"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess
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Bir el Abd, Sinai, 9 August 1916, Outline Topic: BatzS - Bir el Abd
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 1916
A view from the crest of Mount Meredith looking eastwards towards Qatiya.
[Photo by Terry Kinlock, author of Devils on Horses: in the Words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-19.]
Keeping constant pressure on the Turks resulted in one engagement tending to merge into the next, as was the case with Katia and Bir el Abd. This was an oasis 22 miles east of Romani, on the track to El Arish.
El Arish was on the south-east corner of the Mediterranean and came to be considered by the Anzacs as some far-off Holy Grail. If the enemy could be dislodged from Bir el Abd, he must retreat the 50 miles further on to El Arish because there was almost no water between the two places. El Arish was close to the Palestine border, where the Sinai desert ended. Elopes and dreams began to form and tantalise. They could get off the sand! Mirages, milk-and-honey visions of plains and trees, cities, grass feed, roads, water, flowers beckoned.
First things first: attack the enemy rearguard, capture his guns, destroy the remainder of his force. Reconnaissance early on 8 August showed that the Turks had abandoned Oghratina. Patrols probed forward and found him at Bir el Abd.
Chauvel shifted his HQ forward to Oghratina, with the New Zealand and Yeomanry brigades. Royston, temporarily in command of both the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, was to march from Katia overnight and at daylight on the 9th take up a position just north-east of Abd. The New Zealanders and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade were to start the advance, the first directly on the Turks centre, the second to swing round behind them from the south, blocking their retreat. The Yeomanry were in reserve.
The whole ANZAC Mounted Division would be engaged, though it was reduced by sickness and exhaustion of both horses and men to 3000 dismounted rifles. Two regiments of Royston's were down to 180 rifles and the 7th Regiment mustered 214. But the Turks were said to be weak and the operation looked to be relatively easy. Because of the distances, no infantry were to be used and the job fell to the mounted troops again.
The Turks proved to be decidedly strong: 6000 men deployed on commanding sandhills, well supported by artillery.
Bir el Abd and surrounding area topography.
[Click on map for larger version.]
The overnight ride by the 1st and 2nd Brigades was marked by precipitous sand cliffs, up or down which no horse would have gone, had it seen them. With daylight, the troopers were awed to see what they had come through.
At 4 am, the New Zealanders attacked the Turkish centre and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade started its encircling movement from the south. They encountered strong resistance. Royston's brigades, coming in from the north, were also checked. The dispositions left large gaps between the ANZAC units: 800 yards between Chaytor's New Zealanders and the 2nd Brigade on the left, a mile between Chaytor and the 3rd Brigade on the right.
Suddenly, things started to look grim. There were fire fights all along the line. The scattered Anzacs, after galloping in until the machine-gun and artillery fire became too heavy to risk the horses, dismounted and sent them back. For some hours, it was a near stalemate of no advance and no retreat, though marked by particular strokes of brilliance such as a bayonet charge by the Wellingtons, before which the Turks refused the steel and bolted, and the 'admirable tenacity and reckless courage' of the out-gunned batteries of Royal Horse Artillery, which from close behind the dismounted men waged an unequal contest with the Turkish guns.
British soldiers filling their canteens with water near Romani.
About midday, the Turks counterattacked from one end of the line to the other and threw Chauvel's troops on the defensive. There were seesawing attacks and counterattacks for two hours, and while the ANZAC front was unbroken, they suffered a net loss of ground. Sniffing victory, the Turks' fire reached a pitch of concentration never experienced before, even at Gallipoli.
By 4.30 Royston's left had been almost completely turned and the Turks threw between 2000 and 3000 men against his centre. The ensuing crescendo of fire was most destructive to both sides. The New Zealanders gave no ground in their forward position, even as a retirement of the 3rd Brigade on their right and another by Royston's brigades on their left exposed them to enfilade fire on both sides. Still they hung on.
At 5.30, Chauvel ordered a general withdrawal. It was then a matter of getting away unscathed in a fighting retreat, another searching test of steadiness under fire, with troop deliberately laying back on troop and squadron laying back on squadron, while keeping the enemy at bay with their own shooting.
That accomplished, the Anzacs were once more exhausted. They had ridden all night and fought from daylight to sunset on a quart of water in the heat of a ship's stokehold. Their elbows were blistered from constant contact with the scalding sand as they fired their weapons. Chauvel's choice was between bivouacking that night nearby and resuming the assault next day, or retiring to Oghratina. After consulting his brigade commanders, he opted for the latter, posting the 3rd Brigade out on the flank.
Two hundred and ten wounded were carried out of Abd and greatly hampered the withdrawal, but with the exception of a few New Zealanders their countrymen could not possibly reach, all were borne back safely. The standard 'ambulance' was a camel cacolets, or litter - a narrow, swaying pannier atop the beast that so tormented wounded men they came to be feared by the Anzacs, and led to the Australian innovation of sand carts. However, these could not be deployed to the front line and the men were taken out on horses; and their preference then was to ride them home. Two men of the 5th Regiment with broken thighs rode home from Abd and one survived.
This 'law' about saving wounded men was dangerous and frowned on by anonymous high command mandarins, but the men went into action knowing that if it was humanly possible to be carried out, they would not be allowed to fall into the Turks' hands, or left to the murderous Bedouins who prowled around the edges of battlefields. As vindication, after two and a half years of constant fighting, only 73 Light Horsemen had been taken prisoner, most of them wounded, and not a single officer was captured. But they themselves captured between 40,000 and 50,000 Turks.
Casualties for Bir el Abd were 73 dead and 243 wounded.
Bir el Abd after its capture.
Extracted from the book produced by Lindsay Baly, Horseman, Pass By, East Roseville, N.S.W. : Simon & Schuster, 2003, Ch. 5.
1:40,000 map of Bir el Abd area Topic: BatzS - Bir el Abd
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 1916
1:40,000 map of Bir el Abd
Contour Map of the Area around Bir el Abd
[Click on map for larger version.]
The above map was drawn up by the Aerial Mapping Section in Cairo, October 1916. This map illustrates the area surrounding Bir el Abd where the Light Horse and Ottoman forces fought each other on 9 August 1916. The nature of the terrain is well demonstrated as well as the emerging mapping skills derived from aerial photography, a skill in its infancy but becoming increasingly sophisticated. The map enables a reader to follow the details given in the various accounts to pin point accuracy.
Calculating distances on this map is simple. Each numbered square is 1,000 yards by 1,000 yards.
Bir el Abd, Sinai, 9 August 1916, Gullett Account Topic: BatzS - Bir el Abd
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 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
KATIA AND BIR EL ABD
EARLY in the morning of August 5th Sir Archibald Murray in a message to Lawrence said: "I think the enemy must be tired, hungry, thirsty, and shaken, and believe that vigorous and even exhausting action on the part of your troops to-day will simplify and ease your future work." Some hours earlier, however, Lawrence had issued orders to his three divisions for the resumption of the battle at dawn: and at 6 a.m., in a further communication to Chauvel and Smith, he added: "The advance is to be strongly pressed. The Anzac Mounted Division will carry the pursuit as far as its resources will permit. As soon as the front is clear the infantry will push forward as far as possible before the heat of the day, and resume its marching in the evening." The general line of the advance for the 52nd Division was to he eastwards on Abu Hamra, and for the 42nd Division by Hod el Enna direct on Katia.
But two hours before this message was received, immediately on the first sign of dawn, Chauvel had moved vigorously with his horsemen. Lawrence's general scheme was to drive the enemy from his position on Wellington Ridge to the line Katib Gannit-Hod el Enna. The infantry was then to make a strong advance against the Turks' northern flank in the direction of Abu Hamra and Er Rabah; and, while the infantry pressed his right, the cavalry, swinging out to the south, was to envelop and crush his left. Had the ~2ndDivision moved as soon as the light horse cleared Wellington Ridge, this combined movement must have resulted in the capture of most of the enemy forces still west of Katia. But, as on the previous day, there was no sound cooperation between the two divisions. The infantry did not clear the defensive posts until after 9 a.m., and had made practically no advance by 2 p.m. This delay was fatal to the whole project.
