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The Egyptian Western Desert, November 1915 to February 1916 



Introduction
   

In 1914, the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs went to fight in France with the 3rd Lahore Division, but in late 1915 the Regiment was posted to Egypt where it operated against a much more traditional and tribal enemy.

Working from eastern Libya, Sayed Ahmed, known as the Senussi, was the leader of a sect of devout Muslims.  His men had been fighting the Italian occupiers of Libya with considerable success. They were trained and assisted by a group of Turkish military officers led by Nuri Bey, half-brother of the Turkish War Minister, Enver Pasha.  During 1915 German submarines began supporting the Turkish effort with the Senussi’s army by transporting Turks and weapons to Eastern Libya and attacking shipping along the Egyptian coast.  The Senussi was at first reluctant to fight Britain, but in the end Nuri Bey persuaded him to join the Turkish Holy War and to invade Egypt.  The Allied reverses at Gallipoli doubtless influenced the Senussi’s thoughts and actions.  

In early November 1915, a German submarine sank the British ships Tara and Moorina off the western Egyptian coast, and the British survivors of these attacks were handed over by the submarine to the Senussi who arranged their captivity. The Senussi’s troops then harassed and fired upon the British outposts at Sollum and Sidi el Barrani.  British Headquarters in Cairo decided that a withdrawal was necessary, and all British troops west of Matruh were ordered to move to that location.  At Sollum, the most westerly British post, the withdrawal was effected rather too hastily, as the Egyptian Army garrison of the fort was left behind.  During the withdrawal, many Egyptian Coastguards deserted to the Senussi with their weapons and camels. The Senussi’s followers now occupied and pillaged all the abandoned British locations. 

The first action at Wadi Senab   

 On the 20th November 1915, the British formed the Western Frontier Force (WFF). The commander was Major-General A. Wallace and he assembled his force at Matruh.  A light railway moved the men and mounts from Alexandria to Dabaa, and from there the men marched or were shipped the seventy-five miles to Matruh.   

The WFF contained an infantry brigade composed of three partially-trained British battalions, the 6th Royal Scots and the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex, plus the 15th Sikhs.  The other main component of the WFF was the cavalry brigade consisting of three composite British Yeomanry regiments and a composite regiment of Australian Light Horse.  Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan commanded the infantry, and Brigadier-General J.D.T. Tyndale-Biscoe commanded the cavalry.  The 15th Sikhs was the only regular major unit.  The one artillery battery, the Notts Battery Royal Horse Artillery, was to perform very well in the forthcoming actions.  

By the 3rd December the British garrison at Matruh numbered 1,400 men.  New arrivals included ‘A’ Battery. Honourable Artillery Company, two 4-inch guns manned by Royal Marines, two aircraft of the 17th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and a six-car detachment from the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division.  Meanwhile, over 2,000 of the Senussi’s men were believed to be moving south and west of Matruh.  

On the 11th December, General Wallace sent out a column to disperse a group of enemy reported to be at Duwwar Hussein, sixteen miles west of Matruh.  Lieutenant-Colonel J.L.R. Gordon, 15th Sikhs, was appointed Column Commander.  The column consisted of the 15th Sikhs, less two companies, the 2nd Composite Yeomanry Regiment, a section of guns of the Notts Battery and a detachment of armoured cars.  Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon took his infantry along a track that followed the telegraph line westwards to Sollum, while the cavalry, guns and armoured cars used a road to the south-west, known as the Khedivial Motor Road, which also led to Sollum. 

Left: Men believed to be the Senussi's followers captured by British Yeomanry

The mounted column departed at 07.00 hrs on 11th December, but the cavalry moved so quickly that the scouts could not keep sufficiently ahead of the main body.  Around 300 enemy were waiting to the north of the road in the Wadi (valley) Senab, and they successfully ambushed the cavalry.  Attempts made to turn the enemy’s right flank were driven back by heavy fire, and a stalemate existed until a squadron of Australian Light Horse arrived from Matruh in the afternoon.  Then, using artillery support, the cavalry forced the enemy group out of its position.  Eighty dead and seven prisoners were left behind by the Senussi troops.  British losses were sixteen killed and seventeen wounded.  During this action Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon continued along his track and established a firm base at the Umm Er Rakham wells.  The cavalry joined him here during the night.   

