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Battle of Magdhaba

23 DEC 1916: Following on El Arish a couple of days ago in World War I, today commemorates the Battle of Magdhaba, in northern Sinai. The capture of Magdhaba by Chauvel’s Mounted Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps helped open the way for the successful Allied campaign in Palestine.

This, from Australia’s Light Horse: On the morning of 21 December, Maurie Pearce wrote of how ‘the brigadier drew a cordon around the town and commenced searching the houses and inhabitants’. The Turks had gone, but not far.

The Allied force split, heading north to prepared positions at Rafa and east to Magdhaba. Of El Arish, Tom Baker wrote, ‘fairly large town built of limestone bricks in the Egyptian style, very happy at having got here at last, and without firing a shot’.

Holding El Arish would enable limited supplies to be shipped up the coast, but to forestall this the Turks had laid mines along the foreshore before withdrawing. At least one of the sea mines had drifted ashore or had been purposefully placed on the beach.

Two inquisitive 1st Light Horsemen who had gone for a swim came into contact with it. ‘The biggest part of them that could be found would be as small as a man’s hand,’ Lloyd Corliss wrote. ‘The vagaries of fortune,’ Maurie Evans added. ‘Blown to atoms.

After aircraft had confirmed the Turks were there, Chetwode directed Chauvel to the fortified railhead town of Magdhaba while his infantry held the new base at El Arish. The brigades left El Arish on the night of 22 December.

It was another night march, 30 kilometres along the Wadi el Arish that ran south, but again over firm ground. ‘Good hard track all the way,’ Tom Baker wrote.enemy mine washed up on a Palestinian BeachAn enemy mine washed up on a Palestinian Beach. Source: Henry Mattocks collection.

The dry riverbed of the ancient wadi was 2–5 kilometres wide and covered with fine white clay that rose in a cloud of dust under the hooves of the passing column. The wadi ran all the way to Magdhaba and well beyond. At the rear of the column, Major Horace Robertson, second-in-command of the 10th Light Horse, found the pace varied from slow to a gallop, causing a ‘continual concertina motion’ within the column. For most of the light horsemen it was their third night without sleep.

Every hour the men would ride for 40 minutes, lead the horses for ten minutes in order to warm themselves up in the bitter cold and then rest for ten minutes. On arrival at about 4 a.m., the whole force formed up in parade-ground order about 3 kilometres from the enemy positions. ‘It was like a billiard table except here and there where water courses lay, and gullies had been washed out,’ Jeff Holmes wrote.

Chauvel scouted the defences and made his plans in the predawn light.Light horsemen on the move through the barren hillsLight horsemen on the move through the barren hills. Source: Fred Horsley collection.

Aircraft appeared at 6.30 a.m., drawing fire from the Turks and giving away their positions to Chauvel’s keen eye. The planes also landed so the airmen could report their observations directly to Chauvel. ‘It was a queer sight to see the airmen in their flying togs galloping about on horses for a change,’

Fred Tomlins wrote. As always, water was the key consideration. The wells at Lahfan, midway between El Arish and Magdhaba, had been destroyed by the Turks, so if Magdhaba could not be captured before dusk Chauvel would need to pull his mounted force back to the coast.

The Australians attacked Magdhaba from the front and flanks at about 9.30 a.m. on 23 December. As Fred Tomlins, who was with the 1st Light Horse in reserve, wrote, ‘The New Zealanders and the 3rd Brigade commenced the ball rolling.’

Royston’s 3rd Brigade was sent to the south, where Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Maygar’s 8th Light Horse and Lieutenant Colonel William Scott’s 9th were given orders ‘to storm and take trenches’. General Royston accompanied his third regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Todd’s 10th, which was sent out to block a Turkish camel train seen moving south.Light Horse desert campLight Horse desert camp. Source: Joseph Bradshaw collection.

As Royston later noted, ‘[Todd] cut off the fugitives.’ Meanwhile, General Chaytor attacked at the wadi and took Hill 345, and then Chauvel, acting on aerial reports that the Turks were pulling out, launched Cox’s 1st Brigade at Magdhaba.

Despite coming under artillery fire, Cox’s brigade galloped on until stopped by heavy machine-gun fire. Cox had his men dismount some 1800 metres from No. 2 Redoubt. The New Zealanders and Brigadier General Clement Smith’s Imperial Camel Brigade were also held up by the Turkish fire. ‘The redoubts were all round works,’ Arthur Mills wrote.

