Australian Light Horse—Palestine 1916–1918
This commemorative publication provides a brief history of the Light Horse Brigade during 1916-1918. It highlights the Mounted Division's involvement in Palestine during the First World War.
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Chapter 1: Palestine 1916–1918
The bombardment of the Russian ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Feodosia on 29 October 1914 signalled Turkey’s entry into World War I. Within a few days, Russia declared war in response to the Turkish bombardment of its Black Sea ports, and on 5 November Britain and France also declared war against Turkey.
Three months later Turkish forces crossed the inhospitable Sinai Desert and attacked the Suez Canal. The mainly Arab units of the Damascus Corps were led by the German Colonel Kress von Kressenstein. The attack was easily resisted by Indian and New Zealand troops supported by British artillery. The 7th and 8th Australian Battalions were rushed to the scene as reinforcements, but their baptism of fire would have to wait a further three months. The Sinai Desert proved a formidable obstacle to the British Empire forces, who were ill equipped to pursue the retreating enemy. The Sinai would be quiet for the twelve months following the Gallipoli landings in April 1915.
The withdrawal of Anzac and British forces from Gallipoli in December 1915 and January 1916 freed thousands of Turkish troops for other fronts and increased British concern about the threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal. The first British estimates of available Turkish troops to threaten the canal were based on pessimistic assumptions, but when the estimates were ruthlessly cut, the concern about a Turkish attack was replaced by more aggressive thinking. For the next two and a half years the British forces, continuously supported by Australian mounted troops, pushed the Turks back 650 kilometres in a campaign that culminated in one of the most brilliant cavalry operations in the history of warfare—the final Palestine offensive in September 1918 that led to an armistice just six weeks later.
Chapter 2: Egypt Expeditionary Force
In January 1916, General Sir Archibald Murray was appointed commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which would shortly be renamed the Egypt Expeditionary Force. By this time there were twelve infantry divisions in Egypt. Four others would be formed there—the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions and the British 74th (Yeomanry) Division in 1916, and the British 75th Division in 1917. A further four divisions would move there—two from Salonika in 1917 and two from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in 1918, bringing the total to twenty divisions.
Of these twenty divisions, ten moved from Egypt to the Western Front in early 1916, including the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, and four more followed between 1916 and 1918. In the final campaign, this left only six infantry divisions in Palestine, five of which were formed from Indian battalions with one British battalion per brigade. Only the 54th (East Anglia) Division remained all British.
By the middle of 1916, Murray was left with four weak British territorial infantry divisions and a force of British Yeomanry, Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles. Despite the loss of the ten divisions that had moved to France, Murray decided to take the offensive and to move across the Sinai towards El Arish. His advance would be along the coast, but accompanied by the construction of a railway and a water pipeline. Water supply was the limiting factor in desert warfare and would have an influence on many of the battles.
The first Australian operation was a reconnaissance to Wady um Muksheib on 21 March 1916. The light horsemen covered 125 kilometres in just thirty-seven hours. A further raid, on 13 April, captured the Turkish post at Jifjapa in central Sinai, about 80 kilometres from the canal. After a brief fight six Turks were killed and most of the remainder captured. However, the light horse suffered its first casualty, when Tasmanian born Corporal Stephen Monaghan of the 8th Light Horse Regiment was killed in action.
In April, a British yeomanry brigade moved 35 kilometres from the canal to Romani along the old caravan route to Palestine. Advanced camps were located further to the east at the Katia, Oghratina and Hamisah oases. A strong body of Turks, again under the command of von Kressenstein, overwhelmed two of the British camps on 23 April and the yeomanry withdrew from Romani. Major General Harry Chauvel, commanding the newly formed Anzac Mounted Division, took over the duty of covering the railway construction and established his forward position at Romani, which was garrisoned by a light horse brigade. In May, the railway reached them and the 52nd (Lowland) Division moved forward to Romani.
The Turkish forces were quiet for several months, as the Anzac Mounted Division controlled the oases area with vigorous patrols into the surrounding desert area. To hinder the Turks using the central route across the Sinai Desert, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade in June pumped out a large supply of water at Wady um Muksheib and sealed the wells. On 18 July air reconnaissance observed four large bodies of Turkish troops with camel transport within striking distance of Romani, apparently preparing to mount an attack on the British forces there. The troops initially dug themselves in at Oghratina, where the light horse watched and harassed them. It took two weeks for all the Turkish troops to get into position and for their artillery to cross the desert.
Chapter 3: Romani
During the night of 2–3 August, the Turks advanced to Katia, 8 kilometres south-east of Romani and, as expected, Romani was attacked the following night. More than 12,000 Turkish troops attempted to envelop the southern end of the Romani defences, held by the 52nd Division with 7000 rifles. However, both the tactics and the direction of the attack were anticipated and Murray hoped it would be the Turks who were enveloped. He ordered Chauvel not to commit his reserves early, but to hold on until the Turkish reserve was fully committed. The attack came at 1 am on 4 August and was directed towards a long sand hill known as Wellington Ridge, which was to the south and rear of the Romani defences. The advance met strong resistance from two regiments of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade, comprising about 500 rifles, holding an outpost line south of the Romani defences. The Australian defence of the outpost line upset the Turkish plan of reaching the flank of the 52nd Division unnoticed.
