Charge at Huj


The Charge of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanry at Huj One of the last cavalry charges in British Military history, 8th November 1917.


German General Falkenhayn did not reach his new headquarters in Jerusalem until 1 November 1917. While still believing that Gaza was British General Allenby’s real objective, his Turco-German staff had reacted strongly to the loss of Beersheba and moved two divisions, plus elements of two more, to the eastern flank with the object of recapturing the town. This never came to anything as Chauvel had already pushed troops some miles to the north and, while it meant that some of the horses went without water for 48 hours, no difficulty was experienced in holding the counter-attack. One reason for this was that he had also despatched Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Newton, Royal Engineers, and 70 camel-mounted troopers on a wide detour deep into the Turkish rear areas with instructions to raise the local Arabs and create the impression that the Desert Mounted Corps was about to launch a cavalry raid along the axis Hebron-Jerusalem. Having brought down no less than six infantry battalions upon itself, and in the process taken the edge off the Turkish counter-attack, Newton’s detachment was surrounded and forced to surrender on 2 November.

At 23:00 the previous night Allenby had further concentrated Falkenhayn’s thoughts on Gaza by initiating the first phase of his diversionary attack there, on a 6,000 yard front close to the coast. Early next morning the second phase, which included the support of six tanks used in the correct manner, broke through the defences to a depth of 3,000 yards, effectively turning the flank of numerous laboriously prepared positions in the town and on the nearby ridges. XXI Corps sustained the loss of 350 killed, the same number missing and 2,000 wounded; Turkish losses amounted to 1,000 killed, an unknown number wounded, 550 prisoners, three guns and 30 machine guns. While Allenby decided to reinforce this success, Falkenhayn contributed to his own eventual defeat by rushing his reserves to the Gaza sector.

The great north-westerly wheel by XX Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps was delayed by the heavy fighting north of Beersheba, the difficulties involved in collecting sufficient water, and a strong ‘khamseen’ blowing off the desert. On 6 November, however, it began, steadily rolling up the Turkish line from east to west. Falkenhayn, suddenly aware of the terrible danger in which his armies stood, ordered Gaza to be abandoned during the night while elsewhere along the line the darkness was illuminated by burning Turkish supply dumps. On 7 November XX Corps captured Sheria and Hareira. There were now clear indications that Kressenstein’s Eighth Army was retreating in a northerly direction along the coast, while Fawzi Pasha’s Seventh Army was diverging along a north-easterly axis, thereby opening a gap in the Turkish centre. Through this Allenby decided to launch his mounted troops against Huj, where an adequate water supply was known to exist.

Throughout the morning of 8 November Major-General Stuart Shea’s 60th Division, now operating under Chauvel’s command, steadily pushed the Turkish rearguard back towards Huj over open, rolling country. Shea himself, scouting ahead in a Rolls-Royce armoured car, could see enemy infantry and guns moving north-eastwards across his front. Anxious to prevent their escape, he hurried his division forward but at about 12:45 the Turkish rearguard, consisting of two infantry battalions, several artillery batteries and a machine gun unit, decided to make a stand about two miles south of Huj, which contained a large supply depot. The British infantry, advancing across ground that provided no cover at all, began to incur heavy casualties. Shea, knowing that two cavalry brigades were operating on his right, drove across with the intention of getting them to mount an attack into the flank of the enemy position.

The two brigades were Fitzgerald’s 5th Mounted Brigade, of which, ironically, Fitzgerald had handed over command to Brigadier-General Philip Kelly that very morning, and the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, which was still some distance away to the south-east.

Nominally, the 5th Mounted Brigade consisted of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, the Warwickshire Yeomanry, the Worcestershire Hussars, B Battery the Honourable Artillery Company and the brigade machine gun squadron. Unfortunately, at that precise moment the Gloucesters and all but two guns of the machine gun squadron were watering their horses some miles away, and the artillery battery had fallen far behind the advance. Thus, only the Warwicks and Worcesters were in a position to take decisive action.

The opportunity sensed by Shea had also been spotted by the Worcesters’ commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Williams, who, recognising how thin on the ground his own brigade was, galloped off to find the headquarters of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade with a view to suggesting a joint attack, adequately supported by rifle and machine gun fire.

Shortly after Williams had left, Shea arrived in his armoured car. He spoke to Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Gray-Cheape, commanding the Warwicks, and ordered him to mount a flank attack on the enemy guns, stressing the urgency of the situation. Having few men at his disposal, Gray-Cheape rode over to the Worcesters and asked Major Edgar Wiggin, in temporary command during Williams’ absence, whether he would participate in the attack, receiving an immediate assent.

