Kantara & Katia

The mere layman in military affairs, bringing an otherwise fairly well-trained intelligence to bear on the problem of the defence of the Suez Canal, could scarcely fail to be struck, from the very first, by certain obvious necessities in the situation.

Clearly it was, and always had been, impossible effectively to secure the Canal from harm, still less to maintain uninterruptedly its usefulness, if the waterway itself were looked upon as constituting its own first line of defence. If the problem had been simply to defend Egypt from the east, if the deep broad waters of the Canal could be regarded merely as a barrier to stop an enemy, on the principle of a castle-moat – well and good: it might then be sound military strategy to employ the Canal as a first defensive line against a hostile force advancing over the Desert- a line which, with the western Canal bank properly fortified and manned, might well prove impregnable. But obviously we could not afford to use the Canal in this way, seeing that, even in times of peace, it formed the great highway of the Empire, while now in war-time it was more thronged than ever by our shipping, its inviolability more than ever necessary to the Nation’s life.

It was not difficult, therefore, to understand why, on the direction of affairs passing into the strong hands of Sir Archibald Murray early in 1916, a fundamental change of policy in regard to the defence of the Suez Canal became at once evident.

The Canal was no longer to be expected to defend Egypt: Egypt was going to defend the Suez Canal, and that in the thorough-paced British way. No time was lost in putting precept into practice. Parallel with the whole 85-mile stretch of the shipway, and at varying distances eastward of from two to ten miles, the construction of a barrier of defensive works was at once commenced, with lines of communication to the Canal bank in the rear at half a dozen different points. In addition, certain vast areas of low-lying land eastward of the Canal were flooded, and kept flooded by pumping machinery, thus rendering them impassable to an enemy and materially shortening the line to be protected.

Upon this new defensive frontier of Egypt miles out over the waterless Desert, a large force – a little army, in fact – was established and continuously maintained. Roads were made, light railways were thrown out; waterworks, which drew their supply from the Sweet Water Canal westward of the ship-way, were erected, and an abundant supply of pure water was conveyed to the troops manning the new defensive line by means of pipes laid from each of the six bases. In addition to these measures, the Desert for many miles out was rendered as inhospitable as possible to any detached bodies of the enemy that might be lingering in the district, by destroying certain natural sources of water that existed here and there. Chief among these latter was a congeries of rock cisterns and pools at a place called Wady Um Muksheib, some forty miles distant south-east from Ismailia. Our engineers raided this spot, and within four days succeeded in draining away a big accumulation of fresh water, and, by blasting, rendering further accumulations impossible.

But all these measures, commendable and necessary as they were to the protection of the Canal, constituted only an initial step towards the solution of the far greater problem – the defence of Egypt generally. Though, since their repulse in the early part of 1915, the Turks had given us little more trouble than that arising from various skirmishes between the patrols, we were well aware that the launching of a second and much more formidable expedition against us was very likely to be undertaken. Our evacuation of Gallipoli had released for employment elsewhere a force of the enemy which, on a moderate computation, could not be far short of 250,000. How many of these would go to swell the army now gathering against us, we had as yet no means of ascertaining; but our air reconnaissances had revealed the fact that the enemy was in great strength in Southern Palestine and in North Sinai, and that a move on his part might conceivably take place at any time. Moreover, we had our own plans now fully developed in this region, and preparations for them as well advanced as circumstances would allow.

There are three ancient caravan routes over the Sinai Desert, by which an approach to Egypt is possible. There is a southern route starting from Akaba and finishing at Suez, by which the Mecca pilgrims ordinarily travelled. There is the middle route which commences at El Audja on the Turkish frontier, and passes through the Megara hills and the Djebel Yellog, reaching the Canal about midway in its course, at Ismailia. This was the road followed  by the main part of the Turkish army in its first attack on the Canal in January-February of 1915.

The third and most northerly route skirts the Mediterranean shore through Rafa and El Arish, striking the Suez Canal at Kantara. It is the only route of the three upon which fresh water in any but negligible quantity is to be found. Such wells and natural springs as exist, however except in the Katia district some 25 miles from the Canal at Kantara-are so sparsely supplied, and are situated at such widely separated intervals, as to be of little practical service to any but the few Bedouins who roamed the district, or the caravans that occasionally passed that way. In bringing a force of only 12,000 to 15,000 men across the Sinai Desert against us in 1915, the Turks had accomplished the seemingly  impossible; to the ordinary student of the situation the question now presented itself – how would they fare when hard experience had taught them that nothing but an army of real magnitude could be of any avail in the task that they were apparently about to essay?

