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From the NS archive: The desert campaigns

28 September 1918: How the war in the Middle East stood in contrast to stalemate in Flanders.

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By the end of the First World War, historians were already at work writing accounts of the conflict. One such was WT Massey’s official history of the war in North Africa and the Middle East, “The Desert Campaigns”. The book prompted a clear-eyed and informed appraisal in the magazine by “AA” who found Massey’s version of events a little too “official”. Nevertheless, said AA, the British had fought admirably and were purposefully led. Unlike the Western Front, “this was a war not a massacre”, indeed “such of the old romantic trappings as still cling to [war] should be looked for in these desert campaigns. Cavalry charging machine-guns, armoured cars advancing in extended order against an army. . . these are gallant actions, worthy of any chivalry and worthy of their scene”. For all that, he concluded, the desert campaigns were a sideshow to the real action then coming to its conclusion in Flanders.

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Official correspondents write under difficulties, no doubt, and WT Massey is not altogether to blame if his spirited account of the Egyptian campaigns of 1915, 1916 and 1917 appears a little incomplete in places and always a little too “official”. It is hardly conceivable, for instance, that throughout the protracted defence of the Suez Canal, the subsequent offensive in the Sinai Peninsula and the suppression of the Senoussi rising in the West none of the British commanders committed a single error of judgment. As a matter of fact, I believe that they committed astonishingly few; but those few are omitted from Mr Massey’s narrative, as are the numbers of the British casualties (so very few), and other facts of the sort which one would have thought might by this time have safely been allowed to transpire.

Of course, the whole truth about this war can never be written – not because of the paper shortage, but because of the shortage of perfectly candid narrators with a full knowledge of the facts. We shall have official histories, like Mr Massey’s, which will be reliable in as far as they go, but which will not go quite the whole way; and we shall have unofficial histories which will go as far as anyone could desire, but which will not be entirely reliable. Then, for the next ten years or so, we may have the occasional indiscretions of disgruntled generals to fill up some of the blanks. But the public will probably be disappointed, and no history of the war will be acclaimed as wholly satisfactory until a new generation has arisen that will not know what it has missed.

So we cannot blame Mr Massey for his sins of omission. But in fairness to our new Protectorate, exception must be taken to his rather reckless suggestion that Egypt in 1915 was on the verge of a native rebellion, which was only averted by the “alertness" of General Sir John Maxwell and the staff of the British Residency. No doubt there was talk in the cafes and in “the bars of the two leading hotels”, but that is not Egypt, nor even Cairo. What does he know of Cairo who only Shepheard’s knows? To the ordinary resident in the country the Egyptian fellaheen appeared to be as indifferent to the great struggle proceeding on all sides of them as the larks who build their nests in No Man’s Land on the Western front. Of course there was bazaar gossip, and when Sir John Maxwell started his Press censorship – very late in the day – it was applied so rigorously that bazaar gossip had things all its own way. On the other hand, local German residents were allowed a latitude that hardly prepared one for subsequent events in Ireland. But as Mr Massey says, the Egyptians like to be on the winning side (who doesn’t?), and the Turks in 1916 settled any doubt that may have existed on that point in the Egyptian mind by their policy of bringing up comparatively small bodies of men across the Sinai Desert and hurling them against our almost impregnable positions behind the Canal.

If they could have held a few yards of the Canal for one day only, it would have enabled them to block the waterway (they did once succeed in mining it) and thus interfere with our plans for the European war. But what the Egyptians saw was the ignominious defeat of every Turkish attack. Even if things had been otherwise, one ventures to doubt whether the Egyptians would have risen. They may prefer the Turk personally to the Englishman – they understand him better – but only a very small minority, consisting mainly of schoolboys, prefers the Turk as a ruler. That is why Egyptian gunners fought on our side with distinction in the defence of the Canal (though Mr Massey does not mention it), while Egyptian fellaheen have volunteered by thousands for the Labour Corps, only stipulating that their lives shall not be needlessly risked in a quarrel which they cannot be expected to regard as their own.

As a matter of fact, the war need never have been allowed to come so close to Egypt’s doors. Our first method of defending the Canal – by entrenching ourselves behind it instead of in front in the Sinai Peninsula – put an unnecessary strain upon Egyptian moral, as well as enabling an interior opponent to mine the waterway that we were supposed to be defending. “Are you defending the Canal, or is it defending you?” asked Lord Kitchener, when he arrived in Egypt from Gallipoli in 1916, to inspect the defences. A clever saying, one of the best of the war.

