The Sinai Desert Campaign

On the Eastern Front, after the Katia affair at the close of April, 1916, when the Turks made such a determined attempt to forestall us in the possession of that important water-bearing area, a prolonged lull in hostilities ensued. Some ten or twelve weeks elapsed before the opposing armies again came to the brunt of battle ; and this fact alone is sufficient proof, if proof were needed, of the severe handling on the part of our mounted troops and airmen which had been dealt out to the retiring foe. 

The interval, however, was full of activity on both sides. For our part, having once secured the point of vantage for which we had been striving, we had no intention of forcing on a Desert campaign during the hot season that had now set in. Clearly our policy was, after thoroughly establishing our new defensive line, to confine ourselves to making preparations for the future, while at the same time carrying out such reconnaissances in force as might attain a useful object, and ceaselessly harassing the enemy by air-raids. 

But the Turkish point of view was very different from our own. Though after the Katia engagement the Turk had withdrawn to a respectful distance, it must have been clear to him that he could not hope to make any effectual progress in his avowed project of an attack upon Egypt unless he could secure a main base much farther westward than his present position at El Arish. And for the collection and maintenance of such a force as would be needed, there was no other possible area but the neighbourhood of Katia within effective striking distance of the Canal. The probability, therefore, was that as soon as he was able to gather together a sufficiently powerful army he would make another advance against our position, and this indeed proved to be the case. 

Though up to the middle of July no considerable body of the enemy existed in Sinai nearer than Mazar, some 40 miles from Katia, it then soon became evident that a move on a large scale was impending; On July 19 our airmen reported that a large force of the enemy was on the march westward from El Arish. Five days later, carefully reconnoitred by our aircraft en route, they had reached and strongly entrenched themselves in a series of positions facing our own line, at distances roughly averaging about fifteen miles. 

This enemy force, as we eventually ascertained, numbered about 18,000 men, and consisted of the Third Turkish Division, with mountain guns, heavy artillery, and special machine-gun companies manned chiefly by Germans. There were also large bodies of camelry, wireless sections, field-hospitals, and a supply section with German personnel. The whole force was under the command of a German officer, Colonel Kriss von Kressenstein, and was in fine physical condition, and, moreover, admirably equipped in every way. 

It was nearing the end of July, and the situation was a curious one. Our own troops had been strongly reinforced, and were established on a carefully chosen line extending from Mahemdia on the sea-coast southward through Romani to a point just eastward of Katib Gannit Hill. Thence the line curved backwards round the southern slope of the hill, after which it turned north-eastward towards Et Maler. The Turkish line faced ours, running also roughly north and south. Fifteen miles of Desert intervened between the two positions. What the enemy intended to do, having now entrenched himself, was not immediately clear. But our own intentions were not long in doubt. Sir A. Murray resolved to take the initiative, and to attack with the least possible delay. 

The necessary preparations were at once set on foot. For an advance in force over fifteen miles of Desert, camel-transport on a complete scale was required. By August 4 all formations were ready to take the field. But for several days previously the enemy had been drawing in, and it had become evident that he would himself probably assume the initiative. By August 2 he had advanced his line considerably, and on the night of August 3-4 commenced an attack on our position. 

During the three or four days following, the battle raged almost without intermission, but resulted in the complete defeat of the enemy, the capture of 4,000 prisoners with many guns, horses, and camels, and large quantities of ammunition and stores. Two complete field hospitals with most of their equipment also fell into our hands. Our own casualties, owing to the prolonged and determined character of the fighting, were far from light ; but the total losses of the enemy in this battle of Romani could not have been short of 9,000, practically half his force. The remainder of Kressenstein ‘s army beat a rapid retreat, continually harassed, however, by our mounted troops and aeroplanes, who inflicted further heavy losses upon it. This pursuit was kept up as far eastward as Salmana. Subsequent air observation revealed the discomfited enemy still in full retreat through Mazar towards El Arish. 

The battle of Romani will be an ever-memorable one in the history of the R.A.M.C. in Egypt, for it was the first major engagement carried through under entirely Desert conditions. In it the new equipment and organisation of our ambulances were put to the supreme practical test, and invaluable experience was gained in the work of the collection, treatment, and swift evacuation of wounded in a district wholly devoid of roads or even tracks of any kind. There was the railhead, but beyond and around this there existed only a pathless wilderness of interminable sand-hill and scrubby plain, into which those engaged in the succour of the wounded had to penetrate often for distances of many miles.