The outpost line was 5 kilometres long, and the Australians held each post as long as they could before retiring gradually to Wellington Ridge, south of the British camps. Some Australians were cut off and killed defending their positions. When Major Michael Shanahan of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment found four of his men outflanked and without their horses, he took two of the men on to his horse and with a trooper hanging on to either stirrup he dashed through the darkness to safety. So close was the fighting that another man endeavouring to lift a mate up behind his saddle discovered that the man was a Turk.
The Turks pressed towards Mount Meredith, an overtowering sandhill whose perpendicular southern slope needed just a handful of men to defend it. However, flanking attacks forced the Australians to abandon the position at 3 am. Fighting bitterly all the way, the Australian line remained unbroken as it withdrew, slowing the Turkish advance. By dawn the Australians held a thin line behind Wellington Ridge and the Turks were at the foot of the ridge, around the front. The Australian reserve—the 2nd Light Horse Brigade with two light horse regiments and the Wellington Mounted Rifles—was committed at 4.30 am. Throughout the morning, the Turks pressed forward and the Australians continued to give ground. At 7 am Wellington Ridge was finally taken by the Turks, six hours behind their schedule. By this time the light horse line was almost pressed against the British camps.
Both the Turks and the British had communication problems. The fighting withdrawal by the Australians had disorganised Turkish communications and exhausted and confused their troops. The British communications were slow, and complicated by the fact that their forces were under three separate commanders with no machinery for combining their action. Eventually, more reserves were ordered forward and in the afternoon the New Zealand and the 5th Yeomanry Brigades attacked the Turkish flank. At Wellington Ridge, British artillery prevented a Turkish advance over its crest and when the light horse began to advance they captured many of the enemy. As night fell both sides rested in the positions reached in the battle.
At 4 am on 5 August the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades, together with some infantry, advanced with their bayonets. Only in one place was there strong resistance, and this was rushed and overcome. An attempt to complete the victory by capturing Katia failed and although the Turks had not been completely destroyed, the threat to Egypt had dissipated. The Turks abandoned Katia and fell back to Bir el Abd, held it against an attack on 9 August, and then fell back two days later to Salmana. On 13 August the Turks withdrew to El Arish, on the coastal approaches to Palestine, 80 kilometres from Romani.
Romani was a decisive victory, fought by comparatively few troops, that completely changed the outlook of the campaign. More than 5000 Turkish troops were killed or wounded and nearly 4000 were captured. The total British loss was more than 1100 killed, wounded and captured, the majority of casualties being suffered by the Australian Light Horse. Few Australian prisoners were taken, and Henry Gullett, the official historian of The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, wrote:
After two and a half years’ constant fighting only seventy-three light horse prisoners had been taken by the Turks, and most of these were wounded before capture. Not a single light horse officer was captured by the enemy. During the same period the light horse captured between 40,000 and 50,000 Turks in an advance which extended in a straight line over 400 miles [640 km].
The advance across the waterless stretch from Bir el Abd to El Arish could go only as fast as the construction of the railhead and water pipeline, which were gradually extended. During this period the 1st Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC), based at Kantara, began to provide reconnaissance and bombing support for the light horse.
The Camel Corps companies, ten of eighteen formed by Australians, which had supported the Romani operations with attacks on the Turkish flank, were gathered into a brigade on 19 December under British Brigadier General Clement Smith, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) in Somaliland in 1904. The railway was still 50 kilometres short of El Arish, but with the Royal Navy able to land stores and supplies on nearby beaches the Australians finally entered the town, without a fight, on 21 December.
Chapter 4: Rafa and Magdhaba
The way into Palestine was barred by two Turkish positions approximately 40 kilometres east and south-east of El Arish. A reorganisation of the British forces now took place: British Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell took command of Sinai, with Sir Philip Chetwode commanding the advanced troops which then became known as the Desert Column. Chetwode, arriving at El Arish by sea on 22 December, decided at once to seize Rafa and Magdhaba. That night, Chauvel led the Anzac Mounted Division inland against Magdhaba, minus the 2nd Light Horse Brigade but with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade attached.
Magdhaba was reached before dawn on 23 December, and after Chauvel distributed his force, which for the 10th Light Horse Regiment included a long detour to the enemy’s rear, a hard fight developed. Progress was slow, with the camel corps and part of the light horse advancing over open ground under heavy fire. Not knowing the camel corps and light horse were in position to rush the central redoubt, and unable to find water for the horses, Chauvel reluctantly ordered a withdrawal. The order to retire was received but deferred until the central redoubt was rushed—it was captured. From the rear the 10th Light Horse galloped through and over one redoubt and then attacked it from the other side.
Lieutenant Frederick Cox, in command of two troops of the 10th Light Horse, saw an opening leading straight to the redoubt and ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge through the enemy outer line into the heart of it. Finding themselves attacked on all sides, the Turkish troops surrendered. Lieutenant Cox was awarded an immediate Military Cross. The 10th Light Horse captured more than half of the 1300 troops who surrendered at Magdhaba.
