Senussi Campaign | 25 Nov 1915

Senussi Campaign

Let’s begin today by looking at something I’ve been shoving onto the back burner for the last little while for lack of space. The Senussi Campaign isn’t exactly the best-known part of the First World War, and for once this is not entirely unjustified. It genuinely doesn’t have much impact on the wider war, and it’s probably better-served and more understandable if it’s viewed as part of the history of European colonial efforts in North Africa, rather than as part of the First World War.

Nevertheless, it is part of the First World War, so. The Senussi are a difficult-to-describe cross between a Sufi Islamic religious order and a desert tribe. In the early 20th century they lived in various regions of north Africa, in parts of what is now Sudan and Libya. They first came to the attention of European powers when the French Empire began spreading north towards them, but they were mostly left alone until the 1911-1912 Italo-Turkish War, when Italy landed men on various places among the Libyan coast and the Senussi (with Ottoman encouragement and British indifference) began fighting them.

The fighting’s been sputtering intermittently for the past few years; since the First World War broke out, the Ottomans (with German support) have been trying to encourage or bribe the Senussi into attacking Egypt from the west. This will immediately set eyebrows twitching all over the British Empire, and at worst, it’ll force London to commit more and more troops to defending the Suez Canal. At best, it’ll allow a successful Ottoman attack on the canal from the east, as had been attempted rather half-arsedly in spring 1915.

This, incidentally, is one of the major reasons why General Maxwell, the British military commander in Egypt, has been so resistant to the idea of reducing his garrison to send men to Gallipoli (or the Middle East, or Salonika, or anywhere else). Anyway: the situation at the moment is that the Ottomans have finally convinced the Senussi to have a pop, and over the course of November they’ve been conducting raids on various places in western Egypt. The War Office has now been forced to sit up and take notice, but all that can be done for now is have the local garrisons fall back while they sort out how best to deal with this new problem. More to come.

Battle of Ctesiphon

Having miraculously discovered a deep-seated conviction that political concerns should be of only secondary importance to him, General Townshend and his battered regatta is now leaving Ctesiphon at a rate of knots. They’re making for Azizya, and are aided in their departure by the fog of war. The Ottomans at first think that the apparent enemy withdrawal might be some cunning ruse, and so have allowed them nearly a day’s head start.

Robert Palmer

Orders have now filtered back to Amara, and Robert Palmer is in the thick of them. Or at least, he should have been.

As luck would have it, orders came round at 1 p.m. yesterday for half the Battalion (including A. Coy.) to move up-stream at once: and after an afternoon and evening of many flusters and changes of plan, they have just gone off this morning. My wretched leg prevents my going with them: but it is much better to-day and I hope to be able to go by the next boat. Destination is unknown but it can only be Kut-al-Amara or Baghdad: and I infer the latter from the facts (1) that Headquarters have gone, which means that the other half Battalion is likely to follow shortly: and (2) that they won’t want a whole Battalion at Kut.

Winces, groans, dramatic chords, dramatic irony etc. Mate, they’re going to be wanting just a bit more than a whole battalion at Kut. On the other hand, this is a reasonable assumption; he’s heard only that the Battle of Ctesiphon had begun and everyone was very confident about it. He’s therefore based his expectations on the formula used for determining the size of a garrison based on its population; Kut-al-Amara is only big enough to warrant a garrison of two companies. If the whole battalion is moving up then the only place they can go is Baghdad, with enough population to be garrisoned by at least two brigades.

Fourth Isonzo

Mount San Michele sees heavy Austro-Hungarian counter-attacks on the north slope of Mount San Michele, evicting the Italians from recently won strong-points; however, soon afterwards, concentrated artillery fire forces the positions to be abandoned again. To the south there’s a push by the Italians towards the summit, but say it with me: repulsed with heavy casualties. And, up in the mountains, they’re building up the pressure on Mount Mrzli for one last crack at the summit.

Louis Barthas

Still up the line on Vimy Ridge, Louis Barthas has a little unwelcome excitement this morning.

Just when I reached the listening post, two grenade detonations almost knocked me over. They had just gone off, right at my feet. I was surrounded by smoke and flames, but I escaped with just the ends of my moustache singed. But the two sentries, Vialle and Roques, weren’t so lucky; gravely wounded, they cried out that they were going to die. Hustled immediately to the first-aid station, they were stabilized and evacuated.

But who had thrown these two grenades? Our own belief was that they had exploded in the hands of the two sentries, who had mishandled them imprudently. Besides, in the daylight, we could see when we cleaned up the debris that the fragments were from the same model of grenades that we had at the forward post. Nevertheless we decided, with one accord, to say that we had been attacked by German grenades. They were already charged with so many crimes that one more on their record wouldn’t blacken them any worse than they already were.

That made everyone happy: the wounded, who were treated as heroes instead of being punished for their clumsiness; all our bosses, from the grenadier-sergeant all the way up to crazy General Niessel, happy in the knowledge that his elite men didn’t fall back one inch in the face of an avalanche of German grenades; finally, the headquarters and Joffre himself could delight in being able to adorn their meager next-day’s dispatch with the lines “In the Neuville-Saint-Vaast sector, grenade attacks on our forward posts were repulsed.”

He also tells us about Private Pestel from Paris, who escapes with a slightly burned nose and is returned (to his extreme disappointment) to duty after the swiftest of visits at the aid post, only to find himself being written up as having heroically refused to be evacuated by the doctor.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Third Invasion of Serbia
Battle of Krivolak
Kosovo Offensive
Battle of the Isonzo (Fourth Isonzo)
Battle of Ctesiphon

Further Reading

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One thought on “Senussi Campaign | 25 Nov 1915

  1. Barthas’s last paragraph reminds me of reading a description from an old soldier of 3rd Indian Division in the Second War of how an LRP column shooting a wounded Japanese soldier on a mule to prevent him giving away their position would become “Enemy troop convoy eliminated in Chindit ambush” in Contact (the newspaper of South East Asia Command).

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