At 4 a.m. the men of the 1st and Light Horse Brigades, with the infantry on the extreme left cooperating, leaped from their long irregular line between the infantry posts and Mount Royston, and advanced with the bayonet. Gaunt from prolonged sleeplessness, their eyes bloodshot from glare and strain, their faces begrimed with dust and sweat, and bristly with a few days' growth of beard, the Australians and the Wellingtons might have unnerved troops in better condition than the unfortunate Turks opposed to them. On the right the
1st Light Horse Brigade and the 6th Light Horse Regiment encountered very little resistance from the enemy, who, after firing a few shots, everywhere surrendered; but further to the left, where the 7th Light Horse Regiment and the Wellingtons advanced on Wellington Ridge, the Turks for a time fought stubbornly. Soon after dark on the previous evening the infantry had reported the capture of Wellington Ridge, but their slight success had been confined to the south eastern end of the position, and at daylight the enemy were strong in front of the Australians and New Zealanders.
Marching in a long single line, the 7th Light Horse and the Wellingtons at once came under fire. A party of Turks in a hod 200 yards in front of the 7th were rushed with the bayonet and overwhelmed. Lieutenant-Colonel G. M. M. Onslow, a gallant and impetuous leader, then advanced from the hod with three men about twenty yards in advance of his swinging troopers, and all four were immediately shot down by Turks concealed only a few yards in front of them. Onslow was severely wounded, and had at once to be carried to the rear. But the line showed no sign of wavering. Major H. B. Suttor took over command, and the advance quickly topped Wellington Ridge and swept down on the main body of the Turks assembled between the ridge and Mount Meredith. The Turks, thrown into confusion, shot without precision and, as the Australians and New Zealanders rushed shouting down upon them, surrendered in large bodies; by 5 a.m. upwards of 1,000 prisoners had been captured. These were immediately marched back to Etmaler, where they streamed past Onslow as he lay outside one of the ambulance tents, and he found the sight of them "very gratifying."
Along the front from Katib Gannit to Hod el Enna the Turks were now surrendering without resistance, and across the broken ground towards Katia they could be seen retreating in large disorderly bodies. All the prisoners were in an extremely exhausted condition, and displayed satisfaction a5 they were gathered up and marched towards water and rations. At 6.30 General Chauvel was ordered by Lawrence to take over the command of all mounted troops and initiate a vigorous pursuit, which was to be supported by the infantry "as soon as the ground was clear." But some hours were to elapse before these orders could be executed. The troops of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades had to be re-assembled and mounted; then it was deemed necessary to water, as far as the position permitted, the horses of the 1st Brigade. Moreover, the New Zealanders did not reach Bir el Nuss until 8.30, when they found the 3rd Light Horse Brigade and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade still watering their horses. Although the main Turkish retreat was directed on Katia, it was known that the enemy's left flank extended through Hamisah, and as far south as Mageibra. As soon as the Turks had advanced on Romani, Lawrence had asked No. 2 Section of the Canal Defences to push forward the composite horse and camel column under Colonel C. L. Smith, VC, towards Mageibra. Smith assembled his column (made up of two mounted regiments and a few companies of the new Camel Corps) at Barda on the 4th; his instructions for the 5th were to operate wide of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, and, using his mobility to the fullest extent, to discover and harass the left flank of the enemy. Chauvel ordered the 3rd Light Horse Brigade to move from Bir el Hamisah, and thence to the south of Katia, in conformity with a general advance to be made further north by Anzac Mounted Division and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade against Katia as a whole.
By 10 o'clock the New Zealanders and the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades were mounted and moving towards Katia. The enemy was located holding the ridges on the Romani side of the oasis, but was apparently still retiring. Some time earlier the 5th Yeomanry Brigade had advanced on a line further north towards Abu Hamra. It was fairly obvious to Chauvel that, with the enemy in strength at Katia, the prospect of overwhelming him with the reduced and tired ranks of the mounted brigades alone was indifferent. To give the British a reasonable chance of success, either the 52nd Division should have advanced earlier in the day, and held the enemy at Katia by a strong frontal attack while the horsemen outflanked him; or, if the mounted brigades were to make the frontal attack, it was essential that the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, marching on Hamisah, should turn the Turks' left flank, and so threaten their communications.
'The regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, when moved from No. 2 Section to Bally Bunion and afterwards to Dueidar, were at a considerable disadvantage as compared with the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealanders. Not only were they strange to the country over which they had to operate, but, with the exception of the little raid to Jifjafa, none of them had been engaged during the war in mounted operations. When the brigade advanced on the morning of August 5th, the troopers were equipped for only one day's work. They carried no tunics or greatcoats, and rode out in their shirt-sleeves. They remained in a forward position without additional clothing until August 21st; so short were they of equipment generally that the stretcher-bearers tore up their shirts to make bandages for the wounded, and then went naked to the waist. Water for the horses was found in the hods, and for some days the animals were fed solely on the harvest of dates, which they ate greedily. But, if Antill's brigade was lacking in experience of mounted operations, and was indifferently equipped, its regiments as they advanced to Hamisah were in hard condition and very keen for action. They had a definite flanking mission which, if carried out boldly, promised results of first class importance. But that day they were unlucky in their brigade leadership.
At g am. the advance-guard, a squadron of the 9th Light Horse Regiment, under Major H. M. Parsons, discovered the enemy occupying a high ridge before Hamisah. Parsons halted his men and waited for Lieutenant-Colonel Scott to come up with the remainder of the regiment. Scott had the choice of at once sending back his horses and making a prolonged advance on foot, or dashing at the gallop for some low ground beneath the hill on which the Turks were posted. With the spirit which marked him through the campaign, he decided to go in mounted. Parsons led his squadron against the centre, while two squadrons were sent to work round, one on either side. In the rush forward Parsons' men suffered very few casualties, although under heavy fire-during the whole war the Turks shot badly if resolutely galloped at. 'The squadron reached shelter a few hundred yards away from the enemy's line, where his fire passed harmlessly over them, and there Parsons dismounted his men and led them up the rise. A group of German machine-gunners, who began to give trouble, was promptly put out of action by the Inverness Battery.
Meanwhile the squadron sent to the right had worked round the enemy's left flank, where it was joined by a squadron of the 10th Light Horse Regiment, and effective enfilade fire was opened on the enemy. The Turkish commander signalled for support from the 5.9-inch guns behind Katia, and these joined in the fight. But either the range was extreme or the shooting faulty, for most of the shells fell short of the Australians and pitched among a force of Turks, who mistaking the bombardment for British, at once hoisted the white flag. Immediately that the fight opened, the Turkish camel convoy retired from the rear, and soon afterwards the infantry began to evacuate the position. The Australian advance, capably supported by machine-guns, was now everywhere being pushed on foot; but some bodies of light horse were still mounted, and one troop, led by Sergeant Sharp,' of the 9th Regiment, raced forward to the cover of a knoll and dismounted for action within fifty yards of the Turks' firing line. This proved the decisive movement of the little engagement. As Sharp's handful of men left. their horses and dashed forward with the bayonet, the enemy force surrendered. The prisoners numbered 425; seven machine-guns were also captured. The fight was a good example of the effect upon Turkish morale of bold tactics swiftly executed. The enemy was shaken by the galloping of the horsemen against the strong front of his position, and then demoralised by the suddenness with which his flank was enveloped and raked with fire. The attitude of the Germans towards the Turks was significantly indicated during the engagement. Twice, as parties of Turks raised the white flag, they were instantly fired upon by the German machine-gunners. The Australian casualties included Lieutenant A. D. Palmer, of the 9th, who was mortally wounded while directing the fire of two machine-guns in the open.
