During World War One, the Sinai and Palestine Campaign was fought between the British and Ottoman Empires. The campaign started in 1915 when the Turks attempted to take control of the Suez Canal. It ended in 1918 with the Armistice of Mudros, where the defeated Turks had to give up Syria and Palestine.
The British established a stranglehold on the Ottoman Empire suzerainty of Egypt in 1882 and, whatever the legal niceties of the situation, had been in effective control there ever since. The importance of Egypt lay in its location as the neck containing the jugular of the British Empire.
After the outbreak of war with Turkey in November 1914, Egypt was formally declared a British Protectorate, and a considerable army was built up under the command of General Sir John Maxwell.
What was obvious to the British was also obvious to the Turks: by taking Suez they could sever the life blood of the Empire. A successful operation in Egypt would also add much weight to the ‘Holy War’ declared by Sultan Mehmed and help his attempts at fomenting revolt in Egypt. The Turkish Suez Expeditionary Force (SEF) was placed under the command of a German staff officer, Colonel Friedrich von Kressenstein. The prime obstacle to a successful expedition was obvious from a cursory glance at a map: the inhospitable wastes of the Sinai Desert that separated Egypt from Palestine.
The SEF finally started out, with three main columns. The Turks were sighted massing on the eastern bank of the Canal, near Tussum Post, where they launched their pontoons and rafts into the water and boldly attempted to force a crossing. Two companies managed to get across the Canal and dug in to establish a bridgehead. It was a courageous attempt, bordering on foolhardy, but in the end it failed when an Indian counterattack eradicated the Turkish enclave on the east bank. There was nothing left for the SEF to do but to retreat ignominiously.
The situation then settled down in Egypt as all eyes turned to the Gallipoli Campaign, with Egypt acting as a reservoir for troops. The Turks were also drawing on their troops in Palestine to bolster their defensive operations in both Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Once Gallipoli was over, both sides would look again at the situation in the Middle East.
Murray believed that an active defense would serve his men best. He conceived a plan for an advance right to the coastal town of El Arish close to the Egyptian border, from which point his forces could threaten the flank of any renewed Turkish moves across the Sinai Desert. Water supplies were crucial, so Murray’s first step was to secure the oasis area between Qatiya and Bir el Abd. The capture of the oasis was achieved, but not without difficulty as the Turks had recognized the importance of the brackish water supplies and launched spoiling attacks on the British outposts.
The Turks, still under the command of von Kressenstein, launched another daring attack on the Suez Canal, intent this time on the more limited objective of blocking or disrupting the Canal to traffic rather than securing a crossing and a revolt in Egypt. The EEF was well dug in, occupying a series of redoubts on the sand dunes and ridges stretching inland from the coastal region. In the event, the Turks were hurled back at the Battle of Romani with heavy losses and would never again manage to mount a credible threat to the Suez Canal.
The British advance would continue, its first objective being El Arish, a perfectly legitimate target in itself, but at the same time the start of a slippery slope down which would tumble hundreds of thousands of troops that could have been better employed in the battles that would decide the future of the war on the Western Front.
In the end, the long-awaited capture of El Arish was something of an anti-climax as the wily von Kressenstein withdrew his troops before the actual blow fell, thus evading a near inevitable defeat.The Sinai Campaign was over; the Palestinian Campaign was about to begin.
In late 1916 something else was stirring in the Middle East: the Arab Revolt would attract a great deal of attention. The key reason for this was Captain T. E. Lawrence, an academic and archaeologist who had been sequestered into British intelligence in Egypt and then employed as an adviser and liaison officer to the Arab rebel forces operating under the command of Emir Feisal, the son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. Lawrence’s desert campaign would prove to be the stuff of legend, but his achievement was real enough: his 3,000 Arabian irregulars tied down up to 50,000 Turkish troops over the last two years of the war.
Murray took stock, making administrative and logistical preparations ready for 1917. Although he had lost one division to the pressing demands of the Western Front, he still had four infantry divisions in his Eastern Force under Dobell. He also had Lieutenant General Sir Philip Chetwode in command of the Desert Column consisting of the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division. When the main attack came, the British were confident it would be more of a matter of bringing the Turks to battle and cutting off their retreat than some grim battle.
The British plan for the First Battle of Gaza was both bold and ambitious: Chetwode’s cavalry would sweep round the town to cut off the garrison which then would face a frontal assault. At first everything went swimmingly as the cavalry penetrated right through to the sea to encircle Gaza, while the night approach march of the infantry had gone unobserved. However, inadequate guides, dense fog and poor staff work meant that crippling delays crept in. The battle was a close-run thing, but the upshot was a British defeat.
