Sinai and Palestine Campaign
The British defeat the Turks in Egypt, Palestine and Syria
28 January 1915 - 30 January 1918
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
The campaign in Egypt started when the Turkish Army attacked the British positions at the Suez Canal. The British managed do defend their positions and force the Turks to retreat into Palestine. After a period of stalemate the British once again regained the initiative and captured a large part of Palestine before the Turks surrendered at the Armistice of Mudros.
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.

Water was paramount and the amounts needed were huge: nothing could be done in the desert without securing water supplies. An impressive 12-inch-wide pipeline was laid in order to pump drinking water forward, with storage tanks established, from which the ubiquitous camels would carry the water to the forward positions in zinc containers. With temperatures spiralling, no shade and frequent sandstorms, the desert environment was excessively harsh.

The course of the Arab revolt was punctuated by quarrels between the various factions and tribes involved, and the duplicity of British and French politicians preparing their respective post-war spheres of influence in the Near East. The key British personality on the ground was the gifted Captain (later Colonel) T. E. Lawrence, a young Oxford archaeologist with profound knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Arab cause.

There were Imperial expansionist interests to be considered, but first the war had to be won. As with Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and Salonika, Palestine proved to be a waste of resources. The strategic objectives – control of the Dardanelles at Gallipoli, oil in Mesopotamia, the survival of the Serbian Army at Salonika and the security of the Suez Canal in Egypt – could all have been secured with a far smaller investment of precious resources.

The Suez Canal was the most important line of strategic communication in the Entente’s war zone, through which passed not only much essential supply but also, at that moment, the convoys bringing the ‘imperial’ contingents from India and Australasia to Europe. The difficulty was in execution, for the Turkish approaches to the Canal lay across the hundred waterless miles of the Sinai desert.

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.

The hundred miles of the Suez Canal stretching from Port Said on the Mediterranean through to Port Suez on the Red Sea provided a shortened sea route linking the British homeland with her dominions in India, Australia and New Zealand. This crucial waterway had to be defended at all costs, which entailed a considerable military commitment to prevent any hostile incursion or possible sabotage.

Egypt, technically still part of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, had been under the effective control of a British 'Agent' since 1882. The army was in the hands of a British Commander-in-Chief or Sirdar. British officials headed most government departments in Egypt including the police. The nominal Egyptian head of government and viceroy of the Ottoman Sultan was the Khedive, Abbas El Hilmi; an anglophobe mostly resident in Constantinople, he was summarily deposed by the British in December 1914.

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.

This was far from a homogeneous force, being made up of the Territorials of the British 42nd Division and the 10th and 11th Indian Divisions, joined later by the ANZAC Corps, to complete its training with the original intention of then continuing on to the Western Front. The Indian troops were deployed along the western bank of the canal with strong posts on the eastern bank.

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.

Kressenstein was henceforth responsible for the meticulous logistical preparations that would have to be made if the Turks were to have any chance of getting some 25,000 troops across the wilderness. Thousands of camels were collected to carry stores, while supply and water replenishing posts were established along the route to be taken. But there still remained a 30-mile gap which would have to be jumped as quickly as possible.

In Libya the fundamentalist Senussi sect embarked on a holy war of raids against the western Egyptian border, the Italian occupiers, French North Africa and the Darfur province of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Some of the veiled Tuareg warrior tribe joined them, and the Senussi leader, Sidi Ahmad, found a secure base in the Siwa oasis. In the event, his Ottoman liaison officer, Jafar Pasha, after being wounded and captured by South African troops at Aqqaqia in 1916, defected and became commander of Hussein's northern army in the later stages of the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916-18.

There were places where the idea of holy war did appeal to Muslim leaders. The Libyan provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, under Italian control since 1912, were inhabited by tribes owing religious and some political loyalty to Ahmad al-Sharif, Grand Senussi of Solium. Known collectively as the Senussi, these people had fought against the Italians with the help of Turkish advisers. In 1914 the Turks sought Senussi aid in distracting British attention from the Suez Canal, and in the hope of spreading jihad westwards to afflict the French in their North African territories.

Turkish and German eyes turned toward the Canal as the vital focus of a strategy threatening Egypt, the coaling and signal station at Aden, British interests in the Persian Gulf, and India. The Turks needed little persuasion to mount a major operation against the Canal.

