Category Archives: Palestine Front

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

19 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Armageddon!

Everyday parlance generally dates the First World War between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.  That was the lifespan of the conflict between Britain and Germany, the two belligerent countries that were genuine contenders (along with the untouchably distant USA) for the title of Top Nation during the early twentieth century. Historians tend to expand the dates to cover those other conflicts that helped fuel, were fuelled by or were triggered by the First World War.  Some commentators cite the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 or the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 as the world war’s start point.  More extend its life beyond 1918 to include the Russian Civil War, the Japanese war for control of China and myriad other conflicts – revolutions, as well as civil, local or regional wars – that festered on into the 1920s.

I’m with the latter approach, partly on the grounds that, before the Internet age, the pace of world history varied enormously across the globe, but mostly because it’s pretty ridiculous to describe the early 1920s as ‘peace’ unless you’re viewing everything about the twentieth century through the prism of the Western Front trenches.  That said, there’s no denying that a lot of big, world-historically important battles were reaching their endgame during the early autumn of 1918.

On 19 September, four days after Allied forces from Salonika began the walk in the park that would the knock Bulgaria out of the War and advance to the Austrian frontier, British General Allenby launched the offensive that would drive the Ottoman Empire out of the Middle East and to the brink of destruction.  The offensive opened with the action known in Europe as the Battle of Megiddo, but known to Arab historians by a name that, given the region’s subsequent history, seems chillingly appropriate:  the Battle of Armageddon.

Having occupied and secured Jerusalem in late 1917 (11 December, 1917: Marquee Signing), Allenby had intended to deliver a ‘decisive’ blow against the Ottoman Empire the following spring.  The arrival of two divisions from Mesopotamia and a cavalry division from France brought his fighting strength up to some 112,000 men, the army’s command structure and supply systems were streamlined in preparation for the attack, and stocks of ammunition, artillery, livestock and lorries were expanded.

Meanwhile the RFC’s establishment of complete air superiority in the theatre effectively denied Germano-Ottoman forces in the theatre the use of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby exploited the advantage.  He opened the campaigning season in 1918 with a secondary advance into Jordan, to the east of the front, and minor, probing attacks along the rest of the line.  These confirmed his decision to launch his main attack along the flat, cavalry-friendly coastal plains to the west, but their principal aim was to suggest that the British assault would come in the east, towards the vital communications centre of Dera.

German General Liman Von Sanders, who had taken overall command of the theatre on 1 March, could call upon about 39,000 Ottoman troops defending a 100km line north of Jerusalem. Another 80,000 or so troops scattered around the Middle East offered potential support, along with 10–15,000 more besieged in Medina by Arab Revolt forces, but Liman von Sanders was not given command of either the army protecting Aleppo to his rear or most Ottoman forces in Arabia.  His overall control was further weakened by Ottoman leader Enver Pasha’s decision to send 50,000 troops, including some German units from the frontline Yilderim Force in Palestine, to the Caucasian Front.

Numbers were just one of the problems facing Liman von Sanders. Ottoman regional administration had all but collapsed, with government contracts unpaid from 1917, the railway system falling apart and most economic activity being diverted for British use by Arab smugglers.  Mounting Arab hostility to the Constantinople regime was becoming a major problem within the Army, and morale was being further eroded by resentment of German influence, cancellation of summer leave and severe shortages of almost everything, including coal, wood, clothing, food and ammunition.

All in all, Allenby had every right to expect a game-changing victory as reward for careful planning in the spring of 1918… but like every British imperial operation outside France, the Palestine project was put on hold by the early successes of the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front.  Although Indian reinforcements arrived during the summer and his cavalry strength was largely untouched, some 60,000 of Allenby’s best infantry were transferred to France between March and August 1918, forcing him to reschedule his attack until the autumn.  The only significant British operation of the summer was a rerun of Allenby’s spring preparations, another feint to the east that persuaded Liman von Sanders to leave a third of his forces in Transjordan (7 April, 1918: Holy Smoke).

The delay did Allenby’s chances no harm at all.  In the month before mid-September, Ottoman forces in the theatre had lost 1,100 men to desertion, while supply shortages had worsened.  Most potential reinforcements had been diverted to the Caucasian Front, leaving the Yilderim Force holding the frontline with only 29,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 400 artillery pieces, all of them short of basic equipment.  The British could meanwhile deploy 57,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 540 guns for the attack, with 30,000 troops in immediate reserve, all technically and qualitatively superior to their Ottoman equivalents and becoming more so all the time.

The same was true of the battle for control of local airspace. German Army Air Service strength in Palestine had fallen from 56 aircraft in October 1917 to only five the following September, by which time the RAF’s Palestine Brigade comprised 105 machines.  Superior British SE-5s and Bristol Fighters were able to carry out important reconnaissance, ground-support and bombing operations almost unopposed before and during the Megiddo operation, and continued to block German reconnaissance that might have uncovered the deception behind apparent British moves towards Dera and Amman. The deception was important because the timing of Allenby’s main attack was broadly predetermined – after the summer heat and well before the onset of the late-autumn rainy season – and the success of his planned cavalry attacks depended on at least some element of surprise.

