The battle of Romani (or Rumani), 3-9 August 1916, saw the defeat of a Turkish army that was attempting to come within artillery range of the Suez Canal. At the start of 1916 the British defensive line ran along the line of the canal, but it was felt that that line needed too many men, and so it was decided to move to a new position further east, along the northern coast of the Sinai desert, from where a smaller force could block the routes to Egypt from the east.
In the long run it was hoped to move the line to El Arish, on the far side of the desert, but the initial target was Qatia, twenty five miles east of the canal. In February 1916 work began on a standard gauge railway from the canal to Qatia. Despite a setback on 23 April, when a Turkish column defeated a number of isolated British cavalry squadrons, progress was steady, and in May the railway reached Romani.
Work then began on a defensive position at Romani. Eighteen infantry redoubts, each with 100 rifles and 2 machine guns, were built on a line of sand hills along a seven mile front south from Mahemdiva on the coast, ending at Katib Gannit, a large dune. A ridge ran west from Katib Gannit, protecting the southern flank of the British position. A branch line was built from Romani to Mahemdiva, and a narrow gauge railway from Mahemdiva along the coast to Port Said. This ridge was given the name Wellington Ridge. The 52nd (Lowland) Division moved into the Romani position, which was part of the northern No. 3 Section of the Suez defences.
In early July a Turkish army 16,000 strong, commanded by Kress von Kressenstein, began an advance across the Sinai. This force contained the 3rd (Anatolian) Division and Pasha I, a force of German machine guns, artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Kress’s intention was to establish a base within artillery range of the Suez Canal and bombard shipping. In 19 July the British discovered the Turkish army, and quickly reinforced the Romani position.
The 52nd division had already been joined by two brigades from the Anzac Mounted Division (2nd Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Brigade). Now they were joined by 42nd division, on the railway to Kantara, the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade and the 5th Mounted Brigade. Further south the 3rd Australian Light Horse and a mobile column under Lieut-Colonel C L. Smith VC completed the British deployment, although they remained in the No.2 (Central) Section of the front.
The main weakness in the British dispositions was their split command. No. 3 Sector was commander by Major-General H. A. Lawrence, from his headquarters at Kantara, on the Suez Canal. The mobile forces were still under the command of No. 2 Sector, and they were coordinated through General Sir Archibald Murray, the overall commander in Egypt.
The British plan was simple. The Turks would almost certainly attempt to attack around the right flank of the position at Romani. The British would allow them to advance into the difficult terrain south of Wellington Ridge and then attack around the Turkish left, while the infantry at Romani would attack south to pin them down.
On 24 July the Turks reached a position ten miles east of Romani and then stopped for ten days while their heavy artillery crossed the desert. This gave the British plenty of time to prepare their defences, but also gave them long enough to begin worrying that the Turks were never going to advance and to begin to plan for their own offensive.
The German commander of the Turkish force, Kress von Kressenstein, took advantage of the regular British patrols, and on 3 August followed the 2nd Australian Light Horse as they returned from a patrol, in the hope that he could capture Wellington Ridge before the British were alerted to their presence. Instead the advancing Turks ran into the 1st A.L.H. who had been deployed in a line south from Katib Gannit. The remainder of the first day of the battle was taken up with Turkish attempts to get past this thin line of defence and reach the ridge.
Early on the morning of 4 August the Turks were finally able to attack Wellington Ridge. They were able to push the 1st A.L.H. off the ridge, but not to capture it themselves. The 2nd A.L.H. took up a position to the right of the 1st, and retreated slowly back towards the line of the railway. The pressure was eventually relieved by the arrival of the New Zealand Brigade and the 5th Mounted Brigade. By the end of the day the Turkish attack had failed all along the line. This was the correct moment for the British counterattack, but the commander of 52nd Division did not realise this, and Lawrence’s headquarters were too far away to take effective control of the situation.
When the British did launch their counterattack, on 5 August, it was too late. The Turks proved to be faster in the desert, and Kress conducted a skilful fighting retreat. A final attack by the Anzac Mounted Division, at Bir el Abd on 9 August was repulsed, and the Turks escaped back across the Sinai.
Even so, Turkish losses were heavy, The British captured 4,000 prisoners, four guns and nine machine guns, and overall losses were much higher, probably between 6,000 and 8,000. The British lost 1,100 men, mostly in the Anzac Mounted Division. The victory at Romani ended Turkish attempts to attack towards Egypt. Instead the British advance across the desert continued, and at the end of the year the British had reach El Arish.