Seventh Manchesters - Holding up the Turk.

London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Seventh Manchesters - Holding up the Turk.

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Holding up the Turk.
In September, 1914, the 7th Bn. Manchester Regiment set out for active service in the East in goodly company, for they were a part of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, the first territorials to leave these shores during the Great War. After many interesting days spent on garrison duty in the Sudan and Lower Egypt they journeyed to Gallipoli soon after the landing had been effected, and took a continuous part in that ill-fated campaign until the final evacuation. The beginning of 1916 thus found them back in Egypt, where they were taking part in General Maxwell's scheme for the defence of the Suez Canal. The things that befell the battalion during this long period have been admirably described in Major Hurst's book _With Manchesters in the East_, and this short history will attempt to continue the narrative from the point where it left off.

At the end of June, 1916, the 7th Manchesters made a short trip by rail along the Suez Canal, the last railway journey they were to make as a battalion for many a long day. The 42nd Division left the defence of the southern half of the Canal in the able hands of the East Anglian Territorials, and journeyed north to the Kantara region. It was not definitely known why we made this move, but there were persistent rumours that we were destined for France, where events were speeding towards a big battle. However, the 7th detrained at Kantara and there met, for the first time since Gallipoli, the 52nd (Lowland Scottish) Division. We knew very little of this coastal region of the desert. Occasional stories had floated down to us to supplement the very meagre official communiqués as to events there, but it was recognised as a place where opportunities of getting in touch with our invisible enemy were rather better than in the south. So it was felt that, even if we did not go to France, life would lose a certain amount of that deadly monotony which we had experienced for six months.

It transpired that the 127th Brigade were to relieve detachments of the 11th Division, who, it was openly whispered, were definitely to sail for France to try their luck in the more vigorous scene of this great adventure. Most interesting to us was the discovery that we were to take over posts occupied by the 11th Manchesters, the first Kitchener battalion of our own regiment. Our astonishment and delight can be imagined when we saw that they wore the good old Fleur de Lys for a battalion flash on the puggarees of their helmets--just as we wore it, but yellow instead of green.

The battalion marched east along a good road recently made for military purposes, and eventually reached Hill 70, where the headquarters were established. Early next morning, garrisons marched out before the heat of the day to occupy a series of posts arranged in semi-circular formation between two inundations about three miles apart. "B" Company took over Turk Top and No. 1 Post. Capt. Smedley, Capt. Brian Norbury, 2nd-Lt. C. B. Douglas, 2nd-Lt. Pell-Ilderton being at the former, while Capt. J. R. Creagh, 2nd-Lt. Hacker, and later 2nd-Lt. Gresty took charge of the latter. "C" Company were divided between Nos. 2 and 3 posts, with Lt. Nasmith and 2nd-Lt. S. J. Wilson at No. 2, and Lt. Nidd and Lt. Marshall at No. 3. "A" Company, who were responsible for Hill 70, was commanded by Capt. Tinker assisted by 2nd-Lt's. Kay, Woodward, Wood and Wilkinson. The officers comprising headquarters were Lt.-Col. Canning, C.M.G., Capt. Cyril Norbury (second in command), Major Scott (Quartermaster), Capt. Farrow, M.C. (Medical Officer), Lt. H. C. Franklin, M.C., Adjutant and 2nd-Lt. Bateman (Signal Officer), while 2nd-Lt. J. Baker was in charge of the Lewis guns of the battalion. "D" Company were at Hill 40 in a reserve position under the command of Capt. Higham supported by Capt. Townson, 2nd-Lt's. Grey Burn, G. W. F. Franklin, Ross-Bain, Gresty, Morten, and R. J. R. Baker. The work of the transport was divided between Capt. Ward-Jones, and 2nd-Lt. M. Norbury.

