The Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War I was a series of battles which took place on the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine, and Syria between January 28, 1915 and March 15, 1929. British, Indian, Australian, and New Zealand forces opposed the German and Turkish forces.
Ottoman advance towards the Suez Canal
The Ottoman Empire, at the urging of their German ally, chose to attack British and Egyptian forces in Egypt and shut the Suez Canal in the First Suez Offensive. The Ottoman army, under the command of the Turkish Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, was based in Jerusalem. At this time, the Sinai was an almost empty desert and very hard for an army to cross (no roads, no water). The chief of staff for Ottoman army was Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, who organized the attack and managed to get supplies for the army as it crossed the desert.
First Suez Offensive
The Ottoman Suez Expeditionary Force arrived at the canal on February 2, 1915. The attack failed to achieve surprise as the British and Egyptians were aware of the Ottoman army's approach. In fighting that lasted for two days the Ottomans were beaten, losing some 2000 men. Allied losses were minimal.
Because the Suez Canal was vital to the Allied war effort, this failed attack caused the British to leave far more soldiers protecting the canal than they had planned on, resulting in a smaller force for the Gallipoli Campaign. The British forced the colonial Egyptian Army and Egyptian Navy to be enlarged to help defend Egypt. However, most Egyptians were poorly-armed and poorly-trained.
Battle of Romani
More than a year passed with the British troops content to guard the Suez Canal and the Ottomans busy fighting the Russians in the Caucusus and the British at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. Then in July, the Ottoman army tried another offensive against the Suez. Again, the Ottomans advanced with an over-sized division. Again they ran into a well prepared Allied force, this time at Romani. Again, they retreated after two days of fighting August 3 - August 5, 1916.
Following this victory, the Allied forces sought to eject the Turkish Canal Expeditionary Force from threatening the Suez Canal by removing them from Bir el Abd. On August 9, 1916, the indecisive action at Bir el Abd was fought leading to the Turkish withdrawal to El Arish while leaving a rear guard force at Bir el Mazar.
British advance across the Sinai
This attack convinced the British to push their defence of the Canal further out, into the Sinai, and so starting in October, the British under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell began operations into the Sinai desert and on to the border of Palestine. Initial efforts were limited to building a railway and a waterline across the Sinai. After several months building up supplies and troops, the British were ready for an attack. The first battle was the capture of Magdhaba on December 23, 1916. This was a success, the fort was captured.
On January 8, 1917, the Anzac Mounted Division attacked the fort-town of Rafa. The attack was successful and the majority of the Turkish garrison was captured. The British had accomplished their objective of protecting the Suez Canal from Turkish attacks but the new government of David Lloyd George wanted more.
The British army in Egypt was ordered to go on the offensive against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine. In part this was to support the Arab revolt which had started early in 1916, in part this was to try to accomplish something positive after the years of fruitless battles on the Western Front. The British commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, suggested that he needed more troops and ships, but this request was refused.
The Ottoman forces were holding a rough line from the fort at Gaza, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, to the town of Beersheba, which was the terminus of the Ottoman railway that extended north to Damascus. The British commander in the field, Dobell, chose to attack Gaza, using a short hook move on March 26, 1917.
First Battle of Gaza
The British attack was essentially a failure. Due to miscommunication, some units retreated when they should have held onto their gains and so the fortress was not taken.
The government in London believed the reports from the field which indicated a substantial victory had been won and ordered General Murray to move on and capture Jerusalem. The British were in no position to attack Jerusalem as they first needed to break through the Ottoman defensive positions. These positions were rapidly improved and credit for the Turkish defence is given to the German chief-of-staff Baron Kress von Kressenstein.
Second Battle of Gaza
A second attack on the fort of Gaza was launched one month later on April 17, 1917. This attack, supported by naval gunfire, chlorine gas and even a few early tanks was also a failure. It was essentially a frontal assault on a fortified position, and it didn't work more through inflexibility in operations rather than plan but it cost of some 6,000 British casualties. As a result both General Dobell and General Murray were removed from command. The new man put in charge was General Sir Edmund Allenby and his orders were clear: take Jerusalem by Christmas.
