Informal group portrait of headquarters staff of the Desert Mounted Corps on the steps of the house of Lazar Slutzkin, where they were based. Identified from left to right, back row: Lieutenant (Lt) Frederick W Cox, Aide de Camp (ADC) to General Officer Commanding (GOC), 10th Australian Light Horse (ALH) Regiment; Reverend W Maitland Woods, Senior Chaplain; Lt R Rowan, Scottish Horse Attache; Major (Maj) A J Love, General Staff Officer (GSO) Second In Charge (2IC), 10th ALH Regiment; Acting Capt A M Furber, West Indies Regiment Camp Commandant; Lt D G Thomson, 6th ALH Regiment Attache; Lt W G Lyons, New Zealand Mounted Rifles. Fourth row: Maj R A Allen MC, Deputy Assistant Adjutant General (DAAG) Royal Field Artillery; Maj T E Robins, Assistant Provost Marshal (APM), 1st City of London Yeomanry; Capt ? W E Bruce, Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Service (DADOS); Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) R E M Russell DSO, Commander Royal Engineers (CRE); Capt Mare, 7th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, General Routine Order; Lt Col A A Corder CMG, AOD ADOS; Capt Hunter AAMC, Military Observer (MO). Third row: Capt H Astley ADC to GOC, RFA, Royal Regiment of Artillery (RA); Lt Col Paravicine ADR; Lt A Whittall, Intelligence Officer; Capt G T Leonard Corps Chemical adviser, RFA; Lt G Nicol R E DADAPS; Lt C L Gray, Adjutant R E. Second row: Lt W J Attfield, Field Cashier; Capt A C B Neate RFA, GSO (2); Maj N N C Russell DSO, Leinster Regiment GSO (2); Lt Col M McBidder DSO RE ADAS; Lt Col L Partridge DSO, Pembroke Yeomanry CMGO; Col R O Downes CMG, Deputy Director of Medical Services (DDMS), AAMC; Maj F G Newton, Assistant Adjutant General, 5th ALH Regt; Maj F P Howell-Price DSO, Australian Army Service Corps, DAST. Front row: Brigadier General R G Howard-Vyse CMG DSO, Royal Horse Guards; Lt Gen Sir H G Chauvel KCMG CB; Brig Gen E F Trew DSO, DAA and QMG Royal Marines; Brig Gen A D’a King OB DSO, GOC, RA; Lt Col W P Farr, AA and QMG, Australian Permanent Staff.
After the debacle on Gallipoli, the British were searching for a success on the battlefield that would boost morale on the home front. Perhaps they would have some good news in the Middle East, where hostilities had spread from western Europe through the Balkans and had reached as far as Egypt and Palestine.
The British feared that the Turks would now attack the Suez Canal, which the British controlled. Connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, the canal provided the quickest water route between Europe and India and other British colonies in the Pacific. The British would never allow that trade and supply route to be threatened.
As a force of twenty-five thousand Turkish soldiers began the 180-mile march across the desert from Beersheba to the Suez Canal on January 14, 1915, the British were ready to defend the canal, adding thirty thousand Indian soldiers to the Suez defense. Three weeks later, the Turks began their attack. The Indian soldiers, reinforced by Australian infantry, beat back the Turks. The Turks were “heavily reliant upon total surprise for any possibility of success, [but] the British were nevertheless warned of impending attack by reconnaissance aircraft.” After losing two thousand soldiers (to the British 150), the Turks retreated to Beersheba. However, the victory “led to pressure from the British government . . . to invade [Turkish]-controlled Palestine.”
The British army was stalled in its march from Egypt to Jerusalem by strong and well-trained German and Ottoman troops. Late in June 1917, command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was given to General Sir Edmund Allenby, a “soldier of great vigour and imagination, who was able to create a personal bond with his troops.” Allenby was known to his men “(with both fear and affection) as ‘the Bull.’” And British prime minister David Lloyd George was counting on the Bull to change the progress of the EEF and defeat the German and Turkish forces at three spots:
• the walled city of Gaza on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea
• Beersheba, thirty miles to the east and one of the primary supplies of water in the desert of Palestine, with artesian wells that had been rigged with explosive charges by the Germans
Twice, British and ANZAC troops had suffered severe casualties in their assaults of Gaza. Morale in the U.K. had dropped. The British war cabinet was “close to desperation.” The country needed a victory on the battlefield in Palestine. The prime minister left no room for doubt about what he expected from Allenby when he sent him a three-word message: “Jerusalem. By Christmas.”
