Midnight the Warhorse: Part 8 - The Desert Campaigns
by Peter Haydon
The 12th Light Horse moved on from Cairo under the remarkable leadership of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, who was appointed Commander of the entire Desert Mounted Corp in the Middle East. This was a huge honour for an Australian to be elevated to such a position ahead of his British contemporaries who were now under his command. Time proved he was the leader of the most potent cavalry force in history and the most successful battle commander in the Middle East War of 1914-1918.
Guy on Midnight in the desert camp
Holding the Suez Canal was vital for the British but they had to push north to lessen the hold of the Ottoman Empire, who had controlled the region for over 400 years and had now sided with the German’s in the war effort. It meant fighting the Turks in many of their entrenched strongholds and they wanted to dispel the bitter disappointment of their failure at Gallipoli.
They were to follow the ancient routes of armies of the Pharaohs, the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Roman Legions, the Crusaders and Napoleon’s army.
The troops revelled in the space which was so different from the confines of the trenches and the wire of Gallipoli. They took great care in the welfare of their horses, making sure they were well groomed with attention to their backs. The Australians had very little back problems compared to the 70 percent incidence of sore backs suffered by their neighbouring English squadron. They made sure their saddles were evenly balanced and that their quart pots and water bottles were firmly secured so they did not rattle.
Holding the Suez Canal was vital. The British had set up headquarters at Romani which was only thirty-seven kilometres from the canal and setup an outpost to the east at Katia. On the 23 April 1916 the Turks attacked and defeated the force at Katia after a bitter fight. The British then abandon Romani and return to the canal. In response the Australian Light Horse crossed the canal at Kantara moving east into the Sinai Desert setting up camp at Hill 70 just 11 km from the canal.
The Turks had withdrawn back to Bir el Abd so the Light Horse moved on and reoccupied Romani which was a good site to defend the canal. Temperatures had now soared to 50 degrees in the shade with a hot furnace type wind, with millions of sand flies making it nearly unbearable with many suffering sunstroke and heat exhaustion. It was a blinding sun with sand storms making the fine sand feel like red hot needles against the skin. The Australian used spear point pumps to quickly find water for the horses in likely low lying areas.
On 19 July the Turks with a force of 20,000 men amassed outside of Katia for their attempt to take control the canal. On 3 August fierce fighting commenced as they entered the Katia area. The Turks had to advance or fail while the Allies could win by defending. The Light Horse would retreat and then take up new positions. The German officer wrote “they fought in an exemplary fashion and many times we cursed those active and agile horseman”. They then attacked the Turkish flank capturing many Turks as many more retreated. On the 7 August they occupied Katia and on 9 August General Chauvel attacked Bir el Abd. The Battle of Romani proved a triumph for the horses and how they had persevered under such extreme conditions.
They were outnumbered ten to one but managed to resist the Turkish attack. Winning the Battle of Romani changed the British thinking from defence to attack and marked an early turning point in the campaign as they went on to win the attacks on El Arish and Raffa.
They did long marches at night so their horses were not out in the oppressive heat of the day, taking advantage of the cooler night time temperatures. The Sinai Desert proved a harsh environment on both men and horses with its heat and ever blowing wind and dust. The Sinai Campaign lasted 10 months from 15 May to 20 March 1917, including the Raid on Magdhara Hills on 13-19 October 1916, deep in the Sinai Desert behind enemy lines, attached to the Camel Column.
Magdhaba was a fortified railhead town. The column marched all night navigating by the stars. The 12th rode around to the north while the 11th attacked the centre. They galloped across the narrow flat and dismounted advancing up the range coming under heavy fire from the Turks on the commanding hill. The hilly rough terrain made it difficult but the town was overrun and many prisoners were taken.