On 9 January 1917, the Turkish post at Rafa was attacked and captured. In mid-February, the remaining Turkish garrisons from the interior of Sinai were eliminated. It was almost entirely due to mounted troops, of whom four-fifths were Anzacs, that the Sinai Peninsula was cleared. Hearing that Birdwood wanted the light horse reinforcements in Egypt to be sent to France for the infantry, Murray wrote: ‘I cannot spare a single man from these reinforcements. These Anzac troops are the keystone of the defence of Egypt’.
The next objective was the strong Turkish position at Gaza, on the Mediterranean, which anchored the Turkish defence line that ran 50 kilometres inland to the south-east and the town of Beersheba. Murray had available four British infantry divisions and two mounted divisions. The disbanded 4th Light Horse Brigade had been re-formed, and Murray redistributed his brigades so that the Anzac Mounted Division (1st and 2nd Australian, New Zealand, and 22nd Yeomanry Brigades) under Chauvel and the Imperial Mounted Division (3rd and 4th Australian and 5th and 6th Yeomanry Brigades) under British cavalry officer Major General HW Hodgson each had four brigades. Practically all the new staff and command appointments were allotted to British officers, a condition that was partly remedied only after strong protest and long delay.
In the air the British aircraft were still inferior to enemy aircraft. Germany had supplied the latest German machines, piloted by experienced German pilots, but in the period leading up to the attack, British and Australian planes made numerous attacks into Palestine. On several occasions when friendly aircraft were forced down, successful attempts were made to rescue the downed airmen. On 19 March Lieutenant Reg Baillieu and his observer, Ross (later Sir Ross) Smith, of No. 1 Squadron AFC, landed alongside a plane from No. 14 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which had been forced down in enemy territory. The pilot was rescued and both Baillieu and Smith received the Military Cross.
On 20 March 1917, four aircraft from No. 1 Squadron were detailed to attack a section of railway line in the vicinity of Tel el Hesi, about 30 kilometres south of Junction Station. A BE2c piloted by Captain Douglas Rutherford, which was without an observer to save on weight, was hit by ground fire and forced to land. A large body of Turkish cavalry spotted the plane descending and commenced to gallop towards the scene. Lieutenant Frank McNamara, flying a Martinsyde, observed the predicament and landed close to the downed aircraft to pick up Rutherford. However, McNamara, who had been wounded, was unable to use the foot controls properly and his aircraft was wrecked in the attempt to take off. Having set the Martinsyde on fire, both officers dashed back to Rutherford’s BE2c. After several anxious moments, they succeeded in starting the machine. With McNamara at the controls, they took off just as the cavalry burst into the clearing, firing wildly and yelling at the escapees. McNamara was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only Australian World War I airman to receive the award and the only Australian Victoria Cross recipient of the Palestine campaign.
Chapter 5: The First Battle of Gaza, 26 March 1917 (First Gaza)
In the early hours of the morning of 26 March, the Anzac Mounted Division crossed Wadi Ghuzze and, giving Gaza a wide berth, moved towards the Mediterranean so that it could attack Gaza from both the north and the east. The Imperial Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade made a wider circle and faced outwards to prevent enemy reinforcements from approaching. The encirclement of Gaza was completed by the 53rd (Welsh) Division supported by the 54th (East Anglia) Division, which would attack Gaza from the south.
The infantry attack was delayed because of unseasonable fog and it was nearly noon before the 53rd Division, which had not been in action since Gallipoli in 1915, attacked. At 1 pm Chauvel was ordered to make a dismounted attack on Gaza from the flank and rear. The order took some time to reach Chauvel and the attack went in at 4 pm. At first progress was slow in both operations, but, as sunset drew near the Australians entered the northern outskirts of the town and the infantry captured the main heights at Ali Muntar, south-east of the town. The Turkish defences seemed to be crumbling, with many prisoners being taken.
In the afternoon, the British commanders Dobell and Chetwode had decided that unless Gaza was taken by sunset, the mounted troops should be withdrawn. Their decision was based on concern about the water supply for the horses and in the knowledge that Turkish reinforcements were converging on Gaza. At 6 pm, shortly after sunset, the mounted troops were ordered to withdraw. Too late, Dobell and Chetwode learned of the capture of Ali Muntar, that the Turkish relief columns had halted and that the Gaza garrison had been beaten and if further pressed would surrender. Both the infantry and the mounted troops who had located water found the recall unbelievable. However, there was no doubt about the order, and it had to be obeyed. There was no attempt to impede the withdrawal and the mounted troops brought back their very few wounded and some of their dead. Henry Gullett in the official history wrote:
So confident were the brigadiers of Chauvel’s division that they were in no danger from the enemy, that no precautions were taken against noise or lights, and the course of the column was clearly marked by the striking of matches as the men lit their pipes and cigarettes.
The infantry withdrew from the Ali Muntar heights and found them unoccupied when ordered to re-occupy them the next morning. However, they were driven off the heights before the position could be consolidated. British casualties for the battle, mainly suffered by the infantry, were 4000, while the Turks lost 2500.
