At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Egypt’s position was uncertain. The country had been occupied by Britain since 1882, but was still, legally speaking, an Ottoman province. So when Britain and the Ottoman Empire formally went to war on 5 November, Egypt faced a conflict of loyalties.

On 18 December, Britain declared a Protectorate over the country, legalising the Veiled Protectorate put in place 32 years before. This put an end to Ottoman sovereignty (FO 891/12). Abbas Hilmi II, Khedive of Egypt, was deposed, and Prince Hussein Kamel Pasha was made Sultan of Egypt (CAB 37/123/7). When he died in 1917 he was succeeded by his son, Ahmed Fuad.

In May 1917, Reginald Wingate, the High Commissioner, wrote that ‘Egypt’s part in the war [had] been unimportant’ (FO 141/469/1), yet Egypt, as the most important British base in the Middle East, had been greatly affected by the war.

Home Front

AIR 20/610 (1)

Photograph of Officers' Camp Mess Heliopolis RFC, 1916 AIR 20/610 (1)

Egypt’s geographical position meant that the country faced simultaneous threats on several fronts. In the east, the German-Ottoman troops threatened to cross the Sinai peninsula and attack the Suez Canal while, in the west, the Senussi revolt posed a real threat to the Egyptian oases.

From a strictly British point of view, Egypt was also threatened internally. Throughout the war, the British were very anxious about the effect of German-Ottoman propaganda on the Egyptian population.

Egypt was quickly mobilised. On 2 November, General John Grenfell Maxwell, Lieutenant-General commanding the British forces in Egypt, declared martial law (FO 891/14). He stated that the military authorities were intended to supplement the civilian authorities rather than take over from them, and that any requisition would be compensated. He asked the Egyptian people to ‘serve the common end by abstaining from all action of a nature to disturb the public peace, to stir up disaffection, or the aid the enemies of His Britannic Majesty and his Allies’.

On 6 November, Maxwell issued a second proclamation, which determined the scope of Egypt’s active role in the war. Outlining the upcoming protectorate, it presented Britain as the guarantor of order and security in Egypt. This had important logistical and financial consequences, as the British were in practice excluding the Egyptian Army from the defence system, and depriving themselves of military assistance that might have been useful on the Palestinian and Mesopotamian fronts. The Egyptian Army, however, was in charge of the maintenance of law and order in the Nile valley, both in Egypt and in the Sudan (FO 891/14).

Egyptian Labour Corps

AIR 20/610

Special truck unloading aeroplane at Heliopolis 1916 AIR 20/610

At the beginning of 1916, Husayn Ruchdi, the President of the Egyptian Council of Ministers, stated that Egypt could no longer ignore a conflict that affected its security. Two Corps were created in the summer of 1915, on the basis of voluntary enlistment. Recruitment intensified in 1916 and, by the spring of 1917, the Egyptian Labour Corps (WO 95/5279) numbered 98,000 troops, 23,000 of whom served in France (WO 95/5468). The Camel Transport Corps numbered 96,000 troops, most of whom served in Palestine (WO 95/4454). The Egyptians were enlisted for a three month period and carried out maintenance and building works needed for military operations.

From 1917, a large increase in both the number of recruits and length of the enlistment period seemed necessary. But the corps, which had initially been seen as an opportunity for a better income, were not as popular as when they had first been created, and the fellahin were quite reluctant. Voluntary enlistment gradually became recruitment, which was carried out by the Egyptian civil authorities, and was often accompanied by extremely brutal methods. The British military authorities, trying to distance themselves from these methods, repeatedly claimed, especially in the reports compiled for the Milner Mission in 1919-1920, that the recruits of both the Egyptian Labour Corps and Camel Transport Corps were well-equipped, well-treated volunteers (FO 848).

It is quite certain that the progress of the British troops on the Palestinian front would not have been possible without those two corps. Although they had a non-combatant status, they were very often on the front line, and paid a high human price (MH 106/1295).

Suez Canal

WO 161/41

Alexandria – Sidi Bishr Turkish Prisoners of War camps, Nov-Dec 1916 WO 161/41

During the First World War, the most important part of Egypt was the Suez Canal. The situation of the canal was peculiar as it was operated by a Universal Company and had an international status which had been determined by the 1888 Convention of Constantinople.

As early as August 1914 the British forbade German and Austro-Hungarian civilian ships to pass through the canal. Those that had already entered it were encouraged to exit quickly as there was a risk the crews might try to scuttle them in order to block the canal entirely. The British Directors of the Suez Company immediately warned Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, that the board intended to uphold the 1888 Convention of Constantinople. The position of the Company, however, shifted when the Ottoman Empire entered the war. The threat against Egypt and the canal was such that the Board decided to join the Entente, and the Company and its staff took an active part to the war effort (FO 141/590/1).

The Suez Canal was mainly defended by the Indian Expeditionary Force ‘E’, supported by battalions from the Australian and New Zealand Corps (PRO 30/57/61). The first German-Ottoman attack occurred on the night of 2-3 February 1915: Ottoman sappers and infantrymen gathered on the eastern bank, south of Lake Timsah, and launched several attacks simultaneously. The Ottomans withdrew on 4 February. During the summer of 1915, the British focused on the Dardanelles campaign, the success of which was meant to ensure the safety of the canal on a more permanent basis.

From 1916 onwards, the British focused on reinforcing the defence of the canal. During the spring, the defensive line was moved on the eastern bank. The Isthmus of Suez became the rear base of the British forces.

On August 3, 1916, the 7th Ottoman army, headed by Colonel Kress von Kressenstein and supported by the German Pascha I Expeditionary Corps, attacked the British troops in Romani, 37 kilometres from the Suez Canal. While the German-Ottoman troops were not wiped out, they were pushed back far beyond the defensive line (WO 303/164). The battle of Romani was the very last attack on Egypt and marked the beginning of the British advance into the desert. After August 1916, neither Egypt nor the Suez Canal were threatened again

Key figures

Abbas Hilmi II

Khedive of Egypt (1892-1914)

Hussein Pasha

Sultan of Egypt (1914-1917)

Fuad I

Sultan, later King, of Egypt (1917-1936)

General John Grenfell Maxwell

Lieutenant-General commanding the British forces in Egypt

Key documents

FO 141/472/1

Fitting new bows to Nile steamer, 1915-1917. FO 141/472/1

  • Egypt's involvement in the First World War, 1915-1925 FO 141/469/1
  • Proclamation of British Protectorate over Egypt: message to Prince Hussein Kamel, 1914 FO 891/12
  • War with Turkey: proclamation of martial law in Egypt FO 891/14
  • Despatches from Lieutenant General Sir J G Maxwell, Commanding the Forces in Egypt WO 33/796
  • British policy and strategic planning on defence of the Suez Canal, 1914-1928 FO 141/590/1
  • Egyptian Labour Corps 1916 December-1917 March WO 95/5279