The posts consisted of self-contained redoubts which were capable of holding out in the matter of food and water for about three days. They had been constructed at the cost of great labour by the 52nd Division. Routine was simple, our only duties being to man our posts before dawn, then improve and maintain the trenches and wire until about 7 when the sun entered his impossible stage. The same thing happened in the evening. During the night patrols were executed from one post to the next. All this carried a certain interest because we knew that the Turk might come near at any time in the shape of a flying raiding column to reach the canal. Rumours were frequent of his proximity, and when Turk Top one night frantically reported mysterious green lights, out towards the enemy, serious preparations were made for his reception. The climax came, however, about noon one day at Hill 70 when those who were not asleep heard, with a mixed feeling of old familiarity, "s-s-s-sh-sh-SH--flop." Most of us, after cringing in the usual manner, said, with a relieved air, "Dud." Then followed commotion. They had arrived and were shelling the post. The shimmering desert was eagerly scanned by the officers' field glasses, and all kinds of things were seen and not seen. Meanwhile someone went to look at the "Dud," and found not a shell but a large stone, still quite hot. It finally dawned upon everyone that we were bombarded from the heavens, and not by the Turk. It was a meteorite, still preserved amongst the battalion's war souvenirs, which had upset our composure.

Whilst on duty at these posts we had a visit from the Marquis of Tullibardine, now Duke of Atholl, of the Scottish Horse, who was responsible for this section of the Canal defences. Lieut.-Gen. Lawrence, afterwards Chief of Staff in France, who was in command of the northern section of the Canal defences also paid a visit, and remembered us as part of the brigade which he had commanded on Gallipoli. Important changes took place in the battalion at this time. Lt.-Col. Canning, C.M.G., relinquished the command, and returned home for duty in the Cork district. His departure was sorely regretted by all ranks, for during the twelve months he had been with the 7th, his capabilities as a commander had only been surpassed by his solicitude for the men's welfare, so that he had made his way into our hearts as a popular soldier. Major Cronshaw of the 5th Manchesters succeeded him and was soon afterwards made Lt.-Colonel. Captain Farrow, M.C., R.A.M.C., was also invalided home, after having had almost unbroken active service with the battalion since September, 1914.

About the middle of July a fairly large column of Turks began to make their way across the desert from El Arish, intending to strike once more for the possession of the Suez Canal. They moved with surprising rapidity and wonderful concealment, and some excitement was caused when a large enemy force was located by air reconnaissance, so near as Oghratina Hod, within five miles of Romani, then held by the 52nd Division. A battle seemed imminent, and this at the worst possible time in the Egyptian year. A Brigade of the 53rd Division, consisting of Royal Welsh Fusiliers and Herefords, spent a night at Hill 70 on their way to occupy a defensive line between Romani and Mahamadiyeh on the coast. There was an obvious increase in aerial activity on both sides, and camel and other traffic on the Romani road became more feverish.

On July 23rd, the 7th Lancashire Fusiliers relieved the battalion in all the posts and we marched back to Hill 40, where we found the whole brigade was concentrating. There was much to be done in equipping the men, and teaching them the correct method of carrying their belongings on "Mobile Column," for that was what we were destined to become. The equipment was worn in the usual "fighting kit" manner, with the haversack on the back and under the haversack the drill tunic, folded in four. This also served as a pad to protect the spine from the sun. Near Hill 40 there was a large patch of hard sand which the Scottish Horse, who were in the neighbourhood, had converted into a football pitch. Small wonder then that we challenged the owners to a game, and a great game it was. The Scotsmen had an unbeaten record in Egypt, which they maintained, but only after a ding-dong game which the battalion never forgot.

The next day the Brigade marched forward and made camp at Gilban, about 3-1/2 miles N.E. of Hill 70. An indefinite stay was to be made here, and defensive precautions were taken, a ring of posts being placed all round the camp. It was soon found that the principal difficulty was that of patrolling by night from post to post. On a desert such as this there were no landmarks of any sort, and as a belt of wire such as we had been used to at Hill 70 had not been placed between the posts it was by no means easy to preserve the right direction. As we had reached a scrub-covered desert, however, this difficulty was easily overcome by making a sort of track from one post to the next by clearing away the scrub, and using this to make a clear edge to the track. The battalion was augmented about this time by drafts from home, and the following officers rejoined after having been invalided to England in 1915: Lt. Douglas Norbury, 2nd-Lt. Bryan and 2nd-Lt. L. G. Harris, while a week previous Major Allan had been posted to us from the 8th Manchesters as second in command.

