The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919
Chapter VIII. — Of the Battle called Romani, but which might have been named the Second Battle of Pelusium
Of the Battle called Romani, but which might have been named the Second Battle of Pelusium.
"And the Egyptians lay encamped on the banks of the Nile, which runs by Pelusium, awaiting Cambyses. The Persians crossed the desert and, pitching their camp close to the Egyptians, made ready for battle. Stubborn was the fight that followed, and it was not until vast numbers had been slain that the Egyptians turned and fled."—Herodotus.
Now the ruins of ancient Pelusium are to this day to be seen a few miles from the wells of Romani, and it was just outside Pelusium in the year 528 B.C. that the invading Persians conquered the Egyptians. Upon this self same ground, 2,500 years later, the invaders of Egypt were to be defeated in the battle of Romani.
In the early hours of the morning of August 4th orders were received to be ready to move at 8 a.m. With the Regiment as advanced guard the Brigade moved in the direction of Dueidar, and heavy firing could be heard away in the direction of Romani. It looked as though the General's batman was right, but after travelling about three miles towards the east the direction of the march was changed north towards Canterbury Post. Nobody knew why, but later it was learnt that the Turks were making a flank attack on the railway in conjunction with their main attack on Romani, and that the Brigade was to hold them, and, if possible, drive them back.
Skilfully led by guides, who evidently knew every foot of the British position, the enemy had attacked in three columns, one, a holding attack well backed by artillery upon the 52nd Division in their entrenched position, and the two other columns upon the open flank between Katib Gannit and the caravan route. These two columns encountered the outpost line held by the 1st Light Horse Brigade, and they attacked it about midnight on August 4th.page 107
This Brigade gallantly withstood the attack, and, backed up by the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, slowly fell back pivoting on their left, where it joined the 52nd Brigade.
The Turks' attack was well led, and having overwhelming numbers they pressed back the Australians almost to the railway line and established themselves on the big sandhill, Mt. Royston. It was this determined thrust that had caused General Lawrence, who commanded all the troops in this section of the Canal defences, to divert the N.Z. Brigade from its original plan of a wide flanking movement.
By 10.30 a.m. touch was obtained with the enemy, who were holding a strong position on Mt. Royston, and the Brigade immediately attacked with the Canterbury Regiment leading. The 1st Squadron was in the centre, with the 8th and 10th Squadrons on its right and left, and the Auckland Mounted Rifles in close support. The 5th Australian Light Horse Regiment, who took the place in the Brigade of the Wellington Regiment fighting with the 2nd Light Horse page 108Brigade, were to join up on the right of the 8th Squadron, but did not arrive in time. Some Yeomanry came up on the left, and at 3 o'clock in the afternoon a general advance was made by the Canterbury and Auckland Regiments under cover of the fire from the Somerset battery. The enemy resisted stubbornly, but by half-past five they were driven off the hill and the railway was safe, and the turning point in the Battle of Romani had been made. A large number of prisoners were taken, the Brigade alone capturing over one thousand, besides machine guns and a complete mountain battery. Field glasses were very scarce, and those issued being of a poor quality, competition was very keen for the Zeiss glasses of the prisoners, but very few were secured.
The 42nd Infantry Division came up and took over the line as darkness set in, and the Regiment rode to the railway at Canterbury Post to water horses and bivouac for the night, tired out but happy with the thought that the Turk had been hammered in this the Regiment's first fight in the desert. Considering the heavy fire and lack of cover, casualties were light, due to the skilful handling of their squadrons by the Squadron Commanders and the fine initiative of the individual men.
By half-past three on the morning of the 5th the Brigade was off again, this time to Bir el Nuss; thence on to Katia, passing on the way a complete field hospital abandoned by the enemy.
The Turks were reported to be holding Katia in strength. Orders were issued for the N.Z. Brigade to attack from the south, the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade to clear Hamisah and come up on the right, while the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades and the Yeomanry attacked from the north-west and west. A great line of galloping horses went right at the Katia oasis. Shell fire was unheeded, bullets buried themselves in the sand-dunes as the horses surged over them, and then, the ground becoming too swampy to hold the horses, the men dismounted and went in on foot.
Heavy machine gun and rifle fire swept the ground, and the enemy artillery searched the sandhills for the horses. The attack on foot was steadily pressed, and if the 3rd page 109Australian Brigade had come up on the right the enemy would have been caught, in large numbers before he could get away from the oasis. Throughout the long afternoon the Regiment hung on waiting for this promised attack, but it did not come, and at 8 p.m. orders were received to break off the action and return to water at Bir et Maler.
