Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Baharia Expedition

By late August 1916, five blockhouses had been built and a sixth (B.6) was nearing completion along the Darb el Rubi track, from Samalut on the Nile towards Baharia. The light railway too was expected to reach B.6 by early October. During this period the main Senussi force, estimated at 1,800 men, was in Dakhla, the richest of the oases.

By October, Sir A. Murray was ready to reoccupy Baharia, and ordered the new Western Force commander, Major-General W. A. Watson to commence operations against it. News leaked to Sayed Ahmed, who had advanced from Dakhla to Baharia with most of his force. Ahmed retreated to Siwa from 8–10 October. An attempt was made to try and cut off the rear guard by a concentration of light cars but despite their weakened state due to hunger and illness they were able to escape.

The "warders of the desert"

It was now known that the force in Dakhla was much smaller and likely to retire soon. Watson decided to attack from Kharga. The force contained sixty men with a Rolls-Royce armoured car and a tender, six Fords and twelve motorcycles, two Vickers and two Lewis guns supported by a company of the Camel Corps. The cars reached Dakhla on 17 October, 48 hours ahead of the Camel Corps, but it was found that most of the Senussi had gone, apart from a party of about 120 men at Budkhulu in the middle of the oasis, who were taken prisoner. With the arrival of the Camel Corps on 19 October, 40 more prisoners were taken. With further patrols in the area the oasis and its 20,000 occupants had been cleared of the Senussi by the end of October. Garrisons were installed at Dakhla and Baharia and civilian government restored.

The Senussi had played the game, from their point of view, extremely well. That had kept a very considerable force from participating in the war against the Turks for many months. The result had been the expenditure of vast resources in building the block houses and the railway, all now of limited value. They had waited until the last possible moment when the block house line was completed and the railway very nearly so, before disappearing.

Sayed Ahmed was attacked and defeated at Siwa at the beginning of February 1917, by a force of aroured cars from Sollum under Brig.-General H.W. Hodgson. This finally liquidated the Wester Desert campaign by discrediting Sayed Ahmed and destroying his influence.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Band of Oases

Commencing in February 1916 Senussi forces under Sayyid Ahmed, occupied the Baharia, Farafra, Dakkla and Kharga oases to the west of the Nile. This necessitated the 53rd Division and three brigades of dismounted Yeomanry being distributed in garrisons in Upper Egypt from Fayum to Assiut, for the whole summer.

Initially posted to Minia, some 150 miles south of Cairo, the role of the Cheshire Yeomanry was to assist in the capture and occupation of the Baharia Oasis.
“The main difficulty of the operation was the lack of any water between the Nile and the oasis. On top of this, the desert was extremely difficult to cross in places. The advance, therefore, had to be gradual in order to enable supplies to keep pace with it. To protect the lines of communications, block houses were built every ten to 12 miles. They were known as B.1, B.2, etc. Railhead for the Baharia Expedition, as it was called, was then at Samalut, close to the Nile, while the advance post was at Shusha some ten miles to the west. It was from Shusha that the block house line ran out into the desert in the direction of the oasis. At the end of April, B.4 was nearing completion. 
“As regards supplies, all food, petrol, stores and a great deal of the water required for the maintenance of the Shusha garrison and the block houses, has to be sent up from Samalut. The same was true for the materials required for the construction of the new block houses.” (The Cheshire Yeomanry, by Lt.-Col. Sir Richard Verdin, 1971)
At the same time as the block house line was gradually extended a light railway was being constructed into the desert. Progress was rapid thanks to the efforts of the Egyptian Labour Corps.

The Light Desert Railway constructed
at the rate of a mile & a half a day
Friendly natives
who are employed on the railway
(photographs by T.B. Minshall of "C" Squadron, Cheshire Yeomanry)

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Boar’s Head

On 3 March the 13th (Forest of Dean) Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment departed from Southampton, arriving at Le Havre around 6:30am the following morning. From here they moved to Thiennes in northern France, arriving on 6 March.

As Pioneers for the 39th Division they were kept busy. Moving around the region through March and April their work included making roads, constructing strong points and barbed wire entanglements, reclaiming old trenches, building dug-outs and making breast works. By 14 April they billeted in Essars and engaged in draining, making and reclaiming trenches to the rear of the front line.

On 12 April 1916 William Britton of Hotwells, Bristol, was posted to the 13th Battalion. The battalion War Diary records a draft of men arriving at Essars on 20 May and it appears highly likely that William was amongst these men where he joined D Company (an additional draft of 3 other ranks (O.R.) also arrived on the 29th).

The Battalion remained at Essars until 16 June, when they moved north east to new billets at La Couture. Here work continued on road, repair and breastwork. At the end of June there was to be a trench attack and on 25 June a party of 9 officers and 285 men moved to Pacaut to practice pioneer work in connection with this. The attack took place on the night of 29/30 June on the ‘Boar’s Head’ section of German front line near Richebourg l’Avoue (seen on the centre of the 1917 trench map below). Two parties of the Battalion comprising B and C companies were ordered to extend communication trenches, whilst A and D companies on the flanks were to construct right and left flank breastworks respectively.

Trench map from January 1917.
British trenches (blue) / German trenches (red)
'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland'
Sketch map that accompanied the
"Notes on attack on German Front Line, North of the BOAR's HEAD"
13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, War Diary

In the face of shelling and machine gun fire the attacking infantry were prevented from being reinforced and were running out of ammunition. The pioneers were able to complete some of their work despite these hostile conditions and attacks from German bombing parties. It is not known if William Britton was one of the D Company men, however illustrative of the difficulties encountered, following is the Company report of their part in the attack:
On looking over the parapet at 3.10 the remnants of the third infantry wave coming back under heavy shelling and Machine Gun fire. They were also being bombed from the German front line. Under these circumstances the work was out of question, and the officer in charge of the party reported to the Infantry Commander and manned portions of our front line till ordered to get his party out of the line between 7 and 8 a.m.
13th Battalion casualties as a result of this attack were 1 officer killed and 4 wounded, and 10 other ranks killed, 57 wounded and a further 13 missing.

The Battalion War Diary notes that on the evening of 1 July “2nd Lieut. Vowles with one Sergt. went out to try to recover wounded reported still alive in NO MAN’S LAND.” The was unsuccessful.

On 3 July, at 9:45am, “The raiding part paraded before General Haking, Commanding XI Corps and were complimented on their work.”

For conspicuous bravery in the action of the night of 29/30 June, one Military Cross, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and two Military Medals were awarded to men of the 13th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Further reading: The Boar's Head

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Minia Camp

Cheshire Yeomanry arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, on 14 March 1916. The 25 officers and 451 men remained on board HMT Haverford until 15 March, when they disembarked and entrained in open cattle trucks for camp at Beni Salama. This camp in the desert was not popular with the men or officers and it was likely with some relief then that the Regiment moved to Minia, some 150 miles south of Cairo, on 18 April.

The men, accompanied by the Shropshire Yeomanry, travelled by rail again in open trucks. The journey was made at night to avoid the heat of the day and arriving at Minia around 2:00am they tramped three quarters of a mile laden with kitbags to their new camp in a wadi near the Nile. Once the new camp was established field training continued, including rifle fire at targets.

The Nile. Our camp at Minia (T.B. Minshall)

The Regiment had been sent to Minia to prepare for operations against the Senussi, a religious sect in Egypt, Sudan and Arabia, who were persuaded by Turkey to attack the British. A coastal threat had been defeated before the Yeomanry arrived in Egypt, however inland the Senussi had occupied oases to the west of the Nile.