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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter VI — The Sinai Campaign

page 59

Chapter VI
The Sinai Campaign

Early in 1916 General Sir Archibald Murray decided to deny the Turks the use of the three routes across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal. The southern and central tracks were rendered impracticable by the destruction of the water cisterns which collected supplies during the rainy season. It was considered that the northern route parallel to the coast, and said to be the "oldest road in the world," would be blocked if the Katia Oasis, some thirty miles from the Canal, were held by a mounted brigade with a division in reserve at Kantara. To reach Katia the Turks would have to advance over sixty miles from El Arish across a desert with a very limited supply of well water.

In accordance with this plan, the Fifth Mounted Brigade, consisting of the Worcester and Warwick Yeomanry, and the Gloucester Hussars, under the command of Brigadier-General E. A. Wiggin, was stationed in the Oases of Romani and Katia, some twenty-five and thirty miles respectively east of Kantara on the Canal. The Brigade was divided into four detachments which were posted at Romani, Katia, Oghratina, and Hamisah, with Headquarters at Romani, while a force of one hundred and fifty of the Fifth Royal Scots Fusiliers was stationed at the Oasis of Dueidar, thirteen miles southwest of Katia. No artillery was attached to these forces owing to the difficulty of operating wheeled traffic through the soft sand in this part of the desert.

Brigadier-General Wiggin, having received information that an enemy force two hundred strong was encamped at Bir el Mageibra, eight miles south-east of Hamisah, made a raid on it at daylight on April 23. That morning a thick fog enveloped the whole desert page 60where the British forces were stationed, and this circumstance affected in various ways the four different surprise attacks attempted on that same morning.

General Wiggin reached Mageibra unobserved to find an empty Turkish camp, and not detecting the direction that the enemy force had taken, returned to Hamisah by 9 a.m.

The Turks from Mageibra meanwhile had reached Dueidar in the fog at 5 a.m., but an observant sentry of the Scots Fusiliers gave the alarm when they had almost reached the defences, and the defenders held off the attacking force until reinforcements arrived, and the Turks were driven back with considerable loss to themselves in killed, wounded, and prisoners. The fog was so thick that the Turks could not see the disposition of the British force, so that their fire did more harm to the transport lines than to the troops, fifty-two camels being shot by them.

At Oghratina, the farthest east post of the Fifth Brigade, the A. and D. Squadrons of the Worcester Yeomanry stood to arms at 4 a.m. when suddenly, in the thick fog, sounds were heard at the wells five hundred yards from the camp. An officer rushed down to investigate, and almost ran into a body of Turks. He gave the alarm, and immediately the camp was attacked by a considerable force of the enemy. Both squadrons of Yeomanry were driven back, but were unable to withdraw from the position without deserting their dis mounted details. By 7.45 a.m. eleven officers and thirty-five other ranks were casualties, and the remainder were compelled to surrender.

At Katia the Gloucester Hussars stood to arms at 3.30 a.m., and were fired on by an enemy patrol that had approached through the fog unobserved. Later on a large body of Turks advanced with a battery of mountain guns which shelled the camp and killed or page 61maimed most of the horses. The only officer to escape was Captain Wiggin, who was sent to bring up the horse-holders to the firing line, but while on his way to the led horses, he fainted from the effects of a wound he had received, and when he came to his senses, he saw the Turks rushing the camp. Reaching the horses, he hurried them forward to meet any men that might get away, and by this means about eighty of the force escaped, the surviving members of the rest of the squadron being captured.

When Brig.-General Wiggin returned at 9 a.m. to Hamisah from his raid on Mageibra, he learned of the serious position of the posts at Oghratina and Katia. One squadron of the Worcester Yeomanry was sent to reinforce the Gloucesters at Katia, and became involved in the same difficulties as the latter. Having watered the horses of the other two squadrons, General Wiggin advanced towards Katia, but also met with strong opposition, and seeing the British camp on fire, he concluded he was too late, and fell back on Romani.

From Turkish sources it has since been ascertained that the force that made this daring and successful raid, consisted of about 3,600 men with six guns and some machine-guns.

The Anzac Mounted Division was immediately hurried forward to Romani, but the Turks had retired eastward, and could not be induced to risk a pitched battle with the mounted troops. The 52nd Infantry Division took up and entrenched a position from the Mediterranean coast southwards past Romani, and the mounted forces continued this line so as to protect the railway which was being advanced from the Canal.

