The July 4th Clash at Lahej: A Critical Turn in the Aden Campaign

On his return to Aden Shaw sent a long situation report to the CGS in India. Although it was sent (or more to the point sent for enciphering) at 1200hrs on the 6th it was not with the CGS until 1500 hrs the following day.

It was far too long-winded for an initial report and the summary sent from India to the Secretary of State for India (S of S) by cable with a ‘clear the line’ precedence was suitably succinct. Shaw’s report was as follows:

Part 3 – Shaw Replaced and the Re-taking of Sheikh Othman

“At 4 p.m. on July 4th the Aden troop, which until then remained in observation, reported the presence of a Turkish force estimated at 500 Turks including cavalry, with four field guns, machine guns and a large contingent of Arabs. As this force was advancing, the Aden troop fell back at the same hour (4 p.m.) on the Lahej position. The position faced North and was held by all the troops who had been able to reach Lahej, namely 250 British and Indian infantry, with a battery of 10-pdr guns. These troops maintained their position until 10 p.m. under the fire of the enemy’s artillery. By this time the northern edge of Lahej, on which the Turkish fire had been partially directed, was observed to be on fire and at the same time a change of front was necessitated by a hostile flanking movement from the mound.

During the night, hostile attacks from the West were beaten off, some hand to hand fighting taking place. But some parties of the enemy, who had penetrated Lahej from the North, continued practically throughout the night to attack with shell and rifle fire our troops and the hospital which was situated in a garden to the South of the town. The remaining British and Indian troops who, owing to want of water, had been unable to reach Lahej, were collected to cover the 15-pdr battery which in consequence of the deep sand and lack of extra camel transport had found it impossible to advance by 7 p.m. beyond a point about four and a half miles South of Lahej. At 12 midnight this supporting force was withdrawn to cover the water supply at Bir Nasr two miles further South.

Having been informed that, owing to the desertion of all transport and camelmen, and the treachery of our Arab friendlies, the troops in Lahej were no longer able to maintain their position in face of and under shell fire of the superior forces of Turks and Arabs, I ordered this force to use all available transport for the removal of sick and wounded, and to withdraw to the water at Bir Nasr. The withdrawal was carried out at 0500 on the 5th but owing to the necessity of using the only available means of transport for carrying the wounded and sick, three-quarters of the ammunition, all kits and equipment together with two 10-pdr guns and some .450 machine guns were abandoned at Lahej. I left Bir Nasr at 0930 a.m. and, in view of the fact that our troops were suffering very severely from great shortness of water and food, withdrew the force to the next water supply at Bir Amr. The enemy did not follow up and the retirement was continued at 4 p.m., Sheikh Othman being reached at 9 a.m. on 6 July.”

On the evening of the 6th the troopship Teesta carrying drafts for Egypt from India called at Aden and was detained. A cable was sent to India requesting that these men could be used to reinforce the garrison. Whilst a reply was awaited the OC Troops, Capt Faris, was ordered to be ready to disembark the 500 men aboard, which included one double company of the 7th Gurkhas. Altogether there were two British and 20 Indian officers. No personal weapons were aboard the ship.

Shaw sent his next report in a telegram dated 1230 hrs on 7 July. His previous telegrams had all been sent wearing his GOC’ s hat, so to speak. This one was ominously from ‘The Resident’.

“It is reported that Turkish strength at Lahej is eight battalions and 20 guns and that their intention is to attack Aden on July 9th. The Turks have offered an amnesty to all Abdali who return, and have proclaimed a Hausabi Sultan of Lahej.

In my opinion, owing in reduction in numbers of my force through excessive heat, and to loss of ammunition and transport through desertion of transport, it is impossible at this season to defend the long line necessary to protect Sheikh Othman from all sides, without thereby unduly exposing Aden, which is of Imperial importance.

For these reasons I have withdrawn into the Aden defences, and placed an outpost line extending from cavalry lines to Khormaksar bridge, supported by HM ships Minto, Northbrook, Empress of Russia and Empress of Asia, in order to protect Admiralty wireless station, which I believe is thought second to defence of Aden.

As four companies of 108th do not arrive before 8 July I have disembarked 500 men from Teesta and armed them with Martini Henry and .303 rifles.”

Shaw had not waited for permission to use the men from the Teesta; they had been disembarked after dark on the 6th , but the Secretary of State’s telegram saying they could be retained only arrived on the 8th. The .303 rifles were surplus rifles of the 109th Infantry and the obsolete Martini Henrys were from the stockpile held to be given to loyal tribal chiefs, as and when they needed to be rewarded/bribed.

