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Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919

The Battle of Bir El Abd

The Battle of Bir El Abd

Owing to the heavy work which had fallen to the 1st and 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigades during the previous month and in resisting the main Turkish attack on the 3rd and 4th of page 102August, orders were issued that the men and horses of these brigades were to be rested as much as possible, the men having had little sleep for three nights. On the 6th and 7th, therefore, they remained in their respective camps whilst the other mounted troops kept in touch with the enemy, and at the same time the 42nd and 52nd Infantry Divisions were advanced to garrison Katia and Abu Hamra respectively.

With that thoroughness and foresight which were characteristics of the Turkish organisation throughout the Romani operations, the enemy had constructed a series of defensive positions as he advanced, these now proving of immense value to fall back on during his retreat. His numerical strength was also favourable to him at this time, apart from the fighting qualities of his troops, for it debarred any interference with his flanks and enabled him to protect his guns and to retire the latter in comparative safety well in rear of his column. In consequence, the Turks fought a stubborn rearguard action with the mounted troops which followed up close on his heels, till he was driven to a strong position at Bir El Abd, twenty miles north of Romani, on 8th August.

A general advance was then decided on, and the 1st and 2nd A.L.H. Brigades, resting near Romani, were placed under the command of Brigadier-General Royston, and ordered to cooperate with the other mounted troops. Leaving Romani on the morning of the 8th, Royston's Column (as it was then called) reached Katia later in the day, where orders were received for the operation, these being generally as follows:—Royston's Column to continue its march during the night and to be in position early next morning to the north-west of Bir El Abd in readiness to attack at dawn on the left of the N.Z. Brigade, the latter to move along the telegraph line direct on Bir El Abd with the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade on its right; the Mobile Camel Column to operate in the direction of Bir Bayud; the Yeomanry to be in reserve.

Royston's Column, with the Ayrshire Battery attached, left Katia at 11 p.m. on the 8th and, marching practically all night, it reached high ground to the north-west of Bir El Abd, where it came under the fire of a 5.9 gun at 5 a.m. on the 9th. The 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade (Lieut.-Colonel Meredith) then took up a position on the northern portion of elevated ground in sand dunes facing the east, and the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade (Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum) continued the line southward on their right, at the same time joining up with the New Zealand page 103Brigade, which had taken up a position west of and overlooking Bir El Abd. The Turks were at that time holding a line about ten miles in length, facing west, with their right resting near the Sabhket el Bardawil, and their left at Bir Bayud. From mis position our line was violently bombarded, and the Ayrshire Battery came into action.

At about 5.30 the W.M.R. (Major Spragg), in advance of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, pressed forward on foot to capture a high ridge about half a mile from the first position taken up. Heavy fire was encountered during the advance, but when the Regiment had gained its objective it quickly gained superiority of rifle fire over the enemy, although it suffered from enemy artillery fire, which rained shrapnel and H.E. shells all along the line. Meanwhile the N.Z. Brigade, on the right, had been heavily engaged, and later in the morning the W.M.R., in advance of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, made a further advance to capture a ridge on their left front. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron was on the left, and the 9th on the right of the front line, the 6th Squadron being in support. The 7th A.L.H. Regiment acted in conjunction with the W.M.R. and with the machine guns it gave a covering fire as the W.M.R. advanced. The enemy brought heavy rifle and machine-gun fire to bear on the advancing line, but the W.M.R. pressed the attack over the intervening ground—a distance of some four hundred yards—and captured their objective. The latter then drew fire of every description, high-explosive shells, shrapnel, and bullets tearing up the ground along it, and most of the casualties in the W.M.R. during the day were inflicted there. Fortunately, the soft sand minimised the effect of the high-explosive shells; otherwise the casualties would have been much greater.

Meanwhile the New Zealand Brigade, after having advanced resolutely in the centre, became heavily engaged, and at 8 30 the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, then some distance away on the right, was ordered to get into close touch with if but this Brigade made little headway.

About noon the enemy burned two store depôts, and his movements indicated that he intended to retire, but a little later he changed his plans. Finding that he could hold his position, and that his flanks were not threatened, he became aggressive, and with his great numerical strength he reinforced his line with fresh troops from time to time, counter-attacking with great determination, and our advance was completely checked.

At the same time the enemy used his big guns with great effect, page 104high-explosive shells landing on the Ayrshire Battery, of which four men and thirty-seven horses were killed and seven men and seven horses wounded. His shells fell also in the valleys where the led horses were sheltered, and it was found necessary to move them further hack. At 1.30 p.m. the enemy delivered an attack with three battalions on the left of the New Zealand Brigade. The gap which had existed there had been filled by the Warwickshire Yeomanry, which met the attack, assisted by the Leicester Battery, and the pressure was relieved.

At 2 p.m. the enemy launched a determined attack on Royston's Column, supported by heavy artillery fire, driving back the right flank. The Ayrshire Battery was ordered back, but, owing to the casualties which had occurred among the horses, it had been rendered immobile. All reserves were called up and put into the fight so that the guns could be withdrawn, as the battery was comparatively close to the enemy.

At 2.47 p.m. the left flank—1st Brigade—began a gradual retirement. At the same time enemy pressure forced back the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade for nearly a mile, and the enemy advanced in that quarter. The attacks on General Royston's left were pressed also, and the General reported at 2.48 p.m. that he was just holding on, but would probably have to retire. All his men were then in the firing line.

