The Suez Canal was one of the most important objectives in the war plans of the German High Command. Seizing the Canal would mean denying the use of the waterway to the Allies, which would be a great blow to the British who were transferring troops from India and other dominions to support their war effort in European battlefields.
Britain was controlling Egypt’s government since 1882, although the latter's nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Empire had continued. In 1914, Egypt decided to enter the war in support of the British, and Britain in turn declared a protectorate over Egypt deposing the governor Abbas Hilmi Pasha and replacing him with Hüseyin Kamil Pasha who was officially appointed Sultan of Egypt. The British were now facing two threats: the anti-British sentiment felt by many Arab citizens of Egypt and the possibility of attack from the Ottoman Army. From the Ottoman point of view, however, it was more like a matter of prestige. An early victory in the war and the re-capture of Egypt would increase the Ottoman influence on the Muslim world.
In November 1914, the Ottoman High Command decided to establish a new formation in Syria in preparation for a major offensive. The problem was that the Second Army and the VI Corps, which were originally located in Syria, were already moving towards their war stations around Istanbul. The Suez project was not a foreseen one and with the absence of the Second Army and the VI Corps there existed now the requirement to establish a new formation to launch the attack. Hence, a new army headquarters, the Fourth, was established in Syria and the XII Corps was deployed from Iraq to Syria. 8th, 10th and 22nd Infantry Divisions we ordered to move to Syria and Palestine from their original positions in Thrace, Izmir and Hejaz respectively. A new division, the 25th, was formed and added to the VIII Corps.
A few days after the Ottoman declaration of war, Enver Pasha asked Cemal Pasha, who was then the Minister of Marine, to see him. He told Cemal that he wanted him to replace Gen. Halepli Zeki Pasha as the commander of the Fourth Army, because the latter was demanding reinforcements for the defence of Syria instead of executing Enver’s orders for an attack on Egypt without questioning. Cemal Pasha accepted the offer and left Istanbul on November 21, 1914 for Syria.
After a long and adventurous trip through Anatolia, Cemal Pasha arrived in Aleppo, Syria. He was truly disappointed with the transportation infrastructure. The roads were far from being suitable for the transportation of an army. In act they were no different than swamps. The road between Iskenderun (Alexandretta) and Aleppo was flooded and automobiles could not be used. He had to proceed on horseback and sometimes even on the back of a soldier.
Here we are! This is the only road connecting my army to the motherland. So much work to do! (Cemal Pasha in his memoirs)
The Attack on the Suez Canal
After inspecting the XII Corps, commanded by Col. Fahreddin Bey, in Aleppo, Cemal Pasha arrived in Damascus in early December. He established his headquarters at Hotel Damascus Palace and began to work on campaign plans with Mersinli Cemal Pasha (commander of the VIII Corps), Col. von Frankenberg (chief of staff of the Fourth Army) and Col. von Kressenstein (chief of staff of the VIII Corps).
By the time Cemal Pasha arrived in Syria, Britain had assembled some 70,000 troops in Egypt. Maj.Gen. Sir John Maxwell was the commander-in-chief of the forces that consisted of Indian divisions, as well as the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, local formations and the I Anzac Corps. 30,000 of the troops stationed in Egypt manned the defenses along the Suez Canal. However the desert was unoccupied as the British were not interested in the region east to the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, members of the Turkish secret service were also arriving in the region and planning their operations.
The Turkish plan envisioned the 25th Division of the VII Corps and a regiment made up from elements of the 23rd and 27th divisions thrusting across the Sinai Desert to cut the Suez Canal at its midpoint in Ismailia. This was to be the first echelon and would be accompanied by eight batteries of field artillery, 1,000 horses, 300 oxen and 12,000 camels. The second echelon comprised the 10th Infantry Division and flank guards were provided by the 23rd Infantry Division. The remainder of the VIII Corps would guard the long Lebanese coast and other units of the Fourth Army would garrison Syria and Palestine.
The gathering point for the VIII Corps was Beersheba, which was inland, well away from the reach of British naval artillery. From there, 25,000 men would march 300 kilometres across the desert and reach Ismailia. However, this was nothing but a mission impossible. Moreover, every man was allowed one kilogram of food and drink water per day and this meant that they needed 15,000 camels. But what they had was just 2,000 animals. Cemil Pasha mentioned this problem in his memoirs as follows: “I think there are many people who are wandering why we couldn’t find the required 15,000 camels in a place like Syria and Hejaz. I want to tell them that it is not as it seems. Not every camel is suitable to be used as carriage and the number of those, which are suitable, is limited. I am the one who knows the problems we faced when we had to find 14,000 camels within one month.”
