The 2nd-7th Gurkhas in
the action at Tor, Sinai, on 12th February 1915
Peninsula in 1915
On 3rd February a well-organised Turkish force with German advisors
attacked the Suez Canal after marching across the Sinai
Peninsula. A few Turks
crossed the canal but they were quickly killed or captured by the British canal
defenders, who were predominantly from the Indian Army. Two days later the surviving Turks withdrew
in good order, and apart from air sorties the British failed to interfere with
the withdrawal; an account of the battle was published in Durbar, Volume 27, No. 1 under the title: ‘Turks Across the Canal.’
However the canal was not the only Turkish objective in Sinai. Much further south on Sinai’s Red Sea coast
was the small port
of Tor. This was a quarantine station for pilgrims
travelling inland to the Convent of Saint Catherine that lay at the foot of the
Mount of Moses. If the Turks seized Tor
then they could float mines into the Red Sea to attack and disrupt Allied
shipping sailing in and out of the Suez Canal.
The British had seized the Turkish territory of Egypt in 1882 and
that theoretically included Sinai; however the peninsula had been largely
ignored, apart from small British garrisons at El Arish on the Mediterranean
coast and at Nakl, mid-way across the peninsula due east from the town of
Suez. The status of Tor was not defined,
both sides assuming that the town was theirs.
The British forces in Sinai were Arab camel-mounted or dismounted
policemen, and when Britain
abandoned the Sinai ahead of the Turkish advance to the canal, most of these
police went over to the Turkish side, as did many of the Sinai tribes.
One British officer serving in the Egyptian Army knew the Sinai
exceptionally well; he was Lieut.-Colonel Alfred Chevallier Parker, known as
Parker Pasha. He was very
well-connected, being a nephew of Lord Kitchener, and he had served for several
years in Nakhl, commanding the garrison and organising an intelligence network
amongst local tribesmen. After that he worked in the Intelligence Department in
Cairo, and in
early 1915 he held the appointment of Governor of Sinai, reporting to the
Director of Intelligence.
Right: Parker Pasha in 1924.
In February 1915 Tor was garrisoned by two companies of the 2nd Egyptian
Battalion commanded by Captain G.F. Pridham, the Welsh Regiment. Reports of nearby Turkish troops accompanied
by Germans reached Pridham, and he passed these on to Parker, adding that he
could not trust his own troops to attack the enemy. On 7th February Parker arrived at Tor aboard
HMS Minerva to investigate. He found a worsening situation in the town;
the local police had looted shops and deserted. An enemy force outside the town
was suborning the townsfolk and the Egyptian garrison to join the Turkish cause
or to at least surrender. Curfews and
access control measures were difficult to implement because monks from the
convent and desert tribesmen from the interior were constantly moving in and
out of the town.
Parker telegraphed the following message to the Director of
Intelligence in Cairo,
Colonel Gilbert Clayton:
my opinion the present situation contains very dangerous elements, which can be
obviated in two ways:
the entire abandonment of
Tor and the withdrawal of the garrison;
the sending of a
sufficiently strong party of Gurkhas or British to ensure the destruction of
first would entail an incalculable loss of prestige among Egyptians and
Muhammadans who know Tor as a pilgrim station, as well as among Russians who
regard the Convent and its environs as a holy place…
reinforcements reach enemy, a double company of Gurkhas should be
sufficient. The arrival of the ship or
the disembarkation of men should be by night to avoid the possibility of
alarming the enemy.’
It was the proximity of the Convent that swayed Cairo headquarters to act. Parker had discovered from monks in his
intelligence network that the Turkish camp was at the rear of Jabal Hammam, among
the hills of Saidna Musa (‘Our Lord Moses’), in the Wadi of Al Sidd. The British government did not want to
publicly appear unconcerned about the fate of the Convent of Saint Catherine. Parker
returned across the Red Sea to join a British
operation being mounted against the enemy force outside Tor.
Lieut.-Colonel C.L. Haldane, commanding the 2nd Bn, 7th Gurkha
Rifles, was ordered to embark half his battalion at Suez in HMS Minerva on 10th February.
His mission was to punish a party of the enemy harassing the Tor
garrison. Haldane selected No. 2 and No.