But what was Allenby to do? He couldn’t get to Jerusalem without dislodging the Turkish and German troops in Gaza. And his predecessor had been beaten back twice when British forces tried to take the walled city with frontal attacks. Perhaps he could expect help from the Royal Navy off the coast in the Mediterranean. But one of the rules of thumb for an attacking army is that it must always outnumber the defenders. Any way he counted them, Allenby’s troops did not.
Allenby considered his options and decided that he would create a deception that would lead the Central Powers to believe that he was attacking Gaza, when his real target was Beersheba. With the momentum of a victory (and the water) at Beersheba, Allenby could swing to the west and take Gaza, then move northeast to Jerusalem. If he could get the enemy to believe that his primary objective was Gaza, the Central Powers would move no troops to reinforce Beersheba, Allenby’s true objective.
To draw the Germans and Turks into their bluff, the British used a strategy that became a classic deception practice: the haversack ruse. This ruse relied on the Germans and Turks believing that secret intelligence had fallen into their hands because of a mistake by the British. (The British would use the same strategy in World War II in Operation MINCEMEAT.) In this case, the mistake would be the dropping of a haversack (a canvas bag with a long strap that allowed it to be hung across the shoulders) in the desert to be picked up by a Turkish patrol. The sack would be filled with misleading documents, along with other items designed to convince the enemy that the documents were genuine.
The haversack ruse was part of an overall deception operation created by Brigadier General Sir Philip Chetwode, Allenby’s commanding officer. The haversack ruse itself was the brainchild of James D. Belgrave, a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant colonel who proposed its use, including detailed suggestions of what to include in the sack, in a long-secret memo to Allenby.
To make the ruse seem more convincing, Allenby wrote to headquarters in Cairo asking for assistance — troops, air support, field artillery — and leaked the request to German and Turkish intelligence operatives. He knew that such assistance simply wasn’t available, but he wanted to create the illusion that he didn’t have enough troops or equipment to wage a successful Palestine campaign.
One morning in early October 1917, a British intelligence officer, believed to be A. C. B. Neate, rode out into the desert toward the village of el Girheir, northwest of Beersheba, where he was certain to encounter Turkish troops. But that was part of his plan. He wanted to be noticed. Turkish scouts, as expected, gave chase, but soon lost interest in the solitary rider. Neate dismounted and fired a couple of shots at the Turks, not really caring if his aim was true. The Turks renewed the chase, this time firing at the British intelligence officer as he rode.
At a safe distance, Neate began the charade that was part of his plan. He slumped in the saddle, dropped his rifle, then slid to the sand. He appeared to have been wounded by the Turkish shots. He staggered around, making a feeble attempt to gather some items that had fallen to the ground. Then he hurriedly pulled himself back into the saddle, “accidentally” dropping his haversack, canteen, and binoculars before racing off again, hunched in the posture of a wounded soldier. He outdistanced the Turks and made it back to camp safely.
The Turks quickly recovered the haversack that he left behind. They found it filled with items of interest that had been carefully created to fool them: “all sorts of nonsense about [British] plans and difficulties.” The sack contained a number of documents, some official, others personal. All the items created a sense of authenticity: a twenty-pound Bank of England note, a “tidy sum in those days — to give the impression that the loss was not intentional”; a handwritten letter from an English woman to her husband, chatting about their baby, whom he had not seen; a letter from a resentful officer complaining about the foolishness of the British plans; information about a British code system that would allow the Turkish and German intelligence staff to decode British wireless communications; and, the most important pieces of the haversack ruse, orders and a notebook commonly used by the British staff officers.
