The Western Frontier

The ships had arrived silently in the night at the small Egyptian port city of El Salloum (or Sollum), their cargo carefully unloaded by the few Bedouin residents who had abandoned their nomadic ways and settled the city.  Overseeing the Bedouin workers were thousands of Senussi men, a Sufi-Muslim order of tribesmen from Libya.  A largely nomadic people, like the Bedouin, the Senussi hadn’t come to El Salloum to trade or rest.  The Senussi had come to meet their shipment of thousands of rounds of ammunition, machine guns and even light artillery from Germany and the Ottoman Empire.  The Senussi had come to wage a jihad against the West.

On November 23rd, 1915, in the deserts of Egypt, the Great War had become a Holy War.

The Senussi on the march. Thousands of Senussi, aided by Bedouin allies, tried to force the British out of Egypt

Through the lens of the early 21st Century, the Senussi appear nearly pacifistic.  An off-shoot of the more mystical Sufi-Islamic faith, the Senussi had been founded in the mid-1800s in Mecca as a relative liberal interpretation of Islam.  The movement’s leader, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (or Grand Senussi; a title that survived him), had rebelled against what he perceived as the more conservative orthodoxies of the Ottoman officials in Mecca.  Senussi preached that his followers live lives of voluntary poverty and resist fanaticism in the name of the faith.  Branded by a fatwa condemning his teachings, Senussi moved from Mecca, eventually finding acceptance in the Bedouin communities of the desert.  

Pressed out of the Ottoman heartland, the Senussi eventually settled into what is modern Libya.  By the late 1890s, The Grand Senussi’s relatives and their followers controlled most of the Libyan hinterland, wielding enough influence that a truce developed between the tribe and Constantinople.  For the Turk, the Senussi appeared to be a reasonable check against French incursions from neighboring Chad in exchange for deference from the Ottoman governors.

Ahmed Sharif es Senussi – the leader of the Senussi movement.  His choice to go to war would end his reign

The Italian invasion of 1911 changed the political dynamics in Libya – and started changing the Senussi themselves.  Like the Ottomans before them, the Italians controlled the coastal cities but had a non-existent influence over the Libyan interior.  Unlike the Ottomans, the Italians had less patience for granting the Senussi any religious or political privileges and a low-grade rebellion simmered as the Italians attempted to extend their influence into the desert.  For a movement partially founded on peaceful rebellion to the Ottoman officials, the Senussi were increasingly picking up arms against the Italians.

Eager to keep the bloodshed to a minimum, the Italians had granted the Ottomans certain Islamic judicial and political rights in the Benghazi vilayets (the Eastern provinces of Libya, bordering with Egypt) in an effort to keep the Senussi mollified.  For the Senussi, reporting to an Islamic regent, and having legal matters determined by an Islamic judge, made rendering onto Caesar much easier.  Coupled with the stationing of 100,000 Italian troops, the Senussi acclimated to a tense co-existence with their new Italian governors.

ANZAC troops awaiting the Senussi – the Senussi campaign utilized Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops

Sultan Mehmed V’s call to jihad against the Entente in the fall of 1914 inspired few to the battlefield.  Mehmed V, an effete political dilettante, had crafted the call to arms at the request of Enver Pasha – the senior most official of the Ottoman Empire’s ruling “Three Pashas.”  Neither Enver nor Mehmed V were particularly religious, and the political cynicism of the move was plain to see among the secular and faithful alike.  If anything, the British took the jihad more seriously than the Ottomans, blaming Mehmed V’s pronouncement for the Singapore Mutiny of Indian Muslims in 1915.

Still, the Ottomans saw the opportunity to leverage their role with the Senussi into possibly drawing British forces away from the Suez Canal.  In early 1915, Nuri Bey, Enver Pasha’s half-brother, entered Libya as an envoy of the Ottomans to sit with Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, the new Grand Senussi and grandson of the movement’s founder.  As-Senussi had spent most of the last 15 years at war, whether against the French in Chad or the Italians in Eastern Libya.  Convinced that the Ottoman Empire remained the last bulwark against the total subjugation of the Senussi people, as-Senussi agreed to go to war against the British.

