Here's What You Need to Know: Only 31 troopers and 70 horses died during the charge, a testament to the surprise and speed of the maneuver.
In late 1917, the most successful cavalry charge of World War I took place not on the muddy killing fields of the Western Front, but at the foot of the Judean Hills in southern Palestine. The sun had just begun to set over the desert town of Beersheba on the evening of October 31, 1917, when 800 bayonet-wielding Australian cavalrymen swept out of the arid wilderness like wild horsemen from a bygone age. Though they faced trenches, machine guns, artillery, and aircraft, the Australians succeeded in overrunning the garrison and taking the town, including its strategically important water wells. In the months to come, the audacious charge proved more than just the heroic finish to the epic Battle of Beersheba. It turned out to be a major contributing factor to overall British victory in the Holy Land.
World War I embroiled the Middle East in late 1914, when the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict as a Central Power. For decades the Ottoman Empire had been derided as the “sick man of Europe” because of the constant wars and political troubles that had eroded its once great power and influence. Though the sultan still reigned in Constantinople, real power lay in the hands of a triumvirate of dictators who had seized power during the wars and revolutions of the early 20th century. Militarist, authoritarian, and fervently nationalistic, the new regime was also unabashedly sympathetic to Germany from whom it received military and economic aid. In August 1914, the Ottomans shocked the world by brazenly refusing to close the Turkish Straits to the renegade German warships Goebbenand Breslau,and three months later they officially entered the war by attacking Russian ports in the Black Sea.
The Ottoman entry into the war created enormous problems for the Allies. While its power was not what it once was, the Ottoman Empire still straddled three continents and bordered the Allies where they appeared most vulnerable. Egypt, the Caucasus, and the Persian oil fields all became critical new fronts in a rapidly widening war. The Persian oil fields were particularly crucial because of the Royal Navy’s transition from coal to petrol.
With strong German encouragement, the Ottomans quickly launched two major offensives. The first was a disastrous invasion of the Russian Caucasus, which saw the Ottoman Third Army annihilated by a combination of cold, disease, and Russian forces. The second was much more concerning, particularly to the British, as it threatened the Suez Canal, which arguably was the most important Allied line of communication in the world.
Egypt had been illegally occupied by the British since 1882. Following the Ottoman declaration of war in 1914, the country was made a formal British protectorate complete with a compliant sultan who was installed to give the Egyptians an illusion of self-governance. In truth, the government, economy, and army were all strictly controlled by the British. Their main interest in the country was the Suez Canal, through which flowed the tremendous resources of the British Empire. At the outbreak of hostilities, the British closed the canal to enemy ships and flooded the country with more than 70,000 troops, mainly from India, Australia, and New Zealand. Despite these measures, to many British strategists Egypt’s enormous land area, home to a huge population of resentful, mainly Muslim subjects, appeared ripe for the Ottomans’ picking.
In the first few weeks of January 1915, their worst fears appeared realized when an Ottoman force of 25,000 men crossed the 100 waterless miles of the Sinai and attacked British defenses along the canal. The Ottomans brought with them not only boats and heavy artillery, but also 25 corrugated iron pontoons, prefabricated in Germany and smuggled into the empire through pro-German Bulgaria. Though the overall commander of the operation was officially Ahmed Djemal Pasha, one of the empire’s governing triumvirs, most of the logistical and tactical planning was carried out by his German chief of staff, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, a talented and experienced officer with years of service in the Middle East.
Luckily for the British, the one thing the invaders forgot was air support, and within a few days of leaving Palestine the long columns of Ottoman troops were spotted by a French aircraft. The large numbers of Arab tribesmen that Ahmed Djemal had counted on to screen the Ottoman advance had also failed to materialize. As a result, by the time the expedition reached the canal the British were well prepared to receive them. After a week of bitter fighting, only one pontoon made it into the water, and just three boatloads of troops managed to row across. The Ottoman artillery knocked out a few of the Allied ships patrolling the canal, but that was the extent of the expedition’s successes. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Ottomans limped back across the desert, having suffered 2,000 casualties.
