BEERSHEBA I

Ottoman defences

Positions of forces at dusk on October 31, 1917, during the Battle of Beersheba at the time of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade.

British forces are shown in red, Turkish forces are shown in blue. The position reached by the regiments of the 4th Light Horse Brigade after the attack is shown in pale red. Note: there is no evidence that the 4th Light Horse Regiment crossed the Wadi Saba during their attack, nor that the 60th Division attacked south of the Wadi Saba. The Australian Mounted Division headquarters is shown where the Anzac Mounted Division headquarters moved to, after the capture of Tel el Saba. Neither the Gullett map nor Bou’s map locates the headquarters of Anzac Mounted Division, Australian Mounted Division and Desert Mounted Corps at Kashim Zanna despite numerous sources placing them there. [Preston 1921 pp. 25–6, Powles 1922 pp. 136–7, Hill 1978 p. 126]

The final preparations for the attack on Beersheba began in the middle of October 1917. The last branch lines of the railways running east were laid as quickly and as late as possible, while supply dumps and hospitals were also delayed until the last possible moment. On 22 October, Allenby issued his final orders. It had been thought that a week would suffice for moving the divisions involved, but this was extended to ten days. Troops would only move at night, and an average speed of 1mph had to be allowed for, given the difficulties of navigating in the dark across ground that was broken with wadis and nullahs, and offered little in the way of definite landmarks. Some brigade columns ended up using a system of setting up lamps at intervals, between which the troops would march. The two cavalry divisions aimed deep into the desert south of Beersheba – the Australian Mounted Division to Khalasa and the A&NZ Mounted Division to Bir Asluj. Both divisions, like the infantry that moved through positions closer to the front lines south-west of Beersheba, moved in stages as brigades, so as not to over-tax the water supplies at any one place. In preparation for the offensive, nine officers and 117 other ranks were left behind by each infantry battalion, to form a cadre to either provide reinforcements, or for the battalion to be re-formed around if casualties were catastrophic.

Engineers worked hard to develop these water sources as rapidly as possible, and supplemented some of them by connecting them to the pipeline system. The springs at Shellal were connected to the pipeline, so that water came to it all the way from the Sweet Water Canal outside Cairo, while the pipe-head and springs had equipment installed that could fill some 2,000 ‘fanatis’ (large, metal jerrycan-like containers which could be carried, one on each side, by camels) with 25,000 gallons per hour. Supply dumps were also rapidly thrown up. It was intended to place dumps containing everything the army would need for the first week of the offensive as close to the front lines as possible, and along its entire length. XXI Corps, holding the line opposite Gaza, would need these supplies just as desperately as the more isolated Desert Mounted and XX Corps, despite being nearer the railway system. To give the two eastern corps as much support as possible, XXI Corps’ transport was stripped away and sent to their aid, leaving the corps essentially immobile from 8 October. Three motor transport companies totalling some 130–140 vehicles were also brought up from Cairo, despite their limited use in the rough desert terrain, while 134 of the more useful Holt’s tractors were also used. These heavy caterpillar-tracked vehicles were more adept at crossing rough ground, although they did it slowly and noisily, and were useful for hauling ammunition in bulk.

Camel companies would form the backbone of the mobile supply system. Some 32,000 were deployed with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF]. For now, XX Corps had 20,000 of them – 8,000 attached directly to the divisions to carry their own stores when they moved, and 12,000 under the direction of the Corps HQ for forming supply convoys. XXI Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps each had 6,000 camels for their own use, to carry food, water and ammunition. Eventually, of the four infantry divisions of XX Corps (10th, 53rd, 60th and 74th), three had three echelons of transport, and the fourth had two, while the Desert Mounted Corps also had three. Each echelon carried a day’s worth of supplies for each division, and the three echelons would, in theory, create a continuous chain of convoys moving between the advancing divisions and their supply dumps.

