15 October 1916 – Light Horse

The British Empire has been severely challenged in Egypt, its precious connection to India. But the Senussi incursion from Libya has been swept back and the Ottoman Army’s outposts are being forced to retreat towards Palestine in the Sinai. Now reinforced by Australian units, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force has taken the initiative for good ever since the Central Powers’ aborted offensive on Romani in August.

Today, the EEF conducts a combined-arms attack eighty miles east of the Suez Canal. Their enemy’s line of defense is anchored at the southern end in the steep hills and rocky terrain of Maghara, about fifty miles south of Romani, which lies on the Mediterranean coastal road. Commanding the largest camel supply train the British Army has ever fielded in the Sinai, Major-General A.G. Dallas has led his force from the Ferdan railhead near Bayoud to Bir el Maghara over forty miles of sand dunes and dry wadis over four days, with the last two marches at night. There are no wells along the route, so every drop of water for thirsty men and horses has to be ported.

Thus the cameleers.

Dallas started out with a column of 800 Australian Light Horse (see photo at top), 400 London Yeomanry, 600 Mounted Camelry, the Hong Kong and Singapore light artillery batteries, the machine gun sections of the 150th and 160th Infantry Brigades, and a squadron of the Australian Flying Corps — all of them entirely dependent on 4,500 camels of the Egyptian Transport Corps and supported by a 200-camel Army Medical Corps.

Without the ‘ship of the desert,’ all the king’s horsemen and all the king’s airplanes could never survive out here.


A Maurice Farman Shorthorn of No. 2 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, after crash landing at Heliopolis

Almost everything goes wrong.

Gen. Dallas has already peeled off elements of both A and C squadrons, 12th Light Horse Regiment to screen his flanks on the approach. Arriving after midnight, his forces have just begun deploying to their starting positions for the assault when a literal avalanche of fog pours down from the hills, ruining visibility and grounding his airplanes. Rare out in the desert, but not uncommon in the highlands during October, the white mist lies on the low terrain for ninety minutes until the morning sun finally banishes it.

Then the airplanes strike first with bombs, buzzing the enemy throughout the attack. The Ottomans have constructed rock fortifications, or ‘sangars,’ on the high ground of the pass with a telegraph station, supply stores, and ammunition bunkers. When the dismounted riders take machine gun fire on the long climb uphill and while trying to enter the pass, Dallas decides to scrap his initial plan for a comprehensive attack on four hills. He has lost the element of surprise and the cloak of darkness that made those objectives realistic.

Instead, B Squadron of the 12th Light Horse crosses a steep, narrow gorge at the foot of Hill 1121 and picks their way up the slopes using fire and movement. Meanwhile, C Squadron charges over open ground to the bottom off Hill 1046 and fights their way up on foot. The Hong Kong and Singapore batteries and machine gun sections keep up a steady suppressive fire on both hilltops.

The improvisation succeeds in forcing the Turkish defenders to fall back on stronger positions. Dallas is not here to take ground and defend it, as on the Western Front. The mission has been designed as a raid; he is only here to deliver a message, so Gen. Dallas ends the assault and recalls his troops before noon. After burying the only trooper killed in the engagement, he turns for home.

Receiving the intended message, General Kress von Kressenstein soon withdraws from Maghara for a line farther east, uncomfortable with his Desert Force so far from his nearest railhead. His invasion of the Sinai is over.