Topic: BatzS - Suez 1915
The Battle of the Suez Canal
Egypt, 28 January - 4 February 1915
[Click on map for larger version.]
Following Egypt's entry into the war in support of the British, considerations had to be made regarding two threats; the anti-British sentiment felt by many Arab citizens of Egypt and the possibility of attack from the Ottoman Army. The former threat was aggravated when the Ottoman empire declared hostility against the United Kingdom and the West, with the intention of stirring up Arab anger in Egypt and causing a revolt. The British countered this by removing the (anti-British) head of state Abbas Il Helmi and replacing him with Sultan Hussein Kamel.
As it happened there was a real military threat - the Fourth Turkish Army was preparing a force of 20,000 men under the command of the Ottoman Minister of the Marine Djemal Pasha to take or destroy the Suez Canal. Djemal Pasha was one of the Three Pashas who effectively controlled the Ottoman government. The attack on the Suez was suggested by Enver Pasha, the main leader of the Ottoman government.
To protect this strategic interest the British had by January 1915 assembled some 70,000 troops in Egypt. Major-General Sir John Maxwell, a veteran of Egypt and Sudan, was commander-in-chief and led mostly Indian divisions, as well as the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, local formations and the I Anzac Corps. 30,000 of the troops stationed in Egypt manned defences along the Suez Canal. The Turks had only three available routes to reach the Suez Canal through the roadless and waterless Sinai Peninsula:
- a coastal advance that would have water supplies and usable tracks, but would be within range of Royal Navy warships
- a central course from Beersheba to Ismailia
- a southern track between El Kossaima and the Suez Canal
The central route was chosen as it would provide the Turkish soldiers with proper tracks to follow once they crossed the canal.
Two Turkish divisions plus one more in reserve, with camel and horse units, were ready to depart in mid-January. The advance across the Sinai took ten days, tracked all the way by British aircraft, even though German aircraft stationed in Palestine in turn aided the Ottomans and later flew some bombing missions in support of the main attack. The British observers had sighted the large column of troops on January 28 and British and French naval vessels took up positions in the canal and opened fire on the advancing Ottomans. Patrolling troops from each side clashed sporadically on February 2 but major action was prevented by a sandstorm.
The early hours of the following morning saw the main Turkish attack - with inflatable pontoons and rafts, the Turkish made their way to the eastern bank of the canal and into the water, to be met by Anglo-Indian machine gun fire which cut the advancing ranks of boats to ribbons and tore through the massing Turkish troops on the water's edge. Panic soon ensued and many Turkish troops surrendered, dashing any hopes of the attack succeeding.
At 6a.m. a second attack was launched, this time with diversions being carried out north of the crossing point. The attack was checked by the defending British troops and the gunnery of the British and French ships in the canal. By 3a.m. the Turks attack had petered out and failed and a full withdrawal was effected. The thirsty Turkish troops retreated to Beersheba, free from molestation by British forces.
The attack on the Suez Canal was a failure, taking 1,500 Turkish lives with it and showing that there was apparently little interest in Egypt for an Arab revolt against the British. A larger force with more sufficient supplies would be required for any further Turkish attacks on Egypt (see the Battle of Romani for the details of that attack). The British, although successful, came to the realization that it was too risky to rely on the Canal itself as a defence line.
The German General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein (Djemal Pasha's Chief of Staff) led a small Turkish force over the rest of the year, conducting raids against the Canal defenders. The idea was to keep British attention on the Ottoman army and try to increase the standing forces in Egypt (and thus decrease available manpower for offensives such as Gallipoli). In this, the Ottoman army achieved its objective because the British did keep far more forces here than they expected at the start of the war.
[From: The Australasian, 13 March 1915, Picture Supplement p. 8.]