The Formation of the Aden Moveable Column: A Tactical Shift in Lahej

Part 1 ended with the issue of a Warning Order for the Aden Moveable Column to deploy to Lahej. The Column was to consist of about 1,000 infantry, drawn from four separate battalions, two artillery batteries, one of six 15-pdrs drawn by camels and the other a pack battery of four 10-pdrs carried on camels. There were also four machine gun sections, one a brigade section and the others from three of the four battalions, and a very weak engineer company. This is an appropriate moment to mention that battalions of Indian troops consisted of four double rifle companies, each double company having 180 - 200 men.

Part 2 - The Advance to Lahej and the Retreat back to Aden

[Note: The use of the word ‘retreat’ rather than ‘withdrawal’ is intentional, as will become apparent]

At that stage of the war a battalion seldom had more than about nine or ten British officers; thus not all individual companies (i.e. half a double company) were commanded by British officers. Two double companies of the 109th were to form the Advance Guard and the order of march of the Main Body was to be:

  • Battalion HQ and one double company 126th Baluchis

  • Fortress Company Sappers & Miners (-)

  • 10-pdr battery

  • detachment 23rd Sikh Pioneers (providing signallers and Column HQ)

  • 15-pdr battery

  • Battalion HQ and four companies 1st Brecknockshires

  • field hospital

  • ammunition column

  • 1st line transport

  • reserve of water

One can see that right from the start the British battalion was being given a lesser role than that normally given to battalions within a brigade of the Indian Army. One would have expected the battalion to have formed the advance guard or at least the leading element of the main body. But it was acknowledged that the Brecknocks were still neither fit enough nor sufficiently trained to justify being given a leading role.

At six that evening the GOC went out to Sheikh Othman to see commanding officers of the infantry units and to inform them that the march must be continued at 0300 hrs the following morning. They nearly all protested, explaining how done their men were after the heat of the march to Sheikh Othman. But General Shaw had not been there to see how trying the conditions had been and he explained that an ‘effort’ must be made. (Like the word ‘demonstration’ the word ‘effort’ had a particular meaning in the context of orders. In effect it was an order to press on as quickly as possible.) He then placed Lt Col Pearson in command of the Main Body and directed it to march at 0300 hrs. Pearson was the CO of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers, two companies of which were defending Perim. The 23rd was an infantry battalion with additional training as assault pioneers. Only 85 others from Pearson’s battalion went out with the moveable column on its initial deployment. These included his two machine gun sections as column troops and a weak platoon providing the escort to the 15-pdr battery. But his unit also provided 15 signallers, two for his own detachments but more interestingly 13 described as ‘brigade signallers’. The War Diary of the 23rd has him leaving Aden as ‘Temporary Commandant Mobile Column’, with his Adjutant, Captain Squires, designated as ‘Staff Officer’. In effect the 23rd from the outset provided column headquarters. On deployment of the column the two professional staff officers of Aden Brigade, the GSO2 and the DAA&QMG, remained at their desks in Aden.

This was what had occurred in 1901 and 1903 when sizeable columns had been deployed away from Fortress Aden, under command of the senior Lieutenant Colonel of the units involved. It is easy to say now that General Shaw should have commanded the column from the outset; however his duties as Resident, and the fact that over half his troops were still in Aden, plus the need for him to be contactable by the CGS in India determined that he should only come out to take command in the field once deployment to Lahej was complete. (It is worth noting here that Shaw’s successor, Major General Younghusband, did not actually command the brigade which re-took Sheikh Othman later in July)

Before returning to Aden Shaw took one further decision, one that would have important implications for the morrow. He decided that the column would advance from Sheikh Othman to Lahej along the Bir Amr route and not by the Fiyush route which was the one that had been prepared for use and had the best surface. An engineer officer had just been along the Fiyush route and had assessed it to be in fair condition. No reason for the change is given in the War Diary, although the greater number of wells on the Bir Amr route was probably the deciding factor.

Shaw then returned to Aden from where he sent a cable to the CGS. This made no mention of the problems encountered on the march to Sheikh Othman due to the heat. Only that a small detachment of the 109th Infantry with some Maxims were ‘being pushed up in motors’ at midnight 3/4 July to support the Aden troop which was already at Lahej. He also mentioned that the Movable Column would resume its march at 0300 hrs on the 4th.

Colonel Jacob then tried to persuade Shaw not to go out to Lahej until 6 July because his assessment was that the Turks would never come. The GSO made an entry in the War Diary that he himself succeeded in convincing the GOC that they would. Shaw than made the decision not to leave Aden to join up with the Column till 1500 hrs the following day, 4 July. Jacob obtained permission to postpone his own departure until the 6th. In truth he should have already have been in Lahej with the advance guard.

