Battle of the Suez Canal
British Force, 40,000
Major General Sir John Maxwell, Commander
Turkish Force, 65,000
General Djemal Pasha, Commander
The German intriguants at Constantinople (Istanbul) had been occupied since the first days of the War in developing a gigantic plot having for its ultimate object a universal uprising of the 300,000,000 Muslims throughout the East. They hoped thus to end the rule of England in both Egypt and India, and destroy the British Empire.
The Muslim world, however, refused to do the bidding of the Huns. Only the Osmanli Turks, now tottering to their fall, consented to act as the Kaiser's cat's-paws. Germany had proposed, with the assistance of her Turkish allies, to take possession of the Suez Canal in the hope of separating England from India and at the same time menacing English rule in Egypt.
A Turkish Expeditionary Army of 65,000 men, under the nominal command of Djemal Pasha, but in reality led by German officers, was mobilized at Constantinople and ordered to seize the Suez Canal. The Mediterranean Sea route being then unsafe both for Turks and Germans, the Army in reaching Suez, was compelled to cross the trackless and waterless Syrian Desert, varying in width from 120 to 150 miles.
The defense of the Suez Canal had been assigned to Major General Sir John Maxwell, who had assembled an army corps recruited from the Egyptian troops. As early as November 21, 1914, a skirmish had taken place between the Suez Canal defenders and a troop of 2,000 Bedouins, in which the Arabs were repulsed.
The defenses of the Suez Canal were at once strengthened. At the north end of the canal, the dike was cut in several places in order to flood a portion of the Syrian Desert to the east and thus prevent attack in that direction. The inundation at once increased the British water defenses some 20 miles and reduced the entire British front about 60 miles. Naval patrols took over the task of guarding the Bitter Lakes through which the Suez Canal runs and the additional water areas in the North.
In the main, all British defences were arranged on the west bank of the canal, but in addition a few defence posts were built to cover ferries and other crossings. Four British gunboats — the Swiftsure, Ocean, Minerva and Clio — took stations in the canal, and two French warships assisted at Port Said, the northern end of the canal.
The Attack on the Canal
Early in January, the British observers had noted enemy preparations in Syria, where the Turks had established outposts at Khan Yunus and Auja, the terminal of the railroad from Aleppo. A week later, the Turks had pushed their advanced posts forward to the villages of El Arish and Kossaima, both on Egyptian soil.
On January 28, 1915, the vanguard of the Turkish Army advanced in two columns to the initial attack on the British line. In the North, the route from El Kantara to El Arish was temporarily cut by the Turks, but they were soon beaten back. In the South, skirmishes near El Kubic took place, but the Turks scored no great advantage.
The main army of the Turks, which had now dwindled to 12,000 men, arrived at the canal on February 2, 1915. A skirmish near Ismailia Ferry was suddenly terminated by a violent sandstorm. After nightfall, however, the Turkish Army, hauled some 30 pontoon boats to the banks of the canal at Toussoun, 12 miles below Ismailia, and attempted to cross. The British troops opened fire with maxim guns, which took a heavy toll in lives. The Turks brought several batteries of field guns into action, but failed to silence the British batteries.
Next day, the British, supported by land and naval artillery, crossed the canal at Serapeum and attacked the Turkish left flank. By late afternoon a third of the Turkish Army was in full retreat leaving 500 prisoners and many dead behind them. The guns on a Turkish warship in the adjacent lake then opened a lively fire, damaging a British gunboat. During the night, the Turks stole away, and so ended the battle of the Suez Canal. By February 10, 1915, the Sinai Peninsula was cleared of the enemy.
Prince Hassein Kernel Ascends Throne of Egypt
After the British Government had established a protectorate over Egypt, Lieutenant General Henry MacMahon was appointed High Commissioner and Prince Hassein Kernel, eldest son of Iswail, ascended the throne of Egypt with the title of Sultan.
A First-Hand Account of the Unsuccessful Turkish Invasion
Though skirmishing had taken place between the enemy's reconnoitring parties and our outposts during the latter part of January, the main attack was not developed until Feb. 2, when the enemy began to move toward the Ismailia Ferry. They met a reconnoitring party of Indian troops of all arms, and a desultory engagement ensued, to which a violent sand storm put a sudden end about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The main attacking force pushed forward toward its destination after nightfall. From twenty-five to thirty galvanized iron pontoon boats, seven and a half meters in length, which had been dragged in carts across the desert, were hauled by hand toward the water, with one or two rafts made of kerosene tins in a wooden frame. All was ready for the attack.
