Taji troops commemorate battle 100 years ago

  • 03/08/2016
Australian Army soldier Private Lachlan McKay is on active service in Iraq as a member of Task Group Taji's quick-reaction force (AAP)
Australian Army soldier Private Lachlan McKay is on active service in Iraq as a member of Task Group Taji's quick-reaction force (AAP)

As Australian troops fought and died in the bloody battle of Pozieres in France, another Anzac force was confronting their old foe the Turks in the sand dunes of the Sinai Desert - and winning.

This was the Battle of Romani, the first of a succession of victories by the Anzac Mounted Division which took them from the Suez Canal to the suburbs of Damascus.

For the New Zealand and Australian soldiers training members of the Iraqi military in Taji, Iraq, the centenary of the Battle of Romani is a big deal.

There are some similarities.

Task Group Taji Commander Colonel Andrew Lowe said they shared their task force emblem - a boomerang and silver fern - with the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division which fought and won the Battle of Romani, the British Empire's first major victory of World War I.

As well, Task Force Taji has adopted the Mounted Division motto "Kia Tupato"- Maori for "Be Cautious."

The Mounted Division which fought in the Sinai comprised three Australian Light Horse Brigades and one New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.

In Iraq, the task force comprises one New Zealand and three Australian training teams.

"They served in Egypt, Palestine and Syria and we are next door in Iraq. We are experiencing the same conditions, the same climate and the same cultures as they did 100 years ago," Colonel Lowe said.

He said the task force was conscious of the traditions and reputations of the Australian and New Zealand armies, earned over the last century.

"We may not be in combat, but we are training proud soldiers who are fighting to regain the sovereignty of their nation and defeat a terrorist scourge which threatens the rest of the globe," he said.

Light horse units sailed with the Australian Imperial Force when it departed Australia in 1914, fighting as infantry on Gallipoli.

When the Anzacs withdrew from Gallipoli in December 1915, they returned to Egypt. The light horsemen were reunited with their steeds and in March 1916, the Australian first, second and third Light Horse Brigades and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade formed the Anzac Mounted Division.

For the allies in Egypt, the enemy, Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire weren't that far away and posed a real threat to the empire's supply lifeline, the Suez Canal.

After a Turkish raid on the canal in early 1915, British forces pushed their defences out into the Sinai and in 1916 were joined by the Anzacs who in April 1916 occupied the town of Romani, 35 kilometres east of the canal.

In a hard day's fighting on the Western Front, a good advance could be a few hundreds metres but in the desert, mounted troops could move tens of kilometres. But, with a few exceptions, they fought dismounted.

Anzac units were well suited to this free-wheeling form of warfare which was of necessity centred on towns and oases where there was water for men and horses.

In early August 1916, Turkish forces approached Romani and around midnight on August 3, about 8000 Turks bumped into about 500 soldiers in the outer defences. The Australians steadily gave ground. The fight continued through the day, with British and New Zealand units joining the line.

Early on August 4, the Australian 1st and 2nd Brigades attacked the Turkish flank, crushing resistance and prompting a general pursuit of fleeing Turkish forces.

Subsequently, the British command was criticised for failing to more energetically follow through to turn the Turkish retreat into a rout.

Historian Chris Coulthard-Clark said that obscured what was actually a decisive victory which eliminated the threat to Romani and to the canal, marking the beginning of the drive across the Sinai into Palestine.

The brunt of fighting fell on the Anzacs who suffered more than 900 of the 1130 allied casualties, including 202 dead. Turkish losses were estimated at 9000 with nearly 4000 taken prisoner.

"Romani was the first decisive victory attained by British Land Forces and changed the whole face of the campaign in that theatre, wresting as it did from the enemy the initiative which he never again obtained," commander of the Anzac Mounted Brigade General Harry Chauvel wrote after the war.