Antill had opened brilliantly. Hamisah lies four or five miles south-south-west of Katia. He had pierced the extended flank-guard of the Turks, and isolated their force towards Mageibra. The engagement had lasted for less than two hours, and there was still ample time for a further strong advance before darkness. The prisoners were collected by 4 p.m., at the time when Chauvel's brigades were closing on Katia. Antill's casualties had been trifling; the men, although somewhat short of drinking water, were still fresh; moreover, they were excited with their first mounted achievement, and were eager to push on. But, as the regiments re-formed after the engagement, they came under light shell-fire from the enemy's distant guns; and Antill, after losing a couple of priceless hours, decided to fall back to Nagid, where he spent the night. Chauvel was thus deprived of the cooperation of a brigade which, in its strength and the condition of its men and horses, was equal to any two of those he had led to Katia. The Hamisah engagement, beyond showing that the 8th, 9th, and 10th Light Horse Regiments, fighting for the first time as mounted troops, were made of the same spirited and stern stuff as the men of the 1st and 2nd Brigades, was of very little consequence.
It was 2.30 p.m. before the 1st and 2iid Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealanders, and the 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade moved definitely against the Katia position. The enemy still occupied Abu Hamra with a light rear-guard, and the 42nd Division advanced against him there only at the time when the mounted brigades commenced their march. The 42nd Division followed the mounted troops; but two of its brigades were not yet east of Bir el Nuss, while the headquarters of the 125th Brigade was about Mount Royston, and it was plain that the division could not expect to engage the enemy before dark. At about 3.30 the four mounted brigades were riding down on Katia, the order from right to left being New Zealanders, the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, and the yeomanry on the left flank.
As the mounted troops advanced from Romani, they had complete evidence of the enemy's demoralisation. They rode down hundreds of straggling Turks, who made no show of resistance, and the desert was thickly littered with arms, munitions, and equipment. This prompted the conclusion that the main retreating force, when overtaken, would be found in confusion; and it was hoped that, even if the infantry failed to reach Katia during daylight, a vigorous assault by the mounted brigades alone would he rewarded by the capture of the enemy's heavy guns and the possible surrender of his entire force. But this confident anticipation proved ill-founded. The Turks had left part of their reserves around Katia, where they occupied a position very difficult to assail; as their battered troops trailed in from Romani, they were revived with water and at once thrown into position. Their line ran along the west and north of the palm hods which marked the oasis, and, except on the left, was covered by a salt-water swamp some 2,000 yards in width. In front of this swamp, on the British side, lay a narrow, bare salt-pan, stretching for a few miles north and south; and from the edge of this little plain the broken hillocky country extended west to the sands of Romani. Although not entrenched, the position gave the Turkish riflemen good cover about the trunks of the palms, and they broke down great quantities of branches to add to their concealment. They had succeeded in saving most of their machine-guns, which were now well placed and hidden from observation; their heavier guns-with the exception of a few mountain pieces which they had taken forward to Romani on the night of the 3rd. and lost-were well placed in their rear, probably about Hod el Negiliat, and were in very little danger from the batteries of the gallant but comparatively feeble British horse artillery.
The three Anzac brigades formed line at the western edge of the naked salt-pan, and then, fixing bayonets, charged mounted towards the Turkish position. This was the first time in the campaign that bayonets had been drawn by the men in the saddle. Obviously the weapon could not be used effectively from horseback, even if the regiments succeeded in charging into the ranks of the enemy. But, with the Turks shaken as they were, it was thought that the moral effect of the flashing steel might serve a useful purpose. If the salt-pan had extended right up to the enemy riflemen, this hope might have been realised; but the swamp between the little stretch of level ground and the palm hods which sheltered the enemy soon put an end to the galloping advance.
Shouting loudly, and with bayonets glinting in the strong sunshine, the long charging line of the three brigades thundered across the hard ground of the basin. It was the first essay of the Australians and New Zealanders in a cavalry charge, and the men forgot their exhaustion in the wild elation of the moment. But their exhilaration was short-lived. As the leading horses reached the swamp, they immediately floundered to a standstill, bogged to their knees; as the successive waves of riders heaped up, they offered for a few moments a rare target to the enemy. But leaders were quick to appreciate the position, and orders were given to dismount and continue the advance on foot. The horses were galloped back to cover, while the riflemen laboured slowly through the morass.
On the extreme left the 5th Yeomanry Brigade found the enemy strongly entrenched at Er Rabah, and, coming under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, was definitely checked. The 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades continued to flounder through the swamp. All along the line the advance was marked by bold and confident leadership. On the right the 5th Light Horse Regiment and the Aucklands of the New Zealand Brigade were ordered to gallop at a large palm hod about half-a-mile to the south of Katia, which was separated from the main oasis by the swamp. This hod was believed to contain a number of the enemy's heavy guns.
The two regiments, with fixed bayonets, charged for half a mile, and entered the palms, only to find them deserted. As they galloped up they came under heavy fire from artillery and machine-guns, which, shortening the range, played upon the palms and made further mounted advance impossible. Wilson, of the 5th, who had his horse shot under him in the gallop up, dismounted his men, and, together with the Aucklands, worked round on foot towards the right. But progress was slow and expensive. Wilson found that the main Katia oasis was strongly held by machine-guns and a superior force of riflemen, and although his force advanced for nearly a mile, there was at no time any prospect of reaching a decision before nightfall. The 5th Light Horse Regiment suffered twenty-eight casualties, and the quality of the leadership was shown by the fact that, among the officers, Majors W. L. F. Wright and A. G. Bolingbroke, Captains W. Chathams and J. G. D. McNeill, and Lieutenants R. A. N. Plant and F. M. Waitell were all wounded. The failure of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on the right to advance beyond Hamisah, and the early check to the Yeomanry Brigade on the left, reduced the assault to a direct frontal advance by three weak brigades with both flanks open.
Meanwhile the men of the 2nd Brigade had picked their way slowly through the swamp until they were within from 600 to 1,000 yards of the enemy. But the men had now been three days without sleep, except for occasional snatches, and a light horse line fighting dismounted is always very thin. If the men are fresh and the ground favourable they are, compared with the heavily loaded infantry, very fast in approach, and their speed compensates for their weakness. But, floundering as they now were in the bog, their advance was both slow and feeble, and their fire-strength was insufficient to shift the well-placed enemy. Lawrence in a message to Chauvel that morning had said he was sure the latter's division would "continue to show in the pursuit the magnificent spirit of yesterday." The same spirit was at work, but the task was impossible. The 1st Light Horse Brigade was similarly handicapped, and before dusk the whole line was at a standstill.
The supporting batteries of horse artillery advanced close, and sustained an unequal duel against the heavier and more numerous guns of the enemy; but, whereas the former were in the open, the Austrian and German gunners were well concealed and the British shot without serious effect. Chauvel, whose advanced-headquarters was three miles behind, saw towards evening that there was no chance of the fight developing in his favour, and soon after sunset he ordered a general withdrawal. The Turks made no effort to advance as the regiments retired. The Anzac horses and riders were utterly spent, and most of the men slept in the saddle as they marched back towards Romani. The New Zealand Brigade, after leaving officers' patrols to watch the enemy, spent the night at Hod Abu Adi near Mount Meredith, while the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades marched on to Etmaler and Romani, which they reached about midnight.
At this stage the Turks had suffered about 5,250 battle casualties -1,200 dead were subsequently buried by the British, 4,000 were estimated as having been wounded; they had also lost forty-nine officers and 3,900 other ranks as prisoners. But they had made good their retirement, and had so far escaped with most of their guns. The Katia engagement had been a pure rear-guard operation; and the enemy's leaders admitted the resolution with which the Australians and New Zealanders had pressed the attack on the oasis, and the precariousness of their own position there, by ordering a further retirement immediately after the fall of darkness on the 5th. As Chauvel's jaded horses were dragging their way back towards Romani to water, the Turkish officers were urging their equally exhausted troops eastwards towards Oghratina. Both sides had been reduced to prostration by the desert.
