A small battle ended a century ago today, around Romani, in Egypt, east of the Suez Canal. Fought between British imperial forces occupying Egypt and an Ottoman detachment under the command of German colonel von Kressenstein, it ended as a small victory for the British and was subsequently claimed as a much larger success by propaganda on both sides. Though not a particularly big story, then or now, the Battle of Romani marked the last time during the War that the Suez Canal came under direct military threat, and as such it was a significant turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.
The Suez Canal was hugely important in 1916, and had been since its completion in 1869. In an age when long-distance, intercontinental transport depended on the sea, it provided an enormous short-cut for economic and strategic communication between Europe, southern Asia and the Far East, which was otherwise obliged to undertake the long, arduous journey down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope. Above all, in the geopolitical atmosphere of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Suez provided a fast way for the British Empire to stay in touch with its most important possession, the vastly profitable jewel in the crown, India.
All this is basic stuff, and was known to every schoolboy in Europe (let alone every military strategist) in the decades before 1914, as was the fact that any British involvement in a European war would be motivated by a desire to maintain or expand its global empire. So it came as no surprise to anyone that the moment war broke out, and in spite of the fact that the only direct military threat to Suez – the Ottoman Empire – remained neutral, British control over Egypt was strengthened with defence of the Canal in mind.
A few months later, when the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the British responded by turning military occupation of Egypt into a formal protectorate (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab). Although the sudden, shocking escalation of manpower requirements in other theatres kept British military presence in Egypt well below the desired level, while troubles in Libya and the Sudan kept most of the few available troops away from Suez, the Canal faced little serious threat in 1915. Germany and Austria-Hungary faced similar pressure on manpower supplies, and had no secure land route for providing support to the Ottoman Empire, which anyway spent most of the year piling every possible resource into the defence of Gallipoli and made no serious effort to attack the Canal zone after the failure of a raid in February 1915.
By the middle of 1916 the situation had changed. The fall of Serbia had opened up a land route for German support to Constantinople and beyond, and by early 1916 the British were hurriedly strengthening their Suez defences in the belief that the Turks were massing an army of some 250,000 men in Palestine for an attack on the Canal. That Palestine was in no way capable of supporting an army of that size, in terms of available food, water and facilities, seems to have been ignored by British planners, a measure both of the all-round geographical ignorance that still characterised imperial adventures a century ago, and of the pessimistic tendency to over-estimate German capabilities that had taken hold of Allied commanders by 1916.
Not to worry, the release of troops from Gallipoli meant new Egyptian c-in-c General Murray (previously chief of staff to Sir John French on the Western Front) was able to muster 14 divisions of troops when he took command in March 1916… except that most of them were quickly transferred on to France, so that by the summer his strength was down to four divisions, or about 50,000 men. By way of counteracting this imagined numerical disadvantage, he had extended the British position into the northern, coastal part of the Sinai Peninsula, constructing roads and light railways to three new trench lines some 30km beyond the Canal’s east bank, thus blocking the most direct route of attack from Palestine. In line with the standard doctrine of ‘forward defence’, Murray also sent detachments further up the coast towards Palestine, where they destroyed water stations, built their own roads and pipelines and fought off Turkish raids, before eventually establishing a base at Katia.
In fact, Colonel Kressenstein’s ‘Desert Force’, some 3,600 men in 1915, had grown to a force of about 16,000 Turkish Army and Arab fighters by the following spring. His plan was to stop traffic through Suez by attacking and occupying its east bank, and by June 1916 his troops were drawn up along the Sinai-Palestine border, waiting for German reinforcements. German machine-gun and anti-aircraft units, along with12 modern aircraft, had arrived by the end of June, and Kressenstein moved forward in early July, reaching the main British position in northern Sinai – some 18,000 men deployed either side of the town of Romani – by the middle of the month. There he paused, and for a couple of weeks the two armies faced each other, British field commanders bemused by the inactivity and considering an attack on the attackers, Kressenstein waiting for the last component of his German reinforcement package, heavy artillery.
The British were still wondering quite what to do next when, before dawn on 4 August, Kressenstein outwitted cavalry patrols to launch a surprise attack on lines south of Romani, taking part of the position before becoming bogged down. British counterattacks, led by ANZAC forces, were gradually retaking the line on the morning of 5 August, when water shortages forced Kressenstein to withdraw towards El Arish, and attempts by mounted British units to cut off his retreat were thwarted by a sandstorm. By the end of the day the Desert Force had suffered an estimated 4,000 casualties and lost the same number of prisoners, against 1,100 British losses.
Though a mere skirmish by Western Front standards, Romani signalled a fundamental shift in the military position around Egypt. While Kressenstein remained at El Arish through the autumn, the British at last recognised the relative weakness of any Ottoman threat to Suez and pursued their forward defence policy with increasing confidence.
Shortly after Romani, Murray received permission to make a steady, if cautious, advance along the northern Sinai coast. By the end of the year he had forced Kressenstein back into Palestine and taken El Arish without a fight, and by early 1917 a supply route had been established all across the Sinai Peninsula, including 350km of new roads, 575km of railway and about 500km of water pipes from reservoirs in Egypt. By the New Year, with Kressenstein based on Gaza and Murray able to call on about 75,000 men for operations on the Sinai frontier, the stage was set for an invasion of Palestine that would, along with the invasion of Iraq and involvement in the Arab Revolt, provide the foundation for British redesign of the post-War Middle East.
On that basis alone – and like anything that adds, however slightly, to anyone’s understanding of why the modern Middle East ended up in such a mess – the Battle of Romani seems worth posterity’s attention, but the battle’s location and aftermath also say something about the nature of great power imperialism a century ago. It’s fair enough to accuse the British Empire of greedy self-interest in its wartime treatment of the Middle East, but it’s too easy to see the invasions of Palestine and Iraq as parts of grand design aimed, depending on your point of view, at extending Britain’s control over the world or ensuring the long-term servitude of indigenous peoples.
Like almost every major actor in every great shift of every kind throughout human history, the British reversed into their invasion of Palestine. Just as in Mesopotamia, their forces in Egypt were so desperately concerned with protecting perceived necessities (oil in Iraq; India through Suez) that they kept extending their defensive perimeters until they found themselves on the attack. From then on their efforts, successful and otherwise, can be called opportunistic and greedy, but they were never part of a premeditated masterplan.