The first warning of the enemy's approach was given by a sentry of a mountain battery, who heard, to him, an unknown tongue across the water. The noise soon increased. It would seem that Mudjah Ideen ("Holy Warriors")—said to be mostly old Tripoli fighters—accompanied the pontoon section and regulars of the Seventy-fifth Regiment, for loud exhortations often in Arabic of "Brothers die for the faith; we can die but once," betrayed the enthusiastic irregular.
The Egyptians waited till the Turks were pushing their boats into the water; then the Maxims attached to the battery suddenly spoke and the guns opened with case at point-blank range at the men and boats crowded under the steep bank opposite them.
Immediately, a violent fire broke out on both sides of the canal, the enemy replying to the rifles and machine gun fire and the battery on our bank. Around the guns it was impossible to stand up, but the gunners stuck to the work, inflicting terrible punishment.
A little torpedo boat with a crew of thirteen patrolling the canal dashed up and landed a party of four officers and men to the south of Tussum, who climbed up the eastern bank and found themselves in a Turkish trench, and escaped by a miracle with the news. Promptly the midget dashed in between the fires and enfiladed the eastern bank amid a hail of bullets, and destroyed several pontoon boats lying unlaunched on the bank. It continued to harass the enemy, though two officers and two men were wounded.
As the dark, cloudy night lightened toward dawn fresh forces came into action. The Turks, who occupied the outer, or day, line of the Tussum post, advanced, covered by artillery, against the Indian troops holding the inner, or night, position, while an Arab regiment advanced against the Indian troops at the Serapeum post.
The warships on the canal and lake joined in the fray. The enemy brought some six batteries of field guns into action from the slopes west of Kataib-el-Kheil. Shells admirably fused made fine practice at all the visible targets, but failed to find the battery above mentioned, which, with some help from a detachment of infantry, beat down the fire of the riflemen on the opposite bank and inflicted heavy losses on the hostile supports advancing toward the canal. A chance salvo wounded four men of the battery, but it ran more risk from a party of about twenty of the enemy who had crossed the canal in the dark and sniped the gunners from the rear till they were finally rounded up by the Indian cavalry and compelled to surrender.
Supported by land naval artillery the Indian troops took the offensive. The Serapeum garrison, which had stopped the enemy three-quarters of a mile from the position, cleared its front, and the Tussum garrison by a brilliant counter-attack drove the enemy back. Two battalions of Anatolians of the Twenty-eighth Regiment were thrown vainly into the fight. Our artillery gave them no chance, and by 3:30 in the afternoon a third of the enemy, with the exception of a force that lay hid in bushy hollows on the east bank between the two posts, were in full retreat, leaving many dead, a large proportion of whom had been killed by shrapnel.
Meanwhile the warships on the lake had been in action. A salvo from a battleship woke up Ismailia early, and crowds of soldiers and some civilians climbed every available sandhill to see what was doing till the Turkish guns sent shells sufficiently near to convince them that it was safer to watch from cover. A husband and wife took a carriage and drove along the lake front, much peppered by shells, till near the old French hospital, when they realized the danger and suddenly whisked around and drove back full gallop to Ismailia.
But the enemy's fire did more than startle. At about 11 in the morning two six-inch shells hit the Hardinge near the southern entrance of the lake. The first damaged the funnel and the second burst inboard. Pilot Carew, a gallant old merchant seaman, refused to go below when the firing opened and lost a leg. Nine others were wounded. One or two merchantmen were hit, but no lives were lost. A British gunboat was struck.
Then came a dramatic duel between the Turkish big gun or guns and a warship. The Turks fired just over and then just short of 9,000 yards. The warship sent in a salvo of more six-inch shells than had been fired that day.
During the morning the enemy moved toward Ismailia Ferry. The infantry used the ground well, digging shelter pits as they advanced, and were covered by a well-served battery. An officer, apparently a German, exposed himself with the greatest daring, and watchers were interested to see a yellow "pie dog," which also escaped, running about the advancing line. Our artillery shot admirably and kept the enemy from coming within 1,000 yards of the Indian outposts. In the afternoon the demonstration—for it was no more—ceased but for a few shells fired as "a nightcap." During the dark night that followed some of the enemy approached the outpost line of the ferry position with a dog, but nothing happened, and day found them gone.
