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The Sinai Desert, Mahamdiya, Romania and Katia

British Isles Genealogy | 23rd Service Battalion Royal Fusiliers

On the 10th of July, after handing over to the 5th Manchesters, the Battalion entrained for Mahamdiya. The curse was pronounced against it, "On thy flat feet shalt thou go—and dust shalt thou eat"; and it did not entrain again until it left Ludd at the beginning of the journey to France nearly two years later. The accumulation of stores resulting from several months comparatively civilized life had to be sorted out, and all but the barest necessities were left behind—a process which was constantly being repeated as the advance through the desert continued, the necessities becoming successively barer and barer. Two trains were required for the Battalion and its possessions, one leaving at 7.17 a.m. and the other at 4.15 p.m. They were composed of open trucks in which the men were packed with little regard to comfort. It was not a luxurious journey, but fortunately it was not a long one. After skirting the inundations the line ran for some miles across almost flat desert, and then entered a country of sand hills, writhing and twisting among the tumbled ridges till it reached Romani. Here we passed on to a branch line which took us north to the coast.

Our camp at Mahamdiya had been occupied by the Scottish Horse. It was pitched on a slope of sand less than a mile from the railway, and half a mile or so from the sea. The sea was the great feature of Mahamdiya. Its deep blueness rested the eye, wearied by the perpetual glare of the sand. The prevailing north wind blowing straight off it tempered the heat—and most important of all, it gave us the opportunity of being cool and clean for a delicious half-hour as often as we could spare the time to get down to it. No parade, not even the infrequent "fall in for pay," was so welcome as a bathing parade. Our supply of fresh water was extremely limited, and as drinking comes with most of us before washing, we should have been a dirty lot indeed without the sea. Even as it was, salt water, like a famous soap, won't wash clothes, and our hosiery suffered accordingly. Drinking water was issued at stated intervals, in the presence of an officer—and that was another occasion on which there were no absentees.

Some way east of the camp ran a line of barbed wire in a great sweep from the sea to the south, finally turning west to protect the whole locality. Behind it was a series of little posts occupied nightly by half the Battalion, while the rest slept in camp. The most northerly post was not a popular one. The roar of the surf forced the sentries to rely entirely on their eyesight; while the alarming number of marauding crabs, which maneuvered over the area all night, gave one an uneasy feeling which usually begot a nightmare.

In front of the outpost line lay a great expanse of dry salt-lake, separated from the sea by a hundred yards or so of sand dune, and stretching away as far as the eye could reach, a sheet of grayish white. These dry lakes or marshes, Sabkhet, to give them their local name, are a feature of northern Sinai. One very large one, at whose western extremity we now were, runs most of the way across the top of the Peninsula, and is believed to have been the famous Serbonian Bog of the Classics. In places its surface gleams white with salt crystals, covering a mass of hard irregular lumps said to be formed of gypsum, which makes walking almost impossible. Further inland, smaller marshes were often met with, and a hole dug in them soon filled with bitter water, quite undrinkable, but valuable to wash away the sand. South of the great Sabkhet, the everlasting sand ridges began again, spotted with clumps and low bushes of scrub, and rising in the distance to pure yellow hills entirely without vegetation.

A mile or so to the east of our outpost line, the permanent defenses were being constructed by the Egyptian Labor Corps, now recruited to do the sand shoveling, which had fallen to our lot at Kantara. Every morning bands of blue-clad gippies moved out from their lairs behind us, in rough, very rough, military formation, singing their doubtless primeval but rather idiotic chants, laughing, shouting, and generally enjoying life in a way which we admired, but could not imitate. Arrived at their redoubts they shoveled and sand-bagged away under the direction of the versatile R.E., with a rest during the hottest part of the day, until the evening saw their equally noisy and cheerful return to camp. We were glad they enjoyed it, but felt no envious desire to share their labors with them.

In spite of the breeze off the sea the weather remained extremely hot. Heavy dews often fell at night, causing mist at dawn, which forced the outpost companies to stand to arms for an extra hour or more; on July 13th we indignantly stood to from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. for this reason. When the sun was well up, there came the most trying part of the day, while the dew-laden atmosphere was drying. The temperature rose till the thermometer inside the tents registered anything from 95° to 110°, but the heat became less oppressive when the moisture had vanished from the air. What training we did was reserved whenever possible for the evening, and even so it was hard work. An entry in the War Diary reads, "14/7/16. 1700 to 1930. Battalion Route March towards Romani over heavy sand. Distance under four miles, but men much fatigued!" Four miles in two and a half hours gives some idea of the nature of the going, and there was no extra tot of water to be issued on return to camp.

