The victorious General Allenby dismounted, enters Jerusalem on foot out of respect for the Holy City, 11 December 1917.
General Archibald Murray’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF] was then ordered into Palestine where it fought two battles at Gaza (March 26, 1917, and April 17–19, 1917). However, both battles found Allied forces facing stiff resistance, and the attacks failed in the objective of seizing Gaza and driving the Central Powers’ forces out of the region. Nonetheless, with additional resources garnered and delivered by the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, London was soon able to generate new life into the EEF, including a change in leadership. Following Murray’s unsuccessful attempts at seizing Gaza in the spring of 1917, the British War Cabinet opted to replace him with General Sir Edmund Allenby, known as the “Bloody Bull,” who arrived in Egypt in June 1917.
Empowered with new resources and new staff, Allenby set about reinvigorating EEF troop morale before recommencing operations against enemy positions in Sinai and Palestine. Concerned with reports that Britain was preparing to commit additional resources and renewed focus in the Middle Eastern theater, including Mesopotamia and Palestine, at the end of April 1917, Germany dispatched a military delegation headed by General Erich von Falkenhayn to Turkey arriving in May. The initial concern of the German military delegation was the British occupation of Baghdad, and it advised that a new army should be constituted to address this threat. Consequently, the new Seventh Army was established and based in Aleppo to counter British moves in Mesopotamia (Iraq). However, by September 1917, the greater concern was for the Ottoman presence in Gaza and Palestine, as the EEF was making preparations for getting underway. As a result, operations by the Seventh Army against the British in Mesopotamia were cancelled as Falkenhayn advised for a rapid redeployment of the army from Aleppo to Beersheba in Palestine. While the theory was sound, the practical application of the plan proved problematic as the limited Turkish rail network hindered its implementation. As such, very few of the Seventh Army’s troops were in position before the British attacked during the Battle of Beersheba (October 31, 1917) and the Third Battle of Gaza (November 1–7, 1917).
Allenby brought a different style of leadership to Egyptian-Palestinian theater of operations than his predecessor. Unlike Murray, who had commanded the EEF from Cairo, Allenby frequently visited front line units and moved the Force’s headquarters from Cairo to Rafah nearer to the front lines at Gaza. Allenby also reorganized the Force into a three, primary corps order of battle: XX, XI, and the Desert Mounted Corps. He was also convinced by the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office to utilize the Arab forces that had risen in revolt against the Ottomans and were then operating within Arabia. A remarkable British army officer detached to the Arab Bureau (British Intelligence), Major T. E. Lawrence, had found considerable success in working with Arab leaders in fomenting irregular operations, which ultimately caused the Ottoman and German leadership to station forces in response—forces which were badly needed elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Ottomans had called for jihad against the Entente Cordiale in the fall of 1914 in hopes of rousing support for the defense of the empire. Germany attempted to assist the Ottomans in this endeavor as it sent Kress von Kressenstein to Palestine, Oskar von Niedermayer to Afghanistan, Liman von Sanders to Turkey, and Wilhelm Wassmuss to southern Persia. Wassmuss, often referred to as the “German Lawrence,” incited tribes to attack British interests, particularly its Persian oil pipeline, northwest of Ahwaz.
The British government, ever mindful of the power this campaign might have should it be allowed to successfully proliferate, sought the help of the Sharif of Mecca, Emir Abdullah Hussein, in countering the Ottoman call for jihad. The tribe that Hussein led, the Hashemites, was relatively weak, particularly in relation to Ottoman forces. But the alliance with Hussein was much more than a military-oriented alliance. The Hashemites were politically important within the Middle East for a number of reasons, including the fact that Hussein was seen as a descendent of the prophet Muhammad and regarded as the guardian or custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Allenby was facing two defensive lines in Palestine, which were vital to the Ottoman defense of Gaza and Jerusalem. The first included entrenchments that stretched 30 miles from Gaza to Beersheba. The Gaza-Beersheba line was complemented by the Jaffa-Jerusalem line that extended more than 50 miles. Thus, rather than attacking Gaza in frontal assault, as had been the focus of operations by the EEF under Murray, Allenby, the old cavalry officer that he was, sought to maneuver for position through flanking attacks. Thus, he saw the key to taking Gaza would be to first feign a direct attack and draw the forces and attention of the defenders’ leaders at Gaza while sending a force in a flanking attack at unsuspecting Ottoman defenders that manned the lines in defense of Beersheba. Once Beersheba was in Allenby’s hands, he was then positioned to threaten the left flank of the Ottomans’ defensive line protecting its positions within Gaza. Once in such a position, Allenby could then move in three directions against Gaza itself.
