El Arish – Maghdaba – Rafa

The decisive rout of the enemy at Romani denoted the final destruction of his hope of effecting the invasion of Egypt from the east; it also marked the inauguration of a new British forward policy in this arena of the war. 

The greater issue, however, must not concern us here ; nor did it nearly concern any in Egypt, high or low, at the time with which we are dealing. The immediate problem in Sir Archibald Murray’s path was simple, and as difficult as it was simple. He had to get his army into Palestine. But the way to Palestine lay over some 200 miles of roadless and practically waterless desert, with the way barred by an enemy still powerful and possessed of great resources, despite the thorough trouncing he had received. We had shown that we knew how to deal with that enemy when and wherever we should come to further grips with him. But how to get at him? How to deal with the great trackless torrid waste that lay between? 

There was only one way to convey an army of the magnitude necessary for our new purposes across such a wilderness. It was to construct a railroad by which all guns and heavy impedimenta could be carried, and supplies continuously maintained abreast of the advancing troops; and to lay down a pipe-line which should tap the only possible source of fresh water in the requisite quantity, the “Sweet Water Canal”, running parallel with the Suez Canal on its Egyptian side, and so provide the millions of gallons of water which the Army would need on its east-ward progress. Our Palestine Expeditionary Force crossed the Sinai Desert literally on a bridge of water and steel.

The story of this great exploit of our engineers in driving a broad-guage railway and pipe-lines across 200 miles of howling wilderness in record time and in the teeth of innumerable and unimaginable difficulties, may be given no place in a chronicle exclusively devoted to the medical side of the war. But it concerns us in so far as it affected the work of the R.A.M.C. What constituted an incredibly swift rate of progress for an engineering undertaking of the kind, meant but a tortoise-like rate for the advance of an army. Though flying columns of mounted troops were continually deploying for many miles beyond the railhead in quest of a possible enemy, the main body of our Force necessarily retarded its pace to that of its only means of supply. The result was that very large numbers of our troops were continuously encamped on the Desert for several months, which meant close and unremitting work for the Ambulances accompanying them. 

The climatic conditions, indeed, were all against troops. The Desert is no place for human habitation, and we were there at our peril. The British in North Sinai, however, were out not to make the best of circumstances, but rudely and ruthlessly to annihilate them. With their screaming reverberating machinery, their endless snake of a water-pipe, their bully-beef and biscuit, their unpicturesque raiment, their devotion to soap and water, and their music-hall songs, they were an insult to the timeless immutability of the Desert ; and all the elements connived to render as uncomfortable as possible the clamorous passage eastward of this ungainly host.

Burning summer changed into burning autumn, and autumn into winter, with its days as scorching hot as ever, but with its bitter freezing nights. The thinnest garments were a burden while the sun was up; no heaped blankets or huddling together in the “bivvies” after nightfall would keep the searching cold at bay. Sometimes the sea-fog soaked us through and through. One day the wind would drive against our faces like a blast from a furnace-throttle ; darkness would find it volleying over the hills with a touch as of razor-edged icicles. Sand-storms hid the far end of the camp in their solid murk, and filled our eyes and throats, our meat and drink, with grinding grit. It never rains on Sinai Desert ; the sky turns inky black, and concentrated Niagaras descend such as would blanch the cheek of Noah. Hurricanes spring up from nowhere, and are gone as suddenly as they come ; but probably the interval has seen our animals stampeded, our sand-carts overturned, and our bivvies blown away bodily into the void. All these little contrarinesses of nature may be no more than a bracing tonic to the Bedouin, but they are too memory-inspiring for the British soldier. They make him home-sick. And home-sickness is a ” pre-disposing cause”, as the doctors say, for all sorts of other ills. The morning sick-parades at the medical stations were well, too well, attended ; and our R.A.M.C. men had as much work to do as even an R.A.M.C. man could expect or desire. 

But steadily, remorselessly, the long steel trail drew out over the Desert, and at last there came a December morning when our position was adjudged near enough for a sudden, swift, and long-armed blow.

It was to be a surprise attack. A good twenty miles still separated our position from the enemy’s stronghold at El Arish where he had long prepared to resist us. He would deem us still too far off to attempt an infantry action on a big scale, and would not have made ready as yet. The time therefore was ripe for our purpose. We had already effected a vast accumulation of supplies at the railhead – water, fuel, food, fodder, munitions, every kind of stores. The troops were ready “au ‘dernier bouton.’ The order was given to go. 

But the very magnitude and thoroughness of our action now lost us the chance, for the time being, of a grand decisive coup. The enemy got wind of our intention and wisely decided to retire. Our aircraft brought in the news that El Arish was being hastily abandoned. On receipt of these tidings, our mounted troops-cavalry, camelry, and horse-artillery – dashed forward, covering the intervening twenty miles of heavy desert country in a single night. The infantry followed, each man carrying two days’ rations. in addition to his fighting gear, the whole force reaching El Arish within eighteen hours of the start. Vigorous pursuit of the retreating enemy was at once organised, and our flying column caught up with him at Maghdaba, twenty miles S.E. of El Arish, in less than four hours, and there inflicted on him a crushing defeat, taking 1,350 prisoners. Eleven days later came the action at Rafa, thirty miles N.E. of El Arish, where another dashing raid by our troops resulted in an even larger haul of prisoners and still more damage inflicted on the foe. 