The plan for the defence of Egypt adopted by Sir Archibald Murray was one of characteristic originality. Though he had made adequate arrangements for the protection of the whole Suez Canal front, he very early realised that the only practicable arena for hostilities on a large scale lay in the north. The Rafa-El Arish-Kantara road was the only one by which the enemy could hope to advance against Egypt in any considerable force. Obviously his design would be first to seize and hold the well-watered zone radiating east and south-east of Katia, and then to use this as his advanced base for his main operations against the Canal. Just as obviously it was our business to forestall him in the manœuvre. Katia, as Sir A. Murray had from the first recognised, was the true strategic base from which the Suez Canal could alike be most advantageously attacked or defended. Katia, therefore, at the earliest possible moment must be occupied in strength by British troops.

It was a momentous decision, for it proved the beginning of the great British offensive-defence policy as regards Egypt, which has since had such far-reaching results.

Thus much for the general initial outlook and conduct of affairs relating to the Egyptian Eastern Campaign which opened in the early months of 1916. We must now take up again the thread of the story of R.A.M.C. doings in this part of the Near East at the point where we left it – the close of the unhappy, if glorious, adventure at the Dardanelles.

Transference to Egypt from the shot-and-shell. swept heights of Gallipoli was, to our war-worn Ambulances, much like emerging out of stormy winter twilight into the serene haven of a perfect summer’s day. On their arrival there, the various medical units were drafted to different localities in Egypt on the commendable theory that they were now to enjoy a brief but well-earned rest: the Field Ambulance to which the writer belonged was sent to the camp which had been pitched on the Desert near the Great Pyramids some ten or twelve miles from Cairo. Many things have been done well in this far- away part of the theatre of the War, but none so well perhaps as the creation of this vast camp. Of all the thousands of British soldiers who were quartered there from time to time, it is difficult to believe that one of them went away without carrying with him an impression of good that shall last as long as memory serves. There were no lotus-eaters at Mena Camp, nor was it all fair weather. It was too early in the year for the Khamsin – the dreaded furnace- blast of the Desert, with which we were later to be- come so familiar. But there were sandstorms in plenty to be lived through, and the mirage of rest that had journeyed before us so glamorously, turned out to be made of much the same stuff as mirages generally. It vanished very early in our stay at Mena, and hard work became the order of the day.

These weeks of training, however-the interminable stretcher-drill, and Swedish exercises, and long route-marches over the burning, yielding sands- proved invaluable preparation for the work on the Sinai Peninsula which was to follow. And all too soon – for the life was pleasant enough in spite of its drawbacks -we were striking camp and on the march again for the great unknown land awaiting us beyond the Suez Canal.

One who had known Kantara only in times of peace – when it was but a slumbrous little post of the Canal Company with a flag-staff and a few low buildings breaking the eternal straight lines of the banks would have been amazed to see it as we saw it on the bright spring day of our arrival there. The great tidal wave of War had swept down upon it, and at a bound Kantara had sprung into world-importance. The waterway now reminded one of the Pool of London with its congestion of shipping and busy life. Both banks were crowded with new buildings, and the surrounding country white with innumerable camps. A hum of work pervaded the place. Cars and lorries and vehicles of all kinds thronged the new- made roads and floating-bridges. The ground quaked under regiments on the march. Companies were drilling everywhere. The air was full of the clarion of bugles and the mingled sound of working- tools steam-saw and pumping-engine, hammer and adze, whistles blowing and syrens booming, all the deep hubbub of labour that one associates with a busy commercial town. We marched through to our allotted camping-ground on the edge of the Desert beyond the shipway, feeling that we were once again an integral part of the great machine of war.