We were now in an area in which even the optimistic Ordnance Survey (who in the chatty little notes they append to their maps, characterized the local water supply as "abundant though varying in quality") considered wheeled transport as impracticable. In consequence our nodding acquaintanceship with camels ripened quickly into an undesired familiarity. There is a touch of oriental romance about the camel, as the mile long convoys loom up through the night and pass in uncanny silence, slow but untiring across the moonlit desert. It was romantic even to see a string returning to camp, their day's work over, with the camel escort swaying high in air, rope bridle in hand and rifle on hip, as if they had been bred in Somaliland instead of Glasgow. But the romance did not carry one very far. Orders from Headquarters soon put an end to free rides even on unloaded camels. The eye might be charmed by the stately motion of the creature but the nose was offended by its exceedingly unpleasant smell. Camels are very delicate. They must not be overloaded or overworked. Their saddles gall them with surprising ease and rapidity, and are extremely difficult to pack. They have vile tempers, and in late autumn become frankly impossible. The native word "macnoon," by the way, in spite of its suggestion of respectable Highland clans, was regarded as the only one adequate to describe a camel at this time of year, and was therefore added to our vocabulary. They are noisy, vicious, unaccommodating and aggravating to a degree. A lance-corporal of the Battalion of great girth and tank-like prowess in the football field was always ready to bear bitter testimony to their man-eating proclivities, and no doubt still regards it as a distinct intervention of Providence that he lost no more than the seat of his shorts.

In a Redoubt, Mahamdiya

The peaceful life of our seaside resort was soon destroyed by rumors that the Turks were moving. On the evening of July 19th, an aeroplane reconnaissance discovered a considerable force of them at Bir el Abd, some twenty-five miles to the east of us, and noticed smaller parties much nearer. The Turkish feat of moving a force, then reckoned at from 8000 to 9000 men, fifty miles from El Arish without our being aware of it, was a very fine one, and when it is remembered that they attacked us at Romani, seventy-five miles from their base, with 18,000 men and artillery up to 6 inch howitzers, everyone who has felt what the desert is like in July will be full of admiration. Nor can one wonder at the fact established by our all-wise Intelligence, that prisoners captured had sore feet. The first ripples of the commotion produced by this report reached us at 1 a.m. on the 20th, when the Adjutant was summoned to Brigade Headquarters. At 2.45 a.m. half "C" Company moved out to take over Redoubt No. 10, and later in the morning "B" Company garrisoned No. 8 and "D" Company No. 11, while the rest of "C" Company occupied 10A. These redoubts, though habitable, were still unfinished. They were part of the defenses mentioned above as being in the hands of the Egyptian Labor Corps, a chain of posts running south past Romani and then turning west among the sand hills. The garrisons had at once to set to and improve their position, strengthen their wire and finish off the fire bays. At 10A a signal station had to be established in mid-desert some hundreds of yards from the redoubt, owing to a temporary shortage of signal wire. Signallers are naturally imperturbable, but the officer in charge confessed to a thrill of horror when, having with some difficulty made his way to his signal station at midnight and been handed the receiver, even as he uttered the preliminary "Hullo," the instrument suddenly sprang from his grasp and rushed off into the darkness. Mastering an almost overpowering desire to run for the redoubt, he assisted two signallers to investigate and discovered that the wire had caught in the foot of a straying camel, which had proceeded on its thoughtless way with the receiver attached.

But as is usual in desert warfare, time passed and nothing happened. "B" Company were relieved in No. 8 by the 53rd Division and rejoined "A" Company in camp. The other garrisons got into tents which they pitched in the ground behind the redoubts, so that the majority of the men could have shelter by day. At night the trenches were manned, and all was ready for an attack at dawn. But with the exception of some bomb-dropping raids by their planes, the enemy remained passive. The Australian Light Horse reported that he was busy digging in on a line through Oghratina, some miles east of Katia, and we began to think that he intended to put the onus of attacking on to us. The fear, however, was unfounded, he was only completing his preparations, and on the night of August 3rd-4th he advanced and occupied Katia.

This movement was reported, and "A" and "B" Companies, who had by now relieved "C" and "D" in the redoubts, were warned that the attack was now almost certain. Before dawn on the 4th a bombardment began, but its entire force fell a mile or two to the south of us upon the Romani defenses; the Turkish plan being to attack there and, if possible, to turn our right flank. All the morning the artillery fire continued, our reply being strengthened by the "crack of doom imitations" of a couple of monitors out at sea to the north of No. 11. Little or no news filtered through to us, and the redoubt companies spent a hot day in their trenches, which were but ill suited for permanent occupation, while the reduction in the water issue, made necessary by the fear of future difficulties in refilling the storage tanks, started a thirst which was not appeased for many days. During the night, however, we heard enough to assure us that things were going well, and early on the 5th we received orders to leave the redoubts to a garrison of the unfit and to rendezvous in the old camp, prepared for a "mobile."

