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Senussi Campaign

Senussi Campaign
Part of the North African theatre of World War I

Area of operations, Senussi Campaign
Date 19 November 1915 – February 1917
Location Western Desert of Egypt, eastern Libya
Result British victory
 Ottoman Empire
 German Empire
 British Empire  Italy
Commanders and leaders
Sayyid Ahmed ash-Sharif,
Jaafar Pasha
W.E. Peyton
A. Wallace
Henry Lukin
H. W. Hodgson
At least 5,000 soldiers About 5,500 soldiers
Casualties and losses
At least 200 killed,
at least 500 wounded
At least 21 killed,
at least 291 wounded

The Senussi Campaign took place in north Africa, from November 1915 to February 1917 during the First World War. The combatants were the British Empire, the Kingdom of Italy and the Senussi, a religious sect composed of tribesmen based in Libya, supported by the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire. (The British Empire forces included British, South African, Australia and New Zealand, and Indian Sikh troops.)[1] The Ottoman Empire persuaded the head of the Senussi, the Grand Senussi Ahmed Sharif es Senussi, in the summer 1915, to order his tribesmen to attack British-occupied Egypt from the west, raise jihad, and encourage an insurrection in Egypt against the British. The Ottoman Empire had persuaded Sayyid Ahmed to attack, because they believed that would increase the chance that the Ottomans could capture the Suez Canal from the east. The Senussi crossed the Libyan-Egyptian border in November 1915.

The Senussi planned three campaigns in different areas against the British. One campaign took place along the coastline of Egypt. In that campaign, which begun in November 1915, British Empire forces initially withdrew but then defeated the Senussi in several engagements, including the Battle of Agagia, and re-captured, with the assistance of South African reinforcements, all the lost Egyptian territory along the coastline by March 1916. The 'band of oases' campaign was the last thrust to be repulsed.


  • Background 1
  • Western Desert 2
    • Coastal campaign (November 1915 – March 1916) 2.1
    • "Band of oases" campaign (February 1916 – February 1917) 2.2
  • Italian Libya 3
    • Cyrenaica 3.1
    • Tripolitania 3.2
  • Conclusion 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


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. The United Kingdom declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 5 November and the leadership of the Ottoman Empire encouraged the Senussi to attack Egypt from the west. The Ottomans wanted the Senussi to conduct operations against the rear of the defenders of the Suez Canal. The Ottomans had failed in previous attacks against British forces from the Sinai to the east and wanted those forces to be attacked from the opposite direction. By November 1915, the strength of the British presence in Egypt had been reduced, because soldiers had been transferred from Egypt for use at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. The western border of Egypt was protected by the Egyptian coastguard.

In the summer of 1915, Turkish envoys, including Nuri Bey, the half brother of Enver Pasha and Jaafar Pasha, a Baghdadi Arab in the Ottoman army, who would later become commander of Senussi forces employed in the coastal campaign, negotiated an agreement with the Grand Senussi Sayyid Ahmed ash-Sharif, leader of the Senussi, to attack the British in Egypt from the west. His decision was not supported by every Senussi. The Ottomans provided machine-guns and artillery using ships and later German submarines to deliver weapons equipment and money to the Senussi.[2]

Western Desert

The Senussi planned two campaigns against the British in different areas. The first would be executed along the coastline of Egypt, towards Alexandria. The second would be directed against the 'band of oases' 100 miles west of the Nile. The Senussi Uprising began when 300–400 men attacked a British frontier post on the Egyptian border. The attack was beaten off by the British. The last campaign, which started in February 1916, and in which Sayed Ahmed accompanied the Senussi forces involved, was directed against the 'band of oases' 100 miles west of the Nile. The Senussi captured several oases, until a counter-attack by British forces in October 1916 culminated in the withdrawal of the Senussi from Egypt in February 1917.