There was much for our R.A.M.C. men to do at Kantara, but still more to learn. The ordinary routine work of the medical units distributed through- out a military camp of such dimensions was necessarily heavy. There were hospitals to staff, disinfecting stations to run, various outlying dressing posts to be manned, all the sanitary supervision of the great busy centre to be ceaselessly attended to. Hospital- ships improvised from Messrs. Cook’s Nile steamers plied to and fro on the Canal between Kantara and the General Hospitals at Port Said, and these ships had also to be staffed and worked. But beyond all this there was something more important still. The fighting column was swiftly making ready for its move on Katia, and the broad-gauge railway steadily forging eastward through the waste of sandy hill and dale. When the column moved the ambulances must be ready to move with it. And there was a great deal, in fact all, to learn about medical work in war-time carried on under the wholly novel conditions of the Desert. Almost the entire equipment of the Field Ambulances had to be changed. In the soft, yielding sand of the Desert the old methods of transport for sick and wounded, as well as material, were obviously useless-motor-ambulances, ambulance-wagons, water-carts, G.S. wagons, all would have to be left at the Base. In their stead, the light sand-cart, with its wide-tyred, boxed-in wheels, would be the sole practicable vehicle, and this only where the going was exceptionally favourable. In the main, the camel formed the only dependable means of conveyance for anything and everything, once the rail- head was left behind.

In addition, therefore, to his already multifarious accomplishments, the R.A.M.C. man had now to learn all about camels and their ways. Not only that, but it became also necessary to learn how to manage and direct the camel-men, which meant that some smattering of their language must be acquired. Now, though the camel-drivers were fairly keen of wit and so amenable to orthodox methods, the camels them- selves were far otherwise. Of a truth, the camel is a wearisome, uninspiring beast. He has not a trace of the sporting instinct about him. He takes no interest in anything but his meals, and his one end and aim in life is the avoidance of an overload by keeping up a ceaseless grumbling protestation all the while his burthen is being adjusted. Also he is an inveterate backbiter. His cruel jaws are ever ready at the disservice of friend or foe, and many an ambulance man will carry with him to his grave the marks due to this peculiarly mean-spirited kind of rearguard action. But with it all, the camel is strong, enduring; the Desert sun and sand are his native element; he can carry a four days’ water supply within his own body; his diet is of the simplest; he was indispensable, in fact, to the work our army had in hand.

Slowly but surely the railway forged ahead over the shifting torrid sand; our troops pushed steadily forward in front of it; farther eastward still were the mounted patrols, for ever scouring the waste of uncharted hill and dale for signs of the enemy. Our mobile ambulances got on the move at last. Kantara was left behind, and life on the Desert began in real earnest.

It is often said by the fighting troops that the men of the Medical Service have a “cushy ” job in war-time plenty of food and water, none of the heart- breaking digging fatigues that make up too large a part of the life of the infantryman, warm shelter in times of cold, and a cool cover during the many hours of broiling sunshine, with various other advantages. During the intervals of quiescence, when active operations are in abeyance, there is no doubt a certain foundation of truth in this good-humoured but rueful comparison.

But in the case of ambulances attached to a mobile column on the march, there is little to choose between the two Services. The same discomforts and privations fall to the lot of each. There are the same sweltering, perspiring marches with heavy pack over the burning sands, the same restrictions in rations and water, the same fatiguing duties at the end of each day, when a camp has to be prepared. 

The ambulance, indeed, has then not only its own arrangements to make for the night–it has to provide for the needs of others. Even when going in light mobile order it must carry with it sufficient tentage accommodation for any casualties that may arise from an emergency action. Failing the occurrence of hostilities the six bell tents it carries are pretty sure to be needed for men who have fallen out exhausted by the long hot march, and from other causes; and these tents must be pitched as soon as the Brigade halts for the day the first duty must be to provide food, shelter, and treatment for the sick. Then there are all the multifarious duties in the formation of the ambulance camp itself, always a large one in comparison with the number of its personnel–the drawing of rations and water for man and beast, lighting of fires and erection of cookhouse, latrines, incinerator, and a host of minor necessities. Lastly, there, are the night’s bivouacs to be prepared.