Water posed a particular problem. The rain season was spanning December and January and the march had to be contemplated during this period because in the dry season it was not possible even to take a single battalion across the desert, let alone a 25,000 strong army. In the desert, the temperatures were going up to 50 degrees Celsius during the day, falling down to minus 10 at night.
The rationing of food and water was specially designed for this campaign. The so called “desert ration” consisted of 600 grams of biscuits, 150 grams of palm fruit, nine grams of tea and four kilograms of water per man per day. Five kilograms of barley and 18 kilograms of water were allowed per horse and three kilograms of barley and five kilograms of water was allowed per camel. On the route from Beersheba to Ismailia there were no villages or towns. According to the calculations, the Turkish forces were supposed to have four days of rations left by the time they would arrive in Ismailia.
Movement forward began on January 14, 1915.
Cemal Pasha was the leader of the group. He was mounted on a beautiful white horse and moving towards the point where the sun was going down: to Ismailia! ... The marching formation in the desert was good and so was the desert itself. An ocean of sands, stretching very far and shining brilliantly like melted gold under the sunshine. In the horizon, there are mountains which are coloured with the lights of the sun...Violet, red, pink... Mountains shining in many different colours... And above them all, the cloudless, dark blue sky! One can see the wild beauty of the nature in the Sinai Desert. (Ali Fuad Bey in his memoirs)
For the first week they marched in daylight and moved huge water tanks with themselves. After the first week, Turkish units conducted their march at night in order to avoid being discovered by British reconnaissance planes. Pontoons and boats, which would be useful for crossing the canal, were also moved across the desert. The morale was high, the favourite chant was “Let the crescent rise over Cairo!”
On the way, contingents of Muslims, such as Bedouins, Kurds, Durzis and Arabs were recruited. Cemal Pasha was also hoping that the Egyptian patriots would revolt and hit the British from behind. Ali Fuad Bey wrote in his memoirs about how the Turks were impressed by the sight of the Canal: "On the other bank, projectors positioned at every two or three kilometers were cross-lighting the area and they were almost turning the night into day. Inside this flood of light, the Canal was shining like a silver corridor. There was traffic in the Canal and vessels were passing slowly and shiningly inside lights. On the other shore, the city of Ismailia and the towns of Tosum and Serapeom were offering quite a peaceful sight. Here and there one could see the silhouettes of warships on the horizon."
On January 31, the 25th Division, which was the centre column, as well as the right and left wing columns arrived in their assembly areas ten kilometers east of the town of Ismailia.
Two days later, the 25th Division, commanded by Lt.Col. Ali Fuad Bey and supported by eight batteries of field artillery, moved forward to its assault position on the east bank of the canal. The right and left wing columns were to conduct feint attacks on Kuneytre and Suez, but major action was prevented by a sandstorm. The early hours of the following morning saw the main Turkish attack with inflatable pontoons and rafts as the Turkish troops made their way to the eastern bank of the canal and into the water, only to be met by Anglo-Indian machine gun fire which cut the advancing ranks of boats to ribbons and tore through the massing Turkish troops on the water's edge.
Turkish troops were not well trained for water-crossing operations and they were also late. The sun was already going up when they were entering the water. Only two companies managed to reach the west bank. Others either left their boats and fled inland or gunned down by the British.
During the day of February 3, the Turks managed to hold a bridgehead but the opponent was simply to strong and there was no point in insisting to keep that position. There was also heavy artillery fire from British naval units in Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah (Crocodile) and railroad guns. The army headquarters, which was positioned 3.5 km east of the canal on a sand hill also took direct hits. As of 3:00 pm on February 3, there were only three pontoons left and forcing the canal and attempting to cross it was impossible. Cemal Pasha gathered his staff and discussed the situation.
The attack on the Suez Canal cost the Fourth Army total casualties of 1,300 men including 192 dead, 381 wounded and 727 missing or captured. British casualties were only 150.
A discussion between Cemal Pasha and Col. von Kressenstein is worth noting here. Von Kressenstein, who could not accept this defeat said: “Dear Pasha, we might have failed in the offensive. However I think that today the task of our forces is to die in front of the canal!” Cemal’s reply was brief: “If there is no hope for success, I won’t let my forces perish just for the sake of honour.” He ordered withdrawal.
