Lahej 1915: The Unforeseen British Defeat and Its Cascading Effects

One of the least well-known reverses suffered by the British Army in the 1st World War was what happened at Lahej in early July 1915. This article tells the story of this defeat, a defeat not so much by the enemy as by the elements.

The Turks might never have decided to advance on Aden were it not for the British attack on the fort at Sheikh Syed towards the end of November 1914. A division of the Indian Army was on its way to Egypt from India and it was decided by the General Staff in India that as long as the whole operation did not take more than 24 hours one brigade should make an assault landing against Fort Turba opposite Perim.

Working to their own agenda the General Staff neither asked for approval from London nor did it sound out the authorities in Aden as to the wisdom of this enterprise. The attack was a success but it had two adverse repercussions: the Turks decided that attack was the best means of defence and the local tribes were upset as they had not been warned or consulted about the operation.

Part 1 – Lahej, Background and Events up to 3 July

In 1914 Fortress Aden seemed all but impregnable to attack from the landward side. The terrain North of Aden did not favour movement, and certainly not by large bodies of troops. There were no proper roads once outside the Settlement and few wells, except in and around Lahej, until the mountains were reached, some 40 miles or so away. The semi-circular arc to the North of Aden was a virtual desert. An approach from the West would have been especially difficult and wisely was not attempted by the Turks. They could only come from the North, following the two main caravan routes from the Yemen, one from Kataba via Dthala and the other from Taiz via MusAmir, both routes meeting and joining up at Nobat Dakim at the edge of the mountainous area. The going from Nobat to Lahej was for the most part quite reasonable; by and large the further South one comes the more desert-like the conditions.

Had Aden had a much larger garrison, a policy of forward defence based on a strong brigade at Nobat Dakim (where there was a good water supply) would have been best, but this option was not available as the whole garrison was no more than a strong independent brigade. The war plan was therefore to hold and defend Lahej, which would deny the use of the wells there to an enemy as well as keeping an enemy at arm’s length from Sheikh Othman. The critical weakness of Fortress Aden was that it depended to a very large extent on the water that was piped in from the wells at Sheikh Othman. To be able to defend forward there were contingency plans to form a moveable column from troops in the garrison. The Aden Moveable Column (AMC) had originally been set up to undertake punitive expeditions into the hinterland, the last such being the Ad Dareja Incident in 1901 to destroy two forts put up by the Turks inside what the British reckoned was their side of the border. The AMC had been deployed again in 1902 to provide a supporting force for the Aden Boundary Commission in its joint demarcation of the border area, the Turks after Ad Dareja having agreed that one was necessary. This deployment lasted over two years and apart from anything else it resulted in a good set of logistic procedures being established. The big weakness of the AMC was that it could not be deployed at short notice as there were no transport camels held on the establishment. In 1903/04 over 2,000 camels had been required to support troops operating in the hinterland, of which the AMC accounted for less than half.

A new Resident, Major General Shaw, had arrived in Aden towards the end of November 1914. Shaw was GOC as well as Resident and with the possibility of an advance out to Lahej at some stage, on 23 December he recommended to the office of the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) in India (not to be confused with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in England) that a telegraph line be laid from Steamer Point to Lahej and the route to there improved. Approval for both projects was given the next day, the telegraph link to Lahej being opened on 1 March. Detachments of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, 327 all ranks all told, were employed on route improvement from the end of December to mid-February. The 23rd was an infantry battalion with additional training as assault pioneers. It had come from India for the landing against Fort Turba, when it had used its expertise in demolitions to good effect, and had then been sent back to Aden to reinforce the garrison there. The major problem South of Lahej was drifting sand and in spite of much use of locally made fascines it was very difficult to keep any of the three possible routes clear. On 9 January the 23rd attempted to pass an unloaded 2.5 ton lorry along the route via Bir Amr but it got stuck in sand a mile North of that place.

On Christmas Eve the Sultan of Lahej, normally referred to as ‘the Abdali’ had reported that five regular Turkish battalions were at Kataba together with five larger-sized guns. This news spurred Shaw to do a reconnaissance of Lahej, taking with him the three staff officers of Aden Brigade and his 1st Assistant (referred to as the FAR), Lieutenant Colonel Jacob. They travelled in motor cars, of which there were already quite a few in Aden, mostly Fords. Whilst the three most senior officers were selecting a camping ground, which they sited near the government well at Ath Thalub, with space for a whole brigade, the two junior officers carried out a reconnaissance of the eastern track from Bir Salim towards Bir Amir. [Bir Amir was on the eastern route via Fiyush and is not to be confused with Bir Amr on the central route.] They reported that it was very sandy about three miles South of Lahej and heavy guns would need extra camels to pass this part of the route.

