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“Turks across the Canal!”

Great Britain and France declared war against Turkey on 5th November 1914.  At that time Egypt was theoretically still a province of the Turkish Empire but for practical purposes the country had been occupied and controlled by Britain since 1882.  Egypt’s strategic importance lay in its possession of the Suez Canal, a waterway regarded with good reason by the Germans as the jugular vein of the British Empire.  Britain needed to keep the Canal open to facilitate the transport of troops and mounts from India and Australasia.  Also commercial shipping needed the Canal open in order to speedily move the military equipment, food and commodities that originated in British colonies and Dominions in the Far East and which were required in Europe.  Germany needed to close the Canal.  Indian Army infantry battalions were to play a vital role in the forthcoming struggle.

Left: The Suez Canal, for a map of the area

The Allied declaration of war resulted in the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire obtaining from the Islamic clergy in Constantinople a proclamation of a Holy War against the Allies.  The Sultan himself, as Khalif of his Empire, proclaimed a Jihad (religious war) on all those who were militarily confronting Turkey or her allies.  The Khedive (Viceroy of Egypt appointed by Turkey), Abbas Hilmi, had been in Turkey since August 1914; he was actively and openly pro-Turk and he stayed in Turkey where he was used politically by the Central Powers.  The British response was to proclaim Egypt to be a British Protectorate on 18th December 1914.  Khedive Abbas Hilmi was deposed and his uncle, Prince Hussein Kamal Pasha, elevated to the Egyptian throne with the new title of Sultan.  The British Consul-General, Lord Kitchener, (the real power behind the Egyptian throne) was in England in August 1914 and he remained there to become Secretary of State for War.  He was replaced in Egypt in January 1915 by Sir Henry M’Mahon who held the new title of High Commissioner.  In an attempt to reduce tensions in Egypt where the vast majority of the population was Muslim and where nationalist agitation and hostility to Britain were on the increase, the Egyptians were told that they would not be pressed into fighting the Turks.

The British defence of Egypt The British peace-time Regular Army garrison in Egypt had consisted of one cavalry regiment, four infantry battalions, one horse and one mountain artillery batteries and an engineer field company plus supporting services.  In August 1914 these troops were needed in France.  The primary task of the Egyptian Army, which contained many British officers, was the defence of and maintenance of security within the Sudan, and just one field artillery battery, one garrison company and three infantry battalions were located in Egypt when war broke out.  They should not have been involved in operations against Turkish troops but British demands of expediency were soon to alter that arrangement.

The Indian Army now took over the first-line defence of the Suez Canal, supported by Allied warships.  The Lahore (3rd Indian) and Meerut (7th Indian) Divisions passed through the waterway towards France leaving the 9th (Sirhind) Brigade temporarily detached to man the Canal defences.  This allowed the British Regular Army garrison in Egypt to also move to France. The Lucknow Brigade was then dispatched from India to relieve the Sirhind Brigade allowing the latter to move on and re-join the Lahore Division.  The Egyptian theatre was also allocated an Imperial Service cavalry brigade and composite infantry brigade and the Bikaner Camel Corps (all provided by Indian Princely states), eight Indian Army battalions, and then three all-Indian Army brigades.  These troops were organized into two Divisions, the 10th and 11th, and eventually were titled “Indian Expeditionary Force E”.

Above: Indian Army defenders on the canal

One other British formation had been mobilized in England and sent to Egypt.  This was the Territorial Army East Lancashire Division which needed intensive training to reach operational fitness.  Newly-raised and mobilised units from the Australian and New Zealand Corps (ANZACs) were also heading for Egypt for war training before deployment to France.  The British rather complacently considered the Sinai Desert east of the canal to also be a defence because it was mostly water-less, and to make things even more difficult for any Turkish movement westwards from Palestine a detachment of Egyptian Coastguards destroyed the wells at Nekhl 70 miles east of Suez.   

Turkish and German preparations

However there was one man in Palestine who considered that the Sinai Desert was more of a logistical challenge than an obstacle.  He was  Oberst Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, a German officer attached to the Turkish Army.  Kress had previously reconnoitered into the Desert of Sinai, and after hostilities were declared he headed a German team of six staff officers attached to the Turkish VIII Corps at Damascus.  

Right: Syrian Turkish troops advance

When a decision was made to attack the Suez Canal Kress became the chief planner of this Turkish operation.  In Damascus Djemal Pasha, the energetic Commander of the Turkish Fourth Army, and his German Army Chief of Staff, Oberst von Frankenberg und Proschlitz, organized an expeditionary force of around 23,000 men, nine field batteries of artillery plus a 15-centimeter howitzer battery.  The majority of the men to be used in the initial attacks on the Canal came from the Syrian territories of the Ottoman Empire but the force reserve was the 10th Division composed of Turks.  Regular cavalry and camel-mounted troops supplemented the Bedouin irregulars that were raised for the operation.  Djemal Pasha was hoping to provoke a revolt within Egypt against the British occupiers.  Kress was probably more realistic in wanting (he later claimed) to hold the west bank of the waterway for two or three days whilst ships were sunk to cause a serious blockage.  Kress’ team purchased camels and loaded 5,000 of them with water carriers, prepared roads and brushwood tracks through the Sinai for the artillery, and equipped the two engineer battalions with pontoons.