Cemal Pasha’s own account of this failure, which we can read in his memoir is very interesting: “I have never imagined that a force armed with 14,000 rifles, few mountain batteries and just a single howitzer battery, an army which has only five to ten pontoons to cross the canal in less than four days, could ever manage to move across the canal and beat the enemy. Although this was the fact, I gave an opposite impression to the headquarters and to my units so that nobody could realise that this first campaign to the canal was nothing but a feint."
Cemal Pasha further claims in his memoirs that actually the campaign was successful because after all it was only a reconnaissance attack which achieved the target of “exploring the canal and possibilities of crossing it”.
By February 15, the VIII Corps was pulled back to Gaza and the 10th Division was stationed at the end of a defensive line in Beersheba. Later during 1915, on the orders of Enver Pasha, 8th, 10th and 25th divisions were sent to Gallipoli and in their place three new divisions were raised: 41st, 43rd and 44th.
For the remainder of 1915, Cemal Pasha contented himself with the organization of his forces. He established the “Desert Force Headquarters” which would command the forces in Sinai. This headquarters was located in Beersheba and placed under the command of the German Col. von Kressenstein, who conducted raids against the Canal defenders. The idea was to keep British attention on Ottoman army and try to increase the standing forces in Egypt, and thus decrease available manpower for offensives such as Gallipoli.
Meanwhile, a railroad line of 264 km connecting Beersheba to Sinai was built. New wells were opened to increase the water supply, and a telegram line of 100 km was installed for improved communication.
Second Canal Expedition
Cemal Pasha’s opinion was that the German High Command did not really care for the Sinai campaign. In November 1915, he made a trip to Istanbul and shared his thoughts with Enver Pasha, who was relieved because the troubles of Gallipoli were over. In February 1916, Enver made a trip to Syria, Palestine, Sinai and Medina. Meanwhile German and Austro-Hungarian help began to arrive: Six machine gun detachments, one 15 cm howitzer battery, one 10 cm artillery battery, four anti-aircraft detachments, an aircraft group, trucks, one 21 cm mortar detachment, two field hospitals and one mountain howitzer battalion with 12 guns.
In early 1916, the commander of the Allied forces in Egypt was Gen. Sir Archibald Murray. His available forces comprised two British infantry divisions (the 42nd Division and the 52nd Division) and the Anzac Mounted Division, under Gen. H.G. Chauvel, containing the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the 5th Mounted Brigade. They had began to move left of the Canal towards Palestine in order to establish a fresh defensive line some 160 km away.
Meanwhile the Turks were mooting a fresh attack upon the Canal. This time, the objective was not to capture the Canal itself but to establish control on its east banks. Soon they would realize that even this goal was hardly achievable with a desert operation in summer and they would concentrate on forcing the British to maintain large amounts of forces in this theatre of war.
On April 23, 1916, the Turks raided a British outpost at Katia, with two infantry battalions, one mountain howitzer battery and one volunteer camel cavalry regiment. It was a successful attempt and the British cavalry unit in Katia was taken prisoner together with its commander, 23 officers and 257 troopers. Turkish sources claim that the British soldiers were in the middle of a soccer match when Turks arrived. Katia was one of the outposts built on the east side of the Canal. There was no British existence there during the first Turkish attempt to take the Canal the previous year.
Reinforcements from Gallipoli arrived in late April, which increased the numbers of Ottoman forces to 11,873 men, 3,293 rifles, 56 machines gun, 30 artillery guns. However, a great disappointment emerged when the Arab Revolt broke out in June. Cemal Pasha had to send reinforcements to Hejaz, which weakened the Turkish efforts in Palestine. Mecca, the holy city of Islam, fell on July 9.
The second Turkish attempt on the Canal began on August 4, 1916. The Turkish Expeditionary Force, under the command of Col. von Kressenstein and comprised of the 3rd Division and the German Pasha Detachment, had established its forces just outside the town of Romani. A Turkish force chased the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade as it returned to Romani from a day reconnaissance. The Turks made a bayonet charge on Mount Meredith and the light horsemen evacuated the position at early in the morning. The Australians were eventually forced back to a large sand dune. Having been held south of Romani, the Turks attempted a further outflanking maneuver to the west and concentrate 2,000 troops around another sand hill, south-west of Romani. At dawn, the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade was sent back into action and the Turkish advance was at a standstill everywhere. After a long night march the Turkish troops now faced a difficult day at a temperature of 60-65 degrees Celsius under the desert sun without a source of water and exposed to the Romani artillery, however they managed to gain some territory.