At the same time as the fighting ceased at the ferry it died down at El Kantara. There the Turks, after a plucky night attack, came to grief on our wire entanglements. Another attempt to advance from the southeast was forced back by an advance of the Indian troops. The attack, during which it was necessary to advance on a narrow front over ground often marshy with recent inundations against our strong position, never had a chance. Indeed, the enemy was only engaged with our outpost line.
Late in the afternoon of the 3d there was sniping from the east bank between Tussum and Serapeum and a man was killed in the tops of a British battleship. Next morning the sniping was renewed, and the Indian troops, moving out to search the ground, found several hundred of the enemy in the hollow previously mentioned. During the fighting some of the enemy, either by accident or design, held up their hands, while others fired on the Punjabis, who were advancing to take the surrender, and killed a British officer. A sharp fight with the cold steel followed, and a British officer killed a Turkish officer with a sword thrust in single combat. The body of a German officer with a white flag was afterward found here, but there is no proof that the white flag was used. Finally all the enemy were killed, captured, or put to flight.
With this the fighting ended, and the subsequent operations were confined to "rounding up" prisoners and to the capture of a considerable amount of military material left behind. The Turks who departed with their guns and baggage during the night of the 3d still seemed to be moving eastward.
So ended the battle of the Suez Canal. Our losses have been amazingly small, totaling about 111 killed and wounded.
Our opponents have probably lost nearly 3,000 men. The Indian troops bore the brunt of the fighting and were well supported by the British and French warships and by the Egyptian troops. The Turks fought bravely and their artillery shot well if unluckily, but the intentions of the higher command are still a puzzle to British officers.
Did Djemal Pasha intend to try to break through our position under cover of demonstrations along a front over ninety miles in length with a total force, perhaps, of 25,000 men, or was he attempting a reconnoissance in force? If the former is the case, he must have had a low idea of British leadership or an amazing belief in the readiness and ability of sympathizers in Egypt to support the Turk. Certainly he was misinformed as to our positions, and on the 4th we buried on the eastern bank the bodies of two men, apparently Syrians or Egyptians, who were found with their hands tied and their eyes bandaged. Probably they were guides who had been summarily killed, having unwittingly led the enemy astray. If, on the other hand, Djemal Pasha was attempting a reconnoissance, it was a costly business and gave General Wilson a very handsome victory.
Till the last week of January there had been some doubt as to the road by which the Ottoman Commander in Chief in Syria intended to advance on the canal. Before the end of the month it was quite clear that what was then believed to be the Turkish advanced guard, having marched with admirable rapidity from Beersheba via El Auja, Djebel Libni, and Djifjaffa, was concentrating in the valleys just east of Kataib-el-Kheil, a group of hills lying about ten miles east of the canal, where it enters Lake Timsah. A smaller column detached from this force was sighted in the hills east of Ismailia Ferry. Smaller bodies had appeared in the neighborhood of El Kantara and between Suez and the Bitter Lakes.
The attacks on our advanced posts at El Kantara on the night of Jan. 26 and 27, and at Kubri, near Suez, on the following night, were beaten off. Hostile guns fired occasional shells, while our warships returned the compliment at any hostile column that seemed to offer a good target, and our aeroplanes dropped bombs when they had the chance; but in general the enemy kept a long distance off and was tantalizing. Our launches and boats, which were constantly patrolling the canal, could see him methodically intrenching just out of range of the naval guns.
By the night of Feb. 1 the enemy had prepared his plan of attack. To judge both from his movements during the next two days and the documents found on prisoners and slain, it was proposed to attack El Kantara while making a demonstration at El Ferdan, further south, and prevent reinforcements at the first-named post. The demonstration at Ismailia Ferry by the right wing of the Kataib-el-Kheil force which had been partly refused till then in order to prevent a counter-attack from the ferry, was designed to occupy the attention of the Ismailia garrison, while the main attack was delivered between the Tussum post, eight miles south of Ismailia, and the Serapeum post, some three miles further south. Eshref Bey's highly irregular force in the meantime was to demonstrate near Suez.
The selection of the Tussum and Serapeum section as the principal objective was dictated both by the consideration that success here would bring the Turks a few miles from Ismailia, and by the information received from patrols that the west bank of the canal between the posts, both of which may be described as bridgeheads, were unoccupied by our troops. The west bank between the posts is steep and marked by a long, narrow belt of trees. The east bank also falls steeply to the canal, but behind it are numerous hollows, full of brushwood, which give good cover. Here the enemy's advanced parties established themselves and intrenched before the main attack was delivered.