Topic: BatzS - El Qatiya
Sinai, 23 April 1916
Falls Account, Egypt in the Spring of 1916
As part of the Official British War History of the Great War, Captain Cyril Falls and Lieutenant General George MacMunn were commissioned to produce a commentary on the Sinai, Palestine and Syrian operations that took place. In 1928, their finished work, Military Operations, Egypt and Palestine - From the outbreak of war with Germany to June 1917, was published in London. Their book included a section specifically related to the battle of Romani and is extracted below.
MacMunn, G. & Falls, C., Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1930), pp. 154 - 159:
Egypt in the Spring of 1916.
In Chapter VI the general narrative was carried up to the arrival of the troops from Gallipoli in Egypt : there to be re-equipped, restored in health, and finally either despatched to the Western Front or employed to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal against the Turkish offensive then expected. In the same chapter the amalgamation of the two Egyptian commands in March was anticipated, the return of Sir J. Maxwell to England and Sir A. Murray's assumption of command of the combined Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and Force in Egypt, under the name of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, being recorded. Though that point has been disposed of, it must be remembered in reading the pages which follow that until the 19th March Sir A. Murray's command included only Sharqia, the easternmost province of Egypt, and Sinai, and that his attention was concentrated on the defence of the Canal. For these reasons he established his headquarters at Ismailia.
The administrative work of the first six weeks was very heavy. Every day during that period ships arrived at Alexandria and Port Said with troops, guns, transport and stores of the Dardanelles Army ; every formation in need of reorganization and re-equipment. Before the last units reached the country or the components of this great mass has been disentangled, the move of troops from Egypt for service elsewhere began, further to complicate the administration. In both material and personnel the formations from Gallipoli were incomplete, and training was one of the most urgent problems to be faced.
A training centre for Australian and New Zealand reinforcements was at once formed at Tell el Kebir, and a machine-gun school at Ismailia. Sir J. Maxwell had already organized at Zeitun the Imperial School of Instruction on a considerable scale. When this passed under the 1916. control of Sir A. Murray in March, he expanded it and merged in it the machine-gun school, concentrating all training, except that of the Australian reinforcements, at Zeitun, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. E. M. Colston, Grenadier Guards. Classes were formed for:
(ii) non-commissioned officers,
(iii) machine gunners,
(iv) Lewis gunners,
(vii) Stokes gunners,
Between the 7th January and 31st May, 1,165 officers and 5,512 other ranks passed through the various courses of instruction.
The organization of the signal services was also of importance. The signallers from Gallipoli had to be almost entirely re-equipped in material and reorganized to suit Egyptian conditions, while fresh personnel had to be trained to replace their heavy casualties. [Up to the 31st May 94 officers and 1,305 other ranks were trained in signal duties at Zeitun and Alexandria.] Until this period the civil administration had worked the telegraph system for the army, employing mainly native operators. New units had to be formed, equipped and trained to take over this work on the Sinai front, on the coast of the Western Desert as far as Sollum, and for the force defending the Nile Valley from the west.
Yet another piece of work, on the importance of which Sir A. Murray lays stress in his Despatches, was the survey on a large scale of the Canal Zone and certain areas east of the advanced line. This was initiated by Mr. E. M. Dowson, Director-General of the Survey of Egypt, who put his resources at Sir A. Murray's disposal, and carried out by the Topographical Section of the Intelligence Branch, working in co-operation with the Royal Flying Corps. By the end of May the survey had approached Qatiya.
Sir A. Murray found the work on the Canal Defences, the plan and organization of which have been outlined, fast progressing. No part of the advanced line was as yet occupied by troops, mainly because there had been delays in establishing the water supply caused by lack of piping. But on the 13th January Sir A. Murray ordered his Corps Commanders to the Canal, to take over the work and prepare schemes of defence.
The Canal was divided into three sections, [The military term employed in this connection is generally "sector.'' As, however, "section" is used in Sir A. Murray's Despatches and the official titles of the headquarters were subsequently "Headquarters No. … Section," the latter has been retained.] each held by a corps, as follows:-
No. 1 Section (Southern) - Suez to Kabrit:–IX Corps (Lieut.-General the Hon. Sir J. G. H. Byng);
29th, 46th, and 10th Indian, Divisions.
No. 2 Section (Central) - Kabrit to Ferdan:-Anzac Corps (Lieut.-General Sir W. R. Birdwood);
1st and 2nd Australian, and New Zealand and Australian, Divisions.
No. 3 Section (Northern) - Ferdan to Port Said:–XV Corps (Lieut.-General H. S. Horne);
11th, 13th and 31st Divisions.
Headquarters, Port Said;
Advanced Headquarters, Qantara.
The VIII Corps (Lieut.-General F. J. Davies), consisting of the 42nd and 52nd Divisions, was at first concentrated at Tell el Kebir and later, as other divisions moved to France, broken up. General Davies then succeeded General Byng, who had returned to the Western Front, in command of the IX Corps.
In addition to these eleven divisions, there were the 53rd and 54th, in Sir J. Maxwell's command, the former guarding the Nile Valley, the latter at Cairo. By the end of February, after the departure of the 13th, 31st and 46th Divisions and the break-up of the 10th Indian, the distribution was as follows:
No. 1 Section:-IX Corps;
29th and 42nd Divisions.
No. 2 Section:-Anzac Corps;
1st and 2nd Australian, and New Zealand and Australian, Divisions.
No. 3 Section:–
11th and 52nd Divisions.
