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Monday, 6 July 2009
Palestinian 1917-18, Palestine Campaign
Topic: BatzP - Palestine

Palestinian 1917-18

Palestine Campaign


Sinai, 1916

The following article is extracted from Dennis, P. et. al., The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, 2nd Edition, OUP, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 405 - 409.

The entry of Turkey into the First World War in October 1914 greatly complicated the strategic position of the British Empire by ensuring that resources would have to be diverted from the main theatre on the Western Front in order to protect the lines of communication with India and the Pacific dominions by way of the Suez Canal. The Turks made an early attempt to threaten the Canal in January 1915 but this, poorly coordinated and at the end of an over-long supply line, was easily repulsed by British forces. It was ironic that the low level of Turkish military ability which this attack seemed to suggest helped to feed the over-confidence of the planners of the Gallipoli campaign which followed a few months later.

With the evacuation of the Dardanelles in December and the transfer of many of the infantry divisions to the Western Front, the security of the Canal Zone became the primary task of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), which included in its ranks the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles, combined with British and later Indian units to form two divisions, ultimately designated the Australian and the Anzac Mounted Divisions. These became an important element of the forces guarding Egypt. There were only a certain number of routes across the Sinai Peninsula, dictated by terrain and the availability of wells, and in August 1916 a force of 14,000 Turks was beaten back at Romani, with losses of about 5,000 killed and wounded and 4,000 captured over five days of fighting.

The Turks withdrew with British and empire forces in slow pursuit slow because the advance could proceed only at the speed which it took to construct the railway and pipeline which guaranteed supplies of fodder, ammunition, food and, most critically of all, water. Water, or its absence, was the vital factor in operations, for the absence of a ready water supply limited tactical opportunities.

On this assumption, commanders were initially governed by a direction that if the first attack against Turkish positions did not succeed, they were to regard the operation as a reconnaissance and withdraw. The show of force involved could have the desired effect, however, as at Mazar in mid-September 1916, where the Turkish garrison withdrew two days after the light horse attack on them. In November the mounted units of the Desert Column were ordered to advance on El Arish, on the edge of the desert, which was occupied when the Turks abandoned it on 21 December.

The retiring enemy had left blocking forces at Rafa and Magdhaba, about 30 miles apart. The Desert Column, commanded by General Sir Philip Chetwode, then moved on each in sequence. Magdhaba, to the south-east, was held by 2,000 Turks in strongly entrenched positions. It was attacked on the morning of 23 December, but for much of the morning little progress was made, and withdrawal was considered, but elements of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, the Camel Corps and the 10th Light Horse Regiment (the latter making a wide approach march and charging the enemy at the gallop over the last few hundred yards) overwhelmed the central redoubts. Over 300 Turks were killed and more than 1,200 captured. It was a small action, but in its final stages a good demonstration of the continuing utility of mobile forces in open country. Rafa was then attacked by a mixed force of Australians and New Zealanders on 9 January 1917, and all 1,800 defenders were killed or captured. The last small Turkish garrisons in Sinai were eliminated in February, and the EEF stood poised to take the war to the enemy in Palestine.

The key to southern Palestine was the town of Gaza, on which the Turkish defences hinged. An initial attempt to take the town on 26 March failed. Fog delayed the initial assault and the Turks put up a stout resistance. Staff work was poor, and higher headquarters lost touch with forward units and were unaware of the gains made. By evening the high ground to the east of Gaza had been taken, but Chetwode and General Sir Charles Dobell, commanding Eastern Force, ordered a withdrawal even as the Turks had begun to destroy their communications equipment preparatory to evacuating the town. The British commanders were worried about an approaching relief force from the north, and discovered too late that it had halted, and that the garrison had been on the point of surrender. British casualties were 3,967 dead, wounded and missing, while the Turks lost 2,437. A second attempt to take Gaza in two stages between 17 and 19 April fared no better. The German commander on the scene, the able Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, had used the intervening weeks to strengthen his positions, intending to fight a defensive battle. The British increased the weight of artillery in the assault, and deployed tanks and gas in the theatre for the first time, but to no avail.

Turkish defensive fire was hardly affected by British counter measures, von Kressenstein stating later that his troops were not much shaken by the enemy artillery. The battle was a fiasco for the EEF resulting in 6,444 further casualties.

