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Battle of Magdhaba

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The Battle of Magdhaba took place near the tiny Egyptian outpost of Magdhaba in the Sinai desert, some 22 miles from El Arish on the Mediterranean coast. In late 1916 the Turkish forces in the Sinai that had been menacing the British-controlled Suez Canal had retreated to the Palestine border, leaving garrisons at Magdhaba and Rafa. The Allied forces under General Sir Archibald Murray needed to clear these outposts before they could contemplate advancing into Palestine.

Prelude

In October 1916 Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell was appointed to the command of the "Eastern Force", responsible for all British operations in the Sinai. General Sir Philip Chetwode was made commander of the "Desert Column" which contained all mounted (horse and camel) brigades.

The pursuit of the retreating Turks after the Battle of Romani had seen raids on Turkish outposts at Mazar (September 17) and Maghara (October 15) but both positions were eventually evacuated by the Turks without a fight. The main offensive was planned as the building of the military railway from the canal began to approach El Arish which marked the first significant water supply on the eastern side of the Sinai.

The Australian light horse advanced to El Arish on December 21 but found it abandoned by the Turks who had retreated along the coast to Rafa and inland up the Wadi El Arish to Magdhaba. As the 52nd Division advanced to occupy El Arish, the Anzac Mounted Division, commanded by General Chauvel, moved on Magdhaba on the night of December 22.

The battle

The assault on Magdhaba was made by the 1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade supported by three batteries of horse artillery. After an overnight march, Magdhaba was reached shortly before dawn on December 23. Australian aircraft attacked the Turkish defences at 6.30am and by drawing fire helped to reveal to location of the machine guns and trenches to the horsemen.

The defenders were located in five redoubts arranged around the centre of the village in which was found the only supply of water for a considerable distance. To the south was the bank of the Wadi El Arish, to the north and east (towards El Arish) the ground was flat and featureless. If the assault could be held off for a couple of hours, the Australians and New Zealanders would need to abandon the attack in order to be able to reach water in time for the horses.

The main line of the attack was made from the north and east by the camel brigade. On their right, in reserve alongside the wadi was the 1st Light Horse Brigade. On the left were the New Zealanders and then the 3rd Light Horse Brigade which attacked from the north. The 10th regiment of the 3rd brigade was sent around to the east and south to cut off any retreat by the garrison. Their move was made in time to capture of fleeing column of 300 Turks.

Early reports indicated the garrison was evacuating ahead of the attack so General Chauvel, ordered to the 1st Brigade to make a mounted advance. As the regiments came under artillery fire, they broke into a gallop. As they came under machine gun fire from Redoubt No. 2, it became clear that Magdhaba was still being defended so the light horsemen took refuge in the wadi.

On all fronts the attackers had now gone to ground under heavy fire from the redoubts. Chauvel contemplated abandoning the attack and went as far as contacting Chetwode to seek approval for a retreat. However, a combined bayonet charge on the critical Redoubt No. 2 by the camel brigade and the 3rd regiment of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, which in the relative cover of the wadi was able to close to within 100 yards of the defences, resulted in the capture of the position. With a foothold in the defensive ring, the balance now swung towards the attackers.

The camel brigade and 3rd light horse continued across the wadi to capture Redoubt No. 1, where the Turkish commander, Khadir Bey, was also captured. The 10th regiment, having now swung all the way around to the south, and the 2nd regiment from the west, made mounted charges against the southern Redoubt No. 5, resulting in its surrender.

Advance of the 9th LH Regiment
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Advance of the 9th LH Regiment

Attacking from the east, the New Zealanders and the 8th and 9th regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade had dismounted and advanced on foot for about 1 mile against the No. 3 redoubt. As the other redoubts began to fall, the attackers were able to make a bayonet charge and after a brief fight captured the position.

With all redoubts under Allied control, the remaining defenders were rounded up by 4.30pm. Very few of the Turks managed to escape.

Aftermath

Magdhaba represented the first significant battle of the campaign by mounted troops waged at a distance from base, 23 miles from an assured supply of water.

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