London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Seventh Manchesters - Desert Life.

Seventh Manchesters index 

Desert Life.

On August 14th the 42nd Division moved back to Romani, a further advance across the Sinai Desert being deemed inadvisable until the railway and water pipe, which stopped a few kilometres beyond Romani, had been pushed further ahead. A system of training was started, but as the men had not recovered from the fatigue of the Katia operations, and the weather was very trying, vigorous forms of exercise were given up. A number of men went to hospital with a weakening form of diarrhoea almost akin to dysentery, while the medical authorities were in a highly nervous state about cholera of which a few cases had been reported. It was presumed that this had been contracted from the Turkish prisoners and their old camping grounds.

The battalion was augmented slightly at this stage by a draft from England, while 2nd-Lt's. W. H. Barratt and W. Thorp returned from leave. Lt. H. C. Franklin, M.C., one-time R.S.M., went into hospital and was invalided to England, and his place as Adjutant was taken by Capt. J. R. Creagh, a position he filled admirably for more than two years. Captains C. Norbury and B. Norbury left the battalion about this time to obtain appointments in England and France and this entailed a change in Company Commanders. Captains Tinker and Higham continued to command "A" and "D" Companies, Lt. H. H. Nidd was given "B" Company, and Captain Chadwick "C" Company. 2nd-Lt. G. W. Franklin assisted the Adjutant in the Orderly Room, while 2nd-Lt. F. Grey Burn was employed as "Camel Officer;" new work brought about by the substitution of camel for wheeled transport. The bulk of the latter remained at Kantara under 2nd-Lt. M. Norbury, with Capt. Ward Jones in charge of the Brigade transport; their duties consisting chiefly in bringing rations, etc., across the canal from the main station on the E.S.R. and loading them on the trains which ran over the desert. Wheeled transport could not be employed in the desert stations as roads had not been constructed.

We came to know the camel fairly well during the succeeding months, and he proved a study, perhaps more interesting than his caretaker, a member of the Egyptian Camel Corps' distinctive in his long blue garrabea. When a company was on duty at a distant outpost the time for the arrival of the ration camels was also the signal for the ration fatigue to fall in. Then the string of animals would leisurely wend their way through the gaps in the barb wire, their noses held high in an aristocratic leer, each led with a head rope by a blue smocked Gyppie. The Q.M.S. would appear: "'Tala Henna, Walad. Barrac Henna'" and so forth. A wonderful flow of British-Arabic, grinningly comprehended by the natives, always produces the desired result. The camel gets down in a series of bumps and not without cautious glances at his head, the men unfasten the complication of ropes and commence the work of unloading. Somebody shouts: "Mail up!" and this brings out a number of interested faces from the entrances to "bivvies." After the rations have been sorted out, word quickly goes round, "Six to a loaf again, and no fresh meat to-day," so everyone looks gloomily ahead to the prospect of swallowing quantities of bully beef and biscuits. Other camels have carried up trench and wiring materials, and when all are off-loaded they get up wearily and solemnly depart leaving the outpost to its solitary existence. If there is only one officer he feels his solitude very much, for in spite of the camaraderie with the men and particularly the senior N.C.O's. there is a feeling of restraint due to the requirements of military discipline, and he misses the value of perfectly free intercourse.[1]

It soon became apparent that an advance across the desert in the direction of El Arish was contemplated, and that the speed of such an advance would depend upon the rate at which the railway and water pipe line could be constructed. The function of the troops was to protect it from raiders so that work could proceed in comfort, a duty shared by the mounted troops and the 52nd and 42nd Divisions. In September, therefore, the 7th Manchesters left Romani for garrison duty at Negiliat, about twenty kilos. further east. About this time Capt. Chadwick, who along with Lt.-Col. Cronshaw, had been decorated with the Serbian Order of the White Eagle in long delayed recognition of their magnificent work in Gallipoli, left the battalion to join the R.F.C. in England and France. Capt. Townson succeeded him in the command of "C" Company.