Following the capture of Gaza it was planned for the Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train (RANBT) to land from the troopship Proton and construct piers for the unloading of supplies. The RANBT had maintained and operated several bridges over the Suez Canal throughout 1916. On 22 December the detachment had landed at El Arish and built two piers for landing supplies to the advancing troops. On the day Gaza was attacked the RANBT was briefly involved in salvaging a ditched British aircraft, but this was its last task. The RANBT was officially disbanded on 27 March 1917 and its men were either transferred to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) or sent home for discharge.
The errors of First Gaza were compounded after the battle when Murray reported to London that the attack had been ‘a most successful operation ... it has filled our troops with enthusiasm’. Murray’s report was received in London two weeks after profound events had affected the other two fronts on which the Turks were engaged. On 9 March 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out and the Allies, not realising the war weariness of the Russian people, thought that the Turks would face more pressure on the Armenian front. Two days later the British Army in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) captured Baghdad and the end of the campaign in Mesopotamia was in sight. In this mood of optimism London sent Murray orders indicating that Jerusalem was the immediate objective of the Egypt Expeditionary Force.
Chapter 6: The Second Battle of Gaza, 19 April 1917 (Second Gaza)
The second attempt to capture Gaza came three weeks later, on 19 April. The main attack was a frontal assault supported by six tanks and 2000 gas shells, with the Camel Corps and Imperial Mounted Division attacking on foot further east and the Anzac Mounted Division further to the south-east, protecting the inland flank.
The Turkish reinforcements that reached Gaza following the first battle stayed and strengthened the defences. The advantage of surprise had been lost and gaps between Gaza and Beersheba were closed by a series of redoubts designed to cover the whole front. On 19 April, the Turkish forces were ready and well positioned to defeat the British assaults that continued all day. The British gas shelling had little effect and the British infantry barely reached the ridge south-east of Gaza. One Turkish redoubt was seized by some infantry and Australians of the Camel Corps under Captain Archie Campbell, being bravely led by a tank. The seized position, afterwards known as Tank Redoubt, could not be held against heavy odds.
At sunset, the British attack was broken off with the intention of resuming it at dawn, but early in the morning Dobell cancelled the orders to renew the attack when reports he received during the night convinced him that the prospects of success were slim. The British suffered some 6000 casualties, with the majority being inflicted on the infantry. The Turks accordingly strengthened their line, convinced they could hold southern Palestine.
After the Turkish success at Second Gaza, Chauvel was appointed commander of the Desert Column, which was shortly renamed the ‘Desert Mounted Corps’, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. He was the first Australian corps commander and the first Australian lieutenant general. Command of the Anzac Mounted Division was given to the New Zealand leader, Major General Edward Chaytor. Dobell was succeeded in command of Eastern Force by Chetwode, who had commanded the Desert Column. In May, Chetwode drew up a plan for the capture of southern Palestine by striking at Beersheba, the inland end of the Turkish line, with infantry and mounted troops. The plan would require seven infantry and three mounted divisions and would give the false impression to the Turks that Gaza would again be the focus of the attack. The main difficulty would lie in providing water for the infantry near Beersheba; the mounted troops would have to rely on what water they could find in and beyond that town.
Murray was now replaced as Commander of the Egypt Expeditionary Force by General Sir Edmund Allenby, who had commanded the Third Army on the Western Front. Allenby’s first action when he arrived in Egypt in late June was to take personal command of the Palestine operations, with his headquarters near Rafa. His headquarters staff were moved from Cairo to Rafa, to the delight of the fighting troops. Chetwode’s Eastern Force was renamed XX Army Corps, and his plan to attack Beersheba was adopted by Allenby. The three mounted divisions were created by reducing each division from four to three brigades. The Anzac Mounted Division retained the 1st and 2nd Light Horse and the New Zealand Brigades. The Imperial Mounted Division retained the 3rd and 4th Light Horse and the 5th Yeomanry Brigades and was renamed the Australian Mounted Division. The Yeomanry Division was formed with the 6th, 8th and 22nd Yeomanry Brigades. Allenby demanded reinforcements and got the 10th (Irish) and 60th (London) Division transferred from Salonika, and the 75th Division formed in Egypt from British and Indian battalions, which increased his infantry divisions to seven. He also got the artillery, ammunition and aeroplanes he requested.
The attack was set for the end of October in order to avoid the winter rains. Men and supplies were moved by night during the last week in October from the coast to the inland flank. During this time the Royal Flying Corps with some modern machines kept the German airmen away from the eastward movement. In the four months between July and October the Australian Flying Corps performed all the strategic reconnaissance, some of the tactical reconnaissance and much of the photography at a time when experienced Australian pilots and mechanics were being drafted to support three Australian squadrons on the Western Front. The vacancies caused were filled in many cases by light horsemen.
