A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Senussi Campaign: First Blood at Wadi Senab and Umm al-Rakham, December 11-13, 1915

This weekend marks the centenary of the first serious action between the British/Indian/ANZAC Western Frontier Force in the campaign against the Senussi (Sanusi) in Egypt's Western Desert. See my previous posts dealing with the background to the conflict and with the composition of the Western Frontier Force.,

As we saw, the hastily assembled mix of forces thrown together to oppose the Turkish-armed Senussi forces which had invaded Egypt from Libya had assembled at Mersa Matruh in November 1915, the British abandoning posts farther west at Sollum and Sidi Barrani. The WFF was commanded by Major-General Alexander Wallace and consisted of hastily thrown together infantry and cavalry units from a variety of British, Indian Army, Australian and New Zealand. By December 11 General Wallace felt that the force was sufficiently in place to move out from Matruh and find the Senussi.

A century ago today, Wallace sent out a column under Lt.Col. J.L.R. Gordon of the 15th Sikhs to find Senussi troops believed to be operating around Duwwar Hussein, 16 miles west of Matruh. Gordon took his infantry (the 15th Sikhs minus two companies),west along the telegraph line on the coast, while the cavalry, the 2nd Composite Yeomanry Regiment, along with a section of guns and armored cars, took the Khedivial Motor Road to the southwest.

The Yeomanry or Yeoman Cavalry were the mounted version of British Territorial units, intended for home defense but deployed o Egypt since the Regular Cavalry were needed elsewhere. The Composite Brigade consisted of elements of some 20 different units, and these were neither regulars nor used to working together. among Armstrong's other cavalry was a Composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse, which will also play a role in the coming battle. Though the Light Horse were to become one of the most famous cavalry units in the war, this was again a mix, including elements of the 9th Light Horse Regiment who had not been shipped to Gallipoli, mostly convalescents, horseholders, and the like.
The Yeomanry were sent to patrol in the direction of Samaket al-Medwa along the Khedivial Motor Road. They left at 7:00 AM on December 11. Their scouts were not sufficiently far ahead of the main force to spot danger and the cavalrymen rode into an ambush from several hundred Senussi around Wadi Senab.

The Senussi, armed and trained by the Turks, poured heavy fire on the yeomanry, and a British attempt to turn the enemy's right with help from the armored cars failed.

Gordon, from the track along the telegraph line, could hear the firing but decided he was too far away to help and assumed the cavalry would be relieved from Mersa Matruh.
This finally happened in the afternoon, when Squadron A of the Composite Light Horse, which had only just arrived in Matruh, arrived on the scene. This finally turned the tide and the Senussis withdrew.

The British suffered 16 dead and 17 wounded from the firefight. Of an estimated Senussi force of around 300, the British found 80 dead and took seven prisoners. Among the British dead was Lt Col. Cecil Snow, an intelligence officer.

The cavalry then turned north toward the coast to rejoin Gordon, who had gone into camp at Umm al-Rakham.

After a day of combat both the cavalrymen and their mounts needed rest, so Gordon remained at Umm al-Rakham on the 12th. During the day he was reinforced by elements of the 6th Royal Scots (also a Territorial Regiment) and a supply train. On the 13th occurred the battle of Umm al-Rakham, thwo actions are often subsumed under the name of Wadi Senab,

At 8:30 in the morning Gordon resumed his march toward Duwwar Hussein. He intended to proceed west to Wadi Hasheifiat, and then turn south to Duwwar Hussein. As he approached the Wadi, with the cavalry ahead, the 15th Sikhs in the lead and the Royal Scots on the left, they came under fire from the plateau o the south. It soon became clear that they were under attack from a formidable force of 1,000 to 1,500 enemy, in uniform and advancing in disciplined formations; these were muhafiziyya troops, Senussi "Regulars," armed with field artillery and machine-guns,  trained by Turkish and German officers.

The fighting intensified and the Royal Scots  broke and retreated. The only Regular (Indian) Army troops, the 15th Sikhs, held their ground. When ordered to fall back, the Commander, Captain C.F.W. Hughes, said that would require abandoning the wounded and declined to do so.

Meanwhile Gordon had sought reinforcements from Mersa Matruh and later in the day was reinforced by B and C Squadrons of the Australian Light Horse Composite Regiment and by additional field artillery. In addition, the guns of HMS Clematis off  the coast came into play.

The reinforcements and artillery allowed the British to hold the field. British losses were nine dead and 56 wounded in the December 13 action. But though the British held the field, they could not reach their objective at Duwwar ussein and did not defeat the Senussi. On December 14, the force returned to Mersa Matruh.

They would fight their next battle on Christmas Day.


David Mack said...

Finding this most interesting. I had been aware of Senussi forces role with the British in WW II but unaware they were engaged against the British in WW I. Looking forward to your Christmas episode.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

An Ottoman attempt to recover Libya, sidetracked by the Ottoman advisers.