Topic: AIF - DMC - British
Battle of Romani
Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916
5th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, Unit History Account
[From Morrison, Ch VII, Illustration 12]
At the conclusion of the Great War, Colonel Frederick Lansdowne Morrison, the erstwhile Commanding Officer of the 1/5th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, 157th Infantry Regiment, 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division asked his officers to provide accounts of their time in the Sinai and Palestine. Morrison collected the stories and edited them. In 1921, in printed in Glasgow for a limited private edition, the book The Fifth Battalion Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918 finally came available. It included a section specifically related to the Battle of Romani and is extracted below.
Morrison, F.L., The Fifth Battalion Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918, Glasgow, 1921.
The Sinai Desert - Mahamdiya, Romani, Katia
The peaceful life of our seaside resort was soon destroyed by rumours that the Turks were moving. On the evening of July 19th, an aeroplane reconnaissance discovered a considerable force of them at Bir el Abd, some twenty-five miles to the east of us, and noticed smaller parties much nearer. The Turkish feat of moving a force, then reckoned at from 8000 to 9000 men, fifty miles from El Arish without our being aware of it, was a very fine one, and when it is remembered that they attacked us at Romani, seventy-five miles from their base, with 18,000 men and artillery up to 6 inch howitzers, everyone who has felt what the desert is like in July will be full of admiration. Nor can one wonder at the fact established by our all-wise Intelligence, that prisoners captured had sore feet. The first ripples of the commotion produced by this report reached us at 1 a.m. on the 20th, when the Adjutant was summoned to Brigade Headquarters. At 2.45 a.m. half "C" Company moved out to take over Redoubt No. 10, and later in the morning "B" Company garrisoned No. 8 and "D" Company No. 11, while the rest of "C" Company occupied 10A. These redoubts, though habitable, were still unfinished. They were part of the defences mentioned above as being in the hands of the Egyptian Labour Corps, a chain of posts running south past Romani and then turning west among the sand hills. The garrisons had at once to set to and improve their position, strengthen their wire and finish off the fire bays. At 10A a signal station had to be established in mid-desert some hundreds of yards from the redoubt, owing to a temporary shortage of signal wire. Signallers are naturally imperturbable, but the officer in charge confessed to a thrill of horror when, having with some difficulty made his way to his signal station at midnight and been handed the receiver, even as he uttered the preliminary "Hullo," the instrument suddenly sprang from his grasp and rushed off into the darkness. Mastering an almost overpowering desire to run for the redoubt, he assisted two signallers to investigate and discovered that the wire had caught in the foot of a straying camel, which had proceeded on its thoughtless way with the receiver attached.
But as is usual in desert warfare, time passed and nothing happened. "B" Company were relieved in No. 8 by the 53rd Division and rejoined "A" Company in camp. The other garrisons got into tents which they pitched in the ground behind the redoubts, so that the majority of the men could have shelter by day. At night the trenches were manned, and all was ready for an attack at dawn. But with the exception of some bomb-dropping raids by their planes, the enemy remained passive. The Australian Light Horse reported that he was busy digging in on a line through Oghratina, some miles east of Katia, and we began to think that he intended to put the onus of attacking on to us. The fear, however, was unfounded, he was only completing his preparations, and on the night of August 3rd-4th he advanced and occupied Katia.
This movement was reported, and "A" and "B" Companies, who had by now relieved "C" and "D" in the redoubts, were warned that the attack was now almost certain. Before dawn on the 4th a bombardment began, but its entire force fell a mile or two to the south of us upon the Romani defences; the Turkish plan being to attack there and, if possible, to turn our right flank. All the morning the artillery fire continued, our reply being strengthened by the "crack of doom imitations" of a couple of monitors out at sea to the north of No. 11. Little or no news filtered through to us, and the redoubt companies spent a hot day in their trenches, which were but ill suited for permanent occupation, while the reduction in the water issue, made necessary by the fear of future difficulties in refilling the storage tanks, started a thirst which was not appeased for many days. During the night, however, we heard enough to assure us that things were going well, and early on the 5th we received orders to leave the redoubts to a garrison of the unfit and to rendezvous in the old camp, prepared for a "mobile."
About midday the Battalion moved off, "A" and "C" Companies having only just arrived from the redoubts after a wakeful night and a heavy morning's work, and already thirsty, though no more water could be issued. A single water bottle, once filled, is but a poor supply for a long day under the Egyptian sun. Marching over heavy sand in the hot hours, even when the haversack has replaced the pack, soon produces an unparalleled drought. Sweat runs into a man's eyes and drips from his chin. It runs down his arms and trickles from his fingers. It drenches his shirt and leaves great white streaks on his equipment. And while so much is running out, the desire to put something in grows and grows. The temptation to take a mouthful becomes well nigh irresistible, and once the bottle of sun-heated chlorine-flavoured water is put to the lips, it is almost impossible to put it down before its precious contents are gone. Then a man becomes hopeless and there is danger of his falling out. All honour to those, and they were many, who through age or sickness, had greater difficulty in keeping up than the rest of us, but who yet carried on indomitably to the end, or only gave in when they had reached a stage of complete collapse. How often in such hours have we felt that if only we could live where one may have an unlimited supply of water just by turning on a tap, we should be content for ever. But are we, my friends? I fear not.