Shaw was also looking around for any other reinforcements that might be able to be got to Aden in a hurry, should the situation worsen. He asked the Commissioner in British Somaliland if he could lend two naval guns and any mounted or dismounted troops. The latter replied that he could send the two guns, each with 100 rounds of ammunition, and 350-400 troops of whom 150 could be sent immediately. The Secretary of State’s telegram referred to above had also mentioned that half a battalion of Australian troops and an Indian battalion could be spared from Egypt.

The reinforcement situation improved when the wing of the 108th eventually arrived on the morning of the 8th. With the Teesta ‘battalion’ now disembarked and armed, the Somaliland reinforcements were stood down for the time being. As soon as they had disembarked the 108th, together with the double company of Gurkhas from the Teesta, took over the outpost line at Khormaksar, with the remainder of the Teesta Battalion in reserve at the Admiralty Wireless Station. Shaw’s second report was much shorter than his initial one but given the time taken to encode, transmit and decode it, it was still not received by the Army Staff in Calcutta until 1125 hrs the following day, 8 July. Not surprisingly the CGS wanted more information and that afternoon Shaw was told to telegraph him with full details of casualties, losses of ammunition and equipment and the state of the troops, in particular the Brecknocks. He was also to give the strength of the mobile column when it left Aden and how many guns and machine guns were deployed. Next the CGS wanted Shaw’s views on the present situation and his intentions. The final request was about the availability of water. For what sized force was water obtainable at Sheikh Othman, at Lahej, on the road to Lahej, and then on to Nobat Dakim.

The CGS had quickly decided what was required: Aden must be reinforced and the situation restored, and Shaw replaced. Within hours of receiving Shaw’s report he had the Viceroy’s office telegraph the Secretary of State in London to approve of the intention to reoccupy Lahej. It was estimated that to achieve this a force consisting of at least one infantry brigade, one cavalry regiment and two artillery batteries would be required, over and above any reinforcements already on their way or in the garrison at Aden. All this force could not be found from India but if the infantry brigade could be found from Egypt, India could provide the remainder. Given the choice India would select Younghusband’s brigade. In any event the services of Younghusband himself were required to relieve General Shaw as GOC and Resident at Aden as the CGS had lost confidence in Shaw’s ability to be in charge of Aden.

A further short telegram sent by Shaw on the evening of 7 July cannot have eased the worries of those in India. Shaw reported that he was having to impose non-statutory martial law in Aden on account of the grave situation that had arisen. In addition a telegram the same day to the Director of Medical Services in India gave a further hint of the disaster that had befallen. He asked for two sections of an Indian Field Ambulance to be sent at once to replace two that had been lost. He also asked for one section of a British Field Ambulance and for 1,000 field dressings. The DMS replied on 8 July that the equipment for the three field ambulances would be sent as soon as shipping was available. He asked for Shaw to telegraph if it was absolutely essential to send personnel and to send further details.

The Ordnance Branch in India reacted to Shaw’s initial report of ammunition losses by making arrangements to send one thousand rounds of 15-pdr shrapnel and one million rounds of .303 ball ammunition, with a request to the General Staff that if possible it should be shipped from India on 11 July

The Secretary of State for India, having consulted the War Office and Kitchener, gave his decision on 9 July, or in other words within hours of receiving the Viceroy’s request. As a temporary measure Younghusband’s brigade and two batteries of artillery were to be sent from Egypt to Aden. Younghusband was to leave for Aden at the first opportunity. Due to the water situation Kitchener had queried the advisability of sending a complete cavalry regiment from India.

The Secretary of State in the same telegram asked who was the next senior [Political] officer Aden. He assumed Jacob was still there. Jacob, as 1st Assistant to the Resident, would have been the next senior Political Officer. He had not served with troops for at least 10 years, from the time of his transfer to the Political Service.

On 10 July a telegram was sent to Shaw telling him he was being relieved. The same telegram mentioned that a ship had left Karachi on 5 July with two 5-inch guns for Perim. These should arrive at Aden on 11 July and that Shaw could keep them at Aden if he wished.

Regarding the queries about water supply, Aden replied that between the two routes from Sheikh Othman to Lahej there was drinking water for only two British battalions. In or around Lahej there was pure water for a division, and that at Nobat Dakim the river there could also meet the requirements of a division. Shaw was then asked more questions about water: what resources for carrying water did he now possess, and what additional equipment would be needed to support four various artillery batteries, two squadrons of cavalry, an engineer company and a brigade of four Indian infantry battalions?

