The Western frontier of Egypt was over 700 miles long. Most of this faced desert, with only a narrow habitable coastal strip heading away towards Italian-held Tripoli. The scale of the map of the coastal area shown here can be gauged from the fact that Cairo to Mersa Matruh is just under 300 miles.
Arab and Berber tribes in North Africa agitate against the British
To the west of British-controlled Egypt, Arab and Berber tribes were being agitated by German and Turkish propaganda, fuelled by German money. Various hostile acts began to be committed against the frontier posts.
On 16 August 1915, two British submarines that were forced by poor sea conditions to take shelter at Ras Lick near Tripoli were fired on by Arabs under a white officer.
Crews of two torpedoed ships, the HMT Moorina and HMS Tara, landed near Cyrenaica in November 1915 and were taken prisoner by the Senussi, a hostile religious fraternity, and held despite strong representations for their release.
The same month, Sollum was shelled by German U-Boats, and an Emergency Squadron of the Royal Naval Armoured Card Division was sent to strengthen the post there. Both Sollum and Sidi Barrani subjected to Arab raids. Sollum was evacuated and the frontier posts were withdrawn to Mersa Matruh, and a state of war was recognised to exist. The atmosphere across western Egypt and the desert was one of considerable unrest, and the possibility of internal disturbances a source of great anxiety to General John Maxwell, British commander for Egypt.
The Western Frontier Force makes first strike, and other forces deploy
On 11 December 1915, a hastily collected Western Frontier Force, composed of units currently stationed in Egypt and not employed on the Suez Canal, began to move out from Mersa Matruh under command of Major-General A. Wallace.
The WFF consisted of a Composite Mounted Brigade under Brig-General J.D.T. Tyndale Briscoe (three composite Yeomanry Regiments from the details of 2nd Mounted Division, one composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse, the Nottinghamshire Battery Royal Horse Artillery, an ammunition column and assorted auxiliary services), a Composite Infantry Brigade under Brig-General the Earl of Lucan (1/6th Royal Scots, 2/7 and 2/8th Middlesex, 15th Sikhs and auxiliary services), a detachment of the Egyptian Army Military Works Department (no Royal Engineers being available), and the Divisional Train of the 1st Australian Division. To give an example of the scratch nature of this force, no fewer than 20 different Yeomanry regiments were represented in the Composite Mounted Brigade.
Over the next two days the first column to deploy dispersed enemy camps at Wadi Senaab and Beit Hussein. Lieut-Col. J. Gordon, commanding the column, consisting of 2nd Composite Yeomanry Regiment, one section the Nottinghamshire RHA, a detachment of seven cars of the RN Armoured Car Division and one section of South Midland Field Ambulance. This force inflicted heavy losses on the Senussi, who withdrew towards Bir Tunis. British casualties were light, but among them was Lieut-Col. Cecil Snow, an experienced officer of the Intelligence Corps. He is today buried in Alexandria (Chatby) Military and War memorial Cemetery. Air reconnaissance patrols soon detected the presence of a large enemy force at Ras Manaa. This force attacked the British column, but were repelled.
Another force, composed of the 2nd New Zealand Rifle Brigade, one company of 15th Sikhs, a detachment of the Bikanir Camel Corps, an Egyptian Army Machine Gun Section and an armoured train garrisoned by 1/10th Ghurka Rifles, moved on 21 December 1915 to hold the Alexandria – Debaa railway, and to patrol to the Moghara oasis.
The 1/1st North Midland Mounted Brigade and the Berkshire Battery Royal Horse Artillery moved to defend Fayum on 29 November, and a composite battalion made up of details from 29th Division moved to Hosh Isa and Damanhur on 7 December.
The Senussi regroup and are again dispersed, but not destroyed
By late December 1916 the Senussi had regrouped and were spotted in force some 8 miles south west of Mersa Matruh. Wallace’s force was meanwhile reinforced by the arrival of the 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, two Naval 4-inch guns and A Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company. At this time too, 161st Brigade of 54th Division relieved the 2nd New Zealand Rifle Brigade on the Lines of Communication.
The enlarged force, again split to two columns, moved out on Christmas Day 1915, and with useful assistance from the guns of HMS Clematis, dispersed the enemy force, although most of the latter managed to escape destruction. The force employed consisted of the Nottinghamshire RHA, 15th Sikhs, 2/8th Middlesex, parts of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry, Derbyshire Yeomanry, City of London Yeomanry and Hertfordshire Yeomanry, 3 squadrons of the Australian Light Horse, the Notts & Derby and Yeomanry Field Ambulances, the Yeomanry Machine gun section and the water section of the Australian Train. The enemy fled in the direction of Unjeila and Bir Tunis, having suffered 370 killed and 82 prisoners taken in addition to the loss of many animals and much material. The WFF moved back to Mersa Matruh, having lost 14 other ranks killed, and 3 officers and 47 other ranks wounded.
Torrential rain throughout January created a lull in activity.
