The Great War – 21 – 27 December, 1917

As we focus on the Christmas period 100 years ago, many South Australian families cast their minds to their loved ones who were far from home. Whether fighting on the Western Front or in the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, Christmas was a difficult time with the effects of a disastrous 1917 being felt across the country.

This short period from 21 – 27 December, 1917, saw 13 South Australians killed across the Western and Palestinian fronts, from both fighting and wounds sustained sometime before.

On Christmas morning of 1917, Errol Cruickshank from Largs Bay was struck by a shell which fell into the support trench of the Messines sector just opposite Warneton. He died of his wounds on the way to the field ambulance only 100 yards away.

After continued success on the Palestinian front, this week in The Great War focusses on the small but crucial Battle of Jaffa; a battle noted for its difficulty with the crossing over the Auja River.

As Christmas approached in 1917, the Allies looked to solidify their position on the Palestinian front after their success in taking Jerusalem.

The Battle of Jaffa was a small but crucial conflict important in continuing the Allied control of the port of Jaffa. Having been seized by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade on the 16 November, the victory was an important one. However Ottoman forces were only 5km away just over the Auju River.

The close location of the Ottoman army proved a problem for the Allies as it made the port of Jaffa and its town unusable, still being in the range of Ottoman artillery. If the Allies were to take full advantage of the Port of Jaffa they would need push the Ottoman army back keeping them out of reach of their artillery. The British had plans to use the port as a supply base with intentions to build a railway east to Ludd and join the main railway.

It was not going to be an easy task. The Ottoman Army were positioned in a strong defensive position along the Auju River.

In his own diaries Allenby noted “The chief difficulty lay in concealing the collection and preparation of rafts and bridging material.”

On reflecting on the 21 December 1917, Allenby noted the difficulty saying, “December 21 was spent building bridges. Considerable hostile shell fire was experienced during the day, chiefly from the right flank. The enemy could observe the valley of the Auja. Despite this the bridges were completed, and by dusk the whole of Divisional Artillery of the 52nd Division had crossed to the right flank.”

Cutting across the coastal plain, the river was 40-50 feet wide and 10 feet deep. There were only three ways to cross the river – a ford at the coast, a bridge across a mill dam at Jerisheh and a partially demolished stone bridge at Hadrah – all three of these positions were heavily guarded.

A sketch Map 20 Passage of the Nahr el ‘Auja.

Three infantry divisions of the British XXI Corps, under the command of Lieutenant General Edward Bulfin, began moving their units into position on the coastal plain on 7 December. General Bulfin had come to the Palestinian front with some significant victories amassed in the earlier part of the war. Having begun on the Western Front in October 1914, he was responsible for an impromptu force of six battalions, called “Bulfin’s force” that led a counter attack that would eventual stem a German advance.

He was eventually moved to Palestine in June 1917, and immediately promoted to lieutenant-general, given the command of XXI Corps. His leadership lead his force through the Ottoman defences at the Third Battle of Gaza, which in turn opened the way for the capture of Jerusalem.

The 75th Division was on the right, the 54th in the centre and the 52nd on the left of the coast. The 162nd Division relieved the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade on the front line on the 11 December.

The plan by Major John Hill was submitted on the 14 December and would call for a surprise assault across the river by his division, with artillery concentrated behind the lines, while the Royal Engineers formed pontoons and canvas boats, large enough for only twenty men. Major Hill was one of the few Indian Army Officers serving in the British Army. After his service in Gallipoli, then in Palestine and on the Western Front in 1916, Hill was appointed Aide-de-camp to King George V and then later General Officer Commanding the 52nd Lowland Infantry Division until 1918.

A heavy artillery bombardment had initially been planned to precede the infantry attack, however Major Hill suggested that a surprise attack without artillery would take the Ottoman army by surprise. In the days preceding the covert attack artillery was only used to supress the Ottoman patrol activity and to register the gun targets so if they needed to be used, they would be accurate in locating the Ottoman lines.

Three days of heavy downpour hindered the preparations for the attack, rain making the launching location of the attack a swampy mess.

On the night of 20 and 21 December, 1917, during heavy rain the division carried out an assault river crossing on pontoon bridges and boats. During the attack several of the pontoons collapsed and some men were forced to wade across the chest deep river. When on the Ottoman side of the river, a beachhead was established, and engineers then started the construction of a pontoon bridge ready for the main force to cross. By 11pm almost all of three divisions had crossed the river and by midnight all of the 156th Brigade had crossed over and commenced their attack on the Ottoman position on a hill overlooking the river.

With the whole division crossing the river in darkness, the attack had taken the Ottoman army by surprise. All resistance was overcome using bayonets without shots fired. Due to the surprise nature of the attack, the Ottoman army was pushed back 8 km. It was originally planned that the ANZAC Mounted Division would cross and peruse the retreating Ottoman army, however due to the torrential rain, the resulting damp boggy ground prevented them from following the survivors.

The entire battle was a success for the British with a total 316 Ottoman prisoners taken and ten machine guns captured.

The battle was such a success it was mentioned in General Sir Edmund Allenby’s despatch:

“”The successful crossing of the Nahr el Auja reflects great credit on the 52nd (Lowland) Division. It involved considerable preparation, the details of which were thought out with care and precision. The sodden state of the ground, and, on the night of the crossing, the swollen state of the river, added to the difficulties, yet by dawn the whole of the infantry had crossed. The fact that the enemy were taken by surprise, and, that all resistance was overcome with the bayonet without a shot being fired, bears testimony to the discipline of this division….” [1]Our own World War 1 historian H.S. Gullet described it this way:

“This brilliant operation, which served to demonstrate again the splendid fighting efficiency of the British infantry at that time, made Jaffa safe as a port for the landing of supplies, and forced the Turks form their strong line on the Auja back to an inferior defensive position. Allenby was already laying the foundations for his next and final advance.” [2]

Back in Australia the Christmas period would see an increased effort on the home front with a fresh drive from the Cheer-Up Hut, Red Cross, and Children’s Patriotic Fund all increasing their fundraising to help in the war effort. The Cheer-Up Hut also hosted Battalion reunions for wounded soldiers who had returned home.

In memory of those fighting overseas during the Christmas of 1917, the Adelaide Chronicle published the special front cover edition below.

 

Caption: Palestine 1917 – A pillar erected near the place where the British Army 155th Brigade crossed the Wady el Auja.

Caption: Palestine 1917 – A pontoon bridge over the Wady el Auja four miles north east of Jaffa.