When the light horse reached camp, the men of the 2nd and 3rd Regiments had been fifty-nine hours constantly in the saddle or in the firing line. A large number of their horses had for the same period been entirely without water; for, although orders to water had been given more than once during the operation many of the animals could not at the moment be released from the action. The horses of one squadron of the 6th Regiment had not been watered on the night of the 3rd, and actually went sixty hours without a drink. These wonderful walers were so exhausted on the march to Katia that, despite all their spirit, they lay down in the sand at each temporary halt, but, when urged by their riders, responded gamely and carried them forward. As they approached the oasis where they had frequently been watered on reconnaissance, they revived and engaged with spirit in the final gallop before the dismounted attack; they also carried their riders back that night to Romani. Such endurance becomes the more remarkable when it is remembered that, owing to the intense heat, the horses on the desert refused food when they had been more than a few hours without drink. Their capacity to suffer and continue working, as disclosed upon Sinai, was unsuspected even by their Australian riders.
By the morning of August 6th the Turks had established a clear gap of many miles between their rear-guard and the main strength of the British cavalry, and the plight of Chauvel's horses and men made further pursuit by all the brigades temporarily impossible. But Lawrence in a message to Chauvel on the evening of the 5th hoped that with his three " fresh " brigades (the New Zealanders, the 3rd Light Horse, and the Yeomanry) the pursuit to-morrow would be pushed to "the utmost limit and any small resistance broken through." The New Zealand Brigade therefore rode forward at dawn, closely followed by the 5th Yeomanry Brigade, and, after finding Katia clear, made strong touch with the Turkish rear-guard towards Oghratina. At the same time Chauvel ordered the 3rd Light Horse Brigade to Hod el Sagia on the south; and, thrusting vigorously but without serious fighting, Antill's advance-guard reached Hod Abu Darem. The Turkish rear, however, bristled with resistance, and an opportunity offered for an attack by the horsemen.
If Chauvel's troops, and especially the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, were in a sorry condition on the morning of the 6th, they were not nearly so reduced as some of the infantry. As we have seen, the 52nd Division on the morning of the 5th was fresh and strong in its posts between Mahemdia and Katib Gannit. They might by vigorous action have reached Katia in the forenoon. But they did not move from their defences until the horsemen advanced at 2.30 in the afternoon, and by dusk they had covered only a few miles, and were out of touch with the enemy during the Katia engagement. While, however, the Lowlanders of this division - who had had a few weeks' experience of the desert, and were hard and capable of forced marching-were carefully nursed, a cruel and hopeless task was set the soft, green troops of the 42nd. All day in the furnace-heat these East Lancashires were urged forward from about Bir el Nuss towards Katia, with most disastrous results. Most of the hardy, acclimatised Australians and New Zealanders had fought Romani on the 4th on one quart bottle of water to each man, and had advanced on Katia on the 5th with the same short allowance. But the Anzacs knew how to conserve their water-supply; and, since they often rode, and when on foot advanced light, they could survive on a supply which was quite inadequate to the needs of the heavily-loaded, inexperienced infantry. Before noon the battalions of the 42nd were showing acute distress; by nightfall, when their advance-guard approached Katia at the close of the engagement, their exhausted stragglers numbered thousands. As many as 300 fell out of a single battalion. Many lost their senses, and dug madly with their hands in the burning sands for water. Still more fell unconscious, and not a few died. General Murray, who was being urged by the War Office to exploit the Romani victory as fully as possible pleaded the temporary exhaustion of his cavalry and the indifferent quality of his infantry. Cabling to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he said, "I cannot pursue with the vigour I should like, because the horses of the Anzac Mounted Division are exhausted. After a short march on the 5th, 800 men were missing from one brigade of the 42nd Division, and the General Officer Commanding the 52nd Division tells me that many of his men are undersized and are quite incapable of sustained effort. The Turkish infantry is almost as fast over the desert as my cavalry. They are fine, active men, in good condition."
The New Zealand Brigade demonstrated against the enemy rear-guard at Oghratina on the 9th, while Antill endeavoured to turn the left flank of the resistance at Hod el Sagia; but again the Turks, whose organisation was hourly improving after their disaster at Romani, proved too strong to be driven or broken. On the morning of the 8th Oghratina was found clear; pushing forward, the patrols discovered the enemy concentrated on high ground immediately to the east of the well at Bir el Abd, twenty-two miles from Romani on the track to El Arish. It was then resolved to make a further attempt to break his rear-guard, capture his guns, and destroy the balance of his force. Recognising the impossibility of advancing the infantry so far, Lawrence decided that only mounted troops should be engaged, and on the afternoon of the 8ih all Chauvel's brigades were moved forward for an attack next day. On the 8th Chauvel established his headquarters at Oghratina, and the New Zealand and Yeomanry Brigades camped there that night. Royston was temporarily given command of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, with orders to move from Romani, water at Katia at dusk on the 5th, and push forward in the night as far as Hod Hamada, four and a half miles north-west from Bir el Abd. At daylight on the 9th Royston's column was to march on a point two miles north-east of the Turkish position; at the same time the New Zealanders were to move direct on Bir el Abd; the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, keeping contact with the New Zealanders until they were abreast of the enemy's position, would attempt to swing round and reach Salmana, a hod about five miles east of Abd on the road to El Arish. The 5th Yeomanry Brigade was in reserve.
In its general features the fight at Bir el Abd was very similar to that at Katia, four days earlier. At Abd, however, the Turk not only occupied a position naturally as strong as that which favoured him at Katia, but had expended considerable labour upon his trenches and redoubts. His troops were no longer demoralised by a crushing defeat or suffering from extreme physical exhaustion. They had been rested arid refreshed with water and rations, and had received considerable reinforcements which had not been engaged at Romani. They had about 6,000 men in the line, against a total of about 3,000 dismounted rifles under Chauvel. From his line on high, sandy ridges, freely dotted about with sand-banked bushes, the enemy looked down upon the advancing horsemen. Against Chauvel's four batteries of horse artillery he had probably quite as many mountain guns, in addition to several 5.9-inch howitzers. The task before the British force was, therefore, formidable; the only chance of success was, as at Katia, that the 3rd Brigade should succeed in beating down the opposition of the enemy's extended left flank, and in shaking the Bir el Abd defences by threatening his communications.
Regimental leaders, however, advanced on Abd in the belief that the Turks were very weak and that they had an easy day ahead of them. Royston's regiments were very light, some not having more than 180 rifles in the firing line. After riding all night up and down the steep little sand-hills which marked the route, some of the men at dawn discovered a few patches of desert melons, and " found them very good." But most of Royston's men had empty stomachs when at daylight a few 5.9 shells screamed overhead and, pitching just clear of the column, gave the first evidence of the enemy. Camels and convoys could be seen retiring from Abd towards the east, and all ranks were keen for an immediate advance. In the absence of Onslow, Major J. D. Richardson commanded the 7th Light Horse Regiment, and Major M. F. Bruxner the 6th. Fuller having been wounded during the retirement from Katia.
At 4 o'clock in the morning the New Zealanders advanced against the centre, while the 3rd Light Horse Brigade moved simultaneously against a strong position, of which a formidable redoubt at Barda (about two and a half miles to the south) was the dominating feature. An hour later Royston with the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, pressing forward on the north, discovered strong enemy resistance - on a line connecting Bir el Abd with Lake Bardawil. The 1st Light Horse Brigade occupied the extreme left flank. with the 2nd Brigade on its right, and then the New Zealanders, with the 3rd out on the right flank. But the wide stretch of the advance and the lightness of the brigades necessitated a number of menacing gaps. Between the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealanders there was a break of about 800 yards; between Chaytor and the 3rd Brigade there was a space a mile wide, occupied only by one troop of a1)out twenty men. Nevertheless the scattered force, after galloping in until the machine-gun and artillery fire became too heavy to risk the horses further, dismounted and advanced with great dash against the compact, heavily-manned Turkish position. Soon after 5 a.m. the New Zealanders were driving in the enemy outposts, and, pushing on, occupied high ground from which they looked down over the Turkish position on to the well at Abd.
Early in the fight the Turks began to disclose their strength and show consciousness of their superiority. Soon after 6 o'clock they advanced with the bayonet in a counter-attack against Chaytor's regiments, but were stopped and dispersed by the Somerset Battery and effective rifle-fire; a few prisoners were taken. Half-an-hour later the New Zealanders were engaged in a hot fire-fight, with machine-guns working vigorously on both sides. Royston's column was in position, and his two light horse brigades were finding the same stiff opposition.
