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Military operations in North Africa during World War I

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Military operations in North Africa during World War I

Anglo-Indian troops of the Hyderabad Lancers in Egypt, 1916

Conflicts took place in North Africa during World War I (1914–1918), between the Senussi, who sided with the Ottoman Empire against the British Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. On 14 November 1914, the Ottoman Sultan proclaimed Jihad and sought to create a diversion to draw British troops from the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. The Italian state wished to preserve the gains they had made in the Italo-Turkish War. The Senussi Campaign took place in north Africa, from 23 November 1915 – February 1917.

In the summer of 1915, the Ottoman Empire persuaded the Grand Senussi Ahmed Sharif es Senussi, to attack British-occupied Egypt from the west, raise jihad and encourage an insurrection in support of an Ottoman offensive against the Suez Canal from the east. The Senussi crossed the Libyan-Egyptian border at the coast in November 1915. British Empire forces withdrew at first and then defeated the Senussi in several engagements, including the Battle of Agagia. The British re-captured the territory along the coast by March 1916, with the Western Frontier Force of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which included the 1st South African Infantry Brigade.

Further west, the inhabitants of areas recently conquered or seized by European powers from the Ottoman empire, exploited the unsettled conditions caused by the war in Europe, to regain control of their lands. Uprisings took place in Morocco and Niger against the French colonialists, some of which lasted longer than World War I. In Sudan hostilities began between the Anglo-Egyptians and the Sultan of Darfur, who was believed to have prepared an invasion of Egypt, to be synchronised with Senussi operations on the western frontier. Operations by the British were conducted by small numbers of men equipped with motor vehicles, aircraft and wireless, which multiplied their effectiveness and enabled them frequently to surprise their opponents by the speed of their manoeuvres.


North Africa in 1914

Before 1906, when the Senussi became involved in resistance against the French, they had been a "relatively peaceful religious sect of the Sahara Desert, opposed to fanaticism". When the Italians invaded Libya in 1911, occupying the coast, the Senussi resisted the Italians from the interior of the country. During their resistance against the Italians, the Senussi maintained generally friendly relations with the British in Egypt.[1] The region had been annexed by Italy in 1911 after the Italo-Turkish War and by France in 1912 and control had not been consolidated by the Italians when the war began in Europe. After the loss of the province of Trablusgarp to Italy in the war of 1911–1912, the local Sanusi people continued with their resistance against the Italians. Fighting was conducted by Sanusi militia under the leadership of Ahmad al-Sharif, whose followers in Fezzan (southwest Libya) and southern Tripolitania prevented Italian consolidation their hold on these regions. The Ottoman government never ceased to provide assistance to the local tribesmen in the region.[2]

Military operations


Zaian War, 1914–1921

The Zaian War was fought between Central Powers to the Zaian Confederation and raids which caused losses to the French when already short of manpower.[3]


Kaocen revolt

The Sanusiya leadership in the Fezzan town of Kufra Oasis declared Jihad against the French colonialists in October 1914. The Sultan of Agadez convinced the French that the Tuareg remained loyal but forces loyal to Kaocen besieged the garrison on 17 December 1916. Kaocen, his brother Mokhtar Kodogo and c. 1,000 Tuareg raiders, armed with rifles and a field gun defeated several French relief columns. The Tuareg seized the main towns of the Aïr (modern northern Nigeria), including Ingall, Assodé and Aouderas.[4] On 3 March 1917, a large French force from Zinder relieved the Agadez garrison and began to recapture the towns. Mass reprisals were taken against the town populations, especially against marabouts, though many were neither Tuareg or rebels and the French summarily murdered 130 people in public in Agadez and Ingal. Kaocen fled north and was killed in 1919, by local forces in Mourzouk. Mokhtar Kodogo was killed by the French in 1920, after leading a revolt by the Toubou and Fula in the Sultanate of Damagaram.[4]