The Ottomans may have failed in their ultimate objective of seizing the Suez Canal and invading Egypt, but in doing so they opened up a new and costly theater of war. The British in Egypt, though their own casualties were fewer than 200, had also been taught a valuable lesson. The Ottomans were not to be underestimated. Their government may have been corrupt and oppressive and their vast empire torn by interethnic strife, but so-called Johnny Turk, the hardy and resilient Anatolian peasant who made up the bulwark of the Ottoman military, was still capable of incredible feats of courage, endurance, and ingenuity when properly led.
Unfortunately, Allied strategists in Europe did not heed this lesson, and over the course of 1915, they overconfidently blundered into disastrous campaigns against the Ottomans in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia. Allied defeats on these distant fronts had a profound effect on events in the Sinai as they freed up thousands of battle-hardened Ottoman troops for renewed attacks on Egypt. At the same time in Europe, the fall of Serbia in 1915 and the entry into the war of Bulgaria as a Central Power had also made it easier for Berlin to send weapons and specialists to the Middle East. When the fighting resumed in the Sinai in 1916, the British faced an emboldened and reinforced enemy, more determined and dangerous than before. To meet this new threat, the War Office sent General Archibald Murray, a decorated veteran of the Boer War and former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to the Middle East to take command of the newly organized Egyptian Expeditionary Force and secure Egypt and the Sinai once and for all.
Loose sand dunes, barren plains, jagged mountains, and sudden sandstorms combine to make the triangle-shaped Sinai Peninsula one of the most inhospitable regions in the world. Murray’s strategy for securing this desolate but strategically important region was to build a standard-gauge railway linking the few crucial desert oases in a defensive network. The railway would also provide his troops with all the supplies necessary for survival in the lifeless desert. Alongside the railway, Murray further ordered the construction of a 12-inch pipeline to provide men and beasts alike with fresh water from the Nile. It was a grueling task that largely fell on the backs of the 13,000 sometimes press-ganged workers of the Egyptian Labour Corps, who had to contend not only with the elements and enemy raids, but also the whips of their overseers.
Following in the path of an ancient caravan route, the railway’s progress was slow but steady, and by mid-April 1916, after two months of toil, it reached the oasis of Katia, roughly 25 miles from the canal. Katia was the westernmost in a series of brackish but vital water sources between Egypt and Ottoman Palestine. It was from Katia that Napoleon had launched his invasion of Palestine in 1799, and it was there that Kressenstein, who had been watching the British advance with growing consternation, sought to stop them from advancing any farther.
In the early morning hours of April 23, 1916, the first of the great Sinai battles erupted when an Ottoman force of 3,600 cavalry and infantry poured out of the desert and around the flanks of the British forces guarding Katia. With the help of an early morning fog, the attackers completely surprised the outnumbered and outgunned 5th Mounted Brigade, whose commander had failed to either reconnoiter Ottoman movements or prepare adequate defensive positions. After several hours of hard fighting, the British fled in panic, having lost almost four cavalry squadrons. It was a humiliating defeat that tremendously raised Ottoman morale and gave them the initiative in the desert war.
A few months later, after building up his forces, Kressenstein struck again, this time north of Katia at the British railhead of Romani. His plan was to pin down the British from the east, then once again swing around their right flank and attack in force from the south. Kressenstein had only 16,000 men, but in another remarkable feat of ingenuity, his troops managed to drag a number of heavy guns across the soft desert sands by creating improvised tracks made of brushwood and wooden boards. Aware that he was outnumbered, Kressenstein was nonetheless confident that his big guns and flanking attack would throw the British off. The British defenders at Romani were awakened at 1 am on August 4, 1916, by cries of “Allah, Allah!” as the Ottomans launched massed infantry assaults against their defenses.