The Turks could not help detecting the eastward movement but thought it merely foreshadowed a raid while still expecting the main attack at Gaza. One of the legends of the Palestine campaign is that some faked notes in a pocket-book dropped by British intelligence officer Major Richard Meinertzhagen duped the Germans and Turks into believing the Allies would attack Gaza. Although the veracity of Meinertzhagen has come under question since World War I, the story is probably true, although whether the ruse influenced the deployment of the Turkish reserves is open to question. On the other hand, the Germans had sent General Eric von Falkenhayn, who had commanded the German Army on the Western Front from 1914 to 1916, with an ‘Asia Corps’ to help the Turks recapture Baghdad. Djemal Pasha, Governor of Syria and original defender of Palestine, and von Kressenstein, now commanding the 8th Turkish Army in southern Palestine, both warned Enver Pasha, Turkish Minister for War and co-dictator, that a powerful British attack on Palestine was expected. Falkenhayn agreed with this assessment, and the 7th Turkish Army at Aleppo, waiting to move on Baghdad, was switched to help the 8th in southern Palestine. However, only two divisions had arrived by 30 October.
Chapter 7: Beersheba, 31 October 1917
On the night of 30 October 1917, British infantry and Anzac and British mounted troops marched through the dark towards Beersheba. At dawn the British 53rd, 60th and 74th Divisions, supported by an artillery bombardment, attacked a 5-kilometre line of entrenched positions. They seized the outer defences of Beersheba shortly after noon. The Anzac Mounted Division swept around the south-east and east of Beersheba and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade seized the Hebron road to the north of the town. The infantry attack did not succeed in drawing sufficient Turkish forces to the western defences, and the hill of Tel el Saba on the eastern side of the town continued to be strongly held. The men of the Anzac Mounted Division, attacking on foot with the support of British artillery, made slow progress and it was not until 3 pm that the Anzacs were close enough to seize the hill.
With time running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark, Chauvel ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew, from aerial photographs, that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire. However, German bombing had forced the 4th Brigade into a scattered formation and it was not until 4.50 pm that they were in position. The brigade assembled behind rising ground 6 kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right, the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left and the 11th Light Horse Regiment in reserve.
The Australian Light Horse was to be used purely as cavalry for the first time. Although they were not equipped with cavalry sabres, the Turks who faced the long bayonets held by the Australians did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry. The light horse moved off at the trot, and almost at once quickened to a gallop. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire with shrapnel. But the pace was too fast for the gunners. After 3 kilometres Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the light horse approached. The front trench and the main trench were jumped and some men dismounted and then attacked the Turks with rifles and bayonets from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba.
Nearly all the wells of Beersheba were intact and further water was available from a storm that had filled the pools. The 4th and 12th Light Horse casualties were thirty-one killed and thirty-six wounded; they captured over 700 men. Among the many gallant acts that day were the actions of Staff Sergeant Arthur Cox, who single-handedly under very heavy fire captured a machine-gun and crew of five in a redoubt; and those of Trooper Sloan Bolton, who assisted in the capture of a field gun, an officer and seven other ranks. Both were members of the 4th Light Horse Regiment, and both were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The capture of Beersheba meant that the whole Turkish line was turned. However, among the Australian casualties that day was Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Maygar VC, Commander of the 8th Light Horse Regiment since 1915, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in South Africa in 1901. After reporting to Chauvel’s headquarters, Maygar had just returned to his unit when he was wounded by an attacking German aircraft. Maygar’s horse bolted with him into the night and by the time he was found he had lost a lot of blood. He was taken to hospital at Karm, but died the next day. He was buried at Beersheba War Cemetery, which is now in Israel.
The mounted troops and British infantry followed up the victory, thrusting into the steep hills of southern Palestine. On the flank of the mounted troops a detachment of Arabs under Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Newcombe, a British engineer who had been attached to the Australians in Gallipoli and France, pressed ahead on the extreme right towards Hebron. This, with the activity of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, caused the Turks to withdraw reserves from Gaza to protect Hebron. On the night of 1 November, the 52nd, 54th and 75th British divisions of the XXI Corps struck between Gaza and the sea and outflanked the town. Meanwhile the Desert Mounted Corps was stopped at Tel el Khuweilfe, and for a week this area was the scene of tense fighting, until the hill was seized by the 53rd Division on 8 November, the day after Gaza was captured by XXI Corps.
Chapter 8: The drive towards Jerusalem, 1 November–9 December 1917
The Turkish forces were in retreat and Allenby wanted to destroy or capture the retreating columns. The mounted troops tried to intercept the columns, but the Turkish flank guards fought too stubbornly for the horsemen to get through. Many Turks, some guns and much transport were captured but these were largely the stragglers, with the main Turkish forces getting away. A continuing problem for the mounted troops was the difficulty in watering horses, which sometimes went without a drink for more than two days. While the Australian Mounted Division remained in the Judaean hills to guard the right flank, Allenby’s main thrust drove rapidly up the rolling hills and plain, through the Jewish settlements, vineyards and orchards and on to Ramleh, Ludd and Jaffa. On 15 November, Lieutenant William James of the 1st Light Horse, leading forty light horsemen, galloped down and captured a column of 300 Turks near Ludd. He was awarded the Military Cross.
