"Devils on Horses" now
released and available
throughout New Zealand
NZMR member, Military Officer and Author, Terry Kinloch outlines the action at Romani at the beginning of the Sinai Campaign. This excerpt below has been taken from the pages of a new book on the actions of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles after Gallipoli. "Devils on Horses" now available.
4th August 1916 at the Egyptian settlement of Romani (in the Sinai desert near the Suez Canal), a strong Turkish invasion force attacked a force of British infantry, and Australian and New Zealand horsemen. The first massed bayonet attack against a large central sand hill known as Mount Meredith was fought off successfully by Australian light horsemen, but the hill was abandoned as it was being outflanked to the west. At 6 a.m. British horse artillery drove Turkish machine gunners from the crest of Mount Meredith, while heavy Turkish guns bombarded the infantry redoubts and the camps along the desert railway. German aircraft bombed whatever they could see, but most of the bombs exploded harmlessly in the soft sand.
Major General ‘Harry’ Chauvel, the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, ordered the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade to reinforce the right flank of the 1st brigade’s line along a line of low sand hills called Wellington Ridge. Two light horse regiments went into the line immediately, and the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment (attached to the Australian brigade) was held in reserve. The New Zealanders waited with the horses of the two Australian regiments in a depression close behind the ridge. The massed horses offered a splendid target for the marauding enemy aircraft, but they were not attacked.
By 7 a.m. the eastern end of Wellington Ridge was abandoned by the light horsemen under heavy Turkish artillery and machine gun fire. The 2nd ALH Brigade retained its hold on the western end of Wellington Ridge for a little longer, until Turkish pressure forced the forward regiments of that brigade back from the ridge too. The Turks occupied Wellington Ridge and began to fire into the camps along the railway. For a short period, only the Wellington regiment stood between the Turks and the camps. The threat to the camps passed when shrapnel fire from the horse artillery batteries drove the Turks back off the crest of the ridge. They did not reappear until mid-afternoon.
While the Turks paused along Wellington Ridge, other enemy columns were pressing westwards towards Mount Royston, the last significant hill in front of the railway. At 10 a.m. Chauvel asked the commander of the reserve infantry brigade to help him out by taking over part of the defensive line north of Wellington Ridge. The infantryman refused, and the Turks occupied Mount Royston not long after dawn.
However, most of the Turks had already drunk their water, and no more was available in the sand dunes. Without water, under the burning sun, the Turkish infantrymen struggled against the deep yielding sand. All the time, the light horsemen and the Wellington mounted riflemen shot at them and shrapnel thinned their ranks.
British cavalry rode towards the Turks on Mount Royston and attacked them. This slender force, along with a few light horse squadrons from Wellington Ridge, was enough to hold up any further Turkish outflanking movement for two more precious hours.
Meanwhile Brigadier General Chaytor’s New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) Brigade was ordered forward to attack Mount Royston. At 11.30 a.m. the NZMR Brigade rode into the line between the Australians and the British cavalry south of Canterbury Hill. By noon, two infantry brigades of the 42nd Division were also making their way towards the fighting at Mount Royston. Chaytor sent the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment and two squadrons of the Auckland regiment, supported by the Somerset Battery, into a dismounted attack against an estimated 2,000 Turks on Mount Royston. After quickly driving in the advanced enemy posts, the attack faltered. The sand was very deep and soft, there was no cover, the midday sun was scorching hot, and the fire of the Turkish defenders was heavy and increasingly accurate as the attackers closed in. At 2.30 p.m. Chaytor issued orders for a general assault on Mount Royston, to commence at 4.45 p.m. The attack was successful and 1,200 Turks surrendered; four mountain guns and a machine gun were captured. The leading battalions of the 42nd Division took over the prisoners and marched them towards the railway, followed by the tired horsemen.
Just before dark the Turks made a final attempt to advance from Wellington Ridge, but British artillery fire broke up the attack. A general advance of the four Anzac mounted brigades was ordered at sunset, but it came to nothing. Two Scottish infantry battalions and the 1st and 2nd ALH Brigades attempted to re-take Wellington Ridge, but the Turks showed no inclination to give it up.
Most of the Turks withdrew to Qatiya during the night, but several hundred remained as a rearguard below Wellington Ridge, supported by German machine gun detachments.
The fight for Mount Royston cost the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade four men killed and 35 wounded. The Australian light horse brigades lost far more men that day, with 71 killed, 344 wounded, and 28 missing.