At dawn on August 5, the Australian light horse regiments and the New Zealand Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment mounted an attack on the Turkish positions and captured 1,000 prisoners and driven off the remainder. Col. von Kressenstein accepted the defeat and on August 7 and began to withdraw his forces.
In October 1916, Lt.Gen. Sir Charles Dobell was appointed to the command of the "Eastern Force", in charge of all Allied operations in the Sinai. The main Allied offensive was planned to coincide with the completion of the British military railway across the Sinai. Once the railway was built, the British could deliver supplies of food, ammunition, and most importantly, water to their forces on the eastern side of the Sinai desert.
Being chased by the Allied forces, Turks had retreated to Al-Arish. On December 16, they evacuated El-Arish as well and moved along the coast to Rafa and inland up the valley to Magdhaba. The Australian light horse that advanced to Al-Arish on December 21 found it abandoned by the Turks and was ordered to move onto Magdhaba).
When Col. von Kressenstein inspected the Turkish forces in Maghdaba he saw the shortcomings, but he was convinced that the Magdhaba garrison could withstand any assault. The Allied assault on Magdhaba was made by the 1st and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade supported by three batteries of horse artillery. They reached the town shortly before dawn on December 23. Australian aircraft attacked the Turkish defences at 6.30 am revealing the location of Turkish machine guns and trenches to the horsemen. The main line of the attack was made from the north and east, which faced heavy Turkish machine gun fire. However, the defenders could not resist long against mounted charges and by 4.30 pm all the Turkish redoubts had surrendered.
The British were keen to complete the advance across the north of the Sinai, believing this would compel the Turks to abandon their inland outposts as well. On the evening of January 8, 1917 the Anzac Mounted Division rode out of Al-Arish towards Rafa where a Turkish garrison was based.
The attack commenced with the dismounted troops advancing from the east and south. The Turks were in a strong defensive position and their redoubts were ideally placed to provide supporting fire for each other. The British advance was brought to a halt with the attackers up to a mile from their objectives. At the same time, a Turkish relief force was approaching from the east and British commanders decided to call off the attack and retreat back towards Al-Arish. However, as evening approached two brigades mounted final assaults in an attempt to get amongst the Turkish redoubts. In all cases when the attackers got into the Turkish trenches, the defenders surrendered and by nightfall the entire position had been captured. The British had suffered 71 killed and 415 wounded while the Turks lost about 200 killed, 168 wounded and 1,434 prisoners. The remaining Turkish garrisons in the Sinai at Al-Hassana (near Magdhaba) and Nekhl were captured or expelled in mid-February.
Battles of Gaza
After eight months of fighting, the British had succeeded in driving the Turkish forces from the Sinai Peninsula and they were trying to advance into Palestine with the ultimate goal of cutting off the Turkish forces in Mesopotamia and on the Arabian Peninsula. But to do so would require the capture of the Turkish fortress of Gaza, which was gateway for armies traveling via the coastal route to and from Egypt and Palestine.
Consulting with Enver Pasha, Cemal Pasha had decided to form a strong defensive line from Gaza on the coast passing through Tel-es-Sheria to Beersheba, 30 km inland to the south-east. The terrain favored defense and inland the only reliable water supplies were in the vicinity of Beersheba and as of March 15, 1917, all the Turkish units in Palestine were deployed on this line. In his memoirs, Cemal Pasha provides a full account of Turkish forces on the defensive line as of March 1917: “3,500 rifles in Gaza, 5,000 rifles in Cemame, 5,000 rifles in Tel-es-Sheria and 500 rifles in Beersheba.” Meanwhile the British had established two offensive lines under the command of Gen. Sir Charles Dobbell, including three infantry and three cavalry divisions as well as naval artillery support.
The British attacked on the night of March 25/26, hitting Gaza with their infantry and encircling the town with cavalry. The Turks were well dug-in and they refused to retreat. Meanwhile the 3rd Division arrived from Cemame, the 16th Division arrived from Tel-es-Sheria and the 3rd Cavalry Division came from Beersheba. On March 27, the British called off the attacks. The Turks lost 14 officers and 571 men in casualties whereas the British casualty toll was around 4,000. Col. von Kressenstein wanted to launch a counteroffensive, but Cemal Pasha refused. His priority was to protect the defensive line between Gaza and Beersheba, which he did not want to jeopardize.
