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Remembered Today:

The destruction of the Asluj - Auja rail line 23 May 1917


Bill Woerlee
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Mates

On 23rd May 1917, an expedition set off to destroy the rail link between Asluj and Auja. Here is the report of the event in the London Times.

post-7100-1144393592.jpg

It was an essential operation brought on by the necessity to be seen doing something.

There was a question asked on this very day in the House of Commons on the subject of Palestine. James Ian MacPherson, the under-secretary of state for War overseeing the Palestine operation had this to say in response:

There had been no serious fighting since April 19. The Turkish troops, who had been reinforced, had made good use of natural obstacles, and their main position in front of Gaza was one of great strength, while their left flank was protected by broken and waterless country.

Pretty banal.

Cheers

Bill

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Steve

G'day mate

Since you are the man when it comes to the ICC, I am wondering if you could give me an outline as to how they actually carried out the operation.

Thanks mate

Cheers

Bill

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Mates

Here is a map of the operations undertaken by the Imperial Mounted Division - it gives a bit of an idea of the scope.

post-7100-1144395743.jpg

The operation involved two mounted divisions spread over 23km. The coordination was precise and a wonderful illustration of a well trained force. The IMD was asked to be in position at 0400 and it was. At 0415 it made a push forward to the Turkish lines in a demonstration. While the Turks were occupied wondering what was going on, the ICC and their covering squadron from the 4th ALH Bde moved down to Asluj and commenced destroying anything and everything along the rail road. Only the permanent way remained in most places.

A successful operation that ran like clockwork.

Cheers

Bill

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Mate,

I have a bit on this but I will give you an over view for now.

22nd May 1917 the Camel Bde moved from Rafa to to Bir Nuga leaving at 1000 and arriving at 1400.

They continued at 1700 moving all night to reach Wadi El Abiad at 0430 23rd May 1917.

At 0700 the Bde moved to Wadi Abu Rutaha near El Auja-Kassala Railline arriving around 1200 with a Troop of LH and an RE section.

They then went to blowing up the local area till 1700 when they retired to Wadi Abiad where they rejoined the force at 2200.

They moved againat 0500 24th May 1917 and stopped at 1730 near El Badari.

They moved at 0430 25th May 1917 for Rafa arriving back at 1930.

Thats just from the war diary of the 2nd British Bn with its 6th, 7th and 5th Companies while the 4th Anzac Bn account has something different.

The Bde left Rafa on the 19th May arriving at Auja at 0800 21st May. There they carried out demo's of the area including 7,600 yards of track, the bridges at Wadi Husaniya and at Abiab.

They retired at 1700 to return to Rafa. Now these dates are out from the account given but can be transposed to the 2nd Bn war diary, the 4th Bn war diary entery is not readable.

The 3rd Bn War diary has the following;

Bde moved at 1000 on 22nd May 1917 attached troop 11 LHR, marched all night halted about 4 miles from Auja at 0400 23rd May 1917.

The 3rd Bn then occupied the hight ground around the area with 11th and 12th Companies to clear El Auja and move to high ground while 14th and 15th companies moved to two miles north of Auja.

One prisoner was taken by the 14Co and the Bn reformed around 1600 to withdraw.

As you can see there are three verisons of alll three Bn's of the Camel Bde all differents in most details so you can draw your own ideas.

But I consider this operation like others undertaken by the DMC were needed to not only to destroy the rail line but the test the the troops in moving large distances and to gain the expirences with all that details,like map reading and endurence.

But it also gave the Turks the idea that large formations were moving out there and were not always going to attack place like Beersheba when the time came in Oct 1917.

Bit bit like two raids against Amman March and May 1918 to fix the enemies attention, when the main attack came in Sept 1918 in a different area.

Cheers

S.B

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Steve

G'day mate

This is really great stuff. I am having a great deal of trouble finding the places on my maps.

I am not sure if they went up to Weli Sheikh Nuran and then via el Gamli south through Khalasa to Asluj or did they cut inland and follow the border to Auja?

Cheers

Bill

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Mate,

These are the names as spelled in the diaries, I didn't want to go a stray soem I left them.

But "Kassala" is I think is "Khalasa" on your map. But I would think the Camel Bde was of a different track then the LH as both did not mix well, the horses didn't like th smell of the camels. So they may have been on another track, but the place names are an english version of arbic so weather they are spell right probibly not.

But the 11th LHR history tells us that CSqn/11 LHR under Capt Koch moved with the Camel Bde from Rafa to Auja. The 6th LHR formed a ring around Khalasa while the attack went on at Auja. But the 11th LHR history has a about two pages on this, but not on its path.

