A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 3, 2015

November/December 1915: The Senussi (Sanusi) Campaign Begins, Part I

As we proceed through our periodic marking of the centennial of WWI, it's time to introduce another generally neglected theater of the Great War in the Middle East: the Senussi (Sanusi) or Western Desert campaign, which lasted from November 1915 until 1917.

The primary mission of the British Empire Forces in Egypt (many of them ANZACs) was the defense of the Suez Canal  against any renewed  Turkish offensive. Protecting Egypt's other borders was, at least nominally, the role of the Egyptian Army. But when the war began Egypt faced few threats except from the east, since it ruled Sudan with the British and the rest of North Africa was controlled by British Ally France or initially neutral Italy.

It was not until May of 1915 that Italy entered the war on the Allied side. Bear in mind that until 1911  Libya had been Ottoman territory until seized by Italy. When Italy entered the War, the Ottomans saw an opportunity to renew their interests in Libya, and perhaps threaten Egypt from the west.

The instrument was to be the Sanusi order, which most European powers at the time Spelled Senussi. The Sanusiyya was a tribally based Sufi order with followers in much of the Saharan interior, which had been active in resisting French expansion in Algeria and the Italian in Libya. The Senussi had generally not bothered the British in Egypt, but they had followers in Egypt's western oases.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi
The head of the Order in 1915 was Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi, commonly called 'The Grand Senussi" by Westerners.

As early as February 1915, prior to Italy's entering the war, the Ottomans approached Sayyid Ahmad to sound him out. Two officers, Captain Nuri (later known as Nuri Killigil), a half brother of War Minister Enver Pasha, and Major Ja‘far al-‘Askari, an Arab officer from Baghdad who would later join the Arab Revolt and play a prominent role in postwar Iraq.

They were secretly landed in Libya from a Greek ship carrying gold and met surreptitiously with Sayyid Ahmad. They eventually persuaded him to declare jihad against both he Italians and the British, and hoped he would attack Egypt while the Sultan of Darfur would rise against the British in Sudan.

In August of 1915, British submarines seeking shelter on the Libyan coast came under fire, and in November the crews of two torpedoed ships, HMS Tara and HM Transport Moorina landed on the Libyan coast and were taken prisoner by the Senussi. The British protested but did not immediately confront them.

The Egyptian-Libyan border had not been formally delineated at the time of the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, though it was generally considered that Sollum was in Egypt. The borders in the interior were undemarcated, and the Senussi had may adherents in the Siwa Oasis, which would become a base of operations.

Some 5000 Senussi fighters with Turkish and German arms were concentrated at Siwa.

On November 6, 1915 two Egyptian coast guard ships were attacked in Sollum harbor by the German submarine U-35, and one was sunk. On November 17 and 18, Senoussi raids struck at Sollum and at Sidi Barrani to the east, and by November 21 the Senussi regular forces had crossed into Egypt.

In Part II, we'll look at the British response.

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