Water was the great problem. The force had to cover about 120 miles from Gaza in Palestine to Kantara on the Canal; at least 12 days supply was needed for men, horses and camels. A diversionary force advanced down the Mediterranean coast, while the main body advanced across Sinai to halt in an area close to the canal where a tract of sand dunes offered cover as pontoons and collapsible boats carried across the desert were assembled. To manhandle these and field artillery across Sinai was a remarkable feat.

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 Turks were further hampered by the necessity of dragging heavy steel bridging pontoons and bulky rafts to enable them to cross the Canal. At first the SEF movements were tracked by British aerial reconnaissance, but a deterioration in the weather brought swirling winds and a blanking sandstorm which, in conjunction with a final bold night march, concealed where the actual blow would fall.

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.

The British priority remained to secure the defense of the Suez Canal. But until almost the end of 1915 it could fairly be said that the Canal was protecting the troops rather than the other way around. The inadequacies of the existing defense scheme had been brought to the attention of the British leaders. The response was the creation, in early 1916, of two full new defense lines out in the desert designed to fend back any aggressor from artillery range of the Canal itself.

In March 1916 General Sir Archibald Murray took formal command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) which was created from the remnants of the forces slinking back after the Gallipoli debacle. Many of the divisions were recycled through to France or Mesopotamia. By June 1916 the EEF consisted of four infantry divisions (all Territorial formations), a large force of cavalry and finally the Imperial Camel Corps.

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.

There were considerable fears that the Turks would return to the offensive. While the British secured the oasis, they sent smaller cavalry expeditions to destroy the Turkish water points that had been the basis for their attack in 1915, thereby severely restricting Turkish offensive options in the foreseeable future.

The British were intent on not repeating some of the mistakes made in Mesopotamia in 1915 and so were determined to secure a proper line of communications back to the Nile Delta. The Sinai Desert may not have resembled the muddy floodplains of the Tigris, but it nevertheless required a similar investment in resources to establish a viable transport infrastructure from scratch. One solution was startlingly simple: the wire road. Ordinary wire netting was unrolled and pegged out to form a ‘road’ which prevented soldiers from sinking into the sands as they marched.

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.

This was only the beginning of what was to be two years of hard fighting involving hundreds of thousands of troops. As in Mesopotamia, any well-intentioned thoughts of restraint were overwhelmed by the perceived need for absolute security, driven by the legitimate desire to annihilate the local Turkish forces and sprinkled lightly with the personal ambitions of military commanders who would otherwise have found themselves confined to a backwater.

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.

The advance to El Arish was a difficult logistical undertaking as the wire road, the railway, the supply dumps and water points all had to be painstakingly constructed. They were protected by the Royal Navy on their left flank abutting the sea, but their right flank was theoretically exposed, with miles of open desert.

As Murray became more and more immersed in administration he delegated command in the field to Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell.

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.

With El Arish in the hands of the British, their grip on the Suez Canal was finally secure: it offered copious water supplies for a garrison which could thwart any attempt by the Turks to march across the desert by striking at their open northern flank. Also, once the railway line and road had been completed, El Arish offered the ideal base for an assault on the Turkish bases over the Palestinian border.

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.

Lawrence was not alone in this mission, but his energy and impact were such that he dominates most accounts of the two-year campaign fought in Arabia. His initial exploratory mission in October 1916 resulted in his building a strong relationship with local Arab leaders and an intuitive understanding of how to maximize the impact of the irregular Arab forces.

‘As a mass they are not formidable, since they have no corporate spirit or discipline, or mutual confidence. Man by man they are good: I would suggest that the smaller the unit that is acting, the better will be its performance. A thousand of them in a mob would be ineffective against one fourth their number of trained troops: but three or four of them, in their own alleys and hills, would account for a dozen Turkish soldiers. When they sit still they get nervous, and anxious to return home. Feisal himself goes rather to pieces in the same conditions. When, however, they have plenty to do, and are riding about in small parties tapping the Turks here and there, retiring always when the Turks advance, to appear in another direction immediately after, then they are in their element, and must cause the enemy not only anxiety, but bewilderment.’ (Captain T. E. Lawrence, British Military Mission, Arabia)

Lawrence did not seek to attack the Turks where they were strong, thus avoiding frontal attacks; instead, he sought them out and harassed them around the periphery, stretching out their forces and tormenting them with a myriad of pinpricks rather than a single decisive blow. As other Arabs saw what the insurgents were capable of achieving, so they began to join the revolt against Turkish rule, creating a bandwagon effect.

