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The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, Magdhaba and Kress Topic: BatzS - Magdhaba
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
Magdhaba and Kress
The following is an article written by Bill Woerlee1 called Magdhaba and Kress which was first published in Sabretash, the Journal of the Military History Association of Australia, December 2008 edition.
El Arish to Beersheba
[Map produced by Bill Woerlee, 2008]
[Map extracted from: Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 - 1918, 10th edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941, Chapter 14.]
Magdhaba and Kress by Bill Woerlee
Turkish Military Staff at Magdhaba
[Library of Congress Photograph 13700/13709/00057u]
Unpleasant and serious concerns for Christmas! If the British at Magdhaba decided to go onto el Auja and Beersheba, there was nothing in their way to stop them. The way to Jerusalem was open to the enemy. I raised the alarm and sent units to Beersheba and el Auja by lorry and marching. I was upset over losing our poor comrades around Christmas but it did not change things. On the early morning of 24 I went back to Beersheba. There I received the reassuring message that the British had ridden back to El Arish during the night of 23 to 24. They were obviously satisfied with a local success.2
With this quick summary, General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein,3 passed his judgement over the Allied victory at Magdhaba on 23 December 1916 led by General Chauvel 4 and men from the Anzac Mounted Division.5 At the heart of this comment was the accusation by Kress that Chauvel failed to vigorously exploit the victory at Magdhaba by capturing Beersheba and then possibly Jerusalem, all of which, according to Kress, were available for seizure with little difficulty. In the mind of Kress, such an action was something a competent German General might have undertaken given similar circumstances. Alternatively, the judgement by Kress might be seen as an effort to deflect attention away from his evident failure to provide Magdhaba with adequate means to resist an attack.
This paper aims to examine the validity of this assessment in light of the information and resources available to Chauvel when the Battle of Magdhaba concluded. Included are all logistical and combat resources at El Arish and Magdhaba, coupled with the signals, intelligence reports, threat assessments, post battle reports, and other information that could shape a decision at 4.30 pm, 23 December 1916.
The story of the battle at Magdhaba had its genesis in events that unfolded some two weeks before as the Egyptian Expeditionary Force contemplated a battle against the Turks at El Arish.6
In the Sinai, Djemal7 Pasha’s8 forces were in disarray when the movement of the British railway line reached a point about 20 km west of El Arish. Turkish strategy was to keep a full day’s march from the rail head in order to avoid any contact with the overwhelming numbers of Allied infantry. Since the railway line progressed at an average rate of about 1.5 kilometres per day,9 this gave the Turkish General Staff a good timetable for the Allied rate of advance towards El Arish. The Turkish forces facing the Allied advance numbered some 7,000 combat troops, a force about one third of those available to the Allies. The numerical inferiority meant that they could only play a passive delaying and harassing role rather than an active counter attacking function. While they counted off the Allied railway kilometres, the Turks understood that their occupation of El Arish was only tentative to the extent that the timetable for eviction was dependent upon the work rate performed by the Egyptian Labour Corps which was tied to the slow supply of rail lines. Finally, the day arrived when the railway and all its incumbent potential threats forced a decision upon the El Arish garrison.
By about 15 December 1916, spirited debate erupted between the Ottoman General Staff in Constantinople and the field Generals regarding the best strategy to pursue at El Arish. By necessity it was a slow debate via a telegraph line as no telephone lines existed. All telegrams needed to be encoded, then transmitted by Morse Code, then decoded. If a mistake was made in the coding it created havoc and delayed the conversation even further.
Under these great communications difficulties, the Generals attempted to deal with the crisis facing them. Three options lay before the Generals: to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Allied forces as they had done at Romani in April; to hold on with an energetic defence and retreat as occurred at Bir el Abd and Bir el Mazar; or, to withdraw without offering battle.10 The Turkish compromise decision of 16 December was to retreat without offering battle and thus preserve their forces while simultaneously leaving a strong rear guard to form a garrison at Magdhaba, some 32 km south east of el Arish. The final role of the Magdhaba garrison was to be determined at some later time.
The key function allotted to Magdhaba by the Ottoman forces was to serve as an intermediate freight point between El Auja and El Arish. To furnish protection and a labour force, it was garrisoned by about 300 troops from the 80th IR (Infantry Regiment). Freight movement was facilitated a 600mm gauge light railway or tramway line, commonly known as a decauville line. The rail link extended from the rail terminus at El Auja, Palestine, through to Magdhaba. While not possessing any Decauville locomotives, it was serviced by some 380 horse and camel drawn freight trolleys. 11
After the decision to withdraw from El Arish transpired, Turkish engineering troops began removing the line. Since the track was constructed with ready-made sections of light, narrow gauge track fastened to steel sleepers, the track was portable and easily disassembled for transport. By 23 December, the line had been removed from Magdhaba to Abu Aweigila leaving the garrison in an isolated position although the small supply depot at Um Shihan remained.
On 17 December, the order was given to withdraw the El Arish garrison of about 7,00012 men and reform this force along the massive earthen fortifications completed beside the Wadi Ghuzze and pivoted upon the headquarters at El Shellal. A force of about a thousand Syrians would remain at Magdhaba while the balance of some 6,000 men would make the full round journey. The intent was to bolster the defences of Magdhaba from this Syrian force who were predominantly from the 80th IR. The Turks withdrawing from El Arish began their trek through Magdhaba and then onto El Auja and subsequently to their points of concentration, a journey of about 190 km which for the infantry, meant a about a seven-day march. Supply depots were maintained along the marching route to ensure sufficient rations were available, thus enabling the men to march with the lightest possible loads. The marching timetable was staggered to avoid congestion along the route with the last troops scheduled to depart from El Arish on 20 December.13 The reason for taking the circular route rather than the coastal road lay more with protection of the withdrawing force from any harassment by the British navy which was very effective in delivering devastating cannonades upon targets of opportunity to distances of up to 15 km inland. Kress ordered the revival the old defensive perimeter at Magdhaba which in the past was based upon five redoubts interconnected with trenches.14 The fortifications had fallen into disuse and the repeated kamseens had filled the trenches with sand. The immediate task was to remove the, an undertaking that remained incomplete when Allied forces arrived six days later.
The force defending Magdhaba was commanded by Kadri Bey, the CO (Commanding Officer) of the 80th IR, a Regiment that was administratively allotted to the 27th ID (Infantry Division) although it was attached to the 3rd ID for the most part of 1916. The primary force consisted of two under-strength battalions of about 600 men each.15 There were the 2/80th Battalion commanded by Izzet Bey and the 3/80th Battalion commanded by Rushti Bey. Counted in this force was one curious, and in the end fateful, decision to leave at Magdhaba a token force of a platoon16 from the 80th MGC (Machine Gun Company) who were armed with only one machine gun. The balance of the company consisting of three platoons, each armed with a machine gun, was sent to Shellal.17 The force was supported by a Mountain Battery of four outdated Krupps 7.5cm Gebirgskanone M 1873 guns on loan from the 1st Mountain Regiment as the full 80th IR artillery battery was, at that moment, stationed at Nekhl. Added to Magdhaba garrison was a camel company without camels and a number of other military service units.18 The majority of the men at Magdhaba were Syrian conscripts who did not possess the same commitment to the war as the Anatolian Turks and so were viewed by their Ottoman officers as being of lower quality and dubious loyalty.19 Contrary to this Ottoman belief and to the credit of the men, they bravely withstood the Allied onslaught for over eight hours.
At the time Magdhaba was being garrisoned, the force was given only 40 horses and 51 camels,20 a number barely sufficient to undertake supply work for the 1,400 men stationed at Magdhaba, indicating that raiding the Allied line was, for the moment, a low priority. More than likely, the task assigned to Magdhaba was to primarily withstand an attack as part of a rear guard force. One other role seemed to be assigned to Magdhaba which related to the string of garrisons forming the Turkish left flank Sinai occupation force. The main garrisons included Nekhl and el Kossaima. If the Magdhaba garrison lingered after the completed withdrawal of the Suez Canal Expeditionary force, then its role would become more of a political statement that the Ottoman forces remained in Egypt. Their role would be moot as the isolated garrisons could perform no useful military function. The Generals could not make their minds up on this matter leaving the role of Magdhaba ill defined and confused.
Kress inspected the garrison at Magdhaba on 22 December 1916 and made the following observations:
… I drove from el Auja to Magdhaba, in order to visit the regiment. There were five substantial redoubts constructed with minor communication trenches that surrounded the garrison. Like everywhere, unfortunately it was missing war material necessary to create obstacles. … I was satisfied with the spirit and health of these troops and the arrangements made. 21
Kress recognised the weakness of the force but gambled upon an even weaker response from any attacking Allied cavalry. The assumption relied upon the distance and lack of water resources between El Arish and Magdhaba making it difficult for any cavalry to sustain itself in the field over a longer period than a day. After that, any attack would be called off. To ensure the lack of water, the Turks destroyed the wells at Bir el Lahfan, about 15 km south east of El Arish along the banks of Wadi El Arish, about halfway between Magdhaba and El Arish. Results from the Turkish demolition were discovered by the men of the 3rd Squadron from the Auckland Mounted Rifles22 early in the morning of 22 December.23
Reinforcing Kress’s belief in a weak Allied response was German and Ottoman contempt for the leadership qualities displayed by the officers with the Anzac Mounted Division. The last few months were packed with examples. After the successful 9th LHR (Light Horse Regiment) action at Bir Hamisah on 5 August 1916 leading to its capture, General Antill24 of the 3rd LH Bde (Light Horse Brigade) remained satisfied with a good local victory. Unfortunately, through resting upon the result for whatever reason, Antill failed to develop the result of the victory by cutting off the enemy's line of retreat northwards.25 This tactical failure allowed over two thirds of the Ottoman forces engaged in the battle to escape. Similarly, without proper scouting Chauvel, ordered the Anzac Mounted Division into an attack that almost proved disastrous as the men rode straight into a bog which the Turks had transformed into a well laid out killing zone.26 Good fortune avoided a slaughter. The Allied victory at Romani is still a matter of debate as to whether it was won by the Allies or conceded by Kress when the Ottoman troops retreated. The subsequent victories at Bir el Abd, Bir el Mazar and now El Arish were created by Turkish withdrawals as part of the Kress fighting withdrawal strategy rather than by Allied battlefield ability or victories.