3 Coys and his Machine Gun Section for the operation; the British officers who
sailed with the half-battalion were Captains C. Macdonald, H. Exham and N.M.
Wilson and 2nd Lieut. A. Mills. Captain
A.R.S. Alexander of the Indian Medical Service (1) also boarded Minerva with a Section
of 135th Indian Field Ambulance. Colonel
Parker was also aboard with Major A.T.S. Dickinson, Brigade Major of 30th
HMS Minerva left Suez at noon on 11th
February and steamed the 200 kilometres to Tor in ten hours. The initial plan was to land to the north of the
port under cover of darkness, scale the cliffs and approach the enemy’s
position from the rear. This had to be abandoned as the sea was too rough. It was decided to leave the machine guns on
board, and the troops were rowed directly into Tor harbour. It was a difficult
exercise, in open boats on a heaving sea and in darkness with no lights
showing, but all ranks were ashore by 01.00 hrs on 12th February, where they
met up with the 150 Egyptian soldiers of the Tor garrison and a section of the
136th Royal Field Artillery.
The approach march
Speed was now vital in order to achieve surprise. Haldane’s column,
augmented by the Egyptian troops, commenced the marching at 01.30 hrs, although
some of the Gurkhas were so sea-sick that they had to stay behind in Tor. Parker had enlisted the support of the one
local leader who had stayed loyal to the British, Shaikh Mudakhil Suleiman, and
Mudakhil’s son Zaidan led the column with Parker on the circuitous nine mile
approach march through the desert.
Parker, Zaidan and twelve scouts led, followed by No. 2 Coy and then
No. 3 Coy, the 150 Egyptians, the Section of Field Ambulance and finally a
Gurkha section as the rear guard. At 05.30
hrs the range of rocky hills was approached where the enemy camp had been
reported, and Captain Exham moved off with his No. 2 Coy
to the right. No. 3 Coy under Captain
Wilson then formed up as the centre of the force with 150 Egyptians moving to
the left. Haldane’s HQ party with fifty
Egyptians formed a reserve 750 metres to the rear, with the medical staff
The advance to contact At 06.00 hrs the advance began and after 900 metres No. 3 Coy found
the camp and quickly encircled it. Enemy
sentries must have alerted the camp. Although a quantity of Mauser cartridges
was found, no weapons were discovered as they had probably been quickly buried.
The prisoners that were taken came from the recalcitrant tribes in the region
who had sided with the Turks, and they were handed over to the Egyptians in the
As No. 3 Coy moved forward from the camp, which
had been sited by a small village, enemy rifle fire started coming down on No.
2 Coy from the rocky high ground ahead.
This firing then spread along the front of the British force from spurs,
ridges and sangars. Both Gurkha
companies now commenced a slower and more methodical tactical advance,
often encountering Arab adversaries who would fight to the death. Meanwhile
the Egyptian infantry turned the Arabs’ right flank and positioned a group in
the enemy rear.
As the morning progressed No. 2 and No. 3 Coy joined up in the hills
and worked together to eliminate the trapped enemy. It appears that, at this
stage, few if any prisoners were taken.
By noon the remaining enemy groups had been isolated and destroyed and
Colonel Haldane ordered the concentration of his troops, who were now widely
Captain Exham had found another enemy camp in the hills and he
returned there with a party of Egyptian soldiers who destroyed the camp and
drove in the enemy camels and goats that were there. Captain Macdonald with a
party of Gurkhas under Jemadar Jaman Sing Gurung searched the village whilst
Egyptian troops cordoned it off.
The withdrawal Colonel Haldane then ordered a withdrawal to Tor. The Egyptians
formed the Advance Guard, Captain Macdonald commanded a Right Flank Guard and
Subadar Pahalsing Karki commanded the Rear Guard. Tor was reached at 16.00 hrs and the
prisoners, twenty camels and various arms that had been seized were handed over
to the Royal Marine detachment garrisoning the town. HMS Minerva
was signalled with a message stating that success had been achieved, sixty of
the enemy had been killed and 108 captured including six wounded, and 5,123
rounds expended. One of the prisoners
was a Turkish major. Haldane’s losses had been one Gurkha killed and another slightly
wounded. A later visit to the
battlefield by the Egyptian garrison found there were at least seventy-eight
Arab bodies were lying there.
