Daniel Joseph Brosnahan’s war

One of the unexpected results of my visit to the ‘Peg Leg” Brosnahan family reunion in December 2017 was the gift of a photograph of my grandfather, Daniel Joseph Brosnahan, from his WWI service in the Middle East.  Tim Brosnahan had come across it among his family’s photos and knew it was not “one of ours” and asked me if I knew who it was.  I immediately recognised Grandad and was very grateful when Tim gave me the photograph.  The fact it was in his family’s collection seemed like another indication of the familial links between the Peg Leg Brosnahans and our family.  The photograph shows two members of the 16th (New Zealand) Company of the Imperial Camel Corps to which my grandfather was transferred from the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in October 1916.  His friend was a fellow Lance Corporal in the Company, Robert McSkimming from Patearoa in Otago who was killed in fighting near Jaffa in November 1917.

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I wrote a piece for the extended family about my grandfather’s war experience some years ago and I thought I’d add that here – with some edits – to make it more easily accessible to any who were interested.  I will also add a new gallery of a collection of photographs that seem to have been taken by Grandad and that turned up unexpectedly a few years ago.  There are just over 50 images, but quite a few of them are blurry or faded or basically unusable.  I’ve made a selection of the others and put them here as a common resource for the family and as a general indication of the environments in which Grandad and his mates had to operate in Palestine.  It was very tough country and the fighting against the Ottoman Turks was equally tough – as can be seen from the freshly dug graves that feature in some of the photos.

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Grandad’s photos: the freshly dug grave of Lance Corporal John Budge, KIA 13 November 1917.

Freshly dug graves in the desert.

 

Grandad’s photos: two more freshly dug graves in the desert

Unfortunately we don’t have captions to identify the places or people in the photos and the sequence is a complete guess too.  Nonetheless the photos are a real family treasure, illustrating some of the things Grandad shared with us about his war experiences – like camel racing in the desert – and so worth sharing.

And here is my account of Grandad’s war distributed some years ago at a family reunion of his descendants in 1999:

Grandad’s War

All of us who remember Daniel Brosnahan will recall his pride in his military service during the First World War. Personally, I can remember him telling of his visit to the pyramids in Egypt, of camel racing in the desert and of his gunshot ankle. My Dad recalls a rare anecdote of a midnight rendez-vous in the desert with Arab irregulars led by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). He was a proud participant in Dawn Parades and the annual Anzac Day commemoration. And of course all of the grandsons were promised Grandad’s gun if they got their haircut to his satisfaction – from which I formed the distinct impression that the .22 rifle in his wardrobe cupboard was THE rifle, as used in the Egyptian desert. So for me at least the war experience was a big part of my mental map of who Grandad Brosnahan was. In researching the Brosnahan family history I used military records to track down a number of the men of the war generations. In doing so I came across a few more details of Grandad’s war which I would like to share with the rest of the family as we gather together in 1999. Reflecting on the reality of his war service underlines how lucky we all are to be here today. Grandad was lucky to survive and might easily have suffered the fate of the two cousins who posed proudly with him in their uniforms in the photograph below. These two brothers, Michael (rear) and Charles Scannell (right), died within days of each other, Michael in action at Messines in June 1917 and Charles soon after from illness in South Africa after an accident on his troopship. So of the three, Daniel alone returned to South Canterbury to live out his natural term of life.

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Daniel Joseph Brosnahan enlisted In the New Zealand Army on the 27 March 1916 for the duration of the conflict. He was a 22-year-old farm labourer working for his father John Hugh Brosnahan at Levels. He had some military experience already, under the compulsory military training scheme that saw both he and his older brother Hugh serve as Territorials in the 8th South Canterbury Mounted Rifles in the pre-war years.  His first four months in the army were spent in training in New Zealand. He left as part of the 16th Reinforcements to join the Expeditionary Force in Egypt, disembarking at Suez from the SS Mooltan on 21 September 1916. He was destined to become part of the Imperial Camel Corps, a composite force of soldiers from throughout the British Empire who were to use camels for long range operations in the hostile environment of the desert. Accordingly he spent the next few months at Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo where he learnt how to handle and care for a camel.

