The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand's Crusaders
On the 29th of May the New Zealanders left Bir Et Malar for Salmana. The following day was spent keeping out of sight in some palm trees at Debabis. Moving on at night, they arrived at Salmana early the following morning, where they had their first action of any consequence against the Turks on this front. It was, however, only a very brief affair, although aeroplanes did a good deal of damage to the retiring enemy. Returning to bivouac that night, our men experienced their first bombing raid the next morning, the forerunner of many to come, when the enemy's bombs caused heavy casualties in both horses and men of an Australian Brigade adjoining the New Zealanders.
Towards the beginning of August, a force of Turks, estimated at about eighteen thousand in number, advanced towards our positions; a somewhat remarkable achievement over roughly a hundred miles of desert, carrying water, rations, machine-guns and ammunition, and dragging one heavy 6 inch gun in addition to field guns. Some idea of the difficulties of moving field guns, let alone a heavy gun such as this, may be had when it is mentioned that it took a team of 24 horses to drag a British page 304-5 Howitzer through the heavy sand. The endurance of the Turkish infantry must have been extraordinary to have covered this distance over the yielding surface of the desert. The supply of water was always a problem, as our men knew to their cost, always involving a long string of slow moving camel transport for its carriage from the very few sources of supply.
The Turks moved on Romani on the night of the 3rd of August, and delivered their attack against the British positions in a strong attempt to turn our flank and cut the communications of our desert force in the rear. The action developed in the darkness of the early morning hours against the Australians on this flank, who throughout the day fought a sanguinary combat against heavy odds. They were reinforced during the day by infantry, and then a force composed of the New Zealand Brigade and a Brigade of Yeomanry, supported by Infantry, descended on the exposed left flank of the Turks with crushing force. This turned the tide of battle, and a general attack at dawn the next day completed the demoralization of the enemy, who withdrew to reform his broken scattered line at Katia. The New Zealanders played a big part in these operations, at the cost of many good men. Several thousand Turks were taken prisoner, and much material was captured.
Here should be mentioned the work done by the Wellington Regiment and the two Australian Regiments with which they were page 31brigaded. These units were constantly in touch with the Turks night and day for about a fort-night before the Romani fight, as the enemy moved forward in the Desert, men and guns reinforcing him constantly from El Arish.
The work was most trying, as our men continually came under fire without the chance of hitting back, all the while sustaining casualties. On the night of the Turkish advance an isolated post of our men some miles out in the desert was cut off and surrounded between the two enemy columns. One man only got out, which he did by taking a very bold course. Riding alongside one of the Turkish columns in the dark, he waited his chance until an opening in the column presented itself, when he made his way through without being recognised, and so back to the British lines as fast as his horse could carry him through the heavy sand.
Following up the retreating Turks as fast as their weary horses could move, the New Zealanders came into collision with them again at Katia, six miles further on in the Desert. There our men made a frontal attack on the Turkish positions, which was strongly resisted by the enemy. The action, however, was doomed to be indecisive, for the Turks withdrew at night.
In this fight a unique spectacle was witnessed which is worth mention. The 5th Australian Light Horse, Canterbury and Auckland rode into action in swift moving waves. The Aus-page 32tralian Regiment galloped in with bayonets fixed and dismounted for action—an inspiring sight as these splendid horsemen moved over the sand into battle with their steel-tipped rifles flashing in the sun. This was, perhaps, the first time that a mounted unit not armed with swords had carried the naked steel into action this way on their chargers.
In this August fighting the Turkish force which had moved across the Desert to Romani with, the confident anticipation of wiping the British off the map had been badly mauled. Approximately 9,000 Turks were made prisoners—half their total force—and after the fighting at Bir El Abd the shattered remnant withdrew for reorganisation to El Arish, 50 miles away on the coast.
It should be mentioned that after the fighting at Romani practically all the work fell on the horsemen of the Anzac Mounted Division, the heavy going in the deep Desert sand precluding any rapid movement of dismounted troops.