Then the Anzac Corps and its troops went to France, and on the 27th March the II Anzac Corps, commanded by Lieut.-General Sir A. J. Godley, and consisting of the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions and the Australian and New Zealand. Mounted Division, came into being and took over No. 2 Section. [The 3rd Australian Division went to England direct from Australia.] By this time, though the defences were not yet complete, the advanced line was occupied.
Sir A. Murray, however, was not content to adopt a system of passive defence. He was already buying camels in order to organize large mobile columns in each section. He was engaged in preparations for pushing out a railway to the Qatiya district, to permit of its occupation, in accordance with the appreciation made by him when C.I.G.S. But he now contemplated an advance much greater than to Qatiya. In a letter addressed to Sir W. Robertson on the 15th February, 1916, he stated that in his opinion the best method of defending Egypt from the east was to advance across Sinai to El Arish, and that fewer troops would be required for this undertaking than for the passive defence of the Suez Canal. With regard to the danger of a Turkish invasion he stated that during the early spring it would be possible for the Turks to bring down to Beersheba and push across the desert a force of 250,000 men, but added that there was no sign of their attempting such an enterprise and that the time available was short. Replying on the 27th, Sir W. Robertson agreed that Qatiya should be occupied if possible; an advance to El Arish was a far bigger question, on which no decision could for the moment be made. For his part, he thought it extremely unlikely that more than 100,000 Turks could be brought against Egypt.
We see then that as late as mid-February the command in Egypt still contemplated the possibility - though not the probability - of a force of 250,000 Turks advancing to the attack on Egypt, and that the C.I.G.S. considered two-fifths of this force to be the maximum which the enemy could concentrate for the purpose. In view of the scanty information available from the Turkish side regarding this period, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the enemy's intentions were. That an offensive was contemplated in February we know from both Kress and Liman. ["Sinai": Kress, i, p. 21; Liman, p. 181. Both speak of it as "eine grössere Expedition," meaning a major expedition. The Historical Section of the Turkish General Staff speaks somewhat vaguely of an expedition consisting of seven divisions and 100,000 strong (57 battalions, 23 batteries) having been contemplated. But this was first projected in April 1915 and then found impossible owing to the drain of Gallipoli. Later it was hoped to carry out the expedition in October 1916, but "patience was not “exercised" and "for some urgent reasons" the small-scale advance which led to the Battle of Romani took place in the hottest season of the year.] The question to which we must attempt to find an answer is: How far were the British estimates justified, and why was the Turkish expedition postponed until July and then limited to a single reinforced division?
There is no evidence that the Turks ever contemplated, still less made preparation for, an expedition approaching the strength of 250,000 men. In February 1916 their troops between the Cilician Gates and the Suez Canal numbered from forty to sixty thousand men, but of these the bulk were in Northern Syria, where the enemy was concerned for the safety of his communications at Alexandretta. Three Turkish Armies, the First, Second and Fifth, were in Thrace, where, as Liman von Sanders caustically remarks, there was no enemy. As an example of the slow rate at which Turkish troops in large numbers were transported to a distant theatre of war, it may be mentioned that when the Second Army was transferred to the area south-west of Lake Van in Armenia, the move began in April and lasted until August. Communications with Palestine were better, and the ten divisions of this army might have been concentrated in Southern Palestine in a shorter period, but not before the end of the wet season. With the forces already in Syria there might then have been 150,000 men between Jerusalem and the Sinai frontier. But if they had come they could hardly have been fed, as we now know, even in Southern Palestine, far less in Sinai ; for in the summer of 1917 the 40,000 combatants holding the Gaza-Beersheba line were seriously under-nourished and their transport animals half-starved. Turkish troops can subsist on less than any European troops, the Russians not excepted, but the resources of Palestine in food were comparatively small, all munitions of war had to come from Constantinople (when not from Berlin), and the railway system, which has been described in detail, was quite inadequate to maintain a quarter of a million men even at Beersheba. As to the equipment of the Turkish reserves at this period, the following telegram sent by Liman to the Turkish Ministry of War from Balikisri in Asia Minor on the 14th March is instructive: "Saw to-day depot regiment over 8,000 strong, with only 1,050 rifles of various models. Not a single bandolier, and a great proportion of those who had rifles without side-arms." (Liman, p. 157.)
Turkish plans were, perhaps, as Sir A. Murray subsequently stated in his Despatches, upset by the campaign of the Grand Duke Nicholas, which resulted in the capture of the fortress of Erzerum on the 15th February and in April of Trebizond, the best Turkish Black Sea harbour in the zone of operations. This campaign did not result in the withdrawal of troops from Syria to any great extent, but it may have kept reinforcements from being sent there, and certainly kept the Baghdad Railway fully employed in transporting the Second Army to Ras el Ain, whence it was to march towards Erzerum. As a result, the German and Austrian reinforcements sent to Palestine, small in numbers though valuable in quality, were delayed till the summer, when Sinai was at its driest and hottest, and no move against the Canal was made until July. This, however, does not affect the contention that the M.E.F.'s estimate of Turkish resources was altogether excessive. Sir W. Robertson's figure of 100,000 represented their means and intentions much more nearly, and this appears, in the light of present knowledge, to be the extreme limit of any concentration ever contemplated by Turkey, or in her power to effect. That the exaggeration of the former estimate was quickly recognized by the Imperial General Staff is shown by the speed with which British divisions were transferred from Egypt to the Western Front, even before the end of the wet season in Sinai. It will be noted that Sir A. Murray lays down in his appreciation that after the beginning of the hot weather, that is from about the 15th April, one corps of three divisions on the Canal, one division holding Qatiya, and three mounted brigades for all purposes, would suffice for the defence of Egypt from the east.
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Citation: el Qatiya, Sinai, 23 April 1916, Falls Account, Egypt in the Spring of 1916