The Ottoman garrison at El Arish had been based in the old Napoleonic fort by the town but this had been severely damaged by shelling from the Royal Navy anchored off the Mediterranean coast. The new military camp was outside the town and would grow to include a supply base, an infantry garrison and a general hospital. A new defence system was being constructed around this camp at the time that the 54th (East Anglian) Division were there. Of course, the usual challenges of digging in the desert sand still applied. Lt -Col Byrne’s comment on this picture hints at some disagreement with the orders of the Royal Engineers who were in charge of such infrastructure projects. The war diary, however, gives no information as to whether the Finsbury Rifles or any other unit did manage to dig trenches successfully at this position.
Work on defences for ½ Batt. Remainders Backing.
Work on defences for ½ Batt.2 Companies Training.
Work on defences for ½ Batt. 2 Companies Orders received for move to El Burj. Work on defences stopped.
Batt. Engaged Striking Camp + preparing for Move forward.
Batt. Parade 7.45 + proceeded by Route March to El Burj arrived
Location: EL BURJ
Batt. Engaged digging dugouts + generally settling down.
Once the brigade reached the small town of El Arish on the Mediterranean coast, bathing parades provided welcome relief from the heat and the accumulated dirt and sand of the march across the desert.
El Arish had been occupied by Ottoman forces from 1914 -1916. They had only retreated 2 months earlier just ahead of the Battle of Magdhaba. The RAMC who arrived there with the EEF shortly afterwards reported that the Ottoman forces
… on their departure, had not only carried off with them all men of military age, but had entirely denuded the town of foodstuffs. Those of the people who remained were practically starving, and to feed themwas the first duty that confronted us on our entry. Our next was to cleanse the place. El Arish consisted of a wide-spreading jumble of houses … intersected by a labyrinth of narrow lanes, courtyards, and cul-de-sacs. Human excrement, filth and garbage of all kinds, were heaped in every corner, and met the eye and the nostrils at every turn… latrine-pits, full to the brim with the accumulation of months, were spread indiscriminately over the whole town- area, each adding its stench to the already over- burdened air. There was a plague of flies in the place, and little wonder…..
Lt-Col Byrne’s photographs of the town provide a valuable record of what life was like for its permanent residents at this time. The town itself was strictly out of bounds for Other Ranks.
The Advance across the Desert : Romani to El Arish
Captain FH Garraway, the adjutant of the Finsbury Rifles, wrote the daily entries in the battalion’s war diary in the approved style – terse and strictly factual. His counterpart in the 1/5 Bedfordshire Regiment, another battalion in 162 Brigade, included more detail and often mentioned the weather. For example, on 11.2.17 he recorded that there had been heavy rain and hail late at night following ‘brilliant lightning and some thunder’.
With the entire brigade on the move, the animals were kept in strictly separate parts of the supply columns to avoid a stampede. The British forces had often learnt the hard way the age-old fact that mules and camels do not mix. Mules were tethered at night on metal chains. This was to prevent them chewing through rope picket lines and wandering over to tents in search of food or water. Meanwhile, there were casualties amongst the camels because of exposure and illness. Having dead animals near the evening camp increased the amount of flies and added to the general challenges of sanitation and health.
The brigade halted half-way across the desert at Mazar for a week. The ‘rest’ routine there included more training and lectures. The EEF was now within range of enemy aircraft. German squadrons were based near Beersheba so the brigade practised ‘in four files extend’. This procedure ‘on seeing hostile enemy aircraft’ aimed to limit casualties in case of a bombing attack. Parades and inspections continued as well as the ominously named ‘route march for bad marchers’.
Bathing Parade and usual fatigues and Camp Routine. 2nd Lt Perrin and 80 other ranks are from Base Depot Mustapha.
Orders received to proceed. Battl engaged packing and sorting kit for move.