The construction of a “bivvy,” simple as it may seem, is in reality no easy task, and the novice usually makes a failure of it in the beginning. Our ambulance men were no exception to the rule, but a very few nights on the Desert served to bring proficiency. The official theory as to the “bivvy” seems to be that it can be made out of nothing, for nothing is provided for the purpose. It is wonderful, how- ever, what ingenuity can contrive even out of this slender material. A hole excavated in the sand long and broad enough to accommodate two men lying side by side, a stick thrust into the ground at each end, with a piece of string tightly stretched between, and a blanket flung across the string hip-roof fashion, with its edges sanded down – and there were lodgings for the night. The great difficulty on the Desert was to prevent the sand running in after the trench had been dug. But even here experience found a way out of the trouble. It was the surface-sand only that “ran,” we soon discovered: that below was more stable, and would hold up fairly well provided it was not touched. A ground-sheet for a floor, and another blanket for bedding, and the ménage was complete. Later on, when the summer heat came, palm branches were often collected by our men and used for night- cover. They made admirable shelters, and had the additional advantage of rendering the camp inconspicuous should there be hostile aircraft about. The tops of the bell tents were also decorated with these palm branches under a like protective policy.

The advance in force upon Katia from the Canal Base at Kantara was necessarily slow, as the pace was set by the progress made by the railway. Week by week, however, permanent posts were pushed farther and farther ahead, and by the beginning of April such progress had been made that a flying column was able to carry out a reconnaissance so far eastward as Bir-el-Abd, some 15 miles on the other side of Katia, where, though no resistance was encountered, we discovered and destroyed some tents and stores belonging to the enemy. On the9th of April a second reconnaissance to Abd was undertaken, and this time a strong party of Turks was discovered occupying a ridge to the north-east of that place. Our troops promptly attacked, and a sharp skirmish ensued, the enemy being driven from his position; but the heavy nature of the sand prevented our cavalry from undertaking a prolonged pursuit, and we eventually retired.

These two reconnaissances, of little significance in themselves, turned out to be of prime importance, for they marked the beginning of the memorable Eastern Campaign of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Their special significance lay in the fact that they revealed the presence of the enemy in force within 15 miles of Katia, the well-watered zone towards the permanent occupation of which our main efforts were being directed. Evidently the Turks meant to dispute its possession with us; for, vital as it was to our own plans to secure this vantage-ground, it was no less than matter of life or death to the enemy with 100 miles of practically waterless desert now behind him. It was to be a race for Katia, the prize would go to the swiftest, and all efforts were redoubled on the British side. By April 30 our engineers had succeeded in advancing the railhead as far as El Arais, only 7 miles from Katia. By the same date bodies of our mounted troops were holding and entrenching not only Katia itself but several other strategic points in the coveted water-zone. The times were ripe at last for our long planned advance in strength, and the order for the great general move was given.

We had, however, a doughtier and more resourceful foe to deal with than we had reckoned upon. The futility of any attempt to forestall us in regard to the Katia position must now have become apparent to him. Nevertheless the attempt was made. On April 23 a force, aggregating in all some 3,500 men with five guns, was suddenly launched against three of our outposts; and though the post at Dueidar repelled the attack with great loss to their assailants in spite of the fact that our men were outnumbered by about 10 to 1, the troops garrisoning the two other posts at Katia itself and at Oghratina, some seven miles north-east of it – after prolonged and gallant fighting were overwhelmed and all either killed, wounded or captured.

The fight at Dueidar is memorable in the annals of the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt, for it was the first serious affair in which our ambulances were engaged in the long Desert Campaign. Only a small section, consisting of one R.A.M.C. officer and seven men with a couple of sand-carts, was stationed at Dueidar. As soon as word came through that fighting had occurred, another Ambulance Section was pushed up to assist in the treatment and evacuation of the wounded. This section went under infantry escort and took with it a full complement of sand-carts, and camels for carrying cacolets as well as stores and water. The following account of the journey, as given to the writer by the officer commanding the Ambulance, will be of interest not only in itself but because it affords a glimpse of the kind of work which the Medical Service men may at any moment be called upon to do, and of the risks run in the ordinary course of their duty :

“The journey to Dueidar was unmolested, though at Hill 70 we were held up for some time until the way could be pronounced clear of the enemy by our patrols. Dueidar was reached by midday on April 24. The place was quiet, but showed marked evidence of the fierce fight on the previous day. Dead animals, horses and camels, and dead Turks were still lying about. The men stationed there were full of the story of the fight. The Turks had got close to the barbed. wire of the redoubt: one man was actually killed on the parapet. The detachment of the Field Ambulance stationed there had a very arduous and exciting time. The Medical Officer was severely wounded through both legs, one R.A.M.C. man was killed, while the N.C.O. and two of our privates were wounded. I got the story from one of the survivors of this little band, and I give it here in his own words:

“We were wakened suddenly at 4.30 a.m. by whistles blowing, and then we heard rapid rifle-fire. We all went to our posts. We knew exactly where to go, as we had had a false alarm the previous week. My post was at the water-tanks, to stop any leakages that might be caused by bullets. Captain Roberts, the Post Commandant, gave instructions that the Medical Officer was to go up at once to the redoubt on the right, where there were casualties. Lieutenant Miller, R.A.M.C., ran across, taking Colthart with him. McKinnon and a stretcher-bearer went across to the redoubt in front to attend to wounded, but the officer in charge would not let them take the casualties back, as the firing was too dangerous.

“About 7.30 a.m. Captain Roberts gave instructions that a man, who was carrying a message from the redoubt on the right, and who had been struck about fifty yards from the trees, should be brought in. McDonald rushed out and bandaged him up, Ritchie following with a stretcher. Just before Ritchie reached them McDonald was struck in the face, but merely wiping the blood away, he gave Ritchie a hand with the stretcher. – Ritchie was immediately afterwards struck in the shoulder. In spite of their wounds these two managed to carry the stretcher about twenty yards. But by this time blood was gushing freely from McDonald’s wound, so Wright and Wood doubled out and succeeded in bringing the stretcher in under cover of the trees. At the same time Corporal Raffin, R..A. M.C., seeing both Ritchie and McDonald struck, dashed out to give them a hand, but was wounded by bullets through both thighs just when he got beyond the trees. I was standing near, waiting for an opportunity to run over with water to the men in the redoubt. I dropped the water-bottles I was carrying and ran across and brought Raffin in by gripping him under the arms. He crawled twenty yards by himself before I reached him. I then carried him across to the opposite side of the trees where our dressing-tent stood.

“By this time a relieving company of infantry had arrived on the scene. Their C.O.’s orderly came up shouting for R.A.M.C. men as some officers were lying out wounded. I went along with two men and brought in Adjutant Crawford and Captain Bruce, A.S.C., who had both been wounded to the left of the trees some twenty yards out. Captain Bruce had been hit while endeavouring to bring Lieutenant Crawford in under shelter. I attended to Captain Bruce, but his wound was hopeless, and he died half an hour afterwards. Then I went back to the tent to get more dressings. McDonald had, I found, dressed the wound on his face himself, and he had also contrived to dress and bandage Raffin’s wounds. I saw Wood lying dead beside him: McDonald told me that he had been shot through the throat just after he had brought some dressings out to him. Between us we then set to work to get the patients away from the exposed front part of the wood, where the bullets were by now falling thickly. We succeeded in carrying them all back 200 yards or so, and then re-dressed those of the wounds requiring it.

“Two more Medical Officers and some additional R.A.M.C. orderlies had by this time followed the relieving troops. I saw Lieutenant Miller, R.A.M.C., being carried in. I heard afterwards that he had said to Colthart that he would have to leave the redoubt and run across to see how some of the men were getting on. He did not know that other Medical Officers had arrived by this time. He had seen men dropping amongst the trees and believed that his services were wanted there. He was strongly advised not to risk exposing himself in the open, but he persisted, and he was badly shot through both thighs and in the hand soon after leaving the redoubt.

“McDonald and Corporal Raffin were extremely plucky throughout the action. At the end the men crowded round McDonald and shook hands with him, congratulating him on what he had done. Even though his wound on the face was severe, he stayed on duty till eight o’clock at night, only leaving when all the wounded had been dressed and sent off. Corporal Raffin also, in the absence of Lieutenant Miller, remained for a considerable time supervising the collection and treatment of the wounded. He also came across to see how I was getting on at the water. tanks. He was very plucky and cool throughout.'”

Both Corporal Raffn and Private McDonald, it may here be added, received the Military Medal for their conduct during the action.

This raid upon Katia, carried out so boldly and determinedly by the enemy, though it was partially successful, left the general situation wholly unchanged. The attacking forces were eventually driven off with heavy loss, and so effectually was their discomfiture completed by our mounted troops and aircraft during their retirement eastward, that they were able to make no further attempt to oppose our advance for several months to come. We were left to complete our railway to the coveted water- bearing zone and there to establish ourselves firmly in accordance with our original scheme.

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