Also the actual reason for General Chetwode27 emphatically ordering the attack on Magdhaba remains part of the historical debate. Chauvel’s plan was to move on and attack Turkish concentrations either at Magdhaba or Rafa with the sole object of expelling the last Ottoman troops from Egyptian soil. Chetwode sent Chauvel a letter on 21 December with orders to prepare for an attack on Magdhaba for 23 December.28 The situation was crystallised with the confirmation of the orders when Chetwode landed by boat at El Arish at 10 a.m. on 22 December.29
The three Brigades Anzac Mounted Division, and Camel Brigade (less one Battalion) were to march that evening as soon as they had drawn supplies and move via Magdhaba on Abu Aweigila and Ruafa with the object of capturing as many enemy remaining there. The force to return as soon its mission was accomplished ... These orders were handed to the Anzac Mounted Division.30
Chetwode’s orders were clear about the objectives. In addition to the specific locations, the orders were in line with the military doctrine exercised by the mounted troops during the Sinai Campaign. They were to engage the Ottoman forces for a day and then to withdraw regardless of outcome. Chauvel was expressly ordered never to deliberately expose the light horsemen in combat engagements that would potentially incur large numbers of casualties. The men were too valuable as mobile troops and more pragmatically, very difficult to replace.
One apparent factor influencing Chetwode was a piece of information which had just come to hand. The British Intelligence section had decoded a Turkish message, dated 21 or 22 December, ordering the Magdhaba garrison to withdraw to El Auja. 31 This made Magdhaba an easy target as the garrison would be preparing to retreat rather than to fight and so their capture would be a good propaganda coup, an essential part of selling the ubiquity of British power to the local inhabitants. General Dawnay32 was emphatic on the propaganda value of quickly capturing places like Magdhaba and Rafa. He wrote a memo about the underlying British Sinai strategy in a letter to the CO Desert Column. He says:
The actual results to be achieved by our operations in Northern Sinai must depend very largely on their moral effect. It will be necessary at all costs to try to give the enemy - and not only the enemy but also the Arab population in Southern Syria near the Egyptian Frontier - an exaggerated impression of our mobility and power to strike. 33
Supporting the intelligence report detail is the action of Kadri Bey who managed to send most of his baggage train and non essential personnel to El Auja before the Allied forces arrived,34 an action indicating an impending withdrawal. In contrast, the message decoded by British Intelligence appears dissimilar to Kress’s commentary since he makes no mention about withdrawing the garrison subsequent to his visit on 22 December.
The attack on Magdhaba was undertaken the next day, 23 December, after an all-night march by the Allied force. Chauvel employed a classic encirclement of Magdhaba to prevent retreat. Since the encirclement perimeter was too far for a mounted division to effectively envelop, the thinly held parts of the line proved to be porous, with small groups of Turks slipping through the cordon almost at will, a fact that Chauvel's air scouts reported upon with regularity.
Another weakness of the encirclement tactic was the inability to concentrate forces at any one critical point for a decisive assault. This happened to Chauvel as the numbers committed to the encirclement meant the troops were unable to concentrate sufficiently to make headway in specific attacks for most of the day. The Ottoman forces vigorously beat off any attack that did form. So energetic was the defenders’ shooting that most contemporary Australian Regimental war diaries and the subsequent post war unit histories mention the formations receiving fire from many Turkish machine guns. In fact, as already mentioned, the Turks had only one machine gun at Magdhaba. At 2.50 p.m., after a futile day which produced some casualties but achieved nothing by way of gain, Chauvel sent out the following order to his generals:
As enemy still hold out and horses must be watered the action will be broken off and the Force withdrawn. Each Brigade will be responsible for its own protection during the withdrawal. Hour of withdrawal to begin at 1500.35
So there it was in black and white. The overall attack failed and was to be called off at 3 p.m.. If the withdrawal had occurred at the time ordered by Chauvel, Kress’s belief in his plan for the defence of Magdhaba, with all its incumbent assumptions, would have been vindicated.
9th Light Horse Regiment’s final charge at Magdhaba
[Picture taken by Lieut.-Col. WH Scott, CO 9th LHR]
But battle plays cruel tricks on assumptions. Small actions can sometimes have large consequences swinging a battle either way. In this case, the victory hung entirely upon a simple action. General “Fighting” Charlie Cox36 of the 1st LH Bde anticipated the contents in the message he was about to receive from the oncoming messenger. Instead of receiving the message and reading it, Cox is reputed to have said to the messenger: “Take that damned thing away and let me see it for the first time in half an hour!”37 Just prior to this, he had ordered his men to conduct one final assault upon the key Ottoman No. 1 Redoubt. This was his last throw of the dice. Fail and he would be censured for disobeying an order. Cox’s men did not fail him. In company with the Imperial Camel Corps their attack led to a breakthrough and subsequent surrender by the defenders of the redoubt. From there on, the defence perimeter for the Turks began to unravel. In rapid succession, the second redoubt to fall was captured by the 1st LH Bde - 2nd and 3rd LHRs. This brought with it the capture of Kadri Bey and the collapse of any coordinated resistance. The final coup de main was administered by the 3rd LH Bde along with the NZMRB (New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade) which brought about the collapse of the entire garrison. Organised resistance ended at about 4.40 p.m.. which resulted in the capture of some 1,280 men.38 The day’s desultory battle was quickly turned into a victory for the Allied forces. Cox’s covert disobedience of Chauvel’s orders brought success through an action that was soon to become part of the Light Horse legend.
It was at this point that Chauvel was on the cusp of the idea outlined by Kress. Even if Chauvel did not appreciate the scale of the victory at Magdhaba, there were still two further objectives as part of the orders, the drive further southwards to Abu Aweigila and Ruafa.39 There is no record of Chauvel seeking to amend his orders to cancel this action and yet he did so with the approval of Chetwode.
Contact with senior levels of command was not a problem had Chauvel sought to capture Abu Aweigila and Ruafa. The signallers had utilised the functional Turkish telegraph line to establish a telephone link between Chetwode in El Arish and Chauvel at Magdhaba which was used to give almost real time status reports of the battle. No contact difficulties existed between Chauvel and Cairo due to the excellent communication lines established indicating that orders could be changed and approved at the highest level. Extraordinarily, nothing of the sort transpired on the day.
Had the orders been amended, the rapid despatch of a Light Horse Brigade with an artillery battery to Abu Aweigila, an hour’s ride away, would have sufficient force to encircle and sever its communications with El Auja. Because of night fall, securing surrender might have taken until the following morning to although judging by the timidity displayed by the officer in command during the day, 40 once the arrival of Allied troops occurred making his position unambiguous, there was every chance of a quick surrender that evening. This would have added to the magnitude of the Turkish defeat and given the mounted troops access to another excellent source of water. For the Turkish Command, the lack of action was a reprieve. The failure to follow up by the Allies meant that once the fall of Magdhaba became known, this combat force at Abu Aweigila remained available to the Turks and so was ordered to withdraw to El Auja to bolster its defences, an action undertaken the following day.41
By 6pm on 23 December 1916 for Chauvel and his force, the situation was positive in every sense. They had an abundance of water with relatively few casualties.42 There was sufficient water and captured tibbin43 to supply the animals. Flushed with a victory, morale was sky high. In every way, the Division was fresh and able to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The men also had a further day’s supply of iron rations in case of supply shortages.
Re-supply for the division after the action at Magdhaba was always going to be a logistical nightmare. The rapidity of the advance had almost over run the capacity of the Supply Corps to cope with the situation. The main supply base prior to the push to El Arish was established at Kilo 149 along the rail line. It was able to supply the men with the basic needs but little more.44 The tenuous nature of the supply situation was illustrated when the Prisoners of War from Magdhaba began to arrive at El Arish. To ensure the provisioning of Turkish rations on 24 December the men from the 52nd Lowland Scottish Division were forced to go on half rations for the day. The Scots were upset but put up with the inconvenience with good cheer.
Supplying El Arish by sea was a difficult affair with stores being put ashore in boats and lighters. Until the rail head arrived in January 1917, this operation was overseen by Admiral Wemyss. By 23 December, a large consignment of stores had been delivered on that day. Following that day, however, the necessity of rapid re-supply trailed off as the rail line neared El Arish and only 1,500 tons arrived by sea during the following fortnight. 45 Had there been an imperative to land supplies to support a drive to Beersheba, then the supplies would have been available in the quantities that arrived on 23 December rather than in the capricious manner they were delivered once high demand through combat activity diminished while the railway was being built. Lack of urgent demand gave Chetwode the luxury of sending men to the rail head for supply purposes until the railway reached El Arish.
On the evening of 23 December, supplies for any further offensive action were available in quantities sufficient to maintain the division in the field without anything lavish added. At 4.30 p.m., Chauvel had already arranged for a convoy to re-supply the troops remaining for the post battle clean up46 indicating that there was excess supply capacity available at El Arish to allocate to an expedition. If despatched from El Arish at about 6 p.m., the camel convoy would have arrived at Magdhaba at about 3 a.m., in time to deliver supplies essential for a 6 a.m. start. Even if such a convoy did not make it in time, there was sufficient ammunition available for one more battle.47 In addition there was the captured war material in the way of four fully supplied mountain guns, 1,000 rifles and 100,000 rounds of small arms ammunition which went some way to replenishing the supplies.
Initial re-supply as a stop gap measure, could have been accomplished by a camel supply convoy. The despatch of GSW wagons from Kilo 149 would have meant that it would take about three days to travel to El Auja. The despatch of motorised transport, which was obviously much faster, would have assisted the situation. The lack of lorries made it difficult as supply officers were loath to make these precious vehicles available. The movement of lorries to any offensive activity would have required the direct intervention from Murray to ensure they were available.
At El Arish, things moved at a rapid pace. The 52nd Lowland Scottish Division was already in occupation with two other infantry divisions to follow when the occupation was certain. If the attack on Beersheba was to go ahead, it would have been the time to despatch a brigade of infantry. The march to Magdhaba was the standard infantry route march distance for one day.
Travelling conditions from El Arish to Beersheba via Magdhaba and El Auja were excellent. The main road was metalled - being some 4.5m wide with a 3m usable driving surface residing on a 30cm camber with spoon drains dug on each side. 48 The roads were suitable for the standard GS (General Service) wagon used by the ASC (Army Supply Corps). In addition, to cope with camel and horse traffic, the Turks had constructed a separate and parallel earthen road which was softer on the hooves, again with a slight camber and spoon drains on each side. Plentiful water was available over the whole length of the road to Beersheba. In assistance with re-supply was the decauville line from Abu Aweigila to El Auja and the rail link to Beersheba, thus cutting down a five day trek by the ASC on a GSW wagon to about two or three days. The journey meant travelling on 42 km of macadamised road with the balance undertaken by rail. The use of motorised transport, if it were made available, would cut the re-supply situation to one day. On 24 December, there were no motorised trucks at El Arish but if necessity required, they were able to be transferred the following day from Kilo 149.
The first leg, from Magdhaba to El Auja was about 42 km over reasonably flat countryside and excellent roads. In terms of timing, this translated into an eight-hour march by horse and for infantry, one and a half days march. A full mounted division employing the standard four man section line of column on the march is almost serpentine, creating a thin trail some 5.5 km in length. At any one point, it took the Division nearly 2.5 hours to pass. The lead regiment was able to take an hour’s break for a meal and water the horses and be on the move before the tail of the division caught up. Although carrying a weight of 115kg including rider, food and equipment,49 horses were treasured and so well looked after by the men. The standard march for the Light Horse was 40 minutes with the horse walking, 10 minutes with the rider walking next to the horse for the cool down and 10 minutes rest. At this rate, a march moved at the rate of about 5.7 km per hour. Watering a horse every six hours kept it fit although at times they could be without water for a couple days before being completely knocked up.