The initial target was the Hedjaz railway which ran from Damascus to the main Turkish Arabian base at Medina. Lawrence used explosives to sabotage the line and bridges, attacking trains and driving the Turks mad with frustration as they sought to grasp this will o’ the wisp. Later he captured the relatively lightly defended port of Aqaba in July 1917. This would subsequently act as a base for the Arab Revolt, funnelling munitions and supplies from the British.

Lawrence took the surrender of the Turkish garrison at Aqaba, then went to Cairo to meet Allenby and discuss future operations. Allenby recognized Lawrence's talents and agreed to cooperate. By the end of the year the two men were coordinating operations with the Arab irregulars to inflict maximum disruption on the Turks. Lawrence was promoted to Major and entrusted with the task of harassing the relatively unprotected Turkish left flank in the Syrian and Transjordan areas while the British pushed deep into Palestine.

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.

General Chetwode’s mobile force soon proved its worth in desert conditions: a series of successful raids were carried out by Major General Sir Harry Chauvel of the A&NZ Mounted Division which cleared out isolated Turkish positions perched just inside the Egyptian border.

Despite all their planning and preparations, the British were once again rather over-optimistic. The Turks were not yet present in great numbers around the town of Gaza, which commanded the coastal region and hence the gateway to Palestine. But their units had dug in on the hills and ridges above it, their trenches augmented by thick cactus hedges which had considerable stopping power. The Turkish reserves were further inland but could soon be deployed once they grasped where exactly the British were making their thrust.

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.

When the 53rd Division attacked the dominant Ali Muntar hill they met with a considerable resistance: ‘Our great concern was a certain cactus hedge, from which machine guns might wipe us all out as soon as we got level with it. A small party was sent off to investigate, and all being reported well we got on a few yards further, leaving some behind – hit – at every rush forward. Worn out and heavily laden (besides their packs the men carried extra rations, a second water bottle and extra bandoliers of ammunition) the prospect of having to rush the entrenched and steep slopes was not a pleasant one, but with bayonets fixed and revolvers cocked, off we went with a cheer. The Turks vacated their trenches and ran. The top of the hill was reached and we rounded up many Turks, those who ran were fired at and some bowled over. On looking round we found ourselves behind Turks who were still firing on other oncoming troops and we got some fine firing at their backs, until they withdrew.’ (Second Lieutenant Archibald Lee, 5th Welsh Regiment)

The 53rd Division captured most of their objectives and even managed to establish tentative links with some of the cavalry, but it was fairly late in the day and they had not broken the Turkish opposition. Further attempts to advance were met with heavy fire, while ominous reports were coming in of Turkish reinforcements on the march from the south.

The effective use of time is always important in warfare, but in Palestine it was particularly critical because unless they had secured water within a certain time-frame, the troops would have to be withdrawn. First Dobell pulled back his rather too exposed Desert Column cavalry forces, but then confusion caused a total collapse of command and control. The Turks had the advantage, in that his pressing water situation meant that Dobell did not have the time to ponder his actions. So it was that the whole of Dobell’s forces fell back, surrendering their hard-won gains.

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.

Murray was promised future reinforcements, and a second attempt at Gaza was thus sanctioned. Murray had estimated in the past that he needed five infantry divisions to defend Egypt; but now he was attempting the invasion of Palestine with just four. Blind optimism was replacing the sound application of common sense. The Turks were being underestimated yet again; the British disease of hubris had not yet burned out.

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.

The Turkish defenses were a tough nut to crack and, in an effort to help, Dobell was sent eight of the Mark I tanks which by this time were becoming obsolete on the Western Front. Prone to mechanical breakdowns at the best of times and unbearably hot for their crews, the question was whether they would be of any use in harsh desert conditions.

Although Dobell’s men outnumbered the Turks by two to one in the Gaza Sector, the strength of the Turkish defenses condemned his attack to failure. The tanks achieved little except to act as magnets for Turkish artillery fire. By the time Dobell accepted defeat the British had made negligible gains, failing in all their tactical objectives, and had suffered some 6,444 casualties.