On the morning of the 4th the GSO realised that a departure at 1500 hrs was too late and he persuaded the GOC to leave an hour or so earlier. On the way out the two cars carrying the GOC’s party stopped at the Keith Falconer hospital at Sheikh Othman, where many of the heat exhaustion cases were being treated. The GSO was aware that commanders at Lahej must be waiting to receive new orders from Shaw and at 1530 hrs he had to urge the GOC to press on without delay. From now on things were to go from bad to worse for the command group in its attempt to get forward. The diary entry for 1700 hrs says it all:

“motors going very badly constantly stopping in sand. Several parties of Brecknocks overcome with heat, some dead, encountered en route. GOC stopped to speak to each [party]. Going bad had to walk long distances. Numbers of exhausted Brecknocks increasing. At Bir Amr GOC gave over cars to sick men and commenced riding.”

The situation at the next diary entry, timed at 1830 hrs, was no better:

“Saw columns of smoke arising in the direction of Lahej. Pushed on. As it became dark saw shells bursting over Lahej. Came on 15-pdr guns stuck in sand and unable to move. Met men of all regiments moving to the rear. Stopped them on gun position. Transport mules and more men all [sic] saying they had been ordered to retire. Extraordinary tales told of what had happened to troops in Lahej. GOC’s Abdali escort now bolted - and only means of communicating quickly with OC Main Body.”

With only a very sketchy picture of what was happening in Lahej Shaw could only send a very short situation report to India that evening. He cabled that part of the AMC, supported by the battery of 10-pdrs, had taken up a position just North of Lahej from where it could support the Sultan’s force. What Shaw did not report, and perhaps did not know as he was not with the AMC at this stage, was that this advance guard was exhausted and in no fit state to fight even a defensive battle. On seeing this report on the morning of 5 July the Director of Military Operations in India (DMO) added a far-sighted comment:

“The Aden Column is operating under severe climatic conditions, and is not at all too strong. Have a plan ready to reinforce Aden garrison if necessary."

It was to be nearly 60 hours before the next situation report from Shaw would reach India, which must have worried the CGS somewhat.

The command group rode on with increasing urgency to find out what was happening and to get in touch with troops in Lahej. At about 1915 hrs some men of the 126th Infantry seized the GOC’s bridle to prevent him riding forward as they thought enemy were on the road between him and Lahej. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, at 2000 hrs the GOC decided to return to the 15-pdr gun position which was on sand dunes about three and a half miles from Lahej. He then sent forward a Sub Assistant Surgeon to reconnoitre the road ahead and with a message for OC Main Body. That worthy soon returned saying enemy were on the road near Lahej. By 2200 hrs a considerable number of men from the Brecknocks and the 126th Baluchis had been stopped on the gun position on their way rearwards, all calling for water. Officers and men alike were exhausted. There were also unconfirmed reports that hostile local tribesmen were working round on a flank. Soon after Lieut Bingham, 109th, Orderly Officer to the GOC, returned from Lahej. He confirmed that troops were withdrawing and that casualties among officers and men had been very heavy. [In fact battle casualties had been extremely light: nearly all casualties were from heat exhaustion.]

The GSO then put a formal appreciation of the situation to the GOC that want of water was the ruling factor and that the wells two miles further back must be secured for the troops to retire on, or to advance from the next day. The OC of the 15-pdr camel battery stated that he could move his guns back by sections two miles if he had two to three hours to rest his men. The GOC approved this plan and guns and men began withdrawing to the well known as Bir Nasir. The command party reached the well at 0100 hrs on 5 July. On arrival the GSO marked out a perimeter camp with the best fields of fire astride the road, which was among acacia trees. He put men in defensive positions covering the road, with scouts out. He also organised the distribution of a small water ration to each man as well as sending a message by an Abdali horseman to OC Main Body to ask for a situation report. So what had been happening around Lahej?

The weak battalion group, based on the 109th Inf, had at last light taken up a defensive position covering the main route from the North into Lahej. Part of the Aden Troop was deployed forward astride the ‘road’ as a screen. The main position on the road consisted of a double company of the 109th and the battalion's two machine gun sections, still with their escort. Out covering the left flank was Capt Barr with three quarters of his double company. The right flank was being covered by the 23rd Sappers & Miners with a machine gun section from the 23rd Pioneers. In ‘local reserve’, in the centre, was the remainder of Barr’s double company, under Lieut Kane together with the Aden Troop, less the detachment deployed as a screen. Soon after last light Lieut Kane took his half company to support Capt Barr on the left flank as the latter appeared to be rather isolated. [There is no record of his having been ordered to move.]