The full-dress historian of the war on this Front, whoever he may be, will have no lack of excuse for dipping his pen into the purple ink-horn when he comes to describe the achievements of our fighting troops in the battle of Romani. In their way, however, the doings of the men of the R.A.M.C. throughout this engagement are little less worthy of note; though, in the major chronicle, they are likely to be given but a few scribbled words from the stub of a lead pencil. The truth is, the services of ambulance men in a battle do not lend themselves to the heroic method of description. There is no continuous graphic story to be made of them. In the bulk they form just a medley of isolated deeds well and faithfully and methodically done, and it is only as a more or less detached series of pictures that our own pen can deal with them. 

Some of the medical units were grouped round the railhead at Romani, the rest being established at various stations along our defensive line. It will be of interest to follow the fortunes of one of these units from the time of the Katia engagement up to and including the battle of Romani. Here are a few extracts from a communication received from a member of its personnel, covering the period named :

“When the Turks made their raid on Katia, our Ambulance was at Kantara working the an Casualty Clearing Station. During the attack on Dueidar we formed an advanced Dressing Station at Hill 70. One of the cases that passed through our hands there was that of Lord Quenington, only son of Lord St. Aldwyn, who had been very severely wounded when his regiment, the Yeomanry, was surprised and so badly cut up. He died on the way down to our hospital at Kantara, where his body was embalmed by native doctors specially sent from Cairo. 

“By May 10, the Engineers had pushed on the Desert railway as far as Pelusium. Our Ambulance was then ordered to proceed with the Brigade to Mehemdia on the North Sinai coast. We went by rail to Pelusium where all our effects were dumped off. There we spent the night on the open Desert without any cover, a heavy sea-mist soaking our blankets and our clothes through to the skin. Very early in the morning we moved off with the Brigade for a long march northward over the Desert. We were only allowed half a bottle of water each, as the supply was scarce. This was one of the worst treks we have ever gone through, and we have been through plenty. We marched in our full equipment – water-bottle, haversack, two blankets, greatcoat, and all personal belongings, as we knew anything left behind would never be seen again. It was a blazing hot day without a breath of air, and after four or five hours’ steady tramp up and down sand-hills, we lost all sense of our surroundings and toiled on mechanically though our legs could scarcely support us. Many of the infantry had to fall out, exhausted to the last notch. But late in the afternoon we caught sight of the far-off white line of glistening sea, which cheered us somewhat; and an hour or two later we were lying in the cool surf – the finest sensation of our lives.  

“At Mehemdia the Ambulance worked under great difficulties. AIl evacuation of sick to the base had to be carried out by camels, and it was more than a month later before we got the branch railway up from Romani, or the light railway along the strip of coastal sand-bank from Port Said. At Mehemdia we had an extraordinary experience. This was a plague of ladybirds – the only time we have ever seen this insect in Egypt. They came over in incredibly vast clouds and for a day or two swarmed over everything, but ultimately disappeared as mysteriously as they came.

“May 16, or thereabouts. A frightfully hot scorching wind blowing from the south, and the number of heat-exhaustion cases among the troops very high. 

“July I4. Just when the blessing of train-evacuation was getting into order, and the canteens beginning to flourish in Mehemdia, we were relieved by the Ambulance, and ordered to Romani. On the way down in the train, the tender jumped the rails as we were traversing an embankment ; but the usual miracle happened and no-one was hurt – nothing worse than a long wait during the night till the breakdown-gang arrived. 

“August 4. Battle of Romani, and second anniversary of the outbreak of the war. The first we knew of the coming fight was the Turkish aeroplanes swarming overhead in the early morning and dropping bombs, many of which fell near our camp. The camp was pitched on the top of a sand-dune some distance north of the railway-siding at Romani: A little later the Turkish artillery opened fire in our direction, their objective being probably some of our own batteries stationed behind the ridge in our rear. But most of the shells fell short, and our camp got the benefit of them. When on Gallipoli Peninsula, we were always known as “the Lucky Ambulance”  and now we did not belie our old reputation. The shells fell thickly all round the camp, and made holes all over our transport-lines, but not a man nor an animal was touched. One shell landed alongside our cook-house, smothered our breakfast in-sand, and drove a hole through the cook’s helmet, but without harming him or anyone else. 

“As another instance of our luck – one day, on the Peninsula, we were working in conjunction with the –  Ambulance. Our task was to convey the wounded from the trenches down to a spot known as “The Sandbags”.’ From here the other ambulance took up the running. On that day they had two or three of their men killed, and 14 or 15 wounded. But we escaped scot-free, although we were nearer the firing-line, sometimes even working in the front line trenches under continuous rifle-fire, and often with the parapets battering down about our ears. 