This activity could not and did not go unnoticed, and in the early hours of 27 October the Ottomans pushed out a large reconnaissance west of Beersheba. This operation was actually carried out in considerable force – the 125th (OT) Regiment of the 16th (OT) Division towards the ridge of El Buggar, and elements of the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division and 27th (OT) Infantry Division slightly to the east. It struck against an extended piquet-line of British cavalry provided by the 8th Mounted Brigade, screening the movements of the 53rd (Welsh) Division, and strung out in a line along El Buggar ridge and then across several hills known as Points 720, 630 and 510. The right of the line was held by the 1st County of London (Middlesex) Yeomanry, the left by the 3rd County of London Yeomanry, with the City of London Yeomanry in reserve behind. The line was 19km (12 miles) long, and held by isolated posts of one or two troops (thirty to sixty men) at key points. The advancing Ottoman formations broke over these scattered posts at 4.15 a.m. on 27 October, supported in places with artillery fire. On Point 720 Major Alexander Lafone, commanding ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry, had only two of his troops with him, but still managed to hold off several charges by the Ottomans throughout the morning. At 10.10 a.m. he managed to send a final message to his headquarters that: ‘My casualties are heavy. Twelve stretcher-bearers required. I shall hold on to the last as I cannot get my wounded away.’ In fact, he managed to move most of his wounded – which was most of his men – down into trenches behind the crest of the hill, covering their retreat with the remaining three unwounded men. Soon after 11 a.m. another wave of Ottomans attacked and, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Lafone ordered his remaining men to fall back, apparently stepping out into the open to meet the charge on his own. The post, and Lafone, fell. He would receive a posthumous Victoria Cross for his ‘conspicuous bravery, leadership and self-sacrifice’.

Attempts by the brigade reserves to relieve the various posts failed, although they did, with artillery support from the Hants Battery RHA, stem the Ottoman advance. Late in the day the 3rd ALH Brigade and 158th Brigade arrived to counter-attack and the line of outposts was reoccupied. Both sides would claim inflated enemy numbers and casualties, but the 8th Mounted Brigade suffered ten officers and sixty-nine other ranks killed or wounded (against ‘200’ claimed by the Ottomans); of these, ‘B’ Squadron, 1st County of London Yeomanry suffered two officers and eight other ranks killed, ten wounded and eight missing. The Ottomans recorded one officer and nine men killed, and around forty wounded, but had failed in their aim of clarifying the numbers and intent of the forces moving across their front. While an attack on Beersheba still remained the likely answer, the true question – whether this was to be the main British thrust or merely the diversion – was as unanswered as before.

On the same day, a massive British bombardment of the Gaza defences began.

To prepare for the coming attack, the III (OT) Corps commander, Colonel Ismat Bey, did all that he could to defend his post. Beersheba was a new town, although on very ancient foundations. It was the site of the Wells of Abraham, the very reason why it was being fought over and the source of its name. Sometimes rendered as Bir Es Saba, Bir Saba, or some variation on those spellings, the name meant ‘The Seven Wells’, and the source of the water was the Wadi Saba, which runs down from the north-east to a point 3.2km (2 miles) east of the town, where it joins several smaller wadis near the mound of Tel Saba. It then runs west, past the southern edge of Beersheba. In recent centuries it had been a small village existing on trade with the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Negev desert to the south, but at the turn of the twentieth century the Ottomans decided to develop it into an administrative centre for the Negev region. A railway, a governor’s residence (now the Negev Art Museum), a mosque and other building had been built as a nucleus for the new town, and parks were laid out around them. This central area was widely spaced out, and the houses and commercial premises that grew around them were also well dispersed. By August 1916, when Swedish explorer Sven Hadin visited the town as Djemal Pasha’s guest, it had become something of a model town, albeit still on the inhospitable side:

Until the war broke out, Bir es-Seba – or ‘The Seven Wells’ – was a miserable hole; now it has suddenly become an important base … When the worst heat was over, the colonel and the government surveyor, Dr Schmucher, took me on a tour of the town, which is springing forth out of the desert at an American pace. We visited various buildings on the base, the electric stations, the factories and workshops, the printing office, the bazaar, the hotel, the parks and gardens – which of course have not yet grown much – and the ice factory – the most beneficial establishment in this heat. Then we visited the agricultural school, the motor-driven pumping plants, the immense reservoirs, at which water is distributed to camels, horses, asses, and mules. Finally we visited the hospital, in which 400 sick were lying at the time, cared for by Austrian physicians and nurses. Bir es-Seba’s climate, while not exactly unhealthy, is very unpleasant. The region is very windy, the desert sandy, the soil broken up because of the heavy traffic, and no vegetation offers protection from the suffocating dust clouds that roll from all sides into the burning hot streets.

Ismat Bey threw out forward defences around 3–4km from the centre of the town in an arc running from the south to the west, covering the most likely lines of approach for the British. He added further defences at Tel Saba, which dominated the approaches from the otherwise flat east and south-east. All of these defences had been seen and plotted by British reconnaissance, although a smaller crescent of trenches, closer in and to the south of the town just below the Wadi Saba, had not. To man these positions, Ismat Bey had ten battalions of infantry (seven from the 27th (OT) Infantry Division and three from the 16th (OT) Infantry Division), two cavalry regiments from the 3rd (OT) Cavalry Division, a reserve of one infantry battalion and one cavalry regiment, and an assortment of support troops – engineers, searchlights, signallers and a mobile bakery. This gave a total fighting strength (i.e. riflemen and cavalry sabres, as opposed to supporting clerks, cooks, herdsmen, etc.) of somewhere less than 5,000 men. For heavy weapons, he had just five batteries of four field guns each, although between his various regiments and battalions he could muster some fifty-six machine guns. To provide enough troops to man his defences, he was forced to deploy his cavalry as infantry rather than maintaining them as a mobile reserve, a decision that would be heavily criticised by Kress von Kressenstein later. For his own part, the German was still convinced that there was not enough water to sustain a serious British attack on Beersheba.

The British had found the water, though, and by dawn on 30 October all was ready. At Bir Asluj (where the water supply was shorter than expected), 38km (24 miles) south of Beersheba was the A&NZ Mounted Division and the headquarters of the Desert Mounted Corps. At Khalasa, 48km (30 miles) south-east of Beersheba, was the Australian Mounted Division, while the Yeomanry Mounted Division was detached to Shellal, covering the gap between XX and XXI Corps. The 7th Mounted Brigade, still independent and under Allenby’s direct control, was at Bir El Esani. At dusk on 30 October, having drunk their fill, the two Mounted Divisions would strike out on long flanking marches to the east of Beersheba; the A&NZ Mounted Division would be east and north-east of the town for the attack, and the Australian Mounted Division to the south-east. The 7th Mounted Brigade would remain to the south, ready to support the main infantry assault.

This assault would be launched by the 60th and 74th Divisions. The former spent the night at Abu Ghalyun, and the latter at Khan Khasif, which still placed them some 16 or 19km (10 or 12 miles) from their starting points for the following day. The 60th Division would attack Beersheba from the south, and the 74th from the south-east. The 53rd Division was slightly further west, applying pressure to the Gaza–Beersheba road, while the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade (with two battalions of the 158th Brigade, 53rd Division) covered the gap between them and the 74th Division. The 10th Division was held back in reserve. Between the cavalry and infantry divisions, the British fighting strength was over 40,000 men.

Charles Hennessey of the 2/15th London Regiment (also known as the 2nd Civil Service Rifles) was briefed by his commanding officer at the assembly point:

From this we learned exactly how the various British Divisions were disposed along the front from Gaza on the extreme left, to where we were on the extreme right. We were also shown a number of aerial photos of the Turkish trenches, and were told to make a particular study of the ones it was ‘C’ Company’s business to deal with.