In mid-February the Army Commander of the Indian Southern Army visited Aden. Shaw took the opportunity of asking for some mountain or pack camel guns to give the AMC the mobility to venture beyond the foothills if that was required. This request was to eventually have a positive result as at the end of March Aden was informed that a small battery of four 10-pdr pack camel guns would be shipped from India on 4 April. In Aden there were then discussions as to how these guns were to be manned, as no extra men were being sent. Range and fuse tables for the 10-pdrs arrived on the 30th, by which time training was going well and special camels were being taken on. Towards the end of May the CGS would be asked to sanction the use of 200 rounds of ammunition as the crews had not yet fired this particular weapon.

Early in May the CGS wanted to know the planned composition of the AMC; in total it was just over 1,500 all ranks, plus a wing (half-battalion) of the 126thBaluchis guarding the Line of Communication (L of C). If the AMC went into the hills the radius of action would be no further than Ad Dareja or Dthala and an extra double company would be needed on the L of C. In addition the six towed 15-pdrs in the only field battery would have to be left at either Nobat Dakim or Lahej.

The Baluchi half-battalion had arrived as a reinforcement towards the end of March. Although the 126th was an all-Hindu battalion, one double company was Brahui and the other non-Brahui – perhaps prone to the similar sort of problems that an Iraqi Moslem battalion that was half Sunni and half Shiite would have! Anyway on 26 May the two officers commanding the double companies went together to the GOC to report a serious case of insubordination, veering on mutiny, in the Brahui double company. They insisted that to avoid serious trouble the two double companies needed to be to be separated. It was thought best to exchange the non-Brahui with one of those of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers (also classed as Hindus) so that there would still be a similar number of Hindus and Moslems on the Isthmus position and four Sikh and one non-Brahui double company at Steamer Point. Of interest here is that it was standard procedure for all ammunition magazines in the Settlement to be guarded by British troops. One does not know the reason for the near mutiny but the situation was deemed sufficiently serious for one double company of the 109th Infantry to be ordered to parade in the vicinity of the Isthmus whilst the redeployment took place.

On 10 May, the day after the CGS’s query on the composition of the column, units were ordered to overhaul their operational procedures for a moveable column. One change that was to have far-reaching effect was that shorter marches decided on because of the present unusually hot weather, which had commenced around 18 April. Colonel Jacob (the FAR) was ordered to get an up to date state of wells en route to Dthala.

The next day the CGS reminded Shaw that except in grave emergency the AMC was not to be used outside the Settlement (i.e. beyond Sheikh Othman) without the sanction of the Government of India. At the end of May, with the situation deteriorating, the GSO of Aden brigade, Major Bradshaw, recorded in the war diary that it would be necessary to ascertain from the CGS whether or not an advance by Turkish forces on Lahej constituted a ‘grave emergency’ as there would be little time to act.

On 24 April 3,000 Turks had been reported to be moving South from Hodeida, destination Taiz, where they should arrive in a fortnight. It also had become apparent that the Turks were trying to win over tribes in order to join their attack on Lahej and Aden. Most of the Arab tribes did not want to be under Turkish rule and would not readily join them. In the Yemen the Imam relied on Aden for many of his supplies and was believed to have withdrawn active support for the time being. However those offering support included two strategically important tribes on the main routes in from the Yemen – the Amiri around Dthala and the Haushabi, especially those around Mauia on the route from Taiz to MusAmir. As early as 1 February there was a report that the Turks had entered Dthala supported by Arabs loyal to their cause.

On 27 May OC Perim reported that 1,600 Turks had left Sheikh Syed for the Dthala area. This report, together with the one of Turks already at Kataba and the other of the group moving to Taiz from Hodeida would produce, when it had concentrated, a force sufficient to mount a serious attack on Aden. The problem was that the intelligence assessment of this information, in particular that put forward by Jacob, was that the Turks would not actually mount an attack on Fortress Aden.

On 11 June there was an unconfirmed report that some Turks had reached Mauia and therefore the Abdali informed Aden that he was sending troops to Nobat to assess the situation. The next day the presence of Turks at Mauia was confirmed. In consequence on the 13th Shaw considered it imperative to send the camel troop of the Aden Troop to support the Abdali, who at that stage had 1,000 men and three guns covering the approach to Lahej from the North. He had to ask India for approval and this was given straight away, but subject to a promise that the troop did not enter the hills [North or West of Nobat Dakim]. The Aden Troop was in effect a squadron of mounted infantry, half equipped with camels and half with horses. Its strength was about 90 all ranks and was commanded by a British officer, with Indian officers commanding the two halves. The next day the CGS was informed that the pony troop [the other half of the Aden Troop] was being sent to act as a reserve for the Abdali’s force. India would query the need for this additional deployment – an example of how ‘modern’ communications [cable] were allowing higher authority to meddle in the conduct of operations. The OC, Captain Norbury, was also the Political ADC to the Resident. This was to prove an unfortunate bit of double-hatting as one of his duties was organising his master’s Mess when the latter was in the field wearing his other hat as GOC Aden Brigade.

