Topic: BatzS - Suez 1915
Suez Canal Attack
Egypt, January 28 - February 3, 1915
Official British History Account, Pt 2
The following is an extract from:
MacMunn, G., and Falls, C., Military Operations Egypt & Palestine - From the Outbreak of War with Germany to June 1917, London, 1928, pp. 22 - 25.
THE CANAL DEFENCES.
By December the defence of the Suez Canal had been organized. The force to which it was entrusted consisted of the 10th and 11th Indian Divisions and the Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade. Owing to the demand for British Regular troops in Europe the normal allotment of one British battalion to each brigade had been abandoned and the two divisions were entirely composed of Indian troops. The artillery with these troops-which, it will be recalled, had not been sent from India as divisions-consisted of three mountain batteries only. Two field artillery brigades of the East Lancashire Division and a pack-gun battery of the Egyptian Army were added to the Canal Defences, but it was upon the presence of warships in the Canal, prepared to act as floating batteries, that chief reliance for its artillery defence was placed.
The Canal was divided into three sectors for defence: Suez to the Bitter Lakes; Deversoir, north of the Great Sketch B. Bitter Lake, to El Ferdan; El Ferdan to Port Said. Force headquarters and the general reserve were at Ismailia. Small detachments were employed in guarding the Sweet Water Canal and garrisoning the important supply depot at Zagazig, on the main line between Cairo and Ismailia.
With the exception of its artillery, the troops of the East Lancashire Division were not employed, as Sir J. Maxwell was averse to taking them from their training. That division, however, as well as the Australian and New Zealand contingents, formed a reserve, which could be swiftly railed from Cairo to Ismailia and thence in either direction along the Canal.
The troops in the Canal Defences were equipped with first-line transport only. In January it was decided to form a small Camel Transport Corps to act as second-line transport. Five hundred camels were assembled at Abu Sueir, close to Ismailia. They were divided into eight sections, the native drivers being commanded by British officers, civilians given temporary commissions for this duty. Such was the beginning of a corps of which the numbers were to rise in the next three years to upwards of 25,000 drivers and over 30,000 camels.
The Suez Canal was an obstacle which would have been serious to any army, but was particularly so to one which had to march to its attack dragging artillery and bridging train across a wide sandy desert. Though the distance, as the crow flies, from Port Said to Suez was upwards of one hundred miles, 22 miles were taken up by the great sheet of water known as the Great and Little Bitter Lakes and 7 by Lake Timsah. These lakes formed the natural boundaries of the defensive sectors which have been described, and considerably diminished the frontage against which an attack was practicable. The position was admirably served by a lateral railway; it had water behind it, while for the sustenance of an attacker from the desert in front were only a few brackish wells.
There had therefore never been any question but that a Turkish attack from Palestine should be met and fought upon the line of the Canal. The pre-war scheme of defence, while suggesting that a force of camelry should occupy Nekhl, to harass the enemy and keep touch with Ismailia, had definitely laid it down that "the obvious line of actual defence of the eastern frontier of Egypt is the Suez Canal." That argument was now all the stronger because when it was framed it had not been contemplated that warships would be sent into the Canal or that the Navy would do more than render Egypt immune from a hostile landing at Suez or Port Said and, in the event of aggression from the east, patrol the Canal and the lakes with armed pinnaces. After the decision that, in the event of attack from Sinai, warships should enter the Canal and assist in its defence by gun-fire, the potential strength of the position was greater than ever.
These advantages were sufficient to determine the policy of the defence in the circumstances prevailing, but it was not forgotten that there was another side to the picture. The mere interruption of navigation through the Canal, inevitable in case of an attack, would result in loss of time, serious at a period when troops and supplies were wanted hurriedly and when every extra hour that British shipping was employed on any mission meant the loss of a valuable hour which should have been given to another. Such short interruptions were, however, the least of the dangers to be contemplated. A ship sunk in the Canal was a more serious possibility.
This is perhaps an example of extreme “blue-water" naval theory affecting military plans. It was held that warships could not be spared for the defence of the Canal because the Navy would be wholly occupied in seeking out and destroying the enemy's fleet. The Navy's object proved, however, to be the obtainment and preservation of the command of the sea, and in defending the Suez Canal the older ships of Britain and France were fulfilling their part to that end.
A temporary success to the enemy might permit him to do, in a few days, damage to the Canal which it would take many weeks to repair. Great as were the advantages of the policy of defence upon the line of the Suez Canal, that policy represented, in sum, the employment of the Empire's main line of communication as an obstacle in front of a fire trench.
The defensive work carried out along the Canal was simple by comparison with the elaborate system which was to be constructed in 1916. A series of posts was dug, the trenches revetted with sandbags and protected by barbed wire, on the east bank, principally to cover ferries and provide facilities for local counter-attack, while a more extensive bridgehead was prepared at Ismailia Ferry Post. [These posts were prepared, from north to south, at Port Said, Ras el Esh, Tina, El Kab, Qantara, Ballah, El Ferdan, Bench mark, Ismailia, Tussum, Serapeum, Deversoir, Geneffe, Shallufa, Gurkha Post, El Kubri, Baluchistan Post, Esh Shatt.] On the west bank trenches were dug at intervals between the posts. The Suez Canal Company, which put all its resources, including small craft, at the disposal of General Wilson, rendered great assistance in the construction of works and crossings. The ferries under its administration were put at the service of the defence, and a number of new ones added. Three floating bridges were assembled: the heaviest at Ismailia, and lighter ones at, Kubri, half way between Suez and the Little Bitter Lake, and at Qantara.
In order to narrow, by flooding a portion of the desert, the frontage open to attack, a cutting was made in the Canal bank at Port Said on the 25th November. The plain to the east is here very low, in places below the surface of the Mediterranean, and the resultant inundation reached El Kab, north of Qantara, thus barring 20 miles of the Canal to approach. The water subsided somewhat in January, but left the area which had been covered impassable for some time longer. On the 2nd January a further cutting was made in the Asiatic bank north of Qantara, which resulted in good protection being afforded to the flank of that fortified zone. Minor inundations were created between Qantara and Ismailia.