An agenda for a staff meeting suggested that the British would mount a two-part operation in the desert. The first part would be a feint attack on Beersheba, a diversion from the major attack of Gaza. In addition, the notes indicated that the attack on Gaza would take place in November (some weeks after the date of the real attack).
Knowing that the haversack, once discovered by the Turks, would be rushed to German intelligence agents for analysis, the British wanted to add more credibility to the deception. The enemy needed to be convinced that the material in the haversack was legitimate. So, the day after the haversack was dropped, the British ordered a scouting party to search for it near the front.
To authenticate the fake code that was in the haversack, the British used it to send low-level intelligence about the offensive against Gaza. They also sent an encoded message that General Allenby would be visiting Cairo until November 7, leading the Germans to believe that any attack would not happen before that date. Finally, they sent a message stating that Neate needed to report to General Headquarters to face an investigation into the “lost secret papers.”
Apparently, the deception operation worked because the German commander, Major General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, remained convinced that the British would attack Gaza yet again. He refused to move any troops to reinforce Beersheba. He readied his troops for an attack on the fortress city from the desert and from the Mediterranean.
In the meantime, the British had an order of battle for their two attacks. The XXI Corps would feign an attack on Gaza, making as much noise as possible while, at the same time, limiting the number of casualties. The surprise attack on Beersheba would be led by General Harry Chauvel, an Australian, and his Desert Mounted Corps. On October 30, as Gaza fell under an artillery barrage from “218 guns . . . to fool the Turks into believing that a full frontal attack was imminent,” forty thousand British troops slipped through the desert, double-timing the thirty miles to Beersheba, arriving for a daylight surprise attack. The success of this march was, in part, made possible by the presence of planes from Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service that constantly patrolled the skies above Gaza. These British aircraft prevented Germans from flying and observing the huge troop movement to the east.
The march itself was remarkable because, despite the constant and deafening noise of the bombardment of Gaza that obliterated other noise, it was still extremely difficult to quietly move tens of thousands of troops and animals. The troops needed to “muffle the thud of hoof beats, the creak of leather, the snort of horses, and the bang of metal gear.”
The attack on Beersheba was an astounding success of “heroic magnitude.” The Desert Mounted Corps easily penetrated the first ring of defense around Beersheba. The Turkish commander then made a series of errors that would doom him and the precious water that he was to protect. As he looked out over the desert, he saw no large mass of British infantry that was close enough to worry him. What he didn’t know was that Allenby and Chauvel were not infantry officers. They were cavalry officers, leading thousands of troops on horseback, troops that could cover ground at an astonishing clip. And they did, quickly overpowering the Turkish troops at Beersheba with such “a spectacular charge” that the Turk commander did not have the time or the men to detonate the explosives set in the wells.
With victory assured, the British troops drank deeply from the wells that they had conquered. But, in about a week, they returned to the road, this time riding toward Gaza, a city that continued to get pounded by British heavy guns. In less than a day of fighting, the city fell and the German and Turkish troops, shocked by the defeat, abandoned Gaza and retreated in disarray into desert north of the city. But the British army had one more conquest before it could claim its final objective. Chauvel’s battle-tested Desert Mounted Corps pushed on to Jerusalem, entering the city on December 10, 1917, two weeks before the Christmas deadline imposed on Allenby by Prime Minister Lloyd George, who considered Jerusalem a “Christmas present for the British nation.”
Luckily for the British, the Germans appear to have fallen for the leaked information, the fake coded messages, and the bogus documents in the haversack because they did not stop to think that if this plan — a feint to attack Beersheba when the real target was Gaza — was a fake, then the real plan was the opposite, that is, that the Gaza attack was the diversion for the real attack on Beersheba. Had they shifted reinforcements to Beersheba and awaited the British forces, the outcome of the whole campaign could have been different. But they remained convinced that the British would attack Gaza. The early bombardment added to that conviction. As a result, they made no substantial change in the number of troops at each city, which, in a sense, weakened both. Neither Beersheba nor Gaza could withstand the ferocious attack of the Desert Mounted Corps and the other troops. In a matter of days, the Germans had lost the Palestine desert.