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The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani

The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani


The next tune in our continuing series on the Tunes of the First World War is “The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani”. The First World War was not confined to just Western Europe, there were campaigns in the Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, the Russian border, Africa, and the Middle East. One of the most strategically important areas during the war for the Allies was the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal opened on November 17, 1872. It reduced the distance between the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean by about 4,300 miles. Although the British originally were against the construction of the canal, Great Britain gained control of the canal in 1882 after they occupied Egypt and the Sudan. In 1888, the Canal was declared a natural zone under the protection of the British.

The Suez Canal runs about 120 miles north to south through the narrowest point of the Sinai Peninsula. The canal starts in the north at Port Said and ends in the south at Port Tewfik, in the city of Suez. At the time the canal was a narrow, single lane waterway with a few passing zones, including the Great Bitter Lake. The Suez Canal is entirely at sea level, with no locks, with the water flowing freely from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

During the First World War the Suez Canal became vitally important to the British. They needed to be able to quickly move Commonwealth troops from India, Australia, and Asia. The route around southern Africa was perilous. Strong currents where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Agulhas. This southern-most point in Africa is know for harsh storms and rogue waves that can reach more than 30 meters.

The Suez Canal campaign started on a low note. In early 1915 the Ottomans, with German support, launched an unsuccessful attack on the canal after the Egyptian forces tasked with guarding it abandoned their posts. The disastrous Gallipoli Campaign sone became the focal point in the Middle East campaign leaving the Suez Canal unmolested. When the Gallipoli Campaign ended in late 1915 most of the British troops were transferred to Egypt before being redeployed.

In February of 1916, the British started construction of a railway line and water pipe from the city of Kantara, a town on the Suez Canal, to Romani and Katia. Katia was an oasis in the Sinai needed by the Germans and Ottomans if they were to launch attacks on the Suez Canal. The British wanted to expand the garrisons protecting the Suez Canal and needed the railway line to provide adequate supplies for the troops.

In April of 1916 the Ottomans, with German officers in command, made a surprise attack against the garrison at Katia. The troops stationed in the area, the British 5th Mounted Brigade, where there to protect the approaches to the railway line during construction. The attack was successful, with the Ottomans routing the British. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the British responded by sending a large number of troops into the region.

By the end of April 1916 the British railway was large enough to support, and transport, a large number of troops. In May 1916, four trains a day were running from Kantara to the railhead in Romani. The 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division was moved to Romani in late May, early June, 1916.

The ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Corp) Mounted Brigade, with the support of the Imperial Camel Brigade, were deployed to the region to protect the railway line and monitor the Ottoman and German movements. The Anzac Brigade developed a plan of patrols that proved highly successful against the Ottomans.

The intense summer heat in the Sinai, where temperatures routinely reached 123ºF in the shade, ruled out any military action. However, the Mounted Brigades were constantly patrolling the region, concentrating on the areas needed by large military forces to cross the Sinai. Other British units spent the summer draining pools and oasis of their water creating a narrow area for Ottoman troops to move through.

During this time, the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division developed a series of strong defenses at Romani. They build a successive series of redoubts, temporary, square fortifications, that could hold between 40 and 170 men, including machine guns. These were supported by a line of artillery. The geography of the region, the Mediterranean on one side, a series of hills on the other, and an area of deep soft sand in the front, gave the British a tactical advantage.

The mounted patrols soon started to encounter Ottoman and German patrols moving west towards the Suez Canal. On July 20, 1916 the 2nd Light Horse Brigade tangled with Ottoman forces. For every day that followed horse patrols would range out from Romani, to the west, looking for Ottomans and Germans. A series of skirmishes followed.

By August 1916 the Ottoman Army, supported by 3 German Pahsa I columns, made up of various infantry, pioneer, mounted, and artillery units, were close enough to strike Romani. The plan was not to seize the Suez Canal but to capture Romani, and its surrounding hills. This would put them within artillery range of the Suez Canal and would effectively allow them to control all traffic on the canal.