By now the Turks had improved their positions and were strongly dug in along the line of the Gaza-Beersheba road. Dobell decided to attack on a two-mile frontage with a single division. Although he had given Dobell carte blanche in the execution of the attack, Murray entirely neglected to check the staff-work, which resulted in hopeless muddle and failure. The attackers sustained 6,500 casualties to 2,000 Turkish losses.

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.

Allenby moved his headquarters forward to the Palestinian border. After visiting his command, he instituted a reorganization to a more formal corps structure, creating the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel, the XX Corps under Chetwode and the XXI Corps under Lieutenant General Edward Bulfin. He was further bolstered by the arrival of increasing numbers of equipment, troops, artillery and aircraft to modernize his force.

Allenby’s force was substantially reinforced. Two mounted divisions were formed in Egypt and two more came from Mesopotamia and Macedonia. He now had seven infantry divisions, and formed them into two army corps, under Generals Chetwode and Bulfin. After careful personal reconnaissance he planned two hammer blows, at Gaza and Beersheba.

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.

One interesting aspect of the operations was a cunning plan designed to convince the Turks that the offensive would be launched in November against the Gaza lines. The authorship of the plan and many of the details are mired in controversy, largely owing to the dubious character of one of the leading protagonists, intelligence officer Major Richard Meinertzhagen. Certainly there was a varied deception plan which had many strands woven together to dupe the Turkish commanders as to Allenby’s real intentions.

Fake preparations for an attack were embarked upon opposite Gaza, with an elaborate hoax involving a missing haversack filled with personal effects, fake intelligence reports and a set of notes for a British cipher that was no longer used for real messages but which could be used to feed false information to the Turks. This ruse de guerre backed up ‘searches’ for the ‘missing’ haversack in the area where it had been ‘lost’. In the end, one way or another, the Turks seem to have been convinced that the attack would fall on Gaza.

The operations against Beersheba secured an enviable concentration of forces against the vastly outnumbered Turkish garrison. The XX Corps and Desert Mounted Corps both appeared out of the blue to fall upon the weak Turkish III Corps after sterling work by the RFC had prevented any aerial reconnaissance that might otherwise have revealed their movements.

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.

The 4th Light Horse Brigade were watched agog by Trooper Ion Idriess who, with the eye of a budding novelist, caught the drama of the occasion: ‘At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man – they were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze – knee to knee and horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points. Machine guns and rifle fire just roared but the 4th Brigade galloped on. We heard shouts among the thundering hooves, saw balls of flame among those hooves – horse after horse crashed, but the massed squadrons thundered on. We laughed in delight when the shells began bursting behind them telling that the gunners could not keep their range, then suddenly the men ceased to fall and we knew instinctively that the Turkish infantry, wild with excitement and fear, had forgotten to lower their rifle sights and the bullets were flying overhead. The last half-mile was a berserk gallop with the squadrons in magnificent line, a heart-throbbing sight as they plunged up the slope, the horses leaping the redoubt trenches – my glasses showed me the Turkish bayonets thrusting up for the bellies of the horses – one regiment flung themselves from the saddle – we heard the mad shouts as the men jumped down into the trenches, a following regiment thundered over another redoubt, and to a triumphant roar of voices and hooves was galloping down the half-mile slope right into the town. Then came a whirlwind of movements from all over the field, galloping batteries – dense dust from mounting regiments – a rush as troops poured for the opening in the gathering dark – mad, mad excitement – terrific explosions from down in the town. Beersheba had fallen.’

Allenby set the tone for the pursuit in no uncertain terms: ‘In pursuit you must always stretch possibilities to the limit. Troops having beaten the enemy will want to rest. They must be given objectives, not those that you think they will reach, but the farthest that they could possibly reach.’ (General Sir Edmund Allenby, Headquarters, EEF)

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.

