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.

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