As the health of the desert troops was not good after their long strain under the tropical sun, a system of rest and holiday cure, suggested by the medical authorities, was begun. Batches of men and officers were sent off to Alexandria and encamped at Sidi Bishr, just outside the town for a week, during which time they were free to do more or less as they pleased, a concession highly relished by everyone. The sight of civilisation alone was in itself almost a cure, but the change of the surroundings, the lack of military duties, the sea bathing, and the enjoyment of everything that dear old "Alex." could offer worked wonders. Further, the hot season was drawing to a close and men began to feel more normal, so that by the end of October the troops were as fit as they had ever been in their lives. The 127th Brigade were withdrawn to Romani whilst this work of recuperation was in progress, and the beginning of November saw us back again at Negiliat.

Meanwhile, the mounted troops, closely supported by the infantry, kept constant touch with the Turk. When the railhead reached the outpost line it was necessary to move the enemy by force and to this end engagements were fought at Bir el Abd, and at El Mazar, both of which resulted in the Turk withdrawing upon El Arish. His aircraft was always busy, but the bombing was not often effective. Even the natives in the E.L.C. (Egyptian Labour Corps) began to grow accustomed to these raids and steadily resisted their impulse to dash back along the line when a taube was sighted.

The return from hospital of 2nd-Lt. Jimmy Baker and of 2nd-Lt. Joe Chatterton at this time was greeted with pleasure by the battalion, and all were interested in the arrival of the new Padre, the Rev. E. C. Hoskyns. It was not long, however, before he had made himself thoroughly well-known to every man who wore the Fleur de Lys, and his cheery face was eagerly welcomed in every "bivvy." During unbroken service with us until July, 1918, he maintained a proud record of spontaneous popularity with all ranks, and especially with his brother officers.

On the night of November 3rd the eastern climate displayed a side to its character not often revealed. During the previous twenty-four hours we had witnessed extraordinary flashes of lightning, and this was followed by a distinct coldness and a few showers of rain in the afternoon, a new experience which caused much amusement amongst the men. In the evening, however, matters ripened, and after a joyous display of heavenly pyrotechnics and thunder all round the blackening, heavy sky, we were subjected to a violent downpour, accompanied by lurid lightning flashes. Tremendous hailstones came down, smashing through the few remaining flimsy blanket shelters that were still standing, so that we were left in our nakedness to bear the full fury of the storm. We felt that God's spectacular display on the mountains for Elijah's benefit had been at least emulated, but it was the still, small voice that was best appreciated again, when it remarked that it was a good job the cooks had just finished making "gunfire" or we should never have had a dixie of hot tea to cheer us up in our discomfort. Although the men had to stand all night on sentry in the outposts in their wet things they took it very good-humouredly.

A fortnight later the battalion moved forward again a few kilometres and constructed new outpost positions at Khirba, covering a cavalry post some distance to the south. This was necessitated by the fact that the Turk was still holding Nekhl in the heart of the Sinai, from whence a raiding party could easily strike north to cut our communications, for the railway Was now well beyond Bir el Abd. When not actually on the outpost line we did a good deal of training, and a range having been constructed, some useful field firing was accomplished. An exciting football competition resulted in "C" Company defeating the Sergeants' team and carrying off the battalion championship.

A more elaborate forward move commenced about this time, the railway having reached El Mazar, and when a Brigade of the 53rd Division arrived to relieve us, we began to gird up our loins and prepare for a stiff march. We knew, however, that endurance would not be tested as in the "Katia Stunt" for the weather was so much more favourable. On the morning of December 3rd, having reduced our stores to mobile column dimensions, we loaded up the long suffering, but grousing camels, and marched forth to the cheery strains of a drum and fife band, kindly provided by the 10th Middlesex. We plugged steadily on through the soft sand and finally camped for the night inside the outpost line in front of Bir el Abd. Next day the march continued and we reached Salmana. We enjoyed nothing better than this new activity, and possibly the most delightful part of it was the construction of temporary shelters at the end of the day's work. Perhaps the most trying part was the provision of the usual protection for a column such as we were, that is the advance, rear, and flank guards, for this often entailed covering a greater distance and enjoying less frequent halts. The day following provided a new interest. We proceeded through a region of sabkhets, which are large flat stretches of hard ground, the remains of dried up lagoons, for by this time we were marching almost along the coast. These sabkhets were a very welcome change from the difficult soft desert sand. Tillul was our destination and we settled down amongst Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of the 52nd Division, who had arrived a few days previously. Next morning they played us out of the camp with their bagpipes and we had a good stiff march to El Mazar, and there we fell in with elements of the other two Brigades. After two days' rest we marched out again and occupied a position just inside the defensive line, which was then being held by the 6th and 8th.

