Gateway to Palestine
Exactly 90 years ago, with the capture of Rafa on 9 January 1917, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force arrived in Palestine. The Turkish raid on the Suez Canal in February 1915 had shown the limitations of defending both Egypt and the Canal from its western bank. Beginning with the establishment of a new defensive line 10 km east of the Canal, the British military authorities in Egypt had gradually extended this zone of protection eastwards across the Sinai Desert. After General Sir Archibald Murray assumed command in Egypt in January 1916, he moved the line of forward defence to Katia and began to build both a standard-gauge railway and a 12-inch steel water pipeline across Sinai so that he could eventually move it at least as far east as El Arish, approaching the traditional border between Egypt and Palestine at Rafa.
Following the defeat of the Turks at Romani at the beginning of August 1916, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force began a steady advance eastwards. The speed was limited to the rate at which the railway and pipeline could be built. Using the Egyptian Labour Corps this was maintained at 25km a month.
Although the bulk of the Turkish forces had been withdrawn back across the desert to El Arish, outposts were maintained at locations such as Bir el Mazar and Maghara. Murray used his most effective and desert-worthy division, the Anzac Mounted Division under Major General Harry Chauvel, to patrol aggressively across Sinai and launch heavy raids against the Turkish outposts. On 17 September Chauvel's men, supported by horse artillery and part of the Imperial Camel Corps, attacked Bir el Mazar. After a difficult battle, Chauvel ordered the attack to be broken off and his men withdrew. Two days later the Turks gave up their strong position and fell back towards El Arish.
A similar turn of events occurred the following month at Maghara. The Turks were systematically being pushed back from Egypt towards Palestine. After a lull in the fighting the next engagement was expected to take place at El Arish in the middle of December. But when the Anzac Mounted Division approached the small town on the morning of 21 December after a hard night ride they discovered that the Turks had already left, withdrawing east towards Rafa and south-east along the Wady el Arish towards Magdhaba. With the British 52nd Division marching forward to occupy El Arish, on 22 December Chauvel was ordered to move rapidly through the night and attack Magdhaba the following day.
Again taking men from both his own Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps, Chauvel arrived at dawn on 23 December. The Turkish defences were strong, built around five redoubts. The Light Horsemen struggled to cover the open ground and overcome them. Concerned that the position would not be taken before nightfall with the result that the horses would have no water to drink, around 1.00pm Chauvel ordered his men to disengage and withdraw. But as he did so, first one, then another of the redoubts finally fell and the Turkish defences began to crumble. By 4.30 pm the position had been taken.
Just over a fortnight later, with the line at El Arish and its extension into the hilly country round Magdhaba secured, the EEF finally reached the border with Palestine. The main Turkish position, again built around a series of mutually supporting redoubts, was not in fact at Rafa, but just over a kilometre to the south at El Magruntein. On the morning of 9 January 1917, the Anzac Mounted Divison, the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade, the British 5th Yeomanry Brigade and British horse arillery regiments attacked El Magruntein. A familiar pattern was followed. The initial assaults were rebuffed but, in the early afternoon as anxiety was rising about finding water before end of the day, the New Zealanders and Cameliers both made breakthroughs that precipitated a general Turkish collapse. It was a difficult action but eventually, at the cost of 415 wounded including 71 killed, the position, together with nearby Rafa, was secured. Through a combination of persistent effort and audacity, the EEF had driven its way out of Egypt into the Holy Land.
HS Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine 1914-1918, The Official history of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol.VII (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1937), Chapters 13, 14 and 15