Airco DH-9
SE-5

 

 

 

 

After a short preliminary bombardment and a series of raids by Airco DH-9 bombers against communications points all along the Turkish line, the offensive finally opened on 19 September.  With support from mobile artillery, aircraft and destroyers off the coast, four infantry divisions under General Buffin (along with a token French colonial unit as a nod to French regional ambitions) attacked the Turkish Eighth Army, which was protecting the coastal plains from positions on the north bank of the Nahr el Auja River. The first two lines of Ottoman trenches fell almost immediately, and two cavalry divisions charged into the gap created.  Crossing the coastal plains of Sharon and Armageddon, they had captured the Turkish Eighth Army’s headquarters at Tel Karm, 25km behind the lines, by late afternoon.

Further east, two divisions under General Chetwode launched a secondary attack north of Jerusalem at noon the same day, inflicting heavy casualties on the Turkish Seventh Army (led by Mustapha Kemal) and driving it back on its base at Nablus, so that by the following morning it was level with the remains of the Eighth Army. Even the east of the line suffered amid the confusion enveloping Ottoman commanders, as two cavalry divisions launched a raid into Transjordan and 5,000 Arab rebels led by Lawrence surrounded the Turkish Fourth Army’s base at Dera.

Allenby wasted no time driving forward in search of complete victory.  By the afternoon of 20 September, British cavalry (with support from light armoured cars) had cleared defenders from the coast and sped on to occupy railway stations at El Affule and Beisan, about 70km and 100km beyond the original lines.  A raid on Liman von Sanders’ headquarters at Nazareth meanwhile forced its evacuation and an infantry brigade blocked Ottoman retreat lines through the Dothan Pass, capturing 6,000 prisoners in the process.

Ottoman PoWs being marched through Nablus on 24 September. Most retreating troops suffered this fate…
…but retreating Ottoman forces also suffered plenty of casualties, like this Yilderim Force column bombed to destruction on the road to Beisan.

Ottoman escape routes were being pinched off, and although a force of some 2,000, mostly German, troops fought their way east towards the Jordan on 21 September, few others escaped.  Nablus and Nazareth had both fallen by that afternoon, while bombing raids inflicted heavy casualties on forces trying to retreat via the passes and river fords leading to Transjordan.  British cavalry took the supply ports of Acre and Haifa next day, before sweeping inland to block the only eastward route not occupied by British ground forces, a 40km gap between Beisan and units holding Transjordan.  By sunset on 24 September all escape routes had been closed and some 40,000 troops captured.

Denied reinforcements from Damascus, Liman von Sanders tried to set up a new defensive line along the River Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee, but had only deployed a few hundred troops there when Australian cavalry brushed them aside on 25 September.  Arab Revolt forces meanwhile broke a stand at Dera by remnants of the Turkish Fourth and Seventh Armies, and by 26 September Allenby’s cavalry was in pursuit of a general Ottoman retreat on Damascus.

You’ll be needing this.

Allenby hadn’t yet knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the War, but he wasn’t far off.  Despite the opposition’s patent feebleness, his victory at Megiddo is generally regarded as a rare example of British command excellence during the First World War, and as a lesson in the effective use of cavalry in the machine age.  All true, given that you can only massacre what’s in front of you, but British commentators have tended to ignore the political mess Allenby was creating as he went, albeit under strict orders from his masters in London.   I refer, inevitably, to his barefaced betrayal of the Arab Revolt (6 July, 1917: Image Bank Raided).

The presence of Arab Revolt forces at Dera, far to the north of their previous hunting grounds, reflected both a wave of popular support for the rebellion and the close cooperation with British plans agreed by its de facto leader, Prince Feisal.  Cooperation was predicated on British promises of post-War independence, and was strongly supported by Lawrence, who may or may not have already realised that the British had no intention of keeping their promises.  Fostered by Turkish propaganda that revealed details of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, suspicion of British intentions was certainly in the air – as evidenced by Feisal’s insistence on installing Arab administration of captured territory before British officials could arrive – and as Ottoman defence crumbled the Anglo-Arab advance towards Damascus became a race for post-War control.

Except it wasn’t really a race, because the British Empire had long since decided to take control of the Middle East (while allowing the French their trading outlets).  The British had carefully positioned themselves to play on rivalries between Arab tribes and factions, and knew they wielded more than enough military, diplomatic and economic clout to override Arab ambitions with impunity.   They were wrong.  It took a few decades and a few more betrayals before the Arab world was free to make its own geopolitical mark, but these days it takes a lot of heritage triumphalism to mask the fact that Britain is still being punished for its greed in the aftermath of Armageddon.

11 DECEMBER, 1917: Marquee Signing

As may well be obvious, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the ridiculous way posterity – another word for popular history – devalues the crucial role in our development played by the First World War.  Whenever that bee starts buzzing, and I feel the need to irritate some innocent interlocutor with a blockbuster example of why we should look back beyond Hitler’s war to find blueprints for the modern, the first words out of my mouth usually involve the Middle East.

I think it’s safe to call the modern Middle East a mess, and I never cease to be amazed by how little attention we pay to the fundamental links between what was done to the region during the Great War and how it stands today.  By way of illustration, and by a neat coincidence (I hesitate to call it happy), the eyes of the modern world are on exactly the same spot that dominated the news a century ago, because on 11 December 1917 the British Empire formally occupied Jerusalem.

In strictly military terms, Jerusalem was not the most important target for General Allenby’s British armies invading Palestine, because it could easily be bypassed on the way to the far more strategically valuable prizes of Baghdad or Damascus.  On the other hand, although the city wasn’t quite the symbolic powder keg it is today (no Israel, obviously), it was considered sacred by all the major biblical religions and it was central to the faltering religious prestige of the Ottoman Empire.  So Allenby, who had anyway taken command under orders from Prime Minister Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas, had little choice about attacking the city, and Ottoman forces were bound to defend it.

