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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—General. — The Senussi sect—Senussi unrest—Enemy influence—Commencement of hostilities—Enemy strength—Western Frontier Force

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Part 1.—General.

The Senussi sect—Senussi unrest—Enemy influence—Commencement of hostilities—Enemy strength—Western Frontier Force.

The Senussi sect may be described as the Puritans of the Moslems. The doctrine of its founder, Sidi Mohammed ben Ali es Senussi, who was born in Algeria in 1787 and completed his education at Mecca, was the Koranic Law in its original simplicity as delivered by the Prophet. He rapidly gained a religious following throughout the north of Africa from Tunis to Egypt, and even in Arabia, and from one end to the other of this great stretch of country he established zawias or monasteries for the propagation of the pure principles of the faith. He eventually settled in the Benghazi district, or Cyrenaica, the area just beyond Egypt's western frontier. Sidi Mohammed died in 1859 and was succeeded by his son Mohammed el Mahdi, whose reputation for sanctity and power extended throughout the whole of northern Africa, the Soudan and Arabia, and was not unknown in Europe. On the death of Mohammed el Mahdi in 1902, his nephew, Ahmed el Sherif, a grandson of the founder, was elected to the headship of the sect, his own eldest son, Sidi Mohammed Idris, being then a minor. The new ruler was known as Sayed Ahmed, or more commonly as The Senussi.

Though begun as an ascetic religious confraternity, the Senussi brotherhood has expanded and developed from a loose association of tribes to a dynastic entity with a mercantile and political influence not less important than that of any other people in Northern Africa. The rise of The Senussi to temporal power came with the war waged between Italy and Turkey in Tripoli, which lies just to the west of Cyrenaica. Through the influence of Enver Pasha. Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish forces in Tripoli. The Senussi was induced to cooperate with the Turks against the Italians. On the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from Tripoli and Cyrenaica he page 25considered himself the virtual ruler of these districts, and, as such, continued the struggle with Italy. In his efforts he had the assistance of several Turkish officers who remained behind after the declaration of peace.

Sayed Ahmed was not personally anti-British. He had established friendly relations with Egypt, and his cousin and agent, who lived at Alexandria, was held in high regard by Europeans and Egyptians alike. The Senussi's disapproval of the Mahdist movement in Eastern Soudan won for him the approval of the Sirdar, Sir Reginald Wingate. General surprise, therefore, not unmixed with some consternation, was felt when it was announced in November, 1915, that it had been necessary to withdraw the Egyptian garrisons from western frontier posts, and when it was learned that shortly afterwards Western Egypt was invaded by a considerable force of Arabs, Turks and Berbers, under Saved Ahmed, augmented by some thousands of Egyptian Bedouin. The danger of an invasion of Egypt from Syria had been foreseen, but the menace from the Senussi movement was much more serious than the Turkish attempt from the Sinai Peninsula to cross the Canal, for trouble on the Western Frontier might easily lead to serious religious and internal disorders.

The invasion is directly traceable to Turco-German influence. Signs that pressure on The Senussi to move against Egypt was beginning to take effect were first apparent in May, 1915. During the previous month Gaafar Pasha, described as "a Germanized Turk of considerable ability," had arrived in Cyrenaica with large supplies of arms and ammunition. There he joined Nury Bey, the half-brother of Enver Pasha, leader of the Turkish party in Cyrenaica. Later, a number of Turks and Germans gained access to the country by means of disguise. In June the French captured in the Eastern Mediterranean a sailing-boat flying the Greek flag, provided with false papers, and carrying a party of Turks whose luggage consisted of valuable presents for Sayed Ahmed. From the German Kaiser was sent, in a handsome embossed casket, a letter to The Senussi couched in the usual bombastic terms, extolling his own virtues as the protector of Islam and inciting to war against "the infidels." This was followed by another from the same source, asking Sayed Ahmed to declare a Holy War in Egypt.

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On November 5th, 1915, H.M. auxiliary cruiser "Tara" was torpedoed off Sollum by the German submarine U35. On the following day an enemy submarine shelled the Egyptian post at Sollum, and of the two small coastguard cruisers in the harbour, one, the "Abbas," was sunk at her moorings, and the other, the "Noor el Bahr," badly damaged. On November 7th the British horse-transport "Moorina" was sunk off the Cyrenaican coast. The camp at Sollum was sniped on November 15th; on the 17th the zawia at Barrani, fifty miles within the frontier, was occupied by the Senussi regulars; and next day the coatstguard barracks at the same station, were attacked.

The garrisons of Sollum were withdrawn to Matruh, but not without the loss of 12 native officers, two cadets, and 120 of other ranks, all of the Egyptian Coastguard Camel Corps. These treacherously seceded to the enemy, taking with them 176 camels.

The available enemy force at the commencement of hostilities was probably not less than 20,000. It had a nucleus of Turkish troops and a number of Turkish, German and Arab officers. The main formation consisted of the Senussi Regulars, or muhafzia, thirteen companies of well-disciplined men, numbering in all 3,370. These wore a uniform of khaki faced with red or green, and puttees, while the irregulars, who varied in number from time to time, were attired in the characteristic native dress. In the event of a successful advance into Egypt the total strength would have rapidly increased. The Senussi were known to possess nine mountain-guns, ten mitrailleuses, and six field-guns, all captured from the Italians; but they were reported to have had other field pieces as well as machineguns landed from German submarines. Of guns of an older pattern, they had the two Egyptian Army 9 cm. Krupp guns abandoned at Sollum, and two Turkish Mantelli 8.7 cm. movable fortress guns. They were well supplied with Turkish, German and Italian rifles, and had abundance of ammunition. The force contained a considerable number of mounted troops, and the supply of camels for transport was practically unlimited. The Commander-in-Chief was Nury Pasha, but Gaafar Pasha was usually in immediate command of any operating column.

Orders for the formation of a Western Frontier Force page 27were issued on November 20th, 1915, and Major-General A. Wallace, C.B., was appointed to the command.

The original composition of the force was as under:—

Mounted Brigade.

Brigadier-General Tyndale Biscoe, Commanding.

3 Composite Yeomanry Regiments from the 2nd Mounted Division, and comprising details from more than twenty different regiments.

1 Composite Regiment of Australian Light Horse, made up of details from Australian Light Horse Brigades.

Notts. Battery of Royal Horse Artillery (Territorial Force) and Ammunition Column.

Infantry Brigade.

Brigadier-General Lord Lucan, Commanding.

1 Battalion 1/6th Royal Scots (Territorials).

1 Battalion 2/7th Middlesex Regiment (Territorials).

1 Battalion 2/8th Middlesex Regiment (Territorials).

1 Battalion 15th Sikhs.

1 Squadron Royal Flying Corps.

Divisional Train from the 1st Australian Division.

A detachment from the Egyptian Army Military Works Department took the place of the Royal Engineers, none of the latter being available.

The composition of the force was constantly changing, and it was not till the middle of February, 1916, that it became really fixed.