As the cavalry mounts were now exhausted, the 12th December was spent in resting and in rounding up nearby enemy stock.  The 6th Royal Scots, less two companies, joined Gordon during the night of the 12th, as did a convoy of stores.  On the following morning at 08.30 hrs, Gordon marched west to Wadi Hasheifat planning to turn south up the wadi towards Duwwar Hussein.  As the track was expected to be unfit for heavy wheels, the sixty 1st Line Transport pack mules of the 15th Sikhs were loaded with reserve ammunition and extra water for the column.  One company of the 15th Sikhs was left to guard the camp.   

As the British column approached the Wadi Hasheifat from the east, the cavalry was forward and dispersed, No. 2 Company of the 15th Sikhs was the advanced guard, and two platoons of the Royal Scots formed the left flank guard.  Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon heard heavy firing on his left and observed his left flank guard running very swiftly towards the shore, pursued by an equal number of uniformed and well-drilled soldiers who used formations and cover as they followed up the fleeing Royal Scots. The British soldiers were making no attempt to engage the enemy, who were troops of the Muhafizia, the Senussi’s regular army trained by the Turks.  The Sikhs’ two machine guns came into action to halt the enemy advance.

Right: Muhafizia troops (a post-Great War photo).

Many more of the enemy now appeared and Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon decided to fight on the edge of the plateau that rose from the coastal plain.  The Royal Scots were ordered to move forward and to the left, and the cavalry were brought back to man the right of the line; however the cavalry took some time to reorganize, and the Royal Scots appeared unwilling to advance.  This left the advanced guard, which had occupied some mounds, in an exposed position and Gordon ordered it to withdraw towards the headquarters.  The 15th Sikhs’ company commander, Captain C.F.W. Hughes, replied that he could not comply with the order unless he abandoned his wounded, and that he was therefore obliged to hold his ground.  The enemy increased the pressure around 10.00 hrs by bringing 4-inch guns into action and by effectively deploying machine guns.   

Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon radioed back to the camp at Umm Rakham ordering forward all reinforcements that could be spared, and the machine gun section of the Royal Scots and seventy-five men of the Australian Service Corps, armed with rifles, were sent forward. As these reinforcements approached the main body, an enemy machine gun engaged them.  This induced the Royal Scots machine gun section to break and run for cover with their guns into the sand dunes on the beach, but the Australians stayed and fought well.  Finally two squadrons of Australian Light Horse came forward from Matruh and escorted two Royal Horse Artillery field guns onto the beach where they engaged the Senussi’s warriors.  Also HMS Clematis, a newly-built submarine trawler mounting two 4-inch guns, appeared offshore and fired at the enemy positions.  A lucky British shell exploded amongst one of the largest groups of enemy, scattering it, and that was the turning-point of the action.  The enemy began to withdraw, and as his machine guns ceased firing the Royal Scots advanced to their nominated objective.  The 15th Sikhs advanced guard regrouped and evacuated its four dead and nineteen wounded.

Knowing he could not achieve a decisive result and aware of the fatigue felt by men and mounts, Lieut.-Colonel Gordon withdrew his men to their camp and on the next day the column returned to Matruh.  British casualties amounted to nine killed and fifty-six wounded whilst enemy casualties were around 100 killed and wounded. The Official History comments:  

‘The enemy had been driven off, but had been able to retire unmolested, and must be given credit for the surprise and the vigour of his attack.  Had the standard of training and the experience of the whole column been equal to those of the 15th Sikhs, the Senussi might have been heavily defeated.’ 

The action around the Wadi Majid   

Bad weather now prevented operations for ten days and during this time the 1st Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade arrived to join the WFF.  Meanwhile British aerial reconnaissance reported that the enemy was concentrating 900 Muhafizia in three battalions, plus four mountain guns and two machine guns, six miles south-west of Matruh where Jebel (mountain) Medwa dominated the road to Sollum.  General Wallace hoped to surprise the enemy force, and at 05.00 hrs on 25th December two columns moved out from Matruh.   

