"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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Wednesday, 23 September 2009
Bir el Mazar, Sinai, 17 September 1916, Falls Account Topic: BatzS - El Mazar
Bir el Mazar
Sinai, 17 September 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 Romani and is extracted below.MacMunn, G. & Falls, C., Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1930), p. 245:
The first raid was directed against El Mazar, on the main coastwise track to El Arish. Here, it will be remembered, the enemy had left a post on his retirement after the Battle of Romani. The force was commanded by Major-General Chauvel and consisted of the 2nd and 3rd L.H. Brigades, three companies Imperial Camel Corps, two horse artillery batteries and two guns of the Hong Kong & Singapore Battery. The 1st L.H. Brigade followed and remained during the action 10 miles in rear. It assembled at Bir Salmana, 20 miles west of Mazar, on the 16th September, but the palm groves gave insufficient concealment, and it was attacked by German aeroplanes. The hope of surprising the garrison of Mazar, believed to be from five to seven hundred strong, had therefore to be abandoned. Nevertheless the column started that evening, marched through the night, and attacked the Turkish outposts at dawn on the 17th. But the place was found to be well fortified and its garrison thoroughly alert; the horse artillery, misled by its guide, was late; so General Chauvel, to the disappointment of his troops, decided to break off the action. Shortly afterwards the Turks withdrew their post from Mazar.
Bir el Mazar, Sinai, 17 September 1916, Idriess Account Topic: BatzS - El Mazar
Bir el Mazar
Sinai, 17 September 1916
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.
El Mazar, Sinai, September 17, 1916 Topic: BatzS - El Mazar
Sinai, 17 September 1916
Bir el Mazar looking towards the Mazar Hills in the distance.
There was a Turkish garrison at Bir el Mazar, only twenty miles short of El Arish on the direct track, believed to be 2200 strong and made up of Romani survivors. It was decided to mount an attack on this on 17 September, but there was no water supply for horses between Mazar and Salmana and it was necessary to improvise one to avoid a dry round trip of 37 miles. The mid-September weather was still hot.
Seven hundred camels no less, each carrying a twenty-gallon fantass of water, were to rendezvous with Chauvel's troops ten miles east of Salmana on their return journey. This was only one oddity in this untypical and, in the end, controversial operation.
On 15 September, Chauvel's three Australian brigades marched to Salmana. They were sighted there on the 16th and machine-gunned by a German aircraft which no doubt informed the garrison at Mazar of its discovery. After dark, the 2nd Brigade, now once more under Brigadier General Ryrie and the 3rd Brigade under Royston, marched on Mazar while the 1st Brigade followed about seven miles in rear.
The attack on Bir el Mazar.
[From: Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine.]
At dawn, Ryrie's 5th and 7th Regiments dismounted and advanced to within 700 yards north and west of the Turkish trenches. There was stiff resistance from enemy mountain batteries and rifles. The 3rd Brigade swept right round the position and began attacking it from the south and east so that the Turks were virtually defending on all sides, A battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps should have attacked with them, but was late due to a difficult passage through single-file gullies and soft sand.
That was the situation soon after daylight, according to Gullett's Official History. Despite the absence of the camels, all ranks were confident of carrying the position. They had carried harder ones. From this point, however, differences in reported events and perceptions appear in Gullett's account and Colonel Richardson's history of the 7th Regiment.
Richardson said the regiment was checked close to the Mazar ruins where the enemy was strongly entrenched in commanding positions, but it seemed possible to assault the place and preparations were in progress, Then the 7th received a message that the 3rd Brigade had been held up and was withdrawing. 'Some of their troops crossed our frontage and being in close formation, received concentrated fire from the enemy and sustained a number of casualties. Our field guns had opened fire, but although the enemy were firing in plain view from our position, and messages were sent to that effect, no attempt was made to shell them.'
Gullett said that the Anzacs' field guns had not up to this time come into action, but Richardson said he saw them firing. According to Gullett, Royston had advised Chauvel of his 'unfavourable view of the project' and after the 3rd Brigade had been held up for 'nearly three hours', at 7 am Chauvel decided to break off the engagement. But Richardson sounds as it the 3rd Brigades withdrawal was a surprise to him: he was not preparing to leave, but was preparing to assault the enemy. This begs the question of whether the 7th got the message to break off at the same time.
