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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter III — The Battle of Romani

page 181

Chapter III
The Battle of Romani

About the middle of July, 1916, an air reconnaisance revealed a large-scaled enemy advance in the direction of Romani, which was at that time the British railhead. Immediately this news was received there began an arduous time for the Anzac Mounted Division. It was decided to induce the Turk to attack us in position, where we would have the protection of the infantry, and also a mobile mounted force with which to strike at his flank, to cut at his communications, and so surround him.

The mounted patrols from the Light Horse Brigades working from Romani harassed the enemy day by day, and gradually drew him on. These tactics were so skilfully carried out that every move of the Turk was known to us.

On the night of 3rd August the enemy commenced his general advance, and by morning began to work round the right flank of the 52nd Division, in an endeavour to capture the camps at Romani and the railway line. The New Zealand Mounted Brigade (with the Machine Gun Squadron) moved towards Romani at 6 a.m., but owing to the Turkish attack proving so strong and reaching so close to the railway, it was ordered to move to Canterbury Hill (near to Mount Royston) to join with the Yeomanry in an attack against the Mount.

The scheme of attack against the Mount was to attack it frontally with the Auckland and Canterbury Regiments and on the southern flank with the Yeomanry. The Brigade was in readiness to deliver the attack by midday, and, leaving their horses behind, the troopers were soon moving across the open ground towards their objective under heavy enemy rifle fire.

A section of machine guns was ordered to support the Auckland Regiment. It went forward, over the heavy sand, at the gallop, but after proceeding several hundred yards met with severe enemy enfilade machine-gun fire. Owing to a page 182number of horses being hit at this stage, the officer in charge directed the section to cover, and then continued the advance on foot.

Two sections advanced to support the Canterbury Regiment, while three sections remained in reserve under O.C. Squadron. The attacking sections made good use of the small amount of natural cover and succeeded in getting their guns into action with a minimum of delay.

The Turks were manning the sand ridges ahead, but a large number had advanced down the forward slopes into what they imagined were well-concealed positions.

The section officers, with the aid of their scouts, located these forward Turks and directed the fire of their guns on to them. The ranges were only from 500 to 1000 yards: on the sand surface the gunners had no difficulty in observing their fire, and quickly got on to the target.

Under the covering fire of the machine guns the regiments suffered surprisingly few casualties, and by 5 p.m. the persistent attack of all arms caused a break in the enemy line.

A few of the enemy on the forward slopes endeavoured to get back, but were quickly cut down by the gunners: the remainder surrendered. The enemy on the reverse slopes made a speedy retirement, and were soon out of range from the forward guns. Capt. Harper now brought up his reserve guns. Advancing at the gallop, he led the reserve sections through the then existing front line and made for a high hill. This hill was safely reached, and in addition to affording excellent cover for his horses, gave a commanding view of the retreating enemy.

The six guns were brought into action at once and took a heavy toll. The remaining sections decided to copy the reserve sections: their horses were called up, and they galloped to a ridge to the left of Capt. Harper. From this ridge they opened fire and continued successfully until the retreating Turks were out of range.

By 6.30 p.m. the hills of Romani and Royston were completely cleared of the enemy. The squadron then received orders to discontinue the advance, and shortly afterwards marched back to Pelusium to bivouac for the night.

The gunners were very grateful to reach the bivouac area; page 183their horses had experienced a heavy day and had been without water for fourteen hours.

The Squadron was astir very early next morning, and after drawing ammunition and refilling belts, marched off with the Brigade to the high ground about a mile south of Katia. The enemy was reported to be holding the Katia Oasis, and plans were made to clear it Two sections (four guns) were despatched to each of the three Regiments before the attack commenced.

The first phase of the attack was a rapid charge against the oasis, which started shortly after 2.30 p.m. The charge was a wonderful sight, the troopers bending low in the saddles, not knowing when a murderous fire would open from the softly swaying palms, raced towards their objective; but the enemy was not there, and the troopers left their horses, to advance against the prepared positions beyond. The gun sections were able to keep up with the galloping troopers in the charge, and at once prepared to assist them as they extended out to advance against the enemy lines. The guns on the right of the attack moved to an elevated position, in which they remained throughout the day without serious molestation. They were able to deliver useful covering fire in the evening to protect the Canterbury Regiment's withdrawal.

The guns on the left had a busy time; they pushed forward with the troopers and observed a strong enemy force collecting among some palm trees on the left flank. A heavy concentrated fire in a few minutes dispersed the force with heavy casualties. The guns found frequent targets during the day. As night fell the Squadron returned to Bir Et Maler, where it bivouacked for the night.