The battalion remained a few days in this district, and when not actually in the outpost line and digging trenches, we were taken out in front, a company at a time, to act as a protection to the E.L.C. who were engaged upon railway construction. Whilst on this work we got our first glimpse of El Arish, the goal to be gained after this heavy striving across the desert. The Turks were supposed to be holding a strong position between ourselves and the town, and the idea seemed to be to push the railway as far as possible, and then eject the enemy so that work could proceed. Our men were thoroughly impressed with the wonderful rapidity with which these "Gyppies" accomplished their task. They were divided up into gangs, each in charge of another native who had been raised to the dignity of two stripes and a stick. The stick he used freely on the men who failed to keep up his standard of work. Using their curious adze-like shovels they pulled the sand into baskets and ran away with it to where it was required, and whilst they toiled a simple but noisy refrain was sung to the leadership of the "Ganger." The whole spectacle presented a seething mass of rapidly-moving, blue smocked, brown figures, busily working on the bright yellow sand. The result of four hours of this sort of thing would produce about 500 yards of good level track including shallow cuttings and embankments. Then the train would arrive with more sleepers and rails and these would be carefully but quickly laid in position.

Another job we had to do in this neighbourhood was digging wells. When "C" Company went off for a couple of days to do this they discovered what a formidable business it was. It was necessary to go down to a depth of about twenty feet, and as the well was sited in very soft sand the task can be imagined. A huge hole, about forty feet square had to be made to allow for the slope of the sand, and the deeper we went, the higher grew the mountains of sand all round the hole, so that the men had to be arranged on tiers above one another. In this way a shovel full of sand from the bottom travelled up through various pairs of hands before it was finally thrown clear. This tedious business continued until water was struck, and then a corrugated iron frame was sunk at the bottom, and the tall sides of the well built upon it. After this all the sand that had been so laboriously chucked out, was heaved back again. A pump was fixed by the R.E. and troughs made along side, to be filled as often as the well could furnish sufficient water (in this case twice a day) for the use of camels or horses.

At El Maadan an important railhead was being constructed for the storage of water, which was kept in large and small canvas tanks. We took a great personal interest in those tanks with our thoughts resting securely on Katia. Matters were gradually developing towards an engagement of some magnitude, and it was now known that the general scheme was for the mounted troops to make a detour in order to turn the enemy's left flank, whilst the 42nd and 52nd Divisions would make an advance parallel to the coast. That is to say in effect the infantry would deliver a frontal attack upon the Turkish troops covering El Arish.

It had been further decided that the 127th Brigade together with the 5th East Lancashires would execute the first shock of the 42nd's effort, so we had a feeling that once again the Fleur de Lys would be "in the limelight." During the evening of December 29th there was a rapid and wonderful concentration of troops of all arms in the hollow ground near the railhead. The two infantry Divisions were there in force, whilst the Australian L.H., and N.Z.M.R., together with the Yeomanry were simply waiting for dusk to move off to their appointed stations. Behind all this preparation there was a curious feeling that there was no enemy to fight at all, and betting ran high as to whether we should find any Turks near El Arish or not. It was suspected in high quarters that the enemy had got quietly away a few hours before. However, we slept peacefully until 3 a.m. and then Company Commanders were summoned to a Conference with the C.O. to receive orders to get ready at once to march--backwards not forwards! The Anzacs carefully reconnoitring in the night had finally entered El Arish, and saw no one there except the native villagers. So "the stunt was a wash-out," the bird had flown.

