Britain had effectively run Egypt since the 1880s, when that country’s economy had collapsed and the European powers had stepped in to protect their investments. In particular, Britain wanted to protect the Suez Canal. This strategic waterway was the fastest route to their colonies and Dominions in India, New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and the Pacific. These were invaluable sources of raw materials to feed British industry, and they would become even more important as Britain’s factories moved to war production. Demand almost always outstripped supply, and any interruption to the flow of materials to the factories could have major repercussions. Not for nothing did the German Kaiser call the Suez Canal ‘the jugular vein of the British Empire’.
Worries about Muslim unrest
As war spread across Europe in the summer of 1914, the British and Ottoman Empires found themselves on different sides. Egypt was still officially part of the Ottoman Empire, and the British feared a pro-Ottoman or nationalist uprising in the country. They also had a wider concern that war with the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan was also Caliph, the leader of Islam, would lead to widespread rebellions across not just Egypt, but the rest of Africa and into India. Both the British and French Empires contained far more Muslims than the Ottoman Empire did.
Moves towards war
In the end, the Ottomans actively entered the war at the end of October 1914. On 2 November, the British declared Martial Law in Egypt, where troops had already begun pouring in to defend the country and the Canal. On 5 November the British declared war on the Ottomans, and on 18 December 1914 declared Egypt to be a Protectorate. The expected revolts never occurred, although nationalist groups would maintain low levels of agitation throughout the war; these feelings of discontent would spread further through the country as the war progressed, and (despite British promises) the war had an increasing effect on the people and economy of Egypt. These would come to a head after the war in the Egyptian Revolt of 1918 – 1919, leading to Egyptian independence in 1922.
An Egypt photo album
This gallery gives a good impression of the lives of the soldiers serving in Egypt. Click on any photo to enlarge, and to open a slideshow. (All images © Stuart Hadaway)
On the defensive
Militarily, Britain had immediately gone on the defensive in Egypt. The Sinai Desert was abandoned, and a defensive line established on the western bank of the Suez Canal. British, Australian and New Zealand troops poured into the country, but the former were from the Territorial Forces and the latter two contingents the newest of recruits; all of them needed training. Therefore, Indian regular troops were brought in to man the defences, supported by elements of the Egyptian Army. When the Ottomans made their first attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915, these troops easily repulsed the attack, supported by British and French warships stationed along the Canal.
A vast military base
Apart from the Senussi Campaign in the Western Desert later in the year, the rest of 1915 passed without military action in Egypt. The country had become the Base for the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), fighting at Gallipoli. Troops, and particularly supplies were transited through Egypt before being sent to the MEF, and sick and wounded men came back to recover in Egyptian hospitals. In December 1915 and January 1916, when the MEF was pulled out of the Dardanelles, the troops were sent to Egypt to rest, refit, and retrain. Most were then sent to France or Mesopotamia, but four infantry divisions (42nd, 52nd, 53rd and 54th) and the equivalent of two cavalry divisions were kept behind and on 10 March 1916 they were designated the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).
From April 1916, both sides began to build up their forces in the Sinai. The British began developing the wells around Katia and Oghratina ready to build a large advanced base from which to defend the Suez Canal. Unfortunately, the Ottomans also had a similar plan, and the single British cavalry brigade that was protecting the Royal Engineers improving the wells was nearly wiped out when a much larger Ottoman force caught it by surprise. However, the cavalry kept the Ottomans at bay long enough for reinforcements to arrive, and foiled this second attempt to attack the Canal. After this, the British dug in at Romani, and began building a railway and a water pipeline into the desert to supply their forces.
Springing a trap
In August, the Ottomans launched a much larger attack across the Sinai Desert. The British were prepared, and had arranged a trap. While their infantry were well dug in along an obvious line, the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division were strung out in a thin piquet line to the south, where the Ottomans were expected to try and turn the British flank. They did exactly that, and in a confused and desperate night action the Australians and New Zealanders performed an incredible fighting retreat, drawing the Ottomans north. Once at right angles to the infantry line, British and New Zealand cavalry, later supported by infantry, hit the Ottomans in the flank. While the trap had gone to plan, it had only worked due to the incredible courage and fighting performance of the Australian and New Zealand (A&NZ) Mounted Division. The Ottoman force was shattered, and the EEF began a slow pursuit across the desert, moving as fast as their logistics would allow.
The Egyptian Labour Corps
Much of the construction work on the vital railway and pipeline was done by the Egyptian Labour Corps (ELC), locally recruited men who signed up for short and well-paid periods. The men of the ELC also provided other crucial services without which the EEF would not have been able to function, in particular the camel trains that constantly ferried water and other supplies to the front lines. In 1917, as the EEF moved into Palestine and further from Egypt, the periods of service became longer for the ELC, and the British struggled to recruit enough men. Instead, peasants began to be conscripted to work far from home, a deeply unpopular move that helped the spread of nationalism.
The action moves towards Palestine
In late December 1916 and early January 1917 the EEF cleared the last Ottoman garrisons out of the Sinai Desert through a series of large-scale cavalry raids. On 7 January 1917, they crossed the border into Palestine. The fighting moved out of the country, but through the rest of the war crucial materials continued to be supplied by Egypt, while depots, hospitals and training camps continued to support the EEF.
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).