The Problem at Suez

By Charles Johnston

[The North American Review, February 1916]

The new year began with persistent threats of a huge Teutonic-Turkish drive against the Suez Canal and Egypt. The motive underlying this threat is complex. The more superficial element is the Kaiser's wish to make a magnificent present to the Turks, or at least to lead them to believe in his desire and power to make them such a gift, as the restoration to the Sultan of the ancient Turkish province of Egypt would be. For signs are not lacking that the Turks of Constantinople are growing more than a little restive under the masterful and galling domination of the Kaiser's minions, who, whatever their qualities, have not the gift to exercise authority gracefully.

But there is a much deeper motive. It is true that the Allied armies from Ostend to Switzerland are exercising a magnificent pressure upon the waning Teutonic forces. Where France ends Italy begins; and though the Italian armies may seem to have made little headway, they have really made a good deal, precisely because General Cadorna's all-dominating object has been to build a barbed wire entanglement in the path of the Teutonic armies, so strong that, under no conceivable circumstances, would it be possible for them to break through. The Montenegrin and Serbian forces practically begin where the Italian armies end, though there is a breach on the Dalmatian coast from Trieste southwards which the Italian fleet should have far more effectually closed—had it done so there might have been no Ancona disaster; but the leakage there is small and there is practically no possibility of supplies or munitions finding their way into the Teutonic area by way of the Adriatic.

The same thing is true of Greece. Even, were Greece frankly pro-German, the little peninsular kingdom is far too completely dominated by the heavy guns of the Allied fleets to constitute a practical break in the line of pressure. At Salonica, also, the path of the Teutons is barred, whether for egress or ingress. There remains the narrow and precarious back door at Stamboul and the Sea of Marmora, of which more will be said in a moment. Immediately north of the Bosporus the picket fence begins stretching through Odessa to the Baltic, and the pressure there is daily increasing. All this is true and is of enormous strategic significance, yet it is none the less true that the really strangling pressure, the outermost binding power which holds the whole ring fence in place, is exercised by the Allied fleets; and of these fleets that of England is beyond question the mastering factor.

It is therefore quite logical that the really deadly purpose of Germany is directed against England. That was the motive of the whole Belgian campaign, predetermined years ago, as Bernhardi's book shows. The simile is not a new one, but it exactly describes the German purpose: to point a sword at the heart of England. But this Belgian campaign, this sword thrust at the heart of England, has failed absolutely, the great breach of faith has been fruitless. The German High Seas Fleet, the life work of Von Tirpitz is, so far as its effective military value is concerned, so much scrap iron in the huge junk shop of the Kiel Canal. The submarine attack typified by the abominable Lusitania murder has been equally vain, yet its iniquity, its infamy, remains, and this iniquity we must, as a nation, in no wise condone merely because a tithe of the murders are to be "paid for" under the recent German-American negotiations. There is a distinct danger that our national vanity may be salved in this way, a grave danger for the moral life of the American nation. That is of course, a part of the trick in these negotiations, and it has been very adroitly played. At no point is our moral armor secure, whether in the Department of State, in Congress, or among the people.

But this is a question which concerns rather the moral life of America than the military problem of the Allies. To this, therefore, we return. The supreme need of Germany—for Austria and Bulgaria are now mere provinces of Germany—is to break the iron ring of which the British fleet is the strongest link. This might be done in two ways: by actual physical force, or by the exercise of such strong moral pressure upon England that the British nation itself would voluntarily sever the chain. This is an aim which Germany steadily, and with growing anxiety, holds before her. This is the true purpose of all the submarine "concessions" to the American Administration. It has been ludicrously conspicuous that every "concession" has been immediately followed by a tart note to England, and the same thing is promised now. It is all a very transparent game, though it is making many dupes, and I allude to it only because it offers an analogy in motive, and purpose to the menace against Egypt.

The real blow is aimed, not against the African province, but against the heart of England in a literal sense: against England's courage and determination to carry on the war; and it should be said here that Germany hoped to find a formidable and dangerous ally among the labor movements in England which seemed inclined, with a truly criminal folly, to place the question of their week's wages above the safety of the Empire, stupidly forgetting that if the Empire be impaired they themselves will be the first to go down to destruction. It is the old fable of the Belly and the Limbs which Menenius Agrippa recited to the enlightened and patriotic labor leaders of Rome. But the menace of Egypt is directed, not against the labor parties, who are far too myopic to see it, but against nobler elements, against those who cherish the high, imperial name of England. The hope is that the fear of losing first Egypt, and then India; will congeal the fighting blood of the leaders of England and compel them, not through force but through fear, to loosen their strangle-holcl on the throat of Germany. It remains to be seen how far this long-sighted plan is based upon a true reading of English character and imperial tradition.

It may be the hope of Germany that the mere dread of this will accomplish its purpose. Then, of course, there would be no need at all to organize an actual attack upon the Suez Canal and Egypt. But to arouse that dread there must be at least the appearance of formidable military preparations, and the Kaiser's publicity bureau has been working strenuously and ably to create that appearance.