The southern composite cavalry column under Brigadier Tyndale-Biscoe detoured on a southern loop through Wadi Toweiwa, attempting to position itself to prevent an enemy withdrawal.  The infantry column, comprising the 15th Sikhs, 1st N.Z. Rifle Brigade and 2/8th Middlesex, plus supporting arms, advanced down the Sollum road. General Wallace’s headquarters followed the infantry column. The only effective signaling sub-unit in the force was the 15th Sikhs signals platoon.  Lieut.-Colonel Gordon, who had asked to command his battalion rather than do a job that General Wallace could easily manage, was ordered to command the infantry column. Major G. Pennefather-Evans commanded the 15th Sikhs.  As dawn broke, an enemy outpost spotted the British advance and gave the alarm by lighting a huge bonfire.   

Observing that Jebel Medwa was not occupied, Gordon sent one of the two 15th Sikh companies forming the advanced guard to seize the Jebel, and this was achieved without opposition.  At around 08.00 hrs an enemy mountain gun began to shell the road from a ridge west of Jebel Medwa where the enemy battalions were forming up.  This caused the 15th Sikhs to open out into artillery (i.e. dispersed) formation, astride of but well clear of the road.  With Lieut.-Colonel Gordon using his telescope and acting as an observer, the Notts Battery engaged and silenced the enemy gun from a range of 2,000 yards, whilst shells from HMS Clematis also fell on the enemy-occupied ridge from a range of 10,000 yards.  

Lieut-Colonel Gordon requested General Wallace to relieve the Sikh company on Jebel Medwa, and a company of the Middlesex did this.  The 15th Sikhs now advanced on the enemy ridge on a frontage of 200 yards, with the 1st New Zealand Rifles following.  Companies of New Zealanders were placed as guards on each flank as the Sikhs moved briskly across an open plateau.  The advance was halted 800 yards from the enemy to allow the cavalry to appear and take up position. As the cavalry did not appear, the advance continued but now with both New Zealand companies on the right flank.  As the British troops moved onto the ridge the enemy broke and fled, some of them hiding in caves and gullies where they were shot or bayoneted.  The whole of the ridge was secured by 10.00 hrs.  Gordon now brought the guns forward onto the plateau where they fired into the retreating enemy.  Regrettably the cavalry was not in position to complete the destruction of the Muhafizia battalions.   

The southern column had first been delayed by moving its guns over difficult terrain, and then had been engaged at around 08.00 hours by enemy camelry and horsed cavalry who had anticipated the British cavalry move. Although machine gun fire finally dispersed the enemy, this contact disrupted the column’s advance.  At 15.00 hrs the cavalry column appeared but by then the battle was nearly over. The enemy had retreated into Wadi Majid followed by the Sikhs and New Zealanders.  The enemy camp in the wadi was set alight and the Muhafizia rearguard, demoralized but still fighting effectively, was driven onto the beach.  Some of the enemy feigned death or wounds, but then opened fire at close range.  This so enraged the Sikhs that any of these men taken alive were thrown into the burning tents. 

Left: A German World War 1 postcard depicting a British defeat.

The light was fading and at 17.00 hrs Colonel Gordon broke off the infantry pursuit, ordering the battalions to bivouac on Jebel Medwa.  The mounted troops returned to Matruh that night, followed by the infantry early the next morning, 26th December.  British losses had been thirteen killed and fifty-one wounded.  The Senussi’s force lost between 300 and 400 dead, and eighty prisoners were taken.   





The action at Halazin.
    

The 15th Sikhs were now involved in two minor operations as a result of aerial observation of enemy encampments.  On the 28th December  a column marched out to Bir Gerawla, twelve miles south-east of Matruh, and on 12th January 1916  another column marched to Jebel Howeimil, thirty-five miles in a similar direction and fifteen miles south of the coast at Baqqush.  In both cases the camps were found to be deserted and were burned down.  Live-stock in the immediate vicinities was seized.   

