A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Barren Rocks of Aden: The Ottoman Lahej Campiaign, July 1915, Part I

Last November  I posted "Landing at Sheikh Sa‘id and Turba Fort: a British Landing in Yemen on This Day in 1914," about a British landing inside the borders of Ottoman Yemen in 1914. But that was not the end of fighting in South Arabia. In July of 1915, a century ago, Ottoman forces from (North) Yemen and he Hejaz invaded the Sultanate of Lahej (today usually Lahij), also known as Abdali after the ruling family, one of the inland states of what the British called the Aden Protectorate (as distinguished from the Crown Colony of Aden), and threatened the Aden colony itself.The events described here began in early July, but I don't choose to post over the Fourth of July weekend, so I'm telling the tale now, and continuing it next week.

Let's review, after the map below, the situation in southwest Arabia in 1915.
The Crown Colony of Aden was a critical way +station on the route to British India. Beginning in the 19th century, Britain had signed treaties with the tribal rulers inland, in order to secure the water supply and hinterland of Aden colony, and created a network of nine sheikhdoms under British protection, but still under nominal Ottoman suzerainty. Lahej or Abdali was the closest to the port of Aden, and its fall would threaten the key British colony between Suez and India.

Prior to the Arab Revolt in 1916, the Hejaz was securely Ottoman, and North Yemen an Ottoman province ruled by its traditional Zaydi Imam. Aden (the Crown Colony at least) was a critical interest of Britain, but the British Regulars were tied down with the Western Front in France and the ANZAC colonials clinging desperately to the Gallipoli Peninsula. So Aden was being defended by Indian Army troops and a few Territorial troops (raised for home defense) from England. By July 1915, Aden Garrison Commander (and also Political Officer)  Major General D.L.B. Shaw had at his disposal the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, the 109th Infantry, and half of the 126th Baluchistan Infantry, along with the Brecknockshire Battalion (4th Battalion, South Wales Borderers), a Territorial Unit of only partially trained Welsh troops.

As memorialized in the famous pipe tune "The Barren Rocks of Aden," (see the end of the post), mean daily maximum temperatures in Aden in July run between 35°-40°C (95°-104°F) with humidity above 60%. I have never had the privilege of visiting Brecknockshire, but I suspect they were considerably less acclimated of this sort of thing than, for example, the Baluchistan Infantry. South Yemen is not South Wales.

Recognizing the threat, the British provided the ruling Sheikh of Lahej with money, rifles, four field guns and a seconded British artillery officer to teach the Sheikh's men to use he big guns.

In March of 1915, British intelligence in Aden estimated the strength of the Ottoman 7th Army (though this "Army" had the strength of a normal Ottoman Corps)  in Southwest Arabia at 15,000 men, including 6,000 from the 40th Hudayda Division, 5,000 from the 21stAsir Division, and 4,000 from the 39th Division. The Hejaz Division remained in Hejaz.  Other estimates were slightly smaller, but many were garrisoned and only a third of the total strength was considered fit for offensive operations. The commander , Ali Said Pasha, was considered a competent commander.

Total strength of the Ottoman force early in the war was estimated at 35 battalions, though not all available for battle Total strength of the Indian and Territorial troops in the Aden garrison may have been little more than 3,000, some of them needed to defend the coast and Perim Island. And others had been transferred to Somaliland and France.

While this was being reinforced, the numbers were still daunting, and the Ottomans had loyal allies among many local tribes. In May and June they had sent negotiators to the Sultan of Lahej.

Anglo-Indian assessments of the situation seem to have been rather slow on the uptake perhaps due to slow communications between Aden and the Indian summer capital at Simla in Kashmir. Only at the end of June did the Lahej Sultan warn that 1000 Turkish troops and 10 guns (other reports say 2,000 and six guns). While the Anglo-Indian authorities had some doubts about the Lahej Sheikh's reliability  (though he seems to have been their only real source), they finally realized something serious was going on, and a real threat to Aden was emerging.

As the saying goes, to be continued.

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