Shortly after the dismounted advance had begun on the left, a troop of the Wellingtons, about twenty strong, with characteristic Anzac impudence, made a dash at an outpost on a knoll occupied by about 150 of the enemy. The 7th Light Horse Regiment gave the New Zealanders covering fire; the Turks, notwithstanding their numbers, lost their heads, refused the steel, and bolted. Royston's whole line, as it advanced slowly across the deep sand, came under heavy fire from 5 g's, mountain guns, anti-aircraft guns, and sustained shafts of machine-gun fire, and was halted at from 800 to 1,000 yards from the enemy. At about 7.30 the Turks were observed to be working towards the gap between Royston's column and the New Zealanders, and Chaytor ordered the reserve squadron of the 5th Light Horse Regiment on to the ground. An hour later the progress of the 3rd Brigade on the right towards Salmana was seen to have been stopped. Antill was then ordered by Chauvel to abandon that ambitious project, and to advance on Abd, closing up to the right flank of the New Zealanders, where a squadron of the 5th Light Horse Regiment under Major Cameron was being heavily pressed.
At this time the two New Zealand regiments-the Aucklands and the Canterburys-advancing with great resolution despite the severe raking fire from guns and small arms, seemed as if they would pierce the enemy centre; and this impression was strengthened by the increasing stream of transport leaving Abd and going east. But the 3rd Brigade on the right was at a standstill, and Royston was finding resistance on his sector stiffer and the enemy gun-fire more violent. By 10.30 a.m. the enemy guns were showing increased activity on the whole front. The duel between the German 5.9's and the plucky little horse artillery batteries was very one-sided, but the British gunners, pushing up close behind the dismounted cavalry, waged an unequal contest with admirable tenacity and reckless courage. Their relative weakness was emphasised by the failure of their observers to discover the enemy's heavy batteries, while the Germans, knowing the ground in detail, had precisely located the British guns. At about this time Chauvel asked for an aeroplane to assist the British batteries in locating targets.
The promise of the New Zealand advance was quickly dissipated; at 10.30 Chaytor was obliged to ask for reinforcements to support the 5th Light Horse squadron on his left, and the Warwickshire Yeomanry was sent in there. An hour later the British line, which then formed a rough semi-circle about Abd on the west and about two and a half miles from the well, was everywhere checked and safely held. But the Turk still seemed uncertain as to the strength of the attacking force, for he continued to withdraw his camel trains to the east, and even set fire to one of his dumps. The horse batteries found good practice on the retreating convoys, but at no time were they able to make any useful impression on the enemy's guns or his well-placed earthworks.
If the Turks at any time in the engagement contemplated a general withdrawal, they did not entertain such a thought for long. Shortly before midday their line from end to end showed an ominous liveliness, and from now on they counter-attacked on every sector and threw Chauvel's brigades on the defensive. Their first blow fell upon the Canterburys, who, although greatly outnumbered, scattered successive infantry waves with most effective shooting from rifles and machine-guns. At about the same time one of the heavy guns found a target in the wagon teams of the Ayrshire Battery, and four men and thirty-seven horses were killed in a few minutes, and several others wounded.
Leaving their trenches, the enemy then advanced in successive waves upon the Canterburys and Aucklands; but the trusty New Zealanders, appreciating the defensive after their slow exposed advance, shot down the Turks in great numbers and, supported by the horse artillery, drove them back in disorder. Soon afterwards Royston made touch with the New Zealanders, and slightly consolidated the British position; but he was then heavily attacked on his left, where the Turks rushed at the 1st Light Horse Brigade with great determination. Simultaneously the enemy struck with three battalions against the yeomanry on the left of the New Zealanders, but the Warwickshires stood firm, and again the assault was checked. Antill was also in trouble. Obliged slightly to withdraw his line, he advised Chauvel that there was very little prospect that his brigade would break through the opposition. By 2 p.m. the enemy counter-attack was in full progress. Royston was giving ground on the left, and the position of the Ayrshire Battery became for the moment critical. Efforts to withdraw the guns were frustrated by the fire of the Turks; it was not until all reserves had been put into the sector covering the battery, and troopers' horses had been brought up to take the place of those killed by the enemy, that the 13-pounders could be pulled out. Meanwhile Royston's left was slowly retiring, and Antill's withdrawal was continued for nearly a mile.
Yet the position, if serious, was by no means critical. All along the front the regiments, even where they were falling back, were conforming admirably in alternate troops and squadrons; and although under heavy punishment, they appreciated the rifle practice against the Turks advancing in the open. The shooting, though rapid, was marked by the steadiness which was always a quality of the light horse and the New Zealanders. At this time all the reserves of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades were in the line, and for two hours the front was maintained unbroken, although steadily retreating. As the Turks recognised the possibility of overwhelming the British force, their gun-fire gathered intensity, until it reached a degree of severity unknown by the light horse either at Romani or at Gallipoli. Antill's regiments of the 3rd Brigade on the right had vainly attempted to make headway. At the outset tactics were tried similar to those which had been used successfully at Hamisah, and the squadrons galloped forward on their horses until they were stopped by enemy fire. Then dismounted rushes were tried, and men moving forward in successive troops under covering fire. At 3 p.m. orders were given for a general advance, but the line was too slender to dislodge the enemy, and very little ground was made. Two hours later the Turk, in conformity with his aggressive movement against the other brigades, strongly counter-attacked, and, falling upon the thin line of the riflemen, pressed it strongly. The retirement became general. At the same time the led horses of the 8th Light Horse Regiment were heavily bombarded, and many animals were killed. The men of Parsons' squadron of the 9th on the left held their ground until the Turks were within fifty yards of them, and retirement was further delayed by an attempt by Parsons and Sergeant-Major Shawl3 to carry out three wounded scouts. But the position became so critical that the men had to be abandoned. Two of them the Turks took prisoner; the third, who was badly hit, they immediately stripped of his boots and clothing, leaving the man himself in the sun. When the 10th Regiment came up to the support of the 9th, the line rallied and recovered most of the lost ground, and succeeded in carrying out the wounded man. An elderly trooper of the 8th, who fought in these operations, was accompanied by his three sons, the family of volunteers making up a complete section. In the fighting at Bir el Abd he was holding his own horse and three others ridden by his sons, who were forward in the firing line. An enemy shell killed three of the horses, but the old soldier escaped unhurt.
By 4.30 Royston's left had been almost completely turned, and the 1st Light Horse Brigade in that quarter was still suffering heavy casualties. The Turks then threw between 2,000 and 3,000 men against Royston's centre, where the rival lines were only a few hundred yards apart and the rifle-fire on both sides was highly destructive. All day the New Zealanders had doggedly maintained their advanced position, despite the withdrawal of the 3rd on their right and the retirement of Royston's force on their left, and they were now badly exposed in the open with enfilade fire from either side. But still they hung on.
At 5.30 Chauvel ordered a general withdrawal. It was recognised that the breakaway would be attended with considerable risk, and that only the heavy ground could save the regiments from a hand to hand encounter with the superior forces of the emboldened enemy. As soon as the movement was perceived, the Turks assaulted strongly on a front of two and a half miles, but the stubborn steadiness of the individual men and their implicit trust in their officers saved the situation from disaster. Troop alternating with troop and squadron with squadron, and bearing their wounded, the long, irregular line of dismounted men fought their way back to their horses. Not a troop was shattered, and the merit of the movement was enhanced by the condition of the mz. After riding all night and supplied only with a quart bottle of water apiece, they had fought from daylight to sunset in the heat of a foundry. Tanned as they were, their elbows became blistered from the constant contact with the scalding sand as they gripped their hot rifles.
On no part of the long line did the Turks in their counterattack, succeed in making contact with the bayonet. To the right of the New Zealanders, however, where the squadron of the 5th Light Horse Regiment under Cameron occupied a low knoll, they pressed in very close. Cameron had his horses under good cover only 200 yards from the firing line, and had been ordered to retire at 6 p.m.; but the difficulty of carrying out the wounded led to delay, and when the last covering troop left the position, the Turks were almost upon them and raced them for their horses.