“Besides dealing with a large number of wounded at this camp on the sand-dune, we formed an evacuation-post close to the railway-siding, where the bulk of the wounded were tended. Here it was a case of working night and day, and a large number of operations were successfully carried out – more chloroform was used at this time than ever before in the history of our Ambulance. Our Mobile Section was also fully employed. It was stationed up at Katib Gannit, two miles south-west of Romani, and during the battle it was under continuous rifle-fire. The dressing-tent was riddled by bullets, but the proverbial luck of the Ambulance held good and not a single casualty occurred among our own men. 

“Our sand-carts did splendid work throughout the whole of the fighting at Romani, collecting the wounded from the redoubts along the line. These redoubts were battered unmercifully by shell-fire. On one occasion, when the carts were trying to reach a redoubt which had been shelled incessantly for eight hours, they had to halt some distance away owing to the Turks’ left wing swinging round on the position. A communication trench had to be dug, but it was late in the evening before the wounded could be got out. The company defending the redoubt lost altogether about 50 per cent. of their strength in killed and wounded. Their Medical Officer was decorated for his work on this occasion. 

“Next day our Ambulance Convoy moved out to a point S.S.W. of Romani, and took over from a captured Turkish ambulance 90 wounded Turks. This Turkish medical unit fell into our hands intact, and, with a little assistance from us, were able to collect and evacuate all their own wounded from the sector.

“August 5th. During the hasty retreat of the Turks on this day, we sent out individual sand-carts broadcast over the country under fire, the carts re-turning filled with wounded every time. This work was exceptionally risky owing to the presence of isolated groups of the enemy. 

“Concurrently with the rapid advance of our troops, our Mobile Section had to push well forward, and at Kilo 47 a Main Dressing Station was formed. Shortly afterwards the remainder of our unit moved up to this camp, and for several weeks we undertook the evacuation of sick and wounded from the whole of our Front, many cases coming as far distant as Mageibra. 

“On August 29th a Turkish aeroplane dropped a bomb close alongside of the camp, killing outright two of the camel-men. Our own R.A.M.C. transport-men were close by, but never received a scratch – our good luck again.”‘ 

And here are a few thumb-nail sketches of the doings of another Ambulance which was in the Romani fight : 

“Our hospital was right in the midst of the area of attack. The main onset lasted for two days, and shells and bombs rained down almost incessantly upon the station. The patients’ tents were riddled by shrapnel-bullets. The wounded began to come in early on August 4th; by the evening the hospital was crowded to overflowing. 

“August 5th. Big action at Wellington Ridge, and our Ambulance Convoy ordered out late in afternoon to help collect and evacuate wounded. We made a camp at Hod Abou Adi, whence we passed on wounded to another Ambulance which had a main station at Et Maler. We were working all night, taking the wounded down on camels, every cacolet we possessed being in use. It was a fairly heart-rending business walking beside the rocking cacolets with their groaning human burdens. The scene at Et Maler faírly beggared description. The station was crowded with wounded, and was all in a bustle and hum of activity in the darkness. In the centre were two huge operating-tents blazing with light. The whole thing reminded one of a show-ground at a fair. In the tents the surgeons were continuously operating, a stream of wounded steadily flowing through their hands. One of the tents presented an unique spectacle – something we had never seen before and may never see again. On one side of the tent were our own R.A.M.C. surgeons busy at their operating tables. The tables on the other side were under the care of Turkish surgeons, assisted by Turkish orderlies, treating their own wounded. These were the personnel of one of the enemy ambulances which had fallen into our hands on the previous day. It was splendid to witness the perfect harmony and good fellowship which existed between the members of the British and Turkish medical staffs, only one common thought pervading the minds of all the saving of life and relief of human suffering. 

“August 6th. Another heavy day in the field for our Ambulance men. Our Convoy was ordered out to assist at Oghratina where an action had taken place between our mounted troops and the retreating Turks. On reaching Oghratina, we found the personnel of the Mounted Ambulance overwhelmed with work, and wholly unable to cope with the large number of wounded that had been brought in. There they were, lying about in the open, waiting their turn, many of them desperately wounded, and most of them starving. Our men set to work, first to feed them, and then to dress and bandage their wounds. We also erected shelters where they could be protected from the pitiless blazing sun. Altogether, this was one of the most arduous jobs our men have ever tackled. And when all had been cared for, our main convoy had to evacuate them back to a main station at Kilo 47 , making several journeys over a most difficult country with our whole available transport. It was a day we shall never forget- many a back came near to breaking that day.”

The following extract is from an account of the work of still another Ambulance during the same action. It illustrates again the great variety of work which the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps may be called upon to tackle in connection with an engagement.

