90th Anniversary of the Battle of Bir el Abd: 9 August 1916

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90th Anniversary of the Battle of Bir el Abd: 9 August 1916

Postby TerryKinloch » Wed Aug 09, 2006 2:20 am

In the final phase of the battle to defend the Suez Canal fought by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) in the summer of 1916, Major General Chauvel used the British and Anzac mounted troops to attack the Turks at Bir el Abd on 9 August. His plan was to pin them with a frontal attack while encircling both flanks to cut off their retreat and destroy them in place. Brigadier General Chaytor’s New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade was allocated the frontal attack. ‘Royston’s Column’, comprising the 1st and 2nd Australian Light Horse brigades (and the attached Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment), was to attack around the northern flank of the enemy position and the 3rd ALH Brigade was to try to get around the enemy’s southern flank. Chauvel could only put about 3,000 rifles into the attack. He had a few horse artillery batteries and no infantry support.
In the early morning the New Zealanders quickly drove in the enemy outposts in front of Bir el Abd and reached the high ground overlooking the main enemy position. The men dismounted, sent the horses back under cover, and advanced on foot. The northern and southern flank attacks were stopped in the morning, forcing Chauvel to change his plan to a simple frontal assault. Sensing the weakness of their attackers, the Turks launched a series of fierce counter-attacks during the day. In the heaviest assault, three enemy infantry battalions were launched at the centre of the New Zealand line. They were beaten off with difficulty by the Canterbury and Auckland Mounted Rifles regiments, supported by the brigade’s machine guns. At Bir el Abd the artillery battle was won easily by the Turks. The horses of the British gun batteries were a prime target, and 37 artillery horses were killed during the day.
The brigades to the north and south were forced to give ground during the afternoon, leaving the New Zealanders dangerously exposed in the centre. The enemy artillery fire increased in intensity, reaching a level exceeding that experienced at Romani or on Gallipoli, and the counter-attacks continued to come. At 5.30 p.m. Chauvel decided to withdraw. The withdrawal was carried out troop by troop, and squadron by squadron, and the men were clear by 7.30 p.m.
Never in that long hot day did the Turks close to bayonet-fighting range. The battle was fought in extreme heat (38 degrees Celsius according to one report), in loose, deep sand. The men had only a single water bottle to sustain them through the day, and the sun heated the water to near boiling point. Chauvel’s casualties at Bir el Abd were heavy: 73 men were killed (thirty New Zealanders) and 243 were wounded (77 New Zealanders). After a few days the Turks abandoned Bir el Abd and withdrew back to El Arish.
The total Allied casualties in August 1916 were 1,130 (202 killed), mostly in the mounted brigades. In the Anzac Mounted Division, 167 men were killed, 616 were wounded and 36 were listed as missing between 28 July and 13 August. The NZMR Brigade lost 46 killed, 181 wounded and ten missing. Most of these men are buried or commemorated in Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries in Cairo and Qantara.
The Turkish attack in August 1916 never came close to threatening shipping on the Suez Canal, nor did it prevent any Allied divisions from leaving Egypt for the Western Front. The Turks lost about half of their entire force (1,250 men killed, 3,750 wounded and nearly 4,000 prisoners) between 3 and 9 August 1916.

[This and the two preceding accounts are based on chapters from a forthcoming book on the campaigns fought by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade between 1916 and 1919, which will be published in late 2007.]
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