Allenby - after personally reviewing the Ottoman defensive positions - asked for more forces: three more infantry divisions, aircraft, and artillery. This request was granted and by October, 1917, the British were ready for their next attack.
The Ottoman army had three active fronts at this time: Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Gaza front. They also had substantial forces deployed around Constantinople and in the (now quiet) Caucasus front. Given all these demands, the army in Gaza was only about 35,000 strong, lead by the Ottoman General Kustafa and concentrated in three main defensive locations: Gaza, Tell Esh Sheria, and Beersheba. Allenby's army was now much larger, some 88,000 troops in good condition and well equipped. Many of the British forces were Anzacs from Australia and New Zealand.
Battle of El Buggar Ridge
The occupation of Karm by the Allies on October 22, 1917 created a major point for supply and water for the troops in the immediate area. For the Ottoman forces, the placement of the station at Karm placed under threat the defensive positions known as the Hureira Redoubt and Rushdie System which formed a powerful bulwark against any Allied action. Karm Station pointed right to the heart of this system.
To overcome this, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Commander of the Yildirim Group, proposed a two phase attack. Firstly the plan called for a reconnaissance in force from Beersheba for October 27 which was to be followed by an all out attack launched by the 8th Army from Hureira, ironically scheduled to occur on the morning of October 31, 1917, the day when the Battle of Beersheba began. On the morning of October 27, the battle began.
Battle of Beersheba
A key feature to the British attack was to convince the Turks (and their German leaders) that once again, Gaza was to be attacked. This deception campaign was extremely thorough and convincing. The Battle of El Buggar Ridge, launched by the Turks, completed the deception. When the Allies launched their attack on Beersheba, the Turks were taken by surprise. In one of the most remarkable feats of planning and execution, the Allies were able to move some 40,000 men and a similar number of horses over hostile and inhospitable terrain without being detected by the Turks. The climax of the battle was the last successful cavalry charge of modern warfare when two Australian Light Horse regiments (4th and 12th) charged across open ground just before dusk and captured the town. The Turkish defeat at Beersheba on October 31 was not a complete rout. The Turks retreated into the hills and preprepared defensive positions to the north of Beersheba. For the Allies, the following days were spent fighting a difficult and bloody battle at Tel el Khuweilifeh, to the north east of Beersheba.
To break through the Turkish defensive line, the Allied forces attacked the Ottoman positions at Tel Esh Sheria on November 6 and followed this up with a further attack at Huj the following day, November 7. With the imminent collapse of Gaza at the same time, the Turks quickly retreated to a new line of defence.
Third Battle of Gaza
On the 7th, the British attacked Gaza for the 3rd time and this time, the Turks, worried about being cut off, retreated in the face of the British assault. Gaza had finally been captured.
The Turkish defensive position was shattered, the Ottoman army was retreating in some disarray, and General Allenby ordered his army to pursue the enemy. The British followed closely on the heels of the retreating Ottoman forces. An attempt by the Turks to form a defence of a place called Junction Station (Wadi Sarar) was foiled by a British attack November 13, 1917. General Falkenhayn next tried to form a new defensive line from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Jaffa. The first British attack on Jerusalem failed but with a short rest and the gathering of more infantry divisions, Allenby tried again and on December 9, 1917, Jerusalem was captured. This was a major political event for the British government of David Lloyd George, one of the few real successes the British could point to after three long bloody years of war.
On the Turkish side, this defeat marked the exit of Djemal Pasha back to Istanbul. Djemal had given real command to German officers like von Kressenstein and von Falkenhayn more than a year earlier but now, defeated like Enver Pasha was at the Battle of Sarikamis, he gave up even nominal command and returned to the capital. Less than a year remained before he was forced out of the government. General Falkenhayn was also replaced, in March 1918.