By the time everyone had been assembled the Warwicks had about 86 men available and the Worcesters about the same, giving the approximate equivalent of ten troops. However, when the Hotchkiss light machine gun sections, the shoeing smiths and the led-horse holders had been fallen out, this left about 120 men for the attack itself, far too few for what was required of them. Nevertheless, Gray-Cheape, fully aware of the punishment the 60th Division was taking, could only comply with Shea’s orders and, sending back a message to inform his own brigade commander what was happening, and a request that the Gloucesters, the machine gun squadron and the artillery be hurried forward, he and Wiggin prepared their plan of attack.

At that moment, approximately 13:20, the two regiments were positioned below the south-western end of a shallow, banana-shaped ridge. It was decided that they would use this feature as cover for an approach around its south-eastern end, which would then place them about 900 yards from the left flank of the enemy batteries and in position to mount a charge.

The Worcesters, being on the right, moved off first with Major M. C. Albright’s A Squadron leading, followed by two troops of C Squadron; the Warwicks were led by Captain R. Valintine’s B Squadron with two troops of the regiment’s C Squadron bringing up the rear. The advance was made at a trot, raising an unavoidable dust cloud that alerted the enemy. Suddenly, rounding the end of the ridge, Albright’s squadron came under fire from a hitherto unsuspected four-gun mounted battery and about 200 infantrymen situated on a low rise about 600 yards to the north-west. Realising at once that these troops would be able to enfilade the attack against the main enemy position, Albright did not wait for orders and, pausing only to form into a half-squadron column, immediately launched a charge. Taking place over good, open going, this quickly reached a full gallop. Unnerved, the Turkish infantry and gunners began firing wildly and then broke, running down the reverse slope of the rise. Albright’s troopers were soon among them, putting many to the sword. They then closed in on a 5.9-inch howitzer battery that was withdrawing to the north but at this point Wiggin arrived and ordered a halt to the pursuit, informing Albright that the principal attack against the original objective was proving to be a bloody business and that he should rally and reinforce this immediately.

As soon as Albright had launched his charge Gray-Cheape had instructed Valintine’s B Squadron and the two remaining Worcester troops, the latter commanded by Second Lieutenant J. W. Edwards, to swing left, form half-squadron column and attack over the north-eastern crest of the covering ridge. This would take them down a gradual forward slope into a shallow valley and then up the other side into the gun position, with the last 150 yards becoming steadily steeper. As soon as the first ranks appeared over the crest the enemy gunners, who were Austrians, swung round the trails of their 75mm field guns and commenced a rapid fire, progressively dropping the range until their barrels were at maximum depression and their shell fuzes set at instantaneous. Likewise the four machine guns in the immediate vicinity, which were probably under German command, and the two companies of Turkish infantry that formed the escort for the guns, all engaged the approaching lines of galloping horsemen. Among the Warwicks, only one officer, Lieutenant W. B. Mercer, remained unhit, and his account of the charge is quoted from the Official History of the campaign:

‘Machine guns and rifles opened on us the moment we topped the rise behind which we had formed up. I remember thinking that the sound of the crackling bullets was just like a hailstorm on an iron-roofed building … A whole heap of men and horses went down twenty or thirty yards from the guns. The squadron broke into a few scattered horsemen at the guns and then seemed to melt away completely. For a time, I at any rate, had the impression that I was the only man left alive. I was amazed to discover we were the victors.’

The Austrians had courageously fought to the muzzle, but the subsequent mêlée among the guns was brief. Those who remained upright or ran were ridden down or spitted, only those who fell flat remaining beyond reach of the thrusting swords. In return, some of the yeomen fell victim to the enemy’s cruel saw-edged bayonets. At the end of it, perhaps a score of them remained mounted but, without hesitation, they spurred for the machine guns. How this might have ended there is no telling, but just then Albright’s squadron came bearing down on the enemy left and overran them. Having already witnessed the determined charge against their artillery, this was too much for the Turkish infantry, who broke and fled. Some were cut down by vengeful yeomen, although the latter, being now too few in number, were unable to mount an organised pursuit. At this moment, however, the half-section of the machine gun squadron, which had followed Valintine’s charge, arrived and turned its two guns, as well as the four just captured, on the fugitives, scything through the running figures. The Turkish rout was completed by Gray-Cheape, who had used the Warwicks’ two reserve troops to secure the now-abandoned mountain guns and ride down the retreating battery of 5.9-inch howitzers.

