Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Fifteen — The Battle of Rafa
The Battle of Rafa
"A battle gained is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten. Victory equals will"
From "The Mounted Men of Maoriland."
They helped us many an anxious hour,
And took their turn in the buoyant van
That shattered the brunt of "Abdul's" power,
Till "Abdul" limped like a beaten man;
And not long back, on the fall of night,
When Rafa defied our own Brigades,
They pulled us out of a day-long fight
With a fence of naked bayonet blades;
They opened the long-locked Christian gates
And led us into the Holy Land,
For we are the staunch, hard-riding mates
Of the fighting "Men of Maoriland."
Meanwhile, information had been received from our airmen that the enemy, three thousand strong, with guns, was holding an entrenched position at El Magruntein, on the Palestine border, about two miles south of Rafa, and preparations were immediately made to envelop and capture it. The troops available for the operation were the Anzac Mounted Division, the Camel Brigade (with the Hong Kong Battery), and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade (with a battery of field guns). This force was under the command of Sir Philip Chetwode, and was to move on the afternoon of 8th January and march during the night in order to attack the enemy early on the following morning.
About three o'clock on the afternoon of the 8th the New Zealand Brigade crossed the Wadi, then in flood, and joined the column, which proceeded to Sheikh Zoweid, the first stage of the journey. The going over heavy sand and sand dunes was very tiresome for some miles, especially for the artillery teams, till the green and grassy plains which stretch up through Palestine were met. The pace of the column then increased very considerably, and Sheikh Zoweid was reached at ten o'clock, the force resting till one o'clock on the morning of the 9th, when it advanced on Rafa.page 123
The plans for the attack on Rafa were almost identical with those framed for the capture of Maghdaba—the long night march, the surprise attack at daylight, the advance against and the envelopment of the enemy position during the day. A doubt also arose towards evening as to whether the position could be captured before nightfall. Then came the great difference between the courses of the two fights. At Maghdaba there was a suggestion only to withdraw before the position was captured, but at Rafa the G.O.C. of the Desert Corps actually issued orders for the abandonment of the attack and for a withdrawal. He had accepted failure, and the retirement was taking place when the New Zealanders, with characteristic determination, rushed the main enemy position at the point of the bayonet—and won the day.
Soon after the column left Sheikh Zoweid for Rafa an enemy Bedouin camel patrol was captured half a mile to the north, before it could give an alarm, and the column advanced undetected till about 3.30 a.m., when flares were sent up by enemy outposts, warning the Turks of our approach.
Aeroplane reconnaissance reports had intimated that a considerable number of Bedouin infested the areas near the border at Rafa, and about five o'clock the New Zealand Brigade proceeded in the direction of Karn Ibn Musleh and Shokh El Sufi to gather them in. As advance guard to the Brigade, the A.M.R. crossed the border into Palestine at six o'clock, the Bedouins being rounded up, and the Brigade then reported to the Division that there was a favourable position in the rear of Karn Ibn Musleh to assemble the division to advance from, and that a good view of the enemy's position could be obtained there.
It was noticed that the Turkish defences were without wire entanglements, our attack having no doubt surprised the enemy before he could complete his works; but his position possessed many favourable features for defensive purposes. On all sides there was a clear field of fire which was devoid of cover for a radius of about a mile, and the defence system—roughly, in the form of a diamond—
"A" works "C" works
"B" works page 124comprised several series of works from which admirably-sited trenches spread out to cover an attacking force. The keystone of the position was a strong redoubt on Point 255 (one mile due south of Rafa), which rose above the surrounding country.
At 6.45 a.m. the Division was placed as follows:—Headquarters and the 1st and 3rd A.L.H. Brigades and the Artillery just south of Karm Ibn Musleh, the New Zealand Brigade being about four and a-half miles south-east of Rafa, and the Camel Brigade three-quarters of a mile west of Karm Ibn Musleh, the battle eventually being fought in two countries—Egypt and Palestine.
Soon after eight o'clock orders were issued for the attack. The New Zealanders to attack the right flank works—viz., trenches C4 and C5; the Brigadier to make provision for the safety of his own right flank and rear, which extended to the sea. The 1st A.L.H. Brigade to attack C3, C2, and C1, and when these objectives had been carried both Brigades to rally and attack the Redoubt. The Camel Brigade was to attack the B group of trenches, beginning with B4 as first objective; the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade to he in reserve.
Meanwhile, a New Zealand patrol had isolated the enemy by cutting his telegraph wire running to the east.