Location RABAH Date: 9/2/17
Battn proceeded by Route March to Rabah, arrive 1600. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
Location RABAH/KHIRBA Date: 10/2/17
Battn proceeded by March Route to Khirba, arrived noon. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
Location BIR EL ABD Date 11/2/17
Battn proceeded by March Route to Bir El Abd, arrived noon. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
Location SALMANA Date 12/2/17
Battn proceeded by March Route to Salmana, arrived noon. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
Location TILUL Date 13/2/17
Battn proceeded by March Route to Tilul, arrived noon. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
Location MAZAR Date 14/2/17
Battn proceeded by March Route to Mazar, arrive noon. Camping area allotted and bivouac prepared.
General Fatigue, Tents issued. 2 Companies finding Outpost line.
Under Company arrangements. Usual Routine.
Under Company arrangements. Usual Routine. Zeitoun Party reported.
Brigade Church Parade, 2nd Lieut Cane proceeded to Base Camp Romani to join details surplus to establishment.
Outpost Schemes under Company arrangements. Routine as usual
Outpost Schemes under Company arrangements. Routine as usual
Battl striking Camp. Proceeding by March Route to Maadun arrived
Location: MAADUN Date: 21/2/17
Noon camping ground attacked and bivouac prepared.
Battl proceeds by quick march to Bardawill, arrived 1 pm Camping area arranged and prepared for night.
Location: BARDAWIL Date: 23/2/17
Battl. March Route proceeded to EL ARISH arrives. 2 pm
Crossing the Sinai Desert was wryly dubbed ‘Our 40 Days in the Wilderness’ by the Finsbury Rifles. Although the journey only took 3 weeks, it was an exhausting and unpleasant experience with the heat by day, the plummeting temperatures by night, heavy storms and as before, sand everywhere.
There were no metalled roads in the Sinai Desert and not enough time to construct one. ahead of the advance. Instead, a wire netting roadway was invented by the Royal Engineers and laid by the Egyptian Labour Corps. It was made out of two or four rolls of rabbit wire; one-inch mesh wire rolled out side by side, wired together with the edges fixed into the sand with long steel or wooden pegs. The men marched on this springy track carrying their full kit which included heavy blankets. The officers rode, although some marched for part of the time alongside their men, the guns and ammunition travelled by mule while camels carried the rest of the baggage and water. Each camel could carry 50 – 70 litres of water in specially constructed metal containers. This was only enough for just over 2 litres of water per man per day – nowhere near enough to quench thirst.
The march each day began early so that that the journey could be completed by noon. Temperatures were in the low 20s ( warm British summer weather ) but dropped sharply at night when the blankets were definitely needed.
The battalions were now camping overnight in small bivouac tents. While far less comfortable than the standard military bell tents, they were better suited to daily moves and the unforgiving terrain.
The Military Service Act of 1916 stated that men graded A1 were able to march, see to shoot, hear well and stand active service conditions. In addition, they were fit to serve overseas in terms of their physical & mental health and training. ‘B’ class men could stand service in garrisons in the tropics and were free from serious organic disease such as tuberculosis. However, it was accepted that they were only fit enough to complete a short 5-mile route march.
The debilitating conditions at the Suez Canal defences had taken their toll on the Finsbury Rifles. Septic sores and sand-fly fever as well as frequent attacks of diarrhoea accounted for many who appeared on sick parade. With the Sinai Desert to be crossed and the prospect of action ahead, this was a good time to take on replacements.
Making sure that all kit was in order was also an important task for the battalions about to depart. Replacing missing or broken items would be a far harder task away from the supply bases of Egypt.
The intense boredom and sand filled discomfort of life for those manning the Suez Canal Defences, described by a soldier in the 1/5 Essex as “a very laborious and tedious sojourn in the wilderness ” was drawing to a close. Orders came through for the battalion to move to the railhead at Kubri where they would be joined by other units of the 54th (East Anglian) Division. The orders given to the 1/5 Bedfordshire, another battalion in 162 Brigade show what was needed to make sure that both troops and equipment would end up in the right place at the right time. The move to Kubri was just the 1st stage in the epic crossing of the Sinai Desert by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.