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Senussi And Senussites













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SENUSSI AND SENUSSITES (see 24.649). - The military activity of the Senussi from 190o to 1910 had been directed against the advance of the French in the regions bordering the Sahara between Lake Chad and the Nile basin. There was evidence of an THE Senussi Country increase of adherents to the sect in Egypt and in Arabia; in N.W. Africa and in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Senussiism made practically no headway.

Table of contents

Activity in Cyrenaica

While continuing hostilities against the French, the Senussi sheikh Sayed (Sidi) Ahmad esh Sherif in 1911 aided the Turks in Cyrenaica, then commanded by Enver Bey (later Pasha) in the campaign against Italy. The traditional policy of the Senussites was one of suspicion in regard to the Turks but they had been won over by Pan-Islamic propaganda. By the Treaty of Lausanne, Oct. 1912, the Turks agreed to evacuate Tripoli and Cyrenaica. At that time the Italians held only the chief seaports of Cyrenaica, the rest of the country being in the military occupation of the Senussites and their allies. Sidi Ahmad continued the war with Italy, aided by a body of Turkish troops, which, contrary to treaty engagements, remained in Cyrenaica. The Italians devoted their attention to the occupation of the hinterland of Tripoli (including Fezzan), a process completed in Aug. 1914. In Cyrenaica they remained mainly on the defensive. General Ameglio, appointed governor of Cyrenaica towards the end of 1913, had however begun a vigorous campaign against the Senussites, when in Feb. 1914, in consequence of the threatening situation in the Balkans, orders were issued from Rome to suspend operations.

When the World War began, and while Italy still remained neutral, Turkish agents, with German support, sought to make Cyrenaica and Tripoli bases of action against the French and British. To the tribes which rose in revolt in Tripoli and its hinterland the Senussites gave some support, but Sidi Ahmad, through the intermediary of chiefs friendly to Italy, was conducting unofficial negotiations, and had the Italians been willing to acknowledge his independence an accommodation with them might have been reached. He refused however to accept the position of " a protected Bey." By the spring of 1915 he was again attacking Italian posts. Strong efforts had been made for some time by the Turks and their German advisers to induce the Senussites to invade western Egypt; a special Turkish mission now visited Sidi Ahmad and endeavoured to get him to proclaim a jihad. The Senussi sheikh was disinclined to take the advice offered him. The Senussites had always maintained good relations with Egypt - for much of their trade they were dependent upon the good-will of the Egyptian authorities. It was the demonstration that the Turco-Germans could give him substantial military and financial aid which finally changed Sidi Ahmad's views. A large number of Turkish officers and some Arabic-speaking German officers from the German garrison at Constantinople were smuggled into Cyrenaica, a matter of little difficulty. Among the arrivals was Nuri Bey, a half brother of Enver Pasha who exercised much influence. Nuri was joined in April 1915 by Ga`far Pasha, an Europeanized Arab of considerable ability, and with and after Ga`far came arms, ammunition and other stores, including wireless and telephonic apparatus.1 By Aug. 1915 the Germans were using the landing places between Sollum and Tobruk as submarine bases. The time for putting the Turco-German plans into operation was approaching. These plans were, mainly through Senussite instrumentality, to threaten at once French north and central Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It was also designed to penetrate to Cameroon and establish land communication between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Guinea. The German Emperor, as " Islam's Protector," exhorted Sidi Ahmad to " expel infidels from territory which belonged to true believers." But besides the Senussi sheikh the only important chief won over to the cause was `Ali Dinar, Sultan of Darfur, a tributary state of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the plan failed.

French determination to secure their position in the central Sudan contributed largely to the localization of the conflict. In 1909-10 the French had conquered Wadai (see 28.225), which adjoins Darfur, thereby withdrawing from the Senussite sphere a country in which they had been all powerful. In 1913, pushing N. from Kanem into the Saharan borderland, Colonel Largeau conquered Borku, capturing `Ain Galakka, the Senussite south 1 The German political agent was a certain Mannismann, who after the defeat of Sidi Ahmad endeavoured to persuade the Senussites to continue the war. He was attacked and killed in the desert by tribesmen hostile to Ahmad.

ern base, in November, of that year. In the middle of 1914. Bardai, the chief settlement in the Tibesti highlands, was occupied. These newly conquered regions on the southern fringe of the Libyan Desert were placed under the control of Lt.-Col. J. Tilho. Though risings against their authority by chiefs acting on Senussite instructions, and raids by nomads continued up to the early months of 1917, the French posts formed an effective barrier against any Senussite advance into central Africa.

