Friday, 30 January 2015

The 7th and 8th Battalions at Ismailia on the Suez Canal

The 8th Battalion recruited from Ballarat, central and Western Victoria.  Lieutenant Colonel William Bolton, of Ballarat, originally led the Battalion, and there are many Ballarat names in the Battalion’s rolls.  The 7th and the 5th Battalions also carried recruits from Ballarat and district.

The Battalions were encamped at Mena in Egypt and “enjoying” their desert training (things had become monotonous) when news was received at headquarters of a large Turkish force advancing across the Sinai Desert, aiming to capture the Suez Canal and threaten Cairo.  British commanders called up reinforcements to protect the canal around Ismailia, and the reinforcements selected were the two country battalions of the 2nd Brigade – the 8th and the 7th.

Colonel Bolton wrote of the excitement aroused by news received at midnight on 3rd February of the move to the Suez Canal:

…[the Battalions were] to be ready to march out of camp in one hour…Talk about excitement in the camp…long before the hour was up these two battalions were out on parade and ready to move off…men delighted with prospect of change…whole camp turned out of bed and lined the road to wish us luck and express envy and regret at not going with us 1

But the excitement was short lived. The Turkish forces were withdrawing by the time the Battalions arrived. Despite being detailed for a pursuit across the Western Sinai Desert, the orders were soon cancelled, and there were “plenty of disappointed faces” as one soldier noted in his diary.

In fact the Turkish advance across the Sinai was disastrous for them, with thousands of casualties, and the ease with which the Turks were repulsed influenced the thinking of senior British commanders, who felt the fighting value of the Turkish soldier was very low.  This thinking was to have profound consequences, when the two armies next met – at the Dardanelles.

The 8th Battalion travelled to and from Ismailia on open railway trucks

1.       Austin, Ron.  Cobbers in Khaki: the history of the 8th Battalion 1914-1918
         Slouch Hat Publications, 1997 p.  29   (available in the Australiana Room if you’d like to read more)

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