A military funeral and the return to Suez
Upon hearing that there was a fatal casualty, the Minerva’s Captain indicated his
intention of holding a military funeral ashore. Thus a solitary Gurkha was
buried whilst a Royal Navy Guard of Honour paraded and a Royal Marine party
fired a salute. Wearing swords, the
naval Captain and three or four of his officers attended the funeral alongside
the Gurkha officers, both as a mark of respect to the battalion and in
recognition of the exemplary behaviour of the Gurkhas when they were on board
and when they were in action. All
British ships in the harbour flew their flags at half mast and a Royal Navy
wreath was placed over the grave by men of HMS Minerva.
‘In the record, the remark appears: “It is improbable
that any Gurkha rifleman has ever been, or will ever be again, attended to his
grave with so much honour.”’
Colonel Haldane boarded his men at 17.20 hrs and Minerva departed at 22.30 hrs. The Captain dined in the wardroom and toasted
the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles. Colonel Haldane responded and expressed great
satisfaction at the kindness and consideration shown to his Gurkhas whilst on
On the return journey the ship arrived at 06.00 hrs, 13th February,
at Abu Senima further up the Sinai coast, where it was seen that the local
manganese mine had been attacked by saboteurs.
The report of Germans in the area had not been inaccurate, as two
Hungarian demolition officers were operating in the Sinai under the direction
of the Turks and their German advisors.
Eight hours later the Gurkhas landed back at Suez. Before leaving the ship in lighters,
Subadar Pahalsing Karki (3) gave three cheers for HMS Minerva, to
which the Captain responded by piping all hands on deck, lining the side of the
ship, and giving three cheers for the 2/7th Gurkhas. The Gurkhas then returned to take over their
old post at El Shatt.
The action at Tor had been a classic example of an intelligence-led military
operation. Lieut.-Colonels Alfred
Chevallier Parker and Charles Levenax Haldane were mentioned in despatches. Later that year Haldane received a Companionship
of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) and was
promoted. The following year he was awarded the Order of the Nile
4th Grade. None of Colonel Haldane’s subordinates received awards for gallantry
displayed in the action at Tor, on the principle
‘No names were submitted owing to the
fact that where all did well it was impossible to differentiate’.
However one Gurkha naik (corporal), who had been reduced to the
ranks by order of the Brigade Commander for slackness on patrol in letting
deserters pass him, was reinstated in his rank and place of seniority because
of the good work of himself and his detachment at Tor.
Gazette supplements, dated21 Jun 1916 (No. 29632 p.6169) and 27
May 1919 (No. 31538 p.6491); Lieut.-Gen. Sir George MacMunn and Capt. Cyril Falls,
Official History, Military Operations
Egypt & Palestine, From the Outbreak of the War with Germany to June 1917 (Imperial
War Museum in association with The Battery Press, Nashville.), p.53; War Diary
of 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, 10-13 Feb 1915 (kindly provided by Gavin
Edgerley-Harris Esq., The Gurkha Museum, Winchester); Col. J.N. Mackay, DSO,
History of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own
Gurkha Rifles (Blackwood, London 1962); H.F.V. Winstone (editor),
The Diaries of Parker Pasha. (Quartet
A daring Commando Raid on the
Suez Front (article by Mehmet Fatih Bas); research notes kindly provided by
Per Finsted of Denmark.
(1) Capt. Alistair Ralph Spiers
Alexander, IMS, had been Medical Officer of 2-7 GR since the battalion left Quetta in October 1914.
During the defence of Kut, serving in the trenches with 2-7 GR, he was wounded
by shell-fire and succumbed to his wounds on 9 Feb 1916. He was interred in the Kut War Cemetery.
(2) History of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, p.29
(3) Subr Pahalsing Karki lost his life in Mesopotamia
on 4 Jul 1915 and is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. The circumstances of this
officer’s demise are not known, although at the time 2-7 GR was part of the
force fighting its way towards Nasiriya on the Euphrates.