Only as is important as you think it is – Jerusalem in 1917.

In the aftermath of defeat at Gaza in late October, the 15,000-strong remnant of the Ottoman Seventh Army had fallen back on positions southwest of Jerusalem to await reinforcement from the Germano-Turkish Yilderim Force, most of which was en route for the front under the command of regional c-in-c Falkenhayn.  Allenby meanwhile cut railway links between the two Ottoman armies, took up positions for an advance on Jerusalem and, from mid-November, paused to consolidate supplies and bring up his own reinforcements (31 October, 1917: Promised Land).

It’s a messy, complicated map, but if you look hard it’s all here.

Afraid that the arrival of Yilderim Force would be a game changer, the British didn’t pause for long.  Allenby launched an attack against the Seventh Army’s positions west of Jerusalem on 18 November, backed by a secondary advance up the coast to the River Auja. Hampered more by the winter rains than by Ottoman resistance, the main advance had almost reached Jerusalem when it turned north on 21 November.  The turn was intended to cut the road to Nablus, where Falkenhayn had set up his headquarters, and to surround Jerusalem – but it also reflected a prior (and indeed PR) arrangement made between Allenby and Falkenhayn to avoid fighting in or around the holy city if at all possible.  The plan was in any case thwarted by strong Ottoman defence of elevated positions to the west of the road, and the British advance came to a halt after two days of heavy, costly fighting.

Meanwhile the secondary coastal attack had degenerated into static warfare after making some progress but failing to cross the Auja, and the same fate subsequently befell two relatively minor Ottoman counterattacks – one against lightly defended positions just inland from the coast, the other from the east by the vanguard of Yilderim forces against the British rearguard north of the city, at Nabi Samweil.  By the end of November the whole front was stable, if busy, giving Allenby time to bring up his reinforcements and cement a considerable numerical advantage.

Allenby renewed his attacks in pouring rain on the night of 7/8 December, when infantry, supported by mobile artillery, advanced on the Jerusalem suburbs along the main road from the west, and a second force approached the city from the south, via Bethlehem. The main attack was launched without a preliminary bombardment and achieved complete surprise, driving defenders back some 7km by dawn and reaching positions south and east of Nabi Samweil by evening, when operations were temporarily suspended to allow the secondary advance to catch up.  Hopelessly outnumbered, demoralised and all but surrounded, surviving Ottoman units used the pause to escape, and by the morning of 9 December the entire force north of Jerusalem was in full retreat towards Jericho and Nablus.

Despite regular attacks by RFC aircraft, the remains of the Seventh Army got away, because heavy rain and thick mud made pursuit on the ground virtually impossible.  Meanwhile Jerusalem’s fate was sealed, and the city formally surrendered to the Allies on 10 December.  The surrender in fact took place three times, initially to the first British troops encountered by city authorities, then to the nearest divisional general and finally, when he arrived in Jerusalem on 11 December, to Allenby himself.

Along with the adventures of Lawrence, Allenby’s well-orchestrated acceptance of the surrender is the best-remembered aspect of Britain’s entire Middle Eastern campaign during the First World War.  Both the orchestration and its long-term impact reflect an enormous British propaganda effort at the time.

Lloyd George knew what he was doing when he demanded the capture of Jerusalem because, regardless of the city’s military importance, it was far and away the most famous prize taken by Allied forces during the War so far.  After a year of miserable disappointments on every European front – encompassing the Nivelle and Ypres offensives, near disaster in Italy and the collapse of Russia – the prime minister understood how badly a worried British public needed to revel in Allenby’s ‘Christmas present’.

For the record, and for that matter recorded by a small army of press photographers and a film camera, Allenby dismounted his horse at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and entered the city on foot.  Coming from a man who had long cultivated a reputation for high moral standards, the gesture was generally accepted as the expression of humility it was intended to be, but it was also intended to strike an obvious contrast with the behaviour of Wilhelm II.  The Kaiser had generated almost as much publicity on his state visit of 1898, but had arrived on a white horse at the head of a big parade and been perceived in the Arab world as arrogant (perish the thought!).

When the fuss had died down, British forces by the coast finally crossed the Auja after a surprise attack on 20 December, and Allenby prepared to defend Jerusalem against the counterattack expected once the rest of Yilderim Force joined up with the Seventh Army.  The attack came during the night of 26/27 December, against the Khadase Ridge just north of Jerusalem, but Falkenhayn’s 20,000 combat troops made no progress against 33,000 defenders, and by 28 December it had turned into a retreat on Jericho.  A combination of bad weather and mutual exhaustion then forced suspension of major operations in the theatre until the spring, by which time the British high command had put further advances in Mesopotamia on hold and made preparations for a decisive offensive in Palestine.

British blanket coverage of Jerusalem’s fall was all about national glory…
… but the New York Herald’s coverage managed a scary,  21st-century feel.

Noisily though the fanfares blared in Britain for Allenby’s success, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Jerusalem was much bigger and more important news to the Arab world in 1917. Imperial prestige, or lack of it, was a major factor determining the loyalty of tribal societies, and the Arab Revolt’s recruitment efforts benefitted accordingly. Meanwhile the Ottoman regime, no longer able to pin its hopes on the offensive potential of Yilderim Force, turned its back on the Empire’s evaporating southern territories.  Inspired by war minister Enver Pasha’s boundlessly optimistic ambition, it instead committed dwindling resources to an ill-judged and ultimately disastrous attempt to exploit Russian military collapse by expansion into the Caucasus.