They were rested back at the canal at Ismailia reforming a new Brigade with the 4th, 11th and 12th Regiments. On the 20 March they began the trek to Khan Yunus above Rafa via El Arish on their way to the advance to Gaza, arriving on 11 April. On the 18th they were involved in fierce fighting at Atawineh Ridge losing 30 percentage of their men under heavy fire and shrapnel bursts, before digging in for three days. They moved back to “The
Beach” at Marakeb for a rest.
At "The Beach"
The 12th fighting at Magdhaba
The 12th column on the move again after Magdhaba
In one letter home Guy addresses it as from “The Beach”. They camped 50 yards from the water’s edge, enjoying their weeks rest. They swam the horses every day and it did them a power of good. He records Barney took his leave in Cairo catching up with the girls he knew who were there nursing including Jess Cobb. Guy received a cable announcing the birth of his first child Patricia Bloomfield Haydon on 3 March 1916. He also received some photos of “Paddy” as she became to be known. His wife Bon had them taken in Sydney and sent them over to him. He reflects, “I wish I could see them”. He also appreciates the parcels he received, especially the honey.
While there they acted as a protecting force to engineers successfully destroying many kilometres of railway and bridges. They also did reconnaissance in the vicinity of Beersheba. The conditions were very trying with the all-pervading dust and flies. They made pools out of tarpaulins to have “bathing parades” which helped greatly in the health of the men.
This was followed by the Palestine Campaign with the 12th LHR attached to the 4th LHB from the 11-24 April 1917, including the Battle of Gaza. Guy then fell ill but was returned to the 12th LHR for the next Gaza II Campaign from 9 June 1917. The first attack on Gaza was bungled by the British Command. The defences at Gaza were strengthened which made the second attack even more difficult and unsuccessful. It was an unqualified failure.
Midnight displayed the stamina and endurance typical of the Walers when during the Gaza Campaign she remained continually under saddle for 7 days and nights. Guy only averaged 3 hours sleep a day and she was still going well and held her condition. They would often sleep lying in the shade of their horses twisting the reins around one foot and then drop off to sleep. Often the men would fall asleep in their saddles catching much-needed rest as the horses followed along in procession.
The Light Horse were involved in many successful battles clearing the Turks from Romani, El Arish, Magdhaba and Rafa but firm resistance slowed the Allied progress around Gaza. Guy got a friend to take a letter home of his account of the Gaza offensive which meant he could give a lot more detailed account of the battle than he would normally have been able to in his posted letters via the Army. He called it the “big fight”. As they advanced they dismounted with the handlers holding the horses out of the firing line. As they proceeded towards the trenches on foot he said “The fire was terrible, rifle, machine gun and shrapnel swept the ground and it was so dusty that at times one could only see about twenty yards. There we lay with our noses glued to the ground and the shrapnel ripping all amongst us, then we got the order to move forward again...how the devil any of us got out alive the Lord only knows. This was the hottest fight of the lot and I’m proud to say we did splendidly” They held their position until dark and 70 of their 220 men were killed or wounded. They withdrew with heavy casualties and the British also suffered heavily. The old hands say, “that it is the heaviest scrapping we have had, worse than the landing on Gallipoli and even worse than in France”. He further reports that “Max Wright’s horse Fred was wounded by an aeroplane bomb a few days ago but will get over it. A splinter from the same bomb scratched Max on the chin. Max is a great soldier and takes to it like a duck to water.”
“Our horses didn’t have their saddles off for seven days and nights. They had a rough time but we didn’t lose one, and the old black mare is still going strong.” Fred survived his wounds and Midnight came through the harrowing experience with flying colours.
At home they had received the dreaded telegram informing them that Guy had been killed in action on 26 July 1916. However, it was an encoding error but still very bad news for the family. The word Guy should have been encoded as Gerry. It was referring to Gerry Aplin who was the brother of his brother Fred’s wife Grace. Gerry Aplin was killed in the Somme campaign in France in the bloody Battle of Pozieres. Guy continued with the campaign to conquer the Turks in the desert.
12th Light Horse camp
Midnight- feed time in the desert