Following this cosy chat we were each issued with 2 Mills Bombs, an extra bandolier of ammunition, and a couple of aeroplane flares. It now appeared that the Battalion was on the extreme right of the British line; that the only troops on our right were a few squadrons of London Yeomanry; and, as we had already been told, that our Company was to form the first wave of the attack on Beersheba.

One night only was spent at the Assembly Point, and the following evening ‘C’ Company moved off to take up a position in a ‘wadi’, which we learned was to be our jumping off point. Our soda water bottles had been filled with tea and rum the day before, and dire were the penalties threatened if we drank any of it if permission hadn’t been given. The march to our ‘wadi’ began after dark and word was passed that there was to be no smoking, and no talking or other noise, in case the Turks should hear us. What a hope! Of course Johnny Turk could hear us coming. The loud clanking of our equipment could have been heard for miles.

At dusk on 30 October the desert seemed to come alive as tens of thousands of men, horses and vehicles rose out of their daytime cover and began the advance on Beersheba. Captain Ashton of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was with the 53rd Division:

The noise of tractors bringing up guns was overpowering, as if the whole British Army was on the move, and sounded like the roar of London traffic from a little way off. The whole plain behind us hummed with mechanical noises, and I marvelled that the enemy in their trenches could not hear it. They afterwards told us they were taken by surprise, but it is indeed hard to believe.

The night was bitterly cold, but marching kept the men warm. When the units began to reach their allotted positions in the early hours the real suffering began. Hennessey:

Around midnight we filed into a shallow wadi and were told to make ourselves comfortable till dawn. It soon became very cold, and we missed our greatcoats which had been left behind in our packs. We were also short of our tunics as we’d been told we should be carrying out the attack in our shirt sleeves. There certainly seemed a lot of people who were determined to make the war as difficult for us as possible. Taking it all round it was a dreary time waiting in the dark and cold for the arrival of dawn.

For Gunner J.W. Gough of the Royal Field Artillery, waiting was also the hardest part:

3 a.m.: We have now been in our position for an hour or so, it is very cold hands quite numb. Laying tel. wires etc. here. Bty is opening fire on enemy at 7 am. 6.15 a.m.: Bty ready for action & lined on target – only awaiting orders from Hdqrs. All the men are tired & hungry after travelling and digging etc. Hostile planes are about, we’re not spotted – yet. I am detailed to repeat orders from B.C. to B.L. by megaphone. I’d gladly accept a cup of tea or anything warm before we ‘raise the curtain’ – with I trust, a splendid ‘debut’ for Johnnie Turk.

The curtain was to be raised by the 60th Division. In front of the Ottoman line to the south of Beersheba stood a hill, known at the time as Point 1069, although it was later renamed Point 1070. Point 1069 gave good views over the Ottomans lines, the British positions, and the surrounding landscape. It had to be taken before the general attack could go forward, and responsibility for this fell on General Shea, commanding 60th Division. He was given free rein as to judging when the preliminary bombardment had cut the wire, and so when to send his men in. This was not an easy call to make. The guns designated for the barrage on Point 1069 opened fire at 5.55 a.m. Over a hundred guns [1] concentrated on a 4,500yd front, and after an hour so much dust had been raised by the explosions that nobody could tell what the state of the wire was. The barrage was suspended for half an hour or more to let the dust settle, but even then the view was unclear. In the end Brigadier General De Costa, commanding 181st Brigade, who would be making the assault, requested and received permission from Shea to resume the bombardment while he moved his force forward behind its cover. An intensification of the barrage was planned for 8.20 a.m., to last ten minutes, by which time his brigade were only 460m (500yds) from their objectives on the crest of the point. Wire-cutting parties went forward under the cover of the barrage, which was landing in some places just 27m (30yds) ahead of them, and made gaps or widened existing holes. At 8.30 a.m. the 2/22nd London Regiment stormed the point. The following day, Colonel A.D. ‘Bosky’ Borton, commanding the 2/22nd, wrote home to his father, with slight variation on the official reports:

The eyes of many were on us, and we ‘did them proud’ … We worked our way up to about 500 yds. of the enemy and lay ‘doggo’ while our Artillery tried to cut gaps in the wire. This however they could not do as well as each shell raised such an awful dust that observation was impossible and we had to lie up for two hours under a very heavy fire in the open. It was darned trying, but the men were too wonderful. Our casualties during this time was pretty high – about 15%. The Brigadier then got a message out to me to know whether we could go without the gaps being cut?