Considerable difficulty was experienced in getting the wounded away, but by half-past nine the Regiment was again in the saddle. A reaction had now set in, and the men and animals were feeling the strain. During the short halts that night it was no uncommon thing to see the horses, as soon as their riders dismounted, lie down on the sand, thoroughly tired out. The ride to bivouac was made more tiring by a stupid guide who lost himself and made the journey hours longer than necessary. This guide had been specially selected by the Division, but any N.C.O. in the Regiment could have done better.
Two hours' rest only, and the Brigade was again moving out towards Katia. The Infantry had left earlier with the heavy artillery, and if the Turks were still there they would have to contend with a force much superior to that of the previous day. But they did not wait. Lieutenant Bowron. with one troop, who went out to scout for the infantry, found Katia deserted and the enemy retired upon Oghratina. The page 110infantry remained at Katia whilst the mounted men pushed on to watch the movements of the enemy. This day was an easy day compared with the last two, pressure being kept on the enemy, sufficient to keep knowledge of his movements. At dusk the Brigade withdrew to Rabah for the night. Touch was kept with the enemy all night by means of officers' patrols.
The heat since leaving Hill 70 on the morning of the 4th had been steadily increasing, and officers and men suffered severely, several having to be evacuated to hospital. The 7th was a replica of the 6th, the enemy being driven back to Negiliat, whence he made great play with his guns. "We were on the move again by 3.30 a.m. on the 8th, but the enemy had again withdrawn, and was now holding a strong position at Bir el Abd. The Regiment remained all day at Debabis and finally bivouaced there for the night. This spell was very welcome to all.
Next morning, August 9th, all available mounted troops were on the move before daylight. The Turks were reported to be holding Bir el Abd in strength. The attack was to be made from the west and. south-west, and the 1st and 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigades combined were to attack the north flank of the enemy. The 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was ordered to pass south of the enemy, and then come into action from the direction of Salmana, thereby cutting his line of retreat, and menacing his rear. At 5.30 a.m. our advanced regiment, Auckland Mounted Rifles, was page 111fired on, and the 8th Squadron went up in support of its left. Almost at once they were heavily engaged, and the two remaining squadrons of the Regiment came into action on the left of the 8th Squadron. The Regiment's right flank now rested on the old caravan route, the left feeling round towards the 2nd Light Horse Brigade. The 8th Squadron pushed steadily on. driving the enemy off a low sandy ridge facing east. The 1st and 10th Squadrons advanced at the same time, finally securing the high ground west of Bir el Abd, the Canterbury Regiment being on the left of the "Old Road" and the Aucklanders on the right of it, and later the 5th Light Horse Regiment, still temporarily attached to the Brigade, came up on the right of. the Auckland Regiment. The main Turkish defences could now be seen. They consisted of a series of entrenched redoubts with rifle pits in frontLater it was found that all these redoubts were connected by telephone with their artillery—three batteries of 77 m.m. and one 4.2 battery and several 5.9 inch howitzers.
Against these the Anzac Mounted Division had only four batteries of 18 pounders.
The Turks had about 6,000 men in the line against our total of about 3,000 dismounted rifles. They were mostly reinforcements from El Arish who had not been engaged at Romani, while our men were suffering from extreme physical exhaustion.
The task before the British force was therefore formidable and the only chance of success was, as at Katia, that the 3rd Light Horse Brigade should succeed in beating down the enemy's extended left flank and in shaking the Bir el Abd defences by threatening the Turks communications.
Up till now their artillery had been annoying, but did not cause much damage, but once the high ridge facing the Oasis was crossed our men were in full view of their gunners. The 8th Squadron were in the most exposed position and suffered severely. Lieutenant Menzies, signalling officer, was killed, and Major Hammond and Lieutenant Blakeney dangerously wounded.
Lieut. Robin Harper, afterwards commanded Divisional M.G. Squadron.
The line was again advanced until the Canterbury and Auckland Regiments were well down the forward slopes leading to the wells, but by 10.30 a.m. the enemy guns showed increased activity, severely handling the combined 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades on the left.
The Warwickshire Yeomanry now came up to reinforce the N.Z.M.R. Brigade, and the increased activity apparent among the Turks indicated that they were making every effort to get away their supplies and transport.
Shortly before noon came the second counter-attack, and the full force was received by the Regiment, but every man held firmly to his ground, and by accurate and deliberate fire, aided most effectively by the fine shooting of the machine guns, the successives Waves of enemy infantry were shattered.
By 2 p.m. the enemy's counter-attack was in full progress along the whole of the line, and both the Light Horse Brigades on the left and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on the right began to give round, the regiments retiring for about a mile under heavy punishment with every available man in the line. As the Turks recognised the possibility of overwhelming the British force, their gun fire gathered intensity until it reached a degree of severity unknown either at Romani or on Gallipoli.
The New Zealand Brigade was now in a very difficult position in being well down the forward slopes with both flanks exposed, and had it not been for the accurate shooting of each individual man, backed up by the machine guns and the Somerset Battery, the entire Brigade would have been overwhelmed.