On the night of August 3 and 4, 1916 the Germans and Ottomans launched an attack on Romani from the west-south-west. They quickly encountered one of the mounted patrols screening Romani, the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade, Anzac Mounted Division. The Australian unit was greatly outnumbered but fought a strong defensive battle, slowly falling back towards Romani.

Dawn of August 4, 1916 saw the 2nd Light Horse Brigade reinforce the 1st. By noon they had been reinforced by the 5th Mounted Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. Fierce fighting lasted all day, with the outnumbered mounted units fighting a successive series of fall backs. This action slowed the German and Ottoman advance from the south to a crawl.

The German and Ottoman forces tried to flank the mounted Anzac units to the west. The mounted units continued to fall back, from hill to hill, until the Germans and Ottomans were within artillery range of the camp. Although they were able to seize the hills overlooking the British ant Romani, the allied artillery forced them off the hills and checked the advance.

German troops then launched a head-on attack, through the thick, deep sand, against the British. The 52nd (Lowland) Division successfully checked a series of assaults on the redoubts over the course of August 4, 1916. Using the rail lines the British were able to quickly send a large number of reinforcements to the area. By the end of the day the German and Ottomans advance had been checked.

Within 24 hours of the first assault the British had over 50,000 troops in the region, counting the troops already in the region and the new reinforcements. This gave them a large numerical advantage, almost 3-to-1. On the morning of August 5, 1916, the British Commander ordered a general advance.

A lengthy pursuit of the German and Ottoman forces had begun. Fighting a series of rearguard actions the Germans and Ottomans were forced to fall back on a series of prepared fortifications until August 10, 1916 when the stopped the British advance.

The Battle of Romani, as this action came to be called, was a major turning point in the war. It was the first British victory against the Ottomans of the war. It was also the first large scale mounted and infantry victory of the war. It created and proved a successful strategy for the mounted units that would continue to be used for the rest of the war. It also ended the German and Ottoman offensive against the Suez Canal.

The Battle of Romani was the beginning of a successful offensive by the British, making full use of the Anzac Mounted Division, that forced the Ottomans out of the Sinai. A series of British victories followed for the next seven months that ended at the First Battle of Gaza in March of 1917.

The tune “The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani” was composed by Pipe Major Edwin J. MacPherson of the 1/7th Battalion Cameronains (The Scottish Rifles). The 7th Battalion was part of the 156th Brigade, 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division.

The Cameronians (The Scottish Rifles) can trace their history back to 1689 with the formation of the 26th (Cameronian) Regiment of Foot. It has the distincion of being the only regiment of rifles in the the Scottish Infantry. The Cameronians disbanded in 1968 after refusing to amalgamate with another regiment, one of only two regiments to ever do this.

Pipe Major MacPherson joined the Cameronians before the war. He fought with them in their first action at Gallipoli, including during the Evacuation of Helles. The 1/7 and 1/8 Battalions, who both fought in Gallipoli, were merged into a single battalion (the 7th Battalion) before taking part in the Palestine Campaign.  After the completion of the Palestine Campaign the Battalion was sent to the Western Front until it disbanded after the end of the war.

The Pipe Band of both the 1/7 and 1/8 Battalion Cameronians acted as stretcher bearers during the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns. They took heavy losses during Galliopi, with the 1/8 Battalion loosing all but one of it’s pipers. By the end of the Palestine Campaign (which included the Battle of Romani) 12 of 30 pipers had been killed and four wounded and invalided out of service.

Pipe Major MacPherson survived the war, he was invalided out of service sometime before the Battalion was sent to France. It appears that “The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani” was the only tune published by P.M. MacPherson. No other information on Pipe Major McPherson could be found. The tune is a four-parted 2/4 march and can be found in Book 8 of Logan’s Collection of Highland Bagpipe Music. The book was published around 1925 and was a War Memorial edition containing tunes written during or just after the war.

The 156th Brigade at the Battle of Romani


David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.