Western Egypt: Operations against the Senussi

Operations against the Senussi. One of Major the Duke of Westminster’s Armoured Cars at Es Sollum, April 1916.

A bogged armoured car of the 1st Armoured Car Battery (Australia), which was operating on the western frontier of Egypt, against the Senussi, being pulled out of the sand over de-ditching boards.

Area of operations, Senussi Campaign, 1915-1918

Very few regiments of the British Army saw service in as many theatres of war from 1914 to 1919 as did the Middlesex. In 1914 and 1915 in Flanders and France and Gallipoli, battalions of the regiment had already crossed bayonets with the enemy, and the story now turns to Western Egypt, where, at the close of 1915, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions first became involved in operations against the Senussi. The beginning of the rupture between Great Britain and the Senussi — a powerful desert tribe — is thus described in the official despatches: “As early as May, 1915, signs were apparent that the steadily increasing pressure brought to bear upon the Senussi by the Turkish party in Tripoli, under the leadership of Nuri Bey, a half-brother of Enver Pasha, was beginning to take effect. For some time, even after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Turkey in 1914, the anti-British influence of this party was not strongly felt and the attitude of the Senussi towards Egypt remained friendly. It was not until the advent of Gaafer, a Germanised Turk of considerable ability, who arrived in Tripoli in April, 1915, with a considerable supply of arms and money, that this attitude underwent a change.”

For several months it was evident that the Turkish influence was gaining ground, and on the 16th August, 1915, the first hostile incident of any importance occurred. Two British submarines, sheltering from the weather near Ras Lick on the coast of Cyrenaica, were treacherously fired on by Arabs, commanded by a white officer, and casualties were suffered on both sides. For this incident, however, the Senussi apologised profusely, but in November, other incidents occurred which placed beyond doubt the hostile intentions of this Arab tribe. The crews of two British boats, H.M.S. Tara and H.M.T. Moorina — torpedoed by enemy submarines on the 5th and 6th of the month — landed in Cyrenaica and were captured and held prisoners by the Senussi, who, in reply to strong representations for their immediate release, feigned ignorance. On the night of the 14th-15th, Muhafizia (Senussi regulars) rushed two Egyptian sentries at Sollum and carried off their rifles and bayonets: the following night the company at Sollum was sniped. Again on the 17th, at Sidi Barrani (fifty miles east of Sollum), the Zawia was occupied by some three hundred Muhafizia, and on the 18th, during the night, the Coastguard Barracks at that place were twice attacked, one coastguard being killed. On the 20th a similar attack was made on a coastguard outpost at Sabil, a small post about thirty miles S.E. of Sollum, though, as at Barrani, the attack failed.

There was now no alternative but to recognise a state of war and to take action accordingly. The Western Frontier posts were ordered to withdraw to Mersa Matruh, and it was decided to concentrate in the latter place a force sufficient to deal swiftly with the situation. The Alexandria-Dabaa Railway was to be secured as a secondary line of communication by land with the railhead at Dabaa: the Wadi Natrun and the Fayum were to be occupied as measures of precaution, while the Oasis of Moghara was to be kept under constant observation and reconnaissance.

Orders for the assembly of two composite brigades (one mounted and the other infantry) were issued on the 20th November, after news had been received of the enemy’s attack at Barrani. The Mounted Brigade consisted chiefly of Yeomanry and Australian Light Horse, with a battery of horse artillery. The infantry brigade was made up of 1/6th Royal Scots (T.F.), 1/7th and 2/8th Battalions Middlesex Regiment (T.F.), 15th Sikhs, and some auxiliary troops. The whole force was commanded by Major-General A. Wallace, and the Infantry Brigade by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan.

Both the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex had disembarked at Alexandria from Gibraltar on the 1st September.

A year had passed since the formation of the 2/7th. Middlesex was authorised by the War Office, and during that period the Battalion had passed through varied experiences. After several busy weeks spent in recruiting the men and preliminary training, the 2/7th had left Hornsey on the 24th September, 1914, for Barnet, where officers and men were billeted. On the last day of the month the first consignment of uniforms was received and, by the end of October, the whole unit was in service dress. Another move, this time to Egham, took place on the 20th November, the Battalion joining the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. In Windsor Great Park hard training was continued, though as only fifty rifles were in possession of the Battalion, instruction in musketry presented the greatest difficulties. “All through these weeks of hard work,” said Lieut.-Colonel J. S. Drew, who commanded the 2/7th, “the discipline and soldierly spirit of the Battalion steadily improved.” On the 27th January, 1915, orders were received to embark for Gibraltar at an early date. “This was a great shock, for high hopes had been entertained that the Battalion would be sent to France.” However, the Battalion swallowed its disappointment and, on the 1st February, entrained for Southampton, embarking on arrival at the docks aboard the Grantully Castle, being joined later in the day by the 2/8th Middlesex, who were also bound for “Gib.”