Senussi Campaign

Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 and in the summer of 1915, Turkish envoys, including Nuri Bey, brother of Enver Pasha, and Jaafar Pasha, a Baghdadi Arab serving in the Turkish army, negotiated an agreement with the Grand Senussi, Sayyid Ahmed ash-Sharif, to attack the British in Egypt from the west, during the Ottoman offensive through Palestine against the Suez Canal. By late 1915, British forces in Egypt were in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia; western Egypt was garrisoned by the Egyptian coastguard. The Ottomans and their German ally, delivered modern weaponry by submarine to the Senussi. German and Turkish officers were also transported by submarine and landed on 19 May 1915 to the west of Sollum and set up headquarters at Siwa.[5]

The Senussi raised 5,000 infantry and other irregular troops, equipped with Turkish artillery and machine-guns for campaigns along the coast, to attack Sollum, Mersa Matruh and Da'aba on the way to Alexandria and from Siwa through the "band of oases" of Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga 100 miles (160 km) west of the Nile. The Senussi crossed the Egyptian–Libyan border on 21 November 1915 to begin the coastal campaign.[6] At the Egyptian border, 300–400 men attacked a frontier post and were repulsed. In February 1916, Sayed Ahmed accompanied the Senussi against the band of oases. Several oases were captured and then lost in October 1916 to British forces; the Senussi retired from Egypt in February 1917.[7] In November Senussi forces occupied Jaafar.[8][9]


Western Desert, 1914–1918

On 6 November the German submarine U–35 torpedoed and sank a steamer HMS Tara in the Bay of Sollum. U-35 surfaced, sank the coastguard gun-boat Abbas and badly damaged Nur el Bahr with its deck gun. On 14 November the Senussi attacked an Egyptian position at Sollum and on the night of 17 November a party of Senussi fired into Sollum, as another party cut the coast telegraph line. Next night a monastery at Sidi Barrani, 48 miles (77 km) beyond Sollum was occupied by 300 Muhafizia and on the night of 19 November a coastguard was killed. An Egyptian post was attacked 30 miles (48 km) east of Sollum on 20 November. The British withdrew from Sollum to Mersa Matruh, 120 miles (190 km) further east, which had better facilities for a base and the Western Frontier Force was created.[10][Note 1]

On 11 December a British column sent to Duwwar Hussein was attacked along the Matruh–Sollum track and in the Affair of Wadi Senba, drove the Senussi out of the wadi.[12] The reconnaissance continued and on 13 December at Wadi Hasheifiat the British were attacked again and held up until artillery came into action in the afternoon and forced the Senussi to retreat. The British returned to Matruh until 25 December and then made a night advance to surprise the Senussi. At the Affair of Wadi Majid, the Senussi were defeated but were able to withdraw to the west.[13] Air reconnaissance found more Senussi encampments in the vicinity of Matruh at Halazin, which was attacked on 23 January, in the Affair of Halazin. The Senussi fell back skilfully and then attempted to envelop the British flanks. The British were pushed back on the flanks as the centre advanced and defeated the main body of Senussi, who were again able to withdraw.[14]

In February 1916, the Western Frontier Force was reinforced and a British column was sent west along the coast to re-capture Sollum. Air reconnaissance discovered a Senussi encampment at Agagia, which was attacked in the Action of Agagia on 26 February. The Senussi were defeated and then intercepted by the Dorset Yeomanry as they withdrew; the Yeomanry charged across open ground swept by machine-gun and rifle fire. The British lost half their horses and 58 of 184 men but prevented the Senussi from slipping away. Jaafar Pasha the commander of the Senussi forces on the coast was captured and Sollum was re-occupied by British forces on 14 March 1916, which concluded the coastal campaign.[15]

Band of Oases

On 11 February 1916 the Senussi and Sayyid Ahmed ash-Sharif occupied the oasis at Bahariya, which was then bombed by British aircraft. The oasis at Farafra was occupied at the same time and then the Senussi moved on to the oasis at Dakhla on 27 February. The British responded by forming the Southern Force at Beni Suef. Egyptian officials at Kharga were withdrawn and the oasis was occupied by the Senussi, until they withdrew without being attacked. The British reoccupied the oasis on 15 April and began to extend the light railway terminus at Kharga to the Moghara Oasis. The mainly Australian Imperial Camel Corps patrolled on camels and in light Ford cars and cut off the Senussi from the Nile Valley. Preparations to attack the oasis at Bahariya were detected by the Senussi garrison, which withdrew to Siwa in early October. The Southern Force attacked the Senussi in the Affairs in the Dakhla Oasis (17–22 October, after which the Senussi retreated to their base at Siwa.[16]