The 7th Turkish Army had withdrawn to the north-east to cover Jerusalem, which lay in the terraced rocky hills, while the 8th Turkish Army withdrew to a line along the Nahr Auja, a stream running into the sea a few kilometres north of Jaffa. Allenby directed the infantry on the coastal axis to cross the Nahr Auja in order to deceive the Turks that the main attack was not towards Jerusalem. At this stage, it was almost entirely an infantry fight. The mounted troops scouted or covered the flanks and ran into several sharp fights, the heaviest perhaps being the vain attempt of a battalion of Turkish storm troops to break through the front of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at El Burj on 1 December. British infantry went to the support of the 8th Light Horse Regiment. Second Lieutenant Boughey of the Royal Scots Fusiliers rushed forward alone with bombs, right up to the enemy, killing many and causing the surrender of a party of thirty. As he turned to go back for more bombs he was mortally wounded, just as the Turks were surrendering. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
In early December, despite bitter conditions, the British fought to a position where Jerusalem was threatened from the west and south-west. In pouring rain on 8 December, the British infantry, with the l0th Light Horse Regiment and Worcestershire Yeomanry attached, succeeded in breaching the Turkish defences and forced the evacuation of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem was entered on 9 December and two days later Allenby entered the city. Out of his great respect for the status of Jerusalem as a Holy City for the faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Allenby dismounted on reaching the city and, together with his officers, entered the city on foot through the Jaffa Gate. This was in marked contrast to the roar of guns and the sound of bands that had accompanied the Kaiser’s entry into Jerusalem during his visit in 1898. A major Turkish counter-attack towards Jerusalem was defeated on 26 December. The defeat was followed by a British advance to establish a front securely beyond Jerusalem and on the Mediterranean coast beyond the Nahr Auja. Winter rains, which severely taxed roads, prevented any further advance.
Plans for an early resumption of operations in Palestine were quickly ended by the German spring offensive on the Western Front in March 1918. Sixty thousand British troops including the 52nd and 74th Divisions, twenty-two infantry battalions and most of the Yeomanry, were sent to France as reinforcements. Allenby had to reconstruct his British divisions—except the 54th—as Indian divisions, each with a British nucleus. The 4th and 5th Cavalry Divisions, also composed with British and Indian cavalry, were formed. In June, the Imperial Camel Brigade was disbanded and its Australian members formed the 5th Light Horse Brigade and joined the Australian Mounted Division, which was now equipped with swords. At the same time, the British War Office called for the 54th Division and half of the Australian Light Horse to be sent to France as infantry reinforcements. Allenby protested and with Australian help the proposal was dropped.
Chapter 9: The raid to Amman, 27 March–2 April 1918 (First Es Salt)
In February, the British front had advanced eastwards into the Jordan valley and to the western shore of the Dead Sea. The Anzac Mounted Division entered Jericho on the 21st. On 22 March, a bridge was built at Hijla and after twenty-four hours of fighting the main crossing at Ghoraniye was seized and bridged. Es Salt was taken on the 25th and two mounted brigades pushed towards Amman. By the morning of the 27th the town was being attacked and the railway north and south of the town was cut and blown up. However, the arrival of Turkish and German reinforcements proved decisive and on 30 March the force was ordered to withdraw to the Jordan Valley with only the Ghoraniye bridgehead retained.
The failure to capture and hold Amman meant that the British forces were not able to link up with Arab forces farther south which were attacking the railway at Ma’an from three directions. Allenby was still anxious to co-operate with them and to deny the Turks the wheat crop on the Moab plateau, then about to be reaped. Accordingly, after a strong demonstration at the Ghoraniye bridgehead and two bold reconnaissances, a second attempt was launched, this time towards the vital railway junction at Deraa, north of Amman.
Chapter 10: The Es Salt raid, 30 April–3 May 1918 (Second Es Salt)
On 30 April 1918, while the British 60th Division attacked the Turks in the foothills, the leading brigades of the Australian Mounted Division dashed 25 kilometres north on the east side of the Jordan to the Jisr ed Damieh bridge. While the 3rd Light Horse Brigade seized Es Salt, the 4th Light Horse Brigade was to prevent Turkish reinforcements crossing from the west bank of the Jordan. The 2nd Light Horse and 5th Yeomanry Brigades were to attack the rear of the Turks facing the 60th Division.
Both projects miscarried. The 4th Light Horse Brigade guarding the Jordan crossing was driven back in hard fighting, while the 60th Division had not achieved surprise and had failed to dislodge the Turks in the foothills. On 4 May the order to retire was given. Cyril Falls, the British Official Historian of the Palestine campaign writing in the book Armageddon 1918, wrote that Allenby ‘was not altogether candid in describing these two operations as “raids”, because he had meant to retain most of the ground won, including Amman on the Hejaz Railway and Es Salt’.
Chapter 11: Summer in the Jordan Valley
With British and Indian cavalry being reorganised at that time, the vital bridgeheads in the Jordan Valley were held by Anzac mounted troops. According to the Official Australian Historian, the summer months in the malarial Jordan Valley, 300 metres below sea level, were ‘the hardest service in the war’. The Jordan Valley was quiet throughout the summer, except for a powerful night attack on 14 July by a German battalion of the Asia Corps. The Australians expected the attack and prepared accordingly. The Germans fiercely engaged the Australian posts, surrounding some which held out to the last. Lieutenant William King was killed directing his men, who fought on until every man was a casualty. The Australian counter-attack surprised the Germans, capturing 358 men and forty-one machine guns. Allenby’s intention, when the time was ripe, was to break through near the sea. The Es Salt operations in March and April and the continued presence of Anzac mounted troops in the Jordan Valley in the summer succeeded in keeping Turkish attention on the inland flank.