The old system was abandoned forthwith, and the campaign in Sinai, which was to lead us to Palestine, began. It was carried out in a manner worthy of Lord Kitchener himself. We have heard a good deal lately about Disraeli’s “scientific” strategical land frontiers, and a desert, one would think, must be the most “scientific” of all. Fortunately, we knew something about desert warfare (we knew more about it than any other military power, except the Turks), and we knew that most deserts could be crossed. But even we were hardly prepared for the comparative ease with which the Turkish armies crossed the Sinai Desert in 1915. For instance, the advance of 20,000 men, with heavy guns, to Romani, in July and August of that year, followed by a series of scattered engagements extending over a period of ten days, against an enemy much superior in mounted troops, was, as Mr Massey justly remarks, “an enterprise which all military men must admire”. But it could only end in a military failure, and for that reason it was, as has been pointed out, a political mistake. We made no such mistake ourselves. When we set out for Palestine the railway advanced with the troops; supplies were never lacking, and reinforcements were always brought up in time to avert disaster when we were attacked. The advance was a triumph of organisation and grit. It was shared in throughout by Mr Massey, whose account of it is the best thing in his book.

Of the western campaign Mr Massey can tell us less. There seem to have been no official correspondents present during the greater part of this campaign. On this side of Egypt there is another desert, forming a frontier scarcely less “scientific” than that on the east. There are wells, it is true, and a road of sorts along the edge of the great Libyan Plateau near the sea; but things are not what they were when the East Roman armies marched that way as late as the seventh century AD. Under Arab and Turkish rule, the desert has everywhere gained on the sown; all along the coast are littered the ruins of Roman aqueducts and Roman villas. Many an Australian trooper, watering his horse in 1916 at some half-ruined but still used Roman well, was puzzled to find himself in a country where for centuries everything has gone backward instead of forward, and the present methods are more primitive than the old.

We used no railway here. About 150 miles along the coast from Alexandria, at Mersa Matruh – the ancient Paraetonium, where Antony landed after the battle of Actium – British infantry, Sikhs, Scots and London Territorials were thrust ashore somewhat unceremoniously, and established themselves on the surrounding circle of hills, building stone sangars among the Roman tombs and catacombs as a protection against the snipers who soon made their presence felt. Later there were engagements outside Matruh with Jafar Pasha’s rather motley host, until, in the spring of 1916, General Peyton arrived and, with the South African Brigade as his spearhead, made his rapid thrust westward, driving the enemy out of all the coastal district and compelling them to fly across the frontier into Cyrenaica or take refuge from starvation in the oasis of Sinwa, 200 miles inland, there to be dealt with at our leisure.

The enemy in this little-known campaign consisted of three or four thousand trained men from Tripoli, well led by Turks, and a large rabble of Egyptian Bedouin, chiefly of the Aoulad Ali tribe and of the puritanical Senoussi sect. It was difficult to regard these old inhabitants of the country as rebels, and it was impossible not to be sorry for them as they came staggering into the British camps, half dead with starvation, to make their submission. It was a good time for the desert vultures, it is to be feared, in spite of everything we could do. The wretched Aoulad Ali had been forced into rebellion by religious appeals, by actual coercion and by promises of the loot of Alexandria. In the desert outside Matruh, when the first British troops landed there, an officer turned up in the sand with his foot a page torn from a book, printed in Arabic, and in the centre of it a portrait of Bismarck. Surely among the Kaiser’s many dupes the Aoulad Ali are not the least to be pitied.

War, it seems generally to be agreed now, is an ugly, squalid business. But such of the old romantic trappings as still cling to it should be looked for in these desert campaigns. Cavalry charging machine-guns, armoured cars advancing in extended order against an army, the Duke of Westminster’s dash into the desert to rescue the Tara prisoners – these are gallant actions, worthy of any chivalry and worthy of their scene. There will be Englishmen, Sikhs, Australasians, Scots and South Africans who, after this war, will keep memories of the sun setting in the frontier hills at Sollum or rising across Matruh harbour. Furthermore, this was a war of movement, out in the open country – a war and never a massacre.

But the hardships to the soldier were undeniable. A shortage (inevitable in the circumstances) of fresh meat and vegetables, occasional bouts of fever, long weary marches through the desert sands, told on his spirits severely. Perhaps it was merely a longing for civilisation. One lad, who came from Manchester, wrote home a glowing account of the scenery in Sinai, and added: “But what wouldn’t I give to see a row of shops!” Or perhaps it was the monotony of the desert. As Lord Denbigh (who served in Sinai) remarked in a recent lecture: “No wonder Moses and his followers got sick of it after forty years without leave.” From whatever cause, the desert certainly failed to charm. Our men were splendid, so splendid that it seems almost an impertinence to praise; but they never pretended to like the desert campaigns. Almost any British soldier serving in Egypt at that time would have declared, if questioned, that he was tired of “inaction”, tired of sideshows, anxious to get to France and see the real thing. Most of them have had that desire satisfied.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)