In the longer term, British occupation of Jerusalem turned out to be big news for the whole world. The British remained in control of the city, one way or another, for thirty years, and had shaped most of the Middle East to suit their strategic priorities by the time they departed in 1947.  They left behind a set of arrangements that, whatever your viewpoint, are still dangerous for everyone, so dangerous that these days all it takes are a few ill-chosen words about Jerusalem to set the whole world on edge.  There you go: the First World War did that.

31 OCTOBER, 1917: Promised Land

During the latter part of 1916, in line with an evolving strategy aimed at securing postwar economic and geopolitical clout for the Empire, Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet had decided to invade Palestine from the Sinai Peninsula.  It was something of a non-decision.  Circumstances rather than strategy had turned British defence of the Suez Canal into an offensive war, and though theatre commander General Murray was sent reinforcements for the invasion, they were fewer than he needed and much of their equipment was obsolete.

Two attempts to take Gaza, effectively the gateway from Sinai into the wider Middle East, failed during the spring of 1917 in the face of a well-organised Ottoman defence that was dominated by modern German aircraft and field weapons, all under German command (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  After that the British got serious about Palestine, and a hundred years ago today they launched an altogether more powerful invasion with a third attack on the 40km line in front of Gaza, known to posterity as the Battle of Beersheba (or Beersheba/Gaza).

Getting serious had involved a change of command and major reinforcement during the summer. Edmund Allenby, a cavalry general in command of the Third Army on the Western Front since October 1915, had replaced Murray in late June.  Allenby’s once high reputation had slipped a little since the spring’s Nivelle Offensive in France, largely because his cavalry’s perceived failure to exploit minor openings during the offensive’s opening attack –generally known as the Battle of Arras – had given Haig a chance to shovel blame onto a troublesome subordinate who had argued strongly against continued use of standard breakthrough tactics. Transferred to a theatre of wide-open spaces between defence points, in other words ideally suited to cavalry warfare, Allenby was destined to become one of the wartime British Army’s few genuinely successful generals.

They all look alike, I know, but this is General Allenby, and he did OK.

Unlike his predecessor, Allenby was given the tools to get the job done. Reinforcements from Salonika (including a few French and Italian troops) had brought his frontline strength up to around 95,000 troops by the early autumn, including about 12,000 cavalry, against some 33,000 men available to the German commander of Ottoman defence forces, General von Kressenstein. Kressenstein had constructed new defensive strongpoints since the spring, north of Gaza and in the centre of the line at Tel es Sheria, but his forces were short of basic trench weaponry while Allenby enjoyed a three to one advantage in artillery and ammunition. Meanwhile the arrival of modern Bristol Fighters enabled the Royal Flying Corps to regain control of the skies, and therefore a vital reconnaissance edge.

Further defensive reinforcement was on the way in the form of Yilderim Force.  An elite German-Ottoman strike force, Yilderim was commanded by former chief of staff Falkenhayn and originally intended for the recapture of Baghdad on the Mesopotamian Front, but was still in the process of transferring to Palestine (for a planned offensive into Sinai) when the British attack opened.

Allenby’s plan of attack, devised by frontline commander General Chetwode, concentrated the main assault at the less heavily defended southwestern end of the line, around Beersheba, where it was least expected. Some 40,000 Allied troops were deployed around Beersheba for the purpose, while another 30,000 (supported by 218 field guns, the biggest wartime concentration of artillery yet seen outside Europe) were left in front of Gaza as a diversion.

The aim was to follow up the attack by ‘rolling up’ the defensive line – east to west, all the way to Gaza – while cavalry leapt ahead to cut off any Ottoman retreat on Jerusalem. Success depended above all on surprise and water. Secrecy was maintained thanks to the RFC, which prevented German air reconnaissance, and misdirection was achieved with a six-day artillery bombardment of Gaza before the Beersheba attack opened early on 31 October. Water supplies depended on the rapid capture of Beersheba’s wells, without which the second stage of the operation couldn’t go ahead.

The plan worked almost perfectly. The attack struck to the west of Beersheba and took defenders completely by surprise. The town was surrounded by evening and at dusk a (celebrated) light brigade cavalry charge thwarted Ottoman attempts to poison the wells. By the end of the first day Allenby was ready to start rolling up the defensive line with an attack on the central stronghold at Tel es Sheria, but disappointing yields from the wells caused several days’ delay and it took a little good fortune to keep things on track for the British.

This needs a map. It’s a complex, detailed map, but it’s the right map.

A diversionary operation northeast of Gaza by a 70-strong camel company, lifted from support work with the Arab Revolt, occupied Hebron on the road to Jerusalem and was mistaken for a major flank attack. Two Ottoman infantry divisions and one cavalry division were promptly transferred to Hebron from the front, leaving plans for the defence of Gaza in disarray. Falkenhayn, who assumed overall command of the theatre on 5 November, had little choice about allowing Kressenstein to retreat north of Gaza, which was occupied by the British the following evening. Allenby meanwhile launched his attack on Tel es Sheria, the fortified hill in the centre of the Ottoman line, at dawn on 6 November, and completed its capture late on 7 November, at which point the British were in position to cut off Kressenstein’s retreat.