Chapter 12: To Megiddo and Damascus (19 September–30 October)
In September, following months of reorganisation, the training of new troops and formations and the building up of supplies and ammunition, Allenby was ready to launch the final campaign. In great secrecy, the cavalry was moved to the coastal flank, leaving the Anzac Mounted Division in the Jordan Valley. The bulk of Allenby’s forces was massed on the extreme left, having moved by night and with British air superiority keeping German pilots at bay. Turkish intelligence was unaware of the British movements, while the Turkish dispositions were being carefully plotted by the Royal Air Force, with 1st Squadron AFC being conspicuous in the mapping.
At dawn on 19 September, Allenby’s infantry, supported by an air and ground bombardment, broke the Turkish line at its coastal end. At 9 am, Chauvel sent the 4th and 5th Cavalry Divisions through the lines and along the coast, then across the Carmel range to reach the plain of Esdraelon, 50 kilometres behind the Turkish front, before dawn on the 20th. By evening the two divisions reached Nazareth, where General Liman von Sanders, the former commander on Gallipoli now commanding the Turkish forces in Palestine, had his general headquarters. Sanders and his staff managed to escape just in time.
The Australian Mounted Division was Chauvel’s reserve. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade reached Jenin by the evening of 20 September in a position to catch the main part of the retreating Turkish centre. Lieutenant Peter Doig and his troop, seeing an outlying camp, instantly charged it, capturing nearly 2000 Turks and Germans. Another troop, under Lieutenant Reginald Patterson, on the suggestion of Lance Corporal Thomas George, bluffed nearly 3000 Turks into surrender. By morning 8000 Turkish prisoners were held by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at Jenin. Doig and Patterson were awarded Military Crosses and George the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The 4th Cavalry Division severed Turkish communications with the Jordan Valley by capturing Beisan. The railway line behind the Turkish centre was destroyed by the 5th Light Horse Brigade. Aerial bombing of Turkish signal centres blacked out news of the British breakthrough. The Turkish 8th Army on the coastal flank was completely destroyed, while the 7th Army, under Mustafa Kemal in the centre, was routed. Many troops from the 7th Army escaped across the Jordan River before this gap was closed on 23 September. Chauvel sent the 4th Light Horse Brigade to take Semakh on the southern tip of Lake Tiberias. It was captured on the evening of 25 September; most of the 100 enemy dead were Germans, and several hundred Turks were captured. Tiberias, on the western side of the lake, was taken several hours later. Semakh was 60 kilometres from Deraa, a crucial railway junction, the capture of which would cut off both the survivors of the 7th Army and those of the 4th Turkish Army east of Jordan. The railway north and south of Deraa had been blown up by Arabs just before the offensive.
On 23 September Chaytor’s force, including the Anzac Mounted Division, advanced from the Jordan Valley. They captured Amman on the 25th, including the 4th Army’s 2500 strong rearguard. The main body had escaped the day before, but the remnant of the Turkish army from Arabia, 5000 strong, surrendered to the Anzacs on 29 September. In nine days Chaytor’s force, at a cost of 139 casualties, had captured 10,300 prisoners and 57 guns.
The advance to Damascus was a task for the cavalry. The Australian Mounted Division, followed by the 5th Cavalry, was to pass to the west of Lake Tiberias and then north-east towards Damascus. The 4th Cavalry was to move east of Lake Tiberias to Deraa junction and then north along the railway to Damascus. Also joining the march to Damascus were Arab forces that had first revolted at Mecca in the Hejaz area bordering the east side of the Red Sea in June 1916. They were supported by British arms, gold and liaison officers, the most famous being Captain (later Colonel) TE Lawrence. The Arab revolt has been portrayed in the filmLawrence of Arabia and Lawrence’s memoirs The Seven Pillars of Wisdom remains a World War I classic. However, his healthy ego and judgmental writing style does make one wonder about the ironic comment he claims Chauvel made to him, that Arab soldiers were not saluting Australian officers.
The Arab forces did not squander their strength in direct attacks on fortified positions. They were unsuited to pitched battles with the Turks but conducted ceaseless raiding on the long Turkish lines of communications. The Arab revolt gradually spread northwards to the gates of Damascus. When Turkish rule ceased in Damascus on 30 September 1918, Arab flags were hoisted and a committee of Arab notables assumed control of the city before the arrival of any allied troops. Two days before Turkish administration ceased, the Australian Light Horse had crossed the Jordan, driving towards Damascus.
The Australian Mounted Division overcame rearguards at the Benat Yakub bridge over the Jordan on 28 September, at Sasa on the 29th and at Kaukab on the 30th. The 5th Light Horse Brigade, passing to the west of Kaukab and bypassing Damascus, made for the steep Barada Gorge north-west of the city through which the railway and road to Beirut passed. The 5th Brigade reached Barada Gorge just in time to stop a column of Turks escaping along that route. Soon joined by the 3rd Brigade, Australians from the rocky heights cut the Turkish troops to pieces in the narrow passage.
