Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Fourteen — The Advance towards El Arish
The Advance towards El Arish
The defeat of the Turks at Romani had far-reaching effects, and the advantages gained there reflected subsequently throughout the campaign: it maintained British prestige in the Middle East and extinguished the smouldering flame of rebellion which had ever been prevalent in Egypt; it prevented wavering neutrals from joining up with Germany, and it released General Murray's Force to undertake more ambitious operations than the defence of the Suez Canal—first, to take the offensive and capture El Arish and, when that had been accomplished, to attack and conquer Palestine.
The distance from Bir El Abd to El Arish is about fifty miles across a barren desert, and many difficulties, principally of bringing forward water and supplies, had to be overcome before a force of all arms could undertake the advance. To surmount these difficulties it was necessary to continue the construction of the rail and water-pipe line across the desert. The Napoleonic axiom that "an army crawls on its stomach" is as sound to-day as in that great soldier's time, and the speed of the advance of the Mediterranean Force was contingent on the speed of the advance of these lines, except in the case of the mounted troops, which, supplied with rations, water, and forage brought by camels from the nearest base, were always well out in front of the railhead to clear the country and allow the construction parties to continue their work.
Operations Leading up to the Occupation of El Arish and the Battle of Maghdaba.
During the month of September, 1916, the Headquarters of the W.M.R was at Swing Bridge, Kantara, its principal function there, apart from the usual Regimental routine, being to arrange well-earned holiday trips to Port Said and Sidi Bishr (near Alexandria) for all ranks of the Regiment. Officers and men were ripe and keen for a change from the monotony of Desert life and, in order to assist them to achieve their purpose, no pains were spared by the Regimental Staff. The length of leave was regulated by the latter to ensure not only that each and every page 110one of the personnel of the Regiment would have, in rotation, a full share of the time available for holiday-making—seven clear days,—but also that a sufficient number of officers and other ranks would at all times be present in camp to attend the horses. These arrangements worked admirably, and it was apparent from the exemplary manner in which the men behaved that they realised that everything possible had been done to give them a good time. No exhortation was made to them about their conduct whilst away, Colonel Meldrum apparently being of the opinion that it was unnecessary. Men who had proved themselves trustworthy in the field could be trusted elsewhere.
The Regiment returned to Bir Et Maler on 10th October, and two weeks later Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum left for England on leave, Captain J. A. Sommerville taking temporary command.
Meanwhile the work of constructing the desert railway and of laying the water-pipe line had been prosecuted with such energy that the heads of these had reached Ge'eila, twenty-five miles further east. On 23rd October the Brigade advanced from Bir Et Maler to clear the country and search for water east of Ge'eila, where Turkish posts had been located at Mazar, blocking the caravan route to El Arish, our next objective.
Cholera had meanwhile broken out in the vicinity of Bir El Abd, through which the Brigade had to pass. The W.M.R. escaped infection owing to precautions having been taken to inoculate all ranks against the disease, but some of the other troops were not so fortunate.
On reaching Ge'eila on the 24th the Brigade made dispositions to protect the Egyptian Labour Corps working on the railway and water-pipe lines and to cover members of the Topographical Company surveying the country; and then commenced a long and strenuous period of reconnoitring and patrolling to search for water and gain a knowledge of the country.
The W.M.R. reached Moseifig—seven miles east of Ge'eila—on the 27th, and from these Lieutenant E. G. Williams and two troops of the 9th Squadron, pressing forward behind Mazar located a most valuable supply of water at Gererat, fifteen miles west of El Arish.
On 11th November the Regiment advanced a further stage of fourteen miles to Mustagidda, where posts were thrown out at Arnussi and Zoabitia. By this time the head of the railway had reached Mazar, where Brigade Headquarters had established itself and preparations were being made for the attack on El Arish. It was known that El Arish was held by a strong force page 111entrenched around the town, with patrols operating in front. Turkish camelry were operating in the vicinity of Mazar, and on the night of 15-16th November they opened fire on the W.M.R. post at Arnussi, but did not press the attack, retiring before daylight.
On 8th December Lieut.-Colonel W. Meldrum rejoined and assumed command of the Regiment, which, during his absence, had been commanded temporarily for short periods by no less than five officers, in the following order:—Captain J. A. Sommerville and Majors Batchelar, Spragg, Samuel, and Whyte.