It was a decision that fractured the Senussi movement.  The Senussi could understand going to war against the Italians – indeed, they basically had been since 1911.  But the British had no designs on Senussi territory, nor did they appear as interested in Christian proselytizing as the Italians.  By 1914, the Senussi could rally a standing army of 15,000 men with access to enough production equipment to manufacture a 1,000 rounds of ammo a day.  Now, despite the movement’s leadership allying themselves with the Central Powers, only 5,000 tribesmen joined them as they made camp just over the Egyptian border.

A British “wireless car” – such vehicles allowed for immediate communication over the vast terrain.  They were of little use in Europe as units lacked any sort of real mobility

Over the summer of 1915, British intelligence slowly began to understand what was unfolding in the Egyptian desert.

German U-boat raiding activity had increased off the shores of the Libya/Egyptian border.  The crew of a sunken British ship had been taken prisoner by the Germans and then handed over to the Senussi…who promptly denied they held the men prisoner.  British patrols would come under fire and Entente aircraft, both British and Italian, could spot a growing camp at the Siwa Oasis on the border.  Eager to avoid an uprising in the Western Egyptian desert, and equally concerned about doing anything to inflame Muslim opinions, the British continued to believe the Grand Senussi’s excuses while vainly trying to co-opt anti-Ottoman Islamic leaders to influence the Senussi away from the German camp.

Part of the British strategy was based on their precarious position within Egypt.  With troops in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, the British garrison in Egypt had fallen to only 40,000 soldiers.  The Ottomans had already tried to advance on the Suez Canal earlier in the war and failed.  Concessions to the Senussi had already forced British forces to retreat to Mersa Matruh, only 120 miles away from Alexandria.  And if as-Senussi could rally the Bedouin tribes of the Western desert, which British intelligence believed he could easily do, Britain could find her vital transportation lifeline significantly threatened.

A Captured Senussi – modern sensibilities wouldn’t recognize the Senussi fighters; they took good care of their prisoners (or as best as they could) and none fought with suicidal tactics

By November 23rd, the British had heard that the Senussi had overrun El Salloum.  Even worse, the 134 Egyptian coast guard members stationed there hadn’t even resisted – they joined the Senussi instead.  The revolt the British had tried so desperately to avoid had started.

The challenges the British would face in the Egyptian desert closely matched the same hurdles the Ottomans would soon encounter at the hands of the British-backed Arab Revolt.  A small, mobile force of insurgents could cross the desert and strike at British strongholds at will, forcing Britain into moving troops stationed in the Sinai away in order to defend Egypt’s western frontier.  Unwilling to draw down the forces facing the Ottomans, the British only moved a paltry 5,500 troops towards the Libyan border, setting up camp at Mersa Matruh.  The Senussi potentially had the advantage in numbers.  They definitely had the advantage in knowledge of the terrain.

But the British had the advantage in technology.  The mobility of camel-backed Senussi troops paled in comparison to the speed of armored cars and biplanes in crossing the desert.  Coupled with the use of “wireless cars” – mobile telegraph stations – the British could coordinate air and land units in ways that were previously unimaginable just years earlier.

An Australian light patrol car – simple vehicles like these gave the British a major advantage in mobility

The effectiveness of such tactics became apparent with the first British counterattacks.  In early December, members of what was now being called the “Western Frontier Force” engaged Senussi tribesmen only 16 miles from Mersa Matruh.  The attacking force of 300 Senussi was easily repulsed with heavy casualties, but was quickly discovered to be a scouting party of a much larger Senussi column of 1,500 men supported by machine gun units and two pieces of light artillery.  The 300 men had meant to distracted the advancing British while the main part of the Senussi army attempted to outflank them, but the move had been spotted by aircraft.

Racing through the desert in their armored cars, the British were able to surprise the Senussi, hitting the enemy column in the center while cavalry units and artillery struck at the Senussi left flank.  Despite being outnumbered, and fighting with Commonwealth troops with little battle experience, the British were able to coordinate their tactics faster than the Senussi could ever hope to accomplish.  Devastated by the speed of the British attack, and harried by British planes, the Senussi were beaten back with well over 300 casualties.

The defeat didn’t lessen the Senussi’s desire to take the offensive.  Utilizing a spat of terrible weather from mid-December to nearly Christmas, the Senussi moved 5,000 troops – the heart of their army – to within six miles of Mersa Matruh.  Another nearly 2,000 men, their numbers swelled by recent Bedouin recruits, attempted to move around Mersa Matruh, cutting off communications with Alexandria.  Desperate to prevent losing their lifeline to the rest of the British Army in Egypt, the Western Frontier Force struck the two columns trying to surround Mersa Matruh on Christmas night.  Speed, and British artillery, made short work of the Senussi.  In two major battles that December, the Senussi had lost over 600 men for only 150 British losses.

