Last November, the Egyptian Armed Forces marked 100 years since WWI by commemorating the contribution and sacrifice offered by Egyptian troops in battle. The event took place at the Military Research Authority (MRA) where the Egyptian flag was flown side by side with the flags of the Allies.
“The Egyptian army derives its values, traditions and legendary bravery from a long history that dates back to the ancient Egyptian military,” General Gamal Shehata, president of the MRA stressed in his opening speech. He then reviewed the role of the research conducted at the MRA to document the history of Egyptian military achievement, which prominently includes Egyptian participation in WWI.
A war camp
When WWI erupted Egypt was under British occupation, and thus found itself in the thick of a war it had no part or interest in. Owing to its strategic position between the two continents Africa and Asia, and to the presence of the vital waterway of the Suez Canal on its territory, the country became a camp for Allied forces. The British authorities in Egypt ordered the digging of trenches and fortified port defences. In Alexandria, which was used as a base to fight off any enemy who came from the sea, cannons were stationed all along the coast. An especially huge cannon based at Ras al-Tin was directed at the city of Alexandria, which spread terror among the local residents. All coastal areas on the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal were war areas and their people had to submit to extraordinary security measures. Cairo and Alexandria also performed another war duty: they were recreational centres for Allied soldiers off duty.
Egypt was used as a medical base for wounded soldiers. Besides the hospitals it commandeered the best hotels—among them the luxurious Heliopolis Palace which is today Egypt’s Presidential Palace—and schools which were turned into military hospitals. The Egyptian Army Hospital was fully dedicated to the treatment of New Zealand soldiers. The Egyptian Red Crescent mobilised all its facilities and means to serve the medical war needs. The Egyptian railways, trains and even trams were used to move the wounded to hospital. Special trains were equipped to serve as mobile hospitals and offer the emergency medical service needed for those patients whose conditions could not wait till they reached hospital.
Fighting on several fronts
The Armed Forces commemoration of the Egyptian participation in WWI featured the screening of a documentary on the Egyptian troops who fought in three continents alongside the Allies in WWI. Back then, in November 1915, armed conflict arose in North Africa when the Grand Senussi in Lybia sided with the Ottoman Empire against the British and Italians. The Ottomans persuaded the Grand Senussi to attack Egypt—since it was occupied by the British—and proclaim Jihad (Holy War) in the west as the Ottomans conducted an offensive against the Suez Canal on the east. Even though Senussi achieved a number of victories at first, he was pushed back and defeated in March 1916 by the Western Frontier Force of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The Egyptian armed forces also fought with the Allies in the East in what is today Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
Hostilities erupted in Sudan between the Anglo-Egyptians and the Sultan of Darfur, who was believed to have prepared an invasion of Egypt. Again, Egyptian forces allied with the British were able to defeat him.
Some 100,000 Egyptian warriors also took part in battles on the European front, fighting in four countries: Belgium, France, Italy and Greece. Many died in action and were buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery. A number of them were awarded the Victoria Cross for “valour in the face of the enemy”.
Their valour notwithstanding, those Egyptian soldiers were forcefully conscripted to serve in the war. According to historian Abdel-Rahman al-Rafei (1889 – 1966), they were taken from their homes and lands and whipped into forced military service. They died in strange lands; many fell victim to severely inadequate medical care, and it did not help that they were not adapted to the bitterly cold European winters.
Altogether, according to British records, 1,200,000 Egyptian soldiers took part in the war at a time when Egypt’s entire population was some 14 million. The Egyptian government contributed around EGP3 million to the Allied war effort and the Egyptian people donated EGP320,000 to the Red Cross—a not-so-small portion was gathered from the people by force.
MRA researcher Ashraf Sabry reviewed, during the Armed Forces commemoration of WWI, his 13-year effort to document the role of Egyptian forces in that world war. Dr Sabry spoke of the numerous documents he scrutinised to prove the heroism of the Egyptian military in their fight alongside the Allies. This heroism, he said, has been recognised, and the Egyptian flag flown in Belgium this year—in commemoration of 100 years on WWI—alongside the flags of other countries which took part in the war. Egyptian soldiers were commemorated in a war memorial for those who died in action.
As the event drew to a close, the attendants were treated to a photographic exhibition that included copies of documents which had been recently declassified by the British and French National Archives, and by several European universities.
The exhibition also included photographs and illustrations of the Egyptian army from ancient times to the present. The event wrapped up with the Egyptian national anthem.
Taking Egypt into modern times
It would be severely remiss, though, to write about Egypt and WWI without highlighting the lasting monumental cultural effect that the war and its attendant activities had on Egypt. The wide exposure to Western culture and norms had a strong influence on how Egyptians came to see themselves and the world. The new openness led to a break with tradition; the nationalist revolution which set off to demand independence from the British occupation at the same time glorified Egyptian identity and values as opposed to the hitherto dominant Islamic identity. Women’s liberation movements took off; led by the feminist Hoda Shaarawi many women removed their veils, and women education sky-rocketed. The Egyptian intellectual and cultural enlightenment movement, which had seen its birth in the late 19th century, boomed. Literature, poetry, arts, music, and cinema movements thrived and saw unprecedented growth.
This openness to the world also familiarised Egypt with secularism and socialism, and active political movements were born. Despite ups and downs with the various regimes that ruled Egypt afterwards, these movements have thrived until today.
Perhaps most significant of all, however, was the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 in the wake of WWI and the birth of a secular Turkey. Many analysts see in this the reason why, in retaliation, the Muslim Brotherhood movement was born in 1929 at the hands of Hassan al-Banna, a teacher in the Suez Canal town of Ismailiya. It was the birth of modern political Islam that calls for a pan-world Islamic caliphate, a concept with which the entire world appears to be at odds today.
24 December 2014