Some of Grandad’s photos – he is circled in red where he appears

In January 1917 he was posted to the 16th (New Zealand) Company of the Imperial Camel Corps at Port Said.   He was in the field from 1 October 1917 and on 1 December was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. He then spent a short time at the School of Instruction at the Ferry Post. His military record gives few clues as to what he was involved with until it records his wounding on 30 March 1918. This gives us a fix on where he was and with whom. And as luck would have it, a book With the Cameliers in Palestine was published in Dunedin in 1938 by one of New Zealand officers of the I.C.C., Major John Robertson. This provides some very useful detail of the action in which Grandad took his wound – the raid on Amman by Shea’s Group in late March 1918.

The raid on Amman (now the capital of Jordan) was part of an attack on the Hejaz railway on the high land east of the Jordan River. It aimed at the destruction of a railway tunnel and viaduct at Amman to disrupt Turkish communication lines with their base. The raiding party was under the command of Major-General Shea and known as “Shea’s Group”. It was made up of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 60th Infantry Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade. Amman was just 30 miles east of Jericho which had recently been recaptured by the Anzacs, but it stood on a plateau 3,500 feet above sea level. There were no bridges across the Jordan river and no passable roads beyond it. A pontoon bridge was strung across the Jordan after a small group of soldiers had swum across the river under cover of night on March 22.

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Grandad’s photo: possibly of the Jordan river crossing on 22 March 1918

The river crossing was a bit of a nightmare. The pontoon bridge had been strung across in less than eight hours, in the dark and under heavy fire from the Turks who were well positioned in tamarisk trees along the river bank. The river was swollen and discoloured, tall trees on either side cut off the view while dead Turks and British casualties still littered the river bank. Each Camelier had one unwilling camel in front and a second even more unwilling beast behind him. The sound of artillery and machine gun fire could be heard not far ahead.   The Cameliers pushed on across the river and up into the foothills, halting by the Wadi Kefrein in the afternoon. Worse was to come.

The next evening the Cameliers left their camp at Talat ed Dumm on the Judean hills and marched all night down the steep mountain road, through Jericho and across the Jordan Valley to within half a mile of the northern shore of the Dead Sea.  At 6pm on 23 March the Cameliers mounted and rode up the wadi. As they entered the hills it began to rain and soon the track became a slippery quagmire. The country soon proved too difficult for the force’s artillery support, which was forced to retreat – its absence to be keenly felt in the battle ahead. The party was to climb over 4000 feet (its point of departure by the Dead Sea being almost 1300 feet below sea level) up steep rocky mountain sides. Camels were not designed to follow the steep, and now muddy, goat tracks being used and had to be driven hard by their riders. All night they struggled on through the dark and rain and mud. When dawn broke they found themselves atop a mountain plateau but the mist and cloud prevented any view of their surroundings. On they pushed with frequent stops as animals fell and blocked the track. Through the day and into the next night they struggled on, the rain and mud seemingly without end. At daybreak the next day the rain finally ceased, the countryside opened up and at midday a halt was called. After a quick meal those not on duty turned in and slept until well into the next morning – after 80 hours strenuous travel since their last sleep.

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Grandad’s photo: maybe of the climb up through the mountain tracks on 23-24 March 1918

The Fourth Battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps was despatched to demolish part of the Turkish railway, blowing up five miles of track between Libben and Kissir, before rejoining the right flank of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles for its attack on the Turkish position at Amman.

