suez canal

August 5, 1916 - Final Assault on the Suez Canal

Pictured - Soldiers from the Black Watch man a position alongside the Egyptian canal.

A Turkish attack on the Suez Canal failed in 1915, but in August 1916 the Central Powers tried a second time to capture the vital waterway that linked Britain to its far-eastern colonies and Dominions.  Reinforced and strengthened by German officers, elements of the Turkish Fourth and Eighth Armies advanced into the Sinai against the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which had been organized to defeat them.

German General der Infanterie Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein lead the attack, commanding 20,000 Ottoman, German, and Austrian troops as well as a squadron of German airplanes, which bombed British positions from Port Said to Cairo.   In early August Kressenstein hit the British at Rumani on the Sinai coast.

The battle developed into a pitched infantry and cavalry battle.  It culminated with the British and Anzac light horse making a number of charges with sabres that swept enemy infantry off a series of ridges.  By nightfall Kressentein’s army was withdrawing, having lost over a thousand men killed or wounded and 4,000 taken prisoner.  The Central Powers force fell back with almost all of its artillery however, with the British in pursuit.

British soldiers pose on the Great Sphinx in Egypt, 1882. The British invaded Egypt to “protect British financial interests,” most notably their access to the Suez Canal, their most convenient route to India. The action was one of the first of a series of imperialist actions by European countries in the 1880s which would eventually result in the “scramble for Africa.”

6. The Suez Canal at Port Said, Egypt (date unknown). Keystone-Mast Collection at UCR CMP, 1996.0009.KU58571

 

As the “Mongolia” approaches Suez, the dock comes alive with activity. “Little by little the scene on the quay became more animated; sailors of various nations, merchants, ship-brokers, porters, fellahs, bustled to and fro as if the steamer were immediately expected. The weather was clear, and slightly chilly. The minarets of the town loomed above the houses in the pale rays of the sun. A jetty pier, some two thousand yards long, extended into the roadstead. A number of fishing-smacks and coasting boats, some retaining the fantastic fashion of ancient galleys, were discernible on the Red Sea.”

 

¶ The Suez Canal revolutionized travel in the 19th century and redefined international relations, particularly among Europe, Asia, and Africa. The controversial, 101-mile-long canal was one of the initial inspirations for Around the World in 80 Days. Even prior to its completion in 1869, construction sparked international and political debates; historian Halford Hoskins poignantly describes the Suez Canal as one of the most significant “world highways” that demonstrates the close connection between politics and geography.