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The charge at El Mughar

The Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry were in the thick of the fighting in Palestine in 1917 as General Allenby drove towards Jerusalem. Philip James and Richard Wilson highlight a particularly active couple of weeks.

Queens Own Dorset Yoemanry
The Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry on parade during their service in the Middle East

The Middle East was a vital theatre during the First World War. The Suez Canal and the Abadan oil pipeline had to be guarded at all costs and it was a shock when in 1915 the Turks briefly succeeded in crossing the canal. They were thrown back and by the end of 1916 were pulling back further north and east into Palestine, pursued by Allied forces under General Murray.

The Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry arrived back in Alexandria, Egypt, from Gallipoli in March 1916. In May they moved into Palestine and were involved in training, reconnaissance and raids. An officer’s letter home describes another activity: ‘Small patrols ride out to a forward outpost, where the men leave their horses and mount camels for patrols that go long distances taking several days. The men stand it well.’

Queens Own Dorset Yoemanry-For desert patrols, members of the Regiment would desert their accustomed horses for camels
For desert patrols, members of the Regiment would desert their accustomed horses for camels

Conditions could be hard, and far removed from the green fields and woods of the Yeomanry’s home county: ‘We had a beastly day yesterday, it started to blow about 10 o’clock and then turned into a sandstorm. Everything in my tent was about an inch deep in sand, and when eating one must have had lbs of sand, but it does not seem to do any harm. However, I loathe my food covered in sand.’ Another officer wrote, ‘Two days ago I got my valise up, and it really was a luxury to get one’s clothes off at night for the first time for a fortnight. We expect to be on the move again any day now and shall, I suppose, go back to what we can carry on the saddle only.’

The regiment found itself in trenches waiting to attack Gaza. Letters home give a taste of those days: ‘We have had no proper scrapping along our trenches, but we have pretty exciting times when we are relieving or being relieved. We have to walk across the open to get to or from our trenches and 8 days ago they turned two machine guns and God knows how many rifles on us. It was a very bright moonlit night, so no doubt they saw us all right. It is a beastly uncomfortable feeling when you are caught in the open. However, so far my casualties have been few and I am still unpunctured myself.’

A map of the charge - Queens Own Dorset Yoemanry
A map of the charge

Two attempts to capture Gaza, the second time with the support of eight British tanks, used for the first time in the Middle East, failed and on 28 June 1917 General Allenby replaced General Murray as Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, with instructions from Lloyd George that as a Christmas present for the people of Great Britain, he was to capture Jerusalem before that date. At the time of his appointment, the Turks held well-established lines running from Gaza to Beersheba.

General Allenby decided that in order to capture Gaza, he must first capture the wells at Beersheba, the enemy’s main water supply. Beersheba fell on 31 October to mounted troops and on 7 November, the Turks started falling back from Gaza, re-establishing a defensive line to hold Junction Station on the Jerusalem to Beersheba railway.

General Allenby captured Junction Station on 12 November. At the same time the Mounted Yeomanry Division was ordered to march eastwards and capture Narneh village, on the railway 4½ miles north of Junction Station. The 6th Mounted Brigade, part of the Mounted Division and made up of the Dorset, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Yeomanries, the Berkshire RHA and No.17 Machine Gun Squadron under command of Brigadier Godwin, also captured Yebnah, but the Turks still held the high controlling ridge from Katrah to El Mughar.

At 1245 hrs on 13 November, orders were received for the 6th Mounted Brigade to capture this ridge. On the ridge were two prominent spurs. The Bucks Yeomanry were to attack the right-hand spur and the Dorset Yeomanry the left-hand spur. On the flat ground between the Brigade and the Turks ran a narrow wadi (a dry river-bed), wide enough to take the men in single file. Two Squadrons of Bucks Yeomanry were already in the wadi and the Dorset Yeomanry were ordered to join them. The three regimental machine gun sections, the 17th MG Squadron and the Berkshire RHA were ordered to take up positions to support the attack.

The charge at El Mughar - Queens Own Dorset Yoemanry
The charge at El Mughar. With their horses exhausted after galloping over 4000 yards of open ground, the Dorset Yeomanry, dismounted, are charging up the spur at the top left of the painting

At 1500 hrs the Bucks Yeomanry scrambled up the steep eastern bank of the wadi to cross some 3000 yards of open, shot-over ground to reach their objective. The Dorset Yeomanry also emerged on their left to charge across some 4000 yards (approximately 2¼ miles) of similar ground. ‘A’ Squadron was ordered to gallop to the spur and then attack dismounted. ‘B’ and ‘C’ Squadrons, led by Colonel Sir Randolf Baker, followed to where ‘A’ Squadron’s horses were being held.

