Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Operations Prior to and Including the Battle of Romani
Operations Prior to and Including the Battle of Romani.
The treks were long in the early days,
When "Abdul" traversed the waste of sin
With guns that threatened the few rough ways
That a man could gallop his Squadrons in:
But out of the anxious hazy West
Men came as a smother of eager haste,
For the Turks were perched on Royston's crest,
And the shells ploughed deep in the fiery waste.
"Twas tattle of bolt, and bayonet stab,
And blood on the white Romani sand;
"Twas a long, long ride to Bir El Abd
With the conquering men of Maoriland.
At 4.15 on the afternoon of July 19th an important change occurred in the situation. It was discovered by aeroplane reconnaissance—General Chaytor observing—that the enemy had page 92made a forward move with some 9000 troops on approximately an eight-mile frontage from Bir El Abd, the right of his line, through Bir Jamiel to Bir Bayud, there being some 3000 or 4000 troops at Bir El Abd, the remainder being divided between the two other places.
At this time the W.M.R., with the 2nd Brigade, was approaching Katia with the object of reconnoitring towards Ogratina, but in view of the change in the situation this Brigade was ordered to remain at Katia, to take up an outpost line, to send out patrols and, in the event of the enemy attacking, to withdraw gradually, keeping in touch with the enemy.
The 2nd Brigade was then commanded by Colonel Royston, a popular South African veteran, who, owing to his untiring energies in the field—galloping from one point to another—became affectionately known as "Galloping Jack."
Orders were then issued that although the 1st and 2nd A.L.H. Brigades were to maintain constant touch with the enemy the men and horses were to be kept as fresh as possible. The enemy was to be drawn towards and compelled to fight near Romani, and, if possible, among the sand hills to the south of Bir Et Maler. This would necessitate their marching over heavy sand, thereby reducing their strength and impairing their fighting qualities. It would also bring the enemy closer to our Infantry and safeguard the latter from exhausting themselves in fatiguing marches. In addition, well water in the locality was unhealthy, and it would probably affect the enemy if they drank it, and moreover the heat was very great.
At dawn on the 20th the W.M.R. encountered the enemy in the direction of Ogratina, shots being exchanged. The Turks were entrenching, and sniping continued throughout the day. Some prisoners were captured, and from them it was gathered that the enemy's force consisted of twelve battalions with guns, that a general attack on Romani was intended, that each regiment had a company of six machine guns, and that oxen on the hoof were brought for food. The feet of the prisoners were badly blistered, and it was apparent that they had marched a long distance.
It subsequently transpired that the force comprised some 15,000 rifles, with heavy batteries of four-inch and six-inchs howitzers and anti-aircraft guns manned by Austrians. The machine-gun companies were manned by Germans, the whole being commanded by General Kress von Kressenstein. The organisation was very thorough, no doubt of German origin, all modern appliances and equipment being used.page 93
At this time our defensive line extended from the vicinity of Mehamdiyeh, an ancient watering-place, on the left, and then continued southward for a distance of six miles along a line of sand dunes to Katib Gannet, a razor-backed sandhill a mile and a-half south-east of Bir Et Maler. This line was entrenched and held by the 52nd (Lowland) Scottish Division, and it covered the railhead then at Roraani, the remainder of the railway being protected by the 1st and 2nd Brigades near Roraani and Bir Et Maler and by the New Zealand and 5th Yeomanry Brigades at Hill 70. The two latter brigades guarded also the water-pipe and telegraph lines from Kantara. Lieut.-General H. A. Lawrence commanded the troops in the forward zone, his infantry reserves being some distance in the rear. The headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Murray, were then at Cairo, 130 miles from Romani.
On 22nd July the W.M.R. encountered the enemy near Sagia, and the 2nd Squadron captured seven prisoners. The Turks were gradually pressing forward, making no attempt to conceal themselves, their idea apparently being to make as much display as possible in order to impress on our troops his great strength. During the next few days the 1st and 2nd Brigades were kept busy checking the enemy, and on the 28th the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron encountered strong opposition at Umm Ugba, two miles north of Katia. The Turks had taken the Hod there, and were within striking distance of the wells at Katia, so Colonel Meldrum, who commanded our left flank facing Umm Ugba, asked permission from General Royston to take the Hod and to have two guns to assist in the attack. General Royston, who loved a fight, consented, and the attack was made by two W.M.R. Squadrons under cover of machine-gun and artillery fire, and carried out at me point of the bayonet with great determination. The enemy were driven out of the Hod, leaving sixteen dead and eight unwounded prisoners on our hands. The Lewis gunners, under Lieutenant Herrick, performed particularly good work. Finally the Ayrshire Battery shelled an enemy camp at Sagia, on our right, and scattered it.