As a direct result of the Warwicks’ and Worcesters’ charge, eleven guns, four machine guns and 70 prisoners had been taken, an unknown but substantial number of the enemy killed or wounded, and Shea’s division was able to advance beyond Huj that evening. The remarkable thing about the action was that, save in its concluding stages, the primary weapon used by the British had been the sword. The price, however, had been terribly high. The Warwicks had lost thirteen men killed and 23 wounded, the Worcesters nineteen killed and 35 wounded; among the officers, Albright, Valintine and Edwards were either killed or died of their wounds, and Wiggin was wounded. Well over 100 horses had been killed or had to be put down and many others were wounded, mainly by machine gun fire. Immediately after the action the area surrounding the Austrian battery presented a horrific scene of concentrated carnage. Dead troopers, Austrians, Turks and horses lay sprawled thickly together around the guns while the wounded crawled their painful way towards help. As luck would have it, an enemy field ambulance unit had been captured in a hollow behind the battery and it was thanks to the medical supplies obtained from this that many men owed their lives. There was little, however, that could be done for most of the terribly wounded horses; for many cavalrymen this was by far the most harrowing part of their ordeal, terminated only when the merciful crack of a rifle ended an animal’s agony.

Astonishing as it was that the enemy’s rearguard on this sector of the front had been successfully broken by so few men, Chauvel may well have doubted that Shea’s problem was so urgent that its solution could not have awaited the arrival of the Gloucesters, the artillery and the rest of the machine gun squadron, which could have provided fire support and so reduced the number of casualties. Whatever subsequently passed between the generals, after Huj no further unsupported charges were made by the Desert Mounted Corps save in pursuit of already beaten troops. Yet the consequences of the charges at Beersheba and Huj, and a further charge with the sword made by the 6th Mounted Brigade (Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars, Berkshire Yeomanry and Dorset Yeomanry) at El Mughar on 13 November, were far-reaching.8 The Turks now regarded the British and Commonwealth cavalry with awe, were convinced that they had scant regard for their own lives, and were unwilling to stand against them except in prepared positions. Analysis of these actions also confirmed that in mounted attacks the sword retained its value and the following year the Australian Mounted Division, at its own request, was trained and equipped with this weapon.

The pace of Allenby’s advance following his victory at Gaza/Beersheba was partly dictated by logistic considerations and partly by the physical limitations of his mounted troops, who were sometimes forced to go without water for a day and more at a time. It was true that the rapid abandonment of Gaza had foiled his attempt to entrap Kressenstein’s army, but after nine months’ stalemate he had broken the enemy line beyond retrieval and was to advance 75 miles before the heaviest winter rains in living memory put an end to movement of every kind.

During the early hours of Sunday 9 December the last Turkish garrison of Jerusalem left the city. Shortly after dawn the Governor, Izzet Bey, sent out a note formally confirming his surrender and by noon the first British patrols were moving through the narrow streets. Among the Arab customers of the coffee shops there was jubilation that, save in one particular, the curious old prophesy had at last been fulfilled, for was not the British commander named Allah-en-Nebi, which could only be translated as the Prophet of God? The only unanswered question was how the latest of Jerusalem’s conquerors would enter the city. Allenby, of course, was fully aware of the prophesy and may have decided to fulfill the last of its predictions; on the other hand, he may have acted from a sense of personal inclination. On Tuesday 11 December, he entered Jerusalem by the Jaffa Gate, humbly, on foot, and accompanied only by his staff. Watched in something like awe by the large crowd he walked to the base of the Tower of David. There his proclamation was read out, expressing the wish that the inhabitants should return to their daily business and guaranteeing protection for the ancient sites sacred to Christian, Jew and Moslem. Then, he left as quietly as he had come.

There is good reason to believe that Allenby could have finished off the Turkish army in Palestine during the spring of 1918. During that very period, however, he was compelled to send some of his best troops to France to assist in stemming a series of powerful German offensives that almost succeeded in breaking through the Western Front. Once the crisis had passed, two Indian cavalry divisions were sent from France to Palestine, less the statutory British regular regiments one of which formed part of each brigade, these being replaced by yeomanry regiments on arrival. This brought Chauvel’s corps up to its maximum strength and enabled Allenby to plan an autumn offensive with which he intended to utterly destroy his opponents.

The battle, which was to take its name from the historic battlefield of Megiddo, some miles to the north, began on 19 September when, following a concentrated bombardment, the infantry of XXI Corps secured a breakthrough on the coast near Arsuf. Through the gap poured the entire Desert Mounted Corps, swinging right-handed across the rear of two Turkish armies, reducing them to the lot of fugitives within days. It was Allenby’s greatest triumph, and the last strategic victory to be won by mounted cavalry.

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