This successful raid of the Turks proved that General Murray’s plan for the defence of the Canal was not effective, and stronger measures had to be adopted. It also led the Turks to believe that the British position was page 62not invulnerable, and a few months later another attack on a larger scale was launched against the British position at Romani.

During the months of May, June and July patrolling and outpost work were carried out by the mounted troops despite the heat and discomforts of the waterless desert. The heat was intense, and this with the water difficulty imposed a great strain on the men and horses. In May one regiment made a reconnaissance to Bayoud, but the effects of the heat were such that on arrival at Katia, many of the men lay unconscious for hours in the palm groves. It is under such conditions as these that camels are more suitable for mounted work than horses, and so several camel companies that had been operating in the west of Egypt against the Senussi were attached to the Sinai force. A mobile force consisting of the 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment, the City of London Yeomanry, and three companies of the Imperial Camel Corps, was placed under the command of Lieut.-Colonel C. L. Smith, v.c. of the I.C.C., to operate on the southern flank of the British advance.

On July 19 Brig.-General Chaytor of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, from an aeroplane located a force of Turks, which he estimated at over six thousand men, advancing towards the British position at Romani. This enemy force attacked the British in the early morning hours of August 4, and an all day battle followed, which ended in the repulse of the Turks, who retired day by day, from one prepared position to another, pressed hard all the time by the mounted forces. Thus one after another, the positions at Katia, Oghra-tina, Bir el Abd, Salmana, and Mazar were evacuated by the Turks, and by December, 1916, they were forced back to El Arish on the eastern side of the Sinai Desert. During these operations Camel Corps companies took page 63part in movements threatening the flanks of the enemy, and gave very effective aid to the mounted forces.

Brigades of Australian Light Horse, New Zealand Mounted Rifles, and Yeomanry, took the foremost part in all this work. At first it was intended that the Infantry Divisions available, the 42nd and 52nd, should take active part in the pursuit, but this was found to be impossible. On August 6 the heat was terrific, and the heavily laden infantry men on the march to Katia suffered very severely. Out of one brigade about eight hundred men had to fall out of the ranks, and next day parties from the Camel Corps, Yeomanry, and Air Force were sent out to search the desert for these unfortunates who, when found, were frequently in a state of delirium.

The military authorities, recognizing the value of the Camel Corps for desert warfare, decided to add to the number of those already in existence by forming five additional companies from the reinforcements coming to hand for the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles.

During the summer months the British army gradually forced its way eastward, and whenever it moved forward the desert it crossed sprang into life. A railway line, 4 feet 8½ inch gauge, advanced step by step, with a fresh-water pipe line composed of pipes twelve inches in diameter. This pipe line conveyed Nile Avater, drawn from a fresh water canal and siphoned under the Suez Canal into large filter tanks at Kantara, to the railhead for the use of the great gangs of Egyptian labourers who were forming the permanent way, as well as for the troops and animals all along the route. Railway stations, strong substantial buildings, comfortable huts for employees and military guards, reservoirs and tanks, were erected, and protected where necessary by entrenchments and barbed wire, while a novelty in the page 64way of roads was constructed by pegging down wire-netting three or four strips wide. This it was found made quite a suitable road for infantry to march on, or for motor cars to travel over, but it would not stand horse or tractor traffic.

Night and day the lines of communication teemed with human beings of all nationalities, while railway trains, limbers drawn by horses or mules, and pack-camels in thousands came and went incessantly to supply the needs of an army continually advancing from its base. What a contrast to the usual state of affairs in this waste of sand, where the only sign of life would be an occasional small party of Bedouins trying to eke out an existence by gathering dates in the palm hods scattered so sparsely over the desert area.

But while this advance was taking place pressure had to be brought to bear on the enemy to discourage him from making attacks either frontal or in flank, and so in September, Major-General Chauvel with a mounted force of two Light Horse Brigades and three companies of the Camel Corps, with artillery attached, made a raid from Bir Salmana on Mazar, where the Turks still had a force in an entrenched position. The place was well fortified, and the enemy on the alert, so the attack was not pressed home. Shortly afterwards the Turks took the hint and withdrew to El Arish.

The Camels also formed part of another mounted force under Major-General Dallas, which starting from Bayoud, made two night marches, and attacked a Turkish post called Bir el Maghara, in the hill country some fifty miles south-east of Romani. The position was an awkward one to attack, the only approach to it being up a steep narrow gorge, and after forcing the Turks back from one position, the raiding force retired as the final capture of the post would probably have been at the cost of a considerable number of casualties.