After a short march from Magdhaba to Abu Aweigila to join up with the detached brigade, the division would be able to march onto the next well at Um Shihan where there was only a small Ottoman outpost of about a platoon whose express purpose of keeping the supply lines open. Again, after the surrender of Abu Aweigila, a squadron could have been despatched to take over this outpost for a quick capture. At Um Shihan, the horses could be watered and the troops have a meal. Assisting the forward movement from Um Shihan to El Auja was the remainder of the decauville line. Quite a few trolleys still remained at Um Shihan in anticipation of withdrawing the Magdhaba garrison.
The ruins of El Auja Station and surrounding countryside, c. 2005
[Photograph by courtesy of Jackob Zilberstein]
El Auja was a larger settlement full of many substantial masonry buildings, with the dominant structure being the railway station. The railway line north to Palestine and Syria began at El Auja. Since steam trains used huge amounts of water, engineers had constructed a water tower and a well to supply the water requirements of the trains. The intelligence report stated:
Abundant supply for fully 12,000 men from two wells, water which was run into tanks by two motor engines through 4cm pipes. Water was down some 30m in the ground.50
The number of troops at El Auja consisted of at least one company from the 1/80th Battalion and various service units who were in the main, non combat soldiers.51 One major group of non-combat soldiers were attached to the field hospital which at the beginning of December included about 100 tents. There appears to have been no machine guns or field guns at El Auja as these were being despatched by train from about 20 December onwards during the withdrawal. It appears that the last withdrawing combat troops along with eight field guns were entrained on 23 December at the same time when Magdhaba was besieged.52
The number of troops in transit at El Auja was unknown although various intelligence estimations gave numbers between 1,350 to 3,000 men.53 Calculating the exact numbers troops at El Auja on 24 December is made difficult due to the lack of adequate and existing Turkish records. Those who remained were mainly with the non combat formations and usually non essential units such as the baggage trains, field hospitals, engineers and the transport staff, all of whom were awaiting transport to Palestine. The role of the protective troops was to arrange an orderly departure for the remaining units and secure the area from any local population who might seize the opportunity to pilfer. This explains the nub of Kress’s panic regarding El Auja as there were few combat troops available for defensive work.
As with the garrison at Abu Aweigila, it is doubtful if this defensive force was prepared for or even capable of withstanding a sustained battle. The buildings were all situated upon flat and open grounds while the area surrounding El Auja was gently undulating which gave an attacking force the advantage of approaching the settlement without being easily seen or presenting simple targets. The lack of entrenchments meant that any hastily built sandbag redoubt could be speedily put out of action by the accurate fire from Royal Horse Artillery. This deficiency was made up after 24 December with hasty entrenchments being dug. But this is for the future when no attack occurred. The Allied force arriving in the afternoon of 24 December at El Auja would have caught the garrison without any protective redoubts or entrenchments to resist an attack.
Apart from being the obvious jumping off point to capture Beersheba, another benefit arising from capturing El Auja would be the folding up of the small Ottoman garrisons dotted in the Sinai but dependent upon El Auja for supplies. The largest was at El Kossaima, a garrison of 300 Turks, 80 Syrians, 2 field guns, and 1 machine gun. 54 Once isolated, these small outposts would surrender upon their own volition through exhaustion of supplies as there was no escape from the fierce desert which they would have to cross in order to reach the Hejaz Railway some 112 km to the east.
At El Auja, after a meal and a few hours sleep, a night march would be necessary to ensure the element of surprise at Beersheba. It would be prudent at this stage to follow the railway line from El Auja to Beersheba as it would ensure a close supply of water all along the way. Stations with water tanks began with Wadi el Abiad and then Thamilat el Rashi where there was a siding, four large stone buildings and three rail lines to allow shunting. Next was Bir el Asluj at Wadi Rakhama where the key feature included a 1.5m diameter stone-lined well some 15m deep coupled by two similar wells nearby although the wells’ water quality was suspect. For a good place to rest and water the horses, Bir el Asluj was the most ideal place. The horses needed to be refreshed to take on the final part of the journey. Success at Beersheba meant water for the horses while failure meant a walk back to Bir el Asluj. There were another two small stations and then Beersheba.
The total distance from El Auja to Beersheba was 64 km; a twelve-hour march by horse along the road near the permanent way supplied with plentiful water all the way. The march from Magdhaba to Beersheba, 107 km, would have been extremely taxing on both man and beast reaching nearly the limits of physical endurance by the time Beersheba was reached. While difficult, it was well within the Allied Light Horse ability. The men of the division undertook similar rides during the September 1918 actions without any negative consequences to the efficiency of the divisions.
An alternative high risk and more direct route also existed from Auja via Khalasa to Beersheba, a distance of about 50 km or a nine hour-march, which shaved 14 km and three hours off the trek. The major risk was the lack of certain water along the route with Khalasa as the only place holding a well of any significance. The supply was sufficient for about 1,000 camels per day55 but insufficient for a cavalry division at that time,56 although it was very suitable for a fast moving striking force or a flanking guard of two regiments. These could be used to quickly reach Beersheba and feel out the defence while taking decisive action if the circumstances allow.
The highest risk alternative was to entrain a squadron with four machine gun sections on the captured rolling stock and send it to Beersheba station. This would allow the capture of the most strategically important position in one quick thrust. The station capture would split Beersheba’s defences down the middle severing the right flank from the left. It would also lay into their hands more rolling stock which could be quickly employed in bringing up more squadrons. The railway line lent itself to simple defence able to bring enfilading fire should an attack threaten. The advantage of this move would be to sow complete confusion in the Turkish defensive system which would allow the Division to approach almost unmolested, especially from the air. This audacious alternative promised the most return but also the move with the highest risk. If anything went wrong, and there was high potential for many things to go wrong, then the squadron was lost or neutralised requiring rescue.
For the Ottomans, Beersheba itself was not highly prized as a garrison, although it was useful for air reconnaissance due to its air strip and also served as a supply depot. At the opening of the Third Battle of Gaza, 31 October 1917, it was a pawn which they were happy to sacrifice while holding up the Allied advance. By about 3 p.m. on the day of the Allied attack, the Turkish forces were in the process of withdrawing from Beersheba and abandoning the town, some two hours before the famous charge occurred. The defensive systems were in the hills behind Beersheba and not the town itself. This defensive line was buttressed on the towns of Tel esh Sheria and Huj, both provided excellent bases upon which to occupy the natural ramparts of the Southern Palestinian hills. It was no different in December 1916. Most its active combat forces were stripped by the Turks and transferred to Khan Yunis and Gaza.57 The remaining infantry companies at Beersheba were sufficient only to perform local guard functions but with great difficulty could engage in defensive work. After a token resistance at the southern entrance of the town, they would withdraw to the hills overlooking Beersheba. The tough combat would be involved in winkling out the various outposts dotted over the hills which would threaten any occupying force.
The march from Magdhaba to Beersheba would take two days. The men had sufficient rations for this time period while there was more than enough water for man and beast. Beersheba was a busy camel-trading post housing many camel dealers and fodder yards. Horses were also traded in some quantity so tibbin stocks were always at a high level. Surrounding the town were fields of wheat. Supplies presented little problem. Should their rations give out, meals of grilled goat, hommos and tabouli might present a pleasant alternative to biscuit, bully beef and onions, their staple.
Air cover from 34 aircraft was also readily available.58 The Royal Flying Corps 5th Wing stationed at Mustabig was specifically ordered to provide close air support, long range scouting and long range strategic bombing to support the attack on Magdhaba. This Wing was a composite formation with the No. 14 (British) Squadron and the No. 67 (Australian) Squadron. It had an array of different aircraft to perform specialist tasks. The scouting role was to keep a close watch upon Beersheba, El Auja and Abu Aweigila and provide updated estimates of Turkish strength and troop movements in response to the attack at Magdhaba. The rough air strip by Chauvel’s Headquarters was busy with aircraft landing and taking off. At any one time, there were up to four aircraft on the ground.59 One other task was to bomb the airfield at Beersheba to render it unusable for aircraft. During the attack at Magdhaba, the 14th Squadron demonstrated both its scouting skills by giving reliable Ottoman troop information in almost real time while also dropping six 100lb bombs and over a hundred 16lb and 20lb bombs. The effective range of air cover was sufficient to provide a defensive covering air arc over the projected line of advance.
But Christmas Day at Beersheba was one that brought with it all the advantages that a lucky field general could ever wish for when things are going well. In the evening winter came to Palestine. The heavens opened up and it rained heavily with some hail storms. It was so heavy around Beersheba that the roads were impassable for all wheeled transport which meant that there was no likelihood of any reinforcements to support a depleted garrison. If Beersheba fell on Christmas Day then the division was safely under shelter protected by both rain and rifles while at El Auja would have been a brigade of infantry and additional artillery being entrained for Beersheba with the prospect of more artillery support and brigades in transit. While the vehicles could not move across country the train could still run. The rain may have been very uncomfortable for the reinforcing troops, unlike the Turks, there was no impediment to them arriving at Beersheba.
Upon the capture of Beersheba, one military prize would be a functioning air field complete with full aviation fuel tanks, captured Rumplers from the German 300 Flieger Abteilung60 which sat grounded on the soft soil as well as a group of very experience pilots. Once the soil dried out a couple days later, the airfield would be available for Allied aircraft to occupy and fly sorties.61 While the similar weather was experienced at El Arish, this weather did not spread throughout the operational theatre of the Sinai which allowed Allied aircraft to operate at will. The rain also meant that there would be ample surface water supplies for the horses in Wadi el Saba. With the onset of rain, the men who finished the march had every incentive to get the capture of Beersheba finished as quickly as possible so they could get under shelter with a warm fire.
So in terms of the Allies, an advance on Beersheba appears to have been possible. But the above only deals with one side. The Ottoman forces would not be idle. If Chauvel chose to undertake such an action the Turkish ability to respond requires examination.
For Kress, 24 December was a day of crisis. Until he was sure that the attack on Magdhaba was local, he knew the Turkish Beersheba defence perimeter was in trouble. The capture of El Auja would signal a possible movement to Beersheba and air reconnaissance would pick up the movement of the column, unless the Allied forces marched all night after taking El Auja. At that time, all the available Turkish formations were in the process of withdrawing to their allocated positions and so turning the regiments around for re-orientation would produce utter chaos without adding many men for defence. The earliest that any formation withdrawing from El Arish would be ready to undertake combat duties as a unit would have been 27 December leaving the immediately available forces for the defence of Beersheba were at Hebron and Tel esh Sheria whom were almost immediately trucked in when the news of Magdhaba was received by Kress.62 Apart from lack of numbers, the rain would prevent any movement of a force. A valuable day would be lost until the rains subsided and the roads were usable again. The composite force he was able to assemble immediately not amount to more than a couple of poorly trained companies of garrison troops ill prepared for mobile combat. In addition, there was a battery of Austrian howitzers available after 27 December. The effect of this artillery would be more harassing than being a threat since the counter battery ability of the Royal Horse Artillery was of high order. The howitzers would only be able to fire a few rounds and then move location or endure a counter barrage.