About midday the Battalion moved off, "A" and "C" Companies having only just arrived from the redoubts after a wakeful night and a heavy morning's work, and already thirsty, though no more water could be issued. A single water bottle, once filled, is but a poor supply for a long day under the Egyptian sun. Marching over heavy sand in the hot hours, even when the haversack has replaced the pack, soon produces an unparalleled drought. Sweat runs into a man's eyes and drips from his chin. It runs down his arms and trickles from his fingers. It drenches his shirt and leaves great white streaks on his equipment. And while so much is running out, the desire to put something in grows and grows. The temptation to take a mouthful becomes well nigh irresistible, and once the bottle of sun-heated chlorine-flavored water is put to the lips, it is almost impossible to put it down before its precious contents are gone. Then a man becomes hopeless and there is danger of his falling out. All honor to those, and they were many, who through age or sickness, had greater difficulty in keeping up than the rest of us, but who yet carried on indomitably to the end, or only gave in when they had reached a stage of complete collapse. How often in such hours have we felt that if only we could live where one may have an unlimited supply of water just by turning on a tap, we should be content for ever. But are we, my friends? I fear not.

One cannot help feeling that the comparison made with the performances of regular battalions in the heat of India before the war, are unfair. These were trained men, caught young and developed to a high standard of physical fitness, marching along the excellent Indian roads, with a certainty of a good water supply at their night's camping place, and accompanied in many cases by traveling canteens and soda water machines. In our ranks were to be found many men of middle age, unused to active life, and many boys whose physique had not had time to respond to military training. Some had but recently joined us and were not acclimatized, others had not recovered their strength after the dysentery of Gallipoli. Roads or canteens there were none. Of course British troops have often found themselves in such conditions and worse on active service. But it is interesting to find that that fine old soldier R.S.M. Mathieson, always said that he personally never suffered from thirst to anything like the same degree during the Egyptian campaign of 1882.

We left the Battalion moving off S.E. from the camp for the Brigade rendezvous. Here we received orders to attack a "hod" named Abu Hamrah, which lay between us and Katia. The distance was not great, hardly six miles as the crow flies, but we were not crows and had to adopt less direct as well as more laborious methods. The Battalion was on the right in support to the 7th H.L.I., and the march continued with but short halts till 4 p.m., when we had a somewhat longer pause, and a chance to reinforce our early breakfasts. Few men, however, can eat either bully beef or biscuit when they are thirsty, and that was all we had. It always seemed strange that we should not have made more use of food more suitable to the climate. Later on dried figs and occasionally little dried apricots were issued with the mobile ration. Doubtless these are not very sustaining, but they are the fruit of the country, and it is better to have a little you can eat than a full ration that you cannot, whatever the decrease in caloric value may be.

There was neither sound nor sign of enemy opposition, and the advance was resumed in artillery formation in an hour or so. Darkness began to fall and great difficulty was experienced in keeping touch with the battalion in front and even between the different companies, a difficulty increased by the first line camels of the 7th, who were perpetually, though inevitably, getting in our way. When daylight had actually failed it must be admitted the Brigade had become somewhat disintegrated. The Argylls did not regain touch till next morning. The Battalion, minus "A" Company, who had been cut off by some camels and thus entered Abu Hamrah on their own, got up on the right of the 7th, where the errant company eventually discovered it.

Immediately strings of camels now appeared on all sides marching and counter-marching across everybody's front, holding up exasperated and desperate platoon commanders, who finally ruthlessly cut them in two and forged ahead to a chorus of blasphemy from weary escorts and lamentations from terrified native drivers. The peaceful hod had become an inferno. No one knew anything except that there were no Turks. After superhuman efforts on the part of various exalted personages, things were straightened out, pickets detailed and posted, and the men, too tired even to swear, dropped where they were, and rapidly cooled down in the chilly dew. It was now nearly eleven o'clock, and a half bottle of water was issued, enough merely to whet the consuming thirst which gripped everybody. Tunics were disentangled from the damp congeries on our backs and we had a few hours' precious sleep.

At 3 a.m. we stood to and began to dig ourselves in, in positions sited with extreme difficulty, in unknown country, in the dark. Soon, however, orders were received to prepare to move, and in spite of every effort, not more than half the men had had their bottles filled before we had to continue the advance. It was a very hot steamy morning, and the coolness of dawn soon disappeared. The advance was slow, and we grew thirstier and thirstier whether we moved or halted. On reaching a ridge overlooking Rabah and Katia it was found that the leading battalions were too far to the left. We and the Argylls were therefore ordered to turn right-handed and occupy Katia. The dark line of palms appeared very enticing, if very far away, and the Battalion struggled manfully on, shedding the weaker brethren as it went and, very nearly "all out," reached its objective about 10 a.m.