Campaign in Western Egypt

Since May 1915 the danger of a Senussite invasion of western Egypt had existed. It was due to the great tact with which Lt.-Col. C. L. Snow, 3 who commanded the small force stationed in western Egypt, handled a very delicate situation that the rupture with the Senussites was delayed till Nov. 1915. At the last moment, early in November, a final effort was made to avoid a break, Sidi Mohammed el Idris, Senussite envoy in Egypt, being sent to Cyrenaica to arrange for the Senussi sheikh " to get rid of his Turkish advisers in return for a sum of money." It was too late; Sidi Ahmad was already well supplied with German gold as well as arms.

The enemy plan of campaign was to advance in parallel lines with two forces, one across the Libyan plateau, - a great limestone tableland - the other farther S. along the string of oases leading from Siwa to the Nile. Simultaneously the Sultan of Darfur was to rise in revolt, invade Kordofan and advance on Khartum. The plan was boldly conceived, but the danger to Egypt and the Sudan was not chiefly in the military force at the command of the Senussi sheikh and his allies. That danger lay in the spiritual authority exercised by Sidi Ahmad and the high prestige he enjoyed in Egypt. Many if not most of the 200,000 Bedouins of western Egypt were adherents of the Senussi sect and should the Senussi forces gain any striking success it "might lead to serious religious and internal disorders." So wrote Gen. Sir John Maxwell, then commanding the forces in Egypt, who added that the Senussi peril was his principal source of anxiety - not the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal.

The opening of the campaign was accompanied by great activity by German submarines off the Cyrenaican coast and in the Gulf of Sollum; among the boats sunk were the British auxiliary cruiser " Tara " and the horse transport " Moorina." Survivors of the crews were handed over to the Senussi and suffered great privations (Cyrenaica is a very desolate country and the Senussites themselves were often short of food). Land hostilities began on Nov. 15 but in view of the isolation and smallness of the Egyptian garrisons at Sollum and other advanced posts they were withdrawn, and a stretch of country 200 m. or more in length was at once overrun by the Senussites. They advanced as far as Dabya (90 m. W. of Alexandria and the terminus of the railway along the coast), sweeping past, but not attacking Mersa Matruh, the chief port of western Egypt and reached by boat from Alexandria in 12 hours. This port was made the base for the British operations.

General Maxwell's endeavour, in view of the internal situation, was to avoid anything in the nature of a reverse, to keep the enemy as far as possible from the Nile valley, and, as soon as possible, to strike a decisive blow at the Senussi and by his defeat to diminish his influence as a spiritual potentate. These aims were achieved, but at the outset the difficulty was to get together a force strong enough to undertake operation. In Aug. 1915, when the situation on the western Egyptian frontier became critical, the Gallipoli campaign was being vigorously prosecuted, while the Turks had again advanced towards the Suez Canal. When the Senussi invasion occurred the decision to evacuate Gallipoli had not yet been taken, while the British Government had just committed itself to the Salonika campaign. In these circumstances Sir John Maxwell had to content himself with collecting a " scratch" force to oppose the Senussi. The strength 2 Turkish troops had occupied Tibesti in 1910 and Borku in 1911. They were recalled at the outbreak of the war with Italy.

Col. Snow was killed in the first action (Dec. i i 1915) by an Arab whom he was endeavouring to persuade to surrender. He had served over 20 years in the Egyptian coastguard and was intimately acquainted with the desert tribes.

of the Senussi is conjectural. The Turkish troops with them may have numbered 1,000; the Muhafizia or Senussite regulars were perhaps 5,000 strong. In addition there was an irregular body of tribesmen, Arabs and Arabized Berbers, probably numbering 20,000, all well armed and accustomed to desert warfare, but undisciplined and untrustworthy. The Senussites were well supplied with rifles and small-arms munitions; they had field guns and machine-guns; they had an ample camel transport and many of their troops were well mounted. With them were about ioo Europeans; Ga`far Pasha was commanderin-chief, and was accompanied by Sidi Ahmad and Nuri Bey.

