royal Air Force-commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Richard Williams of the AFC and comprising another three squadrons of DH9 bombers and SE5a fighters - were standing by with bombs fitted (a total of 70-80 aircraft). No sooner had the scouts' report been received than arrangements were begun to send off flights of three or four machines at intervals which ensured that one group was always arriving over the target as the previous lot departed. Williams' orders were for the aircraft to bomb singly, beginning at the head of the column and moving back along it.
The attack, having begun at 6.30-7 a.m., continued until midday. The Australian No. 1 Squadron alone dropped three tonnes of bombs and expended nearly 24,000 machine-gun bullets. In addition to the aircraft under Williams' command, machines from the RAF's 5th (Corps) Wing also took part-making a total of seven squadrons which were involved in the action.
The result was as chilling as it was decisive, amounting to the complete disintegration of the bulk of the Turkish Seventh Army. The nature of the terrain allowed little movement off the road except on foot or, in places, on horseback, so that the mass of wheeled transport simply had nowhere to go. In the words of Cutlack, the official historian:
The panic and the slaughter beggared all description. The long, winding, hopeless column of traffic was so broken and wrecked ... that the bombing machines gave up all attempt to estimate the losses under the attack, and were sickened of the slaughter. In all the history of war there can be few more striking records of wholesale destruction.
When the scene was reached by British ground forces the next day the enemy materiel collected was found to total 87 artillery pieces and nearly 1,000 vehicles of all descriptions. Casualties among the estimated 7,000 Turkish troops in the column were not established, but were undoubtedly heavy. The British loss was two aircraft, one of these being a DH9 aircraft of No. 144 Squadron, RAF, which was not believed to have been a casualty of enemy fire.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 160-161.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
F. M. Cutlack (1923) The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War 1914 - 1918, Sydney: Angus & Robertson
Sir Richard Williams (1977) These are facts, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
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