In the army coming events often cast their shadow before them; and this shadow frequently takes the form of a visit by the Higher Command to the troops who are to go into action. Hence, when the Divisional Commander, Major-General Sir W. Douglas, had the 127th Brigade paraded for him at Gilban, and when he complimented Brigadier-General Ormsby upon the fine turn out, we gathered that our long period of waiting for the Turk was over. He told us to husband our water, and these words I am sure rang through many an officer's head in the following days. The 42nd Division, he said, were expected to make a great coup, and many prisoners were to be taken. Two days later the preliminary rumbles of the Battle of Romani were heard, for the Turk had commenced an artillery and bombing attack upon the garrisons there.


ROMANI AND KATIA.

The Turkish force, estimated at about 16,000, and much better equipped than the flying column which had made the first attempt to cross the canal in March the previous year, had been promised that they should overwhelm the "small" British garrisons before the Feast of Ramadan. They would then meet with no resistance and would enter victoriously into Egypt, a sort of promised land after their hardships across the desert. Many of them did enter Egypt and reached Cairo, but not in the way they wished. They were marched through the city as prisoners, and their presence as such undoubtedly created a profound impression upon disloyal Egyptians.

Inspired by a number of German officers, however, they fought well and vigorously in the early stages of the attack upon Romani. They had been told that once they got on the hills in the neighbourhood of the British positions they would see the Suez Canal stretched out below them, and this probably urged them on to make almost superhuman efforts. In front of Romani, in the region of the Katia oasis, mobile outposts furnished by the Australian Light Horse were driven in after hard fighting, and they fell back to other positions on the high sand hills to the south of Romani, covering the right flank of the 52nd Division. Meanwhile a frontal attack was delivered upon the redoubts occupied by the latter, and the enemy made many brave attempts to reach the summit of Katib Gannit, a high hill, in shape similar to the Matterhorn, which dominated the whole desert. He gained a footing nowhere, however, and exposed to merciless rifle and machine gun fire from the Scotsmen, suffered heavy casualties. A similar reception was afforded him by the Welshmen of 158th Brigade further north towards Mahamadiyeh.

It was apparent, however, that the enemy's intention was to force his way around the southern side and cut the railway and water pipe near Pelusium behind Romani, and in this part of the battle the Australian and New Zealand Light Horse, who had had to discard their horses and fight as infantry, found it difficult to hold their own against repeated assaults. More terrible than the Turk was the heat and the lack of water.

Such is a rough outline of the situation when the 7th Manchesters along with the remainder of the 127th Brigade were suddenly ordered to concentrate at Pelusium. The morning of August 4th opened quietly for us, although gunfire could be heard, and bursting shrapnel could be seen in the direction of Duedar. We had settled down to ordinary routine, one company setting out for a short march, and others preparing for kit inspections and other camp duties, when suddenly, "B" Company received orders to fall in and move off, and in a short space of time they were entrained during the heat of the day for Pelusium. Before noon the whole battalion was collected on what was supposed to be a bivouac area at the new destination. But we had seen General Douglas going along the train at Gilban and he said: "Well, good luck lads, make a good bag," so we were not surprised when we found that settling down for bivouac was not to be our fate.

The 5th Manchesters had arrived with us, and the 8th were following on, while the 6th were already here, having been sent up the previous day. Our task was to go to the assistance of the Colonials and attack the Turk on the flank along with the 5th, the 6th and 8th being in support and reserve. We marched out about 4 o'clock, moving first south and then south-east. Meanwhile the battle was obviously increasing in intensity, and when we halted previous to extending, we could see the Turk shrapnel severely peppering a high ridge in front where a detachment of the Australian Light Horse, having resumed their horses, were gradually massing for a charge.