Coastal campaign (November 1915 – March 1916)

The Senussi began operations in 1915 when German and Turkish officers, transported by submarine to the northwestern coast of Egypt, made their headquarters at Siwa. The aim of this force of 5,000 combatants, supported by mountain guns and machine guns, was to attack Sollum, Mersa Matruh and Da'aba on the coast and the southern oases at Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga.

On 5 November the German submarine U–35 attacked British ships in the Bay of Sollum. Approaching submerged, U-35 torpedoed and sank the armed steamer HMS Tara, U-35 then surfaced, and attacked with its deck gun, sinking one coastguard cruiser and badly damaging another. With British ships removed, U-35 then bombarded the British forces camped nearby, and killed or capturing them. In the same month Senussi forces occupied Jaafar.[3][4][5] Sayed Ahmed ordered his tribesmen to cross the Egyptian-Libyan border by 21 November 1915 to execute the coastal campaign. Between November and early December the British withdrew from Sidi Barrani and Sollum, which was only defended by 4 British officers and 120 British and Egyptian soldiers.

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, a collection of Royal Naval Air Service armoured cars, and the Nottingham Royal Horse Artillery, were grouped together into the Western Frontier Force. Commanded by Major General A. Wallace this force concentrated at its headquarters at Mersa Matruh, tasked with opposing the Senussi.[Note 1]

Wallace's force responded between 11 and 13 December at the Affair of Wadi Senab and on and 25 December 1915 at the Affair of the Wadi Majid not far from Mersa Matruh.[3][7][8]

To oppose the Western Frontier Force, the Senussi had 5,000 infantrymen, supporting irregular troops, and Turkish artillery and machine guns. Despite being outnumbered, the Western Frontier Force was able to defeat the Senussi at Wadi Senba (11–13 December 1915). Further reinforcement joined the Western Frontier Force, including one battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Two further engagements, at Wadi Majid (25 December 1915) and Halazin (23 January 1916), reduced the threat the Senussi now presented. In 1916 Wallace's force again attacked on 23 January at the Affair of Halazin and the Action of Agagiya took place a month later on 26 February.[5]

The Western Frontier Force in February 1916, now under the command of Major General W.E. Peyton, was reinforced by the South African Brigade, under the command of Brigadier-General H. T. Lukin. By this time, the British evacuation from Gallipoli had released numerous troops and naval vessels for employment in the campaign against the Senussi. A British column was sent west along the coast to re-capture Sollum in February, and was under the command of Brigadier-General Lukin. The column contained two regiments of South African infantry, the Dorset Yeomanry, and detachments from the Bucks Hussars, the Royal Scots, and the Nottinghamshire RHA. On their way, the column was alerted that a Senussi encampment at Agagiya had been spotted by aircraft. On the 26 February, the column attacked. The British forces won the battle of Agagia, capturing the commander of the Senussi forces employed in the coastal campaign, Jaafar Pasha. The retreating Senussi were attacked by the Dorset Yeomanry during the battle, but across open ground covered by enemy fire, the Yeomanry lost half their horses, and about a third of their men and officers were casualties (58 of the 184 who took part). Sollum was re-occupied by British forces on 14 March 1916. The coastal campaign was concluded in March 1916.

"Band of oases" campaign (February 1916 – February 1917)

The Senussi forces employed in the 'band of oases' campaign were accompanied by Sayyid Ahmed ash-Sharif. The campaign began in February 1916. The oases at Bahariya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga were captured by the Senussi by October 1916, forcing the British to maintain a large garrison in Upper Egypt in order to provide additional strength in the area. Between February and October, the British raised a mobile force consisting of the camel corps and light car units, which was used against the Senussi at Dakhla, between 17 and 22 October. Under Major General Watson the Western Desert Force moved to attack the enemy at the Affairs in the Dakhla Oasis from 17 to 22 October however the enemy retreated into the Desert.[8][9] The Senussi were forced from Dakhla, as a result of the fighting against them by the British. Sayed Ahmed retreated to the Senussi base at Siwa.