The Story of the Field Ambulances during this Stirring time following so long a period of comparative inaction, is not easy to come by ; but glimpses that have been obtainable here and there reveal it as one full of the usual dramatic incident, recurring risk, and hard incessant work. Here is an account, jotted down in the brief intervals of duty, by a member of one of the medical units chiefly engaged:

“We arrived at El Arish on the 23rd December after a very trying march and enormous difficulty in getting our ambulance equipment through the sand- hills. Here it became known that our mounted troops had succeeded in catching up at Maghdaba with a big lot of retreating Turks, and had managed to cut them off from the main body of the enemy. On the night of the 24th word came through that large numbers of wounded, both British and Turks, were lying at the Ambulance Station of the mounted force, and this Ambulance needed help. We sent three of our M.O.’s and 45 orderlies to assist. We also received a message that a camel convoy of wounded, on its way from this battlefield to our base, was held up a considerable distance off owing to the exhaustion of the camels. We sent two M.O.’s, a squad of orderlies, and 18 sand-carts, to bring these wounded in. It was no easy matter to find the convoy in the middle of the night amidst a trackless waste of hills, but our men succeeded in coming upon them about two o’clock in the morning. The wounded soldiers were transferred from the camel cacolets to our sand-carts and safely brought to El Arish. 

“At this time we were rendering daily help to the overtaxed men of the Mounted Ambulance. We had, in addition, to attend to the wounded Turkish prisoners here at the base. Our Ambulance Convoys also did continuous duty conveying patients to the railhead twenty miles back on our lines of communication. It is interesting to note that one case, that of a wounded British officer, was evacuated from Maghdaba by aeroplane.” 

After the dash on Rafa, three of the Field Ambulances in El Arish received orders to turn out every available sand-cart in their equipment and to proceed to a place called Sheik Zuwaid, about twenty miles off, for the purpose of collecting wounded from the Rafa action. Between them, the three Ambulances got together a Convoy consisting of over fifty sand-carts, and a big detachment of nursing-orderlies and M.O.’s. The Convoy set out in the darkness of early morning on the I0th of January, reaching their destination about 11 a.m. 

At Sheik Zuwaid some six hours were spent in dressing and bandaging not only our own wounded but many wounded Turks who had been brought in to the station. During this time numbers of the sand-carts were sent out to scour the country eastward for further wounded, four of these carts narrowly escaping capture by the enemy. It was late in the afternoon before the Convoy was fully loaded with the more serious cases, and could start on the homeward journey. El Arish was gained at two o’clock on the following morning, exactly 22 hours from the time the huge Convoy had set out. In this period our R.A.M.C. men had marched 20 miles over soft, deep sand-  the most tiring walking in the world – had done six hours’ hard work, and had then marched back again without a minute’s rest all the time -a performance whose merits need no comment. Such incidents in the daily work of the Medical Corps, however, have been far from uncommon during the Campaign. 

At El Arish, in the meantime, the hospital sections of the Ambulance had been making ready for Here is a brief account of the the Rafa wounded. doings of one of them :- 

“After preparing our hospital so as to accommodate a total of 350 patients, the wounded commenced to arrive ; and an incessant flow of them continued all night, some arriving on camel cacolets, and others -stretcher cases mostly – reaching us in the sand-carts. In addition to the hospital-marquees, three reception-tents and three surgical and dressing- tents had to be used to cope with the number of admissions. Curiously, the first wounds treated were mainly of a slight nature, but later on many exceptionally serious cases were admitted; several of which required immediate operation. 

“As well as our field-hospital work we also undertook the duties of a Casualty Clearing Station, evacuating the patients to the hospital-trains at rail-head for transmission to the Stationary Hospitals at the base on the Canal. Our total admissions of wounded from the Rafa stunt were 309. The system we worked upon was to evacuate all the less gravely wounded cases at the earliest opportunity, while the more serious cases, such as thorax or abdominal wounds, were retained in the hospital and treated until fit to stand the journey in the train.”

In regard to this Rafa engagement, the following extract from an eye-witness’s article published in the Egyptian Press at the time, will be of interest : 

“Special mention deserves to be made of the gallantry of the stretcher-bearers. They went out into this absolutely open country (the exposed ground in front of the enemy position, over which our troops had charged). They took no notice of the heaviest fire, but coolly picked up the wounded, and bore them away to the ambulance wagons. It is pleasant to be able to add that, in spite of the great distance at which the Force was operating (nearly thirty miles), the hospital arrangements were admirable. Our wounded and the Turkish wounded prisoners travelled comfortably to El Arish, and 24 hours after the capture of the Rafa position, all were housed under canvas”

It is interesting to compare the hospital-train service at this stage of the operations with that in force during the battle of Romani five months earlier. Whereas at the earlier engagement the wounded were conveyed in common ration or munition trucks hastily and imperfectly fitted up for the occasion, and attached to the ordinary trains, to the acute discomfort, and often downright torture of the patients, now a thoroughly well organised and efficient train-ambulance system had come into being. Two complete and well-appointed hospital trains were in readiness at the railhead. Each train had its Medical Officer and special staff of R.A.M.C. orderlies. The carriages were well sprung and properly coupled, to ensure smooth and easy running. There were comfortable bed-bunks for the lying-down cases, and equally comfortable sitting accommodation for the rest. Each train had its travelling kitchen and staff of cooks, so that not only the usual meals but special invalid diet could be prepared en route. There was also a plentiful supply of medical and sick-room comforts, not omitting the inevitable tobacco and cigarettes, always on hand. In fact, the suffering passengers were as well looked after as in a permanent hospital ward. 