With the 5th on our right we extended into lines about 2,000 yards from what appeared to be the Turkish position on a ridge to our front. As we swept into view the enemy opened fire at long range, but very soon it was evident that they had no stomach left for a further fight. They were extremely exhausted with their exertions of the previous days, particularly of the past twenty-four hours, and the sight of lines of fresh British Infantry moving steadily toward them was more than their jaded bodies and nerves could stand. As our men climbed the enemy's ridge white flags began to appear. They were the long white sandbags carried by every Turk, and very convenient for their purpose. Large bodies surrendered and they were collected and sent to the rear. Meanwhile the Colonials had swept round the hill away to the right, and in a comparatively short space of time about six hundred Turks were seen being marched back by a few Australian troopers. The enemy's artillery had ceased fire and were obviously making attempts to escape eastwards, so with the exception of a few rifle shots from the direction of the 5th the battle in our sector was over for the day.

This was the death blow to Turkey's and Germany's hopes of ever getting within striking distance of the Suez Canal, and a vindication of Kitchener's principle that British soldiers should get out on the desert to defend the canal, and not allow the canal to defend them. But more important still, it was the beginning of that forward move so slow and weary in its early stages, which later developed into General Allenby's wonderful sweep through Palestine.

Before nightfall "C" and "D" Companies established themselves in support to the 5th Manchesters, who had now joined up with the Australians on the left, but there was very little possibility of the Turk attacking again that day, so all the troops were rested, in preparation for a strenuous attack on the morrow. Sentry groups were posted, and the battalion sat down and made a scanty meal of bread accompanied where possible with a mouthful of water. This was the first meal most men had had since breakfast. Numbers of prisoners came in during the night, each of them carrying a full water bottle. The Turk knew how to preserve a water supply, and what was of greater interest to us, he knew where to get it. It speaks well, however, for the chivalry of the British soldier that none deprived their prisoners of their water, although they were probably almost without themselves. This sporting attitude towards the enemy, the spirit of "play the game" whether fighting the clean Turk or the not so reputable German, I never failed to observe throughout the war.

Stand to at 3.30 the following morning indicated that work was still to be done, for in the half light, troops of Light Horse could be seen collecting behind a hill preparatory to a sweep forward. When they emerged in the increasing light, the enemy could be seen fleeing from a trench about 1,200 yards away. Very soon word came through that we were to go in pursuit, and while we were exercised in mind as to what we should do for water, we were greatly relieved when we were ordered back to the ridge to fill our bottles. There the welcome sight of camels loaded with water fantassies met our eyes and the men eagerly assisted in the work of distribution. Three-quarters of a bottle and a "buckshee" drink was the ration, and this obtained, men felt more fit for their labours. Food, however, there was none, and we had to be content with what remained of yesterday's rations. But it was felt that food was not so important if only the water would not fail.

By seven o'clock the whole Brigade were on the move, and in tropical countries in the hot season, the sun's heat is considerable at this time. After we had travelled some distance the hardship of desert marching under these conditions began to really hit us, and undoubtedly the exertions of the previous day were having their effect. Every moment the heat increased, the sand seemed to become softer and softer, and the whole ground sloped gradually upwards. Men dropped and officers had to use all the powers they possessed to get them on, but many had to be left behind to struggle along afterwards in their own time. Meanwhile another long column of prisoners could be seen streaming away towards Romani, which we were now leaving well to our left rear. The battalion proceeded over the desert in this manner in artillery formation with platoons as units, and halting as frequently as possible. After a great physical effort we reached the base of a hill with a steep soft slope, and a sort of knife-edge ridge at the top, where an Australian outpost had been surrounded a few days before. Australian and Turkish dead still lay as evidence of the fight, and the stench from their bodies produced by the sweltering heat did not diminish the grimness of the scene.

This ridge was the battalion's position for the day, so after a short rest we scrambled to the top and surveyed the desert on the other side, lying thoroughly exhausted under the almost vertical rays of the sun, for it was now mid-day. The other side of the hill was exceptionally steep and dropped into a large hod (plantation of date palms), the first we had met on our desert travels. In this there appeared to be a well, and the temptation to go down for water was great, but how could one struggle up again? An occasional trooper visited this place but none could persuade their horses to drink, which seemed to indicate that the water was not good. Out over the desert the cavalry could still be seen pursuing the enemy, and our guns were occasionally flinging shrapnel amongst them.

