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Battle of Magdhaba
Part of Sinai and Palestine Campaign
Camel corps at Magdhaba, H.S. Power, 1925
Camel corps at Magdhaba by H.S. Power, 1925
Date 23 December 1916
Location Sinai peninsula, Egypt
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
Australia Australia
New Zealand New Zealand
Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire
Commanders
Australia Henry Chauvel Ottoman Empire Khadir Bey
Strength
3 mounted brigades
1 camel brigade
2,000
Casualties and losses
22 dead
121 wounded
97 dead
300 wounded
1,282 prisoners

The Battle of Magdhaba took place near the tiny Egyptian outpost of Magdhaba in the Sinai desert, some 22 miles (35 km) from El Arish on the Mediterranean coast. In late 1916 the Ottoman forces in the Sinai, which had been menacing the British Empire-controlled Suez Canal, had retreated to the Palestine border, leaving garrisons at Magdhaba and Rafa. The Allied forces under General Sir Archibald Murray needed to clear these outposts before they could contemplate advancing into Palestine.

Contents

Prelude

In October 1916 Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell was appointed to the command of the "Eastern Force", responsible for all Allied operations in the Sinai. General Sir Philip Chetwode was made commander of the "Desert Column" which contained all the mounted (horse and camel) brigades.

The pursuit of the retreating Turks after the Battle of Romani had resulted in raids on Turkish outposts at Mazar on 17 September and Maghara on 15 October, but both positions were eventually evacuated by the Turks without a fight. The main offensive was planned to coincide with the completion of the British military railway across the Sinai. Once the railway was built, the British could deliver supplies of food, ammunition, and most importantly, water to their forces on the eastern side of the Sinai desert.

The Australian Light Horse advanced to El Arish on 21 December but found it had been abandoned by the Turks. Some of the Turks had retreated along the coast to Rafa, but most of them had taken the inland route via the Wadi El Arish to Magdhaba, as the coast road was in range of British warships patrolling the area. Many Turkish units were destroyed when spotted near the coast and subjected to heavy fire from the British ships.

As the 52nd Division advanced to occupy El Arish, the Anzac Mounted Division, commanded by General Chauvel, was ordered to move onto Magdhaba on the night of 22 December.

During the two attacks by the Turkish forces against the Suez Canal in 1915 and 1916, Magdhaba had been a pivotal supply and logistical support base for the Ottomans. While the Ottoman forces were holding El Arish after retreating from El Mazar, Magdhaba became even more important as a support base. A light railway or commonly known as a decauville line was built from Magdhaba to El Auja in Palestine which carried traffic from 350 camel and horse drawn wagons. This line moved troops and supplies quickly to Magdhaba where it was transported by cart and lorry to El Arish.

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Ottoman defences

As the Turks withdrew from El Arish, they decided to turn Magdhaba into a fortress. The old redoubts were filled with sand and needed to be re-excavated. The garrison was increased from 500 men to about 1,400 soldiers. The main defending force consisted of two understrength battalions, each of about 600 men, from the 80th Infantry Regiment (2/80th Battalion commanded by Izzet Bey and the 3/80th Battalion commanded by Rushti Bey). The 80th Infantry Regiment was administratively allotted to the 27th Infantry Division, although it was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division for most of 1916.

There was also a token force of two squads from the 80th MGC (Machine Gun Company) who were armed with only one machine gun. The balance of the company was sent to Shellal. The force was supported by a Mountain Battery of four outdated Krupps 7.5cm Gebirgskanone M 1873 guns on loan from the 1st Mountain Regiment as the 80th Regiment's own artillery battery was stationed at Nekhl.

Attached to the Magdhaba garrison were also a camel company without camels and a number of other military service units including elements from the 3rd Company of the 8th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Company, 27th Medical Company, 43rd Mobile Hospital and the 46th Cooking Unit.

The garrison was commanded by Kadri Bey, the CO (Commanding Officer) of the 80th IR. [1] The majority of the men were Syrian conscripts who did not possess the same commitment to the war as the Anatolians and so were viewed by their Ottoman officers as being of lower quality and dubious loyalty. Contrary to this Ottoman belief, they withstood the Allied onslaught for over eight hours.

On 22 December, General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, the Commander of the Turkish "Desert Force", drove from el Auja to inspect the force at Magdhaba, which remained in the Sinai for political reasons. [2] While Kress saw the shortcomings, he was satisfied that the Magdhaba garrison could withstand any assault.

