Romani: The Battle that Saved an Empire!

 

By Neil Dearberg

Neil was an army officer for 15 years, then a business owner for 25 years. As a volunteer on four archaeology projects along the Hejaz Railway in southern Jordan (by the Bristol University) he realised very little was known about the Light Horse and other AIF troops in this campaign. Believing this neglected but amazing story needed to be told, he embarked on what became a seven-year research of the Sinai Palestine campaign. He conducted field and desktop research in Australia, UK, Syria, Jordan and Israel. He's been invited to present in UK, Jordan and Australia and has published over a dozen articles here and overseas, as well as his book ‘Desert Anzacs: the under-told story of the Sinai Palestine campaign 1916-1918’.

His analysis of commanders, decisions and events may be controversial to some, but he considers it is supported by the evidence that he quotes.  He continues to be sought to speak about leadership and life issues shown in these LH and AIF successes.

 

The best known Light Horse action is probably the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917. Quite rightly, we recognise that marvellous charge by 800 horsemen of 4th Light Horse Brigade over open ground into the face of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire from an entrenched enemy. With just one hour of daylight battle time before darkness, they captured the town and its imperative water wells with moments to spare before a cancellation or withdrawal was ordered. This success allowed General Allenby to capture Gaza a week later and commence his advance into Palestine and final victory.

The famous ALH charge at the Battle of Beersheba involved one brigade from the two Mounted Divisions under General Chauvel's command. With minimal time for planning and preparation due to the lateness of the day General Chauvel gave the order “Put Grant straight at it!” As Grant’s 4th Brigade charged, Chauvel still commanding his two Mounted Divisions, could but watch and pray.

What is less recognised is the more extensive nine-day Battle of Romani by the Anzac Mounted Division and companies of the Imperial Camel Corps (mostly Anzacs) that commenced on 3rd August 1916, over a year earlier than Beersheba. General Chauvel’s planning, leadership and execution, complemented by the leadership and skills of his brigade commanders, sub-unit commanders, the initiative of his troopers and the stamina of the Waler horses, provided Anzac initiation in this campaign and laid the foundation for the future brilliance of our mounted men. Romani, by any measure, is the most significant action by any formation within the Sinai Palestine campaign.

Had Chauvel and his Anzacs not won the Battle of Romani the Suez Canal could have been lost to Britain. If that had happened, the Germans could have been victorious early. The Americans would not have been needed in April 1917 as the war would have been over. The British Empire may have ceased to exist.

Every war has many battles. An outcome of war or a battle, victory or defeat, is usually a function of leadership, planning and execution. Simplicity says ‘strategy’ is the big picture of how the war should be fought in its varied locations. ‘Tactics’ is how a battle, or series of battles, is fought. In the early phases of the Great War, British strategic emphasis was on France and the Western Front. When you win enough battles, you’ll likely win the war; but there are no guarantees in the big picture. Leadership, planning and resultant execution were questionable commodities in early British strategy or tactics. The Middle East was thought to be a ‘sideshow’ and of little strategic concern.

The ‘vital ground’ of British efforts for the Western Front and the East was, undoubtedly, the Suez Canal, controlled by Britain from 1882. Early political and military thinking didn’t recognise that, however:

‘the Suez Canal was to Great Britain what roots are to trees. British control of the canal maintained life: troops from Australia, New Zealand and India could join the horror. Shipping from the Indian Ocean and Persia to the Mediterranean was quicker and safer than around South Africa where British ships were fodder for German U-boats and battle cruisers lurking in the Atlantic Ocean; and, Germany was deprived of rapid access to its East Africa and Pacific colonies.’[1]

The Germans knew it. The Turks knew it. The Germans and Turks developed plans to win the canal. The British, meanwhile, were fixated on France and the Western Front. The Suez Canal was not a priority, in the beginning. The Suez Canal was in the east and the Turks were just “natives” - the British hadn’t yet experienced the Turks in the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli.

Early on the morning of 3 February 1915 a force of around 16,000 Turks, Arab tribesmen and a few Germans, with camels, oxen, pontoons, boats and artillery pieces, that had crossed 125 miles of Sinai Peninsula sands undetected, attacked the Suez Canal. Their intent was to capture or block the canal and deny it to British shipping. But, a vigilant sentry system and good defenders repulsed them. The Turks, unmolested, returned to Palestine to plan another attempt. This had been their first attempt.

Evacuated from Gallipoli by January 1916, the Anzac infantry and artillery then followed British troops to France while the Australian Light Horse (ALH) and New Zealand Mounted Rifles (NZMR) remained in Egypt with other British troops – designated a “strategic reserve” for France and the Western Front.

Early 1916 the force in Egypt had been renamed the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and was commanded by General Sir Archibald Murray. In his charge were two British infantry divisions, the AMD (consisting of three ALH Brigades, three detached LH regiments and the NZMR Brigade) and the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) (12 of the 18 companies were Anzac) plus attached artillery and support troops. Murray correctly recognised his task to protect the canal and Egypt. He proposed to advance eastwards towards Palestine to prevent another Turkish attack on the canal. Denied by the War Office; troops needed in France. He then appealed to advance only to the Katia area some 25 miles east, build a railway for logistic support through the sands of Sinai, a water pipeline to bring sweet water from the Nile to refresh troops and construction workers, and perhaps later advance across Sinai towards El Arish; granted. A telegraph line was constructed to follow the railway.