General Sir Archibald Murray’s two infantry divisions and five mounted brigades had suffered few casualties on this day of battle. It looked as if he had a golden opportunity to finish the much weaker Turkish force off completely on 5 August. Murray was about to learn a lesson that many of the Anzacs already knew from Gallipoli: never take Johnny Turk for granted.
Advance to the Canal
Commander of the Turkish Camel Force in the Sinai, Sureya Bey sits second from left at a camp table during the advance to take the Suez Canal 1916. Members of his staff surround him while pickets are posted about the camp. The officer seated with folded arms third from left is Cav. 2nd Lt. Halet Efendi. Also shown is Cav. Lt. Yakup Robenson in battle dress (on the left standing) of the camel raiders. Lt. Robenson was son of a British family who had converted to Islam.
These three officers were all known to have been killed during the Anzac Mounted attack on Qatiya, August 1916
Fight for Qatiya
The Turkish attempt to defeat the Allies at Romani on 4 August 1916 failed completely, and the Turks withdrew to a fall-back position at the oasis area of Qatiya that night, leaving a weak rearguard behind. In an attempt to convert this defeat into a rout, General Sir Archibald Murray ordered a pursuit to be launched on 5 August. The British and Anzac mounted forces were to lead the advance, supported by the infantry.
The Turks and Germans left behind at Wellington Ridge were quickly rounded up before dawn on 5 August. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Meldrum, CO of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment (which was still attached to the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade) immediately called up his horses and remounted his regiment. Without waiting for orders, and taking an Australian machine gun section with him, the Wellington regiment led the pursuit towards Qatiya.
At 6.30 a.m. most of the mounted troops came under Major General Harry Chauvel’s command, and he was ordered to pursue the enemy without pause. At 10 a.m. Meldrum was placed in command of the 2nd ALH Brigade as a temporary replacement for the wounded Brigadier General Royston. Chauvel sent his mounted brigades forward over the ground partially cleared by Meldrum, with orders to concentrate in the low ground in front of Qatiya. Because the Anzac regiments were still scattered and some had yet to water their horses, it was late morning before the complete force was ready to attack Qatiya.
It was soon clear that the British infantry divisions could not reach the battlefield in time to assist, so Chauvel decided to launch a massed charge into Qatiya with all of his mounted brigades. The three brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division were ordered to gallop straight at the oasis, the British 5th (Yeomanry) Mounted Brigade was to attack the northern flank of the enemy position, and the 3rd ALH Brigade was to move through Hamisah and then to wheel northwards behind Qatiya to threaten the enemy’s withdrawal route.
Despite their losses the day before, the Turks still outnumbered the mounted troops about to attack them, and they still had all of their heavy guns and most of their machine guns. Between the opposing forces was a 2,000-metre wide salt swamp which was covered by German machine gunners and artillerymen in well-concealed and shaded positions amongst the date palms.
At 2.15 p.m. the attack began. The three Anzac brigades surged forward in several extended lines towards the apparently dry salt swamp between them and the enemy. After one kilometre of exhilarating galloping, the charge ended ignominiously when some of the leading horses broke through the thin salt crust into the soft swamp below, in full view of the Turks. As the riders and horses piled up, the amazed defenders poured artillery, machine gun and rifle fire into them. The horses were hastily led into cover, where they were shelled heavily. Some horses were killed or were injured so seriously that they had to be destroyed. Surprisingly, casualties amongst the riders were light.
The attackers gained and held the western and south-western edge of the oasis area, but all efforts at a further advance across and around the swamp failed. Their artillery was out of range, and the two British infantry divisions, which started late, were brought to a halt by the deep sand and blazing heat well short of Qatiya. Without serious artillery and infantry support, the mounted regiments were too weak to capture Qatiya.
The Yeomanry attack to the north was held up by enemy artillery and machine guns, and the expected envelopment by the 3rd ALH Brigade to the south failed. With their flanks secure, the Turkish defenders at Qatiya could concentrate on the frontal attack. For the rest of the day the Anzac and British mounted regiments tried in vain to come to grips with the Turks in the tree lines of the Qatiya oasis. Turkish artillery searched for their led horses, with some success. The climatic conditions were extreme, and there was no water except at Qatiya itself. Finally, with sunset approaching, Chauvel ordered the regiments to hold on until dark and then withdraw.
The attack on Qatiya had stood little chance of success, and the casualties were heavy. Five New Zealanders were killed on 5 August, with another 58 wounded. In contrast to the jubilation of the day before, many of the men were depressed. The men and horses on both sides were exhausted. Some of the horses of the 1st and 2nd ALH brigades had not watered in 60 hours.