  Meanwhile in northern Sinai the first confrontation between the Turkish and British armies had occurred at Bir El Nuss.  On 20th November 1915 a 22-man strong patrol from the Bikaner Camel Corps fought with a group of 200 Bedouins and Turks, losing one Indian officer and twelve men killed and three men wounded.  The British patrol commander, Captain A.J.H. Chope, 2nd Gurkha Rifles, returned with an enemy bullet lodged in his saddle and claimed to have inflicted 60 casualties on the enemy.  An Indian Order of Merit 2nd Class was awarded to 1534 Sepoy Ali Khan and an Indian Distinguished Service Medal to 115 Sepoy Faiz Ali Khan.  Unfortunately during this patrol several Sudanese members of the Egyptian Coastguard who were acting as guides for Chope allowed themselves to be captured.  These men then served as guides for the Turks.  

By mid-January 1915 the General Officer Commanding Canal Defences, Major General A. Wilson, had allocated his troops into three sectors.  The units in each sector were:  

Sector I. (Southern) Port Tewfik to Geneffe.
30th Brigade.
24th and 76th Punjabis.  126th Baluchis.  2/7th Gurkha Rifles. 1 squadron Imperial Service Cavalry.  1 Company Bikaner Camel Corps. A half-company of Sappers and Miners.  1 Territorial Battery Royal Field Artillery.  1 Indian Field Ambulance.

Sector II. (Central) Deversoir to El Ferdan (inclusive).
22nd Brigade (
less 3rd Brahmans). 62nd and 92nd Punjabis.  2/10th Gurkha Rifles.

28th Frontier Force Brigade.
51st and 53rd Sikhs.  65th Punjabis.  1/5th Gurkha Rifles. 1 squadron Imperial Service Cavalry.  Bikaner Camel Corps (less 3 and ½ companies).  The Machine Gun section of the Egyptian Camel Corps.  1 Territorial Brigade Royal Field Artillery.  1 Battery Indian Mountain Artillery.  2 Field Ambulances.   

Sector III.(Northern) El Ferdan (exclusive) to Port Said.
29th Brigade. 14th Sikhs.  69th and 89th Punjabis.  1/6th Gurkha Rifles.  3rd Brahmans from 22nd Brigade. A half company of Sappers and Miners.  1 squadron Imperial Service Cavalry.  2 companys Bikaner Camel Corps.  2 Territorial Batteries Royal Field Artillery.  26th Battery Indian Mountain Artillery.  An Armoured Train with a half company of Indian infantry.  An Indian Field Ambulance.  A Territorial Royal Army Medical Corps detachment. 

Above: A British outpost

Other Indian Army and Imperial Service troops secured the Advanced Ordnance Depot at Zagazig, the railway, the Sweet Water Canal and also formed a General Reserve at Moascar.  (The Imperial Service Cavalrymen were the Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers, whilst the Rulers of Alwar, Gwalior and Patiala provided the infantry.)  Territorial, Indian, Australian and Egyptian sappers, pioneers and military works personnel were given engineering tasks to strengthen the Canal defences, which included a few strongly-defended posts on the east bank.  British and French planes flew reconnaissance missions whilst British and French warships entered or stood by to enter the Canal to provide fire support wherever required.  As the British prepared their defences the Turks advanced in three columns across the Sinai Desert, encouraged by their German mentors.  

Initial contacts and British reactions From the 18th January 1915 onwards Allied aircraft began reporting the progress of the Turkish advance and two brigades of British Territorial field artillery were deployed forward into prepared positions west of the Canal.  On 22nd January the enemy skirmished with British covering forces east of Kantara leading to the 33rd Punjabis and the 4th Gwalior Infantry, both from 32 Brigade, being deployed forward into that sector.  The New Zealand Infantry Brigade also moved forward and detrained at Kubri and Ismailiah.  

Five days later the Turkish southern column attacked the British Baluchistan and El Kubri posts on the east side of the Canal in Sector I.  Both attacks were easily beaten off without loss and appeared to be diversionary.  The following day attacks were mounted on the Kantara outposts but without conviction.  In the belief that Sector II would see the decisive confrontation, 2nd Rajputs from 31st Brigade was sent to reinforce Serapeum.  The large Turkish central column was observed in the vicinity of Jebel Habeita and the 5th Battery, Egyptian Artillery was deployed to Toussom.  On 1st February troops from the enemy central column advanced northeast towards the Ismailia Ferry post.  The British outer screen engaged these troops but the Turks did not press forward and dug themselves in at about three kilometres distance from the British main positions.

Above: A British War Medal and Victory Medal awarded to Egyptian soldiers.

