A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Ottoman Lahej Campaign against Aden, July 1915, Part 2

In Part One of this post on Friday, I generally set the scene for the fighting around Lahej in southwest Arabia in July of 1915, a century ago, when the critical British Crown Colony of Aden was threatened by Ottoman forces advancing from Yemen. If you haven't yet read Part One, I recommend you do so before reading this.

With British regulars tied down on the Western Front in France, and the Australian and New Zealand ANZACs trapped on Gallipoli, the Crown Colony of Aden, key fueling port between Suez and British India, was defended only by Indian Army troops and the Brecknockshire Territorial Battalion of South Wales Borderers, a Territorial or home defense unit sent out from Wales. By the end of June it had become clear that Ottoman forces in Yemen, having moved their command HQ to Ta‘izz   in the southern part of Yemen (later North Yemen), were preparing to move on the Sultanate of Lahjej, one of the protected states in what Britain called the Aden Protectorate, the locally-ruled hinterland of the Aden Colony. The ‘Abdali Sultan of Lahej had received British guns and advisers, but as it became clear that a superior Ottoman force was advancing on Lahej, the British commander and Political Resident in Aden prepared to advance to protect the near approaches to Aden.

Major General D.L.B. Shaw, the Resident and force commander in Aden was hesitant to send a "Moveable Column"  to Lahej due to conflicting intelligence reports but finally on July 3, 195, received a message from the Viceroy of India that 600 Turks, 400 Arabs and eight guns were threatening Lahej. The Moveable Column, assembled at Sheikh ‘Uthman north of Aden, was commanded by Lt. Col. H.F.A. Pearson of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, and consisted of half a battalion of the Brecknockshire Territorials, a company of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers with four machine guns, half a battalion of the 109th Indian Infantry with four machine guns, two companies of the 126th Baluchistan Infantry, 6 15-pound guns of the Camel Battery and four 10-pounders of the Mountain Battery, both of the Royal Garrison Artillery, and elements of the 23rd Fortress Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners. Total infantry strength was about 350 British Territorials and 500 Indians. The Lahej Sultan, his mercenary forces already scattered in the Ottoman advance, may have had lttle more than 300 loyal troops remaining.

This "Moveable Column" finally began to move toward Lahej at 3 AM on July 4. An advanced guard of machine gunners in motor vehicles set out ahead of the largely camel-dependent column. By 10:30 AM 100 of the 109th Infantry and the Sappers and Miners reached Lahej, but as the South Arabian day heated up, much of the column straggled, the South Wales Borderers in particular suffering from dehydration and heatstroke covering the 45 kilometers/28 miles. As I said in part One, South Yemen in July is not South Wales.

By 5 PM on July 4, it is estimated that only 300 or so infantry had reached Lahej, the rest straggling and the 15-pounder battery stuck in sand to the south. More troops trickled in, but the Ottoman force advancing on Lahej forced the Anglo-Indians back through the town to camps in gardens to its south. The British column also suffered from the desertion of its camel drivers, some of whom were tribal rivals of the ‘Abdali Sultan of Lahej.

Speaking of whom, the current ruler of Lahej, Sultan Sir ‘Ali II ibn Ahmad al-‘Abdali, was watching the action from  a balcony of his residence (or in other versions fleeing town) when he was shot, reportedly by a British bullet in friendly fire, and died on July 13.  Captain F.C. Squires, Col. Pearson's Adjutant, was killed in the fighting in the town as well. The Aden Protectorate had not only failed to protect one of its "protected" sheikhs, it killed him.

The Anglo-Indians held on through the night, but their position was untenable, their logistics train gone with the desertion of the cameleers. The rest of the column was stuck four and  half miles south of Lahej trying to protect the 15-pounder artillery pieces stuck in the sand. Pearson was outnumbered and out of ammunition. Both he and Shaw saw no alternative but to fall back.

The intention was to fall back on Sheikh ‘Uthman outside Aden, a critical point as it controlled Aden's water supply. But Shaw ordered a withdrawal even from Sheikh ‘Uthman, to the boundaries of the Crown Colony, where the guns of the Royal Navy in the harbor (HMS Minto, Northbrook, Empress of Asia, and Empress of Russia) could protect the vital port.

Maj. Gen. Sir George Younghusband
With Ottoman troops now virtually on the outskirts of the vital Imperial post of Aden, the Viceroy of India, Lord Harding,  was alarmed. Shaw's vacillation had lost him the Viceroy's confidence, and he asked the War Office to reinforce Aden with a brigade under Sir George Younghusband from Egypt with his 28th Indian Brigade. Younghusband took command in Aden and received other reinforcements and replacements, and would retake Sheikh ‘Uthman and other key area north of Aden. I'll discuss that another time.

But Lahej would remain in Ottoman hands until 1918. While not a debacle on the scale of Kut or Gallipoli, it threatened a key lifeline of Empire and was a clearcut Ottoman success.

Sources for further reading online:

Abdol Rauh Yaccob, "Anglo-Ottoman Rivalries in South West Arabia Prior to and During the First World War, 1906-1919,"  SOAS PhD. thesis 1995.

The Soldier's Burden, "Military Operations in Aden, 1814-15,"

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