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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
1915 the General Officer Commanding Canal Defences, Major General A. Wilson,
had allocated his troops into three sectors.
The units in each sector were:
I. (Southern) Port Tewfik to
Geneffe. 30th Brigade.
and 76th Punjabis. 126th
Baluchis. 2/7th Gurkha
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).
and 92nd Punjabis. 2/10th
28th Frontier Force Brigade.
and 53rd Sikhs. 65th
Punjabis. 1/5th Gurkha
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.
Sikhs. 69th and 89th
Punjabis. 1/6th Gurkha
Rifles. 3rd Brahmans from 22nd
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
Army and Imperial Service troops secured the Advanced Ordnance Depot at
Zagazig, the railway, the Sweet
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.