Centenary of the Battle of Abu Tellul
The lower reaches of the Jordan Valley during the summer months were described as ‘a windless, mountain-walled world of dust and desolation, a thousand feet below sea level’. The dust, ‘as fine as flour … rose in choking clouds with the slightest breath of wind … and when there was no dust there was the terrible blinding sunlight …Nightfall brought the mosquitoes. They came in battalions, in divisions and in army corps’.
Following the fall of Jerusalem, General Edmund Allenby’s objective was to occupy the western side of the Jordan Valley from the Dead Sea to Wadi el Auja. The valley had been occupied by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) from February 1918 when Jericho was captured. General Allenby was determined to maintain control over the east-bank bridgeheads to avoid jeopardising plans for his next campaign. ‘I must keep troops all the summer in the Jordan as I have to control the crossings and to secure command of the Dead Sea otherwise my Arab allies on the Jehaz railway would be abandoned to the Turks’.
It became clear that survival of a summer in the Jordan Valley would require the toughest of troops. Following two raids east of the River Jordan by the EEF, in March and April, the defence of the valley became the responsibility of the Desert Mounted Corps. In the 1917 reorganisation of the forces in the Middle East, General Harry Chauvel had been given command of the Desert Mounted Corps, becoming Australia’s highest ranked soldier at the time.
As summer progressed, the Australian troops endured unparalleled heat, dust, pests and mosquitoes and malaria was taking its toll. Much time was spent working on reducing standing water and draining the swamps to limit the menace of malaria. General Allenby did what he could. ‘I am draining, clearing and burning, under expert direction’ he wrote on 7 June, ‘and I hope to improve things greatly.’
Abu Tellul was a strategically important ridge located near the west bank of the Jordan River which, together with another ridge to the north called Mussallabeh, formed a salient in the British defensive line in the Jordan Valley. Several defensive posts were constructed by the Australian and New Zealand garrison which were often between 370m and 910m apart, consisting of either dug or built up stone sangars, with the ravines in between were covered with barbed wire. The Abu Tellul sector was held by two regiments of the 1st Light Horse Brigade; the 2nd Light Horse Regiment held four posts while the 3rd Light Horse Regiment held posts which surrounded the high plateau of Abu Tellul where the east and west were separated by a gully.
When it became obvious that the horrendous conditions would not force Chauvel’s men out, the enemy tried to force them out.
Before the attacks began, the commander of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment was asked if he thought the front line could stop a determined attack at Abu Tellul –
“No, they are bound to come through (but) the posts will stand, unless they are withdrawn for tactical reasons or completely destroyed.”
The attack commenced with long-range artillery shelling from both sides throughout the night and at 04:00 hours on the morning of Sunday, 14 July, seventeen German aircraft bombed the Jordan Valley garrison, resulting in dozens of casualties. ‘The Turks opened up their guns and put it into us as hard as they could’ … but it seemed that the Turkish troops did not follow their German allies and later reports described in-fighting between the Germans and the Ottomans and a deterioration in relations between the two allies.
Between 14 and 15 July, the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance evacuated a total of 278 men; 85 were wounded, and 44 sick Light Horsemen, 24 were wounded Lancers, 11 were wounded German prisoners and 14 wounded Ottoman prisoners.
This had been the only occasion during the Sinai and Palestine campaign when German infantry attacked as storm-troopers and their crushing defeat by the Desert Mounted Corps’, Australian Light Horse, British Yeomanry, Indian Lancers and New Zealand Mounted Rifles’ brigades, was a severe blow to German morale and prestige. Had the attack succeeded it would have denied the British a presence in the Jordan Valley and had a huge impact on the September advance North to Damascus across the Coastal Plains of Sharon.
Phillip Bradley, Australian Light Horse – The Campaign in the Middle East, 1916-1918, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2016
C.E.W. Bean (1937) Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1923
Reveille, September 1929