After a rough voyage lasting several days, the two Battalions reached Gibraltar on the 7th February, though they did not disembark until the following day. On the way up the Rock the 2/7th met the 1/7th marching down to embark for France. This was the only occasion on which the two Battalions met throughout the whole course of the War.

For the next six months the Battalion continued its training, especially in musketry, for which special facilities were available. On the 3rd July orders were received to send a draft of 3 officers and 260 other ranks to the 1/7th Battalion in France. Their departure was a heavy blow to the Battalion, which, by this time, had attained a high degree of efficiency. The draft, however, was replaced the same day by the arrival of a similar number of men from England.

On the 12th August the Battalion was ordered to prepare for Egypt, and, with the 2/8th Middlesex, embarked on H.M.T. Minnewaska. Out at sea the destination of the. ship was changed, and a few days later the vessel steamed into Mudros Harbour, the greatest excitement prevailing on board, as everyone expected to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. At Mudros, however, it was made evident that the move to that Island was due to a Staff misunderstanding, and that the proper destination of the vessel was Alexandria. So, again choking down their disappointment, the Middlesex men saw their hopes of immediate active service dashed, and the boat put out to sea once more, for Egypt. Alexandria was reached on the 31st August, and on the following day the Battalion disembarked and entrained for Cairo, taking over the Citadel from Australian troops, a strong detachment of the Middlesex being sent off to guard prisoners of war at Maadi.

Ten pleasant weeks were spent at Cairo, and then, early in November, there were rumours of trouble brewing with the Senussi tribes of Western Egypt. On the 20th November the Composite Cavalry and Infantry Brigades were formed, and on the 22nd the 2/7th Middlesex was ordered to join the latter Brigade at once at Alexandria. The Brigade went into camp at Qamaria and refitted.

With the exception of its formation the history of the 2/8th Middlesex is largely that of the 2/7th Battalion.

The 2/8th Middlesex was formed at Hampton Court on the 14th September, 1914, its first C.O. being Lieut.-Colonel L. C. Dams. The Battalion was quartered in the Cavalry Barracks, Hampton Court, Hampton Court House, and other houses in the neighbourhood. Training was carried out in Bushey Park, though no uniforms or rifles were then available. On the 15th November, 1914, the Battalion moved to Staines, becoming (like the 2/7th Battalion) part of the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. From this period onwards there is little in the early history of the 2/8th which differs from that of the 2/7th, though on the day of the departure of the two Battalions from Southampton, great was the excitement aboard the Grantully Castle when, at the last moment, a draft of three officers and a small number of men joined the 2/8th: the men wore scarlet tunics! Like the 2/7th, the 2/8th also sent a large draft of officers and men to France, but to the 1/8th Battalion. When the Battalion left Gibraltar and arrived at Alexandria on the 31st August, the 2/8th was likewise quartered in Cairo, moving back to Alexandria on the 22nd November to join the Composite Infantry Brigade.

By the 23rd November the concentration of the Force under General Wallace was completed, and the troops began to move to Mersa Matruh. It was not, however, until several days later that the two Middlesex Battalions received their orders. The 2/8th was the first to leave Alexandria, the Battalion embarking on trawlers — two platoons per trawler — for Mersa Matruh on the 4th December. The trawlers reached their destination on the 5th, and the Middlesex men were landed and pitched camp close to the village. On the 6th December Battalion Headquarters and “A” and “B” Companies of the 2/7th Middlesex embarked on trawlers and aboard H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ for Mersa Matruh, “C” and “D” Companies remaining at Alexandria.

Concentration of the Force at Matruh was completed on the 7th December, and the village was prepared as a fortified base from which the Senussi could be attacked.

With the 2/8th, the 2/7th Middlesex was allotted a sector of the defences, and at once began digging operations. An insufficient supply of water was only one of the many difficulties. Wells were dug in the beach, but only brackish water was obtainable, and this had to be drunk in the form of tea: even then it was most unpleasant.

The first encounter with the Senussi took place on the 11th December, but neither of the Middlesex Battalions were engaged in the operations, which were carried out by other troops.

