A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Senussi (Sanusi) Campaign Begins, Part II: The British Reaction

In Part I of this post on the Senussi (Sanusi) campaign in the Western Desert in World War I, we saw how Ottoman officers infiltrated into Libya to encourage the Senussi Order, which already was resisting Italian occupation in Libya, to attack the British position in Libya as well. Part I ended with the Senussi raids on Sollum and Sidi Barrani and the movement of regular Senussi forces into Egypt.

Senussi (Cyrenaican) Flag
As a historical note, the Senussi used a black flag with a white crescent and star, a flag later identified with Cyrenaica, and eventually incorporated as the middle panel of the Libyan flag from independence to Qadhafi, and again since 2011.

Total Senussi forces were around 5,000 men, regulars and tribal militias, with some Ottoman and German officers.

As I noted last time, Britain had paid little attention to the Western Desert since the Italians in Libya were now allied; in theory the Egyptian Army was to protect the frontier (though the British worried the Egyptian Army might not be reliable since Egypt was nominally neutral in the war). The British were mainly determined to defend the Suez Canal, and the Nile Valley to protect the Canal.

Senussi troops
So when the Senussi attack began, the British had few defenses in place. General John Maxwell, the Commander of British Forces in Egypt, determined that Sollum could not readily be defended; it was 450 km from Alexandria and the rail line to the west was completed only as far as Dabaa 121 km east of Mersa Matruh. Sidi Barrani was also considered too exposed. So the British decided to draw up their defenses at Mersa Matruh.

On November 20, the British created the Western Frontier Force, a quickly improvised mix of British and colonial troops. It was commanded by Major-General Alexander Wallace of the 11th Indian Division. He commanded a mix of British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand forces.His infantry was a Composite Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan and consisting of the 1/6th Royal Scots, 2/7 and 2/8th Middlesex, 15th Sikhs and auxiliaries, a detachment of the Egyptian Army Military Works Department, and the Divisional Train of the 1st Australian Division. Of these only the 15th Sikhs were a regular unit of the Indian Army.

The cavalry, commanded by Brigadier-General J.D.T. Tyndale-Briscoe, was even more diverse: a Composite Mounted Brigade consisting of three Composite Regiments representing some 20 different Yeomanry Regiments; a Composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse; and the Nottinghamshire Battery of Royal Horse Artillery.

These initial scratch forces were reinforced by December 3 by a Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company, two Royal Marines Guns two aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps and six armored cars.

Other forces were deployed to guard other points. As early as November 29, the 1/1st North Midland Mounted Brigade and the Berkshire Battery Royal Horse Artillery moved into the Fayyum to protect it. Meanwhile the protection of the coastal railroad between Alexandria and the then-railhead at Dabaa, as wall as the Moghara oasis, was assigned to the 2nd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, a company of thr15th Sikhs, some of the Bikanir Camel Corps, an Egyptian Army Machine Gun Section and an armored train garrisoned by 1/10th Gurkha Rifles., 1915..

This hastily assembled force knew there were Senussi forces massing southwest of Mersa Matruh. Once the garrisons between Sollum and Matruh had been withdrawn to Matruh, the stage was set for the first action, beginning December 11, 1915. I'll tell that tale December 11.

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