Meanwhile reports were coming in from elsewhere. A Turkish attempt to capture Perim had been easily thwarted, but it had been necessary to put a whole double company (of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers) on the island to ensure its defence, the extra troops coming from Aden. In addition on 11 June Kamaran island had been captured without a fight by a force of about 500 men from Aden, most of whom were required to remain there to defend the island. As a result of these two actions there were about 500 less men to defend Aden. India eventually promised to send another wing of infantry to make up the deficit. Fortunately another request at around this time, for about 1,000 troops to be sent from Aden to Somaliland, was vetoed by Aden.

On 15 June the GSO recorded that it had definitely been established that Turkish forces were about to debouch from the hills on Lahej. He added a note that if this was taken literally the Turks must reach Lahej first as the Aden Brigade could not do 15 miles in one march in the abnormally hot weather. One might think that this appreciation would have led to the immediate deployment of the AMC but the previous day he had written that due to the heat troops should only leave [the comparative comfort of their barracks] at the last possible moment. This was to prove to be false logic.

Also on the 15th the headquarters of the Aden Troop moved out to Lahej. This brought the Troop’s strength there up to that laid down in the contingency plans for the deployment of a Moveable Column into the hinterland North of Aden to cover the approaches from Turkish-held Yemen. Also on 15 June the camel troop was moved further North to Nobat Dakim. As has been mentioned this was a position of strategic importance about 40 miles North of Aden as it was where two of the three approach routes to Aden likely to be used by the Turks converged - that from Mauia via MusAmir and that from Dthala at a point where the caravan route left the mountainous area [see Map 1].

The topography of the area was such that there was line of sight communication from Nobat to the signalling station located on the top of Sham Shan. Communication was by heliograph, although heat haze on occasions made signalling impossible. The next day, the 16th, the detachment at Nobat established communications with brigade headquarters in Aden, via Sham Shan. Having proved the link, the camel element rejoined Troop HQ at Lahej on the 17th. Later that day Captain Norbury moved up to Nobat with a small escort and early on the 18th he inspected the position that would be held by local Abdali forces covering the Tannan defile on the route between MusAmir and Nobat. Norbury returned to Lahej the same afternoon. On the 20th he took over the duties of Intelligence Officer Lahej from the GSO3 of Aden Brigade, Captain Paige. From then until the end of the month the Troop at Lahej carried out routine field training, although on the 29th a detachment was again deployed to Nobat Dakim, which on arrival re-established a signalling post to communicate directly with Aden.

23 June was a very hot day, and in fact the start of an abnormally hot period, even for Aden. The next day General Shaw received a cable from the CGS in India complaining that intelligence from Aden was falling off in quality. The cable stated that more money could be spent. It was too late for that as the problem was largely with the command set-up in Aden. Shaw had his office in the Residency in Steamer Point. He was in effect Governor and under normal circumstances spent at least 95% of his working day on non-military matters governing the colony and dealing with the 10 main tribes in the protectorate. As has been mentioned the Resident was also GOC Aden Brigade, which was really a misnomer for Aden Garrison, the small headquarters of which was located in Crater over four miles from the Residency. The day-to-day running of the garrison was left to two staff officers, a DAA&QMG (a Captain) and a GSO2 (a Major), the former responsible for human resources and logistics and the latter for operations and training. What happened in the protectorate, and in particular as regards intelligence, was the responsibility and province of the Residency. The man with special responsibility for the hinterland tribes was the FAR, Colonel Jacob, who was on at least his third tour in Aden and was a reasonably fluent Arabic speaker. Thus Aden Brigade had no control over intelligence gathering in the hinterland.

