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The Great War – 16 – 22 November, 1917

Thursday 16 November, 2017

On 16 November 1917, General Edmund Allenby, Commander of the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, called his three corps commanders to a conference to plan his next move following victory at Beersheba.

While Allenby’s Force had achieved great success in the previous 17 days that included the destruction of the Gaza-Beersheba barrier, the capture of around 10,000 prisoners, and the enemy withdrawing in disarray and driven back for nearly sixty miles, he was not satisfied. The mounted divisions, crippled by a shortage of water in the week after Beersheba, had been unable to completely destroy the enemy.

Allenby’s plan was for an immediate advance through the hills to take Jerusalem but a cablegram from the War Office advised ‘…while no opportunity should be lost of weakening the enemy’s defensive power…,’ his force should not be drawn into a position which it could only hold with difficulty as the situation in Europe ‘…is such that by the summer the (British) forces in the East may have to be reduced to the minimum required for defensive purposes’. It was also impressed upon him that the Moslem holy places must be respected. With this directive in mind, his plan was put into operation.

On 18 November, as a preliminary to the advance of the 75th UK Division into the hills, the Australian Mounted Division forced the the Turkish forces from Latron, 25 kilometres west of Jerusalem. The 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade endeavoured to outflank Latron from the north and north-east while the 4th Brigade made a direct assault. The ground was so steep and rocky that the horses often had to be led and by evening, with the realisation that a mounted advance was impractical in such terrain, the 3rd and 4th Brigades were withdrawn. The light horse were ultimately not to play an active part in the capture of Jerusalem.

The 4th Light Horse Regiment entering mountain passes near Latron. (AWM J05978)

The 4th Light Horse Regiment entering mountain passes near Latron

However, in response to a strong desire by the Australians to participate in the fight for Jerusalem, the 10th Light Horse Regiment was ordered to attach to the 5th Mounted Brigade and then advance along the railway line up the valley of Sorek.

On the Western Front, a massed raid on the German line west of Cambrai in northern France, was launched on 20 November 1917. This was historically the first battle involving the collective employment of tanks. While the mud had made movement impossible during the Ypres offensives, the tanks were given an opportunity to prove their worth and the initial assault was a huge success. However, mechanical failures followed and with the deployment of German reserves and the obstacle presented by the St Quentin Canal, momentum was quickly lost. On this first day of the battle, the 67 (Australian) Squadron, which had been heavily involved in ground attack operations during the third battle of Ypres, lost seven of its 18 aircraft either destroyed or badly damaged. Six Military Crosses were awarded to 67 Squadron personnel for their actions above the Cambrai battlefield.

Allenby’s force plan to advance through the hills to take Jerusalem.

This particular week in November 1917 was not without casualties for the Australians. The 32nd Battalion, which was raised on 9 August 1915 in Mitcham, South Australia, had sustained heavy casualties on the Western Front during 1916. Subsequently employed in a support role in Belgium during the Battle of Passchendaele, it had re-entered the trenches in the Messines sector.  It was here on 19 November 1917, that Private Robert Tomlin of the 32nd Battalion was hit in the chest by enemy shelling during an early morning raid and died soon after at the Australian Dressing Station. His brother reported that ‘I was in the trenches with him when he was hit…… I fixed a cross on his grave myself. I have also written home and told my people all about it.’ Private Tomlin was buried at a place called ‘Irish House’ Cemetery in Belgium.

At home in South Australia, fundraising continued and the Advertiser reported that a new government ‘Liberty Loan’ had been launched, offering 4% interest, tax free.  Calls were made for more socks for the troops as winter arrived in Europe.

More injured troops arrived home by boat. Ten returned soldiers and their families moved from the government farm training camp at Pompoota to their new farms at Moorook. After 12 months in training, they were the first to arrive and take up their allocated 20 acres of irrigable land for mixed farming, fruit growing and dairying.

Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes called for a second referendum on the conscription issue as enlistment numbers for the war continued to fall.

The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918 by C.E.W. Bean

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