At 5.30 p.m. General Chauvel ordered a general withdrawal. It was recognised that this would be a difficult task, but. provided the horses could be reached, the heavy ground would save the regiments from a hand to hand encounter with superior forces of the enemy's fresh troops. As soon as the movement was perceived the Turks assaulted strongly, and such was the position of the N.Z.M.R. Brigade that General Chaytor decided that the better course was to hang on until dark.page 114
Just at dusk after a very heavy attack which fell chiefly upon the Aucklanders, the latter withdrew with the 5th Light Horse Regiment and the Yeomanry, leaving the Canterbury Regiment as rear guard.
A great fight had been put up by the machine guns, and under their cover the Regiment slowly withdrew. Lieutenant Gordon Harper, the gallant commander of the section of guns attached to the Regiment, was mortally wounded and brought out with great difficulty by his famous brother Captain Robin Harper, O.C. Machine Gun Squadron, who had all guns available playing on the advancing Turks, breaking up their attack when within 100 yards of the New Zealand position.
As has been already told, Captain Hammond of the 8th Squadron had been wounded earlier in the day. Though suffering from illness on the morning of the battle and recommended for evacuation to hospital, he insisted on remaining with and leading his squadron, and fought his men with great brilliancy and determination throughout the long day.page 115
Colonel Findlay, on hearing that Captain Hammond had been severely wounded and could not be moved, worked his way up to the firing line, and, though managing to escape the heavy machine gun and rifle fire, was wounded in the hand by a piece of the shell which mortally wounded Lieutenant Gordon Harper. The care and evacuation of the wounded was an exceedingly difficult task, and much praise was due to the M.O., Captain R. Orbell, and his stretcher bearers, for the excellent work they performed throughout these trying days. Visual signalling was out of the question at Bir el Abd, but the signallers carried out all that was required of them as runners; and for the maintenance of communications throughout the day R.S.M. Denton deserves great praise, and as a runner Trooper Graham Scales did yeoman service.
The Brigade withdrew to Debabis, carrying back the wounded, who were sent to Railhead at Romani by camel cacolets, and suffered extremely from the jolting.
The 10th and 11th were spent quietly at Debabis, and the time was occupied in reorganising. Lieutenant Macfarlane took over the 10th Squadron, vice Major Bruce evacuated to hospital; Lieutenant Wood the 8th, in place of Major Hammond killed in action; and Captain D. S. Murchison the 1st, from Major Hurst, wounded. R.S.M. Denton, S.S.M. Parkinson and Sergeant J. Tennant were promoted 2nd Lieutenants.
The 12th saw the Regiment again on the move. Bir el Abd was found to be evacuated, but the advanced guard came in touch with the enemy posts about two miles west of Hod Salmana. The Regiment sat and watched them all day under an intermittent shell fire, but neither side seemed very keen on forcing a fight. At dusk the Turks withdrew towards El Arish.
And so ended a week that few who went through are likely to forget. During the long hot days the sufferings from lack of water and food were harder to bear than the fire of the enemy, and the nights were taken up by long rides back to Railhead to draw rations and fodder. The few minutes of rest were broken by patrols and fatigues, though the latter were cut down to an absolute minimum. But through page 116all difficulties the men behaved magnificently. In action or out of it they earned the highest praise, worthily maintaining the Regiment's great reputation.
The result of these operations was the complete defeat of an enemy force of 18,000 men, of which he lost 4,000 in prisoners, and with killed, wounded and other casualties a total of 9,000, or half his force.
The original plan of using the mounted forces to cut his communications while the infantry defended Romani was undoubtedly sound, and if followed might well have completely crushed his entire force.
Throughout the whole week's fighting the Turk displayed the greatest determination, and his systematic falling back from prepared position to prepared position, combined with the lack of water for our horses and the extreme weariness of our men, debarred any serious interference with his flanks. His guns were well served with an unlimited supply of ammunition, and the fact that he had transported guns of 5.9 inches calibre across the yielding sand of the desert speaks volumes for his engineering ability.
The bid to break the Suez Canal and to conquer Egypt was a bold one, and was made by picked troops led by a skilful German staff. Though the attack upon Egypt failed page 117and the attacking force lost half its numbers, the Turkish Government thought so highly of the enterprise that it awarded a special star to the survivors.
That these operations, and the attack upon the Canal in January, 1915, were not merely raids, but were genuine and determined attempts to conquer Egypt, was amply proved to our troops afterwards when they were able to see the great and thorough preparations in Palestine. A new railway had been built, extending the Palestine system to the Wadi el Arish, and alongside it was constructed a fine motor road. Permanent works were constructed for the conservation of water along the route; and at the Wadi el Arish enormous rock cut reservoirs were being made.