A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20, 1914: First Blood on the Suez Canal Front

I'll be tied up today with the MEI Annual Conference, but prepared this ahead of time because November 20 marks the centennial of the first shot fired on the Suez Canal Front in World War I, a minor affair, but an augury.

The Canal being Britain's lifeline to India, it had already been decided even before Turkey's entry into the War that Imperial forces (Indian, Australian, and New Zealand in this case) earmarked for France would train in Egypt. They would therefore be available to defend the Canal if it was threatened. Once Turkey joined the War, it was decided to station some of them there and deploy them for use in the region. A Territorial Division, the 42nd (East Lancashire) were sent out from Britain as well.

Gen. Sir John Maxwell
In September British forces in Egypt came under the control of Maj. Gen. Sir John Maxwell, a veteran of the Mahdist and Boer Wars (and later notorious for putting down the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916).
Zeki Pasha
Initially, the British were disdainful of the idea that the Ottoman Army could cross Sinai and threaten the Canal by land, though in January-February 1915 they would do just that. But although the Commander of the Turkish Fourth Army in Syria Zeki Pasha (later Zeki Baraz Kolaç Kılıçoğlu after 1934), had been ordered to prepare a campaign against the Suez Canal well before the declarations of war, he dithered and little was done. On November 18, 1914, he was relieved and the Ottoman Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, was designated to command the Fourth Army. Since Djemal (Cemal) was one of the ruling Young Turk Triumvirate, this indicated Enver's emphasis on the war with Britain.

The incident I want to talk about today occurred only two days after Zeki was transferred and well before Djemal had reached Syria, and it did not involve Ottoman regulars. On November 20, a small force of the Bikaner (or Bikanir) Camel Corps was attacked by mounted, pro-Turkish bedouin in the Sinai only about 20 miles east of the Canal.

Bikaner Camel Corps in Egypt
The Bikaner Camel Corps was an elite Indian force raised and commanded by the Maharaja of the Indian princely state of Bikaner in Rajasthan,

Gen. Maharaja Sir Ganja Singh
It had been founded as an elite camel cavalry by the Maharaja of Bikaner, General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh, who would also serve on the Imperial War Cabinet during the war and attend the Paris Peace Conference. The Bikaners had served in Somaliland in 1902-1904 (against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, "the mad mullah of Somaliland"), and was now one of the early Indian forces deployed to Egypt.

The actual clash on November 20 was a minor one, a patrol of 20 men of the Camel Corps attacked by about 200 mounted bedouin. Here's the account in the British Official History:
Meanwhile, on the 16th November, the Indian troops destined for the defence of Egypt reached Suez, and battalions were moved as quickly as possible to Ismailia and Port Said. Major-General A. Wilson, arrived from India, was appointed G.O.C. Canal Defences. The Sirhind Brigade was relieved and sailed on the 23rd to rejoin its division in France. At the same time Sir J. Maxwell was informed of Lord Kitchener's project of bringing the Australian and New Zealand contingents to Egypt for war training. The intention was to send them later to France, but temporarily they would be available as reserves in Egypt, where their appearance would undoubtedly impress public opinion.

On the 20th November occurred the first hostilities. A patrol of 20 men of the Bikanir Camel Corps, under Captain A. J. H. Chope, was attacked at Bir en Nuss, 20 miles east of Qantara, by 200 Bedouin, who approached it under a white flag. The party extricated itself creditably, though with casualties amounting to more than half its numbers. Unfortunately this affair proved that the loyalty of the camel troopers of the Egyptian Coastguard, several of whom accompanied the Bikanirs as guides, was extremely doubtful, since they allowed themselves to be made prisoners in a manner virtually amounting to desertion.
The map below shows the location of the attack at Bir al-Nuss, about 20 miles east of Qantara on the road to al-‘Arish.Though nothing more would happen on this front until January, the attack on British Empire forces just 20 miles from the Canal was a warning, and Britain began to strengthen the Canal defenses.

1 comment:

peter casillas said...

please see my Cartoon History of the Middle East on the Battle for the Suez canal