Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 8, 2023

Eyewitness: The Successful Turkish Raid at Katia

Australian Light Horsemen in the Sinai

In March 1916 the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), General Sir Archibald Murray, ordered his forces to occupy the area around the Katia oasis, 40 km east of the Suez Canal. Murray aimed to shield the first section of the Sinai railway—from Kantara to Romani—from any possible Ottoman Turkish attack.

At Katia, the troopers of the 5th Mounted Brigade were dispersed across a series of isolated forward outposts along a 42-km front. Murray’s infantry division was concentrated much farther back, around Kantara and the railhead. It was intended as a reserve in the case of an Ottoman attack but could respond only if given a timely warning. 

At dawn on 23 April 1916, the Ottoman Turkish raiding force took the British by surprise and completely overwhelmed two of the 5th Mounted Brigade’s outposts. While the Ottoman attackers were aided by a thick sea mist that hung over the area for much of the morning, the isolation and small size of the British outposts was the key to the Turks' victory. Spread too far apart to support each other, two British garrisons were picked off before troops could arrive from Kantara. The 5th Mounted Brigade lost 400 men, mostly from the Gloucester and Worcester regiments. The surprise attack mauled the defenders. The EEF had its first setback, and Ottoman spirits were buoyant after adding the Katia success to the recent victories at Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara.

As the size of the raid and the extent of the defeat became clear, the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade was rushed to Kantara and on to Katia, where it arrived the following day.

Trooper Ion Idriess

Prospector-Digger-Author Ion Idriess, 5th Australian Light Horse, described in his war diary the fighting that ensued when they arrived on 24 April:

April 23rd Early morning. We moved off from Salhia yesterday morning and today are again out in the desert. We hear the Turks are there. The Tommies at Kantara all crowded around us last night. They are such pink-cheeked, decent little chaps.

0715–Big news! The Turks are attacking only a few miles out. C Squadron have doubled out into the desert: we are saddling up: excitement throughout the regiment.

Midnight—Now I can write down what happened. The regiment hurried through the big Kantara camp, then on to a metalled road with the horses’ hoofs striking hard and clear. Redoubts and barbed-wire entanglements were here and there, but soon the road ended and the open desert faced us.

Then came the order: “Load Rifles!” We spread out in skirmishing order and hurried straight into the desert. The reinforcements got a wee bit excited, and anyway that same strange feeling stole over me. It always comes just when I am going into action—a curious exciting thrill, tinged with a deadly coldness. The desert spread out to the white horizon, occasional sandhills drab under low prickly bushes.

We got to Hill 70 where two companies of the 4th Royal Fusiliers were quickly marching into the desert. We spread out to guard their flanks. An hour passed. Then we heard the faint bang, bang of little guns. We hurried, and Lieutenant Stanfield’s men in the screen in front caught several well-armed Turks. All hands gazed expectantly and then nearly at the top of a sand-rise there gleamed a few white tents and some camel-lines. We broke into a trot—the neddies were very willing. We drew rapidly closer—the camp looked strange!. . .

Suddenly we saw that nearly all the camels were lying in grotesque positions. They were dead. . . soon we were cantering amongst the trees and there lay British Yeomanry horses. And this we knew: it was the Tommies who had been attacked. Right amongst us were Tommies lying among the palms, not killed, just sweating men—sunburned—very tired. Some wore bandages freshly blood-stained. We plunged past a group of dirty Arab prisoners. And under the shady palms there lay wounded Tommies, gazing up at us and smiling. . . We spread out and galloped over miles of sand. But the enemy had got clean away on their camels. . .

A Yeomanry man is telling us dolefully that 5,000 Turks attacked his brigade at Katia this morning. He seemed to think the brigade is annihilated.

Australian Cavalry Commander
Sir Harry Chauvel

2030 [24 Apr.]–The wee garrison here [Bir-el-Dueidar] numbered 96, and are men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. They put up a great fight. . . The fight yesterday lasted for five hours. The Turkish raid was utterly unexpected. The early hours were bitterly cold and a dense fog enveloped the desert. The Turks crept right up to the tiny redoubt. [The alarm was sounded by] a cheeky terrier belonging to the sentry on duty that pricked its ears and growled, then hopped up on the parapet to shield its master. . . A cloaked figure loomed gigantic out of the fog—the terrier snarled forward and a rifle-butt crushed him dead—the sentry fired and the shrouded figure pitched headlong down into the trench. Such was their sudden awakening as the Scotties told us this morning. . .[They] had 23 men killed. . .

It is all rumors yet as to what has occurred at the oasis way out on our left. The 5th Mounted Brigade was stationed out there in the big Katia oasis area, their posts at the different oases at Romani, Katia, Oghratina, and Hamisah, all a few miles apart. Five thousand Turks have attacked the scattered posts, simultaneously in the fog. The only thing certain is that of all the posts, the Scotty one at Bir-el-Dueidar is the only survivor. The others seem to be either annihilated, or their men scattered lost over the desert.

By now, the Ottoman troops, satisfied with the blow they had struck and not wanting to push their luck any further, were heading back to Bir el Abd. Within a week the rest of the Anzac Mounted Division (including the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade) was brought up to Katia and Romani. An area the British had initially attempted to screen with 1600 horsemen was now being guarded by four times that number.

At the same time, the strategy of dispersing these horsemen across a string of isolated— therefore vulnerable—outposts was abandoned in favor of a new approach that would be used for the rest of the Sinai campaign. Major-General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Anzac Mounted Division, ordered his brigades to operate out of single large camps from which they could dominate the surrounding area through constant and well coordinated patrol work. This maximized the advantage in mobility that horse-mounted troops had over normal infantry. It both made it more difficult for an Ottoman force to catch them by surprise and ensured that the brigades could put up a concentrated and powerful defense if they were attacked. As far as the Anzacs—and their British counterparts—were concerned, there would be no more Katias in the Sinai campaign.

Sources:  The Desert Column by Ion Idriess; New Zealand History

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article! The desert campaigns and the Austro-Hungarian campaigns are largely ignored.
    The Austro-Hungarian army sent a detachment to help the Turks in the desert. Any possibility of an article on this unsung group of soldiers?