Kantara War Memorial Cemetery

Kantara War Memorial Cemetery following the Great War, courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Kantara War Memorial Cemetery is in Eastern Kantara, the cemetery is some 160 kilometres north-east of Cairo and a closer 50 kilometres to Port Said. You can reach the cemetery via passenger ferry from West Kantara, then a further 3 kilometres travel down the road from the wharf. You can also reach the cemetery via the Suez Canal Bridge, at Sinai head north towards Kanatara and the cemetery is just inside the township.

There are more than 1500 Commonwealth graves from the First World War at Kantara War Memorial Cemetery and a further 110 from the Second World War. In the First World War, Kantara was an essential defence point for the Suez Canal against German and Ottoman advances. A new railway towards Sinai and Palestine began construction in January 1916 and the area was established as a key base and hospital site, the development of the necessary cemetery soon followed.

Kantara was again an important hospital base in the Second World War with the No 1 General Hospital sited there for more than four years, as well as No 41 and No 92 hospital for times as well.  This cemetery also holds nearly 350 graves of those outside the Commonwealth, notably a number of Polish burials from their No 8 Hospital which was based in the region during the Second World War.

In this cemetery there are also two special memorials. At its entrance is a panel inscribed with the names of New Zealand men who died at Romani and Rafa and have no known grave. There are also commemorative panels acknowledging the 283 Indian servicemen buried in the nearby Kantara Indian Cemetery. In 1961 that cemetery was deemed inaccessible, so its dead are commemorated at the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery.

Image: Kantara War Memorial Cemetery following the Great War.
Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives.

Painting of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel by James Peter Quinn, 1919, Wikimedia Commons.

Interred at the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery are many casualties from the Battle of Romani. Under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel the Anzac Mounted Division of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, with the 52nd Lowland Division successfully halted Turkish attempts to take the Suez Canal at Romani. This battle also signalled a move from the Egypt theatre into Palestine. 

The Battle was fought over the 3rd to the 5th of August, 1916. The German led Ottoman forces launched an attack from Katia, a few miles away from Romani, their objective to take the Canal, so valuable to any success in Egypt.  

Even for that time of year the desert was exceptionally hot, the brutal sun exhausted both men and horses and the soft and heavy sand was incredibly difficult to move across. Battling through the night meant both sides were fighting almost blindly, all soldiers struggled to find targets and the daylight inevitably exposed everything.

The Turks fought hard and achieved a number of significant small victories and positions in the battle, but eventually their attack slowed with a number of factors working against them. Their changed attack plans and approaches, albeit necessary, held back their momentum. And although the Allies were struggling, the Turks were further worn down by excessive marching orders, rampant illness, especially dysentery, insufficient rations and the unforgiving desert conditions.

In the Battle of Romani 4,000 Turks were taken prisoner and their casualties were as many as 16,000. The Allies lost 1,100 men, mostly from the Anzac Mounted Division. Following the battle the Allies buried their men in shallow graves, carefully marking their place on maps so that they could later be exhumed and reinterred in Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. At the end of the war the cemetery more than doubled when the graves from the surrounding battlefields were brought in.     

Image: Painting of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel
Creator: James Peter Quinn, 1919.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Studio portrait of Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt) Alan Serafino Righetti, 2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment, Australian War Memorial

Lieutenant Alan Serafino Righetti is one of the 248 Australians commemorated in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. Both Alan and his father, Major E.E. Righetti, a Boer War veteran, enlisted toward the end of 1914. Alan Righetti was part of the Second Light Horse Regiment, serving at Gallipoli from August 1915. The following year, back in Egypt, Alan Righetti was killed on 4 August 1916 during the Battle of Romani.  He was one of those men initially buried in the battlefields, a ‘desert grave’, and later brought into the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. Major Righetti survived his second war.   

Years later, in 1920 Herr Heinrich Romer-Andreae, a German machine gun officer who served with the Turkish forces in Palestine, forwarded Alan Righetti’s identity disc, a small token made from an Egyptian ten-piastre piece, to his mother, Mary Righetti. Herr Romer-Andreae was given the disc by a Turkish soldier a month after the Battle of Romani. This German officer wrote to Mary, a reply to her letter thanking him for sending her such a meaningful relic. Herr Romer-Andreae hoped that his explanation of Alan’s death might be a comfort to a grieving mother. He wrote ‘I hope it will be a solace to you to know that your son fell as a hero – without suffering pain’. His account of the battle explained that Alan was shot in the head and died almost instantly. Herr Romer-Andreae must have thought knowing Alan didn’t suffer long was worth such blunt reality.

Image: Studio portrait of Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt) Alan Serafino Righetti, 2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment.
Source: Australian War Memorial P01098.002.

Map of the Battle of Rafa from C. Guy Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine Volume III Official History New Zealand's Effort in the Great War

Like so much of the fighting in this theatre of war, the Battle of Rafa was significantly defined by the dependence, of the Allies and Ottomans alike, on water. And so this operation was greatly influenced by the water pipeline and the railway ever so slowing creeping through the desert.

On 21 December 1916, the Allies took the Turkish abandoned site of El Arish, it was an essential position to maintain their stronghold of Egypt and their moves forward in to battle for Palestine. Following this capture there was a definitive move into Magdhaba, a former stronghold of the Ottomans. Weeks later, on 9 January 1917, the Allies left from El Arish to take Rafa at the Egyptian and Palestinian border. Rafa held the last of the Ottoman troops still in Egyptian territory and after Magdhaba the Turks had withdrawn other remaining posts in Sinai. But despite their vulnerability, their position at Rafa was strong and it took the Allies significant time to gain any ground in capturing this garrison.    

Eventually Field Marshal Chetwode and General Chauvel decided to withdraw troops, concluding that the effort toward Rafa had been a failure. But their call came too late and fell on deaf ears, the New Zealand Mounted Brigade had already made their charge and the Camel Corps attacked the Ottoman trenches too.

The Ottomans surrendered and for Bean the Anzac reaction was an example of the lack of blood thirstiness amongst Australian and New Zealander troops, he wrote ‘with all their zest for battle, the men from the two young Dominions were never bloody killers.’

There were 71 Allies killed and more than 400 wounded. However the Turks lost 200 men, 168 more were wounded and 1473 (including 10 Germans) were taken prisoner.

Image: Map of the Battle of Rafa from C. Guy Powles, ‘The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine’, Volume III, Official History New Zealand's Effort in the Great War (Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, 1922) pp. 80–81.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

Letter from Heinrich Romer Andrea (German Army) to Mrs Mary Righetti, Australian War Memorial, PR89/179.

Alan Serafino Righetti
Service Dossier
B2455
Alan Serafino Righetti

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
www.cwgc.org/

Jean Bou, Light Horse: A History of Australia’s Mounted Arm, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Gullett, H. S., ‘Chapter XI: The Battle of Romani’, Volume VII – The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, 10th edition (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941).

Gullett, H. S., ‘Chapter XV – Rafa, Volume VII – The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918’, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, 10th edition (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941).

Kinloch, Terry, Devils on Horses: in the words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-19, (Auckland: Exisle Publishing, 2007).

Wavell, Field Marshal Earl, The Palestine Campaigns, (London: Twelfth Printing, 3rd edition, 1931).

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