Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Nineteen — The Attack on Beersheba
The Attack on Beersheba
Towards the end of October the Commander-in-Chief commenced to concentrate his forces at pre-arranged starting points prior to launching his offensive against the Gaza-Beersheba line, his plan of attack being: To capture Beersheba, with its essential water supplies, and form a base there from which to attack the enemy in flank and rear and crumple up his line towards Gaza. For the initial operation the 60th and 74h Divisions were to seize the enemy works between the Khalasa Road and the Wadi Saba, whilst the defences north of the Wadi were to be masked by the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and two battalions of the 53rd Division. The Anzac Mounted Division, Australian Mounted Division, and 7th Mounted Brigade to attack the defences of the town from the north-east, east, and south-east, the XXIst Corps, supported by a Naval bombardment, to pin down the enemy on the Gaza front. The N.Z. Brigade, as part of the Desert Mounted Corps, was to make a wide flanking movement and attack Beersheba from the east and north-east; then to envelop the enemy's left rear, and to capture water supplies in order to form a base, preliminary to further operations northward in conjunction with the Infantry. Before the Mounted troops could move, however, the problem of procuring sufficient water for so many horses in the Esani-Khalassa area had to be overcome, the Turks having destroyed the wells there on 22nd October. Engineers and working parties were sent to restore them, and covering the parties were the 2nd A.L.H. and the Camel Brigades, these Brigades at the same time marking the various routes leading to Beersheba.
Of the enemy situation at this period, General Allenby's records state:—
The German Staff in Sinai had, so far back as August, decided that the British would make another effort to break through on that front, and with such forces that, unless the Turks were heavily reinforced, the result could only be in favour of the British. That the weaknesses of their position were its extent, and the exposed left flank at Beersheba, was fully realised by the Command in the field, and during August and September repeated requests were made to the Higher Command for a shortening of the line by withdrawing page 158from Beersheba, or generous reinforcements so that Beersheba could be held a l' outrance.
The soundness of these demands was fully realised by the German advisers of the Turks, but there existed a policy which was a veritable millstone to those who wished to conduct the operations in accordance with clear strategic principles. This policy was directed towards the recovery of Baghdad. Baghdad, a former capital of the Khalifs, and therefore important to the pan-Islamic party, was ever before the Young Turk, soldier, and politician, and the plan had received the backing of Berlin. A composite German force had been formed, and one of the first of German soldiers, Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn, lent for the carrying through of this undertaking. If Baghdad was to be retaken, every man and gun must be sent to Irak, and every man sent to Sinai decreased the chance of success. But to this was the unanswerable argument of those who asked that reinforcements should be sent to Sinai. "If the Sinai front is broken, Palestine and Syria will fall into the enemy's hands, and not only will Baghdad not be retaken, but the armies in Irak will be caught like a rat in a trap, with the British across their lines of communication at Aleppo." It was not until mid-October that this argument prevailed, and then it was too late. Troops being diverted from Mesopotamia were still on the lines of communication, and the aircraft were still being unpacked and put together on their aerodromes, when the British troops attacked and captured Beersheba on October 31, 1917.
The German Command had, however, estimated the date of the British attack with fair accuracy, which they considered would take place, owing to weather conditions, early in November. But they were totally incorrect in their estimate of its direction.
Various circumstances made them believe that it would consist of a third and final assault on Gaza, combined with a landing to the north, which would turn their right flank and enable the British to occupy the fertile coastal plain. To meet this primarily, all defensive work was concentrated for many weeks on the Gaza sector, and their main reserves—the 7th and 19th Infantry Divisions—were concentrated behind Gaza.
Von Falkenhayn proposed, by a concentration of forces, to deliver an attack on the British right flank, and so drive back General Allenby out of Palestine into the waterless and difficult country east of the Wadi El Arish. In addition to its strategical effect, this would have had the political result of clearing that portion of the Turkish Empire from the invader.
This attack was originally timed for the latter half of October, to precede and forestall the British attack. Owing, however, to indecision, general procrastination, poor transport facilities, and, above all, to the jealousy and opposition of Ahmed Jemel Pasha. G.O.C. of the Fourth Army and Governor of Syria, it had to be postponed, and was eventually timed for early December.