The 42nd marched back on December 21st to El Mazar, and faint rumours began to drift about that day that we were to leave Egypt. General Douglas commiserated with us for not having had the pleasure of a good scrap! "But," he said, "never mind lads, you will get more than you want very soon." Now, what did that mean? Profound speculation as to the probabilities can easily be imagined. France, Salonica, trouble in India, Mesopotamia and even an advance into Palestine (scouted as absurd by most people) were freely discussed. The main consideration just at present, however, was that the Christmas of 1916 was going to be spent under much pleasanter conditions than the previous one on Gallipoli, and concurrent with rumours about fighting there were more substantial rumours about turkeys, plum puddings and beer. I am glad to say all three materialised, and these together with Christmas Carols by the divisional band contrived to produce a Yuletide feeling. In fact everyone had as good a time as could possibly have been expected in the desert. Luckily the parcels from home, including comforts from various institutions, etc., also arrived in time. El Mazar was our abode for more than three weeks, and we heartily wished a cleaner piece of ground could have been selected to live upon. In past days the Turk had been stationed here in force, and he, not being of a sanitary disposition, had bequeathed to us a store of body lice of new and large dimensions. I don't think the fighting strength of the 7th, including all live stock, had ever been so large in its history. A delousing apparatus made from an old engine and truck was sent up on the railway to cope with the problem, and perhaps it had some little effect--in helping the young ones to grow quicker. Most men were agreed that there was nothing to equal the double thumb action for certain results. Another scourge here, probably also due to the filthy sand, was the alarming development of septic sores. These unpleasant things did not require a wound or scratch to start them, but they broke out themselves as a small blister on any part of the body. In the case of a good many men it took the form of impetigo, an extremely uncomfortable sore rash on the face, and both officers and men appeared day after day on parade with appallingly unshaven sore chins, and bandages visible on arms or knees, etc.

During our stay here the news continued to be good. On Christmas Eve the mounted troops, not satisfied with the Turkish escape from El Arish, suddenly pounced upon Maghdaba, about twelve miles further south, up the Wadi, and after a short fierce fight destroyed the garrison, only a few making their way out of Africa. A more brilliant affair, however, was the lightning raid upon Rafa, on the border between Sinai and Palestine, and about thirty miles beyond El Arish, the starting point of the raid. In a few hours a large mounted column, consisting chiefly of Anzacs had covered this distance and had taken the Turk completely by surprise. The enemy put up a stern fight, however, and after his reinforcements had been destroyed on the road from Gaza he gave in. The prisoners from these engagements continued to have the desired effect upon the dissaffected natives in Cairo on their arrival there.

Less was heard about our leaving Egypt after the New Year, and rumours received a mortal wound when the Division turned its face to the east once more and marched up, a Brigade at a time, to El Arish. The 7th accomplished this march in three easy stages, the first day taking us to Maadan, and the next to Bitia. A few days' stay here helped us to appreciate its natural advantages, and as far as the desert went, it almost had pretensions to beauty. There were glorious palm groves, bright clean sand to live in, hard flat stretches for football (greatly appreciated), and a roaring sea close at hand on a wonderful beach for bathing. If El Arish were in Belgium, Bitia would be "El Arish Bains." The return of British power to this corner of the earth was epitomised one day in the sight of a Bedouin caravan pursuing its peaceful purpose. The old sheik stalked proudly in front, while his family and goods were disposed on various camels, and a small flock of pretty black goats pattered along behind in charge of a sturdy brown lad. Surely they at least had witnessed the Turkish retirement with satisfaction.


EL ARISH AND AFTER.

On January 22nd, 1917, the 7th Manchesters reached their "farthest east" in the final stage of the march to El Arish. Most of the day's labours had to be accomplished in a blinding sandstorm, which fortunately had subsided when we arrived at our destination. As we reached El Arish one had a curious feeling that the canal zone was being left well behind, and as far as mileage was concerned it certainly was, since the Suez was one hundred miles away. Nevertheless, up to now one had felt that really we were on canal defence, and however far we went out there had been little change in the country so that one hardly seemed to progress. Now, all that had been left behind, and we were amongst new scenes.

This growing impression was completed on our arrival. We pitched camp on a hill north-west of the town and about six hundred yards from it, so that we had a perfect view of the place, which resembled a picture out of the Bible, and was not quite like anything seen in Egypt. It was obvious we were in a new country--in fact we were knocking at the gates of Palestine, but no one amongst us knew that an entry was to be made into that country. The affair at Rafa, for instance, had only been a raid, and the Turks had once more strengthened the place. British territory had been cleared of the enemy and it was felt that a system of frontier defence would be constructed, and small garrisons left to maintain the boundary.

Eight months had passed since the battalion left the vicinity of peaceful civilisation, so to meet it again, crude though it was amidst the mud huts of El Arish, filled our men with extreme curiosity. The town was placed out of bounds because of the fear of cholera, small pox, etc., but there was much of interest to be seen. Groves of fig trees surrounded the place on the edge of the Wadi, and it was a matter for speculation as to where they obtained their sustenance for it was apparently just bare desert. Vines and date palms were also grown, and I presume these, with fishing, constitute the main source of life to the inhabitants. The natives, incidentally, had a most pleasing appearance, and their older men reminded one forcibly of the patriarchs. They had a strikingly manly and independent carriage, quite different from the lack of respectability of the lower class Egyptian. There is probably a good deal of Arab blood in them, which may account for the fearless manner with which they look the foreigner straight in the face.

