Topic: BatzSe - Senussi
Egypt, 13 December 1915
Um Rakhum, an action fought in Egypt's western desert adjoining Cyrenaica on 13 December 1915, between pro-Turkish Arabs of a primitive Islamic sect called the Senussi and troops of an improvised British force specially raised to defend the western approaches to the Nile Valley from the Senussi threat. Known as 'Western Frontier Force' and under command of an Indian Army officer, Major-General Alexander Wallace, the British column comprised a brigade of infantry and a cavalry brigade. The latter was drawn from the rear details of units fighting on Gallipoli in a dismounted role, and among its four composite regiments s one comprising Australian light horse squadrons commanded by a British regular officer, Major Hon. Dudley Pelham. Artillery support was provided by the Notts Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, equipped with 13 pounder guns.
After bringing his troops up to the small fishing village of Mersa Matruh on 9 December, Wallace decided to strike an immediate blow against the enemy. On 11 December a half - battalion was sent out on a fighting reconnaissance towards Duwair Hussein, 26 kilometres to the west, where aerial reconnaissance reports indicated about 1,000 Senussi were assembled. Providing support for this move was a British yeomanry regiment, two guns and four armoured cars.
Map illustrating the zone of Senussi activity in relation to Egypt.
While the infantry marched along the coastal track, the cavalry and guns followed a route further inland grandly called the Khedival Motor Road, initially heading in a South-westerly direction from Mersa Matruh. The latter force had covered about fourteen kilometres when a heavy rifle-fire was suddenly opened at close range from the column's right flank by Arabs occupying a position known as Wadi Senab.
One squadron of the cavalry attempted a charge, with disastrous results, and a flanking movement tried by the armoured cars was stopped when the heavy vehicles became bugged in soft ground. When word of the situation reached the camp at Mersa Matruh, a squadron of Australian light horse was sent to the scene. Supported by the 13-pounders, the augmented force cleared the wadi of opposition at a cost to the enemy of 80 dead and seven prisoners; losses on the British side amounted to one officer and fifteen other ranks killed.
The infantry, meanwhile, pressed on to a point near the coast called Um Rakhum, where camp was made. They were joined here by the exhausted yeomanry, and the next day by additional troops. The latter included No.4 Company of the Australian Service Corps, from the 1st Australian Divisional Train (forming Western Frontier Force's supply component). On 13 December the cavalry and infantry again set off towards the objective, the transport elements remaining in the bivouac camp. Only a short distance had been covered when the column was again ambushed by a force of Senussi, 1,500 strong, which lay concealed in another wadi to the left of the axis of advance. The enemy troops were ably directed and supported by two medium field pieces and three machine-guns. As the action developed one of the leading British companies was in peril of being encircled, and attempts to relieve the pressure quickly encountered severe difficulties.
The column commander sent an urgent message by heliograph back to Rakhum calling for all reinforcements which could be spared to be sent forward. Among those despatched were 75 Australian Service Corps (ASC) personnel armed with rifles. On arrival, the ASC men performed good service in driving off Arabs who were occupying several gullies, although they were generally untrained for infantry work. During this fighting the Australians lost one man killed, and an officer and five other ranks wounded; the officer subsequently died. Two squadrons of the light horse also arrived on the scene of the action as escort to the Notts Battery crews, the appearance of which on the enemy flank again proved critical to the outcome of the contest. Although forced to come into action at extreme range, one of the 13-pounders succeeded in landing a shell at a point where the Senussi were at their thickest. At this the enemy decided to bring to an end the fight, which had lasted six hours, and withdrew.
While the British were left in possession of the field, and had lost only half as many men as the 125 dead suffered by the Senussi, they were in no condition to press on with the original mission. The next day the column returned to Mersa Matruh, thereby allowing the enemy to re-occupy the high ground.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 112-113.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
C.E.W. Bean, (1929), The Australian Imperial Force in France 1916, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Further Reading:Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Um Rakhum, Egypt, December 13, 1915