British advances in Syria
The British government had hopes that the Ottoman Empire could be defeated early in the coming year with successful campaigns in Palestine and Mesopotamia but the Spring Offensive by the Germans on the Western Front delayed the expected attack on Syria for nine full months. General Allenbee's army was largely redeployed to France and he was given brand new divisions recruited from India. These divisions spent the spring and summer of 1918 training.
Because the British achieved complete control of the air with their new fighter planes, the Turks, and their new German commander General Liman von Sanders, had no clear idea where the British were going to attack. Compounding the problems, the Turks, at the direction of their War Minister Enver Pasha withdrew their best troops during the summer for the creation of Enver's Army of Islam, leaving behind poor quality, dispirited soldiers. T. E. Lawrence and his Arab fighters were of significant use during this time. His forces staged many hit-and-run attacks on Turkish supply lines and tied down thousands of soldiers in garrisons throughout Palestine, Jordan, and Syria.
Battle of Megiddo
General Allenbee finally launched his long-delayed attack on September 19, 1918. The campaign has been called the Battle of Megiddo (which is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of an ancient town known in the west as Armageddon). Again, the British spent a great deal of effort to deceive the Turks as to their actual intended target of operations. This effort was, again, successful and the Turks were taken by surprise when the British attacked Meggido in a sudden storm. The Turkish troops started a full scale retreat, the British bombed the fleeing columns of men from the air and within a week, the Turkish army in Palestine had ceased to exist as a military force.
From there it was decided to march off to Damascus. Two separate Allied columns marched towards Damascus. The first approached from Galilee composed of mainly cavalry, both Indian and Australian while the other column travelled along the Hejaz Railway northwards composed of Indian Cavalry and the ad hoc militia following T.E. Lawrence. Australian Light Horse troops marched unopposed into Damascus on October 1, 1918, despite there being some 12,000 Turkish soldiers at Baramke Barracks. Major Olden of the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment received the Official Surrender of the City at 7 am at the Serai. Later that day, T.E. Lawrence and his ad hoc Arab militia entered Damascus to claim full credit for its capture. Even though the battle for Palestine was over, the battle in Syria was far from ending. The Turkish government was quite prepared to sacrifice these non-Turkish provinces without surrendering and Germany, now free from the war in Europe, could assist them with more material and manpower.
Battle of Hims
The retreating Turkish forces reorganized and established their defense lines around the important commercial center of Hims, the Yilderim Army Group under Mustafa Kemal was decided to hold the British there as long as it would take before German reinforcements could make their presence felt on the battlefield.
On November 4, 1918, the British attacked the Turks by west in Al-Qusayr with the 7th Indian Division and by south in Hims with the British 4th and 5th mounted divisions and the Anzac Mounted Division. RAF bombers had destroyed railways linking to the city early in the morning and Arab rioters were causing unrest against the Turkish forces, for them it seemed the Turks wouldn't last.
Despite the fall of Al-Qusayr in November 21 Kemal astoundingly held Hims coordinating his troops into successfully repelling every British offensive. He knew the British despite having overwhelming advantage had their supplies shortened by America's withdrawal and could be defeated once the German Expeditionary Force arrived in Libya and a two front war against Egypt were to take place.
German Expeditionary Force arrives, the Turks reorganize
On February 2, 1919, German 20th Army under Sixt von Armin arrived in Syria. Their support in material and manpower was essential in stopping the British advances and crushing the Arab Revolt.
Fourteen German divisions reinforced the Turkish line at Hims and after three months of intense fighting the siege was broke and the British began to retreat.
Battle of Tripoli
It began on 6 May, after one hour of artillery bombardment five Sturmtruppen divisions from the German 20th Army attacked three divisions from the British XXI Corps in Tripoli capturing the city after six days.
Battle of Beirut
On 24 May, the German 73th, 75th and 99th divisions attacked the Indian 3rd and 7th division in Beirut. The British were aided by over 15,000 Arab rebels. Due to logistical problems the artillery strike which would have preceded the attack was diminished due to many guns being lost in a sandstorm. A message from German command in the middle east which had ordered the attack to be delayed failed to reach the field commanders because the sand storm broke communications equipment.