While the immediate forces faced may not have been great, nearby were the three regiments from the 3rd ID commanded by Refet Bey, arguably one of the best performing Turkish Generals in the Suez Canal Expeditionary Force during the campaigns of 1916. After being mauled by the Allies at Katia during the Romani offensive in August, the result was the loss of over fifty percent of its effective strength. Consequently, the Division was in the process of being transferred to Palestine for rest, reinforcement and refitting.63 Apart from the 32nd IR, the balance of the division appeared to be suffering from the chaos that accompanied reformation. Weather prevented any concentration of this force until 28 December. The Regiment would not be ready for such a commitment towards attacking the static defences at Beersheba was remote and in the circumstances, too late to be of any use. It was in no condition to seriously contest a fresh force of Allied cavalry and infantry in well defended positions.64
Due to the inclement weather commencing towards the evening of 25 December, the only method of transporting elements of battalion sized formations which required an extensive logistics train would be by rail. The men and baggage would detrain at Tel Esh Sheria, the only Ottoman military base and logical where a concentration troops could occur nearest to Beersheba. While there were excellent shunting facilities at Tel Esh Sheria, the single track leading into the assembly area would, by necessity, restrict the number of troop trains able to arrive at the station at any one time. Of course, this all assumes the ready availability of rolling stock, something that was very uncertain. Re-routing trains and rolling stock already in motion is a difficult task, indeed, almost impossible. Unless there were trains at various depots as a specific reserve, it would take a great deal of time to alter the schedules to requisition sufficient rolling stock to undertake the task.
Any movement towards Beersheba from Tel esh Sheria for infantry entailed a gruelling one day march over hilly terrain in the pouring rain. Until sufficient troops arrived, any frontline force would be relegated to scouting and outpost duty. Turkish attacks would have been futile and exposed the troops to unnecessary casualties. It is an optimistic assessment to estimate that sufficient forces for offensive purposes could be assembled within a week.
Once assembled in sufficient numbers to engage the troops at Beersheba, many valuable days would have elapsed granting the Allied troops time to consolidate their hold. However, it is doubtful if any Infantry Regiment could mount an adequate offensive. For pragmatic reasons and those discussed below, there is a very real possibility that only one Infantry Regiment might be deployed to contain the Allied force at Beersheba rather a whole division. This would be in line with the Turkish defensive doctrine of containing the superior forces of the Allied advance through small blocking engagements and so conceding territory in exchange of avoiding any major combat.
Most of Syrian based Turkish forces were committed to protecting the coastal lines of communication. This was particularly the case covering of the area adjacent to Gaza and Jaffa where divisions were tied to coastal defence. The constant raiding by the British Royal Navy seaplane carriers kept the fear of Allied invasion uppermost in the minds of the Ottoman General Staff, since it had been only a year since the Allied invasion of Gallipoli. This scarring experience of Gallipoli meant that the Turkish Army committed many divisions to the static defence of the coast. The Turkish forces would not be able to take the chance of releasing troops committed to coastal defence with a suspected outflanking seaborne invasion appearing on the coast. So while there were Ottoman forces at hand, they were very light in number for deployment in the defence of Beersheba.
Any move towards Beersheba would have caused consternation in the Ottoman forces. They would have to decide very quickly if the move by the mounted troops through El Auja was a feint or a real invasion. Their uncertainty would be increased by if this move to Beersheba was accompanied by coastal bombardments and air raids from British ships. The Ottomans did not have sufficient forces to cover both contingencies. Additionally, holding Beersheba would not remove the threat of sea invasion but instead reinforce the belief that such a move was part of an encircling strategy.65 Basically, the Ottoman forces would be paralysed until it was clear that there was no further offensive action from the Allied forces, by which time it would be too late to dislodge the Allied occupation of Beersheba.
Should such a daring thrust have been undertaken by Chauvel, Beersheba presented itself as a defensible citadel had it been captured on Christmas Day. With an additional battery of artillery coupled with ample supplies at Beersheba, a force of 7,000 men could have repulsed any attack mounted by the Turkish forces within the following month. As noted above, there was little likelihood of the Ottomans gathering a force of sufficient size to deal conclusively with the Allied force. During the period of initial occupation, it would have taken only 4 days for the first sizable infantry reinforcements to arrive from El Arish along with a protected and regular supply chain. The logistics train would be sheltered for exactly the same reasons it was shielded from the Allies the following year – the desert is a cruel place for anyone without water. The Allied forces did mount a successful raid to El Auja. This was conducted after rigorous scouting and engaging one Australian mounted division as a covering force. It was meticulously planned and carefully executed. In contrast, at the conclusion of 1916, due to the lack of developed water supplies en route, the logistical problem of moving a large formation of troops from El Shellal to El Auja in a flanking movement was beyond the ability of the Turkish forces. Within a week of occupation, the position of the Allied forces at the Beersheba garrison would have been unassailable.
For the Turkish forces, the threat of a flanking move to Rafa, as did happen on 9 January 1917, or a seaborne invasion would be even more probable rendering the fortifications at El Shellal untenable. The net result would have been the withdrawal of the Turkish forces to a fragile defensive line from Tel esh Sheria to Gaza, a position that similarly existed on 1 November 1917, 11 months later. Such a move would also greatly assist logistical operations since any rail construction need only cover an additional 80 kms from El Arish to El Auja, thereby adding to the combat capacity of any force based at Beersheba. Since the section from Um Shihan already possessed a permanent way, upgrading the decauville line to a heavy iron track suitable for trains could proceed as fast as the iron way was supplied taking less time than under normal circumstances. At the same time, preparations for an infantry push through Tel esh Sheria after the capture of Beersheba would threaten Gaza with encirclement and leave the city in an untenable situation. With the clarity of vision that hindsight produces, an assault on Beersheba appears possible with the result of bypassing Gaza which would avoid three costly and frustrating battles in 1917 and might well have shortened the war on this front by about a year.
General Murray66 had already clearly expressed a desire to see the capture of Beersheba some weeks prior to the capture of El Arish and Magdhaba. On 10 December, in an effort to outline his overall strategic goals Murray sent a cable to General Robertson67 where he said:
Occupation of this place would, moreover, have advantage of placing me on a railway. At Beersheba I should be only 70 miles from the Hejaz Line, against which my aircraft could co-operate daily. Further, I cannot but think our appearance at Beersheba would result in a rising of Arab population in southern Syria, who are known to be very disaffected towards Turks.68
This view had the backing of the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who was desperately casting around for a major propaganda victory to divert public attention away from the brutality and slaughter experience by the Allied troops on the Somme. General Maurice69 wrote General Lynden-Bell70 on 13 December:
The Prime Minister is very anxious, naturally, for some success to enliven the winter gloom which has settled upon England, and he looks to you to get it for him. He talks somewhat vaguely of a campaign in Palestine, and I think has at the back of his mind the hope of a triumphant entry into Jerusalem.71
The coming of Lloyd George seemed to herald a weakening of the original war policy articulated by General Robertson to Murray in a letter dated 4 October 1916 where he said:
Broadly speaking, and in connection with the war as a whole, the French front remains the main theatre of war, and the policy in Egypt therefore necessarily remains a defensive one.72
By December, Murray understood the political change and formulated a strategy in line with the new exigencies. Robertson did not contradict Murray’s goals. Instead, as time proved, Robertson materially added to Murray’s ability to prosecute his war strategy in Egypt.
So undertaking a well calculated gamble in taking Beersheba would have been plainly within the wishes of the Egyptian General Staff and the Prime Minister regardless of the policy expressed by the War Office. Although Lloyd George was keen to see Jerusalem captured and Kress indicated that this was highly possible, that would have entailed a tremendous risk since Jerusalem is highly susceptible to isolation through severing supply lines which unless are well protected, would be easy prey. Unless these lines could be properly secured, Jerusalem would have just turned into another siege similar to that of Kut73 earlier in the year with no prospects or hope of relief. The time frame required capturing Jerusalem during the small window of opportunity contrasted with ability of Allied forces to do so militated against each other making an early capture more a mirage than a practical reality. The lure of Jerusalem could well have been a reality a couple months later with reinforcements and a new offensive.
With Kress’s assessment coupled with the available Allied intelligence at the time of the Magdhaba battle, it clearly suggests that a viable opportunity existed. Was it ever considered by the Allies? Examination of all the available records indicates this idea did not even receive a fleeting consideration. Chauvel’s orders clearly stated that after the capture of Magdhaba, he was to return immediately to El Arish74 although this order was given prior to the successful conclusion of the battle. Perhaps it was feasible for Chauvel to undertake a daring push to Beersheba as the conditions appeared ripe for such an action but this choice was never exercised and so remains one of those great unknowns of the Sinai campaign.
A look at the two key generals involved might suggest an answer as to the idea failing to be canvassed. For Chetwode, he had just taken up his appointment as commander of the Desert Column in December so his familiarity of the terrain and fighting qualities of the Turkish formations in front of his forces would have been limited. Chetwode was an innovative soldier with a flair for the audacious as was demonstrated in the planning for the Third Battle of Gaza. In contrast, Chauvel appears to have been content to receive instructions to undertake forthright actions. This was demonstrated during the September 1918 campaign after the Desert Mounted Corps had achieved all its objectives. It was General Allenby who pressed Chauvel to consider moving his forces to Damascus rather than the other way round.75 This proved to be a self-assured move that destroyed the Ottoman’s will to resist any further. After the capture of Magdhaba, it would have been Chauvel’s role as the most experienced field General to make a suggestion to take Beersheba. The available evidence seems to suggest that this request would have been treated with keen interest.
With an array of powerful senior military and political backing, it is peculiar that not one reference regarding the Beersheba option occurs in any message passed between Chauvel and Chetwode.76 Even the lesser option of capturing Abu Aweigila was never canvassed by the two field generals despite it being part of the original orders. Subsequent to Magdhaba, the only papers in existence deal specifically with the minutiae of Allied consolidation of the positions around El Arish in preparation for further operations. Historically, Abu Aweigila seems to have been a handy pivot for invasions too and from the Sinai so its importance should have been realised. The Turks used Abu Aweigila when attacking the Suez Canal in 1915 and 1916, actions not lost upon various Israeli generals who used the same route for the invasions of 1948, 1956 and 1967. The reason why no discussion occurred between Chetwode and Chauvel about capturing Abu Aweigila and Beersheba will remain another of the Sinai Campaign’s enduring mysteries. Perhaps it just never occurred to them at the time or perhaps they thought it was too difficult or maybe they had other pressing issues occupying their energy, but since nothing was recorded, it will remain unknown.