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Grandad’s photo: possibly of the Hejaz railway that was the object of the raid

They were subjected to attack after attack on the 28 and 29 March but held these off and gradually advanced toward Hill 3039 overlooking the town of Amman. At 1.30am on the 30th they advanced on the hill over a flat tableland of about half a mile, driving the Turks from their positions at the point of the bayonet. A second advance carried them to the crest of the hill overlooking the town where the only protection was from whatever stones and rocks could be gathered together – the soil was too shallow for the digging of trenches.

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Grandad’s photo: I.C.C. cameleers in action

All day long this exposed line was subjected to heavy fire from Turkish artillery and machine-guns and counter-attack after counter-attack from the Turks. The 16th New Zealand Company (including Lance Corporal DJ Brosnahan) was on the extreme right flank and one Turkish advance advanced almost to the muzzles of their rifles. Lieutenant Crawford of the 16th moved out openly to direct his men and was struck down, Lieutenants Thorby and Adolph led charge after charge until mortally wounded. Corporal MacMillan of the Lewis Gun Section was seen advancing and firing from his hip until he too fell. Trooper McConnell, one of the regular packmen, had a supply of bombs and throw them with deadly efefct until he too fell pierced with bullets. “The same spirit animated the whole Company, and the enemy was held off till darkness fell.”   Sometime during this action on 30 March Grandad suffered a gunshot wound to his right ankle.

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Grandad’s photo: I.C.C. machine-gunners

With Turkish reinforcements coming from two directions, and no artillery support, the position was deemed not worth the cost of defending any further and a retreat to the Jordan Valley was ordered. But the evacuation of the wounded was the next challenge. The casualties were heavy and the dressing station was a mile and a half behind the line across the flat table-top exposed to artillery and machine-gun fire. Stretcher bearers were frequently hit while crossing it. From this dressing station to the next clearing station was a further ten miles. Those who could not walk or ride had to be carried in camel cacolets or tied to the backs of horses.

“The tracks were so rough and slippery that time after time the animals fell, causing intense agony to the sufferers on their backs … A camel cacolet consisted of an arrangement of two stretchers, hung one on each side of a special saddle, in which the patients lay. Two men had always to be carried, the weight of one balancing that of the other, on the opposite side … This method of evacuating the wounded was an agonizing experience to them, but it was the only available means of saving their lives or preventing them from falling into the hands of the Turks. From the clearing station the wounded were conveyed to the Jordan Valley in limbers, another ten miles, and from there motor ambulances carried them to the railway, some seventy miles from the front line. All cases that could be safely moved were then forwarded in hospital trains to Cairo, a further journey of over two hundred miles, the total journey from the front sometimes occupying a fortnight or more.”

Grandad reached the 45th Stat. Hospital at El Arish on the 4 April, then the 44th at Kautara on 7 April. The next day he was moved to the 27th General Hospital at Abbassia and on the 12 April to the Aotea Convalescent Home at Heliopolis. His condition was improving by early May. Two months later on 19 June he was discharged to the New Zealand Base at Ismalia. On 15 July he boarded a ship for the return to New Zealand but was then detached to a Rest Camp at Port Said on 29 July. H e was admitted to the No 14 Australian General Hospital on 16 August suffering from influenza. Finally on 29 August he embarked on the SS Wiltshire at Suez for his return to New Zealand arriving on 9 October. He was discharged from the New Zealand Army on 6 February 1919.

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Grandad’s photo: fellow convalescents and a nurse, 1918.

This was not the end of Grandad’s military career. He was recalled to the army in the Second World War serving as a sergeant at the Burnham Military Camp. The Imperial Camel Corps has a monument to its memory, which Bede and I were lucky enough to visit in December 1998. It is in a park beside the Thames River in the heart of London, just by the Charing Cross Tube station. It features a camelier atop his camel and lists all of the major engagements of the Corps as well as the names of its dead. At first Bede and I were disappointed not to find D J Brosnahan’s name there – until it dawned on us that if his name were there, we would not have been!

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The Imperial Camel Corps monument in London.

Photo By PAUL FARMER, CC BY-SA 2.0, [https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14450588]

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