The W.M.R., with the other mounted troops, continued to reconnoitre and explore the country towards El Arish, and at the same time the Imperial Camel Corps, composed of New Zealanders, Australians, and Yeomanry, operated further south to harass the Turk, should he attempt to advance towards Egypt through Maghdaba, which lies about twenty-five miles south of El Arish, along tike Wadi El Arish. The latter is a dry watercourse during the greater part of the year, but in the rainy season it becomes a roaring torrent, and some difficulty is then experienced in crossing it, especially with camels.
El Arish, where Baldwin the Crusader, King of Jerusalem, died in a.d. 640, lies on the western bank of the mouth of the Wadi, and has been the scene of much fighting from time immemorial to the Napoleonic Wars. It is a little Eastern town with the usual flat-roofed houses, Sheikh's tomb and a minaret, and to the east of it is a plain on which are the welcome shade and greenery of tamarisks and fig trees, a relief to eyes strained and weary of constant sand. Water is plentiful from several groups of wells, and the beach a fine one, with groves of date palms close to it. The town had long been a base from which the Turks had launched troops to harass our advance over the desert, and when, on 19th December, orders were issued for its capture there was much jubilation among the troops. The occupation of El Arish would carry us within a few miles of green fields and good going, and the yielding sands through which we had waded for some months could not then be used by the enemy as an ally against us.
At that time the mounted force, comprising the Anzac and Imperial Divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps, was formed into the Desert Column, and Lieut-General Sir Philip Chetwode, who had commanded a cavalry division in France, was given command of it. All the mounted troops were then conversant with the topography of the rough country in front of them, and page 112provision had been made to water the horses en rôute. The "Q" branch had left nothing to chance: the head of the railway was well forward, and there camels in thousands had barracked to carry ammunition, supplies, and drinking water.
The force operating east of Suez was then called "The East Force," commanded by Lieut.-General Dobell. It comprised all arms, but owing to the heavy sand which restricted the movements of infantry, only mounted troops could be used in front of the railhead till the firm plains of Palestine were reached. Till then the whole of the heavy fighting—and the long marches which led up to the fights—fell on the Mounted force, the Infantry coming into action for the first time since Romani when the operations against Gaza began.
Capture of El arish and Battle of Maghdaba
The advance of the Desert Column against El Arish commenced at nightfall on 20th December, the plan being, briefly, to the effect that the town was to be surrounded by dawn next day—the 1st L.H. Brigade to cross the Wadi El Arish and, with the Camel Brigade on their left, to close all exits to the north and east, the N.Z. Brigade and the 3rd L.H. Brigade to cover the town from the south, whilst the Yeomanry closed in on the west.
The going became very rough, and as the troops advanced in the darkness the horses, although at times buried almost belly-deep in the shifting sand, climbed the high and precipitous dunes and presented weird spectacles silhouetted against the sky. The New Zealand Brigade was accompanied by Divisional Headquarters, and at dawn the column halted close to its objective. This was striking testimony to the excellent judgment and leadership of Lieutenant Finlayson of the A.M.R., in charge of the vanguard, and when visual communication was established with the other brigades it was ascertained that all had reached their positions. A complete cordon enveloped El Arish, and when our patrols entered the town they found that the Turks had left. The horses, assisted by the camels, were largely the cause of this bloodless victory, for the Turks feared the speed and wide striking range of the former, and preferred to leave rather than defend the well-prepared and excellently-sited trenches at El Arish and Masaid on the beach close by. They were anxious about the safety of their line of retreat, and left before the mounted troops could attack them in the rear and cut them off altogether. Their fears were quickly realised, however, at Maghdaba, where they were soon to be intercepted.page break
The inhabitants of El Arish were secured and the water of the town tested and found good, and then, at 10 a.m., information was received that 5000 Turks had left El Arish three days previously for Maghdaba. At the same hour the Desert Column Commander, Lieut.-General Sir Philip Chetwode, arrived on El Arish beach by launch from Port Said, and urged the necessity of pursuing the retreating enemy immediately. With this immediate pursuit in view, General Chetwode had already arranged for a special camel convoy, with rations and horse feed, to arrive at l Arish on that day. Watering arrangements had already been made in the Wadi, and aeroplanes equipped to enable them to communicate direct with Headquarters.