So far, and very wisely, the Allied General-Staff has made no revelations at all of the extent to which it has checked the supposed facts sent out by the Kaiser's publicity bureau. To check these facts very thoroughly would be no great undertaking for an effective Intelligence Department, since the basis of the Teutonic-Turkish preparations is Aleppo, and Aleppo is only about a hundred miles from the Syrian coast at Alexandretta or Antioch, and should therefore be easily within the range of the aeroplanes or hydroplanes of the Allied fleets. But unfortunately we have no right, after the recent experience of Serbia, to count very confidently on effective Intelligence work or prompt preparations based on it. Mackensen's drive southwards through Belgrade was announced weeks beforehand in the newspapers; the accumulation of men and munitions on the north bank of the Danube was early and correctly described. Merely by reading the papers the Allied War Council might have had the information and might have made formidable preparations to hold the line of the Danube. But, unhappily for Serbia, the reality was otherwise; we must not, therefore, hope for very much in the new situation.

The general outline of the Teutonic-Turkish plan as set forth by the Kaiser's publicity organs, and which, as we have said, we are as yet unable adequately to check, is as follows: the basis of the attack is at Aleppo where, it is said, a huge Turkish force of from a quarter of a million to half a million men is being prepared for the "descent into Egypt." Aleppo is probably chosen because of its railroad connections, as being within convenient reach of the recruiting fields of Asia Minor, whose rugged natives are counted on to make the attack. It will be driven home first along the railroad, recently built from north to south for the pilgrims to Mecca, which runs somewhat to the east of the Jordan valley. This Hejaz, or Pilgrims' Railroad, now links Aleppo with Damascus and from Damascus runs southward to Maan, not very far from the Mount Sinai peninsula. The weak point in the plan is that there is no branch railroad directly westward to Suez and the Canal, and the intervening country offers very formidable difficulties to a rapid campaign. To these we shall return.

Let us consider for a moment the earlier link in the chain, that which connects Constantinople with Aleppo, for the greater part of the way by the main line of the Bagdad railroad. A cablegram from Constantinople dated December 10, which evidently forms a part of the Kaiser's publicity campaign, gives what appears to be an entirely adequate account of this section of the railroad. We may sum it up as follows:

From Constantinople through Anatolia to the Taurus Mountains is a railroad journey of forty-eight hours. The pass called the Cilician Gates, to Saint Paul's Tarsus, has been turned into a motor road by thousands of Armenian laborers working under German and Austrian engineers. From Bosanti, the end of the railroad section to Tarsus is a motor run of six or eight hours. From Tarsus a branch railroad extends to the Amanus Mountains. It is connected by a good road, with the terminus of the Bagdad railroad at Rodjo. From Rodjo the railroad runs to Aleppo.

From Aleppo to Damascus there is only a single narrow gauge track. This is formidable because it means trans-shipment and a second outfit of rolling stock. From Damascus the Pilgrims' Railroad runs south beyond the Jordan valley, not only past the Mount Sinai peninsula, but as far as the holy cities of Arabia. Now comes the question how an attacking force could reach the Suez Canal, using the Pilgrims' Railroad as a basis. The problem is not an easy one.

The nearest part of the railroad is 225 miles distant from the Canal, and this space represents a difficult country to cross, largely because of the absence of water. It is not sand, however, but firm, sun-baked clay, almost as hard as brick, and therefore quite well adapted to motor traffic. Motors, would here overcome double difficulty: unlike draft animals, they do not require water; again, unlike animals, they could carry abundant supplies of water for the troops. If we grant an adequate supply of motor trucks and artillery at Maan on the Pilgrims' line, a supply, that is, holding the same proportion to the number of troops employed as did the supply of General Von Kluck's army, there is no reason why an advance on the Suez Canal might not be as rapid as was General Von Kluck's rush toward Paris. Yet it is difficult to see how such an adequate supply could be obtained.

We have tried to get a view of all the advantages and facilities for such a raid; let us now speak of some of its disadvantages. In the first place, there is the question of distance: from Constantinople by rail and caravan trail to the Suez Canal is over twelve hundred miles. Now, it is not enough to send an army from one end to the other of this line; the whole line must be held all the time. To do this adequately might require as many men as Germany has in France, and there is the preceding difficulty: that of sending your army along the line, a task rather more difficult than a transportation of a party of Cook's tourists. Here is an illustration of that difficulty: In the Russo-Japanese War, ten years ago, Russia's problem was, of course, to transport troops to Manchuria along the single track of the Siberian railroad. The total actually carried was, about one army corps, or forty thousand men, a month, or, say, thirteen hundred men a day. Now if, on the one hand, we are to suppose that a large corps of German railroad officers transferred to Syria might manage it very much better than the Russians did, on the other hand, the Russians had no difficulty of two gauges, and the only trans-shipment in their case, that across Lake Baikal, was carried out by running long trains of cars on floats, as is done in New York harbor, or in the ferry from Stralsund to Sweden. Exactly how much rolling stock the Aleppo-Damascus narrow gauge and the Pilgrims' Railroad dispose of it is difficult to say. The Intelligence Department of the Allies ought to know this accurately, though one is far from confident that they do. But there seems to be no reason why the Teutonic and Turkish authorities should do conspicuously better than the Siberian railroad did. Let us, for argument's sake, suppose they do just twice as well; this would mean the transfer of two army corps a month, which would, in its turn, mean that at least six months would be necessary to assemble the half million men predicated by the Kaiser's press bureau, and, for a large part of this time, it would be necessary to provide three meals a day for the enormous armies assembled by hypothesis at Maan. Where these three meals a day are to come from it would be difficult to say.