By October 28 the organisation of the Turkish forces under the Yildirim Army Group into the seventh and eighth armies was nearing completion. The headquarters of General Kress von Kressenstein (G.O.C., Eighth Army) had moved back from Huj to Huleikat, so that the former, now connected to the main railway page 159by a light line, might be used as a reserve area, and Fevzi Pasha (G.O.C., Seventh Army) was about to move forward his headquarters from Hebron to near Beersheba, finally to take over the troops allotted to his command. Marshal von Falkenhayn was at Aleppo, en rôute to Jerusalem.
The front had been strengthened by three fresh divisions, and the 20th Division was moving towards the front on the line of communication, south of Aleppo.
The Gaza sector was a network of trenches, wire entanglements and strongly-fortified posts, conveniently sited for mutual support and cross-fire, which extended to the south-east until the defences of Beersheba were reached. The German Staff appears to have been very well satisfied as to the security of the line against frontal attack, and any second-line system of defence had been almost totally neglected. A wide turning movement on the east was considered impossible, owing to the broken nature of the country and lack of water.
So much for the enemy's idea of the situation.
The concentration of our troops commenced under most favourable circumstances, for by that time the Turks had become so familiar with the sight of mounted men reconnoitring in front of their position that it was possible to effect it without arousing the suspicions of the enemy.
The advance of the N.Z. Brigade commenced on 24th October, when it proceeded to Esani, 15 miles south-east. At noon on the following day the W.M.R. occupied a line seven miles east-ward, whilst the B.G.C. of 179th Infantry Brigade made observations of an important enemy position two and a-half miles south-west of Beersheba, which the Infantry were to attack during the early stages of the general advance.
The Squadron Commanders of the W.M.R. this time were:—2nd, Major J.O. Scott; 6th, Major C.L. Sommerville; 9th, Major A. S. Wilder.
On this date General Chaytor arrived at Esani and assumed command of all Desert Mounted Crops troops south of El Ghabi, Goz Mabruk, and El Buggar. Operation orders were then issued relative to the attack of Beersheba, that part of them dealing with the attack on the town being of particular interest to the W.M.R. The Anzac Division was to advance from Asluj at 6 p.m. on a date to be fixed, the W.M.R. to march with the advance guard for a distance of ten miles till the column reached a cross road leading to Beersheba; the Regiment was then to press forward and destroy an enemy post near Goz El Shegeib, eight miles south-east from Beersheba; the Column to halt at the cross roads whilst the operation was being carried out. The page 160post was to be rushed with the bayonet and no one allowed to escape, firing to be avoided, as it was important not to alarm the posts further north. As soon as the post had been dealt with, information was to be sent back to the head of the column, and in the meantime the Regiment was to await the arrival of the column. The Regiment was further instructed that on the arrival of the column at Goz El Shegeib it would act as advance guard for the march northwards, and that it would then take up a position astride a road about four miles north-west of Gol El Shegeib and be prepared to act either as advance or left flank guard to the Australian Mounted Division; also to endeavour to get signal communication with the 7th Mounted Brigade and locate the enemy's left flank about the vicinity of Ras Ghannam (three miles south-south-east of Beersheba).
On October 28th the N.Z. Brigade left Esani for Khalassa, eight miles further south-east, and on the following day it proceeded to Asluj, sixteen miles due south of Beersheba, where the troops were kept under cover as much as possible, so as not to disclose their presence.
1. Portion of W.M.R. horse lines, Bir Et Maler. 2. "Bivvies" constructed of palm leaves by the W.M.R. at Bir Et Maler before tents arrived. 3. Egyptian Labour Corps constructing railway across the Sinai Desert. 4. Thr W.M.R. reconnoitring from Romani towards Katia.
1. Main Body of the 9th Squadron still in the field, August, 1916. 2. A desert haircut: Captain Herrick operating on Lieutenant Grant. 3. The effect of bombs at Katia. 4. The W.M.R. in a desert camp. 5. Camels carrying water at Katia. 6. A desert telephone cart.