Rumors circulated that the British were intent on attacking Gaza once again, but this time the operation would be centered on a naval amphibious landing north of Gaza and then descending down behind defenses. Additionally, British patrols routinely approached Beersheba every couple of weeks, expecting that when the actual attack was commenced, the Ottomans would at first believe it to be another scouting operation. Allenby wrote the following:
When I took command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces at the end of June, 1917, I received instructions to report on the conditions in which offensive operations against the Turkish Army on the Palestine front might be undertaken in the autumn or winter of 1917 … The main features of the situation in Palestine were as follows: The Turkish Army in Southern Palestine held a strong position extending from the sea at Gaza, roughly along the Gaza-Beersheba Road to Beersheba. Gaza had been made into a strong modern fortress, heavily entrenched and wired, offering facility for protracted defense … I decided to strike the main blow against the left flank of the main Turkish position, Hareira and Sheria. The capture of Beersheba was a necessary preliminary to this operation, in order to secure the water supplies at that place and to give room for the deployment of the attacking force on the high ground to the north and north-west of Beersheba. It was, however, important in order to keep the enemy in doubt up to the last moment as to the real point of attack, and that an attack should also be made on the enemy’s right at Gaza in conjunction with the main operations.
The Ottomans had positioned nine infantry divisions and one cavalry division in the line protecting Gaza with a total force level of between 35,000 and 45,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, and 500 artillery guns. The British force was divided into three elements: the strike wing consisted of the Desert Mounted Corps, containing the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions and the 7th Mounted Brigade and XX Corps, with four infantry divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. In total, it was a force of 47,500 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 242 guns. On the left of this striking wing was the British XXI Corps, containing three infantry divisions and two brigades for a total of 35,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 218 guns. Between the two main bodies of the EEF and protecting the gap between them was the Yeomanry Mounted Division consisting of some 5,000 cavalry troopers.
In order to facilitate the deception, an artillery bombardment of Gaza began on October 27, four days before the actual attack at Beersheba was scheduled to occur. The bombardment would last for six days, which included naval gunfire and was the largest artillery barrage of World War I, outside of France. On October 31, the British commenced the actual attack as two infantry divisions moved against the well-entrenched and well-defended southwest defenses of the town. The key to the attack, however, was in the flanking maneuver conducted by the 4th Australian Light Horse led by General W. Grant, who, in dramatic fashion, conducted one of the last successful cavalry attacks in the modern warfare. By November 7, Gaza was under British control.
By November 14, the British took Junction Station, which effectively cut the Ottoman rail line into Palestine. From that point, the 75th Division—the last one formed during the war and consisting of Indian Gurkhas and British personnel from India—captured the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa. The key military geographic objective for the defense of Jerusalem, throughout history, has been the vital hill of Nebi Samwil, which from either defenders’ or attackers’ perspective was the key to the city. On November 21, the 75th captured Nebi Samwil, which then provided Allenby and the EEF the position from which the city of Jerusalem could be taken.
THE BRITISH AND THEIR ALLIES LIBERATE JERUSALEM
On December 8, 1917, Allenby dispatched the XX Corps for the final assault on Jerusalem. The following day, December 9, the Turkish army withdrew from Jerusalem and 400 years of Ottoman rule had come to an end. On December 11, Allenby made a dramatic and well-photographed entry into Jerusalem, choosing to walk instead of ride into the city through the Jaffa Gate. It was the first time since 1187 CE that Western forces controlled the historic city.
By the fall of 1918, the Ottomans fielded three armies with a total of 34,000 men defending a defensive line from the Eastern Mediterranean coast across the Judean Hills, the Jordan Valley, and to the Hejaz Railway. German General Liman von Sanders had replaced Falkenhayn and was in overall command. Under Allenby in Palestine were 69,000 men (57,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry). The Turkish front line defenses were 3,000 yards deep, well-constructed, and protected by thin, barbed wire. The second line three miles to the rear was less prepared and consisted of strongpoints but not adequately connected in a consistent defensive line and unprotected by wire.
The Battle of Megiddo, September 19–25, 1918, was the climactic battle of British operations in Egypt and Palestine against German-led Ottoman forces during World War I. The name applied to Allenby’s final offensive in Palestine was of course chosen for symbolic purposes, as scant fighting relative to other regions actually occurred in the vicinity of Megiddo. Symbolic, figurative, or literal, Allenby’s cavalry did in fact advance past the ancient site of Megiddo, which served as the first battle in recorded history (1457 BCE).
Arrayed in front of Allenby were the Ottoman Eighth, Seventh, and Fourth Armies, with the Eighth nearest the Mediterranean coast, the Seventh in the middle of the Ottoman order of battle, and the Fourth on Allenby’s right flank. Allenby’s main focus was on the Seventh and Eighth Armies, commanded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Jeved Pasha, respectively. Once again, Allenby’s ability to keep the enemy from ascertaining his striking plans forced Sanders to defend across the entire front, which left scant few troops in reserve.
