In January 1917, the Finsbury Rifles marched across the Sinai Desert. The march was later remembered by the soldiers as one of the most challenging and unpleasant experiences of their campaigns in the First World War.
Defending the Suez Canal against Ottoman Attack monopolised Allied soldiers and resources. Lt-General Archibald Murray, Commander- in- Chief of the Allied forces in Egypt, created a plan to resolve this problem.
Murray planned for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), which included the Finsbury Rifles, to seize control of the Sinai Desert.
He believed that if the EEF controlled the desert, they would also control the oases, meaning any invading Ottoman Forces could not access drinking water. The Ottoman Forces would be effectively blocked at either occupied El Arish or Rafa, unable to advance safely forward.
It would take much fewer men to control the Sinai Desert, than to defend the Suez Canal.
This was a difficult plan through. The Sinai Desert was hundreds of miles long, with no roads. More crucially, water was only available at a few oases and wells, nowhere near enough to supply an army. The Allied Forces had started building a railway line and water pipeline to stretch to the Palestine border. But progress was very slow.
Instead Allied Forces were going to need to rely on the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps to get soldiers and supplies across the desert.
Crossing the desert..
In January 1917, the Finsbury Rifles crossed the Sinai Desert. They marched on foot from the large military supply base at Kantara on the Suez Canal to El Arish. It was a gruelling journey.
The Rifles didn’t march on sand. The Royal Engineers had invented a wire netting ‘road,’ which the Egyptian Labour Corps laid out in advance. It was made out of two to four rolls of rabbit mesh wire. These were laid out side by side, the edges fixed into the sand with long steel or wooden pegs. This ‘road’ was better than sand but still very difficult and tiring to march on.
The men marched carrying their full kit, including heavy blankets for the cold nights. Officers rode on horses.
The guns and ammunition were carried by mules, while camels moved the other baggage and water. Each camel could carry 50- 70 litres of water-in specially constructed metal containers. This was only enough for c.2 litres of water, per man, per day!
Weather was another challenge. The Rifles began marching early each morning so that that the journey would be completed by noon. In the morning, temperatures were in the low 20 degrees celsius, much better than the burning afternoon sun. The Rifles had to be careful of sunstroke.
At night the temperature dropped sharply. The Rifles camped in small bivouac tents. These were less comfortable than the standard military bell tents, but were much easier to move every day.
The march to El Arish took 3 weeks. This included a week’s respite in Maza. This time though wasn’t relaxing for the soldiers. Their ‘rest routine’ included parades, inspections and drills, where soldiers practiced their responses to hostile enemy aircraft. We also discovered mention of the ominously named, ‘route march for bad marchers,’ suggesting some Rifles had extra duties!
From El Arish to Gaza..
When the Rifles finally reached El Arish, the men enthusiastically took part in bathing parades in the sea. This would have been a welcome relief from the heat and limited water rations.
The Rifles spent a fortnight at El Arish, recuperating from the march, digging out sand choked trenches and improving their camp defences. They then marched further up the coast to El Burj.
Their campaign led them in April 1917 to the second battle of Gaza. Tragically after surviving the grueling march across the desert, over a third of the Finsbury Rifles died in this disastrous battle.