The Beginning of the Battle for Jerusalem in WW1

July 24, 2016 by Jill Curry
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Over the last 15 months there has been much attention given to the centenary of Gallipoli, Fromelles and Pozieres. However, “Australia’s forgotten war” in the Sinai, Palestine and Syria is still in danger of remaining largely unknown, despite the fact that the ANZAC Light Horsemen overcame atrocious conditions to achieve some of the most unprecedented and courageous victories of World War 1.The first major battle of this campaign occurred on August 4-5, 1916, at Romani, the last oasis on the ancient trade route, the Via Maris, 37 km from the Suez Canal.   After the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915, the Turkish soldiers were sent south to take this strategic waterway from Britain.  For months in the 50 degree summer heat of the Sinai desert, the Allied troops patrolled the desert and watched the army advance.

Michael Shanahan in hospital – Australian War Memorial photo AWM P03088.008

Michael Shanahan in hospital – Australian War Memorial photo AWM P03088.008

The attack began at 1.00 am on August 4, 1916 when 12,000 Turkish/German troops attempted to surround the British and ANZAC forces.  Fighting at night in the sand dunes, their boots filling up with mountains of soft sand, with no rocks or trees for cover, two Australian regiments from the 1st Light Horse Brigade guarded the southern flank and took the brunt of the action. Outnumbered ten to one, they were forced to slowly retreat but their heavy resistance wore out the opposition and thwarted the Turkish plan.

At dawn, General Chauvel called his fresh Australian and New Zealand ANZAC reserves to reinforce the thin 5 km long line, which had been remained unbroken – a credit to his gallant soldiers.  British artillery backed up the foot soldiers.  As the scorching sun rose, the burning sand and thirst won the day and they were able to push back the exhausted Turks eventually forcing their retreat the following day.

From the Allied troops 202 were killed, 882 wounded and 46 missing, with most being ANZACs. The Turkish toll was 1,250 killed, almost 4,000 injured and another 4,000 captured.  Amazed at the ANZAC resilience, the British commander, Sir Archibald Murray said: “The ANZAC troops are the keystone of the defence of Egypt”.

The ANZAC success meant they were often called to serve on the frontline, especially through the Sinai, where the sturdy waler horses and their tough bush riders managed the hot, dry conditions better than the British cavalry or infantry.  Their success at Romani, changed the British thinking from defence (of the Suez) to attack (‘get Jerusalem’).  This was the first defeat of the Turks, and the beginning of their retreat from the Sinai.  By the end of 1916, the whole peninsula was in Allied hands and the battle for the Holy Land began.  In 1917, the Battle of Beersheba was the pivotal point of the campaign to break the Ottoman control militarily and politically prepare for the re-birth of the Jewish nation.

Heroic Stories

Jennifer Marshall, “Rescue and Retreat at Romani” -

Jennifer Marshall, “Rescue and Retreat at Romani” –

The battle of Romani produced some colourful characters and heroic stories.  The energetic and well-loved ‘Galloping Jack’ Royston, who was temporarily in charge of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade at Romani is said to have worn out 14 horses in one day.  Despite having a bullet lodged in his calf, he refused to stay at the hospital and galloped off trailing bandages behind him.  The bullet remained till his death.

Major Michael Shanahan of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was reputedly riding the huge 730 kg cantankerous horse named ‘Bill the Bastard’.  Riding up and down the lines encouraging his men, he found four men outflanked without their horses and no way to escape.  Under Turkish fire, oblivious to the danger to himself, he hauled two men on to Bill’s back with him and the other two with a foot in each stirrup. Bill cantered through the soft sand carrying his heavy cargo away from certain death, while Shanahan used his rifle to ward off the Turkish attackers.  With his men safely delivered, Shanahan went back to the battle front and was injured shortly afterwards.  He continued in the saddle for another hour until he passed out, eventually having to have part of his leg amputated.  He won a Distinguished Service Order for his bravery that day.

Let’s give due honour to these ANZACs who won not only this battle but went on to play a significant and often pivotal role in defeating the same Ottoman Turkish armies that had caused them so much grief in Gallipoli.  In this campaign the tables were turned.