On the 6th the Squadron moved at 6 a.m. to a point about a mile south of Ummugba, where it came under shell fire. The Brigade was only called upon to make a demonstration that day while a flank attack by another Brigade was in progress. One section of guns went into action against enemy positions at a range of 1800 yards, which it kept under fire tor several hours. At 7 p.m. the Squadron inarched to Bir Er Rhaba for the night, where it remained until the 8th, inconvenienced by shell fire, but sustaining no casualties.

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Preparations were made throughout 8th August for the attack on Bir El Abd, a point about twenty miles east of Romani. The Squadron marched with the Brigade to Bir El Dababis on the evening of the 8th, to be in readiness for the attack the following day. The Brigade and Squadron left Bir El Dababis at 6 a.m. on the 9th, and succeeded in advancing to within a mile and a half of Bir El Abd before the enemy opposition necessitated the troopers to dismount. The three Regiments were now in alignment—Auckland on the right, Canterbury in the centre, and 5th Australian Light Horse on the left. The 3rd Australian Brigade had failed to come up on the right of the Auckland Regiment, which left its right flank exposed. Two sections of the Squadron (four guns) were sent to help the Aucklands, one section to help the Canterburys, and one section to help 5th Australian Light Horse. The remaining two sections were kept in reserve at Brigade Headquarters.

Some concern was occasioned owing to the ridge that ran forward of Bir El Abd being strongly held by the enemy. From this ridge the Turks could command the whole of the Brigade's advance. To neutralise the enemy fire from the ridge, Lieut. A. C. Hinman moved his guns into position to sweep the crest of the ridge the moment the extended lines of troopers went forward towards their objective. The deadly fire from Hinman's guns completely silenced the enemy on the ridge, which was shortly afterwards cleared at the point of the bayonet. The machine guns were boldly pushed forward in the attack, coming into action frequently against the close formations of enemy infantry sent up to stop our advance. Although the enemy suffered heavy casualties, he was able to hamper the advance by working round the exposed flank of the Auckland Regiment. The pressure on the right flank necessitated a slight withdrawal on the left. A section from the reserve guns went forward about midday to support the right flank, and the last remaining section to support the left flank.

During the afternoon the enemy artillery increased their activity, which was followed shortly after by a violent counter-attack with three fresh battalions. The brigades on either flank were compelled to give ground, but the New Zealand page 185Brigade held on, and beat off the Turks just as darkness fell.

The Brigade now had to withdraw, and the machine gunners, who had fought so valiantly throughout the afternoon, were called upon to cover the withdrawal, and succeeded in fighting a model textbook rearguard action. The led horses were brought up to the gun teams, and gradually the guns dropped back by sections to successive covering positions, until the retirement was complete.

In this rearguard action the gunners inflicted terrible casualties upon the Turks, and successfully held them up until the troopers were back to their horses. The most trying time the gunners had was finally extricating themselves. On the left flank 2nd Lieut. G. G. Harper was covering the 8th Squadron Canterbury Regiment. The sudden withdrawal of the flanks had left the 8th Squadron and machine gun section in the air. The enemy heavily shelled the position and made a very determined attack upon it. Harper kept his guns in a very bold position to meet the full force of the attack and so give the squadron troops a chance to get back. By this time the squadron commander and his second in command had been killed. The Turks got within about 200 yards of the guns, when a withering fire opened that temporarily held up the advance. By this time the Squadron was nearing safety, so it was decided to fight the guns out, one covering the other until they reached the horses. Just as one gun was getting ready to drop back, Harper was mortally wounded. Fortunately, Sergts. Edridge and Craven (who subsequently did such splendid work as officers) were ill the section. Back the guns dropped one by (one, covering each other and inflicting terrible casualties on the Turks, until at last, covered by a section of the 8th Squadron, they reached the horses and got back to safety. L.-Corp. Rudd displayed great fortitude; after being shot through the head he continued working his gun.

The bold decision of 2nd Lieut. Harper to hold his dangerous position in order to cover the Canterbury Regiment's withdrawal, with the slight chance of successfully fighting his guns back to safety, was an outstanding example of self-sacrifice.

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Harper was brought back with his section and succeeded in reaching Cairo, but succumbed to his wounds on 13th August. This gallant officer had served from the commencement of the war; he was the first number one of his gun section, and for his conspicuous conduct at Hill 60 on Gallipoli was awarded the D.C.M.

During the withdrawal 2nd-Lieut. T. McCarroll, on the right flank, observed that the 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment was finding it difficult to withdraw, owing to the Turks working round its exposed flank. Although the Auckland Regiment, with which McCarroll was working, had completed its withdrawal, he maintained his positions to cover the Australians, and, after they got clear, he fought his guns out in a neatly-executed rear-guard action.