Dobell and the commander of the EEF, General Sir Archibald Murray, who had performed well in the campaign in Sinai and who had carried a difficult administrative and political burden in Egypt, were relieved, the latter being replaced by a general fresh from the Western Front, Sir Edmund `The Bull' Allenby. Allenby had won a striking victory with the Third Army at Arras, and was a highly competent professional soldier. Unlike his predecessor, he was to benefit from the renewed interest and, more importantly, material support which London now provided to the theatre.

Additional divisions were transferred from Salonika, and the Air Force in the theatre was expanded. Allenby determined to take Gaza by attacking the further end of the Turkish defensive line, around the town of Beersheba, and rolling up the defences from east to west, while a strong demonstration in front of Gaza itself kept Turkish attention there.

The plan proved a spectacular success, with mounted units of the Australian light horse charging the Turkish defences of Beersheba on the afternoon of 31 October and opening the way for the Desert Mounted Corps to seize the high ground towards Khuweilfe. Further hard fighting followed in successive days, but on 6 November the Turks abandoned Gaza and began to retreat northwards. Although defeated, the enemy was still far from beaten, and several weeks of hard fighting followed before Jerusalem was taken in early December, the `Christmas present to the British nation' which Lloyd George had requested of Allenby to help offset the dismal news from the Western Front that year.


Palestine, 1918

While Allenby planned for operations in the coming year, the German March offensive on the Western Front led to the reduction of his forces and the withdrawal of most British units from the theatre to reinforce France. The army which was to defeat the Turks in 1918 was thus largely drawn from the Indian Army and the southern dominions. (In June 1918, London attempted to strip Allenby's force of half the light horse for infantry reinforcements in France, but his protests, and those from the Australian authorities, were enough to head this off.) An additional complicating factor in his calculations was the need to cooperate with the forces of the Arab revolt. A sizeable raid on Es Salt and Amman in late March proved abortive, for although Es Salt was taken the resistance offered by the Turks from commanding positions prevented the advance to Amman and the cutting of the rail way to Damascus. A second raid, in concert with the Arabs, was made towards Es Salt at the end of April, with the aim of denying the Turks the wheat crop about to be harvested and establishing a stable link with the Arab forces. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade seized Es Salt, but its position was threatened to the rear by strong Turkish forces, and it was again forced to withdraw after several days' fighting. Although unsuccessful, the raids had the desired effect of concentrating enemy attention inland rather than on their coastal flank, which was where Allenby intended to break through at the end of the summer. Both the morale and the physical state of the Turkish forces had declined, and Allenby's forces outnumbered them heavily.

Allenby's great breakthrough battle was fought at Megiddo in September. In three days of operations beginning on 19 September, the infantry divisions broke through Turkish lines and allowed the mounted formations to advance northwards to Haifa and Nazareth, while on 23 September the Anzac Mounted Division began a similar advance towards Es Salt and Amman. The Turks retreated, with large numbers surrendering in order to avoid falling into Arab hands. Nine days of operations gained over 10,000 prisoners, and organised resistance on the part of the Turkish Seventh and Eighth Armies had largely ceased. On 26 September the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel was ordered to renew the pursuit to Damascus, which the advanced elements entered on 1 October. Mounted units and Arab forces pushed on northwards past Homs to take Aleppo on 26 October, which had been abandoned by its defenders. On 31 October the Turks signed an armistice.

The Palestine campaign ended in total victory over the Turks, whose government collapsed, but it contributed little to ending the war. The mistaken belief that its allies were the `props' on which the German war effort relied misread the situation completely, for it was in fact the Germans who kept their Turkish, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian allies in the war well past a point where any of the latter believed a victory was possible. The campaign was instructive, however, for a number of reasons. It demonstrated that mobility still had a place in modern warfare, especially at the tactical level. (This was misinterpreted by many in the interwar period to mean that the horse still had a place, which was largely not the case.) Officers who served there were given a better grounding in logistics and complex administration than was available on tile Western Front, and the lessons of the Middle East fighting were suggestive of subsequent developments in the Second World War. The Australian and New Zealand mounted unit played a central role through the two phases of the campaign in Sinai where their mobility enabled the British to move forces otherwise outnumbered to meet Turkish concentrations, and in Palestine, where they were a constant element of Allenby's striking force. It is important to remember, however, for all the romance of the light horse which accrued about the campaign, that Palestine had many of the same features of a modern war evident on the Western Front (massed artillery, aerial reconnaissance, tanks and entrenchments), and that victory was won by a force of combined arms (infantry, artillery and mounted) and not by any one arm alone.


Further Reading:

Palestine Battles


Citation: Palestinian 1917-18, Palestine Campaign

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Monday, 19 October 2009 11:03 PM EADT

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