An enlarged force breaks Senussi camp, in deep mud
On 19 January 1916, aerial reconnaissance revealed a large enemy camp – 100 European and 250 Bedouin tents – 25 miles from Mersa Matruh, at Hazalin (this was a mis-spelling on British maps of the actual place name of Halazin). This was a large enough force to make Wallace wait for reinforcements before striking out again. The South African Brigade arrived in Egypt from England, and their 2nd Regiment was immediately moved to join his column. For lack of railway transport, they moved from Alexandria by boat, landing at Mersa Matruh on 21 January. Two days later, Wallace once again split his force into two mobile columns for an attack. On his right, the column consisted of 2nd South African Regiment, 15th Sikhs, 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and a squadron of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry, with the 1/6th Royal Scots in reserve. The left column included squadrons of the Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry, the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars and the Australian Light Horse, A Battery HAC and the Mounted Brigade Machine gun section. The attack was again successful in breaking the enemy positions, going through deep mud to do so. It was not without problems: the Train was left at Bir Shola and blankets and supplies could not be brought up; all vehicles had to be dragged by hand through the mud; the armoured cars could not operate.
British casualties on this oaccasion were heavier: 1 officer and 30 other ranks killed, 13 officers and 278 other ranks wounded. A conservative estimate of the enemy’s losses put the figure at 200 killed and 500 wounded. Prisoners revealed that Senussi morale was declining fast, as they saw the British force increasing in size and becoming properly equipped for the task.
The WFF smashes the Senussi at Agagia and relieves Sidi Barrani
The WFF was now reconsituted, and Wallace (retired at his own suggestion, due to age and to ill health) was replaced on 9 February 1916 by Major-General W. E. Peyton, formerly in command of 2nd Mounted Division.
The 2nd Mounted Brigade replaced the Composite Brigade of Yeomanry, and the rest of the South African Brigade replaced the 15th Sikhs and New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Two sections of the Hong Kong & Singapore Mountain Battery joined to strengthen the artillery component. Importantly, additions to transport and other services meant that a column could sustain itself on an expedition and did not have to return to Mersa Matruh each time.
Peyton decided he must clear the frontier as far as Sollum, which would gain improved sea access and shorten supply lines along the coast. The main hostile force was now reported to be near Sidi Barrani. On 20 February 1916 a column made up of the 1st and 3rd South African Regiments, the Dorset Yeomanry, a squadron of Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars, the 1/6th Royal Scots, the Nottinghamshire RHA and two Field Ambulances started out from Mersa Matruh under the command of Brig-General H. T. Lukin CMG DSO, in a hot sun and scorching wind. They located the Senussi at Agagia, 14 miles south east of Sidi Barrani.
By 24 February, the British column was camped at Wadi Maktil.
Next day, the enemy attacked the camp just before the British themselves were about to depart to make an attack. The Senussi opened fire with two field guns and a machine gun. The Royal Scots and the South African Regiments quickly deployed, and silenced the enemy at very little cost. At 9.30am on 26 February, the whole force moved out, by now accompanied by six armoured cars under the Duke of Westminster. Their attack was a “model of desert warfare”, leading to the destruction of the enemy force, the capture of its leader Gaafer Pasha and his staff, and the relief of Sidi Barrani. The remnants of the enemy retreated 50 miles west, to Sollum. Peyton decided to follow up and strike again, quickly.
The enemy evacuates Sollum without a fight
The British column was re-assembled, ready to advance on Sollum on 9 March 1916. The South African Brigade, the Dorset Yeomanry, a Camel Supply Column, the armoured car battery would advance, and a company of the Australian Camel Corps would follow up. Three days later, they secured the important Medean Pass, and on 14 March learned that the enemy had already evacuated Sollum. The Duke of Westminster was ordered to pursue.
The Duke of Westminster’s dash rescues crews, finishes Senussi threat
The Light Armoured Car Brigade – 9 armoured and 1 open Ford with a total crew of 32 men – captured all of the enemy’s 40 guns and machine guns, took 3 Turkish officers and about 40 other prisoners, and killed 50 and wounded many more when the enemy camp was discovered at Bir Asiso, some 23 miles from the British positions. Among the more spectacular effects was when camels, loaded with petrol and ammunition, were hit and exploded. But this was only the start of one of the most extraordinary episodes of the war. From information gained from prisoners, it was ascertained that the crews of the Moorina and Tara were being held some 75 miles west of Sollum. The armoured car battery dashed off and, covering some 120 miles in hostile territory without support to Bir el Hakim (Bir Hakkim), rescued the prisoners without loss of life. Major Hugh Richard Arthur, Duke of Westminster, Cheshire Yeomanry, was awarded the DSO for this brilliant exploit.
From “Deeds that thrilled the Empire”: the Duke of Westminster’s cars routed the Senussi
In less than a month, Peyton’s force had driven the enemy back 150 miles. Operations continued until 1918, but the western threat against Egypt and the vital Suez Canal had been defeated.
Useful published works
“The sea and the sand: the story of HMS Tara and the western desert force” by William Davies (Gwynedd Archives and Museums Service, 1988). ISBN 0901337748X.
“Steel chariots in the desert: the story of an armoured car driver with the Duke of Westminster in Libya and in Arabia with T. E. Lawrence“, by S.C. Rolls (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937) and reprinted by the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club, 1988.
“Sanussi’s little war: the amazing story of a forgotten conflict in the western desert, 1915-17“, published on 1 March 2007 by Arabian Publishing Limited of 3 Devonshire Street, London W1W 5BA and written by Russell McGuirk. ISBN 0954479270.
Anglesey Record Office holds the personal papers of Alfred Dutton, the paymaster on board HMS Tara.