Our troubles were now nearly over. There were no enemy, and the trees gave us a grateful shade, which only "B" Company, pushed forward to hold an outpost line on the far bridge, had to forgo. A fine stone well was found in the oasis with a good supply of cool, though curious tasting water, and canteens were soon being let down into it at the end of puttees in a hopeless effort to cope with our thirst, after which the bolder spirits went so far as to nibble a ration biscuit. But one cannot help reflecting on what might have been the consequences for us if the Turks had adopted the German policy of well-poisoning.

We afterwards heard that the Turks, evacuating Abu Hamrah on our approach, had taken up a strong rear guard position at Katia, and had beaten off the cavalry, who had retired behind us to water their horses and get a much needed night's rest. The Turks had seized their opportunity and slipped away during the night. As far as we were concerned they were welcome to slip.

The story of the Battle of Romani can be read elsewhere. It was not an infantry show—at any rate on our side—though elements of the 52nd Division saw some fighting. No praise can be too high for the endurance and fine fighting quality of our cavalry, both Anzac and English. And it is reckoned that the Turks lost a good half of their force, either killed or captured, before they outdistanced the mounted pursuit.

The Battalion remained at Katia until August 14th. The oasis consisted of a broad crescent of palm trees running for two or three miles round a sabkhet. Great clusters of dates hung from most of the trees—but they were still unripe, not sour or bitter but very hard and with a curious stringent taste. The Turks had plainly considered them a valuable addition to their rations—for in every Turkish trench and sniper's hole we found their stones and sticks; and while we were free of the well-water we found that we could make them quite palatable by boiling them in a canteen. In the middle of the circle of palms stood a little mosque or Sheikh's tomb with a big dark tree, perhaps a tamarisk, beside it, and bricks and other remains showed that there had at some time been other modest dwelling-places in the neighbourhood.

At night we usually moved out to an outpost line in the sand ridges beyond the oasis. The Turks dropped a few shells along these on the 6th, but after that the fighting, still kept up by the cavalry, moved far out of range to the east. By day the bulk of the force came down among the trees, while the outpost companies were able to rig up some kind of shelter from the sun with the blankets which camels had brought up by the 9th, one to two men. Providence perpetrated a huge practical joke when it designed the palm to be the only tree which will grow in the desert. From a distance it looks well, but when the weary traveler approaches and proposes to rest beneath its shade, he finds he has to choose between the thin shadow of the trunk, not wide enough to shelter him, and the little blob of shade given by the clump of leaves at the top; this latter, coming from a point high above ground, moves round with the sun so quickly that you are hardly settled in it before it has glided away, and you must chase it round in a great unrestful circle. However, whenever the trees are thick on the ground the difficulty is not so great—our trouble came rather from other causes. The oasis was full of men. Part of the 42nd had come up on our right, and Headquarters and details of the Anzacs and Camel Corps were on our left. The area had recently been occupied by the Turks who are not a clean race, and before that, cavalry had used it for some months. Not far away lay the remains of camels and horses slaughtered in the Turkish raid in April, while the dead of the recent fighting lay unburied all round the neighbourhood. The E.E.F. were experts in sanitation, but sanitary stores and appliances had not yet reached us, and the ground beneath the trees was frankly filthy. Flies of course abounded. We had little to do and less to eat—bully and biscuits and none too much of it. The biscuit supply had struck a bad patch and most of the tins were found to harbor various forms of animal life—reputed to be weevils. They could be eaten with impunity—we knew that by experience—but that did not make the biscuits more appetizing.

The Turkish planes bombed us daily but with little success. Their bombs were of small size and the sand seemed somehow to smother them, so that they were more noisy than dangerous. The men who had fallen out rejoined us as best they could, the worst of them being removed to hospitals, and by the 14th we were well rested and ready for "the road" again.

The preparations for departure began as usual with the laying out of stores in camel loads. A camel's load has to be nicely calculated. He must not carry more than a certain amount, about 350 lbs.—if he carries less you can't get everything on—and the load must be evenly divided between the two sides of his saddle. With water, carried in the tanks holding about twelve gallons—called fantassies—and with S.A.A. blankets, this is easy enough, but with tools and the miscellaneous stores belonging to the scouts, Lewis gunners, cooks, doctor, sanitary men, signallers and all kinds of specialists the problem is far more complicated, and the loading officer has usually made a large number of enemies before the day is over. Some seventy camels were attached to each battalion, camping under their own headman somewhere near and sending in daily parties to draw rations and water from the A.S.C. The camels were under the orders of the Commanding Officer, and the Quartermaster's department detailed the numbers required for each trip. The difficulty came when some subordinate attempted to convey these instructions to the drivers—for we had not yet acquired that surprisingly extensive Arabic vocabulary of which we all boasted by the end of the campaign. Nor had the drivers any knowledge of English.

23rd Battalion

The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920

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