Strange sights were seen. A captured convoy of Turkish camel transport was captured, and they presented a very motley appearance. They were evidently collected from the desert lands of the Turkish Empire. They had come to the war dressed as for their more peaceful habits, so that no two men were alike. Several wore brilliantly coloured garments and head gear. Occasionally a German officer would be seen amongst the batch of weary prisoners. The navy's assistance in this fighting was marked by a monitor, miles away, standing as close to the shore as possible, although to us she appeared like a tiny toy ship. Suddenly a big flash belched forth, followed a long time afterwards by a roar, which in turn was followed by a terrific explosion over the desert to the right where the shell had arrived in the wake of the retreating Turks. One of these shots at least had been an O.K. as we afterwards discovered, for it had destroyed a large part of a Turkish camel convoy. At four in the afternoon the battalion received orders to move on and occupy another ridge about one and a half miles in front, and "A" Company immediately set out, moving round the shoulder of our present hill. "C" Company dropped down the steep slope and waited in the hod for further instructions. They found there a batch of wounded Turks waiting to be carried off by the ambulance. It was with some astonishment that they heard Major Allan shouting to them from above to get back to their former position, so they struggled up the hill again with a very ill grace. However, plans had been changed and it transpired that the Lancashire Fusiliers had arrived and they were to take over our position while we went back a few yards to bivouac for the night.

It was now much cooler and men felt disposed to eat their very scanty meal. Those who had water were fortunate. Just as we were settling down for the night word came through that Katia was to be taken next day, and that we should move out at four in the morning. The enemy were believed to be holding the oasis basin fairly strongly. In our extraordinarily tired condition, brought about by strenuous exertions and lack of nourishment, we did not view the prospect with too much confidence, but hoping that a few hours' sleep might refresh us we rolled into the shallow scoops we had made in the sand, and lay down to a rather chilly night, our only extra cover being the khaki drill tunic whose weight we had roundly cursed during the day.

At 3 a.m. we prepared to move. In the dim light the eternally-blessed water camels could be seen wending their way towards our bivouac. As before there was abundance of volunteers for this vital fatigue, but most hearts drooped when it was found that the ration worked out to a pint per man! Officers and N.C.O's. sadly but vigorously emphasised the extreme urgency of preserving the water supply. Some resorted to drastic action and insisted that no man should drink at all without first obtaining permission of his officer, and on the day's business I am inclined to think that these officers obtained the best results. The Brigadier came to tell us we had done magnificently, but he said we should have a worse day to-day; water was to be had at Katia--when we got there. The men were also warned that it would probably be of little use to drop out, in fact it might be extremely dangerous, for the chances of being picked up were rather slight.

The cheery soul of the British Tommy, however, is proof against all things, and he started out on this day's trip in the same spirit with which he tackled all jobs during the war: "It has to be done, so do your best and put the best face on it." The Fleur de Lys led out the Brigade and trudged steadily through the soft sand in artillery formation. The 6th gradually got up into a position on our right, while the 5th and 8th followed in support. The march forward proceeded monotonously in the increasing heat, the men becoming more and more taciturn as the sun's power gathered. Allowance of course had to be made for the weariness of the men and the heavy going. Then a halt was called and we waited for an hour. It appeared that the L.F's., who formed the left of the 42nd Divisional front, had been rather late in starting, and it was necessary to wait for them. Then the forward movement commenced again, and after some time another long halt was necessary. Our men were now in a great hollow in the sand in which there was not a breath of wind, and the sun now at the height of its fury beat down mercilessly.

There is little doubt that this lying unprotected in the heat simply sapped our energy, and everyone wished that we could have pushed on ahead. General Douglas came to cheer the men up, and announced that over 3,000 Turkish prisoners and a large quantity of material had been captured to date. For the moment, however, men had lost their grip of interest in such matters, and were chiefly concerned with their own personal affairs. They behaved splendidly and with great physical effort resisted the need to drink. Officers were grateful to one or two men in their platoons who proved a moral support to their comrades by keeping a cheerful countenance, interposing a ribald remark when things looked black, and explaining to their weakest pals the rigours of the necessity in a rougher but more intelligible manner than their leaders could have done. Such men are invaluable and are always to be found on these occasions.