Thanks to a series of minor Ottoman counterattacks and a rugged rearguard action around the town of Huj, northeast of Gaza, most of the retreating units escaped pursuit, but not without suffering significant damage.  An ammunition dump and Kressenstein’s new headquarters were captured intact when another British cavalry charge took Huj on 8 November, and desertions meant that only about 15,000 Ottoman troops took up new defensive positions some 30km southwest of Jerusalem on 10 November.  By then elite Yilderim units were arriving from the east, and Falkenhayn ignored staff advice to send three divisions on a wide sweep through the desert to attack Allenby’s inland flank. Aware of their approach, Allenby relied on a single cavalry division – the Australian Mounted Division –to hold them off, and committed the rest of his cavalry to a continued attack on Kressenstein’s coastal positions.

In what is known to the British as the Battle of Mughar Ridge, Allenby’s infantry attacked on 13 November towards high ground near Junction Station, where the railway to Beersheba joined the Haifa-Jerusalem line. Although the advance became bogged down in difficult terrain (cacti, to be precise), yet another cavalry attack turned the battle by storming the hilltop village of Mughar.  British armoured cars took control of Junction Station next day, severing the rail link between the two Ottoman armies.  Meanwhile the Australian Mounted Division held off Falkenhayn’s flank attackers, who eventually withdrew to defend Jerusalem itself.

Mughar Ridge. Just so you know what they mean by a ridge.

After being warned against over-extension by his chiefs in London (where lessons learned on the Mesopotamian Front hadn’t been forgotten), and in expectation of a major Yilderim counterattack, Allenby then paused on the road to Jerusalem to wait out the winter rains.

From a British military perspective the invasion had begun very well, delivering an impressive sequence of undeniable battle victories, complete with an excellent performance by the RFC and – even more satisfyingly after years of operational disappointment in France – a crucial contribution by Allenby’s cavalry in desert conditions ideally suited to mounted warfare.  From a geopolitical perspective the British had taken a giant step towards de facto control of the Middle East once the War was over, but it was a step fraught with diplomatic complications.

Ottoman cavalry in Palestine, where cavalry really mattered, because the open, desert landscape made rapid long-range transport and reconnaissance crucial – and made contemporary motor vehicles break down.

Three years into a war publicly justified as a defence of liberal values, and six months into alliance with a US administration determined to extend the same values into a global blueprint for post-War peace, Britain no longer possessed the political, military or economic authority to act like Gordon Gecko on the world stage. Whatever its strategic justification in strictly military terms, the invasion of Palestine had to appear motivated by more than simple greed, both to Britain’s allies and to the populations it planned to control – and that brings me to the centenary everyone else will be talking about this week.

Published only two days after the invasion’s launch, on 2 November 1917, the Balfour Declaration teased out a humane response to longstanding debates about a Jewish homeland and Jewish control of Jerusalem, albeit in terms that were vague yet replete with self-righteousness.  It made no mention of the large-scale British invasion that was in the process of conquering Palestine, but it hardly needed to in 1917, so Balfour’s words garnished the Empire’s essentially venal enterprise with a diplomatically useful hint of higher purpose.

The British heritage industry likes to take the Declaration at face value, hence the heavy whiff of intellectual heroism given off by most popular coverage of the centenary, coverage that appears to be completely ignoring the invasion of Palestine.   At a guess, this is not because nobody needs reminding of it in 2017, but is more in tune with the British prime minister’s insistence that the Declaration’s centenary is Israel’s celebration, with Britain no more than a benign spectator.  Denial?  Shame?  Mere timidity in the face of global controversy?  You decide, I’m just here to say the invasion happened and talk about how.

By way of a PS, the Declaration quite understandably said nothing about the influence exerted by naturalised British scientist and Zionist Chaim Weizmann – and most modern commentators are keeping quite about what is a controversial, uncertain issue.

Weizmann’s pioneering production of acetone from maize had freed Britain from dependence on German supplies for high explosives at the start of the War, and he headed the Royal Navy research laboratories between 1916 and 1919, but he devoted much of his wartime energy to lobbying the British government for a Jewish state in Palestine.  The Declaration can be (and has been) seen as a payment to Weizmann for services rendered.  In my view, Weizmann may have been part of the bundle of motives that inspired the Balfour Declaration, but was by no means the most important factor in play – but I’ll leave any further speculation to you.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

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.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

5 August, 1916: Backwards To The Future

A small battle ended a century ago today, around Romani, in Egypt, east of the Suez Canal.  Fought between British imperial forces occupying Egypt and an Ottoman detachment under the command of German colonel von Kressenstein, it ended as a small victory for the British and was subsequently claimed as a much larger success by propaganda on both sides.  Though not a particularly big story, then or now, the Battle of Romani marked the last time during the War that the Suez Canal came under direct military threat, and as such it was a significant turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.

The Suez Canal was hugely important in 1916, and had been since its completion in 1869. In an age when long-distance, intercontinental transport depended on the sea, it provided an enormous short-cut for economic and strategic communication between Europe, southern Asia and the Far East, which was otherwise obliged to undertake the long, arduous journey down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope.  Above all, in the geopolitical atmosphere of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Suez provided a fast way for the British Empire to stay in touch with its most important possession, the vastly profitable jewel in the crown, India.

All this is basic stuff, and was known to every schoolboy in Europe (let alone every military strategist) in the decades before 1914, as was the fact that any British involvement in a European war would be motivated by a desire to maintain or expand its global empire.  So it came as no surprise to anyone that the moment war broke out, and in spite of the fact that the only direct military threat to Suez – the Ottoman Empire – remained neutral, British control over Egypt was strengthened with defence of the Canal in mind.