By 7 p.m. the Squadron had safely concentrated, and thereupon it proceeded to Oghratina, by way of Hod El Dababis. The action, which had been fought in a temperature of 112 degrees, on a short water ration, and in loose, deep sand, was one of the most trying in which the Squadron took part.

The Turk had been given a rude shock, which left him unable to withstand the fresh troops that were soon bringing pressure to bear, and caused his immediate retreat to El Arish, 20 miles further east.

The Squadron did not get in active touch with the enemy during August, although it accompanied the Brigade on the reconnaissances to Salmana and El Galss.

On the 25th August the Squadron returned to Hod Amara to rest, recuperate, and replace casualties in men, horses, and equipment. During these operations all ranks had a strenuous time, as they were in touch with the enemy all day and spent most of the night riding back for rations and water, sometimes twenty miles in one night. In this camp the only duties outside ordinary routine were the maintenance of antiaircraft guns to deal with the increased activity of the German airmen.

Throughout the whole campaign the protection of the horses from aeroplane attack was the cause of a great deal of anxiety. As a rule the desert was devoid of cover. The only effective means of preventing serious casualties was the page 187immediate dispersion in all directions the moment an enemy 'plane was observed.1 Special aeroplane observation posts were established at daybreak each morning and manned until sunset. The admitted ascendancy of the enemy airmen during 1916-1917 was a very serious handicap to our mounted troops.

The Brigade left Hod Amara on 11th September to proceed to Bir et Maler, leaving the Squadron and Mounted Field Ambulance to become attached to 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade.

A number of lessons were learnt by the Squadron in the operations from the 4th to the 9th August. The chief point noticed was that the Maxim guns were too heavy for desert warfare; the weight told severely on the pack horses and also on the men when going into or out of action, especially in the deep sand. The Maxims seemed more liable to stoppages than the Vickers guns.

The sand interfered with the working of some of the guns to a small extent, especially in the windy weather. Sand, however, was not a serious source of trouble if the guns were kept free from superfluous oil.

No indirect harassing fire was employed by the Squadron on account of the difficulty of replacing ammunition. Open warfare in the desert is one of movement, and the large expenditure of ammunition by the Companies of the Corps in the trenches in France would not be justified in Sinai. The Squadron's gunners had ample opportunities of carrying out the much more interesting work of engaging the enemy with direct observed fire. Sand is probably the best surface from a machine gunner's point of view; he can observe his fire perfectly and quickly range upon his target.

During the operations there was a lack of co-operation between the machine gun sections and the troops with which they were working. The regimental officers showed a tendency to regard the work of the machine guns as something separate and distinct, and did not always trouble to notify the section officers when a withdrawal was ordered.

The Squadron received orders on 15th September to join 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade in the operation by the Division against Mazar; the following day it marched to Bir

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Salmana, and thence to the Divisional rendezvous area on the 17th. When the attack against Mazar opened on the 18th the Squadron marched forward until it reached a point two miles west of the village, and here it remained in readiness, but was not sent into action. Next morning at five o'clock the Squadron became detached from the Australians, and started on an independent march to Hod Amara. The long journey was safely accomplished, but both men and horses were tired out with the rapid long distance movement of the previous days. After resting for a day, the Squadron proceeded to Bir Et Maler to rejoin the Brigade.

The Squadron remained at Bir Et Maler until 23rd October, during which time Major Pardoe, D.S.O., Senior Machine Gun Instructor at the Imperial School of Instruction, Zeitoun, inspected the Squadron, piece by piece, and delivered a number of lectures to both officers and men.

The Brigade received orders to move to the front for outpost duty on 23rd October, and in conformity with the Regiments the Squadron left Bir Et Maler at 8 a.m.

The new Brigade area at Bir Moseifig was reached on 27th, after a pleasant march through Bir Et Abd and Hod El Ge-eila. The Squadron formed a bivouac camp and constructed and manned the anti-aircraft defences, but did not take over any outposts until 15th November. On 14th November the Squadron marched to Bir El Mazar. After the new camp was formed all the Squadron officers made a reconnaissance of the outpost line, to enable a machine gun defence scheme to be prepared. Before nightfall the whole line had been reconnoitred and gun positions selected. The guns were taken forward during the evening, and by morning the emplacements had been dug and sandbagged. Between the 16th and 20th parties of officers and n.c.o.'s searched the surrounding country in front of the outpost lines and prepared very accurate range charts for the guns.

The Squadron withdrew from outpost duty on 25th November and proceeded to a camp at El Mustagidda. Active training was at once undertaken in preparation of the largescaled offensive operations that weft now possible.

1 See photograph opposite page 224.