The 1st and 2nd ALH brigades were temporarily incapable of further effort, so they were sent back for a rest. The New Zealand and British brigades and the 3rd ALH Brigade continued the fight on 6 and 7 August as best they could. The unacclimatised infantry divisions were still unable to advance in the deep sand and extreme heat. On 7 August the three available mounted brigades tried again at Oghratina, but the enemy held them off easily with artillery fire.
|Punch - London
WILHELM: "Are you luring them on, like me?"
MEHMED: "I'm afraid I am!"
The Battle of Bir el Abd
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.
photograph Trooper Fred Foote - AMR - september 1916 -duotone treatment 2010
After the actions of Romani, Katia and Bir el Abd the NZMR bivouacked at the oasis of Bir et Maler on the 18th September 1916. Above, signaller and North Auckland Mounted Rifleman Fred Foote records one of the Squadrons of the Brigade leaving camp looking to push the enemy further back towards El Arish. As the Brigade covered the great expanse of the Sinai Desert in search and skirmish actions against the foe, they made camp at Moseifig by October 27th, then Mazar 13th November, Mustagidda on the 24th before pushing on the long night march to the Turkish desert stronghold at El Arish on December 20th. All were surprised to find the enemy had departed and the township was occupied without a shot being fired. General Chaytor was then given command to strike quickly, and without delay he made his way deep into the desert on another night march to strike an unprepared garrison at Magdabah on the 23rd December. The victory at Magdabah effectively bought to an end the fighting in the desert - Another night march on the 8th January took the army by the ancient borders of the "Pillars of Rafa" and into Turkish Palestine. Next morning the first attack in the Holy Land was made on the township Rafa.
The Sinai Campaign was a revelation to the Military minds of the Great War. Commanders of English, French and German Armies had considered the era of Cavalry and the horse was over. Indeed, on the firm fields of Europe the maneuverability of heavy artillery, tanks and machineguns were capable of quick deployment with the introduction of internal combustion engine transportation.
However in the fine silt and sand of the Sinai Desert the new war machines were floundering hunks of useless metal, incapable of even fair traction in this harsh environment.
The ANZAC's of the NZMR and the Australian Lighthorse with support from the English Yeomanry and other British horse drawn artillery were capable of covering great distances to rattle and hound the enemy backwards across this huge expanse of territory.
The main reason that the ANZAC Mounted Division could not finish off the enemy sooner was that the speed of the advance eastwards was limited by the supply of ammunition, food and water to the troops. But steadily and surely the English engineers and Egyptian Labour Corps pushed a standard gauge railway and a twelve inch steel water pipeline across the desert at a rate of 15 miles (25km) a month. A slow but steady vice-grip over enemy forces.
El Arish 1916, this photograph taken by Wellington Mounted Rifleman Stanley Burrowes tells the support tale of victory in the desert.
Horse drawn sandcarts were used to transport the injured from the battlefield, and bring back supplies and water from the ever advancing railhead. In the foreground the 12" steel pipe bringing pumped water to the front line.
Behind the pipe is the railway line and in the distant background, the Telegraph line for communications.
Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (Egypt, April 1916)
Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division Artillery
- British 3rd (Territorial Force) Horse Artillery Brigade [8 x 18 pounders]
- British Leicester, Somerset Batteries
- British 3rd Horse Artillery Brigade Ammunition Column
- British 4th (Territorial Force) Horse Artillery Brigade [8 x 18 pounders]
- British Inverness, Ayr Batteries
- British 4th Horse Artillery Brigade Ammunition Column
Anzac Mounted Division Engineers
- Anzac Field Squadron
- Anzac Signal Squadron
Anzac Mounted Division Medical Services
- 1st,2nd,3rd Light Horse Field Ambulances
- New Zealand Mounted Field Ambulance
1st Light Horse Brigade
- 1st,2nd,3rd Light Horse Regiments (New South Wales; Queensland and Northern Territory; South Australia and Tasmania)
- 1st Signal Troop
2nd Light Horse Brigade
- 5th,6th,7th Light Horse Regiments (Queensland;New South Wales; New South Wales)
- 2nd Signal Troop
3rd Light Horse Brigade
- 8th,9th,10th Light Horse Regiments (Victoria; Victoria and South Australia; Western Australia)
- 3rd Signal Troop
New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade
- New Zealand Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiments
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles Signal Troop
Anzac Mounted Division Train
- 1st,2nd,3rd Supply Sections
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles Supply Section
Anzac Mounted Division Veterinary Services
- 6th,7th,8th Mobile Veterinary Sections
- New Zealand 2nd Mobile Veterinary Section