While an interesting piece of speculation, this idea of Kress avoids some facts about the Allied force confronting him. In making his assessment, it can only be assumed that Kress believed the mounted troops facing him had similar training as given to the Uhlans of Germany. In contrast, the men of Australian and New Zealand were citizen soldiers with little military tradition, let alone training. Rather than being in the colours for years as occurred with European conscripts, these men had to be available for combat after a few months’ basic training. Unless Kress had faulty intelligence reports, he would have known this at the time Magdhaba fell. Kress observed an army in the making while in contrast his assessment was pertinent to a well-trained and confidently led field army. This apparent conflict in Kress’s assumptions and conclusion seem to say more about him as a General who, from pique, appears to be grasping at straws to salve pride from an obvious and emphatic defeat.
Magdhaba was the first occasion in which the mounted Australian and New Zealand forces acted successfully as an independent Division. It was here that they learned the elements of autonomous cavalry warfare. They succeeded in carrying out a plan of limited scope with clearly defined objectives. Magdhaba gave the Anzac Mounted Division a taste of victory coupled with the men gaining a sense of confidence in their abilities.
For the Australian and New Zealand mounted forces, 1916 was a learning period with Magdhaba serving as their graduation day. By the end of the war, the two mounted divisions proved to be devastatingly effective military machines as they systematically dismantled the Ottoman forces in Palestine and drove Turkey to the peace table. As the years have worn on, their exploits became the subject of legends. Magdhaba began the legend.
No work is a solitary affair. I would like to express my thanks to the following people for their creative input: Barry Bamford; Steve Becker; Bryn Dolan; Harry Fecitt; Andrew Kilsby; Gareth Morgan, Tosun Saral; and, Mesut Uyar, although I alone take full responsibility for the final essay. In addition, assistance from the long suffering staff at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia was given promptly and with good cheer. Finally, I would also express my deepest appreciation to Lyn Kelly who was always an unending source of encouragement from the very beginning of this project.
1st Light Horse Brigade War Diary, AWM4-10-1-29, December 1916.
AWM File 45 11/15
Cutlack, FM, The Australian Flying Corps In The Western And Eastern Theatres Of War 1914-1918, 11th Edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941.
Deputy Quartermaster General, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/7/5 Part 1 - December 1916 and AWM4, 1/7/5 Part 2 - December 1916.
Falls, Captain Cyril, Military Operations: Egypt and Palestine, Volume I, London, 1928.
Field Service Pocket Book, 1914.
General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
General Staff, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/6/9 Parts 3 & 4 - December 1916.
Grainger, John D. The Battle for Palestine, 1917, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 2006.
Gröschel, Dieter & Ladek, Jürgen, "Wings Over the Sinai and Palestine", Over the Front, Vol 13 No 1, Spring 1998 Edition.
Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 - 1918, 10th edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941. Volume VII - First World War Australian Official Histories.
Hodges, Ian, "The battle of Magdhaba", Wartime, Issue 21, Australian War Memorial, 2003.
Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, December 1916, AWM4-1-9-10.
Kressenstein, Friedrich Freiherr Kress von, Mit den Tèurken zum Suezkanal, 1938.
Letter from Chauvel to Birdwood dated 7 January 1917, AWM 252 A95.
Military Handbook on Palestine, Third Provisional Edition, June 30, 1917, Cairo, 1917
Nicol, C.G., The Story of Two Campaigns, Official war history of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914 - 1919 in the Battlefields of Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine during WWI, Wilson and Horton, 1921.
Ordnance Work in Connection with the AIF in Egypt, 1919, AWM 224 MSS 507.
Political Intelligence, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/10/1 - December 1916.
Sanders, Liman von, Five years in Turkey, 1927.
Sheffy, Yigal, British Military Intelligence in the Palestine Campaign 1914-1918, London, 1998.
Turkish General Staff, Birinci Dünya Harbi'nde Turk harbi. Sina - Filistin cephesi, Harbin Ba?langicindan ?kinci Gazze Muharebeleri Sonuna Kadar, IVncu Cilt 1nci Kisim, Ankara 1979. (Sinai-Palestine Front from the beginning of the war to the end of the 2nd Gaza Battle, Volume 4, Part 1.)
Woodward, David R., Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East, University of Kentucky Press, 2006.
1 - Bill Woerlee is a consultant who lives in Canberra.
2 - Kressenstein, Friedrich Freiherr Kress von, Mit den Tèurken zum Suezkanal, (1938), pp 207-8.
3 - General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein [24 April 1870 – 16 October 1948] General Officer Commander of the Suez Expeditionary Force which raided the Suez Canal in January 1915 and again in April 1916. He was commonly known as Kress.
4 - General Sir Harry Chauvel [16 April 1865 - 4 March 1945], General Officer Commander of the Anzac Mounted Division until 1917 when he was promoted to command the Desert Mounted Corps consisting of the Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division.
5 - During the attack on Magdhaba, the Anzac Mounted Division left El Arish with the 1st & 3rd LH Bdes, New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade and it was accompanied by the Imperial Camel Corps, and three Artillery formations: the Inverness and Leicester Batteries, Royal Horse Artillery; and, The Hong Kong & Singapore Battery, a composite force of about 7,000 men.
6 - Implicit in the analysis but no overtly stated are assessments of as the ability for the mounted troops to remain effective as a force after a period of sustained combat for many concurrent days without regular supply. The four occasions taken into consideration includes the breakout of 7 November 1917, the two Es Salt raids of March and April 1918 and the September breakout of 1918. Each example demonstrated that the proposal of Kress examined in the essay was well within the ability of the mounted troops.
7 - Ahmed Djemal Pasha (Turkish: Ahmet Cemal Pa?a) [6 May 1872 – 21 July 1922] led the Ottoman army against Allied forces in Egypt. His First and Second Suez Canal Offensives failed.
8 - Turkish officers’ were granted honorifics to describe the different ranks: Effendi - Lieutenant and Captain; Bey - Major and Colonel; and, Pasha - General.
9 - Letter from Desert Column Headquarters, C/144/52 to OC Military Railways, dated 27 November 1916 and signed by Lieut. Col. VM Fergusson, AWM 45 11/15.
10 - Turkish General Staff, Birinci Dünya Harbinde Türk Harbi, IV ncü Cilt, Ankara, 1978, p. 426.
11 - Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/9/10 - December 1916.
12 - British Intelligence estimates of the numbers around the El Arish area were as at 3 December - El Arish: 1,485 men and 9 guns; Bir el Masaid: 5,430 men, 12 guns & 5 machine guns. Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, December 1916, AWM4-1-9-10.
13 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
14 - Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 429.
15 - The organisation of Turkish infantry formations from smallest to largest – squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, division, corps and army. There were usually 3 Battalions to an Infantry Regiment although at times 4 Battalions were attached. Infantry Regiments were the equivalent to the Allied Infantry Brigades.
16 - A Turkish squad contained between 6-10 men, depending upon the strength of the unit.
17 - Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 439.
18 - Ibid, p. 429. This included elements from the 8th Engineers Battalion, 3rd Company; 27th Medical Company; 43rd Mobile Hospital; and, the 46th Cooking Unit.
19 - The nature of the polyglot and multi-ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire meant that ethnic elements within the Empire had little sense of identification with Ottoman goals. The only group that firmly embraced the Ottoman participation were the Anatolian Turks, the bedrock of the Ottoman Empire. The Syrians were alienated from Ottoman rule, especially after the capricious and despotic behaviour exercised by Djemal Pasha in Damascus during 1915. From that time Syrian loyalty was always suspect.
20 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
21 - Kress, op. cite, p. 207
22 - Nicol, C.G., The Story of Two Campaigns, Official war history of the Auckland Mounted Rifles Regiment, 1914 - 1919 in the Battlefields of Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine during WWI, Wilson and Horton, 1921, p. 132.
23 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
24 - General John Macquarie Antill [26 January 1866 - 1 March 1937] General Officer Commanding the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade until 8 August 1916.
25 - This included a 1,000 man force from the 39th IR, the 603 and 606th MGC’s, a mountain battery, and a company of engineers. From this number, about 700 men escaped to Bir el Abd leaving behind 308 prisoners including Germans from the MGC’s.
26 - Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 - 1918, 10th edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 171.
27 - General Philip Walhouse Chetwode, 1st Baron Chetwode, 7th Baronet of Oakley [21 September 1869–6 July 1950]. Chetwode was transferred to Egypt in December 1916 commanding the Desert Column in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force
28 - Letter from Chetwode to Chauvel, dated 21 December 1916, AWM 45 11/15.
29 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
30 - Ibid.
31 - Sheffy, Y., British Military Intelligence in the Palestine Campaign 1914-1918, London, 1998, p. 207.
32 - Brigadier General Guy Payan Dawnay, [b. 23 March 1878, d. 19 January 1952], Central Staff, Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
33 - Letter from Central Staff, Eastern Force, O.Y.2/16 to CO Desert Column Headquarters, dated 18 December 1916 and signed by Brig Gen GP Dawnay, AWM 45 11/15.
34 - Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 429.
35 - 1st Light Horse Brigade War Diary, December 1916, AWM4-10-1-29, p. 20.
36 - General Charles Frederick Cox, [2 May 1863 - 20 November 1944], General Officer Commanding the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade.
37 - Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 - 1918, 10th edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 221.
38 - 1,280 Ottoman prisoners were taken at Magdhaba which included: Unwounded – 1,210 men; Wounded – 40 men; and, a mixed party of 30 men brought in later. 45 Officers were captured and 97 Ottoman dead were buried by the Allies.
39 - This tactical outcome was articulated in a letter from Central Staff, Eastern Force, Marked O.Y.2/16 to CO Desert Column Headquarters, dated 18 December 1916 and signed by Brig Gen GP Dawnay, AWM 45 11/15; and see also General Staff, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/6/9 Part 3 - December 1916.
40 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
41 - Cutlack, FM, The Australian Flying Corps In The Western And Eastern Theatres Of War 1914-1918, 11th Edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 49.
42 - Allied casualties were: 5 Officers killed and 7 wounded; 17 Other Ranks killed and 117 wounded; and, 27 horses killed.
43 - Tibbin: For ease of transport, the Arabs and Turks chop straw into a manageable size and then strap it together with twine. The specific product is called "tibbin". It is a common method of presenting fodder for horses and camels throughout the Levant.
44 - Ordnance Work in Connection with the AIF in Egypt, 1919, AWM 224 MSS 507
45 - Falls, Captain Cyril, Military Operations: Egypt and Palestine, Volume I, London, 1928, p. 263.
46 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
47 - The Allied force carried over a million rounds of small arms ammunition and expended about 400,000 rounds at Magdhaba.
48 - Military Handbook on Palestine, Third Provisional Edition, June 30, 1917, Cairo, 1917, p. 76.
49 - Field Service Pocket Book, 1914, pp. 188-90.
