24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

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