Not only had Chauvel's mounted forces failed to carry the position, but the enemy by his strong sustained counterattack had thrown the mounted brigades on the defensive, and had driven them off the ground. Chauvel's casualties for a brief engagement with mounted troops were heavy. Eight officers and sixty-five other ranks were killed. and thirty-three officers and 210 other ranks wounded, while six men were posted as missing. During the Romani operations a cablegram was received from General Birdwood asking if Antill could be spared for the command of an infantry brigade in France. Antill elected to go, and on the evening of the 9th handed over the command of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade to Royston.
Lawrence, who had been in close touch all day with Chauvel by telegraph, desired that, if possible, the mounted force should bivouac that night close to Bir el AM, with a view to a further assault if the enemy should endeavour to retreat. Arrangements were made accordingly. But soon afterwards Chauvel, in view of the large number of fresh troops disclosed by the enemy and the exhausted state of his own brigades, decided after consultation with Chaytor and Royston to pull right back to Oghratina and camp there behind a strong outpost line. The 3rd Brigade, however, was left on the flank, and passed the night at Hod Abu Dhahab.
The total British casualties for the five days' operations were; officers, twenty-two killed, eighty-one wounded, one missing; other ranks, 180 killed, 801 wounded, and forty-five missing. At Romani on the 4th the 52nd Division had 195 casualties from shell-fire in their posts. The losses to the 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade were light, and the 42nd Division was scarcely engaged at all. The great majority of the losses were therefore suffered by the Australians and the New Zealanders.
After Abd most of the wounded men had to be carried for some hours over the rough country on the camel cacolets, and suffered extremely from jolting. From the opening of the fight at Romani to the end of the campaign, the light horsemen observed a voluntary and unwritten law that no sound man should allow himself to be taken prisoner, and no wounded man should be permitted to fall into enemy hands. To a singular degree this noble pledge was observed. After two and a half years' constant fighting only seventy-three light horse prisoners had been taken by the Turks, and most of these were wounded before capture. Not a single light horse officer was captured by the enemy. During the same period the light horse captured between 40,000 and 50,000 Turks in an advance which extended in a straight line over 400 miles. The " law " concerning the wounded often led to heavy sacrifice, since men endeavoured to save those who had fallen, and it was more than once condemned from headquarters. But in the heat of battle it was always remembered, and wounded light horsemen with the fight thick about them had the satisfaction of knowing that, if it was humanly possible for them to be carried out, they would not be allowed to fall into the hands of an enemy who, if he fought chivalrously, was extremely callous in his treatment of prisoners; they knew also that they would be spared from the brutality of the Bedouin, who always prowled round the edges of the battle grounds ready to tear uniform and boots from the fallen, and even to dig up and strip the dead. The 210 wounded who were carried out of action at Abd greatly hampered the withdrawal, but, with the exception of a few men whom the New Zealanders found it impossible to save, they were all borne back to Oghratina. Some remarkable instances of fortitude by the wounded were recorded about this time. The men so feared the camel cacolets that, if they could possibly be put on their horses, they preferred to ride. During the operations two Australians who were suffering from fractured thighs rode their horses for upwards of seven miles, and one of them survived.
With the fight at Abd the Romani operations concluded, although on the three following days the New Zealanders, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, and the yeomanry continued to press and harass the enemy's rear-guard. On the 10th and 11th the brigades, on advancing, found the enemy still on the battleground, and there was a desultory exchange of long-range fire, but no close engagement. Early on the morning of the 12th the New Zealanders found Abd evacuated; but the enemy was discovered in strength at Salmana, where he was engaged at long range by the three brigades, supported by all the horse artillery. That night he withdrew towards El Arish. Chauvel's contract was completed. He had finally cleared the oasis area. From the opening of the fight on the sands at Romani, where the men of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades had fought superbly as infantry against terrible odds, to the last shots at Salmana, the horsemen under the sure quiet touch of their far-seeing leader had, almost single-handed, broken and then driven the enemy. But the Turks, as they fell away from Abd towards the east, had some sound grounds for self congratulation. They had in their brief, disastrous campaign lost more than half of their total force; but, owing to the faulty staff tactics of the British High Command, they had escaped with all their heavy guns and much material. Romani had brought their ambitious project to a tragic end, but fortune had favoured them in the days which followed.
Throughout the operations there was evidence that, although so much plain warning had been given of the Turkish intention to attack, the blow had come before the British arrangements were complete. The 42nd Division was late at every stage, not because its leader failed, but because of the miscalculations of the High Command. So was the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, which could easily have been up with the New Zealanders in the attack on Mount Royston on August 4th. The same was the case with the mobile column under Colonel Smith, VC, on the extreme right. As Lawrence failed to coordinate the command of the two divisions at Romani, so Murray neglected to coordinate the command of the No. 2 and No. 3 Sections of the Canal Defences during the operations, although both were vitally concerned. The result was that Antill with the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was released too late for the decisive opportunity on the 4th, while Smith was throughout controlled from No. 2 Section, and his work in consequence was isolated and practically worthless to Lawrence and Chauvel. But, taking this fact into consideration, and also remembering the hurried manner in which Smith's little force was flung together, its bold, probing adventure without support on either side was a particularly fine performance. The column was made up of the 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel W. Grant," a regiment of City of London Yeomanry, and the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 10th Companies of the new Imperial Camel Corps which General Murray was organising. Moving from Hod el Bada in No. 2 Section, the hastily formed column found Mageibra evacuated on August 6th, and marched on the 7th towards Bir el Aweidia, about four miles to the north-east.
'There the advance-guard of the 11th Light Horse Regiment rushed an enemy outpost mounted. The Turks attempted to fall back on their main line, but Lieutenant F. G. Farlow by a smart piece of work with his troop, rode down and captured fifty of them. Here, as further north at that time, the enemy was found to be in an exhausted and dispirited state, and disinclined to fight unless strongly posted.
The country was made up of groups of innumerable little sand-hills of uniform height, alternating with extensive patches of plain covered with short scrub; and so good was the cover that the advancing troops blundered on to small parties of the Turks before they were seen. The enemy's line at Aweidia was located on a long ridge facing north and overlooking a narrow plain. His position was supported by a battery of mountain guns and several machine-guns, which were directed on the little gullies from which the British must emerge as they advanced to the attack across the flat. Smith's force was without guns, and his only support for the rifle fire was four machine-guns and six Lewis guns. While the light horse thrust directly at the position, the Camels and the yeomanry attempted to envelop the enemy's left flank. Owing, however, to the strength and the concealment of the Turks, and the very heavy nature of the ground, the fight did not develop. Communications between Smith's three units was indifferent, and, after a confused fire-contest which lasted until dark, the British were withdrawn. At one stage some men of the 11th Light Horse got within less than half-a-mile of the enemy battery; but it was an isolated thrust, and could not be sustained. Major de Knoop, who commanded the four camel companies, was killed, and Grant had four men killed and Captain L. S. Alexander and four men wounded. On August 8th Smith advanced through Bir el Bayud, met with no opposition, and discovered himself to be clear behind the enemy's flank. His orders had been to find the Turkish left and to harry it as much as possible, and these orders he obeyed with much enterprise. He was in reality groping his way about the desert, seeking the enemy. His information was bad, his supplies were uncertain, his observation was closely limited by the sand-hills, and he never knew before an engagement opened whether his enemy was an outpost or a substantial force. At Hilu, early on the morning of the Mi, the advanced screen of the 11th Light Horse Regiment rode on to Turks in some strength; and Smith, after reconnaissance - very imperfect because of the sea of sand-dunes - ordered an attack. Moving at 9 a.m., the Australians galloped within 1,000 yards of the enemy position, which, when disclosed, proved to be strongly held and supported by two 9-pounder batteries. All day the column endeavoured to get to close quarters; by 5 o'clock in the afternoon very little ground had been made, and about that time the Turks, who had been observed bringing up reinforcements, commenced a heavy counter-attack. They rapidly closed on the thin light horse line; but, although the Australians had several men hit they fortunately had their horses only 100 yards behind, and together with the rest of the column they escaped with their wounded.