At 8.52 information was received that the enemy was showing unrest. The Desert Column, therefore, urged that detachments should be sent towards Rafa at once, in case of his retiring. Another air report was received at this time stating that loaded camels were moving to the east, and at 9.20 a warning was sent to the New Zealand Brigade that the enemy might retire by the sand dunes and that any sign of this must be reported at once.
At 9.35 the New Zealand Brigade advanced at the gallop, taking an easterly circular course over exposed country in artillery formation—Brigade Headquarters leading—till it reached a knoll about two miles east-north-east of its objective.
Here the Brigade halted, and at ten o'clock the A.M.R. was directed to attack "C" Redoubt, supported by two machine guns, with the C.M.R. on Auckland's right along the Rafa-Khan Yunus Road, the W.M.R. (less three troops of the 6th Squadron in reserve and one troop on divisional duties) to follow and support the C.M.R., and also to protect the Brigade from attacks from the direction of Khan Yunus or the coast. To afford this protection, Lieutenant Cruickshank and eight men were sent to Amr (five and a-half miles south-east of Rafa) to watch the country towards Shellal (ten miles east of Amr), and two troops page 125under Lieutenants Pearce and Allison patrolled towards Khan Yunus (six miles north-east of Rafa), there being strong Turkish forces at both Shellal and Khan Yunus.
The 1st A.L.H. Brigade were on the left of the New Zealand line, and in spite of the exposed nature of the country, which presented a splendid field of fire to the enemy, good progress was made, and by 10.40 the C.M.R. had intercepted and captured a number of prisoners and had occupied the police barracks.
Meanwhile the W.M.R. (less the detached troops) had reached a position 500 yards east of the police barracks and had joined up with the C.M.R.
By this time the enemy's position had been definitely disclosed, and his line of retreat had been cut by the New Zealanders, so orders were issued for the remainder of the Division to join in the attack.
The objectives were allotted as follows:—The 3rd Brigade (less the 8th Regiment) to attack C4 and C3 on the left of the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, and to keep touch with the latter. At the same time, the Brigadier of the 1st Brigade was ordered to reinforce his line and attack C4 and to keep in touch with the N.Z. Brigade. The Camel Brigade to attack the line of "B" trenches.
At 11 a.m. the position of the troops was as follows from the right of the northern flank—C.M.R., W.M.R., A.M.R., 1st A.L.H. Brigade, 3rd A.L.H. Brigade, 1st Camel Brigade, and on their left the 5th Yeomanry Brigade.
At this hour the N.Z. Brigade Headquarters moved to the boundary post one mile south-east of Rafa, immediately behind the Auckland Regiment.
While the New Zealanders were advancing, two reserve guns of the N.Z. Machine-gun Squadron were placed in position on a small ridge which afforded cover. Excellent shooting was done by these guns, supported by half a troon, on trenches and parties of the enemy at a range of about 800 yards, and the fire greatly helped the 3rd Brigade in advancing—in fact, it eventually forced the enemy to abandon that portion of his position, and an enemy machine gun was subseuently found there.
The Machine-gun Squadron Commander then took over the four remaining reserve machine guns, and these were distributed along the line of attack as far as the sector held by the C.M.R. on the right. The machine-gunners were thus able to bring covering fire to bear on the main redoubt right up to the time of its capture.page 126
By 11.35 the general line had made such progress that it became possible to advance the artillery to give closer support, the Inverness Battery firing with open sights close behind the New Zealand Brigade's Headquarters, and at noon the New Zealanders made a combined attack towards the main position. Very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was encountered, but our men pressed forward with great determination, and by 12.15 they were within 600 yards of their objective.
About this time the first call for more ammunition commenced. The fight had been a most strenuous one, and the machine-gunners, who had continuously covered the advances made by our troops, had expended a great quantity of ammunition. At one stage four New Zealand machine guns were almost out of action for want of ammunition, but the Quartermaster of the W.M.R. arrived in the nick of time with 24,000 rounds, which he promptly distributed among the New Zealand units.
The enemy in B2 were now found to be in strength, and a heavy fire was opened on the Camel Brigade. Two companies of the 2nd Battalion were therefore sent to prolong the left flank of their line to engage the "B" works from the south-west. The other company was sent forward to reinforce the left centre.
At one o'clock two troops of the W.M.R., in reserve, filled a gap in the line between the 1st A.L.H. Brigade and the N.Z. Brigade, the Inverness Battery covering the advance and shelling C5.
At 1.45 the left of the Camel Brigade became held up by enfilade fire, and another company was sent forward to help the right of the Brigade, and it brought fire to bear across the front of the 1st Brigade and helped the latter's advance.