At midnight on the 14th December, Colonel Dams was ordered to take his Battalion out to Old Matruh to assist the 15th Sikhs and 6th Royal Scots (under Colonel Gordon), who had gone out in the morning and had been heavily engaged with the enemy. After marching through the night, the 2/8th Middlesex, at dawn, took up a defensive position, through which Colonel Gordon’s force retired. Colonel Dams then threw forward two companies of his Battalion on the flank of the retiring column and engaged the enemy, H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ firing her 6-inch guns over the heads of the Middlesex men into the enemy, who were massed in the hills on the Battalion’s flank. The 2/8th finally formed a rearguard to the force retiring, until the latter reached camp at Matruh. “The whole thing,” said Colonel Dams, “worked like an Aldershot field-day — the Battalion carried out the various movements with drill-book precision.”

For the first fortnight the 2/7th Middlesex, without seeing anything of the fighting, had a strenuous existence. Three times the line of defence was changed, each change necessitating the digging and wiring of several miles of trenches; many stone sangars were also constructed.

On the night of the 18th-19th December the camps of both Battalions, which occupied somewhat exposed positions, were heavily sniped by the Senussi. An advanced post of the 2/7th was also attacked, but beat off its assailants without difficulty. This was the first occasion on which the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex during the War came under rifle fire from the enemy.

The 2/8th Battalion each night mounted picquets round the camp, most of the picquets being situated on a line of hills running parallel with the sea and about half a mile from it. During the night of the 19th December a detached picquet (known as Pinnacle Picquet) was sniped by a small body of Senussi. The Middlesex men returned the fire, but so far as could be seen no casualties were inflicted on the enemy.

From the 15th to the 23rd December no operation of importance was undertaken against the enemy, but in the meantime it was known that he was concentrating in the neighbourhood of Gebel Medwa, about eight miles south-west of Matruh, his forces being estimated at about 5,000, with four guns and some machine guns, commanded by Gaafer.

On the 25th December (Xmas Day) General Wallace attacked these forces. He divided his Command into two columns — the Right and the Left. The former consisted mostly of infantry, which included the 2/8th Middlesex; the latter column was a mobile force of cavalry.

Before dawn on the 25th both columns left camp, and by 7.30a.m. the cavalry had cleared the Wadi Toweiwa, about seven miles south of Matruh. The Right Column moved westwards, and at 6.30 a.m. the advanced guard came under fire from artillery and machine guns from the south-west. But the enemy was soon driven off, and by 7.15 a.m. the main body of General Wallace’s Force had crossed the Wadi Rami, and could see the enemy in occupation of an encampment about a mile south of Gebel Medwa.

At 7.30 a.m. the 15th Sikhs were ordered to attack the enemy’s right flank, the Bucks Hussars and 2/8th Middlesex to co-operate by making a containing attack along his front, to be launched simultaneously with the attack of the Sikhs. Deploying west of the road and despatching one Company to occupy Gebel Medwa in order to secure their right, the Sikhs advanced. At the same time the Bucks Hussars moved forward, while the Middlesex, keeping to the north-east of Gebel Medwa, sent a Company to relieve a company of 15th Sikhs occupying the hill, which thereupon rejoined the Battalion. This Company of Middlesex men was apparently the only one of the Battalion which saw fighting on the 25th December, the action being thus described by an officer then serving with the Battalion: “The whole Battalion took part in a big attack on enemy forces about seven or eight miles inland from the camp. A start was made before dawn on Xmas Day, and the fighting lasted all day. The Battalion bivouacked that night in the desert, and returned to camp the following morning. Only one Company (‘C’ Company, under Captain Alliston) actually found themselves in the front line of the attack, and suffered casualties (three men wounded). The attack was a great success, and a considerable number of the enemy was killed or captured.”

The attack by the Sikhs was successfully carried out, and by 2.15 p.m. the nullahs at the head of the Wadi Majid had been cleared, and by about 4 p.m. the Wadi itself was taken. The enemy’s losses were over 100 dead, 34 prisoners, 80 camels and much livestock, also 30,000 rounds of S.A.A. and a quantity of artillery ammunition.

In this action the 2/7th Middlesex took no part, but from the 28th to 30th December the Battalion formed part of a mobile column intended to attack a Senussi camp some twenty miles distant, at Jerawla. On the approach of the column the enemy forsook his camp and fled, leaving behind large quantities of grain, nearly 100 camels and about 500 sheep. The camp was burned, and on the 30th the column returned to Matruh.

This affair carries the narrative of operations in Western Egypt up to the end of 1915.

Captain Palmer, 2/8th Middlesex R.

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