50 - Military Handbook on Palestine, p. 28.
51 - Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 429.
52 - General Staff, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/6/9 Part 4 - December 1916.
53 - General Staff, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/6/9 Part 3 - December 1916; and, Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/9/10 - December 1916.
54 - Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/9/10 - December 1916.
55 - Military Handbook on Palestine, p. 41.
56 - The Royal Engineers developed the wells at Khalasa during October 1917 which allowed them to partially service the Desert Mounted Corps on its way to attack Beersheba.
57 - Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, December 1916, AWM4-1-9-10.
58 - General Staff, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, AWM4, 1/6/9 Part 3 - December 1916
59 - Letter from Chauvel to Birdwood dated 7 January 1917, AWM 252 A95.
60 - Flieger Abteilung is the German air combat equivalent of the Allied squadron.
61 - Gröschel, Dieter & Ladek, Jürgen, "Wings Over the Sinai and Palestine", Over the Front, Vol 13 No 1, Spring 1998 Edition, p. 29.
62 - Kress, op. cite, p.208.
63 - Intelligence Summaries, General Headquarters, Egyptian Expeditionary Force, December 1916, AWM4-1-9-10.
64 - Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 435.
65 - The fear of invasion was taken very seriously. At the beginning of January 1917 the General Officer Commanding the 3rd ID, Refet Bey sent a report to 1nci Kuvvei Seferiye (The 1st Expeditionary Force Command) pointing out the difficulties in mounting an adequate defence of the line from Tel el Fara to Khan Yunis as it left the flank open to British naval bombing from the sea. The report was acted upon by the 1nci Kuvvei Seferiye. The 4th Army Headquarters agreed and work commenced upon fortifying the el Shellal defensive line. Turkish General Staff, op. cite, p. 447.
66 - General Sir Archibald James Murray [23 April 1860 - 21 January 1945], Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
67 - General Sir William Robert Robertson, [29 January 1860 – 12 February 1933], Chief of the Imperial General Staff, War Office 1915-1918.
68 - Woodward, David R., Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East, University of Kentucky Press, 2006, p. 53.
69 - General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice [19 January 1871-19 May 1951], Director of Military Operations of the Imperial British General Staff, 1915-1918.
70 - General Sir Arthur Lynden Lynden-Bell [1867- 14 February 1943] Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
71 - Woodward, op. cite, p. 55.
72 - Extract from letter dated 4 October 1916 from Sir William Robertson to G.O.C. Egypt, AWM 252-A90
73 - Kut-al-Amara, a town south of Baghdad, was where the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army was surrounded by a Turkish force on 7 December 1915. After a siege of 147 days, on 29 April 1916, the commander, General Townshend surrendered his force of 13,000 men to the Turks.
74 - General Staff, Headquarters ANZAC Mounted Division, AWM4, 1/60/10 - December 1916.
75 - “When Chauvel told him that scarcely a Turk had crossed the Esdraelon plain or the river near Beisan, he [Allenby] for the first time mentioned the northern ride which was to conquer Syria, seize the Baghdad railway at Aleppo, and so bring to a sudden end the campaign in Mesopotamia. “What about Damascus?” he abruptly asked Chauvel: and the Australian, who never wasted his words, replied: “Rather."” Gullett, op. cite, p. 728.
76 - The author has conducted a search of all Regimental, Brigade, Division and Egyptian Expeditionary War Diaries, Routine Orders, Special Orders, Operational Reports and signals traffic. To date, no document exists of an enquiry about taking Beersheba from Chetwode or Chauvel.
The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, Falls Account 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.
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.
The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, Gullett Account Topic: BatzS - Magdhaba
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
Left to right: Lt Murray, Surveyor; Mr Gullett, Official War Correspondent; Lt O'Connor, Photographer.
[AWM No B01393]
Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918 (10th edition, 1941) Official Histories – First World War Volume VII
When, on the night of December 20th, the brigades moved to encircle El Arish, Chauvel was still without information as to the direction taken by the Turks in their retirement. Two routes were open to them. They could fall back along the beach by Rafa towards Gaza, or, travelling up the Wadi el Arish, march by Magdhaba towards the railway at El Auja. Aiming to block both routes, if only temporarily, to the feared Anzac horsemen, they divided their El Arish garrison, and proceeded to improve two selected defensive positions, one at Magdhaba about twenty-three miles south-south-east of El Arish, and the other at El Magruntein, close to the Rafa Police Post, twenty-six miles east of El Arish along the coast. Early on the morning of the 21st the airmen discovered a force at work on a string of sangars around Magdhaba, and Chauvel pushed out strong patrols for ten miles along both routes to reconnoitre, and also to sound the country for water.
At 10 o'clock on the morning of the 2nd Sir Philip Chetwode, the Commander of Desert Column, landed on the beach at El Arish, having come by sea from Port Said. After consultation with Chauvel, he decided to take up the pursuit at once. Chauvel's men were then eating the last of their rations; but Chetwode, with a view to immediate operations, had arranged that a convoy with supplies should reach El Arish from railhead that evening, while the Navy was to cooperate immediately in landing stores from the sea. During the day ten Australian airmen raided Magdhaba and dropped 120 bombs about the settlement. The Turks retaliated hotly with rifles and machine-guns and on their return the pilots reported that the place was held by a considerable force, supported by a number of light guns. Chetwode, who had been preparing a simultaneous advance towards both Magdhaba and Rafa, then decided to send all his available mounted strength against Magdhaba, temporarily suspending operations to the east. The infantry brigades of the 52nd Division were now marching into the El Arish area, and so secured the new base of operations in the absence of the horsemen.
Anzac Mounted Division, less the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the Ayrshire and Leicester Batteries, but supported by the new Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (then three battalions strong) and its Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery, was in the early hours of the night concentrated at a point four miles up the wadi. The intention was to cover before dawn the nineteen miles between this point and Magdhaba, and to encircle and surprise the enemy. As, however, me of the infantry brigades became entangled with the camel convoy of Chauvel's force, the concentration was delayed, and it was not until nearly an hour after midnight that the column, with a squadron of the 1st Light Horse Brigade as advance-guard, commenced its ride up the wadi.
The Wadi el Arish, which with its tributaries drains a large area of central and eastern Sinai, contains water only for brief periods in the rare seasons of heavy rains on the barren highlands. A brown, muddy flood then pours down, overflows the actual course of the shallow wadi, and spreads out over the wide level flats on either side. In December,
1916, the wadi was dry, and the flats deep in dust from the movement of enemy troops. The main track between El Arish and Magdhaba follows the eastern side of the watercourse. Chauvel's column had the wadi and the sand-hills of Sinai on its right, and on its left the smaller sand-hills of the extreme edge of the desert region, which divide the wadi from the fertile country of southern Palestine. At this time the Turkish railway had been extended from Beersheba southwards through Auja and across the Sinai frontier towards El Kossainia, whence it was to have been carried to Magdhaba and down the wadi to El Arish. The wisdom of Murray's insistence on an advance across Sinai was clear. Had he been content to rest on the Canal, it is highly probable that during 1917 the enemy would have laid the line westwards across the desert to Katia, and the defence of the Canal would have demanded the presence of a great British force.
The advance-guard marched fast, and it was interesting to notice that the horses, moving for the first time since they came to Egypt on really firm and level ground, frequently over reached and stumbled. Speech and smoking were forbidden. The long column of ghostly horsemen was speedily blanketed in a heavy cloud of fine clayey dust; the only sound was the pounding of hoofs, the clank of stirrup against stirrup, and the occasional neighing and snorting of the horses. Each hour was (as is the cavalry practice) divided into forty minutes' riding, ten minutes' leading, and ten minutes' halt. Such nursing of the horses on this short night-ride might seem strange to the Australian countryman, until it is remembered that each animal carried from eighteen to twenty stone, and that the only way in which horses can be kept fit for operation after operation over a number of years lies in ceaseless thought for their welfare. The December night was bitterly cold, and the men, aching in their saddles, appreciated the spells of walking. Shortly before 4 o'clock the camp fires of the unsuspecting Turks at Magdhaba were seen by the advanced screen, and an hour later the head of the column was checked in an open plain four miles from the position Chauvel had intended to march nearer to the enemy garrisons before halting for the deployment of his brigades; but he and his staff were deceived by the brightness of the enemy's fires. As each brigade arrived, the men were dismounted and breakfasted and the horses fed, while Chauvel, accompanied by his staff and brigadiers, rode forward to make a personal reconnaissance of the position. Dawn was now touching the heavens over Palestine eastwards, and the dark upland of Judea could be descried to the north-east. As the enemy's bivouac fires faded, the valley about Magdhaba was concealed under a heavy bank of smoke, which made the reconnaissance slow and difficult. But with the assistance of Major Barlow, an Imperial officer who knew the ground and who was attached to the staff, the few huts and larger stone buildings recently erected by the Turks and used as a hospital were located, and the plan of attack was decided upon. So far, however, Chauvel was in ignorance of the position of the enemy's defences; as all the brigades had not yet arrived, he decided to wait for the appearance of his aeroplane? before committing his force. At about 6.30 the airmen arrived and, flying low, began to bomb the Turks. who, aiming at the pilots with machine-gun and rifle-fire, disclosed the position of their redoubts. Shortly before 8 o'clock the first aeroplane report was received, giving the location of one redoubt, and also the satisfactory intelligence that no enemy reinforcements were in sight as far as five miles beyond El Ruafa - a well some four miles south of Magdhaba-while at Ruafa itself only a few men were seen. Half-an-hour later all the brigades were moving into position for the assault.
The position of the Turks at Magdhaba was well designed to frustrate any attack by which at that time it could be threatened. Having destroyed the wells at Lahfan, nine miles up the wadi from the coast, the enemy knew that assaulting troops must be dependent upon the El Arish water, twenty-three miles away, and that, if he could resist for more than a few hours, the thirst of Chauvel's men and horses must terminate the engagement. Moreover, the ground strongly favoured the defenders. The few buildings of the settlement stood on the east side of the wadi, which about Magdhaba had worn a rugged, complicated gorge some twenty or thirty feet deep in the clay, and was freely broken on either side by short rough bays affording the best of cover to troops. On the Sinai side, immediately opposite the settlement, the desert came down close to the edge of the wadi in a rolling slope broken with many little ridges a few feet high, and thickly sprinkled with sand banked bushes which gave good protection to riflemen. On the east, extending north and south, a flat a few hundred yards across flanked the wadi; this was cut up by a number of small dry watercourses, splashed with bushes, and now, in the winter season, gay with anemones and hyacinths and other short-lived desert flowers. Beyond this flat to the east was a prolonged ridge dotted with large ant-hills and many bushes; this must be crossed by the attacking force. The enemy, with the heart of his position about the buildings, had constructed a system of redoubts, each capable of covering the next, at a radius of about half-a-mile from the buildings. Of these, two were on the east side of the wadi, and the remainder on the sand-ridges to the west. Knowing that the British would probably approach up the flat on the east, the Turks had ensured that, before the main redoubts could be captured, the British must involve themselves in the crossing of the wadi under fire.