By 1.50 the N.Z. Brigade reported that their troops were steadily pushing forward on the seaward side of the Redoubt, but the Turks were stubbornly defending, and at 2.30 orders were given by the G.O.C. Desert Column for the attack to be concentrated on the main redoubt at 3.30, the artillery to continue an intensive bombardment up to that hour, the 5th Mounted Brigade to co-operate with five and a-half squadrons.
The two remaining troops of the A.M.R. were then sent forward to reinforce the line, and steady progress was maintained, but by 3.30, notwithstanding the bombardment, the assault on the Redoubt had made slow progress. The left of the Camel Brigade was held up by machine-gun fire and by two guns in the Redoubt, and the 1st Brigade was heavily bombarded with high-explosive shells. The right of the 10th A.L.H. Regiment had drawn back a little, and the left of the 1st Brigade also fell back, the latter reporting that they were unable to advance owing to unsilenced machine guns. A message was therefore sent to the Brigades to ask at what hour a general assault could be made with all available forces.
At this time hostile aeroplanes bombed Divisional Headquarters and the Camel Brigade.
On receipt of a report from the W.M.R. patrol that men in scattered formations—about two battalions in strength—were advancing over the ridges near Abu Khatli, four miles west of Shellal, the remaining troop of the W.M.R. reserve was sent to Rafa to escort prisoners to Divisional Headquarters. The flank guard of the W.M.R. in the direction of Khan Yunus also reported the approach of a force of about 2000 enemy, advancing from Khan Yunus, and that they were then about four miles from the Redoubt. Other troops were also seen by the W.M.R. patrols advancing over the hills some five miles distant, but too far to estimate numbers.
At this time the Camel Brigade reported that their centre was held up, and that the right of the Brigade on their right appeared to be retiring. Only half a company was available at this stage to throw into that part of the line without withdrawing troops from the attack on "B" works. A report also came that the Turks in the Redoubt were counter-attacking.
Orders for a general attack by the N.Z. Brigade, timed to commence at 3.45, were late in reaching the Regiments, but the latter prepared for a concerted movement. The position at this stage was critical. The Turks in the trenches were fighting stubbornly, and large bodies of enemy reinforcements were near.
At four o'clock the enemy fire against the New Zealanders was very heavy, and ten minutes later the W.M.R. post, in charge of Lieutenant Cruickshank, at Amr reported a body of 500 enemy approaching from the east, and at the same time the 1st Brigade reported that they could not advance.page 128
The New Zealanders' attack, however, was working steadily forward, but was being repeatedly checked by our own artillery fire.
At this hour a telephone conversation took place between the G.O.C. of the Division and the G.O.C. Desert Corps, with the result that orders were issued by the G.O.C. of the latter, General Sir Philip Chetwode, for the abandonment of the attack and withdrawal, owing to the advance of the enemy reinforcements. But then a wonderful change came over the situation. While the order to withdraw was being carried out in other parts of the line, the New Zealanders had seized the psychological moment to charge the Redoubt. Majors J. Somerville and Armstrong, of the W.M.R., had warned the line to prepare for the assault, and then Major Whitehorn, of the A.M.R., rose out of the trench, the whole of the New Zealand line co-operating in the charge across the open country, firing as they ran. With the forward troops were Captain Herrick and Corporal Ben Draper, of the W.M.R., with a Lewis gun which, on reaching the position, they used with great dexterity and deadly effect. While one held the gun under his arm and directed it, like a hose, the other worked it, spraying the Turks along the trenches with a stream of bullets. The New Zealanders stormed and captured the Redoubt on Point 255 at 4.30 at the bayonet point, after which the remaining enemy positions facing the other Brigades and the Camel Corps quickly fell, owing to their being dominated and enfiladed by the New Zealanders.
After a very short pause a further attack was made by the New Zealanders against the Sandy Redoubt C5, which quickly fell, the enemy therein surrendering shortly after the attack was launched.
On the fall of the Redoubt at Point 255 General Chaytor prepared to move his Headquarters there in order to ensure the completion of the capture of the other works, but Lieut.-Colonels Meldrum (W.M.R.) and Findlay (C.M.R.) had carried this out before the General arrived.
Meantime the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, on the New Zealanders' left, returned to the attack—having partially acted on their orders to retire,—and the New Zealanders attacking in the rear captured the position and at the same time the 3rd A.L.H. Brigade and the Camel Corps captured their objectives.
All prisoners were immediately collected and sent to Divisional Headquarters, as the advanced guard of the enemy could be seen approaching about two and a-half miles north-east of Rafa.page break page break
At 5.15 firing had practically ceased, and the victory was complete.