The service had also been expedited in a remarkable degree. During the Romani engagement the improvised ambulance trucks attached to the ordinary trains were subject to endless stoppages and delays, and commonly took four or five hours to negotiate the distance of about 25 miles to Kantara. Now, in spite of having many more miles of Desert railroad, wherein were many steep gradients to traverse, the hospital trains landed their helpless human freight at the Base on the Canal within five to eight hours. At Kantara a fleet of motor ambulances awaited each train, and the wounded were swiftly conveyed either to the Steamers on the Canal, which took them to Port Said, or to the station of the Egyptian State Railway on the other side of the water, whence other equally well-appointed ambulance trains transported them to the Base hospitals. 

The net result of this greatly accelerated and perfected service was that valuable lives were often saved by bringing the seriously wounded betimes within reach of proper surgical aid and appliances. Thanks alone to the energy and resource of a hard-worked Medical Staff, the country was at last doing its best for those who had given their best for their country.

In common with all who have tried to do their little utmost ~ whatever that may have amounted to to help in this War, the writer of these pages will carry home with him many lasting memories of strange happenings and impressive scenes. But it is doubtful whether any of these will prove to have made so deep a mark in his recollection as his first view of a hospital train in the midst of the Sinai Desert.

It was on a drowsy breathless morning in November, and since daybreak we had been plodding along eastward under a pitiless sun through the in- terminable waste of hills. With every step the foot sank out of sight in the yielding sand. Every hour the heat grew fiercer and our limbs wearier, and the Desert silence and solitude about us more and more like a burden added to the packs we already had to bear. A less eventful enterprise than a long march over certain areas of the Sinai Desert could scarcely be imagined. You see nothing for hours on end but sand and sky. Rarely you come across two or three spindly palm trees round a patch of damp ~ brine ; or a stretch of rocky ground dotted over with scrub, where little lithe lizards bask and leave their tails in your hand if you try to catch them ; or a slinking hyena may cross the path ahead, or a vulture mark the blue sky for a moment. But of humanity, and for humanity, there is nothing. You are in luck’s way if you see a string of camels on the sky- line, or get a view of a Bedouin camp, or hear the drone of a war-plane somewhere up in Sagittarius or the Pleiades. We toiled on through that eternal switchback of sandy hill and dale, the thoughts of some of us going back in sympathy to the Israelites of old who had wandered that same Desert and suffered more than we. At least nightfall would probably see us at Bir-el-Abd, and the end of our journey ; but they, poor wretches, had forty years of it.

Towards midday we drew out of the hills into an open plain, and there we halted to rest and transfer the burden of our rations from our backs to a more intimate part of our persons. Afterwards we sat and smoked, looking out from under our helmet-brims at the wide-spreading landscape. It was more silent and solitary than ever. But at least it was less unhuman than the blighted terrain we had lately travelled. There below us was our wonderful Desert railroad, looking like a pencil-line ruled across the plain, and beside it ran a continuous mound of sand, beneath which the equally famous water-pipe of our modern miracle-workers, the Royal Engineers, hid its ugly indispensability, Looking on these welcome reminders of the existence of man, the very companionship implied in the sight made us almost glad of the war that made it possible in such a solitude. And as we gazed, there drew into our view something that sobered us and made us ashamed. It seemed the most beautiful thing we had ever salved eyes on. Across the drab deserted valley it sped – a creature, long and slender, and of a delicate sinuous grace, and all shining white as driven snow, its pure whiteness marked with crosses of vivid scarlet, and a trail of grey smoke hovering over it as it went. Midway through the valley it slowed down and stopped poised motionless for an instant; then, with a note like the clear call of a thrush- even to an engine-whistle distance lends some softening enchantment-it gathered speed again, and soon vanished into the dun-brown haze of the horizon.

One of our orderlies took his pipe from his lips. In private life he was a Divinity Student; many a time I had seen him scrubbing floors at – Military Hospital. Said he : “There you are! The most wonderful thing the Desert has to show today – a smile of love and mercy on the cruel face of war!  But that’s what the Red Cross really stands for at bottom. The fighting forces and all that minister to them – they represent Violence. War is violence and nothing else. The Red Cross stands for humanity, peace, good will between men – everything that the world was made for. That train going to and fro constantly from end to end of the Desert will act as a reminder and a warning to all who see it. It will do more good than Pippa ‘s song.” 

Though not many of us had read Browning, we all knew what he meant.

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