Murray, still in overall command, wrote up the battle in a dispatch which was optimistic in the extreme, exaggerating three-fold the Turkish casualties. This would condemn Dobell and his men to a swift rematch. Taken in conjunction with reports of Maude’s success in capturing Baghdad, Murray’s portrayal of the battle as a mere setback seemed to offer the continued opportunity for a significant success in Palestine. This was seized on by Lloyd George. Sanction was given for a further advance on Palestine, with the capture of Jerusalem as Murray’s ultimate goal.
The Second Battle of Gaza proved a disaster. Dobell, hamstrung by continuing water difficulties, decided not to pursue a flanking attack further south but instead ordered a head-on assault on Gaza. However, the Turks were not going to be caught by surprise again. They had spent their time wisely, industriously digging a mutually supporting system of strong redoubts and snaking concealed trenches across the broken ground.
Repercussions were swift. Dobell was relieved of his command and replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Philip Chetwode, while Major General Sir Harry Chauvel took over command of the Desert Column. But the biggest change occurred when General Sir Edmund Allenby was dispatched to replace Murray in June 1917. Murray had contributed much to the campaign through his mastery of its logistical and administrative demands. But Allenby would bring a greater vigor to field operations, albeit building on Murray’s sound foundation.
Tactically, Allenby forswore another attack on the Gaza fortress, but instead resolved to assault Beersheba at the southern end of the Turkish lines. Here the defenses were considerably less developed, but Allenby had to counterbalance that advantage with evident problems in coping with a shortage of water during the long flanking march, coupled with the absolute necessity of immediately capturing the wells at Beersheba. There could be no margin for error.
When the frontal blow fell the Turks were swept aside, only to find that the Desert Mounted Corps had undertaken a flank march to appear behind them. In a spectacular incident the 4th Light Horse Brigade charged across an open plain to take Beersheba and prevent the Turks from sabotaging the vital wells. The Turkish defense line was compromised, and after two days of reorganization operations were resumed.
Again Allenby used deception to confuse the Turks as to his intentions. This time bombardments were augmented by serious seeming night attacks on the Gaza Sector, while the real blow fell on the center of the Turkish lines at Tel es Sheria. The Turks began to tumble back and Gaza fell the same day. Despite such successes, the bulk of the Turks still managed to escape encirclement, pulling back to fight again. In the end Allenby had to rein back and reorganize his forces, aware of the need to counter the threat posed by the German inspired Yilderim commanded by the ubiquitous Erich von Falkenhayn.
Allenby pushed along the Palestinian coast to the port of Jaffa, then swung inland through the Judean Hills towards Jerusalem. The Turks were in some disarray but still capable of administering a painful rebuff. The fall of Jerusalem was a significant moment with a huge propaganda value. Allenby would make his formal entrance into Jerusalem on foot. It was a solid victory that brightened up the scene after a year that had been a terrible disappointment.
A brief lull ensued before Allenby commenced operations moving towards Jericho, planning to push across to the Jordan River. Gradually Allenby rebuilt his stripped-down units with the addition of two Indian Divisions. A sensible commander, he devoted much time to training his raw troops and laying his plans. Meanwhile the Turks had appointed General Otto Liman von Sanders, of Gallipoli renown, to command. He pulled back his forces and had them dig in along a line stretching from the coast across to the Jordan Valley. This time Allenby resolved to drive north and attack along the coast, but he tried to deceive the Turks into thinking that he was going to attack far inland.
Allenby pushed east to Amman in Transjordan to cut the Hedjaz railway that supplied all the Turkish garrisons to the south. The foray was unsuccessful; although Amman was besieged, the primary target, a great railway viaduct, remained intact.
Allenby had secured a decisive superiority where it mattered; along the rest of the front across to the Jordan the two sides were more equally matched. When Allenby attacked, the Turkish line crumbled before them in what became known as the Battle of Megiddo. By the end of the battle the Turkish armies that had occupied the coastal lines had effectively ceased to exist. The British had taken over 50,000 prisoners and what remained of the Turkish forces were in no fit state to put up an organized resistance.
Allenby set his men marching for Damascus, hard on the heels of the demoralized Turks. Linking up with Lawrence’s Arab forces they took the city. But even that was not the end. By now the Central Powers were collapsing and Allenby was required to push on to Aleppo, a further 200 miles to the north. After a brief period of consolidation, his advance continued and Aleppo fell on 26 October. Four days later the Turks signed the Armistice of Mudros. The war with Turkey was over.