The Senussi Campaign

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The Senussi Campaign

The Senussi going to war, Egypt 1915 (Source: Wikipedia)

The Senussi were a religious order stretching across the breadth of North Africa.  They were led by the Grand Senussi, and had taken a leading role in resisting the Italian invasion of Libya from 1911, and before that French colonisation.  The Ottoman and German governments hoped to use their religious affiliations (the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was also the Caliph, or leader of Islam) and anti-colonial leanings to encourage them to attack the British in Egypt from their bases in Libya.  The Ottomans and Germans provided them with gold, machine guns, artillery, and the specialist troops to operate them, and officers to act as advisors, but the Grand Senussi was reluctant.  Finally, on 5 November 1915 the Germans forced their hand, when the submarine U-35 sank the British patrol vessel HMS Tara.  Over 90 survivors were picked up by the submarine and handed over to the Senussi.  The U-35 then bombarded the Egyptian Coastguard base at Sollum on the Libyan border, forcing hostilities to open between the British and Senussi.

Early gains

British military operations, Western Desert, 1914-1918 (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the next few weeks, the Senussi pushed the British and Egyptians out of Sollum, Sidi Barani and Baqbaq.  The British feared that the Senussi would stir up a rebellion among their followers, who were scattered throughout Egypt.  Although this did not happen, some members of the Egyptian paramilitary border force – the Coastguard – did desert and join the Senussi.  The British forces in Egypt were fully engaged in the campaign in Gallipoli, and so the Western Frontier Force that was formed to meet the threat was made up from odd garrison units and depot troops left behind.  This scratch force, including a unit of armoured cars, pushed west to attack the Senussi, and set up a main base at Marsa Matruh.

The Western Frontier Force’s first two actions went badly as British columns were ambushed near Wadi Senab on 11 December and Wadi Hasheifat on 13 December 1915.  In both cases the Senussi – born and bred desert fighters – hit the columns hard from rough ground and inflicted serious casualties.  When the British slowly fought their way clear of the ambushes and counter-attacked, the Senussi resisted until the British got too close and then melted back into the desert.

Turning the tide

Only on Christmas Day 1915 did the British get a clear victory, when at dawn they attacked and captured a Senussi camp at Jebel Medwa, near Wadi Majid.  Although most of the Senussi tribesmen escaped, their camp was captured along with large amounts of valuable stores and equipment.  After being reinforced with a brigade of South African troops, a much more convincing victory followed on 23 January 1916, when the British routed a major Senussi force and captured their camp in a very hard-fought action at Halazin.

The Senussi Campaign in pictures.

Click on any photo to enlarge, and to open a slideshow. (All images © Stuart Hadaway)


The British now began to benefit from the troops and resources being withdrawn from Gallipoli.  The Western Frontier Force began to push back west along the coast, and attacked another major Senussi camp at Aggagia on 26 February 1916.  The British pushed the Senussi defenders back, and when they began to retreat the Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry launched a devastating cavalry charge into their rearguard.  Hundreds of Senussi were killed or taken prisoner, and large amounts of supplies captured.  One of their main leaders was among those captured, the Ottoman officer Ja’far Pasha Al-Askari.  This broke the back of the Senussi resistance along the coast.  The British now marched on Sollum, which was re-occupied with little resistance on 14 March 1916.  However, just because the Senussi were crumbling did not mean the march was easy; two battalions of the South African Brigade and the Hong Kong and Singapore Mountain Battery found themselves marching across high ground for two days almost without water, and suffered terribly from the heat and thirst.  On 17 March, an armoured car column struck deep into the desert, covering 120 miles in a day to free the survivors from HMS Tara, who had been held in the desert for 19 weeks under appalling conditions.

Into the desert

The Senussi on the coast had been defeated, but they still held many of the large oases in the Western Desert, including Siwa, Bahariya and Farafra.  The British began to isolate these forces, using a combination of blockhouses and fences (as they had used in South Africa against the Boers), and active and aggressive patrols in the desert.  Camel troops and armoured cars travelled through the empty wastelands between the oases, intercepting Senussi supply columns.  The British worked with the Italians, who were still fighting the Senussi in Libya, to cut off their supplies and support.  It was a slow business, but most of the Senussi forces began to be starved out, and in October and November 1916 almost all of the oases were abandoned by the Senussi and reoccupied by the British.  Soon, only the force at Siwa, under the personnel command of the Grand Senussi, remained.

In early February 1917, a strong force of armoured cars was sent to Siwa, attacking at dawn on 3 February.  In fighting over two days, the Senussi forces were routed, and the Grand Senussi fled back into Libya.  The Senussi signed a peace treaty with Britain and Italy in April 1917.


Text by Stuart Hadaway, military historian and former curator of the Air Force Museum, author of Pyramids and Fleshpots: The Egyptian, Senussi and Eastern Mediterranean Campaigns, 1914-16 (Spellmount Publishers Ltd., 2014).