In January 1917, a British column including the Light Armoured Car Brigade with Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars and three Light Car Patrols, was dispatched to Siwa. On 3 February the armoured cars surprised and engaged the Senussi at Girba, who retreated overnight. Siwa was entered on 4 February without opposition but a British ambush party at the Munassib Pass was foiled, when the escarpment was found to be too steep for the armoured cars. The light cars managed to descend the escarpment and captured a convoy on 4 February. Next day the Senussi from Girba were intercepted but managed to establish a post the cars were unable to reach and then warned the rest of the Senussi The British force returned to Matruh on 8 February and Sayyid Ahmed withdrew to Jaghbub. Negotiations between Sayed Idris and the Anglo-Italians which had begun in late January, were galvanised by news of the Senussi defeat at Siwa. At Akramah on 12 April, Idris accepted the British terms and those of Italy on 14 April.[17]


Darfur expedition

On 1 March 1916 hostilities began between the Sudanese government and the Sultan of Darfur.[18] The Anglo-Egyptian Darfur Expedition was conducted, to forestall an imagined invasion of c. 2,000 men at Rahad, a railhead 200 miles (320 km) east of the Darfur frontier. On 16 March, the force crossed the frontier mounted in lorries from a forward base established at Nahud, 90 miles (140 km) from the border, with the support of four aircraft. By May the force was close to the Darfur capital of El Fasher. At the Affair of Beringia on 22 May, the Fur Army was defeated and the Anglo-Egyptian force captured the capital the next day. Dinar and 2,000 followers had left before their arrival and as they moved south, were bombed from the air.[20]

French troops in Chad who had returned from the Kamerun Campaign, prevented a Darfurian withdrawal westwards. Dinar withdrew into the Marra mountains 50 miles (80 km) south of El Fasher and sent envoys to discuss terms but the British believed he prevaricating and ended the talks on 1 August. Internal dissension reduced the force with Dinar to c. 1,000 men and Anglo-Egyptian outposts were pushed out from El Fasher to the west and south-west, after the August rains. A skirmish took place at Dibbis on 13 October and Dinar opened negotiations but was again suspected of bad faith. Dinar fled south-west to Gyuba and a small force was sent in pursuit. At dawn on 6 November the Anglo-Egyptians attacked in the Affair of Gyuba and Dinar's remaining followers scattered. The body of the Sultan was found 1 mile (1.6 km) from the camp.[21] After the expedition, Darfur was incorporated into Sudan.[22]


  1. ^ The Western Frontier Force was composed of three Territorial infantry battalions (1/6th Royal Scots, 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex Regiment), the 15th Sikhs, three new cavalry regiments formed from the rear details of Yeomanry and Australian Light Horse units who fought at Gallipoli as infantry, Royal Naval Air Service ("RNAS") armoured cars, the Nottingham Royal Horse Artillery and two aircraft of 17 Squadron Royal Flying Corps ("RFC"), under the command of Major-General A. Wallace.[11]


  1. ^ Strachan 2001, p. 745.
  2. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 409–411.
  3. ^ Strachan 2001, p. 767.
  4. ^ a b Fuglestad 1973, pp. 82–121.
  5. ^ Evans-Pritchard 1949, p. 121.
  6. ^ Carver 2003, p. 186.
  7. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 65.
  8. ^ McGuirk 2007, pp. 5, 8.
  9. ^ Wavell 1933, pp. 37–38.
  10. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 106–107.
  11. ^ Bostock 1982, p. 28.
  12. ^ Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 210.
  13. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 110–113, 113–118.
  14. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 119–123.
  15. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 123–129.
  16. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 135–140.
  17. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, pp. 140–144.
  18. ^ Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 211.
  19. ^ Strachan 2001, pp. 749, 747.
  20. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, p. 151.
  21. ^ Strachan 2001, p. 749.
  22. ^ Macmunn & Falls 1928, p. 153.


Further reading

External links

  • Le Operazione Militari in Libia e Nel Sahara 1914–1918 di Alberto Rosselli
  • La disfatta di Gasr Bu Hàdi
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