We were not surprised when definite orders arrived to prepare ourselves for a return to the canal. The transport started first for they were to trek the distance, while the personnel were to have the pleasure of riding on a train. The men accepted this statement rather warily for such a thing had seldom been known during their experience with the battalion. On January 30th all the animals in the Division assembled near our camp preparatory to commencing the trek when the aircraft alarm was sounded. This was immediately followed by eight bombs in quick succession. One of these unfortunately dropped amidst our transport column killing two favourite riders, "Bighead" and "Jester" and destroying two or three mules. Fortunately only one man was injured, and more luckily still, no bombs dropped in the camp, although they were near enough to be unpleasant. The day's excitement was later heightened by a camel going "macknoon" in the middle of the camp. Attacking his native keeper he broke loose and our men had to "run for it." By an ingenious manipulation of ropes round his legs, and a well-aimed blow behind his ear from a tent mallet flung by one of the men, he was subdued and brought to earth, but not before he had destroyed a "bivvy" and some tents. Even this did not complete the incidents of the day, for evening found us clinging with might and main to tent poles, tent curtains, "bivvy" shelters, etc., while a furious sand storm did its utmost to fling them down.

The next day something of a sensation was caused by a sudden order to furnish one officer and two N.C.O's. per company as advance party to journey at once to Port Said, there to embark on February 2nd for an unknown destination. Two days later the battalion entrained in "trucks de luxe," and after a nine hours' extremely lumpy journey we reached Kantara. There was a feeling that having helped to escort the railway to its present destination we had really earned that ride. On the journey down we met elements of the 53rd Division marching up to take our places at El Arish, and we shouted greetings and expressions of goodwill to them. At Kantara a draft from England with 2nd-Lt. G. Norbury in command joined the battalion. A pleasing feature about this draft was that it was largely composed of old members of the original 7th who had been wounded or invalided from Gallipoli, such men as C.S.M. Lyth, Sergeant McHugh, Q.M.S's. Andrews and Houghton, being amongst its numbers.

The 42nd Division crossed the Suez Canal for the last time on February 5th, twelve months to the day after the 7th Manchesters had crossed over to the east side at Shallufa for the first time. The first days march ended at El Ferdan, very much to the relief of everyone. We had been, all the way, on a good hard road--a new experience after the life on the desert--and this brought into play muscles of the leg, not used on the soft sand. Everyone suffered badly from aching shins and thighs and very sore feet, so that next day, when the trek was completed to Ismailia on hot, dusty roads many men fell out, and we were a weary crew on arrival at Moascar Camp.

Our three weeks' stay here was occupied chiefly in preparing for our new scene of activities, now definitely known to be France. Eastern kit was handed in--helmets, shorts and drill tunics--and the battalion seemed to have been exchanged for a new one dressed in khaki serge and caps. With our helmets we lost our flashes, or at least the characteristic Fleur de Lys, but they were replaced by a divisional flash to be worn on the upper arm of the sleeve of the jacket. This was a diamond in shape, each Brigade having its own colour, the Manchesters being orange yellow, with the number of the battalion indicated on it by a red figure. Being close to Lake Timsa, we frequently indulged in bathing parades under ideal conditions, for after all Ismailia is really one of the beauty spots of Egypt. Complimentary farewell parades were held, one on the occasion of the visit of General Dobell, and the other a march past the C.-in-C, Sir Archibald Murray, down the Quai Mehemet Ali in the town. Altogether the 7th enjoyed themselves during these days and made the most of the end of their long sojourn in the East. We were seasoned troops and were well conversant with the customs of the country. A few pangs of regret at leaving these things behind can easily be understood, although an important consideration, and one that weighed heavily with the men, was the possibility of getting leave from France, a thing unknown in this place. Hence it was with mixed feelings that the battalion boarded the train at Ismailia on the evening of March 1st for a rapid journey to Alexandria. No time was lost here for we detrained on the quay side and embarked at once.