100 years ago – an Egyptian uprising meant Lighthorsemen had to saddle up again

by John Boyce

It was in March 1919 that the Egyptian independence movement reached boiling point. Egypt and its strategically-vital Suez Canal had been made a British protectorate during World War 1, with some assurances that things would be different afterwards, but that had not come to pass. After their post-war political representations had failed to sway the British foreign office, protests erupted and the local Egyptian independence movement’s leaders were deported to Malta on 8 March 1919. Unrest spread rapidly: student demonstrations occurred in the streets of Cairo, there was a general strike, riots broke out, railways and telephone lines were sabotaged across the country.

Cairo street procession - ALH onlookers on balcony to right

Protesters outside Shepheards Hotel

Amongst the Australian Light Horse, all the 1914 Originals had already sailed for home before Christmas 1918, and the 1st and 2nd LH Regiments had just followed on 3rd March 1919 [1]. But now, in mid-March 1919, the remaining LH units were urgently told to re-arm, re-mount, and deploy to key points to restore order in Egypt.

This was a frustrating further delay for the troops. It was rapidly dealt with. The Official History gives a single page to what happened [2], although unit histories go into more detail.

 

Seven ALH units (7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 1th, 14th 15th Regiments) were deployed towards the Nile delta near Zagazig under Brigadier Wilson, three others (4th, 5th, 6th Regiments) at Damanhour near Alexandria, one (3rd LH) in Cairo itself, and one (12th LH) in upper Egypt. There were also two small mobile columns deployed, under LTCOLs Olden and Foster [3].

 

For example, B Squadron 8th LH received orders on 16 March, riding out from Moascar at 1100 hours next day. The remainder of the regiment followed by train, and marched through the streets of Zagazig on 18 March in a show of force for the local populace [4]. They then provided escorts to railway repair teams. The next six weeks saw patrolling on horseback (usually by an officer and twenty men), the guarding of bridges and key installations, and protection of repair parties along railways and telegraph lines.

The 4th LH Regiment sent an advance party of two officers and fifty-six other ranks to Ismailia and Moascar to set up camp on 4 March, with the rest of the unit following. Within three days the troops “were undergoing physical culture classes and route marches to toughen the men” [5]. On 22 March they drew their horses and gear and moved to Damanhour. Patrols and mobile columns set out to scour the countryside, bringing in fifty prisoners in six days [6]. Local unrest continued, with destruction of the main railway line on 31st March (the locals were “less than helpful about culprits” – [7]) but by the beginning of April most villages “if unco-operative, were at least subdued”. Cordon-and-searches of villages continued through April, particularly after bridges were burnt by locals, and nightly patrols along the railway were occasionally fired upon. By mid-April the unit’s scattered patrols could be withdrawn and concentrated at Damanhour once more.

   

As for the 12th LH Regiment, when trouble first erupted they had only just handed over their horses a week earlier near Beirut! They sailed south with 14th LH Regiment on 23 March to Egypt, then re-equipped at Moascar by 4 April before deploying to upper Egypt. From Beni Seref and Minia they deployed patrols across the zone until withdrawn in late May [8].

B Squadron 4 LH camping at Hoshisa

Patrol near Salhia - March 1919

During March and April 1919, several Australian soldiers had been killed by Egyptian snipers or in ambushes [12]. The Light Horse were bitter to have suffered twenty casualties in this late stage of their overseas deployment. For example, two Light Horsemen from 4th LH, killed during patrol at dusk on 12 April, had been veterans since 1915 and 1916 [13]. In response to such events, locals were sometimes roughly handled, and there were reports of villages set on fire in reprisal (eg Azizia and Bedrashein by 10th LH and 15th LH patrols on 23 March – [14]. However, details were sketchy and claims frequently dismissed as being unreliable or exaggerated [15]. There are four documented instances where their behaviour was questioned by the authorities, but General Allenby recorded the highest admiration for the Light Horsemen and “their efficiency, their thoroughness and their restraint” [16]. Brugger considers that “proceedings of the court of inquiry (about Azizia) were an honest attempt to get at the facts” [17] and she notes that instructions were issued to limit military reprisal actions, so that punishment would be fines or lashes for specific culprits, rather than a group punishment.

 

Once control over the countryside was re-established after the initial uncertainty and anxiety, a kind of routine developed. One trooper’s comment was that at Zagazig “food was good, weather was cool and there was no dust. Cricket was now the game” in off-duty hours [18].

There was no organised fighting in Egypt, but there were riots and deadly incidents. Some Light Horse patrols opened fire, inflicting casualties. The largest of these incidents happened on 16 March, when a 10th LH patrol broke up a rioting crowd of 900-1,000 at a railway station in a critical minute’s action, shooting fifty to eighty people (reports vary, [9]. Patrols of 3 LH Brigade used their machine guns several times on 22 March to disperse riotous crowds, killing or wounding about sixty Egyptians (see photo and [10]).  A British Foreign Office estimate was that the Egyptian uprising cost 800 Egyptian dead and 1500 wounded [11].

By May 1919, the situation was well in hand and calm had been restored. Some patrols and guards on key installations continued, but thoughts turned once more to the prospects of home……..

 

As the Australian War Memorial website summarises: “The flexibility and mobility of the ANZAC forces involved were principal factors in the suppression of the rioting.” Gullett wrote in the Official History that the success was “owing to their mobility, their reputation and their decisiveness” [19].

Mina El Kamh station - morning after 10 LH shooting - 16 March 1919

Train wreck at Kassassin - 16 March 1919

Repairing a torn railway line

4LH troops with locals at Kom Hamada  during patrol

Egyptian riot casualty April 1919 - 11 LH troopers in background

LH troops on patrol in Cairo street

Notes:

1   H. S. Gullett, ‘The AIF in Sinai and Palestine’, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Vol VII p.792

 

2  Gullett, ibid, p.793  

 

3  S. Brugger ’Australians and Egypt, 1914-1919’ Melbourne Uni Press 1980, p.163

 

4   M. Emery ‘They rode into History- 8 LH Regiment’, Slouch Hat publications, McRae Vic, 2009, p.167

 

5    D. Holloway “Endure and Fight’ 4 LH Memorial Association, Melb, 2011,  p.328

 

6   Holloway, ibid, p.329

 

7   Holloway, ibid, p.330

 

8   K. Hollis ‘Thunder of the Hooves’ 12 LH Regiment, Aust Military History Publications, Loftus NSW  2008,   p.94

 

9  Brugger, op cit,  p.163

 

10   J. Bou ‘Light Horse – a history of Australia’s Mounted Arm’, Cambridge Uni Press 2010, p.201

 

11  F.O. 371/3718,  quoted in Brugger. op cit,  p.166

 

12 Emery, op cit,  p.170

 

13 The men were Corporal Alex Anderson and Trooper Alf Hurstfield  “…..emotions were contained only with great difficulty”. Holloway, op cit, p.332

 

14 Brugger, op cit, Chapter 8

 

15 Emery, op cit, p.168

 

16 Emery, ibid p.171

 

17 Brugger, op cit, p.112

 

18 Emery, op cit,  p.168

 

19 Gullett,  op cit, p.793