‘The Turks could fire in any direction . . . with about 2½ miles flat country to fire over.’ Another cameleer, Joe Bolger wrote, ‘Fierce fighting all day, very hot, had no dinner, nearly hit a number of times.’ Cox sent Lieutenant Colonel David Fulton’s 3rd Light Horse to help in the attack on No. 2 Redoubt, but just before the attack Chauvel ordered a general withdrawal. When Cox saw the order he told the messenger to ‘Take that damned thing away and let me see it for the first time in half-an-hour.’

The redoubt soon fell, with three officers and 92 men captured, and from it Fulton was able to direct effective fire onto the next one. Harry Bostock, who was with Fulton’s regiment, wrote, ‘After dismounting for action three times on three ridges we came in close quarters.’

Fred Tomlins, who was with the 1st Light Horse, wrote that ‘The Turks fought well from the redoubts.’ At midday, Tomlins noted, when the ambulance wagons galloped up to the front line, ‘Abdul gave us another instance of fair fighting as he stopped f iring in the direction of the ambulance.’ Tomlins’s C Squadron then joined another squadron from each regiment in capturing the guns in the hills to the south. ‘In the afternoon the artillery made the trenches untenable and our fellows advanced and took them,’ Jeff Holmes wrote of the action.

Soon after midday, Royston informed Major Robertson that Colonel Todd had been injured in a horse fall and Robertson was now in command of the regiment. Royston then told him to push forward. ‘I well remember him riding over to me at Magdhaba to tell me that I was in command of the regiment,’ Robertson later wrote. ‘He was gone almost before I recovered speech.’

Robertson got his regiment mounted up and the light horsemen advanced in an extended line over a flat riverbed ‘as bare as one’s hand’ into the enemy fire. The fire came from the south-west, to Robertson’s right front, so his regiment swept further east, raising dust that screened them. The pace varied between a trot and canter, rising to a gallop as they neared the main wadi channel. Here the regiment cut off a group of 300 retreating Turks, capturing the lot.

Robertson now swung north to cut off any further enemy escape and also to press the rear of the redoubts. ‘I put one squadron against each,’ Robertson later recounted. With 30 to 40 men, Lieutenant Fred Cox and Lieutenant Alex Martin rushed a redoubt of some 350 defenders, galloping past. When Martin’s horse was shot out from under him, Fred Cox went back and rescued him.

The 10th Light Horse captured 722 prisoners, including the chief engineer of the Turkish Army. Five had come from a trench captured by the imposing General Royston. ‘I yelled something in Zulu to them,’ he told the official historian.

The men of the 2nd Light Horse were also prominent. Major Gilbert Birkbeck led a squadron at the same redoubt that Cox and Martin had attacked, the light horsemen shooting from their saddles and breaking the Turk defence. ‘Birkbeck’s force charged over ground littered with their horses and some men,’ Henry Gullett wrote. The charge put Birkbeck’s men across the Turks’ line of retreat ‘and this made them very jumpy’.

Meanwhile, No. 1 Redoubt fell at about 4 p.m. and the Magdhaba commander, Khadir Bey, was among those captured. No. 3 Redoubt soon followed.Light Horse camp at El ArishLight Horse camp at El Arish. Source: Wilfred Baker collection.

The 8th and 9th Light Horse made another dismounted advance, but under the added weight of a second bandolier this was difficult. The extra ammunition soon proved its worth, however. Though overall casualties were light, the 8th lost three of its officers killed and another wounded. Around 4.15 p.m., the defenders ‘threw in the sponge’. The 8th watered their horses at the captured hospital and, as Ron Ross related, spent the next day ‘cleaning and burying the dead, burning everything that would burn’. The 8th returned to El Arish with the camels dragging the wounded on sand carts.

During the ride back to El Arish, Fred Tomlins watched ‘men dropping off to sleep as they rode along’. In the congested wadi ‘it was very amusing to see someone wake up and ask where he was, to find himself with the wrong brigade’. Meanwhile, the Scottish infantry used camels to carry water and horse feed out to meet the column 11 kilometres from El Arish. As Tom Baker noted, ‘very tired horses had no water for 30 hours’.

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