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World War I: Battle of Magdhaba

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World War I: Battle of Magdhaba

Camel Corps at the Battle of Magdhaba

Photo Source: Public Domain

Battle of Magdhaba - Conflict:

The Battle of Magdhaba was part of the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of World War I (1914-1918).

Date:

British troops were victorious at Magdhaba on December 23, 1916.

Armies & Commanders:

British Commonwealth

  • General Sir Henry Chauvel
  • 3 mounted brigades, 1 camel brigade

Ottomans

  • Khadir Bey
  • 1,400 men

Battle of Magdhaba - Battle Summary:

Following the victory at the Battle of Romani, British Commonwealth forces, led by General Sir Archibald Murray and his subordinate, Lt. General Sir Charles Dobell, began pushing across the Sinai Peninsula towards Palestine. To support operations in the Sinai, Dobell ordered the construction of a military railway and water pipeline across the peninsula's desert. Leading the British advance was the "Desert Column" commanded by General Sir Philip Chetwode. Consisting of all of Dobell's mounted troops, Chetwode's force pressed east and captured the coastal town of El Arish on December 21.

Entering El Arish, the Desert Column found the town empty as Turkish forces had retreated east along the coast to Rafa and south long the Wadi El Arish to Magdhaba. Relieved the next day by the 52nd Division, Chetwode ordered General Henry Chauvel to take the ANZAC Mounted Division and the Camel Corps south to clear out Magdhaba. Moving south, the attack required a quick victory as Chauvel's men would be operating over 23 miles from the closest source of water. On the 22nd, as Chauvel was receiving his orders, the commander of the Turkish "Desert Force," General Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein visited Magdhaba.

Though Magdhaba was now in advance of the main Turkish lines, Kressenstein felt required to defend it as the garrison, the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 80th Regiment, consisted of locally recruited Arabs. Numbering over 1,400 men and commanded by Khadir Bey, the garrison was supported by four old mountain guns and a small camel squadron. Assessing the situation, Kressenstein departed that evening satisfied with the town's defenses. Marching overnight, Chauvel's column reached the outskirts of Magdhaba near dawn on December 23rd.

Scouting around Magdhaba, Chauvel found that the defenders had constructed five redoubts to protect the town. Deploying his troops, Chauvel planned to attack from the north and east with the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and the Imperial Camel Corps. To prevent the Turks from escaping, the 10th Regiment of the 3rd Light Horse was sent southeast of the town. The 1st Australian Light Horse was placed in reserve along the Wadi El Arish. Around 6:30 AM, the town was attacked by 11 Australian aircraft.

Though ineffective, the aerial attack served to draw Turkish fire, alerting the attackers to the location of trenches and strong points. Having received reports that the garrison was retreating, Chauvel ordered the 1st Light Horse to make a mounted advance towards the town. As they approached, they came under artillery and machine gun fire from Redoubt No. 2. Breaking into a gallop, the 1st Light Horse turned and sought refuge in the wadi. Seeing that the town was still being defended, Chauvel ordered the full attack forward. This soon stalled with his men pinned down on all fronts by heavy enemy fire.

Lacking heavy artillery support to break the deadlock and concerned about his water supply, Chauvel contemplated breaking off the attack and went so far as to request permission from Chetwode. This was granted and at 2:50 PM, he issued orders for the retreat to begin at 3:00 PM. Receiving this order, Brigadier General Charles Cox, commander of the 1st Light Horse, decided to ignore it as an attack against Redoubt No. 2 was developing on his front. Able to approach through the wadi to within 100 yards of the redoubt, elements of his 3rd Regiment and the Camel Corps were able to mount a successful bayonet attack.

Having gained a footing in the Turkish defenses, Cox's men swung around and captured Redoubt No. 1 and Khadir Bey's headquarters. With the tide turned, Chauvel's retreat orders were cancelled and the full attack resumed, with Redoubt No. 5 falling to a mounted charge and Redoubt No. 3 surrendering to the New Zealanders of the 3rd Light Horse. To the southeast, elements of the 3rd Light Horse captured 300 Turks as they attempted to flee the town. By 4:30 PM, the town was secured and the majority of the garrison taken prisoner.

Battle of Magdhaba - Aftermath

The Battle of Magdhaba resulted in 97 killed and 300 wounded for the Turks as well as 1,282 captured. For Chauvel's ANZACs and the Camel Corps casualties were only 22 killed and 121 wounded. With the capture of Magdhaba, British Commonwealth forces were able to continue their push across the Sinai towards Palestine. With the completion of the railway and pipeline, Murray and Dobell were able to commence operations against the Turkish lines around Gaza. Repulsed on two occasions, they were eventually replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby in 1917.

Selected Sources

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