13 DECEMBER, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge

I know a lot of people would rather spend more centenary time with the suffering on the Western Front, but when it comes to the long-term impacts of the First World War I’m an unrepentant ‘Easterner’. Looked at from 2015 (rather than, say, 1925 or 1965), a lot of the War’s secondary fronts turned out to be harbingers of momentous, long-term economic and geopolitical change.  The War’s effects on, for instance, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa or the Far East strike me as more in need of modern attention and understanding than frontier squabbles between western European states – and the same applies in spades to the Middle East. That’s my excuse for marking the end, exactly a century ago, of the Affair of the Wadi Senab.

It wasn’t a big battle, hence its contemporary dismissal as an ‘Affair’, and like most military clashes between industrialised armed forces and tribespeople, it wasn’t especially distinguished.  On the other hand it was something of a turning point in the process that culminated in British conquest of, and responsibility for, the Middle East.  Here’s how.

A year ago, I posted about the centenary of the formal British protectorate over Egypt (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab).  No point in repeating myself at length, so check back or take it from me that Egypt was important to the British Empire, partly as a base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations but principally as the location of the Suez Canal.  As the primary conduit between Britain and the wealth of India, Suez was inevitably a target for Ottoman attacks during 1915, but they had been on a small scale and British colonial forces had seen them off without much trouble.  By late in the year the Canal hadn’t come under serious direct threat, but Egypt’s skeleton British occupation force, drained by the demands of other fronts, was facing a mounting problem from the Senussi movement in Libya.

Loyal to the descendants of 19th-century Islamic reformist Sheikh es Senussi, the Senussi were based Cyrenaica, the region of modern Libya centred on Benghazi, and had been trained as fighters by Turkish Army officers during the Italo-Ottoman war of 1910-11. From late 1914 their leader, Sidi Ahmad es Sherif, accepted German and Ottoman support for small-scale operations against British Egypt and French Sahara.  After Italy entered the war in mid-1915, lack of supervision by Italian colonial authorities freed Sidi Ahmad to attempt something more serious.

Led by Ottoman and German officers, seven battalions of Senussi warriors (an estimated 5,000 fighters) invaded across Egypt’s western frontier in late November 1915.  Supported by border tribes and equipped with machine guns and light artillery, they had forced the British to abandon lightly defended coastal positions at Sidi Barrani and Sollum by the first week of December, at which point the British decided to fight back.

A Western Frontier Force was cobbled together from a horse artillery company, three British territorial battalions, one of Sikhs, a few units of Australians back from Gallipoli and some armoured cars borrowed from the Royal Naval Air Service.  Based on the coast at Mersa Matruh, and led by Major-General Wallace, the WFF was charged with eliminating the Senussi, and elements of the force attacked about 300 Senussi fighters at Wadi Senab, some 300km west of Alexandria, on 11 December.

After inflicting a few dozen casualties and driving the Senussi from the wadi (which is a river bed valley that often, as at Senab, forms an oasis), the British were prevented from further advance next day by a well-coordinated counterattack.  The counterattack was scattered by Australian artillery, but the exhausted British column gave up its half-hearted pursuit on 13 December and returned to Mersa Matruh.

The Affair had cost the British 25 dead and 82 wounded, against an estimated 300 Senussi killed, but although it could be counted a victory it hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage on the invaders.  Bad weather prevented further operations by the WFF until Christmas Day, when it attacked Senussi units near the coast at the Wadi Majid, just west of Mersa Matruh, but the result was essentially the same.  The Senussi suffered a few hundred casualties and lost a little local prestige, but again escaped to regroup.

Reinforced, the Western Frontier Force would drive Sidi Ahmad and his army far to the west during 1916, but the relatively tiny Senussi force would remain a thorn in the side of British Middle Eastern operations into early 1918, eventually keeping some 35,000 British imperial troops and 60,000 Italian colonial personnel occupied in snuffing out guerilla raids from French Saharan territory.

While this long, obscure and largely forgotten campaign in the Western Desert was getting fully underway, early in 1916, the British were going on the front foot elsewhere in Egypt.  Expecting a fresh Ottoman attack on Suez, theatre c-in-c General Maxwell took further steps to ensure the Canal’s security.  Temporarily reinforced by divisions transferred from Gallipoli, Maxwell sent advanced troops beyond the Canal’s east bank, establishing trench lines 10km into Sinai, and made major improvements to supply lines between Cairo and the front.

This was ‘forward defence’, the same tactic that had drawn British Indian forces deep into the mire on the Mesopotamian Front.  For now, Maxwell and Murray (who took over as theatre c-in-c in March 1916) were prevented from major advances by a steady reduction of strength, as the Gallipoli divisions moved on to other fronts – but by May British forces had occupied Romani, 30km east of Suez, and by the end of the year they had established a forward base at El Arish, a hundred kilometres into Sinai and menacing Turkish positions in Palestine.

The thin end of the wedge was in.  With hopes – soon to be realised in spectacular fashion – of igniting an Arab revolt throughout the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern provinces, the British Empire was now poised to take a fateful step into what is generally known as the Palestinian Front.  The world is still trying and failing to deal with the consequences.

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