But water supply problems of a more urgent nature and closer to home were now a worry for both Aden garrison and the civilian population. Water was available from four sources but much the best quality water was that that came via an aqueduct from wells at Sheikh Othman. The entry in the Engineer War Diary for 8 July is pertinent: “Anticipating that the duct water supply from Sheikh Othman will be cut, I stopped the issue of duct water to private individuals on payment, took over certain Government wells which were leased out to contractors, and arranged for the issue of [condensedJ water on payment. Suggested to GOC that all water supplies should be taken over and a committee appointed to draw up rules and control the issue and distribution of water to the inhabitants.” The Turks cut off the duct water supply the following day.

On 10 July Younghusband left Suez for Aden aboard the light cruiser HMS Philomel. The same day the 1/4th Hampshire Howitzer Battery and the 24th Hazara Mountain Battery, plus the 5th Company of 1st Battalion Sappers and Miners were mobilised in India for service under Younghusband in Aden. On the afternoon of the 10th a troopship carrying the 12th Australian Light Horse arrived in harbour. Also on 10 July one of the Turkish prisoners captured at Lahej volunteered useful information as to the strength and composition of the Turkish forces involved in the attack on 4/5 July. The infantry consisted of only five weak battalions of about 350 men in each, plus one squadron of mounted infantry, supported by 10 mountain guns. In addition about 400 Arabs were with the Turks. Here it is a good moment to mention the problems facing the attackers. The Turks were on exterior lines of communication and if the comparatively recent civil war in the Yemen was anything to go by their logistics and resupply chain would have left a lot to be desired (see Revolt in Yemen). The complete lack of proper roads within the Aden Protectorate meant that it would have been virtually impossible to resupply the size of force that would have been needed to capture fortress Aden. One other factor is worth mentioning. On 14 July information would be received that the enemy did not intend to advance on Aden during Ramadan.

On 12 July the C-in-C in India sent written orders by telegram for Younghusband, care of Shaw. Shaw was to have them deciphered in time to hand them to Younghusband on the latter’s arrival, which was estimated to be the evening of 13 July. The C-in-C also informed Shaw that he had decided that the latter would remain in Aden for the time being, at Younghusband’s disposal.

The next day the GOC 5th Division was informed by the Adjutant General in India that the 1st/4th Royal West Kents were to be prepared to move at short notice to relieve the Brecknockshires. Also on 13 July Shaw telegraphed India that the aeroplanes referred to in his telegram of 7 December 1914 would be of incalculable value. Was there any chance of getting them? Evidently the answer was negative, as no aeroplanes were to be sent to Aden until late 1917, although the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-Ma-Cree would operate in Aden waters for a short period mid-1916

There had been one particularly unfortunate case of ‘blue-on-blue’ during the brief defence of Lahej. The Abdali himself, the Sultan of Lahej, had been shot and mortally wounded when he rounded a street corner on horseback. He died in Aden on 13 July following an operation necessitated by his wound. The GSO made another cryptic remark in his Diary: “Political Officer [Jacob] should have accompanied Column.”

Younghusband took over from Shaw at midday on 15 July. The same day it was decided in India that Brigadier General Price would be sent to Aden to take over the duties of Resident. By the 15th Younghusband’s brigade was well on its way from Egypt, the last elements having left on the 13th. It consisted of over 3,500 men, including 74 British and 80 Indian officers, plus 567 mules and 532 horses. The artillery consisted of eight 15-pdr guns. The infantry battalions were the 51stand 53rd Sikhs and the 52nd and 56th Punjabis. Ammunition accompanying the brigade included 600 rounds per gun, 30,000 rounds per Maxim and 1,000 rounds per rifle.

A Reuters news release seen in Aden mentioned that the monitors HMS Severn and HMS Mersey were in East African waters. Aden telegraphed India that these two ships would be most useful at Aden.

Younghusband’s first situation report must have been well received in India.

“There is no cause for any alarm or despondency in situation here. Practically impossible for any hostile forces which could be brought against Aden to take it. I consider arrangements (by Shaw) quite secure and suitable but as soon as troops arrive from Egypt I shall occupy Sheikh Othman on three miles from present outposts, as a detached post, strongly entrenching around water supply. I do not recommend any further military operations in this season. Two strong brigades, fully equipped, are required to advance on Lahej. Only Brecknocks not satisfactory.”

At 1325 hours on 21 July Younghusband was able to send the following telegram to India: “This morning Sheikh Othman was reoccupied. Small casualties. Report follows.”

He subsequently reported that the situation was well under control and quite secure. Casualties were two British officers killed, both from 53rd Sikhs, and one wounded, plus 20 Indian soldiers killed or wounded. Turkish forces at Sheikh Othman were estimated as having been 600 men, supported by two field guns and two machine guns.

Aden never did get the additional troops that would be needed to retake Lahej, nor did the Turks make any effort to bring up the men and equipment that would be necessary to capture Fortress Aden. For both sides the priorities were elsewhere, and more than three years of stalemate ensued.