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El Arish Captured

21 DEC 1916: The Light Horse captures El Arish, abandoned by the Turks. Originally intended as an outpost for the defence of the Suez Canal, El Arish became one of the first steps in the Allied advance on Palestine – in the lead-up to the Battle of Magdhaba. At dawn on 20 December 1916, the 1st Brigade of the ANZAC Mounted Division (less the 2nd Brigade) reached the Mediterranean coast on the far side of El Arish and suddenly the horses stepped off the sand onto the wide, firm flat that flanks the great Wadi (streambed) El Arish.

They started prancing and Brigadier General ‘Fighting Charlie’ Cox called a halt just to watch them. That night,’ Cox said, ‘will always seem to me the most wonderful of the whole campaign. The hard going for the horses seemed almost miraculous after the months of sand; and, as their shoes struck fire on the stones in the bed of the wadi, the men laughed with delight.

Sinai was behind them. It was a perfect dawn arrival: the 1st Brigade to the east with its flank on the silver sea, the Camel Brigade to the south, the New Zealanders to the south-west and the 3rd Brigade at Masaid, a Turkish post five miles west. Each brigade was on time, none more than 200 yards out of position and they didn’t have to fire a shot. The substantial Turkish army of occupation that had held the place for over two years had gone.

The dramatic appearance at dawn of this ring of tough-looking foreign horsemen right round the town sparked wild excitement and apparent demonstrations of delight, from the Arab villagers, whatever their true loyalties or feelings. Bearded elders in many-coloured, flowing dresses crowded round the grinning Anzacs, grasping their stirrups and kissing their boots, while women and children swarmed around them, shouting. The chief sheikh formally surrendered the town and handed over one hapless Turk and some alleged Turkish spies.

The troopers wandered down the evil-smelling alleyways between the squalid mud huts. After the great region of nothing, the village was at least a place of human habitation and there were some mosques and minarets. Besides the familiar dale palm oases, they came upon planted crops and fields of melons, vegetables, and an orange grove. Fig trees! This was more like it.

The Anzacs camped in the wadi bed and set up a series of strong outposts. They were on Turkish territory now, invaders not defenders, and could be attacked – and so to keep the enemy off balance, should strike first. And how much more effective they would be on firm ground, with good water and better feed for horse and man.

A little-known consequence, was its namesake. El Arish is a small town in Queensland, named after the city in Egypt where the Australian Light Horse saw action in December 1916 and which was later developed as a major base area. At the 2006 census, El Arish had a population of 232. The town was founded in 1921 as a Soldier settlement area and was later settled by Italian Australians who worked in the sugar cane fields. Today, the area is home to banana plantations. It was hit by Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi in February 2011. Harry Chauvel cartoon by Chris Grosz. Story Eetracted from the book produced by Lindsay Baly, Horseman, Pass By, East Roseville, N.S.W. : Simon & Schuster. More, Chauvel meets Laurence; http://ow.ly/zX0l30hmkRn

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