Meanwhile the Turks had been advancing their left flank towards Bir Nagid, where posts of the New Zealand Brigade were located.
The country on our right flank, towards Katia, was quite open and through it ran the ancient road connecting Katia with Duiedar. The possibility of the Turkish attack developing in that direction had been considered by General Lawrence in consultation page 94with Divisional Commanders, and the question as to whether the high ground known as "Wellington Ridge," eight hundred yards south of the W.M.R. camp, should be held and defended was discussed. General Chauvel favoured this being done, and his representations were well grounded, as will be seen later, Wellington Ridge commanded the Light Horse Camps, but it was considered to be too isolated for an Infantry post to hold, so the idea of holding and defending it was abandoned.
Early on the morning of August 3rd the 2nd Brigade relieved the 1st Brigade, observing the enemy at Katia. The W.M.R. was advance guard that day, and they soon came under heavy fire. The Turks were in strength, and there was great activity along their positions, so the 2nd Brigade took up an outpost line to keep them under observation, till nightfall, when the Brigade commenced to return to Et Maler, leaving officers' patrols to watch the enemy.
At this time the enemy line ran generally as follows:—From a point on his right six miles east of Romani, through the Katia Oasis, and thence to Bar Nagid, his left—a total of seven miles.
Meanwhile two regiments of the 1st Brigade had taken up an outpost line three miles in length from Wellington Ridge southward on the right of the Infantry line through Mount Meredith to Hod El Enna to cover the entrants to the gullies which opened towards Katia from the Romani camps. In view of subsequent events, this disposition proved to be a wise one, the presence of these posts confusing the enemy when he appeared and delaying his advance for some time.
When the 2nd Brigade withdrew from Katia the Turks must have followed close on its heels, for at 11.30 p.m. the 1st Brigade reported that an enemy force was moving along its front, and just before midnight firing began, principally at Mount Meredith and Hod El Enna. The enemy was found to be in great strength in both these places, and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which had reached camp, was ordered out. This brigade did not immediately take part in the fight, being placed under cover of Wellington Ridge, but eventually its firmness and tenacity assisted in checking and finally defeating the Turkish advance.
Soon after the Turks had commenced to attack Mount Meredith, firing ceased for some time. This was mystifying at first, but it later transpired that the lull was due to the Turks having wrongly estimated the position of the line held by our troops, as captured enemy maps showed our line much further back. The Light Horse posts around Mount Meredith had not been page 95anticipated by the Turkish Commander, and when our true position became known he had to remodel his plans.
At 2.15 on the morning of the 4th, however, heavy firing broke out all along the line, the Turks apparently being ordered to attack whatever was in front of them. The troops at Hod El Enna and Mount Meredith were sorely pressed, and began to withdraw gradually. The enemy pressed the attack with great vigour, and events around Mount Meredith began to develop rapidly. Strong bodies of the enemy were outflanking our right, gaining ground slowly, and at 4 a.m. the 1st Brigade was forced back towards Wellington Ridge. The Turks had meanwhile captured Mount Meredith and had lined the crest, bringing machine guns into action.
At daybreak, as the situation became more acute, General Royston extended the 6th and 7th Light Horse Regiments from the right of 1st Brigade westward, his instructions being to hold Wellington Ridge at all costs. The W.M.R. were in reserve behind the northern slopes of the hill in a depression, and with them were the led horses of the 6th and 7th Regiments. This depression afforded the only available cover for the horses, on account of heavy rifle and machine-gun fire which raked the ground around it, but the horses in massed formation presented a splendid target for enemy air craft, which were then active, and when a number of them suddenly appeared, flying low, some anxious moments were passed. Fortunately, the airmen did not observe the packed horses beneath them, and they directed their bombs, without result, at the Leicester Battery, close by.