We remember our losses, now it is time to commemorate our victories!

Jilly Curry is the author of ‘Victory!’ – Commemorating Beersheba 100th Anniversary.


6 Responses to “The Beginning of the Battle for Jerusalem in WW1”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    I have always been actively interested in, and imaginatively engaged with, the extraordinary efforts of the ANZACS in this region during World War I. It’s difficult to comprehend why it takes the backseat it does in annual commemoration of the history of Australian and New Zealand fighting forces. It was significant in every way and yet fails, it seems, to capture the popular imagination and hearts of the public at large.

  2. Adrian Jackson says:

    It was a big mistake breaking up the Ottoman Empire as we have seen chaos ever since in West Asia.

  3. Adrian Jackson says:

    In our Australian Army we say withdrawal not retreat, like the Americans do, for every rearward movement of units and formations.

    A withdrawal is orderly while a retreat is disorderly.

  4. harry rich says:

    Newspapers and Television publish excellent, large and accurate description
    of the suffering, losses and heroics of Australian soldiers on the Western Front and elsewhere .

    The above article would most likely be only superficially described and discussed by the public media. Apart from illustrating the heroic deeds by the ANZACS it would be of great interest and probably surprise to many to discover that the neglected,useless land, ignored and unused by the members of the Ottoman Empire, was purchased for huge sums by the Kibbutzim and converted into fertile and productive territory to form the basics of the future country of Israel.

    I wonder if any newspaper would have the guts to publish this with the
    possibility of offending the ” Palestinians “

    • Leon Poddebsky says:

      “Guts” is right, Harry.
      As George Orwell said many years ago, ” During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

  5. Leon Poddebsky says:

    Among the mortal hazards that were faced by the ANZAC troops in The Land of Israel was virulent malaria. Malaria had been an endemic disease there for many centuries since the end of Christian Byzantine rule and its replacement by the Muslim imperialist conquest.

    The new (Ottoman Turk) rulers utterly neglected the Land, allowing numerous deposits of stagnant water swamps to be created, which formed ideal breeding reservoirs for the mosquitoes which made human life impossible in most of the Land.
    Hence, when the Zionist pioneers began to reclaim the Land, many of them succumbed to the disease, and many others were unable to withstand the challenge, and left.

    Arab and Turkish absentee owners of the ostensibly worthless swamplands sold them at exorbitant prices to the Jewish National Fund, which apportioned parcels to various Zionist kibbutzim, moshavim etc, and these idealists drained the swamps and converted them into productive food-producing land. The resulting revolutionary improvement in the quality of life and standard of living in the Land attracted to it many thousands of Arabs and other Muslims from economically depressed areas as far away as Egypt, Sudan and Bosnia. The evidence of these Arab / Muslim settlers’ migration exists today in the family names of many of the Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians”:
    Masri, Bosniak, Suweydani etc.

    The ANZAC troops, particularly those who sojourned in the hellish hyper-malarial Jordan Valley, adopted a number of methods to mitigate the malarial scourge, with a fairly high degree of success, though many still succumbed to the disease.

    In Jerusalem in 2013, a scientific conference on malaria was held, where, among others, a presentation was delivered about the ANZAC malaria experience in The Land of Israel.

    The ANZAC effort did, indeed, make an enormous contribution to the liberation of the Land from the Ottoman Empire, and that victory, in turn, helped to create the conditions for the reconstitution of the Israelite / Jewish nation-state.
    The State of Israel honours the memory of those ANZACS in a number of ways.

    It is instructive to read the numerous testimonies regarding the condition of the Land in the pre-Zionist eras:
    “Cook’s Tourist Handbook for Palestine and Syria,” published by Thomas Cook and Son in 1876, e.g., states:

    ” The general character of … no longer what it was before eighteen centuries of war and ruin and neglect has passed over it.
    Above all other countries in the world…it is now a land of ruins. In Judea it is hardly an exaggeration to say that .. for miles and miles there is no appearance of present life or habitation…”

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