The Great Episodes of the War
a battle in the desert sands - a romantic view
Even the Plain of Armageddon, a hundred miles from its northern edge, is scarcely so memorable a battlefield as the ancient Desert of Sin, where Turk and Briton met at last in their struggle for Egypt. Grey and uncanny, the immense waste of sand undulates under the moonlit sky. It is the ghostliest wilderness on earth, this neck of barrenness linking Africa to Asia. For, despite its terrible sterility, it has been for five thousand years the chief road to empire. Now, when the eddying dust lifts and dances in the night air, the wraiths of all the great warrior races on earth seem to rise up and to contend still in spectral combat. For into that dust have crumbled the bones of many warring peoples, from the troops of the early Chaldeans to the French soldiers of the Revolution, marching under Napoleon to the conquest of the Orient.
Ottomans Take the Old Road of Conquest
The western outskirt of the wilderness has altered greatly since Moses, with the freed tribes of Israel, overthrew the hosts of Pharaoh by the Bitter Lakes. A mighty canal now cuts through the desert. A railway runs by the great dyke where liner and battleship steam from sea to sea. Picturesque and busy towns have been built by the canal, with a channel of fresh water for men to live by. The desert here has been abolished by the marvellous work of man.
But the blank tract beyond, stretching upward to the barren plateau of Judea, is as it was. The, lapse of thousands of years has only made it more sterile and waterless, emptier of nomad tribes, and more perilous to an invading army from Asia. Yet, towards the end of January, 1915, the Ottoman Turk, the last historic conquering race to enter Egypt by the desert road, came again over the sand and rock to make one more effort at conquest. This time the Turk was attempting the impossible, and he knew it. But he had a new foreign taskmaster to urge him on, and his curious, passive fatalism to keep him obedient to orders. He was led by the most romantic soul in Turkey. This was Djemal Pasha, a dreamer lapped in glowing thoughts of the old warlike glories of his race, and careless of the realities of the coming battle. Such uninteresting details he left to the giaoursGerman generals, officers, and engineers, who had their own reasons for encouraging the expedition.
Djemal was the only man in Turkey who thought that the conquest of Egypt was practicable. When affairs had hung in the balance between the war party and the neutral party in the -Ottoman Empire, it was Djemal who had turned the balance to the war, with the idea of being able himself to equal the achievements of Sultan Selim, the first Ottoman conqueror of Egypt.
Stone-wall Maxwell and the Ape of Saladin
When, after much delay and trouble, he had got an army corps of Turks, Anatolians, and Syrians well into the desert, with the Bedouins of Arabia gathered about him, intent in sharing in the spoil of modern Egypt, Djemal took to sending challenges to General Maxwell, commanding the British, Australasian, and Indian troops entrenched along the Suez Canal. The romantic pasha had the innocence to propose that our army should leave its defences and march into the desert and offer battle on equal terms. This was Djemal's idea of modern warfare. He wanted a dashing, picturesque affair, like the combats between Saladin of Egypt and Richard the First of England. He was quite disappointed when General Maxwell, a scientific soldier of the Kitchener school, refused to fight in the romantic manner. He seems then to have lost interest in the whole affair, and to have let the Germans manage the business.
They managed it as well as could be expected. There were about thirty thousand men collected round the central oases of the desert. For weeks all their dispositions were studied by our aviators, while the defences of the canal were being improved. The ancient path of invasion by El Kantara was unkindly blocked by the British general, who flooded the bed of a great dried-up lake between Port Said and El Kantara, and left the old bridge town jutting like a fortified promontory into the flood. In the level waste between the Bitter Lakes and Suez British battleships, with their great guns, served as mobile, impregnable forts. Only the centre of the canal, between the blue waters of Lake Tinsah and the green stretch of the old Bitter Lakes, was left open to attack. Having thus guided the enemy to the destined place of slaughter. General Maxwell waited, and continued drilling his troops to the highest possible standard of fighting efficiency.
Turkish Advance Hidden by a Sandstorm
Some of the men became very discontented, especially the Australasians and the Territorials. All the time they were hearing tales of the great deeds of the Immortal Division at Ypres, and of stirring fights with the Prussian Guards. It seemed as though the Russians in the Caucasus were going to have all the luck of a scrap with the Turks. If bribery could have induced Djemal Pasha to attack, the Australasians and Territorials would have given him six months of their pay.
But the happy day at last arrived. On Tuesday, February 2nd, there was a sandstorm which prevented our aviators from making their daily reconnoitring flights. Profiting by this escape from continual observation, the Ottoman generalissimo made his final dispositions for the conquest of Egypt. He detached a column some three thousand strong to march northward and make a strong demonstration against El Kantara. Another column of four thousand men was despatched to make a feint attack upon the Ismailia Ferry post. Then the main army was lined up behind some barren heights about seven miles eastward of the small village of Toussoum and the rocky barrier of the Serapeum. At Toussoum was the railway to Cairo and Suez, and, what was of more immediate importance to the thirsty Turks, the small canal of fresh water. By reaching and holding the fresh-water canal, they would overcome the chief difficulty of their terrible desert campaign.