A few months later, when the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the British responded by turning military occupation of Egypt into a formal protectorate (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab). Although the sudden, shocking escalation of manpower requirements in other theatres kept British military presence in Egypt well below the desired level, while troubles in Libya and the Sudan kept most of the few available troops away from Suez, the Canal faced little serious threat in 1915. Germany and Austria-Hungary faced similar pressure on manpower supplies, and had no secure land route for providing support to the Ottoman Empire, which anyway spent most of the year piling every possible resource into the defence of Gallipoli and made no serious effort to attack the Canal zone after the failure of a raid in February 1915.

By the middle of 1916 the situation had changed. The fall of Serbia had opened up a land route for German support to Constantinople and beyond, and by early 1916 the British were hurriedly strengthening their Suez defences in the belief that the Turks were massing an army of some 250,000 men in Palestine for an attack on the Canal.  That Palestine was in no way capable of supporting an army of that size, in terms of available food, water and facilities, seems to have been ignored by British planners, a measure both of the all-round geographical ignorance that still characterised imperial adventures a century ago, and of the pessimistic tendency to over-estimate German capabilities that had taken hold of Allied commanders by 1916.

Not to worry, the release of troops from Gallipoli meant new Egyptian c-in-c General Murray (previously chief of staff to Sir John French on the Western Front) was able to muster 14 divisions of troops when he took command in March 1916… except that most of them were quickly transferred on to France, so that by the summer his strength was down to four divisions, or about 50,000 men.  By way of counteracting this imagined numerical disadvantage, he had extended the British position into the northern, coastal part of the Sinai Peninsula, constructing roads and light railways to three new trench lines some 30km beyond the Canal’s east bank, thus blocking the most direct route of attack from Palestine.  In line with the standard doctrine of ‘forward defence’, Murray also sent detachments further up the coast towards Palestine, where they destroyed water stations, built their own roads and pipelines and fought off Turkish raids, before eventually establishing a base at Katia.

This seems a good place for a map, so here's a particularly useful one stolen from the web.
This seems a good place for a map, so here’s a particularly useful one stolen from the web.

In fact, Colonel Kressenstein’s ‘Desert Force’,  some 3,600 men in 1915, had grown to a force of about 16,000 Turkish Army and Arab fighters by the following spring.  His plan was to stop traffic through Suez by attacking and occupying its east bank, and by June 1916 his troops were drawn up along the Sinai-Palestine border, waiting for German reinforcements.  German machine-gun and anti-aircraft units, along with12 modern aircraft, had arrived by the end of June, and Kressenstein moved forward in early July, reaching the main British position in northern Sinai – some 18,000 men deployed either side of the town of Romani – by the middle of the month. There he paused, and for a couple of weeks the two armies faced each other, British field commanders bemused by the inactivity and considering an attack on the attackers, Kressenstein waiting for the last component of his German reinforcement package, heavy artillery.

The British were still wondering quite what to do next when, before dawn on 4 August, Kressenstein outwitted cavalry patrols to launch a surprise attack on lines south of Romani, taking part of the position before becoming bogged down.  British counterattacks, led by ANZAC forces, were gradually retaking the line on the morning of 5 August, when water shortages forced Kressenstein to withdraw towards El Arish, and attempts by mounted British units to cut off his retreat were thwarted by a sandstorm.  By the end of the day the Desert Force had suffered an estimated 4,000 casualties and lost the same number of prisoners, against 1,100 British losses.

Though a mere skirmish by Western Front standards, Romani signalled a fundamental shift in the military position around Egypt. While Kressenstein remained at El Arish through the autumn, the British at last recognised the relative weakness of any Ottoman threat to Suez and pursued their forward defence policy with increasing confidence.

Shortly after Romani, Murray received permission to make a steady, if cautious, advance along the northern Sinai coast.  By the end of the year he had forced Kressenstein back into Palestine and taken El Arish without a fight, and by early 1917 a supply route had been established all across the Sinai Peninsula, including 350km of new roads, 575km of railway and about 500km of water pipes from reservoirs in Egypt.  By the New Year, with Kressenstein based on Gaza and Murray able to call on about 75,000 men for operations on the Sinai frontier, the stage was set for an invasion of Palestine that would, along with the invasion of Iraq and involvement in the Arab Revolt, provide the foundation for British redesign of the post-War Middle East.

Otto von Kressenstein lost most of his battles, but still enjoyed a rep as a cunning desert fox. Face like that, who's going to argue?
Otto von Kressenstein lost most of his battles, but still enjoyed a rep as a cunning desert fox. Face like that, who’s going to argue?

On that basis alone – and like anything that adds, however slightly, to anyone’s understanding of why the modern Middle East ended up in such a mess – the Battle of Romani seems worth posterity’s attention, but the battle’s location and aftermath also say something about the nature of great power imperialism a century ago.  It’s fair enough to accuse the British Empire of greedy self-interest in its wartime treatment of the Middle East, but it’s too easy to see the invasions of Palestine and Iraq as parts of grand design aimed, depending on your point of view, at extending Britain’s control over the world or ensuring the long-term servitude of indigenous peoples.

Like almost every major actor in every great shift of every kind throughout human history, the British reversed into their invasion of Palestine.  Just as in Mesopotamia, their forces in Egypt were so desperately concerned with protecting perceived necessities (oil in Iraq; India through Suez) that they kept extending their defensive perimeters until they found themselves on the attack.  From then on their efforts, successful and otherwise, can be called opportunistic and greedy, but they were never part of a premeditated masterplan.

