- from 'the War Illustrated', 2nd September, 1916
- 'The Turkish Rout at Romani'
- by Edward Wright
Battle Pictures of the Great War
Turkish forces in the desert at Suez - coverpages from German magazines
Of all the battles of the war, the desert conflict in the eastern marches of Egypt was in some ways the most interesting, because of the far-reaching, subtle play of British and German intellects that went on beneath the movement of the forces. Our former Chief of Staff, Sir Archibald Murray, matched his wits against those of the German Chief of Staff, General von Falkenhayn, and left Whitehall for Cairo, apparently to undertake the direction of a small affair in a third-rate theatre of the war. But it may be remarked that the Germans also sent to Syria, about the same time, one of their best men, the late Field-Marshal von der Goltz. Neither side thought of putting much more than 20,000 men in the Egyptian field of conflict. Yet Germany employed one of her best strategists, and we employed our then Chief of Staff, giving Sir William Robertson the important position at home that Sir Archibald Murray resigned. Clearly something of importance was occurring in connection with Egypt.
an Austrian magazine illustration of the Turkish advance upon the Suez canal
Titanic Energy in the Sin Desert
On the surface there was nothing very remarkable. General von Kressenstein, the German director of the first vain Turco-German attack on the Suez Canal, prepared a more formidable movement of invasion across the great Desert of Sin. Hundreds of first- rate directive German mindsengineers, gunnery instructors, drill instructors, and supply organiserswith two thousand- Teutonic troops, came to Palestine to train, stiffen, and energise Djemal Pasha's defeated army. For eighteen months the Germans laboured with great skill and high ingenuity. They excavated huge depots in the sand of the oases, and stored tens of millions of cartridges and tens of thousands of shrapnel and high-explosive shell. Krupp produced a special gun to be carried on a camel pack, and batteries of 6 in. howitzers that could be hauled by ox teams across the wastes of soft sand, by means of a continuous track of planks carried by gangs of labourers. Fifty big pontoons for bridging the Suez Canal were also hauled by ox teams over the sand. A large concrete reservoir of fresh water was built in the heart of the desert; scores of new wells were sunk, and pipe-lines laid in places.
Early spring was the best season for an advance through the wilderness, for many of the dry gullies in the inland heights were then roaring with water. Kressenstein, however, let the cold, healthy months go by, for certain reasons of larger strategy, and abruptly launched his expedition in July, 1916, at the height of the scorching, tropical desert summer. Instead of attempting a surprise attack across the centre of the Sinai wastes, as he had done before, the German commander made a well-heralded movement along the ancient caravan track by the Mediterranean shorethe Serbonian Road, used by most of the famous conquerors of old, from Rameses to Napoleon. On the Serbonian Road there was plenty of water, and though so brackish as to be undrinkable by European troops, it was good enough for the two Turkish divisions that Kressenstein led to battle. For his picked force of two thousand German infantry and his hundreds of German offipers, engineers, and gunners, fresh water was conveyed by camel pack.
The conflict opened on July 19th, 1916, with skirmishes between the enemy's horse and foot and our cavalry screen round the Katia Oasis, some twenty-five miles from the canal. We had about 12,000 Scottish Territorials and 2,000 troopers, under the command of Major-General the Hon. H. L. Lawrence, opposed to the 18,000 troops that Kressenstein advanced. General Lawrence had besides a reserve brigade of 5,000 Lancashire Territorials with some Warwick and Gloucester Yeomanry. The German general also seems to have had a strong reserve, which he threw out in the closing phase of the struggle. The available forces on both sides were about equal, and this equality, as we shall see, had a bearing upon the larger strategical victory won by Sir Archibald Murray as commander-in-chief.
Turkish supply trains
Sand Wraiths in Phantasmal Nights
We occupied a position about seven miles west of Katia, and about eighteen miles east of Port Said. Our flank rested on the Bay of Tina, where it was strengthened by four monitors. From the coast our entrenchments curved towards the Oasis of Romani, and the new desert railway station near by. A sand-dune three hundred feet high, called Gannit, served as our chief observation-point beyond Romani. Then a mile west of Gannit was Wellington Ridge, named after the Wellington Mounted Rifles, with two miles farther south Mount Meredith, and three miles farther westward Mount Royston. Meredith was named after the commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade of Australia, and Royston after the commander of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade. Three brigades of the Light Horse, famous for their charge to the death on Gallipoli Peninsula, were combined with a brigade of New Zealand Mounted Rifles, under the divisional command of General Chauvel. On this Anzac mounted division of 2,000 troopers fell the heaviest fighting and the highest honours.
For fifteen days and nights the 1st and 2nd Light Horse took turn and turn about in keeping touch with the enemy. Then, at midnight on Thursday, August 3rd, Kressenstein made a sudden bid for a decision. Under cover of the strange, phantasmal desert night, lit only by a thin crescent moon, when the sand wraiths dancing on the wind seemed often to be an army in movement, he launched three thousand men against the weary five hundred troopers of the 1st Light Horse. His aim was to break through our slight cavalry screen, seize the dunes south-east of Romani, take the railway, so as to isolate the Scottish Territorials, and prevent reinforcements reaching them by rail. Then the road to Port Said would soon be opened by him.
