Sinai campaign

Page 2 – Overview

The Sinai campaign arose from a change in British thinking about the defence of the Suez Canal. Initially, British forces in Egypt had built a defensive zone of strongpoints and trenches along the western bank of the canal. After the raid at Ismailia by Ottoman forces in February 1915 this strategy was extended to the eastern bank. But this did little to improve the overall situation for the British.

Directly defending the canal required large numbers of troops. By the beginning of 1916 the demands of the Western Front and other more active theatres of war meant that the British Army could not spare soldiers for such a manpower-intensive, yet passive, scheme. Furthermore, these defences extended only a few kilometres into the Sinai Peninsula. While the British could be reasonably confident of fighting off any future Ottoman raids on the canal, they couldn’t prevent such raids happening. Under this strategy, the Ottomans didn’t even have to make any more raids – the mere threat that they might do so would keep a big British force tied down.

In early 1916 the newly appointed commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), Lieutenant-General Archibald Murray, recognised this problem and offered his superiors in London a potential solution. Murray argued that the canal could be best defended by going on the offensive and seizing control of the Sinai Peninsula from the Ottoman Turks. Not only would this remove any threat of future raids on the canal, it would also reverse the strategic situation in the area. With control of the Sinai, the British could keep disproportionately large numbers of Ottoman troops tied down defending southern Palestine.


Reflecting the new strategic direction of the British war effort in the region, in March 1916 the name of Murray’s command was changed from the MEF to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). His army was also increased in size, gaining the New Zealand and Australian mounted horse brigades, which had been reinforced and rebuilt after their ordeal at Gallipoli. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the three Australian Light Horse brigades were grouped together as the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division. This rather ungainly official title was quickly superseded, even in some of the official orders and communications of the EEF, by the colloquial but better-sounding ‘Anzac Mounted Division’.

There was no doubting the strategic soundness of Murray′s argument. But the barren conditions confronting any army that ventured into the harsh desert environment of the Sinai Peninsula – not least the lack of water – raised practical problems. There were some wells and oases scattered across the peninsula, but none large enough to sustain the numbers of men and animals required. The construction of a railway and pipeline from the British base at Kantara in Egypt to El Arish on the Sinai–Palestine border lay at the heart of Murray’s plans. The progress of these projects would dictate the rate of advance, and protecting them from Ottoman attack would be the main focus of the army. Once El Arish was captured and connected to the railway and pipeline it would become a base from which British forces could cut off Ottoman access to the Sinai and threaten the garrisons in southern Palestine.

Murray’s plan won cautious approval from the British War Office, which authorised him to advance into the Sinai as far as Katia oasis, 40 km from the Suez Canal. In February 1916 men of the Royal Engineers and the Egyptian Labour Corps began work on the railway and pipeline.

In April the EEF suffered a brief setback when an Ottoman raiding force surprised a British mounted brigade manning forward outposts around Katia. But this raid did not affect the slow yet steady progress of the railway and pipeline. Having learnt from Katia, the EEF kept its infantry divisions close to the advancing railhead while its mounted troops fanned out in front of them to drive Ottoman patrols away and give warning of any large-scale attack. This patrol work proved its worth when in late July a large Ottoman force was discovered advancing across the Sinai near Bir el Abd. This led to the only set-piece battle of the campaign, at Romani on 3–4 August 1916.

The Battle of Romani was the last major offensive action by Ottoman forces in the campaign. In its aftermath the EEF advanced across the Sinai without any further interference. This did not mean an end to the fighting, though, as the Ottoman garrisons at El Arish and Rafa had to be overcome and the remaining Ottoman outposts in the Sinai still threatened the EEF’s line of communications. The Ottoman Turks withdrew from El Arish on the eve of a planned British attack in December. All Ottoman troops were withdrawn from the Sinai after the Anzac Mounted Division destroyed the outpost at Magdhaba a few days later.

The large Ottoman garrison at Rafa, on the Sinai–Palestine border, remained stubbornly in place. It was subjected to an all-out attack on 9 January 1917 and defeated after a bitter day-long battle. With the fall of Rafa the EEF had cleared the last Ottoman troops from the Sinai Peninsula and successfully concluded a campaign that had achieved all its objectives. The Suez Canal was safe from any possible Ottoman Turkish threat and the British were now poised to invade the Ottoman-held territory of Palestine.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012