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An Overview of the Battle of Rafa 1917

Updated on December 17, 2015
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

British Line at Rafa 1917
British Line at Rafa 1917 | Source

The situation looked bleak for Lt. General Sir Philip Chetwode. As commander of the British Commonwealth’s Desert Column, he had earned several key victories against the Ottoman Turks in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916 and early 1917 - including one at Magdhaba a week before this engagement. However, on January 9, 1917, the final battle to oust Turkish forces from Egypt didn’t start well for his troops.

The advance of the Anzac Mounted Division (1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade and New Zealand Mounted Brigade), four battalions of the Royal Camel Corp, and the British yeomanry outfit, the 5th Mounted Brigade was slow. All reserves were committed to the battle and the ammunition they had was either not enough to take out the defensive artillery or to break the will of more than 2000 Turkish soldiers. Also, Chetwode feared that provisions of water for his soldiers and their horses were running low.

Then around 4 p.m. he received devastating news: more that 2500 Turkish soldiers were being sent to reinforce their entrenched comrades. Looking more like a lost cause, Chetwode made the decision to withdraw his troop to fight for another day.

Luckily, not everyone got this order. The Battle of Rafa was a small battle with a major victory for Allied British forces. What had first appeared to be a setback in an otherwise successful campaign, the action taken at this former Egyptian police outpost on the Palestinian border would become the beginning of the end for the Turk’s hold on the Middle East, and its ultimate demise as an empire. And for some it was due to a miscommunication on behalf of the victors.

Australian forces in the battle
Australian forces in the battle | Source

Why Rafa?

Rafa was an outpost near the Mediterranean Sea. Much of it was grassland and desert. Still, this was a frontier post in the Sinai Peninsula that served as a buffer between Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Ottoman controlled Gaza of Palestine.

Its proximity to the Suez Canal made it a vital territory for the two armies to capture. The Turks had it and were not going to let it go without a fight. The place was held by nearly 3,000 troops who had dug trenches and redoubts between several hills and knolls (actually, this area was a mile from Rafa in an area known as El Magruntein).

Although Rafa was an outpost, it was far from being isolated. The nearest town was Sheikh Zowaiid, an Arab enclave which would prove to be vital in the battle.

The Anzac had already seen action against the Turks in the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli. In many respects, their past failure drove them in this campaign

The Sinai and Palestine Campaign

The events leading up to Rafa started on January 26, 1915 when the Ottoman forces invaded the Sultanate of Egypt (then, a British protectorate). The Ottoman’s goal was to capture and disrupt the supply lines running through the Suez Canal.

Despite early success, the Ottoman was on the defensive in 1916. The British Empire fought back and pushed them into the Sinai Peninsula. Many of the engagements fought in this desert peninsula were fought around oasis and in villages or regions such as Katia.

The Ottoman tried to regain territory. In August 1916, the first of three major battles was fought near Romani when the Turks attacked two British divisions. The Turks were beaten back, thus setting the stage for the remainder of the campaign.

The main British forces involved in this campaign were the Anzac Mounted Division and the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division. The Anzac consisted of troops from Australia and New Zealand. They were a light horse division that formed in March 1916 in Egypt and was led by Major General Sir Harry Chauvel until after Rafa in 1917.

The Anzac had already seen action against the Turks in the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli. In many respects, their past failure drove them in this campaign. The Anzac along with the other 52nd fought with courage and skill, and possibly with a sense of retribution

Map of the battle in Rafa
Map of the battle in Rafa | Source

The March to Rafa

Throughout the remainder of 1916, the British pushed the Ottoman back toward the Palestinian border. On December 23, the two armies met in major battle at Magdhaba.

By the time of this battle, the British were advancing quickly through the Sinai. They managed to construct a water pipeline and railway to speed up the offensive and to keep it supplied.

Originally, the target was El Arish along the coast. Advance troops discovered it was abandoned. The Turks took up their defense 18-30 miles south. The day long cavalry charge against 2,000 well-entrenched Ottoman forces at six redoubts resulted in a British victory. Twenty-two British troops were killed, compared to 97 Turks. About 1,282 Turkish troops surrendered.

This battle allowed the railway to continue unhindered to El Arish, a town that would prove to be the springboard for this next objective, Rafa.

Prelude to the battle started on January 7. Reconnaissance air patrols were conducted over the region. There, they discovered Ottoman garrisons at El Kossaima and Hafir el Auja. This was not good news for the British high command; it meant their right flank was vulnerable if they were allowed to reinforce existing forces in Rafa.

General Archibald Murray, the commander of British forces in Egypt felt that to attack at Rafa would force the remaining Ottoman forces in the peninsula’s interior to abandon their bases and outpost. Thus, in a final attempt to rid Egypt of the Turks, he gave the order to launch a strike against Rafa.

On January 8th, the force led by Chetwode and Chauvel led their troops on 30 mile march from El Arish. Joining them was the Australian Flying Corps’ No. 1 Squadron.

They did what they were suppose to do; however, the ammunition used was not strong enough to knock out the Turk’s defenses

January 9, the Day of the Battle

The first place captured in the Battle of Rafa was the Arab village of Sheikh Zowaiid. The capture and secure of the town was critical in order to prevent anyone from telling the enemy they were coming. Once that was done, the engagement was set for the morning of January 9th.

The start of the battle didn’t go off the way Chetwode had hoped. The attack was to be launched after an artillery barrage against the Turk’s defenses. The pilots of No. 1 Squadron were to direct the artillery fire onto the enemy. They did what they were suppose to do; however, the ammunition used was not strong enough to knock out the Turk’s defenses.

At 1:00 - three hours after arriving at Sheik Zowaiid - the Desert Column went into action. Chetwode ordered that all wheeled vehicles (except of those with guns) were to be left behind. This was going to be charge on horses.

The 1st Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigades attacked from the south, east, and north. The 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade with six motor cars of the 7th Light Car Patrol in support headed toward Rafa on the Old Road.

Fearing that things were moving slowly and his soldiers were in danger, Chetwode called for a retreat at 4:00. The message didn’t reach the command in the field. At 6:00, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade reached the boundary pillars of the Egyptian and Ottoman frontier. At 7:00, telegraph lines to Gaza were cut.

Eventually, the Column routed the Turks. By the end of the day, The Turks had 200 killed, 168 wounded, and 1,434 taken as prisoners. The British deaths were at 71 with 415 wounded.

Most importantly, the Ottoman were expelled from Egypt. Later in the year, The British would push into the crumbling Ottoman Empire and capture much of the Middle East including Gaza, and Jerusalem. As a result, the Ottoman Empire was greatly weakened. Their crumbling empire would eventually fall apart by the end of World War I.

The Battle of Rafa was a small one when compared to other campaigns in World War I. However, it was a clear and swift victory that would eventually change the history of the British Empire and the Middle East.

Ottoman Turks Prisoner of War
Ottoman Turks Prisoner of War | Source

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • emge profile image

      Madan 17 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      Very detailed and interesting account

      Thank you

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