By mid-September 1918, Allenby had positioned 35,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 383 guns on the western fifteen miles of the front line facing 8,000 infantry and 130 guns of the Ottoman Seventh Army. On the remaining 45 miles of the front, the British had 22,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 157 guns facing 24,000 men and 270 guns of the Eight and Fourth Ottoman Armies. However, 11,000 of those in the Fourth Army were east of the Jordan Valley, which when actual combat began effectively removed them from making effective contributions. Sanders had placed them guarding his left flank knowing that the “Bloody Bull” had a penchant for sweeping flanking maneuvers and often using his swift moving cavalry. Sanders, who had calculated so well in ascertaining British landing intentions during the Gallipoli campaign, now, with limited forces holding weaker positions, was a victim of British deception as to the actual plans of attack.
Allenby’s battle plan was for his XXI Corps of five divisions to attack along the Mediterranean coast and force Jeved Pasha’s Eighth Army to pull back along the line of the railway north to Tul Keram, followed by a move east to Messudieh Junction. Once this was accomplished, a gap would have been opened up along the coast through which Allenby planned on sending his Desert Mounted Corps. Once past the Ottoman lines it became incumbent upon them to ride north past the Judean Hills and arrive at the Plain of Esdraelon. Their objective was the capture of the Beisan and El Afule, which were key to controlling access to the rail link.
Once in control of Beisan and El Afule, the Desert Mounted Corps would have effectively blocked the escape route via rail for the Seventh and Eighth Ottoman Armies, at which point, the only alternative for retreat open to the Ottoman forces would have been east through the Jordan Valley. XX Corps was assigned the task of advancing parallel to the hills toward Nablus and in blocking the best passes into the Jordan Valley, thereby catching the retreating Ottoman units in a trap.
Allenby benefited from the British Air Corps’ ability to maintain air superiority and in keeping German aircraft from conducting scouting missions. In a preliminary operation, the Air Corps dropped ordnance on Ottoman positions in Deraa (city in present-day Syria), which lent weight to Sander’s opinion that Allied forces would conduct its main attack inland. Simultaneous to the air raid, Arab insurgent forces—among them T. E. Lawrence—cut the rail lines north, south, and west from Deraa, at which time Sanders transferred additional reserves east to address the rising threat. A second preliminary move occurred when the 53rd Division of XX Corps moved to engage Ottoman units east of the Judean Hills. This attack was to place the 53rd in position to maneuver once the actual main attack opened nearer the Mediterranean coast.
The main attack commenced at 4:30 a.m. on September 19, as Allied artillery opened fire for a brief, 15-minute barrage. The following infantry assault overwhelmed the outnumbered Ottomans in the first line. The 60th Division moving on the left of Allied advance gained 7,000 yards, nearly four miles, in the first two and a half hours shattering the first and second defensive lines and taking control of a bridge over the Nahr el Falik. The control of the bridgehead then allowed the cavalry to move forward.By the end of the first day’s operations, XXI Corps had managed to seize most of the railway north of Tul Keram. As the Ottoman Eighth Army was attempting to withdraw through Tul Keram, it was struck from the air and engaged by the rapidly advancing 5th Australian Light Horse as well as the 60th Division, which had pushed forward 17 miles and secured Tul Keram. All cavalry units had met their expected objectives for the first day’s operations and reached the outer perimeter of the Plain of Esdraelon and, by 2:30 a.m. on September 20, were advancing into the valley. The key objectives of El Afule and Beisan were captured later on September 20, securing the railroad in each region. Moreover, as the Allied cavalry swiftly advanced, it nearly succeeded in capturing General Sanders who had made his headquarters at Nazareth.
By close of the second day, the Turkish Eighth Army had essentially been destroyed and the Seventh was near collapse. With the railway blocked, its only chance of escape was east from Nablus down a road leading from Wadi Fara into the Jordan Valley. This position, however, was the objective of the Allied XX Corps, which had not enjoyed the same success as other Allied units. Thus, it was not where Allenby planned for it to be on the night of September 20 and morning of September 21, and the Ottomans began a successful evacuation from Nablus. However, they were then stopped by Allied airpower as Allenby’s aircraft caught Ottoman forces on the road east of Nablus at a gorge. Bombing soon served to block the Ottoman passage through the gorge, and survivors scattered into the surrounding countryside only to be captured piecemeal in follow-on operations. Advancing Allied forces captured over 1,000 vehicles and 90 guns, which had been abandoned along the road.
Allied forces took 25,000 prisoners during and following the Battle of Megiddo. Less than 10,000 Turkish and German soldiers escaped and made their retreat north. British and Allied forces pressed the advantage and continued the pursuit of the retreating Central Power troops through the month of October. The EEF moved north toward the ancient city of Damascus (in present-day Syria). Sanders had placed Ali Riza Pasha Rehabi, an Arab general serving in the Ottoman army, in command of Damascus. Unbeknownst to Sanders, Ali was also the serving president of the Syrian branch of the Arab Secret Society and had been in contact with T. E. Lawrence.