But the initial difficulty of transporting this army is really less than the problem of supporting it adequately along a slender, vulnerable line of communications: highly vulnerable at half a dozen points, which we shall not try to indicate, by precisely the kind of attack which the Allies are in a position to make. We have omitted wholly the initial difficulty of training and equipping so large a force, a difficulty on which Lord Kitchener could comment eloquently. Yet that difficulty remains. Yet even if we suppose it surmounted, there remains the vital question of munitions.

To turn now to the other side of the question. For the Allies, the defenders of the Suez Canal, the difficulties of transport and support simply do not exist. They can run their troop ships and supply ships into the canal itself at both ends. Munitions are now abundant, and it is safe to suppose that a sufficient part of Kitchener's army is available, with troops from Australia, New Zealand, and India to supplement it. But there are other, and very valuable, bases of supply.

The nearest is Abyssinia. The reasons which bind Abyssinia to the Allies are these: In the first place, Abyssinia is one of the oldest Christian nations, dating from about the time of Constantine the Great and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), though the native tradition carries it back to apostolic times, to the meeting of the "man of Ethiopia," a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure and had come to Jerusalem for to worship with Philip the apostle. The Christianity of the Abyssinians counts for much in this war, which, at least for the Mohammedans, is definitely a war against the followers of Christ. Further, Abyssinia has been from the beginning attached to the Eastern church, and has been for several generations in the closest ecclesiastical communion with Russia. The Christians of Abyssinia, like all Oriental Christians, passionately resent the present sacrilegious use of the plain of Golgotha by German drill-masters for the training of Turkish troops, destined to take part in an attack against Christian Powers. Again, the Abyssinians are bound to England by many ties besides that of geographical proximity to England's African possessions. Already, many times, English and Abyssinian troops have fought side by side against the Moslems of East Africa. The Negus of Abyssinia has some 300,000 fine troops, finely equipped with modern arms, resting, as did the armies of Japan, upon a strong feudal basis, and therefore naturally organized, which is something that could not-be said of the Turkish hordes supposed to be gathered at Aleppo. And as against the precarious single track route beyond the Jordan, the Abyssinian army is within three days of Suez by transport, with all the Oriental merchant marine of England to carry them.

What has just been said suggests, perhaps, another invaluable source of supply: the armies of Japan. Under certain circumstances the Mikado's Empire is bound by treaty to help England in a war involving Asia, and we cannot suppose that the torpedoing of Japanese liners in the Mediterranean has rendered Japan less willing to fulfill this treaty obligation. On this head, no more need be said.

There are, therefore, enormous and most formidable difficulties in the way of such a raid on the Suez Canal as the Kaiser's press bureau has predicted. But -let us suppose these difficulties triumphantly circumvented. Let us further suppose that the Allies fail to cut the slender line of communication at any one of a half a dozen vulnerable points, and that the projected expedition safely reaches and crosses the Suez Canal and enters into effective occupation of the whole of Egypt: would this be a vital injury to the British Empire? Would it of necessity be a blow so crushing as practically to compel England to make peace on Germany's terms?

The answer is quite simple: Egypt is no essential part of the British Empire—formerly not a part of the British Empire at all, but simply a protectorate under a native Sultan. Even that much it has been for a few months only, up to the time when Turkey entered the war. But in the years before that, in the centuries before that, England did very well without Egypt; should destiny so decree, she could do as well without Egypt again. The truth is that England has done infinitely more for Egypt than Egypt has done for England. Nor would the loss of the Suez Canal mean anything more formidable than a few days' delay in the mail service between London and Bombay. Therefore, in the strict sense, England might lose Egypt and the Canal to-morrow and not be seriously the worse for the purpose of the present conflict with Germany.

We come therefore to this: the Teutonic threat against Egypt involves an expedition subject to tremendous difficulties and perils, an expedition which even if ideally successful, would be wholly futile for the real purpose which Germany has in view: the breaking of the chain of steel which is throttling her to death. That Germany should really contemplate such an undertaking, if she does contemplate it, shows one thing and one thing, alone: a desperation which has no longer command of sane mental processes. It is a counsel of despair.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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