The Anzacs had eight to one against them in men, with 6 in. howitzers, as well as mountain batteries and machine-guns, against their light horse artillery. But with the help of a battery of Scottish Territorial guns they saved Romani and the railway, and then, while the Scottish Territorials smashed up a frontal attack, the hard-pressed 1st Light Horse pivoted on the high stretch of sand at Wellington Ridge, but slowly gave ground on their right flank. Their own Mount Meredith was lost, and then Mount Royston. Not until daybreak did General Chauvel bring the 2nd Light Horse Brigade to reinforce their valiant comrades. But the commander of the Anzac mounted division knew what his men could do. By beating the enemy from Romani and Gannit,. and holding to Wellington Ridge, they practically won the battle !
Meanwhile, the Scottish Territorials, who had also fought the Turks before at Gallipoli and again in the spring of 1916 in the Sin Desert, shattered the enemy's front attack. The Turks and Germans had entrenched by a belt of marsh near the coast and advanced within rifle range of our positions. But at daybreak our monitors searched them out, and when they tried to storm our elaborate defences they were swept by a still more terrible rifle and machine-gun fire. "Your rifles were worse than your big guns," said a captured Turkish officer. Early in the afternoon, Kressenstein gave over trying to force his way along the Serbonian Road, and swung his main force farther inland into the dune country south and west of Romani. Between, the dunes ran a wide, undulating plain of sand leading towards the canal.
Turkish trenches in the desert
Turks Driven Into the Marshes
The German guns plastered Gannit and Wellington Ridge with shrapnel and high explosive. But the heavy shells made little impression on our defences, as the force of their explosion was cushioned by the sand. The Turks charged at Romani and Gannit, but the Scotsmen and the Light Horse drove them back towards the marshes. Then as the main body of the enemy turned into the dune region and reached the slopes of the Wellington Ridge there was a transformation scene.
General Lawrence had railed up the Lancashire Brigade, and 1:he Warwick and Gloucester Yeomanry were moving into battle. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles were closing round Mount Royston at the end of the enemy's eight mile line, and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade was preparing to charge. The enemy was trapped. His apparent semi-success among, the dunes, achieved against only one-fourth of General Chauvel's force, was his undoing. Entangled amid the sand hills, well to the south-east of the old caravan road, was nearly half of Kressenstein's forces. It could not escape if we made a general advance.
At five o'clock in the afternoon the advance began. The New Zealanders moved on Mount Royston and recovered it. The English Yeomanry, fighting on foot, stormed Mount Meredith, and while the Light Horse and the Scottish Territorials were driving the enemy from Romani, the Lancashire Territorials came from the rail-head and drove in the Turkish centre. Sweeping through the gap, infantry and dismounted cavalry enveloped the Turkish brigade among the dunes, taking some two thousand unwounded prisoners, and scattering the rest towards the waterless side of the wilderness. The pursuit continued until August 5th, when the 1st and 2nd Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles moved directly towards Katia, while the 3rd Light Horse made a southern flank attack. There was scarcely a drop of water for men or horses, and the 1st Brigade had been fighting almost uninterruptedly since midnight on August 3rd/ Yet the brigade galloped three-quarters of a mile over heavy country, through a curtain of shell fire, going so quickly that the Turkish gunners could not get the range. But the flanking movement by the 3rd Brigade, which was new to the Katia district, did not at once succeed. So the 1st and 2nd Light Horse withdrew in the evening for water, food, and sleep.
Turkish infantry in the Sinai
The Real Object of the Attack
Late in the evening the Territorial troops carried a strong Turkish rearguard position, and Kressenstein withdrew to his main entrenchments at Bir-el-Abd, some forty miles from the' Suez Canal. Here, on August 9th, began another long and desperate battle that lasted three days. The Turkish artillery fire was more intense than at Romani or Gallipoli, and as our infantry were left behind, owing to the speed of the enemy's retreat, only our small force of mounted troops, the Anzac Light Horse and Mounted Rifles, the Yeomanry and Territorial Mounted Infantry had sufficient mobility in the matter of supplies to come up with the enemy. Outnumbered and outgunned, the mounted troops broke three attacks, brought their guns within 2,000 yards range of the Turks, and captured Bir-el-Abd. In all, Kressenstein lost half his force, of which more than 3,920 were captured. Four guns, 9 machine-guns, 500 camels, 100 horses, 4,000 shells, and 1,060,000 rounds of small-arm ammunition formed part of the war material taken
The defeat of Kressenstein, however, was an affair of secondary importance. We had abundant means of defeating him, by reason of our sea-power and the expansion of our military power. The main thing was that we did not use these means. Falkenhayn's primary design was to waste some thousands of Turks in order to compel us to weaken our Grand Army in France and Flanders. He thought to mislead us into placing men in hundreds of thousands and guns in hundreds along the Suez Canal, where they would be comparatively idle during the critical period of the European conflict. For we needed to be strong at every point on a long front at which a thrust might be made. But Sir Archibald Murray defeated the scheme by constructing an extraordinary system of defences, with railways, motor tracks, and fresh-water pipe-lines stretching far into the desert, and enabling a small British force to concentrate victoriously against any similar force that Kressenstein could bring over the Sinai wilderness. This was the far-reaching, success of the second Egyptian defensive campaign. From a local point of view, the movement of invasion was largely a bluff, in that it was scarcely designed to conquer the country.
At the utmost, Kressenstein with good luck could only have temporarily disturbed the Suez Canal traffic. But from a universal point of view, if we had used a great British force in order to meet the bluff, our local victory would have been a strategical defeat. For we might then have lost in France against the Germans more than we gained in Egypt against the Turks. Thanks, however, to the foresight and energetic organising skill of Sir Archibald Murray we won all round.
'Fritz of Arabia' - German officers commanding bedouin warriors
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