One of the most interesting aspects of the campaign was the increasing use of the cavalry for their shock value in pell-mell charges culminating in hand-to hand combat. One such incident occurred two days after Gaza fell, when the men of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanry charged Turkish troops who were dug in and supported by both machine guns and artillery at Huj: ‘Machine guns and rifles opened on us the moment we topped the rise behind which we had formed up. I remember thinking that the sound of the crackling bullets was just like a hailstorm on an iron-roofed building, so you may guess what the fusillade was. A whole heap of men and horses went down 20 or 30 yards from the muzzles of the guns. The squadron broke into a few scattered horsemen at the guns and then seemed to melt away completely. For a time I, at any rate, had the impression that I was the only man left alive. I was amazed to discover we were the victors.’ (Lieutenant Wilfred Mercer, Warwickshire Yeomanry)

The British cavalry at Huj had been concealed by a rise in the ground until they were just 800 yards away but it was still a remarkable achievement to run over the Turkish guns. What was certain was that cavalry could promote total panic once they broke through: ‘Suddenly the terrific din of shrieking and exploding shells ceased, and we knew that the end had come. A wonderful and terrible sight met our view: in addition to the casualties which had already occurred, the ground was strewn with horses and fallen yeomen, many of whom were lying close to, and some beyond, the batteries. Twelve guns, three 5.9-inchers and nine field guns, were in various positions, surrounded by Austrian and German gunners, many of whom were dead or wounded. About 300 yards behind the rearmost battery a mass of enemy infantry were retreating, a few of whom were still firing occasional shots from various directions. Our squadrons had not fired a shot, and every single casualty we inflicted was caused by our sword thrusts. The German and Austrian gunners fought gamely round their guns when cornered, for a few moments, although the mass of the Turkish infantry had broken. Some enemy machine guns were seized and turned on the latter. We commenced to dress the wounded at once, and found them scattered in all directions. Wounded Turks came crawling in, and one could not help contrasting their clean wounds, caused by our sword thrusts, with the ghastly wounds sustained by our men from shell fire and saw-bayonet.’ (Captain Oscar Teichmann, Warwickshire Yeomanry)

The Germans, alarmed by the turn of events, sent one of their star performers, General Erich von Falkenhayn, to sort things out. Falkenhayn’s force, composed of the Seventh and Eighth Turkish Armies, was intended to revitalize operations in Mesopotamia but had been diverted to the Palestine campaign. In the event even Falkenhayn proved unable to cope with the superior mobility, logistical resources and operational strength of Allenby’s forces.

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.

There were still manifold difficulties with organizing enough transport, supplies and water for the huge numbers of men involved in the pursuit. The situation became easier once the British had broken through into Palestine, where, though still not easy, there were plentiful water supplies and far better communications.

Both sides had avoided fighting in the Holy City, but Allenby received some splendid advice from the gruff Robertson back in London based on memories of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Kaiser’s visit there back in 1898: ‘In the event of Jerusalem being occupied, it would be of considerable political importance if you, on officially entering the city, dismount at the city gate and enter on foot. German emperor rode in and the saying went round, “A better man than he walked”. Advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious.’ (General Sir William Robertson, Imperial General Staff)

Jerusalem was surrendered by the city authorities under farcical conditions – a surrender that would pass into legend within the unit concerned: ‘Two of our London cooks, wanting water to brew drinks for the officers, picked up a couple of dixies and departed to seek a well, a pond or a stream. Unsuccessful in their search they plodded on and wandered about until they arrived at the outskirts of the City. Much to their surprise they were met, received and had a warm welcome from the Mayor and his little party, white flag and all. The Keys of Jerusalem were ceremoniously handed over for safe keeping to the grimy, travel-stained cooks in token of surrender. This was altogether too much for the poor chaps. They had not been taught how to conduct such diplomatic ceremonies, so they grabbed the keys, saluted and then retreated to try and find their cookhouse again. When they did eventually reach home the next day they were too scared to say anything about their amazing adventure to the officers. They thought they would “catch a packet” for being away so long; might even be run for absent without leave. Wise counsel made them report to the officers and the keys were handed over for safe custody.’ (Private Bernard Livermore, 2/20th London Regiment)

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.

It was ensured that the camps behind the front near the River Jordan were to all appearance expanding, while the camps on the coastal plain used pre-built spare capacity and carefully concealed locations where no daylight movement was allowed.

Countless patrols by the newly formed Royal Air Force fended off Turkish and German aerial reconnaissance machines, allowing them to see only what Allenby wanted them to see. Every possible subterfuge was used, from maintaining wireless traffic for units that had already moved to planting false evidence. The ruses worked and Allenby managed to amass a formidable 35,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and 383 guns to face just 8,000 Turkish infantry with 130 guns in the coastal strip.