The projected sudden attack on the retreating enemy reminded one of the "surprise" tactics adopted by General French, with great success, against the Boers during the South African campaign—viz., to catch the enemy unawares by utilising the mobility of mounted troops to harass, demoralise, and attack him from unexpected points.
The horses were already tired, after their long march from Mazar, but the element of surprise against Magdaba was not to be lost. The Turks there probably knew that El Arish had fallen, but felt secure from immediate attack by tired troops with a possible three-days' march separating them. They were so sure of this, in fact, that they kept fires burning till morning, with the result that the position of their bivouac could be seen for miles by our troops, and our men responded most willingly to the order to continue the march. The bed of the Wadi El Arish, along which the column moved, is quite hard, and the ring of the horses' hoofs on it was like music to the men.
The weather was cold, but the going excellent, and good progress was made. Each hour was divided into forty minutes' riding, ten minutes' leading to warm the men, and ten minutes' halt.
The fires at the enemy camp at Maghdaba having been seen at 3.50 a.m. the force continued to advance till 4.50 a.m., when it halted and dismounted in an open plain some four miles from its objective.
The number of bivouac fires indicated a considerable force and the position appeared much closer than it really was, owing to the brightness of the lights being very misleading as to distance.
A personal reconnaissance of the position was then made by the General Officer Commanding and Staff, Brigadiers and Major Barlow, of the Intelligence Department, the last named having page 114local knowledge. At daybreak the bivouac fires disappeared, and the valley was hidden for some time in a haze of smoke. The reconnaissance, therefore, could not be completed as soon as expected. The huts in the village, however, were located with the assistance of Major Barlow, and the hospital was seen a little later. A plan of attack was then decided upon.
About this time an aeroplane message was received, which had apparently not been despatched for official use. Its author had flown over the enemy position and had been given such a warm reception there that his feelings prompted him to advise his friends—for home consumption only—that "the——'s are there alright." This important message, however, fell near Divisional Headquarters, who at once acted on its main information without questioning the parentage of the Turks opposed to them.
The village of Maghdaba is surrounded on the west, south, and east by the Wadi El Arish, which affords splendid cover for riflemen and defensive purposes generally. Redoubts had been constructed to strengthen the position further, and to the north, where the country was fairly open, were two particularly strong redoubts with four mountain guns to support them. Towards these redoubts the New Zealanders were directed, and, pressing forward with great determination and co-operating with other troops in the final phases of the fight, the W.M.R. attacked and captured the strongest redoubt—No. 5.
At 8.22 a.m. orders for the attack were issued as follows:—The N.Z.M.R. and the 3rd A.L.H. Brigades, under General Chaytor, to move round by the north and north-east of Maghdaba. taking advantage of all cover, to attack the enemy's right and rear, and to cut off his retreat. The attack to commence as soon as the Divisional Artillery opened and to be pressed home. The Camel Brigade to move straight on Maghdaba with its centre on the telegraph line. The C.R.A. to select a position to open fire on the enemy. The 1st A.L.H. Brigade to be in reserve and move south-east along the telegraph line. The Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery to be in position on the left of the Camel Corps.
Whilst our troops were moving to their respective posts to attack, aeroplane reports were received from time to time reporting estimated positions, strength, and movements of the enemy at various points. The strongest position held by the Turks appeared to be Redoubt No. 5, which was surrounded by rifle pits at irregular intervals, strongly manned and being continually page 115 reinforced. The whole country favoured the enemy, who took full advantage of the many folds in the ground to conceal himself, and some manoeuvring was necessary before his positions could be located.
At 9.25 a.m. a reconnaissance was made by the Brigade Commander and Officers Commanding Regiments of the New Zealand Brigade, after which the Brigade occupied a new position at a point some three miles north of Magdaba. From here the enemy was seen strongly holding a scrubby ridge running from Maghdaba eastwards, and covering the road and the Wadi. Behind this ridge clouds of dust were observed, on which our aeroplanes dropped several bombs, and at the same time small, scattered parties of horsemen and camels were seen retiring behind Hill 345 (two miles south-east of Maghdaba). The Camel Brigade was, therefore, requested to press forward to enable an attack to be made on the Hill. The enemy position was a strong one—on both sides of the Wadi El Arish,—his principal defences being five large well-sited works, between which were skilfully concealed trenches and rifle pits.