A British force consisting of armoured cars, under the command of Brigadier-General H. W. Hodgson was dispatched to Siwa in February 1917. On the way, during 3 to 5 February, close to Siwa, the armoured cars won an engagement against the Senussi. This forced Sayyid Ahmed to withdraw from Egypt into Libya. Finally in 1917 General Hodgson, now in command of Major Owston of a mechanized mobile column of 111 including support vehicles launched the Light Armoured Car Brigade of eleven Rolls Royces and the Light Car Patrols 4, 5 and 6, at the Affairs near the Siwa Oasis between 3 to 5 February from Mersa Matruh.[10] After a 24-hour fight between enemy mountain guns and the armoured cars the Senussi retreated and at Akramah on 14 April their leader signed a peace accord with Britain and Italy.[8]

Italian Libya

After the Ottoman Empire officially resumed sending aid to Libya in July 1915,[11] Italy responded with a declaration of war on 21 August. This allowed her to formally rescind all the privileges the Ottoman sultan enjoyed in Libya as a result of the Treaty of Ouchy (17 October 1912) that had ended the first Italo-Turkish War (1911–12). The British blockaded the Cyrenaican coast to prevent supplies being landed by German submarines, and tightened of the Cyrenaican–Egyptian border to prevent arms smuggling, which was now being done openly by the Ottomans with German help.[12] The need for troops on the Italian Front denuded Libya of its defenders, and only Tripoli and the coastal strip (KhumsBenghaziDarnaTobruk) was retained. The fortress of Bu Njem, which was only captured from its Ottoman garrison in 1914, was the forward Italian post in the Sirtica. The interior was either evacuated—as in the case of Waddan, Hun and Suknan, "in the face of Mujahideen assaults"—or its posts left to isolated garrisons under siege by the Senussi and Bedouins.[13] The Ottoman sultan appointed Sayed Ahmed the governor of Tripolitania, and Ahmed in turn published the caliphal decree of jihad against the infidel British and their allies.[14]


On 29 April 1915, Colonel Antonio Miani, marching from the Sirtica, was soundly defeated by the Senussi at Al Ghardabiya (or Qasr bu Hadi). He lost thousands of men and even more supplies: guns, bullets, artillery shells, machine guns, food and money. The Senussi thereafter had more captured Italian arms than arms delivered by the Ottomans or Germans.[15][16] The Italians soon abandoned Bu Njem, and in 1916 a Senussi contingent commanded by Ramadan al-Shtaiwi invaded Tripolitania. There it routed a Bedouin group led by Sayed Safi al-Din at Bani Walid before Sayed Idris re-called it and accepted the notion of a western limit of Senussi power.[15] Idris established a khatt al-nar (line of fire) across the Sirtica to prevent raiding by al-Shtaiwi and his forces were armed by the Italians, whose goal was to re-establish themselves inland.[16]

In March 1916 Sayed Hilal, a young relative of Sayed Ahmed, presented himself to the Italians at Tobruk, ostensibly seeking food for the starving tribes of the Marmarica. The Italians induced him to convince the Aibadat tribe to surrender 1,000 rifles in exchange for food. His offices were used to enter the port of al-Burdi Sulaiman unopposed in May, and then Sayed Ahmed's old camp at Masa'ad. His activities disgraced Sayed Idris, and negotiations between an Anglo-Italian commission and Idris at al-Zuwaitina broke down.[17] The British launched an offensive. By early 1917 talks had resumed at Akrama (Acroma), and an accord was reached in April.[18] The questions of disarming the populace and of the status of Islamic law were left for the future, but the fighting in Cyrenaica came to an end.


In September 1918, having been prevented from entering Tripolitania by the Ottoman forces there, Sayed Ahmed boarded a German submarine at al-Aqaila and went into exile in Turkey. In Tripolitania, local troops under al-Shtaiwi and Ottoman regular soldiers under Nuri Bey and Suliman al-Baruni resisted the Italians until the end of the war in November.[18] Archaeological analysis of the saltpan of Kallaya, the site of a minor skirmish between Libyans on 14 November 1918, shows that they even possessed Russian rifles captured by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern front and transmitted to Libya via the Ottomans.[19]


By March 1917, all Senussi forces were ordered to withdraw from Egypt into Libya. The attack by the Senussi on Egypt did not allow the Ottoman Empire to win against the British east of the Suez Canal. The majority of the Egyptian population did not join the jihad and rise against the British. Sayed Ahmed's standing was undermined by the defeat of the Senussi by the British. His nephew, Sayyid Mohammed Idris, who had been against the idea of the Senussi attacking the British, gained favour at the expense of his uncle, who would go into exile in Constantinople. Great Britain and Italy would recognise Idris's position of Emir of Cyrenaica, and he would eventually become King Idris I of Libya.[1]


  1. ^ The composite Light Horse regiment was formed from reinforcements waiting at Heliopolis Camp to go to Gallipoli. Instead they were issued with swords and sent to the Western Desert.[6]
  1. ^ a b Richard, J (9 September 2007), Senussi Uprising, 1915–1917, Military History Encyclopedia on the Web 
  2. ^ Evans-Pritchard 1954, p. 121
  3. ^ a b Carver 2003, p. 186
  4. ^ McGuirk 2007, pp. 5 and 8
  5. ^ a b Wavell 1968, pp. 37–8
  6. ^ Bostock 1982, p. 28
  7. ^ Wavell 1968, pp. 36–8
  8. ^ a b c Battles Nomenclature Committee 1921, p. 30
  9. ^ McGuirk 2007, pp. 262–3
  10. ^ McGuirk 2007, pp. 263–4
  11. ^ Banks 2007, p. 6
  12. ^ Evans-Pritchard 1954, p. 124.
  13. ^ Banks 2007, p. 7
  14. ^ Evans-Pritchard 1954, p. 126
  15. ^ a b Evans-Pritchard 1954, pp. 122–23
  16. ^ a b Banks 2007, pp. 9–10
  17. ^ Evans-Pritchard 1954, p. 129. He reportedly lived a life of drunkenness and debauchery among the Italian officers.
  18. ^ a b Evans-Pritchard 1954, p. 130
  19. ^ Banks 2007, pp. 18–19.


  • Austin, W. S. (1923). "The Senussi Campaign". In H. T. B. Drew. The War Effort of New Zealand. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs. pp. 42–62.  
  • Bostock, Harry P. (1982). The Great Ride: The Diary of a Light Horse Brigade Scout World War 1. Perth: Artlook Books.  
  • Bowman-Manifold, M. G. E. (1923). An Outline of the Egyptian and Palestine Campaigns, 1914 to 1918 (2nd ed.). Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers, W. & J. Mackay & Co.  
  • Carver, Michael, Field Marshal Lord (2003). The National Army Museum Book of The Turkish Front 1914–1918: The Campaigns at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and in Palestine. London: Pan Macmillan.  
  • Evans-Pritchard, Edward (1954) [1949]. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Reprinted ed.). Oxford: Clarendon.  
  • McGuirk, Russell (2007). The Sanusi's Little War: The Amazing Story of a Forgotten Conflict in the Western Desert, 1915–1917. London: Arabian Publishing.  
  • The Official Names of the Battles and Other Engagements Fought by the Military Forces of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914–1919, and the Third Afghan War, 1919: Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee as Approved by The Army Council Presented to Parliament by Command of His Majesty. London: Government Printer. 1921.  
  • Banks, I. (2007). "Ghosts in the Desert: The Archaeological Investigation of a Sub-Saharan Battlefield". Journal of Conflict Archaeology 3 (1): 6–19.  

External links

  • The Senussi Campaign
  • The 1st (NZ) Battalion at Mersa Matruh
  • Photo of Gafaar Pasha as prisoner
  • The Western Desert: Agagia Campaign
  • Um Rakhum Egypt, 13 December 1915
  • Gebel Medwa Egypt, 13 December 1915
  • Halazin Egypt, 23 January 1916
  • Armoured Car Sections and Light Car Patrols
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