At 4.30 p.m. Brigadier-General Royston's left (1st A.L.H. Brigade) was being very strongly counter-attacked, and a vigorous attack by from 3000 to 4000 of the enemy was being made on his right (2nd Brigade). Orders were therefore given to evacuate the wounded, and for the whole line to withdraw, steadily, keeping touch. This was done in perfect order by General Royston's Column, but owing to the gap between it and the N.Z. Brigade, and the withdrawal of the 3rd Brigade on the right, the N.Z. Brigade's position became very much exposed. As a withdrawal then would have meant heavy casualties, this Brigade held on until after dark. That night the W.M.R. bivouacked at Oghratina.

During the day Sergeant Patterson, of the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron, and Trooper K. A. McGregor, of the 6th W.M.R. Squadron, displayed great coolness, pluck, and presence of mind in assisting and rescuing wounded in the face of an intense bombardment of high-explosive shells, machine-gun and rifle fire.

Royston's Column ceased from this date, General Royston taking command of the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade, Colonel Meldrum retaining command of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade.

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The W.M.R. casualties during the day were:—Three other ranks killed, three officers and twenty-six other ranks wounded.

On 10th August an outpost line was established to watch the enemy, and on the following day the W.M.R. reconnoitred the ground occupied by Royston's Column during the fight. The Turks were found in strength close by, but they were busy burying their dead. Next day the enemy were found to have retired beyond Salmana, and here a note, written by a German with a sense of humour, was found, confirming this and asking the mounted troops not to press them too hard over the waterless desert!

The prisoners captured during the Romani, Katia, and Bir El Abd operations amounted to four thousand, including fifty officers, of whom some were Germans and Austrians. We also captured a large number of rifles, quantities of stores and ammunition, and two complete field hospitals. Enemy casualties were estimated at eight thousand.

His strength during the rearguard fighting debarred any serious interference with his flanks. Heavy going and lack of water for our horses assisted the enemy greatly, as they confined our movements. His guns, well served with an unlimited supply of ammunition, were well in the rear of his position. The fact that he had transported guns of 5.9 calibre across the yielding sand of the Desert speaks volumes for his engineering abilities. This was accomplished apparently by a large party of workmen who preceded the guns and excavated two parallel wheel-tracks through the sand to correspond with the breadth of the wheels on the gun carriages. These tracks were then filled with brushwood, which was firmly packed; wooden planks were placed upon the brushwood, and the guns man-handled along this road to and from Romani—truly, a wonderful feat. The same thoroughness and foresight in all branches characterised the enemy's organisation throughout—all, no doubt, of German origin. The heavy guns were manned by Austrians and the machine-gun sections had German crews. The field hospitals were complete with all the instruments, fittings, and drugs modern science could supply.

The bid to break the Suez Canal was a bold one, and it undoubtedly tested the splendid stamina of the enemy troops. The Turks, probably all picked men, fought a clean and vigorous fight, notwithstanding the tribulations of their wonderful march in midsummer, and this justly earned the admiration of our troops.

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All the hopes and aspirations of the Germans and Turks, however, were shattered at Romani. The enemy recognised this, and discussed the hopelessness of the position on a telephone wire tapped by the New Zealanders near Katia. The burning of their stores at Bir El Abd proved the state of their minds and their anxiety to retire. Their counter-attacks at Bir El Abd took a heavy toll of their effectives and, in fact, they were fortunate to get away with their guns, our overworked horses being too worn to pursue. During the operations our troops, handled with skill and judgment by their officers, fought with great vigour, determination, and dash.

This combination, together with the co-operation and close support so keenly and commendably maintained between units, minimised casualties and contributed materially to the speedy defeat and retreat of the enemy, who lost heavily in men and material.

The New Zealanders played a prominent part throughout the operations, particularly in fighting. Their casualties were light when compared with their splendid achievements. The violence of the fighting in which they were engaged on occasions at vital points might, without question, have doubled their casualties, but good leadership saved them. The careful and skilful manner in which the New Zealanders in both brigades were handled by their officers at all times enabled the bulldog determination of the men to assert itself and inflict heavy casualties on the enemy, with comparatively slight loss to themselves.

The battles were fought and persevered with through abnormal summer heat, regardless of long periods of thirst suffered by man and beast. The powers of endurance and fortitude displayed by the troops engaged during these trying times cannot be adequately described.

The artillery and machine guns covered our advances, and at times appeared to demoralise the enemy most effectually. In defence they wrought havoc against enemy attacks. On one occasion at Bir El Abd the artillery inflicted very heavy losses on a large body of Turkish reinforcements advancing in column to counter-attack. All batteries engaged did excellent shooting, with marked effect.

The most unpleasant feature was the pain and suffering endured by the many wounded during evacuations to hospital, due principally to the rough nature of the country, which forbade the use of ambulance motors. The failure of these on the yielding sand dunes compelled the adoption of other methods, none page 107of which tended to alleviate suffering, but quite the contrary. A man whose wound permitted his riding a horse was fortunate. His evacuation was usually speedy and comparatively comfortable, according to the nature of the wound. The broad-tyred sand carts without springs were tolerable; they provided a rough ride for patients, but nevertheless performed good services. The cacolet, however, was hellish and exacted the full penalty of pain from the unfortunate occupants. This contrivance consists of two rests resembling stretchers, strapped one on either side of a camel, and carrying two patients. The rolling motion which accompanies the camel's gait allows of neither rest nor ease, and accentuates the pain of the patient, especially in cases of fracture. "Sitting cases" were sometimes evacuated on ready-made chairs strapped one on either side of a horse.

Sledges of wood and sheet-iron were extemporised to cope with the abnormal number of evacuations, but their close contact with the ground surface indelibly impressed upon the occupant of the sledge the rough nature of the country.

Unfortunately, the demand exceeded the supply for these modes of ambulance transport, and one instance at least is recorded of a N.C.O. with a broken thigh having to ride a horse for some miles. Needless to state, he died later.