Mounted Turkish troops advancing towards the Suez Canal in 1915.
Mounted Turkish troops advancing towards the Suez Canal in 1915. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Anzacs called up to help defend the Suez Canal

AS THE first contingent of Anzac troops was busy preparing for a European war, and the second contingent was close to joining it, another storm was brewing closer to the home of their Egyptian training base.

The Suez Canal, then a 160km-long man-made construction connecting the Red Sea to Port Said on the Mediterranean, had long been of strategic importance to Egypt and the British forces that occupied it.

Not only did it provide supply and shipping access from one sea to the other, it was also a vital transport link between the British and the Anzac forces travelling to the front via Egypt.

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But the vast Sinai Desert to the east of the canal was unoccupied by Britain, and the Turks - whose flagging Ottoman Empire had once counted Egypt among its territories - were cooking up an ambitious plan to cross the barren landscape and seize the vital waterway.

Ever since Christmas of 1914, rumours had abounded of a planned Turkish assault on the canal, but according to official Australian war historian Charles Bean, few believed they were actually capable of it.

"The crossing of the Sinai desert is a vast undertaking. The Turks could not hope for much success without heavy guns ... (and most British officers) doubted whether the Turks could possibly bring them across the desert," Bean wrote in his Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

"Many Englishmen ... were convinced that the threat was made in order to detain British troops in Egypt."

A map from Charles Bean's official war history showing the Turkish advance on the Suez Canal.
A map from Charles Bean's official war history showing the Turkish advance on the Suez Canal. Contributed

They centred their canal defences around three main points - Suez in the south, Kantara in the north, and Ismailia in the middle - and created a number of other smaller defence and observation posts along the rest of the stretch of water.

In early January of 1915, the 3rd Field Company of Australian Engineers was called on to help build trenches and floating bridges along the canal, and their abilities and work ethic was immediately valued by the British authorities.

In mid January came the intelligence Turkish troops, under the command of Djemal Pasha with support from Germany, had entered the Sinai desert in significant numbers.

Although the approach itself came of little surprise, Djemal had made one completely unexpected move.

"Instead of marching along the route constantly used by the generals of history ... namely, the caravan road near the sea - where an army would have been observed by seaplanes and possibly shelled by cruisers - the Turks followed a line through the centre of the Sinai Desert which had never been attempted by an army before," Bean wrote.

Djemal marched with the main column through the centre of the desert, while two other smaller columns took the northern coastal route and a southern route via the port of Aqaba. There were about 25,000 men in all.

In late January, the British warships took their places along the canal and the mostly British and Indian troops took their stations. New Zealand troops from the Otago, Wellington and Canterbury battalions were also called in from Egypt to take up positions from Ismailia down to Suez.

Despite the tension inevitably building, in early February the second convoy of Anzac troops - making its way to Port Said and on to Cairo - passed up the canal without incident.

A Turkish prisoner of war, wounded in the unsuccessful attack on the Suez Canal in early February 1915, is removed from a hospital train by Australian medical orderlies at Cairo. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial C03460
A Turkish prisoner of war, wounded in the unsuccessful attack on the Suez Canal in early February 1915, is removed from a hospital train by Australian medical orderlies at Cairo. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial C03460 Courtesy of Australian War Memor

 

Finally, in the early hours of February 3, the Turks made their move, with the main attack taking place between Tussum and Serapeum, just south of Ismailia.

But they were no match for the Allied forces, nor the protection the canal offered them.

The Turks had virtually exhausted their supply lines by the time they reached the waterway, and they were constantly pinned down by fire from the opposite bank.

By the next day they had retreated. The 7th and 8th Australian infantry battalions had been called up as reinforcements, but there was no enemy to fight by the time they arrived.

It was estimated the combined Turkish and German forces suffered deaths and casualties of about 2000 in the day-long assault, while the Allies lost 32 men and suffered about 130 casualties. More than 700 Turks were also captured as prisoners of war.

This would lead British commanders to make assumptions about the overall capabilities of the Turkish forces - something that would come back to bite them as they planned the Gallipoli campaign.


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