Battle

The assault on Magdhaba was made by the Anzac Mounted Division which consisted of the 1st Light Horse Brigade (1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Regiments) and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade (8th, 9th and 10th Light Horse Regiments), the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade (the Auckland Mounted Rifle Regiment, Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment and the Canterbury Mounted Rifle Regiment) and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade supported by three Artillery batteries: the Inverness and Leicester Batteries, Royal Horse Artillery and The Hong Kong & Singapore Battery of mountain guns. The composite force numbered about 7,000 men.

Air cover from 34 aircraft was available. The Royal Flying Corps 5th Wing stationed at Mustabig was specifically ordered to provide close air support, long range scouting and long range strategic bombing to support the attack on Magdhaba. This Wing was a composite formation with the No. 14 (British) Squadron and the No. 67 (Australian) Squadron.

After an overnight march, Magdhaba was reached shortly before dawn on 23 December. Eleven aircraft from the 5th Wing attacked the Turkish defences at 6.30am and by drawing fire helped to reveal to location of the machine guns and trenches to the horsemen. They were situated in five redoubts arranged around the centre of the village in which was found the only supply of water for a considerable distance. To the south was the bank of the Wadi El Arish, to the north and east (towards El Arish) the ground was flat and featureless. If the assault could be held off for a couple of hours, the Australians and New Zealanders would need to abandon the attack in order to be able to reach water in time for the horses.

The main line of the attack was made from the north and east by the camel brigade. On their right, in reserve alongside the wadi was the 1st Light Horse Brigade. On the left were the New Zealanders and then the 3rd Light Horse Brigade which attacked from the north. The 10th regiment of the 3rd brigade was sent around to the east and south to cut off any retreat by the garrison. Their move was made in time to capture of fleeing column of 300 Turks.

Early reports indicated the garrison was evacuating ahead of the attack, so General Chauvel ordered to the 1st Brigade to make a mounted advance. As the regiments came under artillery fire, they broke into a gallop. As they came under machine gun fire from Redoubt No. 2, it became clear that Magdhaba was still being defended so the light horsemen took refuge in the wadi.

On all fronts the attackers had now gone to ground under heavy fire from the redoubts. Chauvel contemplated abandoning the attack and went as far as contacting Chetwode to seek approval for a retreat. At 2.50pm Chauvel issued the orders for the withdrawal to begin at 3pm. When the commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, General "Fighting Charlie" Cox, saw the order coming he yelled at his messenger "Take that damned thing away and let me see it for the first time in half an hour."[3]

At the time Cox received the order, a combined bayonet charge on the critical Redoubt No. 2 by the camel brigade and the 3rd regiment was developing. The attackers used the cover of the wadi to close to within 100 yards of the defences, and their attack resulted in the capture of the position. With a foothold in the defensive ring, the balance now swung towards the attackers.

The camel brigade and 3rd Light Horse Regiment continued across the wadi to capture Redoubt No. 1, where the Turkish commander, Khadir Bey, was also captured. The 10th regiment, having now swung all the way around to the south, and the 2nd regiment from the west, made mounted charges against the southern Redoubt No. 5, forcing in its surrender.

Advance of the 9th LH Regiment

Attacking from the east, the New Zealanders and the 8th and 9th regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade had dismounted and advanced on foot for about 1 mile against the No. 3 redoubt. As the other redoubts began to fall, the attackers were able to make a bayonet charge and after a brief fight captured the position.

With all redoubts under Allied control, the remaining defenders were rounded up by 4.30pm. Very few of the Turks managed to escape.

Aftermath

Magdhaba represented the first significant battle of the campaign where the mounted troops acted as an independent force and won a victory at a distance from base, 23 miles (37 km) from an assured supply of water.

Notes

  1. ^ Turkish General Staff, Birinci Dünya Harbi'nde Turk harbi. Sina - Filistin cephesi, Harbin Başlangicindan İkinci Gazze Muharebeleri Sonuna Kadar, IVncu Cilt 1nci Kisim, Ankara 1979, p. 429.
  2. ^ Kressenstein, Friedrich Freiherr Kress von, Mit den Tèurken zum Suezkanal, (1938), pp 207-8.
  3. ^ Gullett, HS, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 - 1918, 10th edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 221.

References

  • Gullett, H.S., The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918, Chapter XIV – Magdhaba
  • Turkish General Staff, Birinci Dünya Harbi'nde Turk harbi. Sina - Filistin cephesi, Harbin Başlangicindan İkinci Gazze Muharebeleri Sonuna Kadar, IVncu Cilt 1nci Kisim, Ankara 1979. (Sinai-Palestine Front from the beginning of the war to the end of the 2nd Gaza Battle, Volume 4, 1st Part.)

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