At 9.55 a.m. General Chaytor directed the C.M.R. on 345, and the W.M.R. against a ridge on the C.M.R.'s right, both regiments to swing round towards Maghdaba. The A.M.R. was held in reserve.
The Regiment's screen, which advanced at the gallop, immediately drew fire as it traversed the open country which lay between it and the Turkish positions, the two Regiments following in line of troop columns, accompanied by Vickers and Lewis guns. Stunted bushes and ant-hills afforded ample cover to enemy snipers, and when the main body arrived at a point about a mile from the Turkish position four enemy mountain guns opened fire on it, but the regiments pressed forward to a point 1600 yards from the enemy, where they dismounted to attack on foot.
Meanwhile the screen, handled in masterly style by Lieutenant Levien, had displayed great boldness. It had advanced under heavy fire right up to the enemy trenches, but on drawing fire from the whole length of the line it returned to a dominating position 400 yards from the enemy, where it dismounted, opened fire, and prevented his escape. The success of this movement was due in a large measure to the determination and resourcefulness of Sergeant L. K. G. Bull, who had charge of a section. Shortly afterwards the screen was reinforced by two Lewis guns, under Lieutenant Herrick, and two Vickers guns, under Lieutenant D. E. Batchelar. A fire fight then ensued, and thus early in page 116 the day the enemy in front of the New Zealanders was pinned down and committed to battle.
Meanwhile, the main body of the New Zealanders was pressing forward towards its objective, supported by machine and Lewis gun fire, and taking advantage of the scanty cover afforded till it reached a point about 600 yards from the enemy trenches, where it encountered heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.
At 10 a.m. General Chaytor ordered the 3rd Brigade to move to a point a mile and a-half south-east of the New Zealand Headquarters to support the attack or to further envelop the enemy's right if the situation at Maghdaba had been cleared up in the meantime.
The dispositions of the enemy's forces having now become more clear, the Camel Brigade attack was deflected half-right, and its firing line reinforced to enable it to gain touch with the New Zealand Brigade on its left. The Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery supported this attack, and at 11 a.m. the 9th W.M.R. Squadron reinforced the left flank of the 6th Squadron, then 500 yards from the enemy.
At 11.15 a.m. the New Zealand Brigade reported that the enemy was retiring from the left, and half an hour later the General Officer Commanding the Division came forward to survey the general position, which at 11.50 a.m. was as follows:—The New Zealand Brigade (less the A.M.R., in reserve) was engaged with and had partially enveloped the enemy's right. The 3rd Brigade (less the 10th Regiment) was in reserve. The 10th A.L.H. Regiment was making a wide detour via Aulid Ali, three and a-half miles south-east of Maghdaba, round the enemy's right. Part of the Camel Brigade was moving direct on the village (one battalion in reserve). The 1st Brigade was working up against the enemy's left by way of the Wadi, but its 2nd Regiment had been sent to the south, and was now on high ground overlooking the enemy's rear.
On account of mirage and dust clouds, good observation was impossible. These handicaps hindered our gunners very considerably, for, apart from the redoubts, no targets were visible.
As the attack developed, at 12.30 two regiments of the 3rd L.H. Brigade were sent forward to fill a gap of some eight hundred yards between the W.M.R. and C.M.R., and the advance continued; but progress was slow, for the Turks were stubbornly defending.
In answer to this, Desert Column strongly urged that the fight should not be abandoned, even at the cost of some horses. It suggested that as a preliminary the artillery should be concentrated on one redoubt, and that the latter should be stormed with the bayonet after dark. A telephone communication between General Chetwode and General Chauvel followed, and orders were immediately issued to continue the pressure, and that a concerted effort should be made by all units at 4.30 p.m., the General Officer Commanding the Desert Column to arrange in the meantime that, if possible, horse water should be sent forward to meet the column on the return journey.