Arrangements had been made to attend and evacuate our wounded, and the outlying posts were recalled to cover the ambulance parties until the latter had completed their work.
As no water was available at Rafa, the Brigade withdrew under orders at 6.30.
The New Zealanders' attack was carried through in perfect manner, and all ranks fought splendidly. The Brigade had advanced against the enemy position for a distance of more than a mile across a grassy slope, devoid of cover. The covering fire from machine guns, Lewis guns, and rifles was perfect, and contributed very materially to the success of the attack. The hail of bullets on the Redoubt disturbed its surface to such an extent that it resembled a burning furnace. This fusilade kept the Turkish fire down by raining bullets all along his line and interrupting his fire. The foremost of the machine guns had advanced to within 800 yards of the enemy position, from which point their fire was most effective.
In compliance with orders received previous to the advance, all reserve ammunition had been left at Sheikh Zoweid. In consequence of this, the supply of ammunition to replenish the great amount expended during the engagement had caused much anxiety.
Communication was maintained mainly by visual signalling, but clouds interfered with the working of helios at times, and orderlies were then employed. This latter method with the long distances to be traversed caused delay, and was fatiguing.
The Medical Corps and Stretcher-Bearers performed splendid work throughout the day, mostly under heavy fire, from which there was no cover.
The N.Z. Brigade casualties were exceptionally light, considering the nature of the attack. Seventeen other ranks were killed and nine officers and eighty-four other ranks were wounded. This was attributed to the splendid co-operation maintained throughout the attack, and the effective supporting fire continually kept up.
Generals Chauvel, Wigan, Royston and others gave unstinted praise to the New Zealanders for their achievements in saving the situation, and they proclaimed the victory as "New Zealand's Day."
The Brigade was handled in a masterly manner. The mode of attack adopted and the splendid co-operation which was maintained page 130throughout between units, supported by well-directed Maxim and Lewis gun fire, being now recognised as a model of mounted rifle action for instructional purposes.
The Turks fought with great tenacity. In face of the terrific fire which was directed against them, they could frequently be observed exposing themselves in order to get a more deliberate aim. But the determination and pressure of the New Zealand attack never faltered. The Turks were confident almost to the last that they could hold their position, and one officer admitted that they had thought it was impossible for the attackers to succeed in the time available and before the arrival of the Turkish reinforcements.
W.M.R. casualties: Eight killed, four died of wounds, eighteen wounded.
The total losses to the enemy were as follows:—400 killed (approximately), 162 wounded and collected, 35 officers captured, 1437 other ranks captured: total 2034, which included the following Germans: One officer, one W.O., and nine other ranks.
Material: Four Krupp mountain guns, seven machine guns, 1610 rifles, 45,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, 71 belts of small-arms ammunition, 134 pack saddles.
Animals: 83 camels, 19 horses, 35 mules.
During this action Troopers H. Steadman and Ewen Elmslie performed meritorious services in carrying ammunition to the firing line. Both were wounded, and Elmslie subsequently died at El Arish.
It may be mentioned here that a battle was fought at Rafa as far back as the year 222 B.C., when Ptolemy IV., King of Egypt, fought and defeated there Antiochus, King of Syria. The battle raged all day, and the Syrians retired to Gaza. Rafa was then called "Raphia."
The Regiment (less covering parties) arrived in bivouac at Sheikh Zoweid at 9.30 at night.
On the 10th the New Zealand Brigade left bivouac at 6.30 a.m., the W.M.R. remaining at Sheikh Zoweid to protect the Field Ambulance and escort them back to El Arish. Posts were thrown out, a troop was sent to Rafa to bury the dead, and two troops were sent to escort prisoners to El Arish. During the day large numbers of wounded—mostly Turks—were brought in. On the morning of the 11th two W.M.R. troops were sent as escort to the Ambulance en rôute to El Arish, the Regiment (less four troops) following at noon and reaching El Arish that night.page 131
The capture of Rafa finished the clearing-out of the enemy from Sinai and ended the Desert campaign, in which the Anzac Division had achieved so much.
The usefulness of mounted troops was now undubitably proved, and they were more in demand than ever as the campaign advanced, and after a series of brilliant successes they finally played a prominent part in the operations which overthrew the Turkish Empire.
The Brigade remained in bivouac at El Arish, making preparations for the next offensive, football, bathing, and boxing being the favourite pastimes. Whenever opportunity offered, the officers of the C.M.R. and W.M.R. were sure to play a football match. The rival teams tried conclusions on the beach at El Arish, when, after a most strenuous game, the Wellingtonians won.