26 DECEMBER, 1915: Boxing Clever

One reason I bang on about the First World War, possibly the only good reason, is because it’s crammed full of world-changing stuff that gets buried by posterity. Some of the world-changing stuff – the torrential flow of money from Europe to the USA springs to mind – was treated with great seriousness by contemporaries but is largely ignored by a modern commemorative industry fixated on social history, at home and in the trenches. Other wartime developments with serious, long-term global implications were seen as small matters at the time, at least relative to the collision of Europe’s Great Powers, and have been left in the corner ever since. Today’s anniversary is a cracking example of the latter, because on Boxing Day 1915 the British Empire signed the Treaty of Darin with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud was the Arab head of the conservative, puritanical Wahabi sect, and tribal ruler of the isolated, central-Arabian Sultanate of Najd. Based in Riyadh and, like every Arab in the Middle East, loosely administered subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Wahabi regarded most of the other Islamic tribes in Arabia as heretics, particularly the Sharifians of the Hejaz region, but their mortal enemies were the Shammar (or Rashidi) of southeastern Syria.

The Wahabi and the Rashidi had been fighting for control of central Arabia for almost 80 years by 1914. The advantage had swung back to the Sa’udi side since 1902, when the 21 year-old Ibn Sa’ud had led a small Bedouin force to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidi, ending more than a decade of exile. One of modern history’s more wily fundamentalists, Ibn Sa’ud had spent the next decade or so securing and expanding his restored emirate, so that by the time the British and Ottoman Empires faced each other at war across the Middle East in late 1914 he had become one of several important Arab leaders worth cultivating by both sides oxycontin high.

From the British point of view, the treaty was a small but locally important piece of a diplomatic jigsaw being put together in the Middle East.  The jigsaw’s twin aims were to foster a revolt of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and to protect vitally important oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Its principal architect was Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s chief political agent in the region and a man whose pivotal role in the creation of the modern Middle East deserves a blog of its own.

Cox had been wooing Ibn Sa’ud (and any other Arab leaders deemed likely to oppose Ottoman rule) since before the Ottoman Empire had entered the War in late 1914. The Wahabi were not expected to play a major military role in any future Arab revolt, but the Sultanate of Najd occupied a geographical position – between the Ottoman heartlands to the north and coastal sheikhdoms to the south and east that were already British protectorates – that could not be left unsecured.

Cox had already attached his agent, Captain William Shakespear, to Ibn Sa’ud’s retinue by January 1915, when a fresh outbreak of hostilities between the Wahabi and the (Ottoman-sponsored) Rashidi culminated in the Battle of Jarrab, a tribal skirmish that ended in a definite but inconclusive victory for Ibn Sa’ud. Shakespear’s death during the battle raised Britain’s stock with Ibn Sa’ud, and Cox was able to arrange a truce between the Wahabi and the Rashidi, essentially an acceptance of Sa’ud’s ascendancy and the basis for the Boxing Day treaty signed on the island of Darin (also known as Tarout).

The treaty reflected Arabia’s tribal culture and smacked of 19th-century colonial diplomacy. In making the house of Sa’ud a protectorate of the British Empire, to be defended if attacked, it was required to define the Emirate’s geographical boundaries for the first time, in effect planting the concept of European statehood in the region (a charge that can be levelled at British diplomacy across the Middle East during and after the First World War). Cox also agreed to pay Sa’ud a monthly stipend of £5,000 and, importantly as it turned out, to provide regular deliveries of surplus arms, ammunition and other supplies from Britain’s expanding Middle East Command.

In return, Sa’ud declared for the Allies – not too hard given that the Rashidi were sponsored by the Ottoman Empire – and agreed not to attack Kuwait, Qatar or other existing British Protectorates on what was known as the Pirate Coast. On the other hand, he made no guarantees of military involvement against the Turks, and refused to rule out an attack on the Sharif of Mecca, who was emerging as Britain’s most important ally in the region (and who will have his day in the sun when we get to Lawrence of Arabia).  Bottom line, though the treaty satisfied basic British strategic needs in a wartime context, and was as such an understandable undertaking, Ibn Sa’ud secured a fabulously good deal with implications extending far into the future.

A map seems like a good idea at this point, so here it is, shamelessly nicked from the Internet and removable at the drop of a complaint.

 

Arabia_1914

 

What became known as the Arab Revolt would get going in 1916 and would, for better or worse, have an enormous impact on both the War and the future Middle East – but the Wahabi kept their powder dry and restricted active participation to a few raids against Turkish forces to the north.  Meanwhile Ibn Sa’ud stockpiled his British money and supplies, concentrated on securing new frontiers the British had legitimised, attacked the Rashidi whenever possible and played a long game.

By the end of the War, the Wahabi were established as the major power in central Arabia, and Sa’ud, always careful to cultivate the continued support of his British allies, was ready to embark on a campaign of expansion.  He attacked the Rashidi in 1920, and had all but wiped them out by the time he  secured British agreement to the annexation of much of Kuwait in 1922.  In 1927 a new alliance with Britain,  the Treaty of Jennah, recognised Sa’ud’s claim to the Sharif of Mecca’s Hejaz region, and he had completed its conquest by 1931.  The following year his expanded kingdom, renamed Saudi Arabia, was recognised by the League of Nations, and the rest may one day be quite an important chunk of history…

Beyond apologising for any poor choices among the crazy mess of spelling and naming variations that plague any Anglophone writer dealing with Middle Eastern history, I don’t think this post needs much explanation.  Just mention it the next time someone tells you the First World War changed nothing.