On 19th January an aeroplane located the main enemy camp at Halazin, twenty-two miles south-west of Matruh.  Over 300 tents were observed, one of them belonging to the Senussi himself.  General Wallace left Matruh at 04.00 hrs on 22nd January with an infantry and a mounted column. A South African battalion now joined the WFF. The right-hand infantry column was  commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Gordon and the left-hand mounted column by Brigadier Tyndale-Biscoe.  The force bivouacked in bad weather at Bir Shola, just over half way to Halazin.  On the 23rd, Gordon’s column advanced on a compass bearing directly towards the enemy whilst the mounted column echeloned to the left front of the infantry. Motor transport experienced extreme difficulty on the sodden ground, and the armoured cars returned to Matruh.  

By 09.25 hrs the cavalry were in action against parties of the Senussi’s men and Brigadier Biscoe requested the infantry to attack whilst the cavalry manoevred against the enemy’s right flank.  At 10.00 hrs the 15th Sikhs advanced with No. 1 Company leading, No. 2 Company 200 yards behind, and No. 3 and No. 4 Company 300 yards further to the rear.  Each company echeloned its platoons to the left.  Support was provided by the 2nd South African Infantry, the 1st New Zealand rifles and the covering fire of four guns of the Notts Battery.  The enemy displayed considerable skill in withdrawing to prepared defences and made good use of mountain guns and machine guns, causing attrition amongst the British troops.  Seeing that his right flank was being aggressively turned by parties of the enemy, Gordon reinforced that flank, first with two companies of South Africans, then with a company of New Zealanders with machine guns, and finally by a company of Royal Scots.   

Meanwhile, on the British force’s left flank the cavalry was also outflanked and receiving effective enemy machine gun and artillery fire. Despite receiving reserves, the mounted troops were gradually driven in.  Two companies of New Zealanders were sent to stabilize the left flank, which they did, and the remaining New Zealand company advanced on the left of the Sikhs.  The shape of the British advance now resembled a horse shoe with the Sikhs in the centre of the curve.  The British infantry did not flinch, despite the open ground it crossed and the punishment it took. By 14.45 hrs the Sikhs, New Zealanders and South Africans were through the enemy camp and into the entrenchments.  

The enemy defenders broke and retreated into the desert, abandoning their position.  The British cavalry mounts needed water and were not in a condition to pursue, so again the Senussi’s men escaped.  The British had lost one British officer and twenty men killed, ten British and three Indian officers and 278 other ranks wounded.  The 15th Sikhs suffered eighteen men killed and two British and three Indian officers and 115 men wounded.  The Senussi escaped, but he had lost around 200 men killed, including Turkish troops, and up to 500 wounded.  General Wallace camped two miles to the east, and the non-walking or riding wounded had to be carried through the wet ground on stretchers. The British force took two days to complete its withdrawal to Matruh.   

Jemadar Basant Singh, 15th Sikhs, received the Indian Order of Merit for gallantry at Halazin, the only I.O.M. granted for this action. In addition, eight other ranks of the 15th Sikhs were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. These awards were promulgated in GO 1531 of 14th September 1917.  

Conclusion. 

The Senussi and his followers continued to present a security threat in the Western Desert for a further twelve months.  But the participation of the 15th Sikhs in the campaign was over, as the regiment now received orders to proceed to India.  The 15th Sikhs had borne the brunt of the fighting so far, and had provided the backbone for a very untrained, inexperienced and under-staffed Western Frontier Force.  The regiment had acquitted itself with distinction, and for its services in this theatre it received the honour ‘Egypt 1915-17.’ As a result of the post-war reforms of the Indian Army, it became the 2nd Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment.  ___________ 

Sources
Russell McGuirk, The Sanusi’s Little War;
The 15th Sikhs War Diary
(copy kindly provided by Russell McGuirk);
Lieut.-General Sir George Macmunn & Captain Cyril Falls, Official History of the War, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine, from the outbreak of war with Germany to June 1917;
Field Marshall Lord Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Turkish Front 1914-18;
Peter Duckers, Reward of Valor, The Indian Order of Merit 1914-1918;
Rana Chhina, The Indian Distinguished Service Medal.


(This article appeared in a recent edition of Durbar, the Journal of the Indian Military Historical Society.)

For the complete selection of maps relating to this article please click HERE
 
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