Battling in Darkness with the Pontoon Squads
General Maxwell did all he could to coax them onward into the trap which he had prepared for them. Our troops, holding the Asiatic side of the canal-between the Toussoum-post and the Serapeum post, were retired to the farther bank. This left the enemy a long, clear, uncontested stretch of water to bridge with his pontoons. The main Turkish forces began to advance in the evening, and when) the night fell, dark and cloudy, everything seemed to favour their enterprise. One of their divisions concealed itself in a rocky depression about a mile from the Suez Canal, while a brigade of infantry moved down and entrenched in the low scrub between the Toussoum and Serapeum posts. They pushed out sharpshooters, with machine- guns, to sweep the canal with their fire. Then twenty-four squads of men toiled laboriously in the darkness over the sand and gravel to the canal bank. Each squad carried a large, heavy boat of zinc made by German engineers and dragged over the desert by bullock-teams. The design was to construct a pontoon of the zinc boats, with planks fastened on the top forming a bridge, by which the Ottoman host could cross the canal.
It was about three o'clock on Wednesday morning, February 3rd, that the pontoon squads of Anatolians, reached the canal side. Some of them tried to row across the water in their zinc boats and establish a bridgehead on the farther bank. But along the high wooded ground on the opposite side of the water our silent but watchful troops were entrenched, with powerful artillery batteries supporting them. The British force opened rifle fire in the darkness at twenty minutes past three when the canal was covered with the enemy's boats. At the same time a double enfilading fire was poured on the ambushed Turks from the Toussoum and Serapeum posts on the Asiatic side of the water. Three of the Turco-German boats were at once sunk. Two others managed to reach the shore. One crew was killed trying to clamber up the high bank, while the second crew was captured with their boat.
The entire Turkish brigade then attacked. Under cover of their fire the bridging parties once more advanced down to the waterside. They were again met by rifle and Maxim fire from our troops, yet all through the remaining hours of darkness the Anatolians continued their desperate attempts to bridge the canal. Meanwhile, the Turco-German artillery in the hollows behind the distant ridges continually searched our position with explosive shell and shrapnel. Our batteries did not reply, leaving it to our riflemen and Maxim-gun officers to hold the bridging party in check. This they did until the sky whitened in the east, and the light of dawn revealed the enemy's positions.
The Turkish attack was then blown away. The pontoon-carriers fell dead beneath their riddled zinc boats; the Turkish trenches in the scrub were raked by gun fire, and even their distant infantry supports were bombarded. A British officer, perched the evening before in a tree near the Turkish position, directed the batteries. Eighteen out of the twenty-four pontoons were sunk or captured, and as the bridging parties retreated, a British counter attack was launched from the Serapeum post.
The defending troops, rushing over the sandy flat, reached a ridge commanding the hollows where the enemy was massed. There they shot down the Turks as these fled to the distant eastern hills. It was one of the most surprising routs in military history. For the Turks still had some twelve thousand bayonets in reserve in the next depression in the desert.
Whatever may be thought of his intelligence and skill, the ordinary Turkish soldier is at least no coward. He can usually die as bravely and stubbornly as the men of any race. Yet Djemal's main force, amounting to a full division, made no attempt whatever to retrieve the disaster. They did not come into the fight, and the battle abruptly ended, when little more than a skirmishing reconnaissance in force had been undertaken by a single brigade.
Perhaps the explanation is that the romantic pasha suddenly awakened to a sense of realities, and, seeing the destruction of his foremost troops, concluded that the apparently open position along the canal was a trap. This, as we have seen, was the case. But, for the honour of the ordinary Turkish soldier, the main division might have tried to strike one blow, instead of giving up their enterprise at the first slight reverse.
The entire affair was an historic bubble-burst. It had taken months to get the invading army across the desert. Great sums had been spent in buying transport animals, and in providing drinking water and munitions of war. Yet, after little more than a vain, preliminary skirmish, Turk, Syrian, and Anatolian went back the way they had come, without having seriously menaced the position of the defending troops.
In fact, they retreated so rapidly on Wednesday evening that the men occupying their nearest trenches by the canal were left behind. On Thursday, February 4th, these hapless enemies, after being shelled by our warships, were surrounded by our infantry and taken prisoners. Thus ended Djemal's dream of the Ottoman reconquest of Egypt. A good many of the Bedouins, frightened by our flying machines, deserted him before the battle, stealing off at night with their camels, and any other animals they could take. . The broken army of invasion retreated towards Beersheba. The British losses in dead and wounded were only one hundred and ten!
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