The capture of Maghdaba before nightfall was therefore a matter of dire necessity, and the troops responded magnificently to carry it out. Continuous pressure was brought to bear on the enemy, and by 2 p.m. a decided change had come over the situation. The New Zealanders and the 8th and 9th L.H Regiments were in close proximity to the huts [unclear: at] the village; the 1st L.H. Brigade had captured a bridgehead and 100 prisoners, and the 10th L.H Regiment had enveloped the enemy's right. At the same time, the attack was being vigorously pressed along the ridge and the enemy being driven back towards Maghdaba.
Every effort was made to overwhelm the enemy quickly, and one squadron of the 2nd A.L.H. Regiment was sent to the right to reinforce the line between the 3rd L.H. Regiment and a squadron of the 2nd L.H. Regiment working round the enemy left.
The enemy apparently realised his precarious position, for at 2.50 p.m. General Chaytor reported that the Turks were endeavouring to retire from the north of the buildings in the village. The New Zealanders and the 3rd L.H. Brigade were now pressing the enemy with great determination, and at 3.55 p.m. the W.M.R. fixed bayonets, and when they were within striking distance of the enemy in a redoubt facing them the Turks hoisted white flags. Some of our men, unfortunately, exposed themselves too quickly, under the impression that the whole line of Turks had surrendered, but they were fired on from the right and the attack was immediately resumed. Lieutenant N. Harding, of the Regiment, was mortally wounded by this page 118burst of fire. Machine-gun, Lewis gun and rifle fire was then directed for some minutes at the wavering Turks, who again hoisted white flags and, coming out of their trenches unarmed, surrendered.
At 4 p.m. Redoubt No. 2 was carried by the 1st Brigade. At the same time the Camel Brigade advanced to the assault. The 3rd Brigade was in close touch with the enemy, and the 10th A.L.H. Regiment was attacking him in the rear.
At 4.5 p.m. General Chaytor was able to report that our troops held the buildings and redoubts on the left. Then the 10th A.L.H. Regiment charged, mounted, with fixed bayonets and captured two trenches to the south, cutting off the Turks. The latter then surrendered in batches, and by 4.40 p.m. all organised resistance had been overcome.
The wounded were then collected and evacuated. The horses were watered at the captured wells, the men were supplied with water brought from El Arish on camels, and at 8.30 the column commenced the return journey to El Arish, leaving the A.M.R. and the 1st L.H. Regiment to clear the battlefield.
Besides Lieutenant Harding, who fell close to the enemy position, four other ranks of the W.M.R. were killed, and one died of wounds.
The prisoners captured totalled 1282, these including Khadir Bey, commanding the 8th Regiment, and Izzet Bey and Rushti Bey, commanding the 2/80 and 3/80 Battalions respectively.
War material of all descriptions had been abandoned by the enemy and lay scattered about in disorder. When darkness came on a lot of it was lost sight of, and only a portion could therefore be salved, this including:—Four mountain guns, one broken machine gun, 1052 rifles, 180 bayonets, six boxes of shell ammunition, 100,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, component parts of an oil engine, ten fantasses, telephone wire and equipment, number of plans of reservoirs, etc., Turkish orders and news, 40 horses, 51 camels.
The long night march which followed the fight at Maghdaba may safely be recorded as one of the most trying of the many wearisome marches experienced by the W.M.R. Apart from the intense cold, which penetrated the lightly-clad horsemen to the bone, the men were fatigued to such a degree that words fail adequately to describe their condition. They had been called upon to make a superhuman effort immediately following their long march from Mazar, and had succeeded in performing all that had been asked of them. They continued to march, and page 119had then fought a strenuous fight without rest or sleep for an additional thirty hours, but on the long return journey nature reasserted itself, and many men fell asleep on their horses during their weird ride.
Here and there dense clouds of dust almost blinded the tired horses, which collided with one another in the dark and awakened their riders. The powers of endurance of the human brain have their limits, and rebel when overtaxed, and on this journey "visions" in various forms were seen by most of the riders. Instead of the actual route of bare ground, streets of houses and weirdly-shaped animals were seen. The cause of these hallucinations was discussed later, and the most generally-accepted opinion was that the wearied brain had temporarily lost certain of its powers of concentration, which only sleep could restore. This phenomenon may account for the story told in France of "The Angels of Mons" during the early stages of the War, when the British troops were continuously fighting there.
