On 9 January 1917, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles participated in the final battle of the Sinai Campaign on the borders of Palestine - an event which changed the Middle East in ways which continue to resound today.
Entering the desert
Let us stop and watch them go by in the moonlight. The great wonder of the desert is its all-embracing silence - all sound is swallowed up - and so in silence they go by... Over the swelling sandhills they come, line upon line ... no sound but the snort of a horse as he blows the dust from his nostril; or the click of two stirrup irons touching as two riders close in together; or the jingle of the links on the pack horses; or ... A low swish... as the sand spurts out in front of a horse's foot slithering on from step to step. Lieutenant-Colonel C. Guy Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine, p 67
So the Anzac Mounted Division, supported by the Cameleers, an artillery battery and the 5th Yeomanry Brigade (Mounted), rode for 30 miles through the desert night to engage with the Turkish garrison at the small settlement of Rafah early on 9 January 1917.
A pivotal action
Though largely unremembered, the day-long skirmish marked an end to the 1916 Sinai Campaign waged on the borders of Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The success of the campaign to wrest control of the Sinai Peninsula from the Turks meant that British access to the Suez Canal was secured without the ongoing need for a large defensive deployment along the Canal, an expensive and distracting task. The entry into Palestine also opened the way to Jerusalem, a goal of Britain’s new Prime Minister David Lloyd George. By the end of the war the British had secured territory that became Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Transjordan, and the Middle East was changed in ways that continue to resound today.
Challenge of the desert
Despite Lieutenant-Colonel Powles' poetic description of the overnight ride to Rafah, it was a difficult mission. In addition to the threats posed by engaging with the enemy, the practical problems of waging war in an inhospitable, uncooperative environment should not be underestimated. Simply the act of travelling endangered life. The surface underfoot was unstable and reliable landmarks few. All supplies and water had to be carried, for man and mount. The sun was unrelenting during the day and the night bone-chillingly cold. At Rafah the Turkish position was centred on a small hill fort surrounded by open country, 'absolutely devoid of cover'. The allies faced entrenchments 'laid out by German Engineers and dug by the Turk - a combination of best field engineer and best "digger" in the world' (Powles, p 70). And, while the mounted regiments were miles away across the desert from their reinforcements and supplies, the Turkish garrison was linked by road back to Gaza and readily available support.
New Zealand's day
The battle itself could have had a different outcome. In the later afternoon, low on ammunition and in the face of rapidly approaching Turkish relief forces, the Divisional Commander made the decision to withdraw. However, before the retreat could be fully actioned a final assault by the New Zealand regiments overran the Turkish defences and victory was secured. Trooper Lou Gibb of Canterbury Mounted Rifles wrote proudly in a letter home, 'without exaggeration, we saved the situation that 9th of January, thanks to our little brigadier, Chaytor, who had sufficient confidence in his brigade of New Zealanders to give us the order to advance…. The boys sprang to it like one man.' An English soldier 'with no military fish to fry' and protesting no prejudice in favor of the New Zealanders but 'like all other Britishers… proud to be allowed to serve under the "four-starred flag",' reported that 'the redoubt was the turning point of the day, and captured by the N.Z.M.R. and by that force only, turned a retreat into a general advance, and a fizzle out into a very gallant victory.' Brigadier-General Chaytor was praised by his peers, and hailed at home as 'the hero of Rafa.'
In the Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum holds a collection of items associated with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in Sinai-Palestine, including a selection of memorabilia brought back from Egypt by Lieutenant-Colonel C.E.R. Mackesy, long-time commander of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The 'old Colonel,' leading the Auckland Regiment in the advance on Rafah, claimed the honour of being 'the first New Zealander' to step foot in the Holy Land (Powles, p 69).
Powles, Lieutenant-Colonel C. Guy. The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, 1922.
Cite this article
The Battle of Rafah. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 December 2016. Updated: 9 March 2021.