Reconnoitring patrols of Australian Light Horse and Yeomanry passed through, and from remarks dropped by returning troopers it soon became apparent that little if any resistance would be met with. A detachment of Ayrshire and Inverness Horse Artillery were keeping pace with our column and occasionally they opened fire, obviously upon fleeting targets of retreating Turks. A thick wood of date palms in the distance indicated Katia, and all men gazed upon this as the Mecca in which water was to be found. Some eight hundred yards from this, however, was another hod which had to be traversed by the 127th Brigade, and as we were leading, it devolved upon us to make quite sure that it was not occupied. The 6th and 7th therefore extended and assumed attack formation to pass through the hod. This was a difficult moment and tested the fibre of men and the battalion as a whole to the utmost. The extra physical exertion and the loss of companionship which one gets in the close formation served almost as a breaking point to endurance. Perhaps the best summary of the psychology of this period is found in the words from the diary of one of the officers:--

"Then it was that my energy gave out. I moved about along the line shouting at the men to preserve their dressing and correct intervals. Much had to be done. We inclined first to the left and then to the right and it was very trying. Men began to drop and I could not help them now that I had lost touch with them. Then I began to lose all interest. I had become purely self-centred--if the whole platoon had collapsed I am afraid I should not have been concerned. I had almost got to such a state that if the Turks had suddenly appeared from the wood I should not have cared what the consequences were. Yet I was determined not to touch water for I recognised that that was required for the last extremity. My head dropped and my knees would not straighten. The load on my shoulders was ten times its weight. The haversack and tunic on my back seemed to pull me down, but the greatest weight was an extra haversack which I had attached to my equipment on the left. It contained all manner of necessaries and comforts, and ties with home. I was determined not to part with it, although I confess I was almostimpelled to fling it away. In other words I think I had got to the limit of my endurance, when a halt was called in the hod. I dropped under a palm tree with a group of men, slipped off my load, and then lay quite still for a long time. After a while I had my first drink of water for that day. We stayed there some time, and one or two of the men had found a well. But it was brackish and the men should not have touched it, for it made them worse. Several were knocked out altogether by it."

Word had come through that Katia was unoccupied by the enemy, and although it required a tremendous effort the battalion got together and proceeded to the final destination in column of route. Although not much over half a mile those last yards seemed interminable, but in course of time we were all settled in the cool shade of the hod and were speculating about water; a problem which seemed to be solved by the arrival of the camels. When it was found that no fantassie was full and many were empty it required the utmost exertion of a British soldier's good temper to prevent him from killing some of the Gyppies who had accompanied them, for it was obvious that they had been selling water to men who had dropped out of the column. Then we reflected that these poor devils needed it badly, so it was hard to apportion the blame. We wondered, nevertheless, why other camels had been detailed to carry on an occasion like this, flour, fresh meat (once fresh but now unfit for consumption) and candles, when they might have been better employed carrying water! Still, we were thankful to have achieved our task and although we had lost more than seventy men en route, we were proud to know that we had arrived the strongest battalion, some having left more than half their effectives on the desert.

The day's work was complete when the battalion had formed an outpost line well in front of the wood, and had dug short section trenches. Through the night desultory rifle fire could be heard in front where the mounted troops were still in touch with the retiring enemy. Next day a serious conflict took place between the cavalry and the Turkish rearguard at Oghratina, and rumours were prevalent that we had to continue the forward movement. We were not sorry, however, when it was found that we were to remain in Katia. During the succeeding days hostile aircraft were very busy, and dropped several bombs in the vicinity of the wood, the 52nd Division, who were north of us, suffering more severely than ourselves.

Those not on outpost duty took advantage of the rest and made themselves as comfortable as possible. Stakes sent up by the R.E. were used for constructing bivouacs, but perhaps the palm trees provided as much assistance as anything else. Although we had not yet learnt to use the word "camouflage" we knew its meaning, and whenever we settled down on the desert we put it into use as a protection against inquisitive aircraft. At Katia the palm trees gave us all the protection we required in this way.