An hour later enemy troops and transport were observed moving northward from Beersheba, and at the same time enemy camelry were seen close to Tel El Saba. Orders were therefore issued to the two Brigades to press forward on the Tel El Sakaty-Tel El Saba line, the Somerset Battery to join the N.Z. Brigade. A few minutes later the A.M.R., with the C.M.R. on its right, advanced towards the Saba Redoubt under covering fire from the battery. The redoubt was strongly held, it being defended by nests of machine guns and some 300 rifles, which covered all approaches, both Regiments coming under the fire of these and from an entrenched battery, one mile to the north of Tel El Saba. Having dismounted the A.M.R. advanced to the cover of a wadi, 800 yards from their objective, the attack, supported by the 3rd A.L.H. Regiment on the south-east, being launched there later.
At noon the W.M.R., in reserve, advanced to Wadi Saba at Bir Salem Irgeig, where the all-important water was found for the horses, the Regiments moving later with the Brigade along the Wadi Saba to Khirbet El Watan, while our batteries pounded the enemy position. At 2 p.m. the A.M.R. were preparing to advance against the first enemy position, the C.M.R being then some distance to the north. Ten minutes later the A.M.R. had begun the advance by short rushes, covered by artillery and machine gun fire, their objective—a hill some four hundred yards east of Tel El Saba—being captured at 2.40. The 2nd W.M.R. Squadron, under Major Scott, then reinforced the right of the A.M.R. and the attack on Tel El Saba commenced. Moving steadily forward at first, the line finally rushed and captured the redoubt a three o'clock, a machine gun and some seventy prisoners being taken. The gun was then used with telling effect against the Turks retiring towards Beersheba under cover of their artillery, which had commenced to bombard the captured positions.page 162
The fall of Tel El Saba, the keystone of the Beersheba system of defences, jeopardised the other positions to such an extent that the enemy was soon overcome in that locality. But the Turkish batteries near Beersheba became more active than ever, the gunners apparently attempting to inflict as much damage as possible before losing their guns. At three o'clock they commenced to shell the horses of the W.M.R. in the Wadi Saba, the fire increasing in intensity, and at four o'clock the Regiment moved with the Brigade to the cover of a high cliff close to Saba Redoubt. There showers of shrapnel fell around the Regiment for some time, three horses being killed and thirty-two wounded before nightfall, the bluff preventing many more casualties.
Meanwhile the attack on the town of Beersheba had begun, the ancient city being occupied by two brigades of the A.L.H. at 5.30 in the afternoon. Thus the left flank of the main enemy line was exposed for the operations which were to be commenced on the following day against it.
For gallant conduct during the day, Trooper N. M. Douglas was awarded the Military Medal. Casualties: One other rank killed, five other ranks wounded, three horses being killed and thirty-two wounded.
The W.M.R. casualties were: One officer and fifteen horses wounded, its captures including four cavalrymen, two hostile Bedouin, two horses, three mules, a range-finder, five boxes of machine-gun ammunition, and a Very pistol.
For gallant conduct during the reconnaissance, Corporal R. H. Graham was awarded the Military Medal.
A shortage of water for horses was keenly felt during the day, and, in consequence, only essential reconnaissances were undertaken in order to conserve the strength of the horses. Fortunately, a heavy downpour of rain had formed pools in wadis; otherwise the trying conditions which ultimately prevailed would have been more acute. A scanty supply of water in the Wadi Saba had served to slake the thirst of some of the horses, but this soon disappeared, and on November 2nd the Brigade proceeded to Bir Imshash, eleven miles eastward, where it occupied an out-post line facing east, covering a number of muddy pools which had been misrepresented as wells. There the puzzle to find water commenced, all ranks not otherwise engaged being sent broadcast for a couple of days to search for it, without any appreciable result.