The 3rd Light Horse Brigade had been ordered to block the only other escape route from Damascus, the north-east road that led to Homs. Passing through Damascus early on the morning of 1 October, the 3rd Brigade reached the Homs road by 7 am and soon captured 750 Turks and Germans. Early on 2 October, the 9th Regiment outflanked and captured another 1500 troops and the colours of the 46th Regiment, the only enemy flag captured in action by the Australians during the war. A little later, two Australian signallers, James Smyth and Norman Halliday, captured a German officer and eighty-five Turks preparing to get a machine-gun into action. Both were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, in what was the last action of the light horse in the war.
On the afternoon of 2 October, Chauvel led an impressive parade of his battle-stained mounted troops through the streets of Damascus, which quietened the city and allowed the shops to reopen. The 5th Cavalry Division pushed on through Lebanon and Syria, past Baalbek, Homs and Hama to Aleppo, the infantry marching up the sea coast to Beirut and Tripoli. Aleppo was abandoned by the Turks on 26 October and an armistice came into effect on 30 October. An Australian armoured car detachment, in Ford cars, was the only Australian fighting unit in the final advance.
In six weeks between 19 September and 30 October 1918, the Australian Light Horse was part of an army that captured 360 guns and 75,000 prisoners and moved the front forward 560 kilometres. Most of the army, other than the Australians and New Zealanders, had been organised and converted into a formidable fighting force in a few short months, after many of the British forces that had participated in the 1917 campaign to capture Jerusalem had been sent to France following the German Spring Offensive. The Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions remaining in the summer of 1918 in the malarial Jordan Valley, during intense heat and suffocating dust, gave Allenby the time to create his formidable fighting force. Both the Anzac Mounted Division from the Jordan Valley and the Australian Mounted Division on the coast were to play important parts in the destruction of three Turkish armies and in the capture of Damascus. The only troops to fight in every major action from Romani to Damascus were three Australian Light Horse Brigades: the 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.
The Prime Minister of Australia, the Right Honourable William Hughes MP, arrived back in Australia in September 1919 having signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia. In addressing the House of Representatives, Hughes said ‘In the history of the world, there never was a greater victory than that which was achieved in Palestine, and in it, also, as in France, the soldiers of Australia played a great part.’ In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres formally ended the war with Turkey. However, it was a harsh treaty, with Greece obtaining islands of the Aegean Sea as well as the port of Smyrna. In June 1921, at the Imperial Conference, Hughes was prophetic when he warned the British Prime Minister Lloyd George that the Australian soldier had developed a strong admiration for the Turks and would be unwilling to ‘spend one shilling or move one man’ to support Greek ambitions. Fifteen months later, in September 1922, when British and French troops guarding the Dardanelles neutral zone were threatened with attack by Turkish troops after the recapture of Smyrna, Britain nearly went to war with Turkey. The crisis was soon over but it had many ramifications: the downfall of the British Prime Minister, the creation of the modern state of Turkey, and improved British consultation with Commonwealth Governments on foreign affairs questions. The Treaty of Sevres was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which finally brought peace to Turkey.
Chapter 13: Australians in Palestine
Desert Mounted Corps
Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel 1917–1918
Anzac Mounted Division
Major General Harry Chauvel 1916–1917
Major General Edward Chaytor 1917–1918
- 1st Brigade
- 1st Regiment (NSW)
- 2nd Regiment (Qld)
- 3rd Regiment (SA, Tas)
- 2nd Brigade
- 5th Regiment (Qld)
- 6th Regiment (NSW)
- 7th Regiment (NSW)
- New Zealand Mounted Rifles
Australian Mounted Division
Major General HW Hodgson 1917–1918
- 3rd Brigade
- 8th Regiment (Vic)
- 9th Regiment (SA, Vic)
- 10th Regiment (WA)
- 4th Brigade
- 4th Regiment (Vic)
- 11th Regiment (Qld, SA)
- 12th Regiment (NSW)
- 5th Brigade
- 14th Regiment
- 15th Regiment
Lieutenant Frank McNamara
No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps
Palestine, 20 March 1917. For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an aerial bomb attack upon a hostile construction train, when one of our pilots was forced to land behind the enemy’s lines. Lieutenant McNamara, observing the pilot’s predicament and the fact that hostile cavalry were approaching, descended to his rescue. He did this under heavy rifle fire and in spite of the fact that he himself had been severely wounded in the thigh. He landed about 200 yards from the damaged machine, the pilot of which climbed on to Lieutenant McNamara’s machine, and an attempt was made to rise. Owing, however, to his disabled leg, Lieutenant McNamara was unable to keep his machine straight, and it turned over. The two officers, having extricated themselves, immediately set fire to the machine and made their way across to the damaged machine, which they succeeded in starting. Finally, Lieutenant McNamara, although weak from loss of blood, flew this machine back to the aerodrome, a distance of seventy miles, and thus completed his comrade’s rescue. (London Gazette, 8 June 1917)
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