As a result in the first day of battle both 73th and 75th divisions were nearly annihilated without making significant gains in the battlefield. However the 99th Division under Albert Heller which was covering their rear advanced on the city and after three days of intense combat managed to capture the city dealing enormous casualties to the British and massacring the arab opposition. The 99th Sturmtruppen "Höllen-Angriff" began it's reputation of Germany's elite force in this point.
When communication was re-established with the rest of German forces the commanders were astonished to know the city felt to an attack they thought was cancelled. The German survivors were awarded the Order of Desert Storm and the Iron Cross for their outstanding accomplishment.
First Battle of Damascus
On 6 April, nine German divisions fought three British divisions plus 45,000 Arab rebels in Damascus. The British with a much greater field knowledge provided by the Arabs managed to resist the Germans with an extensive use of guerrilla tactics, as a result the Germans suffered their first major defeat since the GEF arrived in the Middle East.
Second Battle of Damascus
On 17 May, the Turkish 7th Army under Ismet Pasha from the Yilderin Army Group under Mustafa Kemal Pasha aided by five German divisions of the German 20th Army under Sixt von Armin, including the 99th Sturmtruppen Division, attacked seven divisions from the British XXI and XX corps aided by 37,000 arab rebels in a second attempt to recapture Damascus.
The Turks played a key role in providing Germans with field experience in the region and after six weeks of combat, the sixth of which saw intensive participation of the 99th Division, the British were forced again to retreat.
Fourth Battle of Gaza
On 9 July, the Ottoman 8th, 7th and 4th armies and the German 20th Army had forced the British back to Gaza. Here the British 3rd army relocated from Europe was going to support the Egyptian Expeditionary Force alongside 20,000 Arab rebels.
The attack held some initial gains including the capture of Jerusalem with the participation of the 99th Division but British troops succeeded in defending their position with help of intensive naval support.
Fifth Battle of Gaza
On 15 November, another attack was launched this time with the German Air Force providing aerial superiority and employing suppression bombing tactic to inflict massive casualties on the British defenders. The British were now running low on supplies and retreated in fear of being cut off. They set their new defense line in both margins of the Suez Canal.
Final year, the capture of Suez Canal
Third Suez Offensive
On January 12, 1920, the Ottomans and Germans launched their final offensive against the Suez Canal. The British lines on the eastern margin of the canal held for three days before collapsing but the western margin continued to stand for another three weeks before the Ottoman Suez Expeditionary Force could cross the canal and capture the Egyptian side. It took a huge deal of Luftwaffe airstrikes to weak down the British positions.
With the fall of the Suez Canal the British could no longer transport resources from India properly and fighting the Germans in North Africa became inevitable. Exhausted by the war and increasingly unable to transport its remaining resources throughout a nearly global war front the empire opted to safeguard it's largely intact colonial possessions with a generous armistice from the equally exhausted Central Powers.
Convention of Cairo, the end of World War I
While the ground was being won by the Central Powers the Royal Navy remained in control of the seas allowing the empire to transport troops to any British held port in the world. Germany was troubled with unrest in Eastern Europe alongside the increasing threat of communism. The Ottomans were economically bankrupt with enormous infrastructural and social problems that threatened to root the empire from the inside.
Rushing to get rid of the war as quickly as possible the two parties agreed on a treaty which didn't much damage to the British and in turn ceased all hostilities.
The conditions were as follows:
- The British Empire would be responsible by the war.
- Any ground taken by the British which belonged to a member of the Central Powers would be given back unconditionally.
- The portion of Northern Africa which once belonged to the Ottomans would be given back to them.
- No further aggressions would take place against any possession of the signatories of this pact.
The last condition of the Treaty of Cairo would open space for a future ruthless expansionism of all parts against territories which are not directly influenced by the signatories while maintaining world wide peace.
Categories: Middle Eastern Theatre (Royale)