“At Mehem dia we opened up a large hospital admitting patients from all the regiments quartered in the area, and evacuating by the light railway to No. 31 General Hospital at Port Said, and to 24th Stationary Hospital. 

“On the morning of August 4th several enemy aircraft appeared and dropped bombs, causing many casualties in the surrounding units.

“The same day our Mobile Column was mustered and left to take part in the battle of Romani, following up close to the infantry. The column ultimately took up its position at the railhead, Kilo 47 , and were detailed to attend to sick troops who had fallen out on the march. Parties of stretcher-bearers, and also camels with cacolets, were dispatched in all directions to bring in the large number of men who had succumbed to exhaustion owing to the excessive heat, want of water, and the appalling difficulties of the march. Even Sinai Desert seems to have excelled itself that day in the matter of sweltering, almost intolerable heat, and stifling dust. Our R.A.M.C. lads were themselves already fairly done up, but they toiled like Trojans at the job. In one little hod, or wood of palm trees, no less than 100 men were discovered, many of whom were unconscious. Others were lying, drinking the dirty brackish water out of stagnant pools. One poor fellow, whom I lit upon, was foaming at the mouth, semi-delirious from thirst. When I knelt down to give him a drink from my water-bottle, he fairly tore it out of my hands and poured the water over his face in attempting to get it down his throat. All the men we found seemed to be absolutely ravenous for want of water. We collected and brought in about 300 altogether that day. The majority, after being treated and detained at the dressing station for the night, were so far re-covered on the morrow as to be able to rejoin their units out on the Desert, but a good many serious cases among them had to be sent. down the line.”

And the mention of “the line” brings us to the consideration of one achievement of the R.A.M.C. during this engagement at Romani, which deserves very special notice. This was the improvisation of a hospital-train service, by which many cases were passed down the line to Kantara during the first ten days from the outbreak of hostilities. 

A specially appointed ambulance-train was course of construction for use on the Sinai Desert railroad; but it had not yet arrived, and some means of rapid evacuation of the wounded from Romani to the Base on the Suez Canal had now to be hastily organised. No passenger carriages were available there was nothing but the ordinary goods trucks, either opened or closed, for the conveyance of wounded. The traffic on the line was frightfully congested owing to the need for bringing up reinforcements and materials of war. Communication over the 25-mile stretch of Desert railroad was intermittent, and often impossible as the military had the monopoly of the telegraph wires. Moreover, the personnel of the railway, and indeed of all R.A.M.C. units in the zone of action, was already more than fully employed. 

Nevertheless a railway gang of Medical Officers and orderlies was got together by hook and crook – seven closed goods trucks, or box vans, were commandeered and fitted up to contain eight slung stretchers each, the necessary devising and carpenter-work being done by the men of one of our Sanitary Sections. Other empty trucks were temporarily made use of, whenever available on the returning trains. A senior Medical Officer was sent to the railhead at Romani as Evacuation Control Officer. Six others were told off to act as Train M.O:s, and with them as many R.A.M.C. orderlies as could be collected. Equipment was issued, such as blankets, nursing and medical companions, medical comforts, dressings, bandages, and other emergency material. The R.A.M.C. personnel was divided into three separate train crews, each with its complete working rig-out. These crews had to stand by ready to man a train whenever a number of empty trucks could be secured. Their equipment was loaded in with them and again removed at the end of each journey when the wounded were taken off. Closed trucks only could be used during the daytime on account of the heat and distressing glare of the sun; at night open trucks were brought into use, the service being thus materially expedited.

But the conveyance of the wounded by these means was attended by innumerable difficulties. The trains, to which the ambulance trucks were attached, were subject to unending delays and side-trackings to allow the crowded down-trains to pass on the single line. The frequent stoppages and shunting operations, and the jolts and jars due to loose couplings or hastily laid metals was the cause of appalling discomfort, even downright torture, to the patients, many of whom were very seriously injured. The work of the orderlies in charge of the wounded was also greatly hampered owing to the fact that it was impossible to pass from truck to truck except when the train was at a standstill. But in spite of all deterrents, the work went ceaselessly on day and night, none thinking of rest or sleep until the last stretcher with the last helpless man was safely delivered at the Base. Here again notable work was done. The Romani wounded were all taken to one Casualty Clearing Station whose staff proved themselves beyond all praise in their devotion to duty. The work thus suddenly thrown upon them, however, was beyond human possibility, and the assistance of both officers and men of neighbouring medical units was called in, and promptly rendered. It should be mentioned here that not only our own wounded but several hundred wounded Turkish prisoners, were brought down to Kantara at this time. These latter were dealt with at the Egyptian Hospital which was commanded by an R.A.M.C. officer and partly staffed by the Corps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *