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Battle of Romani
Part of Sinai and Palestine Campaign
World War I- Battle of Oghratine -memory.loc.gov.jpg
British forces mass at the Oghratin oasis
Date 3–5 August 1916
Location 30°59′31″N 32°38′53″E / 30.992°N 32.648°E / 30.992; 32.648Coordinates: 30°59′31″N 32°38′53″E / 30.992°N 32.648°E / 30.992; 32.648
Sinai peninsula, Egypt
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
United Kingdom British Empire
Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire

German Empire German Empire[1]

Commanders
United Kingdom Archibald Murray German Empire Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein
Strength
10,000 18,000
Casualties and losses
1,130 9,200

The Battle of Romani took place near the Egyptian town of Romani which lies 23 miles (37 km) east of the Suez Canal near the Mediterranean shore of the Sinai peninsula. On the night of August 3, 1916, an Ottoman army, under the command of Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, attacked the British Empire defences at Romani. The fort at Romani was strategic as it controlled the northern approach to the Suez canal. After a night and day of fighting, the Ottoman assault was defeated and thereafter the Allies were on the offensive, pushing the Ottoman army back across the Sinai.

Prelude

Sinai and the Suez Canal zone in 1917

The Ottoman army goal for the first attack was to control or destroy the Suez Canal, thereby denying the use of the waterway to the Allies and in doing so aiding the Central Powers. An Ottoman raid in early 1915, travelling through the central Sinai via the Wady Um Muksheib, succeeded in reaching the Suez canal but was driven off by the British defenders (see the First Suez Offensive for details).

The second expeditionary force had a less ambitious task - they were given sufficient force to drive the Allied forces from the Romani area. After achieving this, the artillery under the command of the Austrians would be close enough to harass shipping in the canal without exposing them to counter battery fire or infantry attack. While General Liman von Sanders was convinced it was a fool's errand because the task was poorly defined, he had no authority to prevent the mission. Kress was ordered to carry out the task and although he had little faith in the outcome, carried out his orders in his usual professional manner. Kress organised a joint force of Turks, Arab ancillary forces, German machine gunners and Austrian artillery which was moved slowly towards Romani.

The commander of the Allied forces in Egypt was General Sir Archibald Murray. At the time of the battle, his available forces comprised two British infantry divisions (the 42nd Division and the 52nd (Lowland) Division) and the Anzac Mounted Division, under General H.G. Chauvel, containing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the 5th Mounted Brigade (British Yeomanry).

Due to the lack of reliable water in the central Sinai, Murray was confident that any future Ottoman attack would be made via the northern approach and so he concentrated his defence at Romani. The Romani position was picked because it was just out of artillery range of the canal.

In July, 1916, the commander of the northern sector of the canal defences, General Sir H.A. Lawrence, had the 52nd Division entrenched on the eastern edge of the Romani sand hills and was using the mounted brigades to patrol the oasis to the east. He also had detached the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade and the 5th Mounted Brigade to act as corps troops. They were position west of Romani at Hill 70, commanded by General Chaytor.

On July 18, a large Ottoman force, the 3rd Division plus additional detachments, reached the oasis area at Oghratina, east of Romani. The Ottoman army was undetected until this point because they marched at night all the way from El Arish in Palestine. Over the next few weeks the Turks consolidated their position and prepared for a large scale assault on the British defences.

The battle

Romani and surrounds, 1916

General Murray had anticipated a Turkish attack to the south of the fortified line and the Turks obliged. On the night of August 3 a Turkish force, believed to be 8000 strong, followed behind the 2nd Light Horse Brigade as it was returning to Romani from a day reconnaissance. Having detected that the attack was imminent, Chauvel had positioned the 1st Light Horse Brigade on a loose defensive line running from Katib Gannit at the southern tip of the infantry entrenchment, heading south-west along the edge of the sand hills, passing through a large sand hill called Mount Meredith and ending at Hod el Enna.

Though vastly outnumbered, the light horsemen fought an effective delaying action at close quarters. They relinquished ground slowly. Around 2.30am on August 4, after the moon had set, the Turks made a bayonet charge on Mount Meredith and the light horsemen evacuated the position at 3am. The Australians were eventually forced back to a large east/west sand dune called Wellington Ridge at the southern edge of the Romani encampment.

Having been held south of Romani, the Turks attempted a further outflanking maneuver to the west and concentrate 2000 troops around another sand hill called Mount Royston, south-west of Romani. At dawn Chauvel sent the 2nd Light Horse Brigade back into action in front of Mount Royston. The Turkish advance was at a standstill everywhere. After a long night march the Turkish troops now faced a difficult day under the desert sun without a source of water and exposed to the Romani artillery.

Shortly after dawn the Turks succeeded in forcing the Australians off Wellington Ridge which placed them within 700 metres of the Romani camp but depleted, exhausted and exposed to shelling from the horse artillery, they were unable to press the attack further.

As soon as General Lawrence was certain a major attack was in progress, he instructed Chaytor's brigades to advance from Hill 70 to counter-attack against the Turkish flank. The Turks at Mount Royston were checked to the north by the 3rd and 6th Light Horse Regiments, under constant bombardment from the horse artillery and the heavy artillery of the 52nd Division and when Chaytor's force attacked from the west, they surrendered en masse, around 6pm on August 4.

Both sides were content to rest on the night of August 4. At dawn on August 5 the Australian light horse regiments and the New Zealand Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment that had been holding the line opposite Wellington Ridge mounted an attack on the Turkish positions and by 5am had captured 1000 prisoners and driven off the remainder. Everywhere along the front the Turks were either retreating or surrendering.

The fight for Romani, and ultimately the Suez Canal, had been won, largely by the Australian and New Zealand mounted troops.

Aftermath

An opportunity to encircle and annihilate the retreating Turks west of Katia was missed when the 52nd Division failed to advance promptly to coincide with the recapture of Wellington Ridge. The New Zealand, 1st & 2nd Light Horse and 5th Mounted Brigades attacked the Turks at Katia at 3.30pm on August 5 but were unable to dislodge them. Chauvel ordered a withdrawal back to Romani. Some of the light horse had been in constant combat for 59 hours.

However, the Turks were now retreating their entire force, from Katia to Oghratina and then to Bir El Abd. By August 12 the Turks had evacuated Abd and ultimately retreated back to El Arish from where they had originally started their advance.

By the time the Turks were driven out of Katia, their casualties were 1250 dead (buried by the British after the battle) and an estimated 4000 wounded. The British had taken 3950 Turkish prisoners. Total British casualties were 1130 of which 202 were killed. The 52nd Division incurred 195 of these casualties, the rest came from the Australian and New Zealand mounted regiments.

See also

References

Sources

The Turkish Rout at Romani - from a British illustrated magazine, published September 1916. Colorful but a bit biased.

The Australian Light Horse Studies Centre has transcribed the complete War Diary of the German 605th Machine Gun Company which was captured at Romani.

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