When the order did come, the 7th could not leave the front line until they got a man, badly wounded in the abdomen, away in a sand cart. In the rescue three more men were wounded and 'our casualties for this ineffective little action were 1 killed 5 wounded: and two men subsequently died of wounds'. Richardson was not happy. 'As no bivouac had been indicated, it was presumed that Ge’eila would be the place, but we arrived there only to find it deserted. Much trouble was experienced watering the horses from buckets and at 8 p.m., it was decided to return to Salmana.' He concludes:
The Mazar stunt was most strenuous and tested the endurance of men whose vitality had been greatly decreased by the fighting, fatigue and heat of the last few months'. One suspects he wanted to add, 'for nothing'.
Gullett acknowledges the engagement was always afterwards referred to in terms of strong disapproval by regimental officers who participated. Not only officers. Idriess says:
'We retired at midday furious about it all, certain that a determined gallop would have ridden down the redoubts ... We swore at the Heads, whomever they might be. With this little lot, we should have eaten Mazar.'
It seems that different beholders, Rashomon-like, interpreted the same things in different ways, and as a whole the abortive battle could be seen in two ways. Either as an unimportant sideshow, not worth the sacrifice of any more lives, or, however it was, the Light Horse should not have been committed if it was not intended to win. The withdrawal diminished their proud service.
Chauvel has absolute right to the last word. He had categorical orders from General Lawrence that if 'the garrison was not taken by surprise and overrun in the first rush, he was to consider the operation a reconnaissance in force and withdraw'. On no account was he to seriously involve his brigades. When 'Galloping Jack' Royston, the last man in the army to vacillate before unfavourable odds, took a poor view of his chances after being held up for three hours, Chauvel’s duty was clear to him. He would doubtless also have been influenced by the wretched prospects for his wounded, so far from aid, should the engagement prove expensive. He acted, and a commander in battle does not argue his case.
Returning from Mazar riding in Artillery Formation.
But there could be no equivocation over the scheme for watering the horses. It was a shambles.
That the 700 camels were in place and on time says something for the project, but the watering of 3000 desperate horses calls for expert handling, experience and skill. The Light Horse had their own methods and equipment, in which long canvas troughs were instrumental, but the supply camels carried only buckets. At one or two horses per bucket, it seems an entangling, burdensome method, even with quiet and biddable animals. Idriess described it:
By Jove. I was thirsty. The heat of the sand rose up to a man's face.
After another nine miles, we were surprised to see a long convoy of camels coming towards us between the hills. I don't know whether the horses sighted the fantasses or smelt the water in them but a faint ripple of neighing, seldom heard now, broke out down the column. Horses threw up their heads, open-mouthed, sniffing eagerly...
We met the convoy - the horses went mad - they rushed it - at sight of the water we could not hold them - they swarmed like mad things, pawing, panting, jostling, straining. Two of us held back the sections horses while the other two vied around the fantasses for water, but immediately we got our buckets full, all horses rushed us. A dozen gasping mouths into one bucket, struggling animals, shouting men, rattling of stirrup irons, pressure of horses' bodies, spilled water - open-mouthed men trying to catch the splashes - plunging circle after circle around each fantass, horse holders with straining arms finally dragged over the sand ... the horses struggled to lick wet sand, frantic-eyed, swollen-tongued.
There was not sufficient water - not even a squadron in our regiments got a drink! And the regiments coming behind - there had been other regiments in front.
The regiment pushed on rapidly and ... passed all the Camel Corps making for water, water, water! How my bones ached! I thanked Christ when the sun went down. Eventually, we saw lights among the black palms of Salmana. The horses were frantic - they couldn't go faster than they did. Within the oasis, spelling troops had filled the water troughs - the horses rushed these troughs, their heads in rows went down, stayed down. We could not drag them away. They felt like the weight of elephants. The water was brackish, too.
Two days later, the Turks abandoned Mazar. Some strange imperative caused them to throw away the fruits of victory: this was the third time.
Ottoman military cemetery at Mazar.
Extracted from the book produced by Lindsay Baly, Horseman, Pass By, East Roseville, N.S.W. : Simon & Schuster, 2003, Ch. 6.
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