Smith then decided to retire and bivouac at Eayud.
The lack of information possessed by the column was forcibly illustrated next morning. The force had camped behind a strong outpost line, at the southern end of a long sand-dune 300 yards from the wells at Bayud. At dawn, as the men commenced watering the horses, they discovered that during the night a force of Turks had come up and dug in just beyond the British outpost on the east. The heavy sand had smothered the noise of the enemy-who were equally ignorant of the presence of Smith's column, which they evidently thought had retired to Mageibra. Their line of trenches ran south-west, while Smith's position faced due north. When the Turks were discovered, the British were already standing to arms, and their camp was about 150 feet above the enemy, who was only about 300 yards distant. A few minutes after the Turks were seen, the Australians and British were pouring a heavy enfilade fire into their trenches with rifles and Lewis guns; camels and other transport close behind the enemy trenches were also brought under heavy fire. The Turks, thrown into confusion, made no effort to fight, but began immediately to retire.
Hoping to envelop the force, Smith then struck in the centre with two squadrons of the 8th, while the third squadron rode round on the left and the yeomanry regiment on the right. The yeomanry, however, were unable to get forward, and the movement failed; but the country was almost impossible for progress either on foot or mounted. As the Australians advanced over the ground where the Turks had been entrenched, they found twenty-one enemy dead and the bodies of thirty-seven camels and fifteen mules. Smith then decided to retire upon Mageibra. The result was that neither side watered that morning at the wells of Bayud, as each had intended.
The Battle of Romani was the decisive engagement of the whole Sinai and Palestine campaign. Down to the morning of August 4th the Turks were engaged in a strong and carefully planned offensive movement against the Canal. The British leader and the Government in London, if they were not deeply concerned at the moment for the safety of the Canal and Egypt, were nevertheless strictly on the defensive. Even Murray's plan to advance to El Arish, in which his Government now concurred, was designed solely to maintain his defence on the most advantageous ground. But the stand of the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and Chaytor's counterstroke had in a few hours changed completely the fortunes of the combatants; and the inevitable result was that both Murray and the Government took an enlarged view of the significance and possibilities of the country as a theatre of war. At Romani the Turks lost the offensive, never to regain it; Chauvel's pursuit to Salmana was the Beginning of the British advance to Aleppo. It is not possible yet to fix the precise moment at which the British Cabinet decided to swing from the policy of defending Egypt to the policy of invading Palestine. But within a few weeks of the fighting of Romani, Murray, with the full concurrence of his Government, was advancing eastwards to El Arish, and was ambitiously planning the conquest of Palestine. Romani was the turning point in the campaign.
Romani must therefore be judged by its broad result. Fighting on the defensive, the British force had first checked the enemy's assault, and then, after routing him and destroying half his force, had driven him from the coveted oasis area back on to the almost waterless desert between Salmana and El Arish. Few victories in warfare are absolutely complete; and it is folly to construct ideal conditions of leadership which might have led to the entire destruction of the Turkish column. If Murray had placed Lawrence in command of the No. 2 and No. 3 Sections of the Canal Defences, and if Lawrence had placed Chauvel or Smith in full command at Romani, the enemy would perhaps have lost all or nearly all his men, and all his guns and material. The arrival of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on the 4th would have ensured the capture of Mount Royston in time for a general counter-attack before darkness came down on the field. A smart advance by the 52ndDivision on the morning of the 8th, or a strong thrust beyond Hamisah by the 3rd Brigade on the same day, might have given Chauvel success at Katia. But this is wisdom after the event. The High Command did not excel at Romani, but the result was still a splendid and far-reaching triumph for British arms. And, considered from any angle, this triumph must stand almost entirely to the credit of Chauvel and his Anzacs.
The simple truth is that, so far as leadership went, Chauvel won Romani single-handed, despite all the fumbling on the part of the higher staffs. Had the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades failed to stop the enemy on Wellington Ridge, there is little room to doubt that, with the Section Command enfeebled and disorganised by the loss of communication, the 52nd Division would have been isolated and destroyed. Never ruffled even at the most critical moments of the fight, and always forward under fire, the Australian leader confidently imposed upon his two brigades the supreme ordeal of battle - a slow fighting retirement in the face of overwhelming odds. It was the first fight in which Chauvel had carried a grave responsibility. He displayed that wide grasp of the whole position and the capacity for instant and decisive action (as when he was obliged to weaken his hard-pressed front on Wellington Ridge to hold up the still more dangerous enveloping movement on his right flank) which afterwards marked his work during the long campaign.
There was some criticism of Chauvel's tactics at Katia and Bir el Abd. The point was raised whether he paid enough attention to the Turkish flanks, and the suggestion was advanced that the frontal attacks should have been made by mere screens, while the full strength of the mounted brigades used their mobility to strike at the enemy's rear. If Chauvel had been supported by infantry-as he certainly should have been at Katia-or had his brigades been fresh and at full strength instead of exhausted and weak, this criticism might have been justified. But for Chauvel, with his tired and decimated horsemen, to have ventured through the enemy line and attacked it in rear, would have been extremely hazardous; considering that he commanded the only troops then capable of fighting the Turks, he would have been taking a grave risk of having his brigades destroyed. That was not Chauvel's way. He was engaging in no reckless gambling on the slender chance of a dramatic victory over the Turkish rear-guard. That Murray knew the extent to which he depended on his Anzacs at that time is shown in a cablegram he sent immediately after Romani to the War Office:
"I have indisputable proof," he said, "that Birdwood has been trying to get G.H.Q. in France to agitate to have some of my Anzac Mounted Division reinforcements sent to France for the purpose of using them as infantry. I wish at once to make it clear that I cannot spare a single man from these reinforcements. These Anzac troops are the keystone of the defence of Egypt, and I am at this moment arranging to form all reinforcements into camel corps. I know I can rely on your help in this matter, which is of vital importance to the defence of Egypt."
In view of this high appreciation of the value of the Australians and New Zealanders on the front, supported as it was by the many messages of unstinted praise sent to the Anzacs both during the preliminary reconnaissances and over the period of the actual fighting, Murray's subsequent official dispatch covering the Battle of Romani caused much surprise. If the story of the work both before and during the engagement is read only in Murray's own expressions of opinion in the contemporary official papers, it is beyond all question that the Anzac Mounted Division fought Romani almost alone. But in the Commander-in-Chief's narrative of the engagement, as sent to the War Office and subsequently published, the decisive work of the light horse and New Zealanders is slurred over, and the British infantry is credited with activities which were not displayed.
Still more difficult to understand was the discrepancy between Murray's messages of appreciation to the troops and his list of awards to officers and men for service covering the period of the Romani fighting. The great majority of these went to troops recruited in the United Kingdom, and an excessive number to the officers of the Staff, which had blundered in the conduct of the fight from beginning to end. Had no awards been made, the Anzacs would not have complained; but the publication of a list so discriminating and unfair caused much discontent. Some months after Romani was fought, the Commander-in-Chief visited the Romani battleground, and went over the position in detail with a number of staff officers from the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and some British infantry brigades. At the close of this visit the Commander-in-Chief generously expressed to the Australians the opinion that his dispatch covering the operations had been unfair to Chauvel's men.
Reference to this unpleasant subject is made only because it is necessary to emphasise that the Australians on the Palestine front suffered all through the campaign because of the absence of direct touch with the Australian Government. When misunderstanding arose, instead of being cleared up by plain speech and open negotiation, it was allowed to continue, and to exercise a sinister influence upon the Imperial relationship. The question of the correct form of organisation to secure unity of control and administrative efficiency was admittedly a difficult one. No useful precedents were available. General Bridges1' saw far ahead when he took with him from Australia the nucleus of a base organisation, and provided for an AIF Commander. But the system as it grew needed to be brought to its logical conclusion. The AIF became divided, and parts of it served in separate and important theatres of war. It required in consequence a headquarters separate from that of either force. That headquarters should have been in touch with the supreme direction of the war, and obviously a representative of the Commonwealth Minister for Defence should have been available to direct its policy.