By this time the British were in slaughterhouse stalemate in France; their naval siege of the Bosporus had been repulsed; defeated at Gallipoli; attacked at the Suez Canal; a 20,000-man army had been captured in Mesopotamia (including a half-flight of Australian airmen). In April 1916 the scattered 5th Yeomanry Brigade was decimated by a concentrated force of Turks under German command. Things were not going well.

Following the Yeomanry debacle, General Murray ordered Chauvel to take his AMD into the Sinai. Around the same time, No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC) was arriving in Egypt. Two months later Sharif Hussein fired the shot to begin the Arab Revolt against the Turks.

Chauvel concentrated his force at Romani. From here he ordered patrolling towards the nearby Oghratina, Duiedar and Katia. Another Turkish attack on the Suez Canal was expected. A British infantry division dug-in a north-south line and effectively blocked a Turkish advance through them. Chauvel’s plan was to open the east-west line to the south of the infantry, entice the Turks into the heated and waterless sand where he could use his mobile horsemen to set upon the over-heated Turks and attain their defeat. The German commander of the Turkish force, Colonel (later General) Kress von Kressenstein, obliged. Australian historian Henry Gullett states:

History scarcely presents an example of such complete conformity by an enemy taking the offensive to the plans and wishes of the defenders.[2]

But problems had arisen. Above Chauvel were two senior British generals; Murray as overall commander and Lt-Gen Lawrence as Zone Commander. Each of these commandeered one of Chauvel’s ALH brigades, leaving him only two, plus what was left of the Yeomanry brigade that had been decimated in April. On the night of 3rd August 1916, the Turks followed a routine ALH patrol into the Anzac lines that allowed their attack to begin. (This was shown to be a tactical ALH error, one that was never repeated).

For three days the battle raged between Anzac and Turk. Murray and Lawrence were so far behind the action and with Lawrence’s telephone lines cut, they had little idea what was happening. They retained the ALH brigades as some form of reserve, despite Chauvel’s pleading to have them released to complete his plan. At several times the battle could have gone either way – cooks were fired upon, wounded were left in the sun by inconsiderate British staff officers, and the infantry refused to support the horsemen without direct orders from General Lawrence. Dehydration was a major problem with British provision of only one quart of water per man per day in the furnace. Eventually, the NZMR Brigade and 3 ALH Brigade joined the fray. With the arrival of the Kiwis and 3rd Brigade, the tide turned quickly; the Turks turned for home in a well-executed withdrawal towards El Arish along the Mediterranean coast. Both sides were exhausted, having been sleep-deprived for days and fighting under a molten sun with little water, food or rest. The horses were equally deprived and exhausted. Chauvel’s biographer, A.J. Hill, wrote:

Few were the men or horses who had slept in the last three nights; now men slept in the saddle despite the piercing cold, as dust rose in stifling clouds and stumbling horses collided in the dark or fell with their riders.[3]

 

General Lawrence, upon hearing of the Turkish withdrawal but totally unaware of the disposition of troops, ordered Chauvel in pursuit. Even with the Turks on the run, a pursuit could not be attempted until horses were fed and watered, men fed and watered, ammunition re-supplied, medical and veterinary treatments provided, and re-organising of his units and commands. This took over half a day, by which time the Turks were well on their way to prepared positions of their own defence and reinforcements.

Four more days of chasing and skirmishing, including a worthy Turkish counter-attack, forced Chauvel to withdraw temporarily until the pursuit resumed. The Turks made it into El Arish – the Battle of Romani was over, won by Chauvel and his Anzacs.

The Battle of Romani was the first British victory of the entire war, after two years since its beginning. The Turks never again threatened the Suez Canal. The Turks withdrew to a defensive position at Gaza, where they would hold out until 4th ALH Bde captured Beersheba over a year later. They would later retreat until their final capitulation in October 1918. Britain retained the Suez Canal and their empire. Chauvel had excelled in leadership, planning and execution. British generals did not.

The Australian Official History recorded:

The High Command did not excel at Romani, but the result was still a splendid and far-reaching triumph for British arms, and, considered from any angle, this triumph must stand almost entirely to the credit of Chauvel and the Anzacs.[4]

Success at Romani was a function of Chauvel’s leadership, magnificent Waler horses that had withstood the heat and water deprivation to carry their riders, the stamina and pride of the Anzac horsemen and cameleers and, according to Chauvel, the empty Turkish water bottle.

This victory that saved the Suez Canal, perhaps more than any other, was the most significant action that won the war for Great Britain, and thanks to Chauvel and the Anzacs – a point seldom recognised even by Australian historians.

 

A more detailed description of the Battle of Romani can be found in ‘Desert Anzacs: the under-told story of the Sinai Palestine Campaign’, Chapter 10, or by visiting www.desertanzacs.com.au

 

References

[1] Dearberg, N., Desert Anzacs, p.10

[2] Gullett, H.S., Official History, Sinai Palestine, Vol VII, p.190

 

[3] A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse, p.89

[4] H.S. Gullett, Official History, Sinai Palestine, Vol VII, p.190