Cheers

S.B

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Steve

G'day mate

The accounts you have given tie in with the descriptions. I put them on a map and this is the result:

post-7100-1144478254.jpg

The dating is a little off but that can be due to poor quality of record and transposition errors. The one thing we do know positively is that the action occurred on 23 May 1917 - there is no question of that.

Cheers

Bill

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Steve

Just to add, the logical route would have been via Khalasa. There was guaranteed good water all the way. In addition there was plenty of protection.

And on that point, to join up with the men from the 11th LHR would have required them to pass through el Khudri where they were stationed near the el Gamli crossing of Wadi Ghuzze.

Cheers

Bill

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Steve

Just looking at the return trip of the Camel Bde and there is no problem finding el Badari. This is the last leg of the return trip.

post-7100-1144484314.jpg

This use of el Badari tends to suggest that that Camel Brigade followed the border posts back to Rafa.

Hopefully I can find Bir Nuga as all the rest of the references are as spelled.

Cheers

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Bill,

There is an account of this operation in 'With the Cameliers in Palestine' by John Robertson from the point of view of the New Zealand contingent (16th Company IIRC) - Steve, I'm sure you've seen this before!

Neil.

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I enclose a draft excerpt from my upcoming book on the NZMR Brigade dealing with the railway raid. I hope this is of interest.

In May General Murray ordered Chetwolde to destroy the Turkish railway line between Asluj and El Auja to prevent its use by the Turks if they advanced again. It would also demonstrate to London that he was still offensively-minded after his two defeats at Gaza. Speed and surprise were essential to achieve the task quickly and at minimum risk. The raid would not be easy, as there was little local water available, and the demolition parties would be exposed to enemy attack from Beersheba. Chetwolde decided to send two separate raiding parties: the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade would deploy from Rafah down the border to El Auja, and the 1st ALH Brigade of the Anzac Mounted Division took a route from Shellal to Asluj. The rest of the Anzac Mounted Division was given the responsibility of protecting the raiders from enemy interference, while the Imperial Mounted Division was to create a diversion up towards Beersheba.

The engineers were supplemented by mounted riflemen who were “used to explosives”. According to Guy Powles, one corporal was recommended because he was ‘well used to explosives, having just been thrice blown up by shells!” It was expected that the 500-strong demolition parties could destroy 20 kilometres of rails and 30 bridge arches per hour. They were allocated six hours (4 a.m. to 10 a.m.) to cause as much damage as possible.

After a week of intensive training of the demolition teams, the raid began on the evening of 22 May with an all-night march in the face of a khamsin. ‘It was impossible to see and difficult to breathe. The air was full of electricity. A horse’s mane on being stroked gave forth a shower of sparks.’ General Chaytor had been sick for several days, but he insisted on leading his new command on this raid. After medical staff dissuaded him from riding, he was carried in a sand cart. The men admired his stubbornness: ‘General Chaytor is a game old beggar. He is very sick but insisted on coming out all that long distance and directing operations from his bed in a sand-cart.’ The NZMR Brigade deployed in a screen line to the north of Alsuj, keeping in touch with the Imperial Mounted Division to its left.

Fred Sterling was impressed with the workmanship of the bridges: ‘The masonry work in the culverts was beautiful. Jacko can build all right.’ South of Asluj 11 kilometres of line and five bridges, including one of 18 arches, were blown up. The southern raiders, who had started late, destroyed seven bridges and wrecked a further nine kilometres of line. According to Sterling, ‘as one charge after the other exploded on the line, it was like a fireworks show, and old Bedouins scared out of their wits could be seen with their families, sheep, goats etc. going for dear life.’ The Turks reacted slowly and with little aggression. Two cavalry regiments advanced towards Asluj from Beersheba in the morning, but they soon turned back when fired upon by the screen.

The New Zealanders only saw a single troop of Turkish cavalry all day. After capturing two armed and two unarmed Bedouin, the New Zealand brigade withdrew at 5.30 p.m. As they went they set the crops on fire. The brigade suffered no casualties.

The ICC Brigade spent the night near El Auja, while the other raiders returned to their start points. ‘The ride back to camp in the evening … was wearisome in the extreme. For some reason, known only to themselves, the head of the column led into many strange places, such as cactus hedges, wire entanglements and other camps, before the Colonel obtained permission for the [Canterbury] regiment to find its own way back.’

The ease with which these raids were carried out suggested to General Chetwolde that the Turks did not expect any serious attack on the eastern flank of the Gaza-Beersheba line. This started Chetwolde thinking seriously about the inland route as an alternative to the Gaza corridor for future attacks.

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If anyone believes that I have got something wrong above, I would appreciate a note to that effect, preferably with supporting references. Many thanks.

Terry

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Terry

G'day mate

Thanks for your exerpt - it fills in the Anzac MD part of the story, especially the work of the NZM Bde. Muchly appreciated mate.

