In December 1915 there was a change of plan on the British side as far as the Egyptian theatre was concerned (see the Defence of the Suez Canal). A Commission under Major-General Sir Henry Horne recommended that the defensive line should be moved forward from the west bank on to the east, and far enough away from the canal for it to be beyond the range of the enemy’s heaviest guns. Three new defensive lines were constructed and the supply railways from Cairo doubled in capacity. This construction effort was largely undertaken by locally-recruited workers, organised as the Egyptian Labour Corps. It was stated that 12 Divisions would be required to defend the canal from the quarter of a million Ottomans believed to be massing in Palestine (although this proved to be a gross over-estimate: the railways and water supplies in Palestine could not support that size of a force). The Egyptian theatre was placed under the command of Lieut-General Sir Archibald Murray, recently arrived after being Chief of General Staff to Sir John French on the Western Front. Murray proposed to the War Office to undertake limited offensive action to be able to control the area of El Arish. While it would require major construction of railways and water supplies, this would effectively prohibit the Ottomans from the coastal route to the canal, and also put British troops in striking distance of the central route, well away from the canal. CIGS Sir William Robertson gave a cautious approval in March 1916. As the British pressed forward along the coast in April 1916, the Ottomans made a strong raid at Oghratina and Katia and scored a notable tactical success. It was not followed up, giving Murray vital time to build his force and consolidate at Katia.
British become aware of Ottoman build-up in Sinai
A strong force consisting of the Turkish 3rd (Anatolian) Division and “Pasha 1”, a German group including five machine gun companies, two trench mortar companies, plus heavy and anti-aircraft artillery, left the Beersheba area on 9 July 1916, crossed the Sinai and reached Oghratina and Bir el Abd ten days later. The British took steps to strengthen its own forces in the Katia area, ready to meet this threat. The Turk intentions were obvious. Unable to attack along the coast, they would try to cut off Romani from the south – and that would take them into a most difficult area of waterless soft sand dunes.
British order of battle
The British forces in the Katia/Romani area were under command of No. 3 Section of the Suez Canal defences, commanded by Major-General the Hon. Sir Herbert Lawrence. He was headquartered at Kantara.
The ANZAC Mounted Division was formed in Egypt under Major-General Harry Chauvel in March 1916 and given the responsibility of patrolling the dunes area to cover the continued railway construction work as the British pushed on eastwards. Its units were spread between Romani, Hill 70 east of Kantara, and Ballybunion Station.
The 52nd (Lowland) Division, recovering from its efforts at Gallipoli, moved to Romani once the railway reached that place. By the time the Turks were ready to make another effort, it had been joined by a brigade of 53rd (Welsh) Division.
The 42nd (East Lancashire) Division was also placed under orders of Lawrence on 24 July 1916. It moved into position along the railway from Kantara to Gilban Station.
Map from “The Palestine Campaigns” by Lieut-Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell (London: Constable & Co, 1928)
Lawrence plans his move
Lawrence decided to wait until the Turkish troops advanced. Knowing the Turkish infantry would struggle in the dunes, he would make a frontal counter attack in the centre and swoop round the Turkish left with his mounted forces. There was a chance he could annihilate the attacking units. By 24 July the Turks had moved to within 10 miles but Romani, but they then halted for ten days. It was no longer clear what their intentions were, and Sir Archibald Murray ordered Lawrence to make his own offensive preparations. If the Turks had not moved by 13 August, Lawrence was to attack them.
Turkish attack develops
Late on 3 August 1916, Turkish units carefully followed the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade as it withdrew from its daily routine of shadowing the Turkish positions. It intended to get up onto Wellington Ridge, south west of Romani and despite efforts during the night and next day, were held off by fire from the 1st and 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigades. In the centre, the Turks shelled the British positions but made no major effort at a direct attack. The New Zealand and 5th Mounted Brigades, pushing up from Hill 70, steadily drove the Turkish left back beyond Mount Royston. By the end of 4 August, the main Turkish force was committed and exhausted in the dunes, just as had been predicted.
British fail to destroy the Ottoman force
The British force at Romani did not seize the opportunity to destroy the Ottoman forces. 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, ordered up from reserve, was slow to arrive; 52nd (Lowland) Division in Romani was not committed to attack speedily enough. Although efforts were made on 5 August, the greater part of the Ottoman force escaped. Over the next two days further British probing was beaten off and on 9 August an attack by the ANZAC Mounted Division against Bir el Abd was repulsed. After this, the Ottoman troops withdrew to El Arish.
Casualties and lessons
British casualties in this action were c. 1100, mostly in the mounted units of ANZAC Mounted Division. Turkish losses included 4000 prisoners and are generally reckoned to amount to c. 8000. For the British, lessons were learned: HQ had been too far from the front to be able to react quickly and seize opportunities; there were too few aeroplanes for reconnaissance; the British Territorial infantry could not move as quickly in desert conditions as their Turkish counterparts. But it was an important victory, at a time when the British sorely needed good news in the Middle East. Romani could be said to be the point at which British strategy in Egypt ceased to be about defending the Suez Canal and started to be about the defeat of the Turkish armies in the field.
Harry Chauvel: outstanding military leader
The defeat of the Turkish attack at Romani was partly due to the clumsy tactical choices made by their German commander Kress von Kressenstein and partly due to the excellent performance of the British mounted force. This was ably commanded by New South Wales-born Henry ‘Harry’ Chauvel. Aged 51 at the time of the battle, he had served in the Queensland permanent army forces since 1896 and also had some military and police experience before that. Chauvel continued his good work throughout the Palestine campaign and is generally thought to be among the more able commanders of the Great War. Romani was his first serious action.