Chauvel's plan was to keep his force as far as possible on the good ground on the east side of the wadi, and to rely upon the speed and strength of his assault to drive the Turks across the wadi away from their only water-supply at the wells of the settlement. Then, using his horses, he would cut off their retreat towards Ruafa. Recognising the strength of the new Camel Brigade, he ordered Smith to advance straight up to the flat from the north, with his centre on the telegraph line which led from Magdhaba to El Arish, believing that the depth and force of the brigade would carry it through. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade, commanded by Royston, and the New Zealanders were placed together under Chaytor, with orders to attack from the east and to extend towards the south. Chaytor moved into position with the New Zealanders on the left of the Camels, and sent the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, which he decided to keep in reserve, further south. Cox's 1st Light Horse Brigade was in reserve, with orders to be ready to advance on the right of the Camels. The Inverness and Somerset Batteries (which were under Chauvel in person) were to open fire as early as possible on the Turkish redoubts, and this was to be the signal for the general advance. From the outset Chauvel recognised the engagement was a gamble against time, and definite orders were given to all brigades that the attack was to be pressed home. The men were dependent for water upon the scanty supply of their bottles, from which many of them had already made morning tea; when the advance began the horses had been about twenty hours without a drink.
Immediately after the brigades had moved, the British airmen reported small mounted parties of the garrison escaping up the wadi to the south, and Chaytor ordered Royston in send one of his regiments to block that outlet. The old South African soldier then engaged in a very bold stroke, which, as it developed later in the day, produced a substantial effect upon the whole operation. He personally accompanied the 10th Light Horse Regiment, which in this movement was led by Major H, C. H. Robertson, (In a wide galloping detour round the south of the position. At the wadi the Western Australians took a large number of prisoners, and eventually assailed the enemy from almost due east. While the men of the 10th were riding hard on the south, Chaytor, without waiting for the Camel attack to develop, pushed in with the Canterbury and Wellington Regiments, taking as his objective Hill 345 on the other side of the wadi.
The British and Australian airmen were showing great enterprise, flying very low and spying out and bombing the enemy's position; they frequently dropped messages informing Chauvel of the situation. At 10 o'clock a pilot landed on the flat close to Divisional Headquarters and reported that the Turks already showed signs of a general retreat by the south, so that Chaytor's left would perhaps not succeed in cutting them off. Here was the opportunity for Cox with the 1st Brigade. Chauvel immediately ordered him to advance, mounted, direct on Magdhaba along the flat between the wadi and the right of the Camels. Cox, preceded by ground scouts, moved off at the head of his brigade at the trot, thus introducing a striking spectacular note into the fight, in which up till then very few of the combatants on either side had been visible beyond a short distance. After trotting for a mile, the brigade encountered shrapnel fire from the enemy's four light mountain guns, and Cox, extending his regiments into " artillery " formation, increased his pace to a gallop. For a minute or more the light horsemen enjoyed the excitement of a cavalry charge, as the horses fought for their heads, and the quart-pots and other gear clattered and pounded against the saddles. But the rush was brief. After charging for half a mile, the brigade galloped into heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from a strongly posted redoubt directly in front, as well as from a redoubt to the west of the wadi on Cox's right front. Instantly realising that the report of an evacuation was incorrect, and that destruction lay ahead of his brigade if the charge was continued, Cox swung his regiments, still at the gallop, and took cover in a deep, blind tributary of the main wadi to his right. Here he dismounted his men about 1,900 yards from No. 2 Turkish Redoubt, which had fired on him from his front.
Meanwhile Chauvel had moved his headquarters to a high knoll above the flat, about two and three-quarter miles from the Magdhaba settlement, from which he had a comprehensive view of the whole theatre of operations except those of the 1st Brigade. By 11 o'clock the batteries had been for some time shooting effectively, but still the attack made little progress. The advance of the New Zealanders was harassed by fire from the redoubts on both sides of the wadi. Smith's Camels were in difficulties on the flat in the centre, where the ground on most of their front was level and almost naked of cover. They were serving a good purpose in drawing fire, and so easing the position for the other brigades; but they were still a long way from their first objective, the No. 2 Redoubt on their right front, which had stopped Cox's gallop. After some delay, Cox from his position in the wadi sent forward the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fulton, dismounted, to assist the Camels in their attack on the No. 2 Redoubt. At about the same time the Hong Kong and Singapore Battery came into action close to his headquarters, and the Indian gunners soon found the redoubt and reduced the activity of the Turkish riflemen. Fulton had four machine-guns attached to his regiment; making clever use of these, he further curtailed the fire of the redoubt, while his men, covered by the broken wadi up which they were advancing, made slow but constant progress. A wide bay of the wadi separated Fulton's regiment from the Turkish redoubt, and had to be crossed by the attackers, Its floor was level and naked, except for scattered bushes; but shortly before 2 o'clock the light horsemen were within 100 yards of the Turkish trenches. Simultaneously the Camel Brigade, with the 3rd Battalion under Captain C. R. V. Wright* leading, and the 2nd under Major J. R. Bassett and the 1st under Langley in close support, were rapidly closing on the redoubt in section rushes from the left. Further round on the east the New Zealanders were also advancing with great dash in the open and, being in full view of the Turks in No. 2 Redoubt, doubtless contributed to their demoralisation. After a brief pause to stiffen the lines for the assault, the light horsemen of the 3rd Regiment, with Major J. J. Brooks at their head, and the Nos. I and 11 (Australian) Companies of the Camel Brigade, led by Lieutenant Cashman and Captain Creswell, leaped from the ground and dashed, shouting, at the redoubt with their bayonets. For a few moments the Turks punished them severely, but as the two bodies of assailants, each striving for the honour of first entry, flung themselves at the trenches, the Turks stood up in a body and surrendered.
This was the turning point in the engagement.
But so narrow was the margin between victory and failure that, even as No. 2 Redoubt was falling, Chauvel was giving earnest consideration to the idea of a general withdrawal. He had not then learned of the advance of the 1st Brigade, but had just been advised that his engineers had failed to get water at Lahfan. After discussing the situation with Chaytor, and with Smith of the Camel Brigade, he telegraphed to Sir Philip Chetwode that no progress was being made, the horses had been a very long time without drink, and the attempt to develop water at Lahfan had failed; he therefore proposed to break off the fight. Anticipating Chetwode's approval, the following order was then issued to the brigades:--"As enemy is still holding out and horses must be watered, the action will be broken off and the forces withdrawn. Each brigade will be responsible for its own protection during the withdrawal." The order was handed to Cox just as Fulton's men were being pulled together for their charge with the bayonet on No. 2 Redoubt. “Take that damned thing away," said the light horse leader, "and let me see it for the first time in half-an-hour." With the fall of the position, the whole prospect was changed. Soon afterwards Chetwode, in reply to Chauvel, strongly urged that the fight should not be abandoned, even at the cost of some of the horses, and suggested that all guns should be concentrated on one redoubt, with a view to its capture with the bayonet after dark. SO swift had been the development, however, that Chauvel was now able in a telephone conversation with Chetwode to assure him that there was no further doubt as to the issue.
The significance of the achievement of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and the Camels was immediately demonstrated. The prisoners in the redoubt numbered three officers and ninety two other ranks. Fulton, exploiting his success, rushed UP two of his machine-guns to the position, and these opened a galling fire on the next Turkish redoubt across the main wadi on the right, towards which the advance was at once continued by the light horse and the Camels. Further to the left the 2nd Camel Battalion made touch with the New Zealanders, who, together with the 8th and 9th Light Horse Regiments of the 3rd Brigade, were now gaining ground on a wide frontage.
The Turks were at the same time being seriously harassed on their rear. The 19th Light Horse Regiment, which Major Robertson had led round by the south to cut off the retreat up the wadi and along the telegraph line further west, had been engaged for some hours in an isolated and exciting encounter. "hen Robertson, who had led the regiment with great dash, rode down on the wadi at the gallop with his men shouting wildly close behind him, he cut across a column of 300 Turks retreating in disorder. Startled by the sudden appearance of the Western Australians, the enemy was thrown into confusion, and surrendered without any attempt at fighting. Among the prisoners was a senior officer of engineers, who shared the terror of his men at the sight of the dusty and unshaven horsemen. He informed Robertson - a Duntroon graduate, who looked very young for his rank that he would only surrender his sword to the Australian officer in charge. Somewhat embarrassed, Robertson said that he was the leader. He was as dusty and disreputable looking as his men, and the Turk handed over his weapon with the air of a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of savages.
After crossing the wadi, Robertson swung north, completely enveloped the enemy's right flank, and closed his only outlet of escape. Under his most spirited leadership the squadrons then advanced on the rear of the Turkish redoubts with such vigour that the garrisons were deceived as to their strength. The frequent ridges, broken with many little knobs and desert bushes, gave good cover to the horses; and the line went forward in a succession of mounted rushes, galloping from cover to cover, dismounting, engaging for a time in rapid fire, and then riding forward again. The machine and Lewis gunners, riding with the advanced troops, gave effective covering fire. At this time Major L. C. Timperley was severely wounded while leading his squadron.
The advance of the Western Australians was now going with great vim, and all ranks were excited and above themselves with confidence. Lieutenants F. W. Cox and A. U. Martin, who were leading their troops on the left of the line, encountered a substantial Turkish redoubt on their immediate front, occupied by between 300 and 400 men. Though the Australians did not number more than between thirty and forty, they galloped straight on the position. They offered only a scattered and galloping target, but the Turks hit several horses and men before they reached the trenches. Despite the punishment, the light horsemen maintained their charge, and scrambled over the earthworks. To dismount meant certain annihilation; Cox and Martin therefore galloped straight on under heavy fire, leaving the redoubt unreduced. As they rode away from the trenches, Martin's horse was killed, and the young officer was shaken and dazed by the fall. Cox spurred on with his men to the cover of a ridge; then, accompanied by Sergeant Spencer Gwynne, he gallantly rode back under intense fire, took Martin on his saddle and galloped with him to safety.
Royston, who, as usual, was riding about in the thick of the fight, attended only by his orderly, galloped up to a Turkish trench and was instantly covered by five enemy rifles. The old fighter excitedly raised his cane and, knowing no Turkish, shouted at the riflemen in Zulu; whereupon the Turks, impressed with the demonstration, dropped their rifles and held up their hands. The 10th Regiment captured in all 722 prisoners.