The Fight at Ras El Nagb
Meanwhile the troops in the line to the north had encountered stout opposition, and on the 4th, whilst the W.M.R. and A.M.R. were taking their turn in the search for water, the Brigade was hurried forward to relieve the 5th Mounted Brigade, the latter being heavily engaged in the general line facing Ras El Nagb, thirteen miles north-east of Beersheba. The C.M.R. effected the relief at 5.30 p.m., the two other regiments arriving later, the W.M.R. having meanwhile located a good well, where the water-cart and bottles were filled. The 6th Squadron was placed on the left of the C.M.R., on a ridge facing Kheuwelfeh, against which the Infantry were operating, two A.M.R. Squadrons reinforcing the right of the C.M.R., the strength of the enemy mated at two thousand rifles and three batteries of artillery, The Turks commenced to attack at three o'clock next morning, their numerical strength, supported by the fire of cleverly-concealed batteries, enabling them to maintain aggressiveness throughout the day. From Kheuwelfeh, on the left, their bombarded our front line. From other directions shells were landed amongst the horses in the Wadi-Sultan, and long-range fire from page 164the north of Kheuwelfeh swept the position at intervals. The Somerset and an Indian Mountain Battery were in position south of Ras El Nagb, the fire of these being directed principally at Kheuwelfeh. At eight o'clock the 9th Squadron relieved the 6th Squadron, and a couple of hours later the 2nd Squadron took up a poistion on a knoll west of Ras El Nagb. The enemy were trying to work round the flank there, but well-directed fire from the Squadron dispersed them.
By this time the fall of Beersheba and the forcing back of the Turkish left were taking effect along the Gaza Beersheba line, from which the enemy had commenced to retire. Mounted troops were required to pursue the fleeting Turks, and the New Zealand Brigade received orders to hold itself in readiness to proceed with the Anzac Division and co-operate with the 20th Corps south of Sharia. The Imperial Camel Brigade was to relieve the New Zealanders at Ras El Nagb, but failed to arrive at the appointed hour, with the result that the departure of the Brigade was delayed for some time.
Meanwhile the left of the New Zealanders' line had been further strengthened by the 6th W.M.R. Squadron, the latter occupying the crest of a ridge on the left of the 2nd Squadron, where it checked an advance of a force of about four hundred Turks who were trying to work round the flank there.
The Turks were very aggressive on the left, and at about 1.30 p.m. the 2nd Squadron was heavily bombarded from the direction of Kheuwelfeh, many casualties being inflicted. Major Scott and Captain Hine having been wounded, Captain A. H. Herrick assumed command of the Squadron. Later the Turks advanced with fixed bayonets to within two hundred yards of our line, but heavy cross-fire broke the attack, the Turks retiring to a position five hundred yards from the New Zealanders, where they maintained a vigorous machine-gun and rifle fire till dusk.
Water and rations had been brought forward on packs for the men during the afternoon, but the horses had not had a satisfying drink for at least two days. It therefore became necessary for the men not engaged in holding the line to lead the horses to Beersheba, a distance of fourteen miles, where the nearest water was to be obtained. Next morning the 6th Camel Brigade arrived, giving half a pint of much-appreciated water to each of our men before taking over the line. Tired, and sorely in need of sleep as the result of a strenuous week of continuous trekking and fighting, the W.M.R. marched on foot page 165over broken country to Likeyeh, six miles south, where the horses rejoined them later.
The powers of endurance which the horses were found to possess during these trying times in continuing to work under a blazing sun without water for periods ranging from forty-eight to seventy-two hours (the latter time refers to the Hotchkiss gun pack horses) are probably without parallel in the history of warfare. Only acclimatised animals could have survived such an ordeal, and the fact that none of the W.M.R. horses were lost from causes other than casualties speaks volumes for the horsemastership of the men. The Regiment's casualties were: Two officers and seven other ranks wounded, six horses killed and thirteen wounded.
For gallant conduct during this engagement the following decorations were awarded:—Military Cross, Lieutenant C. J. Pierce; Military Medal, Sergeant J. A. Little, Sergeant T. H. Hulton, Lance-Corporal J. J. Austin, Trooper W. G. Fargie, Trooper W. Southern.
The Brigade remained in support of the 53rd Division in the waterless area close to Ras El Nagb till the night of 9th November, when it received welcome orders to move next day.
Gaza had fallen on 7th November, and the Turks had meanwhile been driven northward till the right of their line rested on the sea coast to the north of Hamameh, where the Anzac Division faced them. General Allenby's right, in the vicinity of Ras El Nagb was then firmly established, but strong forces opposed him on the left, so the New Zealanders were to join the Division there.