Italian light aircraft – Italian and British air reconnaissance was a decisive factor in finding and harassing the Senussi columns invading Egypt

As 1916 approached, the Senussi retreated.  The threat of a larger Muslim uprising against the Suez Canal had all but completely disappeared.  But the battle to drive the Senussi out of Egypt had only begun.

To the British public, the Senussi campaign hearkened to the colonial adventures of the 19th century.  Battles that left hundreds dead were romantically given names as “The Affair of the Wadi Majid” or the “Action of Agagia.”  The image of a small-band of British regulars chasing the “noble savages” of the Senussi across the endless expanse of the Egyptian desert read more as a serialized novel than a report from the grisly frontlines of France.  The human toll barely registered in a conflict killing millions – especially when the casualty figures often spoke of the number of camels, sheep or grains the British had managed to destroy of their Senussi enemy.

The campaign was not as romantic to the Senussi.  Despite having lost hundreds of men in several battles, and being forced to regroup, the Senussi had not lost their willingness to fight.  On January 19th, 1916, the major engagement of the war was fought at Halazin, 22 miles southwest of Mersa Matruh.  The Grand Senussi himself encamped at Halazin, hoping that his presence would turn around his army’s fortunes.  Attacked by the British with the same flanking tactics that worked before, the Senussi responded reasonably better, including managing to stop the New Zealand left flank of the assault.  But air and artillery attacks again weakened the Senussi line.  By the end of the battle, 700 Senussi were dead or captured, and what remained of the army was in retreat.  However, the British were in no position to pursue, having lost over 300 men themselves.

The Media War in the Desert – British press had a field day covering the Senussi campaign, especially when notable members of the royalty like Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster drove armored cars in the fight

Halazin took the fight out of the Senussi.  By mid-March of 1916, even with Ottoman soldiers and advisers having been smuggled into their ranks, the Senussi had lost most of the territory they had gained in the fall of 1915.  El Salloum, where the campaign had started, was once again in British hands.  An internal revolt within the Senussi order was ending the war as much as events on the battlefield.  Humiliated by his defeat in a war that divided his followers, Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi abdicated his title as Grand Senussi to his cousin, Mohammed Idris, who was far more interested in what concessions he could wrangle from the British and Italians at the peace table.  For removing the Senussi back over the Libyan border, Idris was granted the title of Emir of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and was recognized by both the British and Italians as the leading voice for Libyan independence.

There would be skirmishes for the remainder of the war, with small bands of Senussi fighting the British, but for the rest of the Great War the Senussi either continued their low-grade war against the Italians or simply chose to sit out the conflict.

King Idris I of Libya inspects troops with his British advisers in WWII – the seeds of the Senussi campaign reached into the Second World War and today

The significance of the Senussi campaign was not for what occurred (2,500 total casualties on both sides for what amounted to a minor uprising), but how it intersected with so many other agendas and personalities in the Great War and beyond.

For the Ottomans, the Senussi uprising was the end of their religious influence.  The Ottomans tried repeatedly to invoke a religious or ethnic component to the Great War, and failed on every occasion.  The Young Turk revolt had turned Turkey further towards a secular vision for the nation, and in the process, the religious title of Caliph that the Ottoman Sultans had claimed lost any significance for most Muslims.  The search for a renewed Caliphate remains a major component of the current wars in the Middle East.

In Libya itself, the Senussi uprising re-committed the Italians to pacifying Libya.  In the early 1920s, the Italians preferred to conquer from within, working with figures like Mohammed Idris and co-opting the Ottoman’s lost role as defenders of the Islamic faith.  Even Mussolini as late as 1937 took the claim “Protector of Islam” as one of his many honorary titles.  But in between those years, the Italian rule was brutal, massacring thousands of Senussi whose resisted.  The Italians attempted to outnumber the native Libyans, moving thousands of ventimilli (settlers) into the territory, much as they did in Abyssinia.  Mohammed Idris would flee the country in the mid 1920s and led a resistance from Egypt.  For his efforts, he would be crowned King Idris I, ruling until 1969 when he was deposed by Muammar Gaddafi.

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