Just before 5 a.m. the enemy's guns—some of them being 5.9 calibre—opened fire along Wellington Ridge, and they searched the ground in rear. The enemy flanking movement continued, and aeroplane bombing became more active. At the same time machine-gun fire from Mount Meredith swept Wellington Ridge, making the southern slopes of the latter untenable, and the 1st Brigade was ordered to withdraw to a knoll further back. A little later the 1st Brigade was driven from the Knoll, but the 2nd Brigade, fighting stubbornly, clung to the western slopes of Wellington Ridge. Divisional headquarters had meanwhile also moved back, and established itself in the W.M.R. camp. Colonel Meredith was then ordered to collect the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, which was retiring on Et Maler, and later one of its regiments was sent to strengthen our right
At seven o'clock the W.M.R. took up a position on the left rear of the 6th and 7th Light Horse Regiments, the movement page 96being carried out at the gallop under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. The Turks were then advancing rapidly towards Wellington Ridge, and the 6th and 7th Regiments were withdrawn to take up a line on the right of the W.M.R. the latter covering the retirement. The Turks thereupon occupied Wellington Ridge, and the high ground overlooking the Light Horse camps, which now came under heavy artillery, machine-gun, and rifle fire. It will thus be seen that the line taken up by Colonel Meldrum lay between the Turks and the Et Maler Camps, and it was owing to the stiff resistance maintained there, supported by the fire of the Ayrshire and Leicester Batteries, that the Turkish advance towards Romani railway station was held up.
The fight had now reached a very interesting stage. Our defence line was very thinly held; all our regimental reserves had been absorbed into it, and the Infantry reserves were not in sight. The Turks, however, did not appear to fully appreciate the situation; they hesitated for a time on Wellington Ridge, when they might have used their greater numerical strength to better advantage, and it was during this time that fate was to turn against them.
Meanwhile the general situation had apparently been viewed with some alarm in the vicinity of Divisional Headquarters, where the orderly-room clerk of the W.M.R. had been ordered to burn the regimental records. The cooking utensils and other impediments had been packed for removal when the quarter-master of the W.M.R. arrived from the firing line, where the Turks had been checked, and he arranged with the cooks to unpack the dixies and serve up tea in the firing line. The cooks responded readily, and in the face of heavy artillery and rifle fire they carried the tea to their comrades, who, having had no time to breakfast, fully appreciated it.
The enemy were meanwhile pressing forward between Et Maler and Mount Royston, a big sandhill on the left of his line, three and a-half miles west of Mount Meredith, and during this momentous phase in the operations General Royston was the most noticeable and ubiquitous figure on the battlefield. Although wounded himself, he rode amongst his men, for whom he always had a cheery word, inspiring them and exhorting them to take cover, while openly exposing himself. The General was most energetic throughout the fighting, and used up no fewer than eight horses during the day.page break
At 9.45 a composite Regiment of Yeomanry gained touch with the enemy two miles south-west of Mount Royston, the Anzac Division at that time being extended from Wellington Ridge, where the W.M.R. held the left on the line to some sandhills north of Mount Royston, our right, where the Yeomanry soon joined up. A little later two companies from the 156th Infantry Brigade took over part of our line from the 7th L.H. Regiment on the right of the W.M.R., thus enabling the line to be extended further westward to check the enemy advancing there.
Meanwhile the N.Z.M.R. Brigade had been advancing from Hill 70, and at eleven o'clock it reached Canterbury Hill, close to Mount Royston, the key of the position. The arrival of the N.Z. Brigade and Yeomanry at this point was most opportune and, commencing to attack immediately, they ultimately changed the whole aspect of the fight. The Turks were entrenched, and they defended stubbornly, but the New Zealanders gradually closed in on them, and by five o'clock, on the approach of the 42nd Infantry Division, General Chaytor was able to thrust all his mounted reserves into the fight, and Mount Royston was captured at the point of the bayonet. At six o'clock the Infantry arrived, too late to take part in the fighting, but they garrisoned Mount Royston whilst the mounted troops continued to attack further on the left.
The forward move of the mounted troops on the right flank continued till darkness set in, when an outpost line was taken up by the two L.H. Brigades and two battalions of Infantry, these continuing the line from the right of the 52nd Division to Mount Royston, facing the enemy, who still held Wellington Ridge.
Although the 1st and 2nd Brigades had been moving continuously for about twenty hours, and it must be remembered that the W.M.R. and the 6th and 7th Regiments had already been without sleep for two nights, they were confident of dislodging the enemy next morning. The tenacity in holding up the lurks close on their camp and the opportune arrival of the New Zealand Brigade at Mount Royston had saved the day, and it was from that time that the Turks lost their offensive, never to regain it.
About 1200 prisoners were taken, also a mountain battery and a machine gun.
The W.M.R. casualties were:—Five officers and 19 other ranks wounded.page 98
Altogether the battle cost the British about 800 casualties—killed, wounded, and missing. Firing continued after dark all along the line, the enemy using artillery.
