A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July 19, 1916: Turkey Begins Advance in Sinai

In January and February 2015 I posted a detailed account of the Ottoman advance on the Suez Canal a century before. After that campaign British forces in Egypt and their Australian and New Zealand colonial troops remained in the defenses east of the canal, while heir Ottoman opponents remained in eastern Sinai, with both sides conducting forward reconnaissance by air and ground forces.

With the end of the Gallipoli campaign, both sides were able to redeploy forces on the Sinai/Palestine Front. In June of 1916 the Ottoman Fourth Army in Syria and Palestine held forward positions at Bir el-Mazar in eastern Sinai, while the forward British lines were around the wells a Romani (near the ruins of ancient Pelusium, about 42 miles to the west. The British commander. General Sir Archibald Murray, had been constructing a railroad and water supply eastward into Sinai as support for a move toward El Arish. The position at Romani was commanded by Maj. Gen. H.A. Lawrence,The Turks, with the 3rd Infantry Division fresh from battle experience at Gallipoli were under pressure to move closer to the Suez Canal, where artillery could threaten shipping.

Both sides were using the new tool of airborne reconnaissance to track the others movements. The British 5th Wing of the Royal Flying Corps had two squadrons in Egypt, mostly in Sinai and a a few in the Western Desert.

Most of these were B.E.2Cs with a few De Havilands.

Rumpler C.I. model
Opposite them on the Ottoman side was the German 300 Fliegerabteilung ("Pasha"), operating initially from Beersheba and by June from El Arish. It deployed 14 Rumpler C.I. aircraft, though the British histories call them Fokkers. The Germans had several advantages: their planes were faster and equipped with interrupter deices which synchronized their machine guns with their propellers. By mid-July, the British were detecting more German reconnaissance flights.

Gen. Chaytor
On July 19, a century ago, a British aircraft with Brigadier General E.W.C. Chaytor, commander of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, aboard as an observer, discovered an advance force of some 2,500 Turkish forces at Bir Bayud, a comparable force plus 6,000 camels were found to the north at Bir al-Abd, and a smaller force at Jamiel. By the morning of the 20th, Turkish advance forces had reached Oghratina and Mageibra. It was clear the Ottomans were advancing.

The British quickly reinforced the position around Romani and moved all their aircraft in Egypt (including those in the Western Desert) to Ismailia and prepared a forward landing strip at Romani.

This was the beginning of what is often called the second Ottoman attempt on the Suez Canal, though it never came near that waterway. It would end in a battle at Romani in early August.

Neither the senior German officer in Palestine, Djemal Pasha's Chief of Staff Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, nor the head of Germany's Military Mission, Otto Liman von Sanders, thought the advance could succeed against a superior British force. Liman von Sanders, in his memoirs, says:
The instructions of the expeditionary corps (they came by way of Constantinople, but I do not know who originated them) required an advance so near to the canal that the long range guns could stop the passage of ships.

The instructions I have never understood. The question arises at once how long this interruption by artillery was to last. If it was to be a prolonged one, which alone was of substantial value, it entirely depended on whether the British would tolerate it, or whether the Turko-German troops could enforce it. The former as well as the latter had to be answered in the negative, without question.

The instructions were neither fish nor fowl; they reminded one of washing the hands without wetting the fingers.
He was right. In early August, we'll return to this story for the anniversary of the Battle of Romani.

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