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.
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 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.
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.