The 3rd A.L.H. Brigade and the Inverness Battery arrived at Duiedar at 8.30, and halted there for the night. So far, this Brigade had not been engaged.
Orders for next day's operations were then issued, they being briefly to the effect that a general advance would commence at daylight to dislodge and drive back the enemy, who had retired to a line of entrenched positions from Hod El Enna, his left, through Katia to Abu Hamra; the Anzac Division to thrust forward all along the line, with its right on Hod El Enna and its left with the 52nd Infantry Division. The latter was to strike at Abu Hamra and the 42nd Division on Katia, but after the initial attack the Infantry gave little assistance during the rest of the day. The 3rd A.L.H. Brigade was directed on Hamisah to turn the Turkish left and cut in behind the enemy, but it made little headway.
The counter-attack commenced at four o'clock on the morning of 5th August, the W.M.R., with the 7th A.L.H. Regiment on its right, and supported on the left by the Welsh Fusiliers, charging with fixed bayonets across the broken country which separated them from the main Turkish position on Wellington Ridge. They encountered heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but, rushing up the slopes in an irresistible charge, they quickly broke through the Turkish front line. The enemy soon became demoralised, and our troops advanced from ridge to ridge without a stop and completely overwhelmed the Turks, who surrendered in hundreds. Without waiting to hand over the prisoners, Lieut. Colonel Meldrum ordered up his horses and re-mounted the Regiment, and, taking with him a section of machine-gunners from the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade under Lieutenant Zouch, pursued the retreating Turks towards Katia, gathering prisoners en rôute.
Meanwhile the 1st A.L.H. Brigade on the right had moved south-east on Hod El Enna.
At 6.35 General Chauvel was placed in command of all the mounted troops, and as the W.M.R. had commenced the pursuit of the demoralised retreating enemy without orders Divisional Headquarters were notified en rôute by helio of the Regiment's action and of its intention to push forward.
The Regiment relentlessly pursued the enemy, capturing hundreds of prisoners, till it approached Katia, where it came under heavy fire. The eastern portion of Katia was found to be page 99strongly held, and a fusilade of machine guns and rifle fire, supported by a mountain battery, held up the further advance of the Regiment. Dismounting two squadrons, the Officer Commanding took up a position with six machine guns. As the Regiment was unable to advance further without assistance, Headquarters were advised of the situation. The Regiment remained in this position till 9 a.m., closely observing the enemy. Although the numerical strength of the Regiment was very small in comparison with the force opposed to it, its presence so close on the heels of the enemy plainly agitated the latter, who maintained a most vigorous fire from battery machine guns and rifles.
After the very successful advance from Romani, during which about 2000 Turks, some Germans, a battery, and six machine guns had been captured, the remainder of the mounted troops commenced to concentrate near Katia, where the W.M.R. were still holding their position close to the rearguard of the enemy and patrolling the surrounding country. These patrols were very successful, and one of them, under Lieutenant Allison, captured 93 prisoners and 80 camels, besides an ammunition supply dump.
At 9 a.m., however, Lieut-Colonel Meldrum received an urgent appeal for assistance from the C.R.A., who was moving forward with two batteries, and who reported that he was being attacked from the north-east by Turks two miles east of Katib Gannit. Two squadrons of the W.M.R. were immediately withdrawn to protect the Artillery, the other squadron remaining in position to keep touch with the Turkish Main Body; but on their arrival at the position indicated it was found that the attack on the guns had not materialised, though one battery, the Leicesters, had retired. The Ayrshire Battery was brought up and put into action against the Turkish rearguard, and the two W.M.R. Squadrons again took up their former positions.
At 10 a.m. Lieut.-Colonel Meldrum received word that he was temporarily in command of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, vice Brig.- General Royston, wounded, so, handing over the Regiment to Major Spragg, he set to work to gain touch with the 6th and 7th A.L.H. Regiments and to concentrate his Command.
Colonel Meldrum's appointment proved a most popular one. His previous series of successes on Gallipoli and elsewhere won tor him the confidence and respect of Australians and New Zealanders alike. He fully understood his men. He appreciated the splendid fighting qualities they possessed, and used them to the best adavntage. He quickly recognised good work and page 100promptly acknowledged it. The Colonel's indomitable determination and tenacity in defence, his aggressiveness in attack, and frequent use of the bayonet, prompted the Australians to refer affectionately to him as "Fix-Bayonets Bill"—surely a soubriquet to be proud of.