Equally bold and important in its bearing on the fight was the work done by a squadron of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment led by Major Birkbeck, which Cox had sent out with orders to cross the wadi, ride wide to the west of the enemy, and menace the remaining redoubts from the rear. This squadron was not seen by the Turks until it appeared over a ridge directly behind them. With his little force in a scattered line, Birkbeck led a mounted dash at the redoubt previously ridden through by Cox and Martin, his men galloping over ground strewn with the dead and wounded men and horses of the 10th Regiment. The squadron, although severely punished by the Turkish rifles-finding itself, too, under fire from the New Zealanders and the 9th and 10th Regiments across the wadi-maintained its charge and galloped into the redoubt. There the men, reining up their horses, began to shoot from their saddles. The Turks, demoralised by this second unexpected swoop from their rear, immediately broke; about 100 prisoners were taken, and the remainder, who fled towards the main wadi, were secured later.
With the 1st Brigade and the Camels advancing strongly on the north and the New Zealanders and the 8th and 9th Light Horse Regiments closing swiftly from the east, the issue of the fight was now virtually decided. After the capture of No. 2 Redoubt, the 3rd Regiment and the Camels had made rapid progress towards No. 1 Redoubt. The rival forces were now everywhere fighting at close quarters, and Chauvel ordered his batteries to cease fire. The Turks at No. 1 Redoubt again refused to fight with the steel; about 4 o'clock, as the Australians approached with the bayonet, they surrendered, and, pressing on, the Australians soon had No. 3 Redoubt in their possession. Khadir Bey, the Turkish commander at Magdhaba, was captured in No. 1 Redoubt.
While the Wellingtons of the New Zealand Brigade had marched direct on Hill 345 by a line which would carry them through the buildings of the settlement, the Canterburys had swung to the left and made a wide detour across the front of the 8th and 9th Regiments, continuing until their left was in touch with the 10th Regiment. Although the ground was as a whole exposed to the enemy fire, good shelter for the advancing riflemen was given by the large ant-hills and many bushes, and casualties were slight. But progress was very slow, and by 1 o’clock neither regiment was within striking distance of the enemy. At this hour Chaytor ordered the 8th and 9th Light Horse Regiments to strike in between the Wellingtons and the Canterburys.
Dismounting about a mile and a half from the Turks, the two Australian regiments advanced quickly over the first 1,000 yards. As the opposition of the enemy rifles grew strong, each squadron moved by troops in bounds of from twenty five to fifty yards, with the Lewis gunners always forward and doing excellent work in keeping down Turkish fire. When the front line was within 500 yards of the enemy trenches, the squadrons were halted and additional ammunition brought up. This was the first engagement in which the men carried two bandoliers, and the innovation added so much to the fire strength of the regiments that it was adopted during the remainder of the campaign. Soon after 3 o'clock the line resumed its advance by troops successively, and the 8th Light Horse Regiment, always singularly unlucky, suffered many casualties at this stage. Captain M. B. Higgins and Lieutenants E. H. Mack and E. G. Down were killed as they led their men, and Lieutenant J. T. Currie was wounded; only ten men of other ranks were killed or wounded-a graphic comment upon the bold leadership by junior officers. With the Wellingtons on their right, the two Australian regiments fixed bayonets about eighty yards from the enemy trenches, and then charged right home. For a few minutes the Turks engaged fiercely in a hand to hand encounter, and several of their men were killed with the bayonet before the general surrender. The Australians then covered with their fire the advance of the Wellingtons, and, as the New Zealanders advanced to close quarters, the Turks in front of them raised the white flag. The 8th Light Horse Regiment, which had encountered the stiff est of the opposition, pressed on and captured a second position, taking in all 250 prisoners.
At a few minutes past 4 o'clock all the redoubts had fallen. Isolated enemy parties about the wadi continued to resist for a little longer; but by 4.30, as the short winter day was closing, the last shot had been fired, and Chauvel's victorious troops, converging from the complete circle about the settlement, met in the falling darkness. In the last general charge the units had overlapped and mingled, and for two or three hours in the night the scene was one of great animation and confusion; regiments were re-assembled, horses brought up, watering erected as far as possible at the crowded wells, and prisoners collected. The competition for prisoners between the different regiments was, as usual, very keen. The French military attache, Captain Count St. Quentin, while wandering about looking at the Turks, was seized by a light horseman, and, despite his excited protests, bundled in with the captives. All foreigners were alike to the excited light horsemen. As the men lit their cigarettes and pipes, the matches gave brief peeps of Australian troopers, very gay despite their weariness; of silent, sullen Turks; of fretful, thirsty horses; of great, stolid camels, never in the least concerned at the din and clamour of battle; while out on the surrounding country scores of little fires marked the position of the wounded, and guided the tireless bearers to their relief.
The batteries, whose orders were to march immediately after the action, reached El Arish about midnight. Granville, of the 1st Light Horse Regiment, was left with a few squadrons to clear the battleground; and half-an-hour before midnight Chauvel, with his headquarters and the 1st Brigade, commenced the long ride back to El Arish, followed by the rest of the force. Chetwode had ordered camel convoys forward to meet the column with water and rations. Part of the force halted and were refreshed on the route, while others rode right through and reached the camp near the coast about an hour before dawn. This was the third, and with many of the regiments the fourth, night without rest, and there were very few officers or men who did not sleep as they rode.
Scarcely any Turks escaped from Magdhaba.
Granville's men buried ninety-seven of their dead, and their wounded were estimated at about 300, while 1,282 were made prisoners. Four mountain guns, 1,250 rifles, and 100,000 rounds of small arms ammunition were seized, as well as a considerable number of horses and camels. Chauvel's casualties were; officers, 5 killed and 7 wounded; other ranks, 17 killed and 117 wounded.
Extreme suffering was inflicted upon the wounded in the course of transport over the twenty-two miles to El Arish. The broken nature of the ground made the process of collection slow; it was not until the afternoon of the day following the engagement that Major C. E. Hercus a gifted young New Zealander, who was in charge of the ambulance, was satisfied that the area had been thoroughly searched and all men accounted for. With the wounded men on camel cacolets, the ambulance then marched out from Magdhaba. A hideous night followed, as the long column of 150 camels, each bearing its burden of two jolted, groaning men, moved slowly through the intense darkness. The dust was stifling, and the cold extreme. The cacolets frequently became unbalanced, and at each breakdown the whole column was held up. This was the fourth successive night on which officers and men of the ambulance had been without sleep; but all ranks worked cheerfully, as they did on every occasion throughout the campaign, in their endeavours to relieve the agony of the shattered men.
Three men died on the camels.
At El Arish the wounded were lifted down and rested. But they were still thirty miles from railhead, and unfortunately the arrangements made by the higher staffs were, as at Romani, indefinite and unsatisfactory. The medical officers of the Anzac Mounted Division had already packed the men on to the comfortable sand-carts for the long journey to the railway when orders were received to evacuate them by sea. A strong and bitterly cold wind, with a heavy sea, was beating in from the Mediterranean. The men had to be unloaded from the sand-carts, and suffered unnecessarily from exposure until December 8th, five days after the fight, when the orders as to sea-transport were cancelled, and they were permitted to proceed by land as originally arranged. Consequently, from seven to nine days elapsed between the fight and their arrival at hospital. Neither the experience of a hundred campaigns, nor the impulsive sympathy of ordinary men towards human suffering, nor, apparently, the ease with which simple and effective arrangements could be made, seem able to move a British army staff to give to the wounded in the field-especially if operations are far removed from the influence of public opinion-that treatment which in times of peace is given by civilians to the most despised of dumb animals. In the fighting on Sinai the British wounded had more to fear from faulty arrangements for their transport than from the cowardly Bedouin of the desert.
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 the light horsemen: 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. Chauvel's leadership was distinguished by the rapidity with which he summed up the very obscure Turkish position in the early morning, and by his judgment and characteristic patience in keeping so much of his force in reserve until the fight developed sufficiently to ensure its most profitable employment.
The Battle of Magdhaba, Sinai, December 23, 1916, Cutlack Account Topic: BatzS - Magdhaba
The Battle of Magdhaba
Sinai, 23 December 1916
In 1923, Frederic Morley Cutlack had his book about the Australian Air Force published. It was called: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914–1918. This book was critically acclaimed and became Volume VIII of the Australian Official History of the Great War. This book included a section specifically related to the Battle of Magdhaba which is extracted below.
Cutlack, F. M. The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914–1918, (11th edition, 1941), pp. 48 - 50:
To distract the Turk’s attention from this flank, the two air squadrons on December 22nd sent five Martinsydes to bomb the important railway bridge at Irgeig, north-west of Beersheba. The bombs hit, but did not greatly damage, the bridge, which, like most solid bridges, was not very susceptible to that form of attack. Two Fokkers and an Aviatik gave battle over Beersheba, and one of the Fokkers was chased down. The same afternoon one British and ten Australian machines dropped over a hundred bombs on Magdhaba, where the Turks were strongly entrenched. The Anzac Mounted Division marched that night across the desert on Magdhaba, surrounded it, and attacked from all sides next morning. It was a long fight, for the Turkish strong-posts could not be rushed at once, and had to be subdued in detail. There were a few guns on each side, but the action was mainly one of rifle and bayonet. Australian airmen were over Magdhaba all day, dropped a few bombs, and attempted to assist the dismounted light horsemen by machine-gunning the enemy, but the targets were well concealed. Towards the end of the day it became increasingly urgent to finish the fight, for the horses were suffering from thirst, the nearest water was at El Arish, arid a second day before Magdhaba was unthinkable
The Australians succeeded dramatically as dark was setting in; a few strong-points fell suddenly, and the position was rushed in a final charge from three sides at once. The surviving garrison, 1,250 strong, was captured and the Anzac Division, after setting fire to the village, retired again during the night to E1 Arish, whole squadrons fast asleep on their horses as they trekked across the desert. Next day No. I Squadron's patrols tip the wady beyond Magdhaba found the village a blackened ruin, and El Ruafa and Abu Aweigila also deserted by the enemy. El Auja and El Kossaima, farther east and south-east, "ere seen, however, to be still strongly held
At this time No. 1 Squadron was using the old German aerodrome site of Fageira, at El Arish, as an advanced landing-ground. By mid- January the railway had gone ahead of El Arish, and the squadron moved its aerodrome from Mustabig to Kilo, 143, just west of Masaid, and five miles west of El Arish. The weather of early January was wild with sandstorms and rain squalls, and more than one pilot crashed in desert landings during these winds. On only the worst days, however, was flying stopped. The army was working hard to advance its services a few more miles so as to be clear of the desert, and was relying more and more on air reconnaissance to keep touch with the enemy and to ascertain the extent of his retreat. After El Arish and Magdhaba he elected-and was observed by the airmen on December 28thto fall back to a main position on the Gaza-Beersheba line, and this entailed the withdrawal of his headquarters from Beersheba
The weather cleared up on January 5th, and No. I Squadron's patrol observed 2,000 or 3,000 Turks digging an advanced position at Rafa. General Murray decided upon an immediate attack on this place. Air patrols on January 7th reported the Turks still at El Auja and El Kossaima on the extreme southern flank and the garrison at El Auja apparently slightly increased; but these places caused little anxiety
German airmen bombed El Arish during the morning and evening of this day, taking advantage of the British concentration there.
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