It was the one thing that I had been hoping for, as I felt that no was wire was going to stop us. I was very lucky, as owing to my having had to shove all my 4 companies into the line, I was able to hand over my Battalion HQ to my Adjutant and go with the men. I’d got a flag with the Queen’s badge on it, in my pocket, and … I tied it to my walking stick and away we went. I’ve never felt so damned proud in my life. The Flag was a surprise to the men and tickled them to death! We got in practically without loss, we cut the wire 25 yards behind our own barrage. This of course meant a few hits from our own guns, but not a soul in the trenches dared show his head, and the moment the guns lifted we were into them with bomb and bayonet and scuppered the whole garrison.

As Borton led his men on, the 2/24th Londons swung around the flank and cut the Point off from the Ottoman forces to the north. The 2/23rd Londons then came up to support the 2/22nd and extend their line, while the 2/21st remained behind in reserve. Once the Londoners burst through the wire it was all over in a matter of minutes, with ninety prisoners and Point 1069 being taken.

The way was now clear for the 60th and 74th Divisions to advance on the main Ottoman line. The 74th had already marched as close to the Ottoman lines as possible, suffering from artillery and long-range machine-gun fire as they did so. Their path lay across a series of low rises, and as the columns crossed the crest of each they stood out stark against the skyline as easy targets. This fire pushed the right-hand unit, 231st Brigade, further right, and the left-hand unit, 230th Brigade, had to extend their own line to cover the growing gap between them. Despite these problems, by 10.40 a.m. the 231st Brigade had advanced to within 460m (500yds) of the Ottoman lines, while 230th Brigade was held at around 820m (900yds) out. Meanwhile, 60th Division paused, and had breakfast.

With guns having been hauled up onto the point to support the attack, the barrage was restarted. Again, it fell to Shea to decide when the wire was suitably cut for the two divisions to advance, and at 11.40 a.m. he consulted General Girdwood, the commander of 74th Division. Girdwood’s view of the Ottoman wire was also obscured by dust, but he assured Shea that his men would find a way regardless. Shea passed this up the chain of command to Chetwode, who authorised the attack to start at 12.15 p.m. William Hendry of the 2/14th London Regiment (London Scottish) recalled:

Then an order came to make a meal, in which we soon consumed our bottle of rum, as it was a cold night. We then said good-bye to the desert. Our machine gunners took up their covering positions, then our guns started to bark, pouring shells on a hill on our left which had to be taken before we could advance. Suddenly a rocket burst in the air, which was the signal that the hill had been captured, and over the top of the hill we went, with the din of our machine gun bullets and shells whizzing over head. We dropped down like lightning into the wadi below and up again we went hard for the Turk’s trenches. The barbed wire was well cut by our shells and all we found was a few killed and wounded. According to a doctor we captured the men had flown along the trenches to be taken prisoners by the trousered regiment, as they did not want to be captured by the skirted devils as called us, they were given to understand we took no prisoners. Well we advanced to a position as arranged and soon got to work with picks and shovels digging in, as bullets were still coming at us from the direction of Beersheba.

[1] Consisting of seventy-six 18-pounders, twenty 4.5in howitzers, four 3.7in howitzers, eight 60-pounders, eight 6in howitzers, and some 4.5in howitzers designated for counter-battery fire as and when the Ottoman artillery revealed their positions.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.