The defence of the Suez Canal


The position of Egypt in 1914 was rather complex. Formally part of Ottoman Empire, it actually operated as a British protectorate (formally announced in December 1914). On 5 August 1914 Egypt was declared to be at war with the enemies of Britain. For the British and Egyptian leaders, there were at that time two chief concerns: one was the Ottoman Army, believed to be intent on an attack from Palestine. The other was internal security, for many Arabs including the nominal head of state Abbas Il Helmi were known to be anti-British. Muslim Ottomans soon proclaimed a jihad, in an effort to rouse anti-British, anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East, and they generally manoeuvred to foment an internal Arab revolt against the British. Britain in turn manoeuvred to remove Helmi and replaced him with Prince Hussein Kamel. The Ottomans planned to invade Egypt, and began to build up a force of 20,000 men under the command of Fourth Turkish Army. Djemal Pasha was both Commander-in-Chief of this Army and Governor of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine.

British forces in the Suez Canal zone

In order to maintain security, look after British interests in the protectorate and to defend the strategically critical Suez Canal, there were 70,000 British troops in Egypt by January 1915. Many of these were in units of the Indian Army. Commander-in-Chief was Major-General Sir John Maxwell, who had been appointed in August 1914, a veteran of many years service in Egypt and Sudan. British formations involved at this time included:

East Lancashire Division TF (later redesignated 42nd (East Lancashire) Division)
10th Indian Division
11th Indian Division
Indian Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade
Bikanir Camel Corps
Indian and Egyptian artillery.

30,000 of the troops were placed on the Suez defences. The 1st Australian and New Zealand Army Corps arrived in December 1914, for training en-route to the European theatre of war.

Location of this engagement

The Suez Canal is 101 miles long, connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It was a vital route for Britain, allowing shipping to go the shorter route from India and other Asian and African parts of Empire rather than south round the Cape of Good Hope. The canal connects a number of lakes and is nearly 150 feet wide. On the western bank runs the so-called Sweet Water Canal with main controls at Ismailia, the only large-scale source of drinking water for the area. Main defences were created on the west bank, with outposts on the east. Supply to the troops along the Canal was by railway running from Ismailia to Cairo. There were no metalled roads. To the east lay the inhospitable Sinai desert, with little water. Turkish forward positions were established at El Arish and Nekhl. There were only three possible routes for them across the expanse of the Sinai desert: by the coast (advantage of this being water and tracks, but it was within fire of British ships); a southern track from El Kossaima to Suez (quickly discarded by the Turks); and finally the central track from Beersheba to Ismailia. Once the Canal had been crossed, Turkish troops could follow better-developed tracks to Cairo.

Suez Canal zone 1915

The British and Turkish forces clash

The first clash occurred on 20 November 1914 when a patrol of the Bikanir Camel Corps met 200 Turk-controlled mounted Bedouin east of Kantara. There were also small raids at Alexandretta (now Iskunderun) on the Syrian coast.

The main Turkish attack develops …

On 28 January 1915 British observers identified a large column of Turkish troops on the central route across the Sinai. British and French ships entered the canal and opened fire, while defensive positions were manned by infantry. Patrols clashed on 2 February, but a sandstorm halted any further action until next day.

Turkish field artillery advancing towards the Suez Canal, 1915. Imperial War Museum image Q86535
Turkish field artillery advancing towards the Suez Canal, 1915. Imperial War Museum image Q86535

… and is defeated

Carrying pontoons and rafts, the Turkish infantry approached the east bank in the early hours of 3 February 1915. Indian machine-gunners cut swathes through those on the water, and through men now massing in the gullies on the east bank. Much panic began, and many Arab troops on the Turk side surrendered. The attack was renewed at dawn, with additional diversions launched at Kantara and near Ismailia. Shelling from the ships, and continued staunch resistance by troops in the defensive posts, caused it be halted in the early afternoon. The entire Turk force withdrew, unmolested by the British who did not follow them in any force, back across the Sinai towards Beersheba. The Turks lost 1,500 troops in this action. There was no sign of Arab insurrection.

Lessons were quickly learned on both sides: for the British, it was clear that allowing the enemy to approach the canal – indeed to use it as the defence line – was a risky business, although they formed an unfortunate opinion that their opponents were not good fighting material. For the Turks, they knew that a larger force, better supplied, would be need to dislodge the sizeable British force in Egypt.

Nuisance raids continue to harass British force

A small Turkish force under a German commander, General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, remained in the Sinai and carried out several nuisance raids at points along the canal. Whilst these raids maintained pressure on the British and kept them guessing about another attack, they were insufficient to halt the movement of troops away from the canal defences to Gallipoli throughout the summer of 1915, with another force also going defeat a rising of the Senussi faction on the western frontier of Egypt later in the year.

The British force in Egypt grows – and then diminishes

Intelligence of building Turkish forces in Palestine, together with their extension of a supply railway to Beersheba, encouraged the British to increase forces at the canal in late 1915. In early 1916 as Gallipoli was evacuated (and the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force command and staff was merged into the Egyptian Expeditionary Force) there were 14 complete British Divisions of infantry and some Yeomanry Brigades in the area, although for most of these Egypt proved only a holding station before they were deployed elsewhere. As the months dragged by, the demand for troops for Mesopotamia and the Western Front brought the canal garrison back down to smaller numbers.

British stance in Egypt changes from defensive to cautiously offensive

In December 1915 there was a change of plan on the British side. A Commission under Major-General Sir Henry Horne recommended that the defensive line should be moved forward from the west bank on to the east, and far enough away from the canal for it to be beyond the range of the enemy’s heaviest guns. Three new defensive lines were constructed and the supply railways from Cairo doubled in capacity. This construction effort was largely undertaken by locally-recruited workers, organised as the Egyptian Labour Corps. It was stated that 12 Divisions would be required to defend the canal from the quarter of a million Turks believed to be massing in Palestine (although this proved to be a gross over-estimate: the railways and water supplies in Palestine could not support that size of a force). The Egyptian theatre was placed under the command of Lieut-General Sir Archibald Murray, recently arrived after being Chief of General Staff to Sir John French on the Western Front. Murray proposed to the War Office to undertake limited offensive action to be able to control the area of El Arish. While it would require major construction of railways and water supplies, this would effectively prohibit the Turks from the coastal route to the canal, and also put British troops in striking distance of the cenral route, well away from the canal. CIGS Sir William Robertson gave a cautious approval in March 1916.


The campaign in Egypt and Palestine