7 APRIL, 1918: Holy Smoke

I’ve been lurking around the trenches for a week or two, and it’s time to wander elsewhere, even though I’m going to need a particularly sketchy excuse for an anniversary to get there.  So a century ago today, forces attached to the Arab Revolt occupied the town of Kerak, just off the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea.  This wasn’t big news at the time, but as a minor component of the British Empire’s invasion of Transjordan, now part of modern Jordan, it feels a bit more important now – so here’s some context.

By early 1918, the British invasion of Palestine and the Arab Revolt’s northern progress were converging on the Ottoman-controlled Arab lands east of the River Jordan.  While British theatre commander Allenby planned his main offensive for the season on the Mediterranean coastal plains to the west, he sent his eastern flank into Transjordan for a diversionary attack towards the important railway junction of Dera.  Before launching the diversion towards Jericho and the northern Dead Sea, Allenby arranged for direct support from the Arab Revolt.

Nice, simple map, and it pretty much shows what you need…

The Arab Northern Army, based at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, was already conducting raids against Ottoman garrisons at Maan and Medina.  In mid-January, commander Prince Feisal sent a detachment led by his brother Zeid further north to the Dead Sea, charged with disrupting supply lines of grain and wood from central Arabia to Ottoman forces in the region.  Despite food shortages and poor coordination between its tribal groups (a problem that beset all but the most small-scale Arab Revolt operations), the advance quickly took the towns of Shobek and Tafila without much of a fight – but the threat to Dead Sea trade routes brought 1,000 Ottoman troops to the region, and they overwhelmed Zeid’s forward positions outside Tafila on 24 January.

The scene was set for another chapter in the saga of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but I’ll try to describe it without exaggerating.  Taking command of the defence of Tafila, Lawrence deployed about 500 men along a narrow, five-kilometre front, flanked by rocky ridges and blocking a central road.  Once Ottoman forces had nullified a few machine-gun posts manned by town residents, they took what seemed the smart option and occupied the high ground on either side of the front – but were falling for a trap.  Unable to dig trenches in the rocky ground, and pinned down by fire from the central Arab line, they were outflanked on both sides by small Arab detachments and collapsed under pressure from coordinated charges.  Having suffered only 65 casualties, against some 300 Ottoman troops killed and another 250 captured, Arab forces continued their northward progress to the Dead Sea port of El Mezra, where the seven small craft of the German-Ottoman Dead Sea flotilla surrendered on 28 January.

In close touch with but never in control of Arab movements, Allenby sent his eastern flank towards Jericho on 19 February, but it took two days to struggle across twenty kilometres of difficult terrain, by which time Ottoman defenders had retreated beyond the Jordan to Es Salt and Amman.  While Allenby turned his attention back to the west, launching consolidating attacks along the Mediterranean coast from 9 March in preparation for his main offensive, he sent one infantry and one expanded cavalry division across the river with strong artillery and engineering support.

Commanded by General Shea, the detachment had orders to keep going towards Dera and cooperate with Arab forces coming up from the south, but bad weather made any advance impossible until 23 March, when it took the heights of Es Salt without a fight.  By that time General Liman von Sanders, the new commander of Yilderim Force (the elite German/Ottoman strike force intended to spearhead a counterattack against Jerusalem), had concentrated all his reserves on the town of Amman, 30km further east.  When another pause in the rains allowed further movement on 27 March, Shea sent the Anzac Mounted Division against Amman, but its three-pronged attack was halted by machine-guns in the town citadel and bombing attacks from German aircraft based in Dera, and was abandoned after civil unrest in Es Salt delayed the arrival of supporting infantry.

Liman von Sanders and Kemal Ataturk, coloured in and both concentrating on their pissing contest…

An Ottoman counterattack opened on 30 March and, with the rising waters of the Jordan threatening to cut off his retreat, Shea withdrew across the river, leaving only a bridgehead defended at Ghoraniye.  What became known as the Battle of Amman had cost Shea 1,200 casualties and could only be interpreted as an Ottoman victory, the first in the theatre for almost a year, but it did achieve its strategic aim by convincing Liman von Sanders to concentrate his forces for the defence of Transjordan.  He also withdrew troops from the garrison at Maan, where the majority of Feisal’s men were gathering.

The proposed siege of Maan had delayed any Arab support for Shea, as had a second Ottoman attack on Tafila that forced the Arab garrison to retake the town on 18 March, and although a column under Lawrence did eventually march north it turned back on news of the defeat at Amman.

Early April saw all sides in the three-cornered struggle for Transjordan positioning for a renewed fight.  Arab forces occupied Kerak on 7 April, and Liman von Sanders launched an unsuccessful attack on the British bridgehead on 11 April.  At the same time a feint towards Dera by the ANZAC Mounted Division convinced him that, despite simultaneous British attacks near the Mediterranean coast, Allenby’s main spring offensive would strike east of the Jordan.

In fact Allenby’s main spring offensive never came, postponed until the autumn while every available British resource was rushed to face the German offensive on the Western Front, but he did take one last tilt at Transjordan.  A second invasion force – two cavalry divisions, one of infantry and two Indian Army brigades, led by General Chauvel – crossed the river on 30 April and took the Ottoman Fourth Army HQ at Es Salt, but the success was short-lived.  Liman von Sanders had reinforced the sector in preparation for a limited advance of his own, support promised by local Arab tribesmen failed to materialise, and by the end of 1 May the British were surrounded.  Allowed to retreat because Liman von Sanders couldn’t afford any more casualties, Chauvel was back across the Jordan by 4 May.

Scots and Australians enter Es Salt… but they’d be chased off again next day.

The British invasion had failed, but that didn’t really matter.  Allenby had suffered about 1,600 casualties, but Liman von Sanders had lost 2,000 effectives he couldn’t replace and had been persuaded to leave almost a third of his entire force in Transjordan.  By way of keeping it there, Allenby left the four divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps to swelter in the Jordan valley, based on Bethlehem, through the rest of the spring and summer.  They held off one attack, by about 5,000 men on the night of 13-14 July, before sending half their strength west in September to join Allenby’s autumn offensive, and positioning 15,000 dummy horses to keep the manoeuvre hidden from German air reconnaissance.

The Arab Revolt meanwhile divided into two essentially separate campaigns.  Rebel activity cooled in the south, where Feisal’s father and the Arab Revolt’s nominal leader, Ibn Hussein, had become suspicious of British intentions after hearing of the Sykes-Picot agreement (the proposed carve-up of the Middle East between British and French imperial interests).  Further north, where the Revolt’s strategic impact really mattered to the British, they supplied Feisal’s army with increased levels of air support, funding and supplies, especially of armoured cars and camels, while Lawrence provided reassurance of British commitment to future Arab independence.  After a summer spent reprising its successful guerilla campaign against Ottoman supplies and infrastructure, destroying 25 bridges in May alone, the Arab Northern Army would be prepared to do Allenby’s bidding in the autumn and drive towards Damascus alongside his next offensive.

This hasn’t been a big story, but if the heritage industry is too hung up on fêting the RAF to ignore mayhem on the Western Front it’s hardly likely to be commemorating Jordan’s brief career as a First World War battleground.  Even if nothing else was going on to keep them occupied, I struggle to imagine popular British media having much to say about a campaign based on promises of regional independence – for Transjordan as well as for its neighbours – that imperial authorities had no intention of keeping.

For the record, postwar Transjordan became a mandate of the British Empire, which took an indefinite ‘caretaker’ role until the territory was deemed fit for self-rule.  It eventually became the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1946, and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan three years later.  The rest is very complicated modern history, but I’m here to tell you some of its roots lie in 1918.

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