13 DECEMBER, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge

I know a lot of people would rather spend more centenary time with the suffering on the Western Front, but when it comes to the long-term impacts of the First World War I’m an unrepentant ‘Easterner’. Looked at from 2015 (rather than, say, 1925 or 1965), a lot of the War’s secondary fronts turned out to be harbingers of momentous, long-term economic and geopolitical change.  The War’s effects on, for instance, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa or the Far East strike me as more in need of modern attention and understanding than frontier squabbles between western European states – and the same applies in spades to the Middle East. That’s my excuse for marking the end, exactly a century ago, of the Affair of the Wadi Senab.

It wasn’t a big battle, hence its contemporary dismissal as an ‘Affair’, and like most military clashes between industrialised armed forces and tribespeople, it wasn’t especially distinguished.  On the other hand it was something of a turning point in the process that culminated in British conquest of, and responsibility for, the Middle East.  Here’s how.

A year ago, I posted about the centenary of the formal British protectorate over Egypt (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab).  No point in repeating myself at length, so check back or take it from me that Egypt was important to the British Empire, partly as a base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations but principally as the location of the Suez Canal.  As the primary conduit between Britain and the wealth of India, Suez was inevitably a target for Ottoman attacks during 1915, but they had been on a small scale and British colonial forces had seen them off without much trouble.  By late in the year the Canal hadn’t come under serious direct threat, but Egypt’s skeleton British occupation force, drained by the demands of other fronts, was facing a mounting problem from the Senussi movement in Libya.

Loyal to the descendants of 19th-century Islamic reformist Sheikh es Senussi, the Senussi were based Cyrenaica, the region of modern Libya centred on Benghazi, and had been trained as fighters by Turkish Army officers during the Italo-Ottoman war of 1910-11. From late 1914 their leader, Sidi Ahmad es Sherif, accepted German and Ottoman support for small-scale operations against British Egypt and French Sahara.  After Italy entered the war in mid-1915, lack of supervision by Italian colonial authorities freed Sidi Ahmad to attempt something more serious.

Led by Ottoman and German officers, seven battalions of Senussi warriors (an estimated 5,000 fighters) invaded across Egypt’s western frontier in late November 1915.  Supported by border tribes and equipped with machine guns and light artillery, they had forced the British to abandon lightly defended coastal positions at Sidi Barrani and Sollum by the first week of December, at which point the British decided to fight back.

A Western Frontier Force was cobbled together from a horse artillery company, three British territorial battalions, one of Sikhs, a few units of Australians back from Gallipoli and some armoured cars borrowed from the Royal Naval Air Service.  Based on the coast at Mersa Matruh, and led by Major-General Wallace, the WFF was charged with eliminating the Senussi, and elements of the force attacked about 300 Senussi fighters at Wadi Senab, some 300km west of Alexandria, on 11 December.

After inflicting a few dozen casualties and driving the Senussi from the wadi (which is a river bed valley that often, as at Senab, forms an oasis), the British were prevented from further advance next day by a well-coordinated counterattack.  The counterattack was scattered by Australian artillery, but the exhausted British column gave up its half-hearted pursuit on 13 December and returned to Mersa Matruh.

The Affair had cost the British 25 dead and 82 wounded, against an estimated 300 Senussi killed, but although it could be counted a victory it hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage on the invaders.  Bad weather prevented further operations by the WFF until Christmas Day, when it attacked Senussi units near the coast at the Wadi Majid, just west of Mersa Matruh, but the result was essentially the same.  The Senussi suffered a few hundred casualties and lost a little local prestige, but again escaped to regroup.

Reinforced, the Western Frontier Force would drive Sidi Ahmad and his army far to the west during 1916, but the relatively tiny Senussi force would remain a thorn in the side of British Middle Eastern operations into early 1918, eventually keeping some 35,000 British imperial troops and 60,000 Italian colonial personnel occupied in snuffing out guerilla raids from French Saharan territory.

While this long, obscure and largely forgotten campaign in the Western Desert was getting fully underway, early in 1916, the British were going on the front foot elsewhere in Egypt.  Expecting a fresh Ottoman attack on Suez, theatre c-in-c General Maxwell took further steps to ensure the Canal’s security.  Temporarily reinforced by divisions transferred from Gallipoli, Maxwell sent advanced troops beyond the Canal’s east bank, establishing trench lines 10km into Sinai, and made major improvements to supply lines between Cairo and the front.

This was ‘forward defence’, the same tactic that had drawn British Indian forces deep into the mire on the Mesopotamian Front.  For now, Maxwell and Murray (who took over as theatre c-in-c in March 1916) were prevented from major advances by a steady reduction of strength, as the Gallipoli divisions moved on to other fronts – but by May British forces had occupied Romani, 30km east of Suez, and by the end of the year they had established a forward base at El Arish, a hundred kilometres into Sinai and menacing Turkish positions in Palestine.

The thin end of the wedge was in.  With hopes – soon to be realised in spectacular fashion – of igniting an Arab revolt throughout the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern provinces, the British Empire was now poised to take a fateful step into what is generally known as the Palestinian Front.  The world is still trying and failing to deal with the consequences.