The W.M.R. arrived at its bivouac on the beach at Masmi, near El Arish, where water, supplies, and fodder were available at about 5.30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Both men and horses were exhausted and ready for a rest, but the W.M.R. was detailed for outpost duty that night
The fall of the Turkish base at Maghdaba was disastrous to the enemy. In addition to depleting his advanced forces of a large number of effectives, the result of the battle reflected detrimentally on the morale of the enemy generally.
The Turks fought tenaciously throughout, and took full advantage of the contours which the country afforded to conceal themselves. Their trenches were cleverly sited and covered all approaches, and in some cases could not be discerned at a distance of eighty yards.
In view of these advantages, the effect of enemy fire on our troops—who attacked principally over open country—was very small. The Turks had good targets, but failed to take advantage of them. Their fire was erratic, due, no doubt, to the boldness displayed by our troops.
The enemy vainly endeavoured to withstand the strong pressure which was continuously brought to bear on him, and defended his stronger positions with great stubbornness. The perseverance of our troops, however, ultimately placed them in a position to charge with the bayonet, and their object soon became apparent to the Turks. The sight of a line of glistening bayonets at close range, with determined men behind them, page 120overcame the enemy and he quickly collapsed and surrendered. The New Zealanders fought with their usual determination during the day, undaunted by the difficulties which confronted them and the fact that the battle followed immediately after a long march. The nature of the raid on the Turks forbade the carrying of the usual kit, in order to reduce the weight on the horses to a minimum. Only essentials were taken, and these included one bottle of water per man, to suffice for a whole day. Notwithstanding these disabilities, the keenness of the men to gain close contact with the enemy was most apparent during the fight, and they cheerfully advanced to accomplish this from the commencement. Cover from continuous enemy fire was scanty, and there was no protection at all against the intense heat of the sun which soon made itself felt, with little water to quench the men's thirst. Still they pressed on, tightening the grip on the enemy as they advanced, till their indomitable will to win and high spirits swept all obstacles aside and snatched up a victory when failure might have been anticipated.
General Chetwode was very pleased with the troops for their determination in the fight, and for the versatility which they displayed in charging with the bayonet—a characteristic in mounted troops which was quite new to the General,—and he availed himself of the first opportunity to express his appreciation of this at a parade held later.
The weather now, though warm in the day, was very cold at night, and, as no tents had been issued since leaving Romani, the question of extemporising cover against the extremes of heat and cold was left to the men themselves. Some were fortunate enough to possess "bivvies" captured with the well-equipped Turkish force at Romani, but the majority had to be content with any old piece of covering they could find, and it was wonderful to see the many uses to which an ordinary sack can be applied to keep off either cold or heat.
The festive season of Christmas was now on us, but there was nothing in the way of special food or drink to be festive on, till Lieut.-Colonel Samuel of the Training Regiment, turned up with turkeys and plum pudding. He was a most welcome visitor to the Regimental bivouac, and his trek from Moascar with precious provisions had not been without incident. A few hours prior to reaching El Arish, Lieut.-Colonel Samuel caught sight of a British airman struggling in the sea, some distance out, and, being a particularly good swimmer, he immediately swam out to the exhausted airman and, after some difficulty, managed to tow him ashore.page 121
About this time our bivouac areas and railhead, some distance away, were being bombed almost incessantly, and it was the custom when 'planes appeared overhead for the natives working on the railway to seek the best cover available.
On one occasion they packed themselves into a deep hole in the sand, but that day their luck was out. A bomb dropped into the hole, and few of the natives escaped.
Two days after Christmas the weather became intensely cold, accompanied by a strong gale and heavy rain which saturated the men to the skin. The storm continued for some days, and a trawler was driven ashore and wrecked.
Railhead was some nine miles away, and supplies had to be brought forward on camels for the whole mounted force. The bulkiness of horsefeed required thousands of camels to carry it, so to overcome the difficulty an attempt was made to land supplies on the open beach at EI Arish from store ships. With the assistance of experienced surfmen from Alexandria, the stores were brought safely ashore and the transport difficulty was overcome, more so as the head of the railway line was now closing in to El Arish.