A major part of the garrison was fixed artillery batteries located in the forts covering Aden from attack from the sea. On the outbreak of war the infantry element of the garrison had consisted of only one Indian infantry battalion at full strength (about 850 all ranks) and an under-strength British battalion. The garrison was reinforced on the outbreak of war and at the end of June 1915 the infantry element of the garrison comprised the equivalent of about three infantry battalions. Unfortunately the regular British battalion had been replaced by a battalion of the Territorial Army. The 1st Battalion of the Brecknockshires, a Territorial battalion of the South Wales Borderers, had arrived on 21 December 1914 to replace a regular battalion needed elsewhere (the Lancashire Fusiliers, fatefully, were destined to land at Gallipoli). As well as not being acclimatised the battalion was not yet sufficiently trained. In peacetime battalions had always come from India and not the United Kingdom, which ensured they were acclimatised. For the time being, if the AMC had to deploy the Brecknockshires would remain in Aden, taking over all four defence Sectors, instead of the two they had taken over on arrival. Early in January one of the Indian battalions had taken over their sectors as it was realised that the Brecknockshires needed more time to train and an opportunity to exercise as a battalion. A training syllabus was prepared in conjunction with the GOC and four British officers were loaned from other units as instructors. This training opportunity lasted just over a month but even in mid-May the battalion was assessed as only capable of facing irregular troops and also not yet ‘seasoned’, in modern parlance not yet acclimatised. A British regular battalion would have had the key role on the deployment of a moveable column, but the Brecknockshires were selected to be the reserve.

On 28 May Jacob and Paige (who as the GSO3 of the brigade was also brigade intelligence officer) motored out to Lahej to get an intelligence update from the Abdali, with Jacob acting as interpreter for Paige. Whilst they were away the Resident sent a situation report to the CGS that it was evident that Haushabi did not intend to fight or resist the Turks. This was disturbing news as the tribal area of the Haushabi stretched from inside the Yemen around Mauia eastwards, across the northern boundary of the Abdali to the Fadhli near the coast, to the east of Aden [see Map 1]. The Mauia route was that likely to be the main Turkish axis of advance and the implication of this assessment was that Turkish forces coming this way would meet with no resistance until they arrived just North of Lahej. With this in mind the GOC also stated that if the news was confirmed he intended to deploy the Moveable Column to Sheikh Othman on 1 July and he therefore requested sanction to advance to Fiyush on 2 July. Fiyush was important as it had one of the few wells between Sheikh Othman and Lahej. He also asked the CGS to expedite the move of the reinforcements that had been agreed, the other wing (half-battalion) of the 108th Infantry, one wing and battalion HQ being already in Aden.

When Jacob and Paige returned from Lahej the former reported that the Abdali had been exaggerating and the situation was not so critical as the Abdali had made out. In Jacob’s opinion there was no need for the AMC to move out yet, but that camels had better be collected. Paige reported that Ad Dareja (just on the Aden side of the border on the route from Mauia) was occupied by Turkish troops but that the enemy had not yet crossed the border in strength. Jacob’s assessment would soon prove to be faulty. The three or four day delay in deploying was going to be the main cause of the impending disaster.

At midday on the 30th orders were received at Aden Brigade from the Residency for the AMC to be prepared to march out on the following day. Soon afterwards sanction was received from the CGS for the GOC to operate in the defence of Lahej provided the AMC did not become entangled in the foothills further North. Deployment then would have not been too late but in reply the GOC reported that as a result of the investigations made at Lahej on the 29th he had cancelled the move to Sheikh Othman but had asked the Abdali to collect camel transport. Also on the 30th the GOC recalled the OC of the Aden Troop so that he could resume his duties as Political ADC, and specifically to make arrangements to move the GOC’s mess out to Lahej in the near future. Norbury’s recall meant that there was now no British officer well forward with the only unit with a reconnaissance role. In fact no British officer would command this vital information gathering unit until one was appointed by General Shaw’s replacement on 19 July, two days before the advance to retake Sheikh Othman. Also on 30 June news came from India that the wing of the 108th Infantry had left Bombay that day. Meanwhile a standing camp was pitched at Sheikh Othman and camels in large numbers had already been collected.

​The problem on 1 July, yet another very hot day, was a lack of hard intelligence as to Turkish intentions. There were no reports of a Turkish advance across the border. On 2 July OC Perim reported that his agents at Sheikh Syed had told him that the attack on Lahej would be made in three columns via Hujeria, Mauia and Dthala. Events would show that this was accurate information. That evening Jacob was informed by the Sultan of Lahej that the main body of Turks from Mauia had arrived at Al Dareja and that their advance guard at was at Mileh. In addition another column from Hujeria had reached Habil Masweda via Wadi Akkan. Hujeria was North of Sheikh Syed and Habil Masweda was between MusAmir and Nobat Dakim. This was the column that had left Sheikh Syed towards the end of May. This news prompted Shaw to send a telegram later the same evening to the CGS saying that unless he received orders to the contrary he intended to deploy the Aden Movable Column (AMC) to Sheikh Othman the following afternoon (3 July). A warning order for the move was also issued to Aden Brigade.

continue to part 2