One cannot help feeling that the comparison made with the performances of regular battalions in the heat of India before the war, are unfair. These were trained men, caught young and developed to a high standard of physical fitness, marching along the excellent Indian roads, with a certainty of a good water supply at their night's camping place, and accompanied in many cases by travelling canteens and soda water machines. In our ranks were to be found many men of middle age, unused to active life, and many boys whose physique had not had time to respond to military training. Some had but recently joined us and were not acclimatised, others had not recovered their strength after the dysentery of Gallipoli. Roads or canteens there were none. Of course British troops have often found themselves in such conditions and worse on active service. But it is interesting to find that that fine old soldier R.S.M. Mathieson, always said that he personally never suffered from thirst to anything like the same degree during the Egyptian campaign of 1882.
We left the Battalion moving off S.E. from the camp for the Brigade rendezvous. Here we received orders to attack a "hod" named Abu Hamrah, which lay between us and Katia. The distance was not great, hardly six miles as the crow flies, but we were not crows and had to adopt less direct as well as more laborious methods. The Battalion was on the right in support to the 7th H.L.I., and the march continued with but short halts till 4 p.m., when we had a somewhat longer pause, and a chance to reinforce our early breakfasts. Few men, however, can eat either bully beef or biscuit when they are thirsty, and that was all we had. It always seemed strange that we should not have made more use of food more suitable to the climate. Later on dried figs and occasionally little dried apricots were issued with the mobile ration. Doubtless these are not very sustaining, but they are the fruit of the country, and it is better to have a little you can eat than a full ration that you cannot, whatever the decrease in caloric value may be.
There was neither sound nor sign of enemy opposition, and the advance was resumed in artillery formation in an hour or so. Darkness began to fall and great difficulty was experienced in keeping touch with the battalion in front and even between the different companies, a difficulty increased by the first line camels of the 7th, who were perpetually, though inevitably, getting in our way. When daylight had actually failed it must be admitted the Brigade had become somewhat disintegrated. The Argylls did not regain touch till next morning. The Battalion, minus "A" Company, who had been cut off by some camels and thus entered Abu Hamrah on their own, got up on the right of the 7th, where the errant company eventually discovered it.
Immediately strings of camels now appeared on all sides marching and counter-marching across everybody's front, holding up exasperated and desperate platoon commanders, who finally ruthlessly cut them in two and forged ahead to a chorus of blasphemy from weary escorts and lamentations from terrified native drivers. The peaceful hod had become an inferno. No one knew anything except that there were no Turks. After superhuman efforts on the part of various exalted personages, things were straightened out, pickets detailed and posted, and the men, too tired even to swear, dropped where they were, and rapidly cooled down in the chilly dew. It was now nearly eleven o'clock, and a half bottle of water was issued, enough merely to whet the consuming thirst which gripped everybody. Tunics were disentangled from the damp congeries on our backs and we had a few hours' precious sleep.
At 3 a.m. we stood to and began to dig ourselves in, in positions sited with extreme difficulty, in unknown country, in the dark. Soon, however, orders were received to prepare to move, and in spite of every effort, not more than half the men had had their bottles filled before we had to continue the advance. It was a very hot steamy morning, and the coolness of dawn soon disappeared. The advance was slow, and we grew thirstier and thirstier whether we moved or halted. On reaching a ridge overlooking Rabah and Katia it was found that the leading battalions were too far to the left. We and the Argylls were therefore ordered to turn right-handed and occupy Katia. The dark line of palms appeared very enticing, if very far away, and the Battalion struggled manfully on, shedding the weaker brethren as it went and, very nearly "all out," reached its objective about 10 a.m.
Our troubles were now nearly over. There were no enemy, and the trees gave us a grateful shade, which only "B" Company, pushed forward to hold an outpost line on the far bridge, had to forgo. A fine stone well was found in the oasis with a good supply of cool, though curious tasting water, and canteens were soon being let down into it at the end of puttees in a hopeless effort to cope with our thirst, after which the bolder spirits went so far as to nibble a ration biscuit. But one cannot help reflecting on what might have been the consequences for us if the Turks had adopted the German policy of well-poisoning.
We afterwards heard that the Turks, evacuating Abu Hamrah on our approach, had taken up a strong rear guard position at Katia, and had beaten off the cavalry, who had retired behind us to water their horses and get a much needed night's rest. The Turks had seized their opportunity and slipped away during the night. As far as we were concerned they were welcome to slip.
The story of the Battle of Romani can be read elsewhere. It was not an infantry show—at any rate on our side—though elements of the 52nd Division saw some fighting. No praise can be too high for the endurance and fine fighting quality of our cavalry, both Anzac and English. And it is reckoned that the Turks lost a good half of their force, either killed or captured, before they outdistanced the mounted pursuit.
Citation: Battle of Romani, Sinai, August 4 to 5, 1916, 5th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, Unit History Account