In 1915, Ottoman forces invaded the British protectorate of Egypt threatening the Suez Canal which was vital to the British Empire’s war effort in the First World War. Fighting continued around Suez and Sinai (north eastern Egypt) until British forces went on the offensive in mid-1916 clearing Sinai and launching a counter invasion into Ottoman controlled Palestine in 1917.

The Suez Canal

By 1914, Egypt had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries, and was administered by Khedives or rulers. They were expected to receive advice from the British Consul-General, since the establishment of a British Protectorate in 1882. The most important and strategic feature of the Sinai peninsula was the Suez Canal. It served as a vital link between the British and French Empires and their respective colonies.

Defending Suez

With most regular British Army forces fully engaged on the Western Front, the defence of the Suez Canal was assigned to units of the Indian Army and one Egyptian artillery battery, supported by Allied ships. Early attacks on the canal by Ottoman-led forces came in early 1915 and were defeated.

In late 1915, an attack on the Canal was made from the direction of the Egyptian Western Desert by Senussi tribesmen of Libya who had been trained and led by Turkish military officers. Operations against the Senussi would last until 1916. At the same time, a revolt was launched against Ottoman rule by Arabs in Mecca and Jeddah in June 1916.

Military failures on Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia resulted in more British Empire troops arriving in the Sinai peninsula, which was eventually recaptured and cleared of Ottoman-led forces, culminating in the Battle of Rafa in January 1917. Following this, heavy fighting took place in and around Gaza, resulting in defeat for the British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).

Palestine

The campaign resumed in November 1917 and the EEF went on the offensive, pursuing the retreating Ottomans north through Palestine and capturing Jerusalem in December 1917. The German Spring Offensive on the Western Front in 1918 led to the departure of British Divisions of the EEF. Reinforcements came from the Indian Army, resulting in an ‘Indianisation’ of the EEF. Further operations were launched in Syria and Jordan which eventually led to the breakdown of Ottoman resistance in the region.

Aftermath

Allied troops suffered more than 101,000 wounded, killed or missing in this theatre of the war. Around 1,400 were captured by the Ottomans. An Armistice was signed with the Ottoman Empire on 30 October 1918, ending the campaign in Egypt and Palestine. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire led to partition of the region and the creation of the modern Middle East. The re-drawing of the map would have far-reaching consequences that continue into the 21st century.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Heliopolis (Port Tewfik) Memorial is the largest First World War memorial in Egypt and commemorates nearly 4,000 servicemen of the Indian Army. The current memorial was unveiled in October 1980 as a replacement to the original memorial at Port Tewfik which was demolished, having suffered severe damage during the Israeli-Egyptian conflict of 1967-73.

Jerusalem War Cemetery was created after the occupation of the city in December 1917. It contains the graves and memorials of more than 2,510 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 100 remain unidentified. Within the cemetery stands the Jerusalem War Memorial which commemorates some 3,300 servicemen of the British Empire who died in Egypt and Palestine and have no known grave.

Gaza War Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 3,200 servicemen of the First World War and some 210 from the Second World War. Nearly 970 of those buried in the cemetery remain unidentified.