Through bad leadership, or from other causes not explained, the Senussi offensive was not carried out as planned. When the advance across the Libyan plateau was made, Siwa oasis was also occupied; but no further progress towards the Nile by that route was then attempted. Moreover, `Ali Dinar of Darfur, who had formally renounced his allegiance to the Sudan Government in April 1915, while preaching a jihad and indulging in abusive letter writing, 1 did not carry out his threat of invasion. Thus at the outset the British had to deal only with the enemy advance along the Mediterranean coast.

Orders for the formation of a Western Frontier Force were issued on Nov. 20. Maj.-Gen. A. Wallace, who was given the command, took up his headquarters at Matruh on Dec. 7. His troops consisted of Yeomanry, Territorials, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and Egyptians, with a squadron of armoured cars and a squadron of aeroplanes. The striking force was a composite mounted brigade under Brig.-Gen. J. D. T. Tyndale Biscoe and a composite infantry brigade under Brig.-Gen. the Earl of Lucan. " Regiments and staff had been collected," wrote Sir John Maxwell, " somewhat hastily.. .. The composite yeomanry brigade contained men from 20 or more different regiments.. .. It was not until the middle of Feb. (1916) that the condition of the Western Frontier Force could be considered really satisfactory." The Senussites were engaged on Dec. r 1 and 13 in the neighbourhood of Matruh with indecisive result. Having received reinforcements, General Wallace again engaged the enemy, on Christmas Day, at Gebel Medwa, a few miles from the coast. The Senussites, severely handled, retreated to Halazin (officially misspelt Hazalin), 25 m. S.W. of Matruh. Torrential rains now interrupted operations; in any case General Wallace was too weak to resume the offensive until further reinforced. The first of these new reinforcements consisted of the 2nd Regt. of the ist South African Infantry Brigade, which disembarked at Matruh on Jan. 20 and 21 1916. They were the first S. Africans from the Union to take part in the war outside the limits of S. Africa.' On. Jan. 23 the Senussites were attacked at Halazin and after an eight-hours' stubborn engagement were defeated and fled. The country had been turned by the rains into a quagmire and mud played an important and unfortunate part throughout. General Wallace's successes now induced many of the Egyptian Bedouin (mostly the Walad `Ali tribesmen) to desert the Senussi cause. Wallace had been tied to his base at Matruh by lack of sufficient camel transport, but by February this difficulty was overcome and the force had been further strengthened, partly by more South African infantry. The time for a real offensive had come. At this period General Wallace resigned and was succeeded by Maj.-Gen. W. E. Peyton (Feb. 9 1916).

On Feb. 20 General Peyton sent forward a force under Brig.- Gen. H. T. Lukin (commander of the ist S. African Inf. Brig.) with orders to take Barrini, 50 m. E. of Sollum. On the 26th an engagement was fought at Agagia, in which Ga'far Pasha attempted to carry out his favourite manoeuvre - an enveloping movement. This movement was checked, the infantry pressed forward and after a two-hours' struggle the Senussites were compelled to evacuate their position. The yeomanry were then sent in pursuit, and the Dorset Regiment (under Col. H. M.

1 He addressed one letter to " The Governor of Hell in Kordofan and the Inspector of Flames in Nahuci." 2 A volunteer force raised in Rhodesia (the 2nd Rhodesian Regt.) had gone to E. Africa in 1915.

Souter) in a fine charge broke into the enemy lines and captured Ga'far Pasha. 3 Nuri Bey took over the command of the Senussi forces, which offered little further resistance. Two British columns advanced on Sollum, which was reoccupied on March 14. Sollum is close to the Cyrenaican frontier and into Cyrenaica, that is into Italian territory, Nun Bey and his forces retreated after blowing up their main ammunition dump. General Peyton did not further pursue Nuri, but on March 17 a squadron of armoured cars, under Major the Duke of Westminster, raced 120 m. across the desert and rescued the survivors - some 90 in number - of the " Tara " and " Moorina." Shortly afterwards General Peyton's force was reduced, the S. Africans leaving in April for France.

Sidi Ahmad had been with Ga'far Pasha until the end of Jan. 1916. He then went to Siwa and began the advance along the oases that lead to the Nile. The advance came too late to be effective, but on Feb. 11 Senussites occupied Baharia oasis, some ioo m. from the fertile and densely peopled districts of Fayum and Minia. Before the end of February the Senussites had also occupied the more southerly oases of Farafra and Dakhla. Thereupon the Egyptian officials were withdrawn from Kharga (the Great Oasis), which is connected by railway with the Nile valley, and the Senussites proceeded to occupy it. The strategical importance of the oases is great, but having no troops available for an offensive in S.W. Egypt, General Maxwell took defensive measures only. A command under Maj.-Gen. J. Adye patrolled the region from the Fayum to Assiut and Esna. The oases were kept under constant observation by aeroplanes, and the Senussites did not emerge from them. After the complete defeat of their northern force they abandoned Kharga, which was reoccupied by the British on April 15 1916. Gen. Sir Archibald Murray had meanwhile (March 19) succeeded General Maxwell in the Egyptian command.

Darfur Campaign

At this period, in the Sudan, the Sirdar, Gen. Sir Reginald Wingate, was dealing with `Ali Dinar of Darfur. For over a year the Sultan had been openly defiant and since Dec. 1915 had been making arrangements to invade Kordofan. As the Sudan Government had not in 1915 any force available for action in Darfur, negotiations were entered into with him, but without result, and the belief grew in the Sudan that the Government was too weak to deal with so powerful a sultan (`Ali Dinar had a regular "slave" army some 10,000 in number, for the most part well armed). Early in 1916 it had become imperative to clear up the situation if the general peace of the Sudan was to be preserved. Though it was the worst season of the year for military operations the Sirdar determined to anticipate `Ali Dinar's offensive. An expeditionary force, 3,000 strong, was organized under command of Maj. (temporary Lt.-Col.) P. V. Kelly. Except for a detachment of the R.F.C. the troops consisted entirely of units of the Egyptian army - this being the first time since the Mandia that Egyptian troops had fought Sudanese Arabs. The expedition was highly successful. It was remarkable for the manner in which transport difficulties were overcome. Khartum, the base, is Soo m. by rail from the nearest seaport: El Obeid, railhead, is 428 m. from Khartum; and from El Obeid the force had to advance nearly 400 m. across a desolate roadless country. It then had to engage a numerically superior enemy of indomitable valour. Battle was given by the Darfurians on May 22 (1916) at Beringa, near El Fasher, `Ali Dinar's capital. A body of 2,000 riflemen, supported by a large mounted force, attacked the Egyptians with all the accustomed bravery of the Dervish warrior. They were beaten back, counter-charged and completely defeated, losing Like many other Arab officers and men in the Turkish army who fell into the hands of the British, Ga`far Pasha joined the Arab forces under the Emir Faisal and took part in the Syrian campaign against the Turks. After his capture at Agagia he had been confined in the citadel at Cairo. He tried to escape by means of a rope. Ga'far being a very heavy man, the rope broke; he fell, injured himself, and was removed to hospital. While there, he learned of the Sherif of Mecca's revolt and resolved to join his forces. In 1920 he became Minister of Defence in the Provisional Arab Government of Mesopotamia. He was a delegate at the Near East Conference held in Cairo in March 1921.

over S o % of their number in killed alone. `Ali Dinar and a considerable following of horsemen fled from the field. The party was chased and bombed by airmen, but the Sultan made good his escape. He retired to the confines of French central Africa. In Oct. 1916 a column was sent against him; he again fled, was pursued and killed in action on Nov. 6.

The Siwa Defeat

In the oases west of the Nile (where Maj.- Gen. W. A. Watson had taken over the command) there was little change between April and Oct. 1916. The patrolling of the desert front, over Boo m. in length, was done by light motorcars, the Imperial Camel Corps and aeroplanes. In October, the British, with slight opposition, reoccupied Dakhla oasis, where Sidi Ahmad had a farm and where he had been living for some months. From Dakhla a daring attempt was made by a party of British, in motor-cars, to reconnoitre Kufra, but it was found impossible to cross the belt of sand dunes west of the oasis.

Sidi Ahmad now retired by way of Farfara and Baharia oases to Siwa. As long as he remained there he was not utterly discredited in the eyes of the Egyptians. It was therefore decided to attack Siwa with a force sent in motor-cars from Matruh. The distance to be covered was 150 m., but the ground was for the most part hard. Leaving Matruh on Feb. 11917, the armouredcar force, under Brig.-Gen. H. W. Hodgson, reached the escarpment, below which lies Siwa oasis, the next afternoon, and was in action the whole of Feb. 3. The Senussites were about 1,000 strong, including Soo riflemen, and had mountain and machineguns. An attempt to rush the cars was frustrated, but the action appeared to be indecisive. However, at daybreak the next morning the Senussites, having blown up their ammunition, retreated west. The head of their column was ambushed, but the main body got away. Sidi Ahmad, with Mohammed Salih (ex-commander of the Egyptian coastguard, who had deserted at the beginning of the campaign), had already fled to Jarabub (the oasis in which is the mosque-tomb of the founder of the Senussite fraternity). Thither he was not pursued, and in the Kufra oases he had a practically inaccessible place of refuge.

Nevertheless, with the defeat of Siwa the danger to Egypt from the Senussi movement disappeared and though raids were made on the Darfur border they did not seriously affect the Sudan. In Cyrenaica, too, the situation was altered. An AngloItalian agreement had been concluded in July 1916 for common action against the Senussi and it was in contemplation to transfer from the Egyptian to the Italian sphere Jarabub and that part of the Libyan Desert containing Kufra.

An Understanding with Italy. - During 1917 and 1918 Turkish and German influence among the Senussites steadily declined while strong efforts were made by the Italians to come to an understanding with the sect. They secured the release of 700 Italian soldiers, prisoners of war. Sidi Mohammed el Idris, the former envoy to Egypt, and the eldest son of Senussi el Mandi, had disapproved his cousin's action and had taken no part in the invasion of Egypt. He had an influential following and was desirous of peace with both Italy and Great Britain. After the fight at Siwa he entered into an agreement with both Powers. Sidi Ahmad himself was deeply committed to his Turkish and German counsellors. Many of these, including Nuri Bey, had left Cyrenaica. In the summer of 1918 the Idrisi party gained the mastery in the Senussite ranks. Sidi Ahmad's position was undermined and he found it convenient to quit Cyrenaica. In August of that year he was conveyed by a German submarine from Misurata to Polo, whence he went to Turkey, still claiming to be the head of the brotherhood. In 1919 he " girded the Sultan with the sword of `Othman " but in 19.20 had turned Nationalist and aided Mustafa Kemal.

The Senussi chiefs in Libya had chosen Sidi Mohammed el Idris as Grand Senussi, and the new head of the order in Jan. 1919 sent a mission to Rome, when Italian sovereignty was implicitly recognized. Neither Italy, France or Great Britain had challenged the right of the Senussi sheikh to exercise spiritual authority over the members of the brotherhood; Italy in 1917 had gone further and had acknowledged Sidi Mohammed's temporal authority in what may be called his hereditary domin ions. By the accord of Regima concluded Nov. 1920 the 1917 agreement was ratified and Sidi Mohammed, to whom the Italians gave the title of emir (prince), himself visited Rome to pay homage to the King of Italy. An indication of Sidi Mohammed's attitude was the permission he granted at this time to an English woman to visit Kufra, though in the guise of a Moslem. The lady in question, Mrs. Rosita Forbes, testified to the desire of the Senussi chiefs to resume trade with Egypt.

AUTH0RIT1Es

See the despatches of Sir John Maxwell, Sir Archibald Murray and Sir Reginald Wingate (London Gazette supplements June 21, Sept. 25, Oct. 25 and Dec. I 191 and May 27 1919); The Times History of the War, vol. ix., chap. cxl y .; Lt.- Col. J. Tilho, "The Exploration of Tibeste. in 1912-7," Geog. Jnl.. vol. lvi. (1920); Capt. Gwatkin Williams, R.N., In the Hands of the Senussi (1916); Rosita Forbes, The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra (1921); W. 1'. Massey, The Desert Campaigns (1918).

(F. R. C.)



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