Above: Turkish troops dig in

Crossing the Canal

A decisive Turkish move was made at 0330 hours on 3rd February when several pontoons and rafts were launched 1,500 metres south of Toussom.  Heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the 62nd Punjabis supported by excellent gunnery from the 5th Battery, Egyptian Artillery, decimated the attackers.  But at least two pontoons reached the west bank.  The Turks who had crossed the Canal could make no headway against determined British counter-attacks and the survivors hid along the edge of the Canal. This action was not without British loss as the Turkish covering fire was effective, Mulazzim Awaal Effendi Helmi of the 5th Battery, Egyptian Artillery being killed whilst gallantly fighting his gun under heavy fire at short range.  Lieutenant R.A. Fitzgibbon, 128th Pioneers, who commanded the protection party for the Egyptian battery died of wounds after counter-attacking Turks on the west bank.  Two other smaller Turkish landings on the west bank were made nearby but neither progressed far, as Indian troops either killed or captured the enemy who survived the crossing.  Whilst this action took place the enemy northern column unsuccessfully attacked the Kantara ouposts, losing many men.  

As dawn broke the British saw that nearly all of the Turks on the west bank had been neutralized but that was not the case on the east bank, where an enemy attack was being launched against the Toussoum post.  Turks were occupying trenches around the post and the 92nd Punjabis, supported by naval gunfire and enfilade machine gun fire, successfully cleared this ground during a nine-hour fight.  Seven Turkish officers and 280 other ranks were killed or captured.  The 2nd Rajputs mopped up the Turkish survivors sheltering along the west bank.  

Serapeum post, south of Toussoum, was also under attack.  Two companies of 2/10th Gurkhas and six platoons of 2nd Rajputs crossed the Canal by ferry where they were joined by two companies of 92nd Punjabis from a post on the east bank.  This force advanced north up the Canal edge clearing a surprising number of Turks out of broken ground until the enemy 74th Regiment of the 25th Division advanced towards Serapeum.  Heavy firing now started and Captain R.T. Arundel, 2nd Rajputs, was killed whilst moving his men along the canal bank.  But with the aid of fire support from two French warships the small British force halted the Turkish regiment about one kilometer away from the Canal.  

As the unused pontoons lying on the east bank needed destroying, a Royal Navy torpedo boat moved along the canal using its 3-pounder gun to fire two rounds into each pontoon.  When the boat commander decided to land in order to use gun cotton against any pontoons out of sight over the Canal bank, he almost walked into a manned Turkish trench.  During the scramble back aboard the boat the commander and another officer were wounded.  

Further north the Turkish 68th Regiment of the 23rd Division advanced against Ismailiah ferry post but the attack halted 750 metres from the British wire.  Whilst the enemy infantry attacks had not prevailed, the Turkish artillery fire was effective and the armed Indian ship Hardinge had to quickly move after receiving hits from a 15-centimetre howitzer battery.  The French Requin finally silenced the enemy howitzers.  The Turkish southern column made no further aggressive moves.  During the night of 3rd March Australian infantry was moved up to support Sector II.  This Sector received sniping during the hours of darkness.  

As daylight crept across the desert on 4th February the British in Sector II observed that the main body of Turks had withdrawn but scattered groups of enemy remained near the east bank.  Captain L.F.A. Cochran, 92nd Punjabis, was in a post on the east bank and was ordered to use two companies to clear the enemy stragglers.  Whilst attempting to do this Captain Cochran was killed.  A company from each of the 27th and 62nd Punjabis and the 128th Pioneers were now sent across the Canal and after an action lasting an hour 298 of the enemy surrendered, 52 of them being seriously wounded.  Amongst the 59 enemy dead was the body of Hauptmann von den Hagen, the German staff officer who had supervised the operation to cross the Canal.

Above: An excellent study of the MG08 in use by the Turkish Army.

Conclusion

All three Turkish columns now withdrew eastwards across Sinai.  The British failed to mount a pursuit, citing lack of training especially amongst the cavalry, and so the Turkish guns and gunners and the mass of infantry lived to fight another day.  Allied aviators did drop some bombs on the withdrawing enemy.  The battle was hailed as a British defensive success, which it was, and a Turkish defeat, which it only partially was as the bulk of the enemy forces withdrew in good order along their well-constructed desert tracks.  British casualties numbered 163 (ten of them being naval) and Turkish casualties were estimated at over 2,000.   

Had Djemel Pasha’s dream of an Egyptian uprising actually happened then the British would have been pressed to both maintain internal security throughout Egypt and the Sudan and to defend the complete length of the Canal.  The Indian Army had fought professionally to hold the Canal and Indian and Egyptian Muslim troops had shown no collective desire to be associated with the Turkish Holy War.  

(This article recently appeared in DURBAR, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society.)  

SOURCES:
Official History, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine
by Macmunn and Falls.
The National Army Museum Book of the Turkish Front 1914-18 by Field Marshall Lord Carver.
Sir John Maxwell’s Despatch dated 16th February 1916.
British Campaigns in the Nearer East 1914 – 1918 Volume I by Edmund Dane.
100 Years of the Suez Canal by R.E.B. Duff. Orientations by Ronald Storrs.
Honours and Awards Indian Army 1914-1921. Published by J.B. Hayward & Son.
The Times History of the War.

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