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.

The German offensive in France deprived Allenby of many of his best units - a total of 90,000 men went to France. Allenby's force now included untried Indian Army troops but also a splendid Indian cavalry division that had been wasted in France. He still enjoyed a two-to-one numerical superiority over the Turks, whose strength had never exceeded 30,000. But there was still one German division in Palestine, well trained and heavily armed.

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.

‘The Turks are breaking, everywhere. I left here, at 4.30 am, and motored to Arsuf. There was General Shea, whose division attacked the Turkish right, on the coast. All was going well; and the head of the cavalry was just pushing along the beach, below the castle, making for the Nahr Falik. Two destroyers of ours were shelling the coast road. Then I motored to the Headquarters of the other Divisions; all doing well, too. Now my cavalry is many miles north of Arsuf, making for the Turks’ communications in the Valley of Esdraelon. His infantry and artillery are falling back; hunted by my airmen, with machine gun fire and bombs. So far, many guns and 2,500 prisoners have been caught, but there will be many more. My losses are light. I bombed the Headquarters of Liman von Sanders and his two Army Commanders last night … Liman von Sanders has lost his only railway communication with the outer world. I really don’t know what he can do, and I am beginning to think that we may have a very great success. The weather is perfect, not too hot, and very clear, just right for my artillery and my aeroplanes in pursuit. My horses are very fit, and there is plenty of water on the route which they will follow, and they are in sufficient strength to be irresistible.’ (General Sir Edmund Allenby, Headquarters, EEF)

The British infantry advanced some fourteen miles, while the cavalry surged through the gap to raise hell far and wide behind the lines. They seized the crucial rail junctions, threatened the Turkish command headquarters and generally made a thorough nuisance of themselves.

The aircraft of the RAF and Australian Flying Corps tore into the retreating Turkish troops. It was a slaughter as Lieutenants Stan Nunan and Clive Conrick in their Bristol Fighter swooped down on the Turks threading their way through the Wadi Fara Pass which led to the only Jordan River crossing not already blocked to the Turks. The road was a teeming mass of transport, horses and hapless Turkish soldiers, pressing along an old Roman road hacked out of the precipitous hills and with a sheer drop to the other side: ‘They had little chance of escape from my guns as we were so close to them. As I fired I saw chips of rock fly off the cliff face and red splotches suddenly appear on the Turks who would stop climbing and fall and their bodies were strewn along the base of the cliff like a lot of dirty rags. When Nunan was climbing again to renew his attack, I had a better opportunity to machine gun the troops and transports on the road. I saw my tracer bullets hit the lead horses pulling a gun-carriage. As they reared up, they turned away from the cliff side of the road and their heads were turned back towards me, so that I could see the terror in their faces as their forefeet came down and, missing the road altogether, they plunged over the cliff dragging the carriage with them. Their driver, realising what was happening, jumped back towards the road, but he was late, far too late. He seemed to float just above the gun-carriage, as it rolled over and over with the horses until the transport hit the cliff face, when he was thrown far out into the valley and his body disappeared in the haze far below.’ (Lieutenant Clive Conrick, 1st Australian Squadron, AFC)

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.

The armistice was signed at Mudros on the island of Lemnos on 30 October. Under its terms Turkey opened the Dardanelles, released all prisoners of war, formally ended her alliance with the Central Powers, and placed Turkish territory at the Entente’s disposal for further operations of war.

The campaign in the Sinai and Palestine had sucked in nearly 1,200,000 men from all over the British Empire. It is difficult to weigh up what was achieved, but such an enormous investment of military resources cannot be justified by specious sentimentality over the capture of Jerusalem. As in Gallipoli, this was another example of fighting the Turks simply because they were there. If the intention had been to knock Turkey out of the war then surely the Egyptian Expeditionary Force failed, as Turkey only surrendered a month before the Germans. Was that month really worth such an effort?

The British Easterners had believed that they had another way to win the war, one that could avoid the necessity of facing the German Army on the Western Front. But there was no easy way to victory. As a direct result of the proliferation of sideshows, the BEF would be left starved of troops when it needed them on the Western Front during the great German Spring offensives of 1918.