When the Regiment was committed to the attack and horses outstretched were going their best pace, Colonel Sir Randolf Baker suddenly found Corporal Whittle busting along beside him, far out of the ranks, and asked, ‘Well, what about it?’ ‘Sir’, replied the Corporal, his face aglow, ‘it’s my birthday today and the best I’ve ever spent.’ As the horses were exhausted, the Yeomen dismounted, fixed bayonets and charged up the hill. The Dorset Yeomanry took their spur, capturing eight machine guns and many prisoners. Captain (Adj) Robertson, although wounded, turned one of the captured machine guns on the retreating Turks and for his gallant action was awarded the MC. The Bucks Yeomanry also successfully captured their objective and the whole ridge was secured. Once this was apparent, the Berkshire Yeomanry were sent around the left-hand spur and rounded up many prisoners. In all, the Brigade captured eighteen officers, 1378 ORs, fourteen machine guns and two field guns.

Captain Harry Hoare - Queens Own Dorset Yoemanry
Captain Harry Hoare, heir to the Stourhead Estate, died of his wounds after the El Mughar action. Although Stourhead is in Wiltshire, the nearest drill hall was at Gillingham, so Captain Hoare fought with the Dorset Yeomanry.

In this action the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry lost Sergeant Guppy and eight ORs killed, Captain Hoare mortally wounded, Captain (Adj) Robertson, Lieutenant Beechcroft and 43 ORs wounded and 80 horses killed. The Regiment won two DSOs, one MC, three DCMs and seven MMs. The famous painting by James Beadle of this charge depicts the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry’s part in the action, led, left-handed, by Major Bulteel. The Bucks Yeomanry lost six ORs killed, three officers wounded, one mortally, and 45 ORs wounded, and were awarded one DSO and one MC.

The 6th Mounted Brigade were next ordered to advance and capture the ridge from Sidun to Aba Shusheh. At 0600 hrs on 15 November the Bucks and Berks Yeomanries started attacking the ridge while the Dorset Yeomanry was ordered to capture Sidun village. Two Squadrons charged the village from the south and ‘B’ Squadron worked their way around the back, charging from the north and capturing over 100 prisoners, one Krupp gun and two machine guns. The gun is today on display at Sherborne Castle. Major Wingfield Digby, commanding ‘B’ Squadron, was awarded the DSO for his courage and for the way he had handled the Squadron.

General Allenby next decided that he must secure the roadway that ran from Mablus to Jerusalem, heavily defended by the Turkish army. The 6th Mounted Brigade advanced into the Judean Hills, and on 20 November British forces attacked, meeting very strong resistance around Beirtunia, some four miles short of their objective. In this action and until relieved, the Regiment lost Captain Yeatman and three ORs. Colonel Sir Randolf Baker and two other officers were wounded, together with 20 ORs. The line held where the advance had been stopped, in spite of heavy counter-attacks on 27 and 28 November.

When the Colonel was wounded in the attack about 1 pm, he lay incapable of movement. Nearby, Trooper Fowler also lay wounded but could have crawled away, but he preferred to stay with his commanding officer. As evening drew on, Trooper Fowler helped the Colonel get down the hillside and, leaving him in a less exposed position, went for help. He managed to secure a camel and some volunteers, and with these he managed to get Colonel Sir Randolf Baker back to safety. For this gallant and devoted conduct, Trooper Fowler was awarded the DCM.

On 29 November the Regiment was relieved by infantry and with drew to Katrah. Ten days later the Regiment returned to camp at El Medjel, where they spent Christmas 1917 and the New Year. General Allenby’s forces overcame the Turkish resistance at Beirtunia and Jerusalem surrendered on 9 December. Thus General Allenby comfortably fulfilled his instructions.

The gun captured at Sidun, still on display at Sherborne Castle
The gun captured at Sidun, still on display at Sherborne Castle

[There is a small display about the charge of El Mughar at the Keep Military Museum, Dorchester, until at least the end of November. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at 2 pm, followed by a Remembrance Day service, on 11 November at Stourton parish church on the Stourhead Estate near Mere. It will be conducted by the Regimental Padre, assisted by the Rector, ]

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