At 2030 hrs Capt Barr received a report that the troops in the centre had fallen back to the area of the Guest House. Since he was also worried that the enemy were getting round on the left of his position, he decided [without orders] to withdraw his two companies through the town to the Guest House. On arriving there, however, he found that the position in the centre had not withdrawn. He tried to get back to his original position but was unable to do so.

At 2300 hrs the remaining subunits were ordered to withdraw to the area of the Guest House. Whilst withdrawing down the main street of Lahej one group managed to capture a section of Turkish machine guns. About 100 men appear to have retreated further back to the encampment to the South of the Guest House. At midnight a fighting patrol was sent out back into the town to clear some Turks out of some houses. Since this patrol was commanded by Captain Squires, the Staff Officer to the OC Main Body, Lt Col Pearson, one can perhaps assume that the latter officer was in command at the Guest House. The patrol returned soon after, with Squires mortally wounded. He was the only British officer to be killed in action.

Capt Stocker with his Sappers & Miners reached the encampment at 0030 hrs. He gathered together all the stragglers who had fetched up there, including about 100 men of the 109th, and led them all back to the area of the Guest House, without encountering any enemy.

Returning to the GOC’s predicament of being totally out of touch, at 0300 hrs Capt Norbury (Shaw’s ADC) arrived from Lahej. The GSO wrote in the Diary that Norbury had reported that is was impossible to hold Lahej and that our troops were surrounded, as well as being heavily shelled and outranged by the enemy’s guns. On hearing this report the GOC sent a junior NCO of the Aden Troop with a message for Lt Col Pearson that he was permitted to withdraw to Bir Nasir if his position was untenable. The Sowar later returned saying he had been unable to deliver the message. Fortunately Pearson was acting on his own initiative and at 0445 hrs had organised to evacuate all casualties from the Guest House garden, and to withdraw his force to Sheikh Othman. All wounded, and those still suffering from the effects of heatstroke who were unable to march, were sent back on all available camels, which included those of a section of 10-pdr mountain guns which had to be abandoned as a result.

A rearguard, consisting of Barr’s double company, was the last to leave the Guest House at 0600 hrs, arriving at Bir Amir two hours later, where they rested. The Main Body, centred on the other double company of the 109th, arrived at Bir Mahomed at 1000 hrs, where they rested up for the remainder of daylight hours. They moved on again at 1900 hrs when the rearguard arrived. The Main Body arrived at Sheikh Othman at 0300 hrs on 6 July. The above timings have all been taken from the War Diary of the 109th.

From the GSO’s diary one notes that troops from Lahej had begun to arrive at Bir Nasir from 0600 hrs on the 5th. The upside was that the 109th brought in eight Turkish prisoners, including a major and a captain, which helped to balance the news that two guns had been lost. The well at Bir Nasr ran dry at 0830 hrs. The GSO noted that the GOC then decided to withdraw to the next well one mile further back as lack of transport, food and water and ammunition had completely ruled out any possibility of an advance, without even considering the state of the troops, who were absolutely exhausted. He noted further that the Brecknocks had been unable to cope and were ‘entirely exhausted’. As they comprised the infantry reserve, in numbers half the column, an advance was out of the question.

Therefore at 0900 hrs the GOC ordered a withdrawal to the next well one mile to the rear. This was the well at Bir Amir but as the troops were on the move they were taken on to a well another mile and a half further South. The Brecknocks did not arrive there till nightfall as they had taken shelter in the grass huts at Bir Amir en route. This was the reason for the rearguard not reaching Bir Mahomed until last light.

Some of the measures that had been taken in Aden were as follows: the Senior Naval Officer was asked [sic] to move the Empress of Asia onto the eastern shore as enemy had been reported near Sheikh Othman; meanwhile the Northbrook and the Minto were standing by in the inner harbour covering the western shore; three maxim guns from the Fort’s MG Section were moved to the Isthmus position and a maxim section from the Northbrook was landed and sent up to Sheikh Othman; the OC Aden (in the absence of the GOC), Lt Col Warren commanding the RGA, put a request to the French Consul to telegraph for permission to land a draft of French troops aboard the transport Elkantara that was due in Aden that evening. This was as a precaution as the half-battalion of 108th Inf had not yet arrived from Bombay. On 6 July Warren had troops manning an outpost line at Sheikh Othman, through which the Column could withdraw. He had also deployed one double company from No.2 Sector defences forward on the Khormaksar line. Transport and resupply had been a major problem as all available transport had been sent forward to assist in the withdrawal of the Column. Motorised transport was at a premium and the owners of private motorcars did sterling work in helping to bring in the heat exhaustion cases. This was the situation when Shaw arrived back in Aden on the morning of 6 July.

continue to part 3