The missing elements to the story are filled with confirmed information. ICC went via the border posts to Auja while the Anzac MD went via Khalasa to Alsuj. It all makes sense.

Terry, your conclusions are pretty important here. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was where Chetwode's idea gained its genesis. A couple further raids confirmed the feeling.

The other part by Murray and Dobell giving the appearance of doing something is refelcted in the urgency of the political masters in London. Ian MacPherson, the under-secretary of state for War was under the hammer too. He needed a good headline which finally arrived on 6 June 1917 in the form of the article published in the first post. This lifted the load from Dobell and Murray. It was a raid that provided a win for everyone.

If you look at the action that occurred on the same day with the Turks, they paraded the fact that they launched a successful air commando raid at Bir el Abd. Whether it was or not I cannot be sure. I believe the air raid occurred but its success is another matter - the truth laying somewhere between the Times account and the Turkish press release.

The unit that was guarding Bir el Abd was the 2nd Battalion of the British West Indian Regiment which also confronted the Turks that day. There had been some dissention between them and the Anzacs - as a generic name - especially after Gaza 2. Apparently some of the wounded were shunted off the main line at Abd. The BWI voluntarily gave assistance to the wounded to make their lot better instead of being ignored and isolated in hot freight carts in the middle of no where. For their pains, some of the lesser wounded fellows from the southern isles mouthed off some hideous racist abuse which no unsurprisingly, really upset the men from the BWI. There were only a couple incidents but it was enough to cause a huge problem in inter-unit relations.

The irony is that if we segue to August 1918, it was this very unit that went to the Jordan Valley to relieve the 9th ALHR and allow them to train for the upcoming offensive. Reading the diaries of the men from the 9th they really liked the men from the BWI and shared some very good times. Bert Schramm - remembered below - was selected as a guide for them while they settled in. For nearly a week he had a hoot enjoying himself thoroughly. Any ill feelings had well and truly been dissolved.

Cheers

Bill

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Bill,

As per Neil's idea the follow is in Robertson Book of his service in the Camels.

22 May 1917 left Rafa proceeeded South east along the border line between Eyptian and Palestine territories, the colunm stopped at mid night. We then rode untill reaching Waddi Abiad. The waddi goes for for miles on a dry bed which we followed till midday when we reach the rail line. After demo we returned via the waddi Abiad.

So your map of the border may be the right one for both going and returning.

Mate, times are subjective in the Camel Corps as no two formations have the same times. Since the companies traveled in coloum of twos there length of the coloum would be very long with twelve companies a MG Sqn , Field Amb and HK&S Bty not to mention supply service and more often then not as one company was about to move after a two hour break another company would be arriving to start theirs.

Water was not a problem in the Camel Corps as they carried a five day supply on the camels so they could travel in places were there was no water. The five days could be extended if needed also. The only restrictions to the Camel Bde would be the attached LH Sqn.

So the LH may have used the northern route to confuss the Turks but also as there is many watering places there, while the Camels used the dryer southern route. Its a good plan to me attack from more then one direction using many routes.

Cheers

S.B

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Steve

G'day mate

Thanks to Terry's commentary and yours I have found the elusive Bir Nuga - its full name is Bir Nuga Shabana, a disused well about 3km southwest from a border post on the Egypt side, 7km south west from el Bandari and 15 km south south east from Rafa on a plain known as Ashaa Uani.

All is good and routes confirmed.

Thanks heaps to both of you. I also appreciate Neil's suggestion which was a good one indeed.

Cheers

Bill

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Steve, Terry and Neil

Below is an upgraded map reference of the ICC egress and ingress from Rafa for the raid.

post-7100-1144539171.jpg

The piece fit together well and now I have a better understanding of the operation.

Many thanks to all three of you for this invaluable help.

Cheers

Bill

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I enclose three photos that I took in 2000. Alsuj1 shows the remains of a viaduct at Asluj; Beersheba1 shows an intact Turkish viaduct in that city; and ElAwga1 shows some Turkish railway buildings near El Auja which were destroyed in an earlier raid.

post-7908-1144625925.jpg

post-7908-1144625948.jpg

post-7908-1144625966.jpg

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Terry

G'day mate

Thanks heaps for the contemporary pix. They really highlight the terrain and consequences of the action.

In return, here are a couple pix from Bert Schramm's album - since he wasn't there, these appear to be on sold by the fellow who took them to the troops around the Gaza area.

Here is a group of engineers laying charges.

post-7100-1144630019.jpg

It is a beautifully made viaduct similar to that shown in your photographs still existing at Beersheba.

Then gone.

post-7100-1144630039.jpg

all that wonderful stone masonry destroyed in minutes. While I understand the necessity of war, I still find it difficult to accept such a waste.

Cheers

Bill

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