Romani and Bir el Abd summary, Keogh Account Topic: BatzS - Bir el Abd
Bir el Abd
Sinai, 9 August 1916
Keogh, EG, Suez to Aleppo, Map 7, p. 65.
[Click on map for larger version.]
Colonel Eustace Graham Keogh was commissioned by the Directorate of Military Training to produce a survey of the Sinai and Palestine campaign for training purposes of the Army in 1954. The result was his book called, Suez to Aleppo, published in Melbourne in 1955. This particular book was little used in the study of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign because of the embargo placed upon it by the Army which meant that its pages were only available to those who were members of the Army. Consequently the value of this small work has never been brought to the attention of the public and consequently is often ignored as a source by many scholars of this period. It is a fine book written specifically from a military point of view and thus looks at issues as the men would have done so at the time when these events were being recorded.
Keogh, EG, Suez to Aleppo, (Melbourne 1955)
Although the Egyptian Expeditionary Force won the battle of Romani, the engagement reflects little credit on the commander responsible for its conduct. His forecast of von Kressenstein's course of action was correct and his general plan to meet it - to let the enemy commit himself deeply and then destroy him with a strong flank attack - was perfectly sound. But his arrangements for putting his plan into elect left much to be desired.
Reference to Map 7 on page 65 shows that the vital ground was the area Katib Gannit-Railhead-Canterbury Hill-Etmaler. If the enemy effected a strong lodgement in that area he would be on the right rear of 52 Division in the main position, and in control of its dumps and its principal water supply reservoir. Anzac Mounted Division would have been either driven back against the rear of 52 Division or been forced away from the main position in the other direction. The security of that vital ground should, therefore, have been the first consideration in formulating the detailed plan for the battle.
It was expected that the main weight of the attack would develop south of Katib Gannit and fall on Anzac Mounted Division. When the New Zealand Mounted Brigade was taken from the division to form part of the counter-attack force only two ALH brigades were left, and between them they could put not more than 1,800 m on the ground. Since this slender force was to receive the main impact of the enemy's blow, it was taking a grave and unnecessary risk to stake everything upon the light horsemen being able to parry the blow. It seems reasonable to suggest that if it was at all possible another body of troops should have been provided for the defence of the vital ground.
The whole of 52 Division was allotted to the defence of the sector Katib Gannit-Mahemdia. Since the enemy was not expected to make a strong or sustained effort in that sector, it is hard to understand why so many troops were retained there in a purely static role. Possibly it was thought that the stationing of 156 Infantry Brigade - the reserve Brigade of 52 Division - near Romani provided sufficient security for the vital ground. But that brigade was not detailed for the defence of the vital ground, indeed for any pre-determined task. It remained under the command of 52 Division and, as we have seen, that formation was planning to employ it in a different direction at the very moment when the vital ground was in danger of being lost. It might have been lost, too, if it had not been for the tenacity of the mounted troops and the initiative of two relatively junior officers, the commander of the Gloucester squadron and the commander of the infantry battalion of 156 Brigade who entered the fight on their own responsibility. If it had been lost the Turks could have shifted their communications further to the north where they would have been protected by the Katia position. If they had done that the counter-stroke could not have been developed and 52 Division would probably have been rolled up from right to left. All these risks could have been avoided by a more sensible allotment of troops and a sounder system of command.
There was no overall or co-ordinating commander in the battle zone. General Lawrence's plan to control the battle from Kantara was faulty to an extreme degree. The gamble he made with his slender means of inter-communication was altogether unjustified. When the telephone line was cut he might just as well have been in Cape Town as in Kantara. From that moment he lost control of his battle and exercised no influence whatever over the course of events until the crisis was past. Each divisional commander fought his own battle quite independently. With his right rear endangered by the retirement of the light horsemen who were being very heavily pressed, the commander of 52 Division was planning a counter-attack which at that stage of the battle could have had no effect at all. It seems true to say that throughout the first day Chauvel was the only commander at divisional level and above who had a clear idea of what was happening. His coolness and skill, and the fighting qualities of his troops, were the principal factor, in the successful outcome of the battle.
Through his faulty deployment of his troops and his failure to establish a proper command organization, General Lawrence was forced to employ Sector Mounted Troops, not in the decisive counter-stroke for which they were intended, but in what was virtually a local counterattack to retrieve the position on Mount Royston. Further, owing to the uncertainty which prevailed a Kantara, 3 ALH Brigade meandered about through the first day without accomplishing anything. Even then Lawrence did not go forward to supervise the execution of his orders for the counter-attack which was arranged for the second day. As a result the actions of the formations were uncoordinated, and von Kressenstein was able to extricate his force from a dangerous situation.
The two brigade ambulances of Anzac Mounted Division were responsible for evacuating their casualties to railhead, troth which point responsibility for their care, treatment and evacuation rested with Sector Headquarters and GHQ Notwithstanding all the notice given by the enemy of his impending attack, and the expectation that a big battle was about to take place, the arrangements for the transport of the wounded from railhead to Kantara were deplorable. No ambulance trains were provided. One lot of wounded arrived at railhead at 1000 hours when there was an empty train in the siding. But, despite the protests of the medical officers, it was used for the transport of prisoners while the wounded men were allowed to lie about for hours in the blistering sun.
Casualties were taken to Kantara in open trucks, the journey occupying from six to fifteen hours, during which time the men were without lights or attendance. Not a few of them died en route from neglect and exhaustion. Some of them remained in Kantara for two days, almost entirely without attention or food.
One historian naively explains away this Crimean staff work on the grounds that: "At the period of the battle of Romani no ambulance trains had yet been taken across the Canal." Why were not ambulance trains takes across the Canal? There was plenty of notice that they would be required. And if ambulance trains could not be taken across, why was not some rolling stock specially prepared for the transport of wounded? And if that much could not have been done, it is really very difficult to explain why proper attention during the journey and at Kantara was not provided.
The non-existence of proper arrangements for the care of their wounded created amongst all ranks of Anzac Mounted Division, the formation most concerned, a feeling of resentment and distrust towards the higher command which lasted for a long time. It was a good demonstration of how not to go about building up the morale and confidence of the troops.
With the slender means of transport available, which strictly limited the size of his striking force, the venture was for von Kressenstein a gamble in space and time. He would have to win quickly or not at all. Since he had neither the time nor the troops to develop a deliberate attack on the fortified front of 52 Division, and simultaneously hold Katia and his open flank securely, the only course open to him was to make his thrust against the British right. He accepted the risk to his own flank which this course entailed in the hope that he would have won the battle before danger developed in that quarter. He could, perhaps, have reduced the risk by allotting a smaller force to the holding attack on 52 Division, and putting mare troops into protective screen on his open flank. However, he had to act on the information he had at his disposal when making his plans. At that time he did not know that 52 Division was incapable of rapid movement on the desert. Besides, he had to make sure that the whole of that division was pinned down.
On the whole von Kressenstein conducted his attack with skill and, determination. His ruse of advancing in the dusk close on the heels of the withdrawing patrols of Anzac Mounted Division is worthy of note. That division had fallen into the habit of sending out and withdrawing its patrols in accordance with a fixed routine, a procedure which gave von Kressenstein the chance to effect a surprise. The danger was partly averted by the alertness of the sentries, though the attack did develop sooner and in greater strength than expected. In view of the proximity of the enemy and his evident intention to attack, Anzac Mounted Division should have guarded against surprise by sending out a few patrols after dark each night.
Although he had suffered a severe defeat and the loss of nearly 4,000 prisoners, von Kressenstein kept his force in hand and conducted a skilful retreat through previously prepared positions. With the exception of one mountain battery he got all his guns away, which was a creditable performance on ground where the going for wheels was very heavy. In retreat the Turks showed remarkable recuperative powers. Given a drink - they appeared to suffer no ill effects from the brackish water - a meal and a little rest, they were again ready to put up their usual stubborn defence. And from first to last they showed an astonishing capacity for making long and rapid marches over the desert.
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