At the start of the First World War Egypt was officially part of the Ottoman Empire, but since 1882 had been ruled by the British. Free and secure access to the Suez Canal was vital to the British Empire. The most valuable parts of the Empire were east of Suez, as were the dominions of Australia and New Zealand and their invaluable volunteers. At the start of 1915 crucial reinforcements were travelling through the canal on their way to the Western Front, where the Australian and New Zealand divisions would soon be considered to be amongst the best troops available to Britain.
General Sir John Maxwell, the British commander in Egypt, had 70,000 troops at his disposal at the start of 1915, although many of them were either in training or transit. On the canal Major-General A. Wilson had 30,000 men, most from the Indian Army but with some Egyptian artillery, spread out along the length of the canal. Wilson also had access to a number of French and British airplanes, and a small naval squadron. It had been decided to conduct an essentially passive defence of the canal. The main British defences were on the western bank, with a few fortified posts on the eastern bank.
At the start of 1915 the Turks decided to launch an expedition towards the Suez Canal. It would be commanded by Djemal Pasha, the Minister of Marine and one of the triumvirate that ruled the Ottoman Empire. He was also governor of Syria and Palestine and commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army. He was ably supported by his German chief of staff, Baron Kress von Kressenstein.
Djemal Pasha was faced with a formidable set of problems. His army was only 20,000 strong, so he would be outnumbered at the canal. To get to the canal zone his army would have to cross the Sinai desert, a potentially difficult journey. There were only three possible routes across the desert, of which the northern coastal route and the central route were the most favourable. Most dangerously for the Turks, the purpose of the expedition was unclear. At the time Djemal Pasha seems to have been hoping for a revolt to break out in Egypt at the approach of his army, and despite being outnumbered by more than three to one was planning an invasion. In the aftermath of the campaign, he consistently claimed that he had never intended to invade Egypt, only to make a reconnaissance in force and to damage the canal.
The expedition was well planned. The main force, 15,000 strong, took the central route across the desert. The remaining 5,000 troops were sent along the northern and southern coastal routes. Pontoons had been built in Germany and smuggled through Bulgaria to Turkey. The main force took ten days to march across the desert, moving at night in an attempt to hide their movements. By 1 February the main force of 15,000 men was close to the canal.
By then any hope of surprise was gone. The two flanking forces had launched feint attacks at Kantara to the north and Kubri to the south on 26-27 January. Warned by this that a Turkish army was in the area, British and French aircraft had then located the main force. The attack was to be made towards Ismailia in the middle of the canal.
The attack was made at 3 a.m. on 3 February. The Turkish troops came under heavy fire as they attempted to cross over the canal, and only three pontoons and their crews reached the west bank, where they were quickly killed or captured. A series of attacks followed during the day, but were no more successful. On the next day Djemal Pasha ordered a retreat back to his base at Beersheba.
The British had seen off the attack on the canal, but they would now pay for their passive defence. Two companies of Ghurkhas attempted a counterattack on 3 February, but otherwise the Turks were allowed to escape. Even so, Djemal Pasha’s men had suffered around 1,400 casualties (according to his own figures). British losses were only 150, but the policy of defending the western bank of the canal came under attack. The next Turkish probe towards the canal would be met in the Sinai, at the battle of Rumani.