Battle of Romani
Friday 15 July, 2016
Corporal Austin Edwards, his horse Taffy, and all their equipment. Corporal Edwards was seriously wounded at the Battle of Romani. During the battle, Taffy stood still for his wounded rider to remount and escape.
On the 4th August, 2016 we commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Romani, one of the most important and decisive victories in World War 1. A battle that would put a stop to the Turkish threat to the Suez Canal, and mark the beginning of the British and Australian forces drive out of Egypt and into Palestine.
Soon after midnight on August 4, 1916 Turkish soldiers darted across the Sinai Desert towards the Romani tableland. Ahead lay isolated outposts of Major-General Harry Chauvel’s Anzac Mounted Division, which barred the way to the Turk’s objective, the Suez Canal.
Close to dawn the Turkish army sighted the Australians and charged forward, slicing their way through the thin defences, destroying the posts before any resistance could be organised. This would be the beginning of the battle of Romani, a conflict which, after two days of intense bloody fighting, would destroy Turkish hopes of controlling the vital man-made waterway, the Suez Canal.
After the evacuation of Gallipoli, Australian infantry divisions were transferred to the Western Front in France, although General Sir Archibald Murray, the British Commander in the Middle East, had fought against the move.
Murray expected the Turks to advance against Egypt at any moment and felt he could hold the enemy with the assistance of the battle hardened Australians. The general was still frustrated at the loss of the Anzacs when he received word that the Australian Light Horse units, still under his command, were to be transferred to France to replace heavy AIF casualties. To Murray, this was the last straw. Realising the mounted troops were the backbone of the force he was building up to stop the Turks, he flatly refused to let them go.
As General Murray was making his decision, the German General, von Kressenstein, was moving his Turkish force slowly down through Palestine, intent on taking the Suez Canal even if it cost him every man in his command. Treading the identical route that Napoleon had traversed in his ill-fated expedition on 1801, the Turks brushed aside and scattered British cavalry and infantry formations that tried to bar their advance. By April 1916, Murray knew the position was serious.
To meet the threat to the canal and Egypt, Murray ordered Chauvel and his Anzac Mounted Division to prepare to halt the rolling Turkish juggernaut. Chauvel, who was to prove himself the great strategist and leader of mounted troops of his era, spent days surveying large areas of desert before finally deciding on his battleground, the Romani tableland. While the enemy was still many miles away, Chauvel dispersed his Anzacs around Romani and kept them there until they became accustomed to the heat and reduced water rations.
In late July, mounted Australian patrols began a series of hit-and-run raids on enemy bivouacs. But the Turks disregarded these pin-pricks and rolled on towards Romani until they approached the Anzac outposts situated some miles out from the tableland. It was midnight on August 3 that Australian listening posts heard the sounds of troop movement to their front.
These posts were still trying to get news of the enemy’s rapid advance towards Romani when thousands of Turks had crept to within yards of the Australian outposts without being spotted. They swept forward.
The whole desert exploded into action as wave after wave of fanatical Turks burst out of the night screaming, “Allah, Allah. Finish Australia.”
The full fury of the assault now fell on the main body of the 1st Australian Brigade, 1st, 2nd & 3rd Regiments, which had been waiting on Romani’s lower slopes. Charging shoulder to shoulder in ranks with drawn, the Turks ran straight into the point-blank fire of the Light Horsemen. Soon the crackle of machine-guns and rifles merged into a crashing crescendo of sound as whole lines of the enemy were wiped out only to be immediately replaced by others. For three hours the Light Horse threw back one attack after another. Then, still under tremendous enemy pressure, they were ordered to withdraw slowly.
Although the withdrawal was carried out according to orders, it was impossible to conceal the manoeuvre from the enemy. As a result, the Turks, convinced they had the Australians at their mercy, drove in with increased fury crashing through some parts of the Anzac line. Many died in those attacks with their horses bogged in the loose sand, could not defend themselves as the enemy swarmed over them.
Major M. Shanahan, DSO, seeing five of the men unhorsed and surrounded by Turks, galloped wildly through the enemy ranks, got one of the Australians up into the saddle with him and, with two others clinging to each stirrup, got clean away. In the thin light of dawn, an Australian sergeant thought he saw one of his men go down beneath a scrum of Turks. Roaring at the top of his voice, he wheeled his horse and charged into the shadowy confusion. Sweeping the man clean up on to his saddle, he galloped away to safety. It was only when he pulled his horse up that he realised the man behind him was a Turk.
As daylight approached, General Chauvel, watching the battle from a vantage point, could see his battered 1st Brigade still struggling against tremendous odds as it continued to retreat. The Turks were now sweeping in massed waves against the New Zealand brigade. But Chauvel made no move to reinforce his hard-pressed men, for the battle was going exactly as he had foreseen.
The general directed the remnants of the 1st Brigade to stop their withdrawal and, after joining up with the New Zealanders, to hold a firm line. He then brought the 2nd and 3rd Brigades in from the flanks implementing his plan to compress the enemy into an area covered by British artillery. Finally, as the Anzacs dismounted and moved in a great mass towards the Turks, the British artillery opened up. Salvoes crashed right into the enemy ranks and great gaps appeared in the tight-packed force preparing to counter-attack the advancing Australians. The thunder of the guns destroyed the Turkish hopes of taking the Canal.
Under a searing sun, the Romani tableland for the rest of the day shuddered under the violence of battle as the tide swayed back and forth with Australians and Turks locked in a fight to the finish. Helped by the never-ceasing artillery barrage, the Anzacs gradually clawed their way forward, throwing back desperate counter-attacks as they pushed the enemy from one position to another. Elsewhere, the Turks still flung themselves forward in massed hopeless attacks, searching for a weak spot in the main Anzac positions. But the line held firm as groups rushed from one trouble spot to another.
In the confused fighting, a large body of Turks punched a gap through the Anzac defences and swept around the edge of a high escarpment hoping to come in on the Australians’ rear. However, Chauvel had already stationed a handful of Australians on top of the slopes to guard against this move. Now these men sprang into action.
Peering over the escarpment’s brink, they quickly picked off the Turks as they scrambled up. Just before dawn Chauvel, realising he must keep the initiative, ordered his men to make one final onslaught against the Turks. The artillery helped by laying down another devastating bombardment.
The Australians and new Zealanders launched a frenzied attack on the enemy still holding Wellington Ridge that the impetus of their charge drove the defenders back almost to the crest.
It was too much for the Turkish soldiers, with the Australian and New Zealand troops taking a decisive victory. A final pursuit of the fleeing Turkish soldiers ensued with many falling back to their main position across the Sinai Dessert.
The battle of Romani was over.