Thursday, December 31, 2015
The holidays and a strained back have impeded blogging for a few days, but I wanted to continue my series on the Senussi Campaign in World War (see Parts I, II, and III) with a discussion of actions which took place on December 25, Christmas Day, 1915. a century ago last week.
After the mid-December clashes at Wadi Senab and Umm al-Rakham, weather conditions made operations impossible between December 15 and Christmas Eve, so the Western Frontier Force remained in Mersa Matruh, where it was reinforced by a battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade while the Senusi and their Turkish advisers concentrated at Gebel Medwa to the west.
A British spotter aircraft identified the Senussi concentration as consisting of 900 troops in three battalions, four mountain guns and two machine-guns, under Gebel Medwa, on the Khedivial Motor Road to the west.
The overall commander of the Western Frontier Force, Maj. Gen. Alexander Wallace, decided to dispatch an expedition to disperse the Senussi buildup. Once again, the force was divided between infantry moving on the Khedivial Motor Road, and the cavalry making a wide flanking movement through the desert. The infantry column was commanded by Lt. Col. J.L.R. Gordon and included the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, a battalion of the 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and the 2/8 Middlesex, a British Territorial unit.The cavalry column was commanded by the WFF's overall cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. J.D.T. Tyndale Briscoe, and consisted of elements of the 1/1 Buckinghamshire Yeomanry Regiment (Yeomanry were the cavalry equivalent of Territorials), Hertfordshire and Dorsetshire squadrons of the Composite Yeomanry Regiment, and Squadron A of the Australian Composite Light Horse Regiment. General Wallace and his headquarters were to follow the infantry as a reserve.
The map above shows the thinking: the infantry would push back the Senussi while the cavalry would come up in their rear and block their retreat.
Beginning the campaign under cover of darkness, Gordon moved the infantry out of Matruh at 5 am Christmas Day. As they proceeded towards their objective, the Senussi sighted them around dawn and the engagement began to develop. The 15th Sikhs were in the lead and Gordon noticed that the Senussi were not in position on Gebel Medwa, he sent one o the two Sikh companies to hold he hill and protect his right flank. By 8 am the Senussi had brought up a mountain gun, which slowed the advance. A Nottinghamshire battery and the guns of HMS Clematis offshore and firing at a range of 10,000 yards. Once the hostile gun was silent, Middlesex unit replaced the Sikhs on the Gebel, and ll the Sikhs plus the New Zealanders advanced against a ridge line, which thy had secured by 10 am. The infantry side of the action was largely a success, but the cavalry had still not appeared, having been delayed by difficulty moving its guns over rugged terrain, and had also been delayed by a skirmish with Senussi cavalry that occurred in the morning. The cavalry arrived around 3 pm and sought to drive the enemy towards the coast, but by 5 pm the late December light was failing and Gordon broke off pursuit. Both columns were ordered to return to Mersa Matruh.
But the bulk of the Senussi forces retreated to the west. On paper, it was a British victory. They dispersed the concentration of Senussi. he Empire forces lost 13 dead and 51 wounded; they estimated Senussi losses at between 300 and 400 dead and took 80 prisoners. But the bulk of the Senusi force escaped and lived to fight another day.