Cemal Pasha’s memoirs tell us about the "heroes of Gaza": “The greatest hero of the Gaza defence is Maj. Hayri Efendi, who is the commander of the 125th Regiment. This distinguished person managed to protect his resistance and cold-bloodedness even in the most difficult situations and took the Mushroom Hill twice from the British with his regiment. His third capture of the hill was for good. During those attacks Lieutenant Cordier from the German machine gun detachment proved his gallantry and became a martyr. Cpt. Truschkowski, commander of Austrian batteries, died at one of his guns, in a way deserved by the most distinguished heroes.”
Where Turkish forces had previously been demoralized by the retreat through the Sinai, and were contemplating withdrawal towards Jerusalem, they were now motivated to defend the Gaza-Beersheba line. A second attempt to capture Gaza was launched on April 17, by which time the Turkish defenses were even more formidable. It started with the preliminary bombardment of the fortifications by British heavy guns south of Gaza joined by naval gunfire for two days. The infantry attack commenced on April 19 and this time the British were using tanks and gas shells as well.
The attack came in three flanks; between Gaza and the Mediterranean shore, in the centre and between Gaza and the "Tank" Redoubt. All along the front the infantry were brought to a halt well short of their objectives while suffering heavy casualties from machine gun fire. The British left three of their tanks within the Turkish trench lines. After sustaining around 7,000 casualties the British called off the attack. Turks had to manage to hold Gaza at a cost of 2,000 casualties.
The second battle of Gaza was a disastrous defeat for the British. They made no progress, inflicted little damage and suffered heavy casualties that they could not easily afford. The War Office in London replaced General Murray with the cavalry commander, Gen. Edmund Allenby, whose forces were expanded to contain three full army corps; two infantry and one mounted.
As of May 1917, the Ottoman Fourth Army was consisting of 174,908 men, 36,225 animals, 5,351 camels, 145,840 rifles, 187 machine guns and 282 artillery pieces. Recruitments were arriving in order to strengthen the Turkish defensive line, which General Allenby was preparing to break.
The Yıldırım Army Group
Enver Pasha could not accept the fact that Baghdad was gone. In addition, troubles in Hejaz, Mecca’s loss and the desperation in Medina were making him anxious. He knew that Syria had to be saved. But at the same time the German High Command was asking him to capture Baghdad.
Enver Pasha was seized with this idea and planned to accomplish this goal by forming the Yıldırım (Lightning) Army Group. The Sixth Army was to be combined with a newly formed Seventh Army, which would then be deployed to upper Mesopotamia, under the command of the German Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn, who arrived in Turkey on May 7 accompanied by a military/political mission of 100 officers and five million German marks.
On June 24, 1917, Enver Pasha convened a meeting at Aleppo with army commanders where he unveiled his plan. The Seventh Army was to be established by using the forces made available after the conclusion of operations in European fronts. This army would attack along the Euphrates and the Sixth Army would attack along the Tigris. The British would be then destroyed in Baghdad.
There was opposition to Enver’s plan. Cemal Pasha said that the Palestine/Syria front should be given priority since it was obvious that the British would soon strike back, this time with a stronger force. He was also worried about a possible amphibious landing at Adana. İzzet Pasha stated that even an attack on Baghdad is going to be launched, at least one division could be left in Aleppo. Mustafa Kemal’s idea was that the Turkish homeland of Anatolia should be secured first. All these demands were ignored by Enver Pasha. An interesting remark was made by Talat Pasha who discussed this issue with Cemal Pasha later in Istanbul: “Now we are trying to save Baghdad. However, I am afraid, soon we might need to save Jerusalem and Damascus as well.”
In mid-August, another Council of War was held in Istanbul. This time Gen. von Falkenhayn was there as well and he also had some doubts about the feasibility of the plan to capture Baghdad. He discussed the issue with Enver Pasha. Falkenhayn was thinking that an offensive on Baghdad would be impossible as long as the British preserved their strength in Palestine. Hence his proposal was to use the Yıldırım Army Group against the British forces in Palestine first and then consider the renewed Mesopotamia campaign.
Enver Pasha did not agree. He thought that there are enough forces in Palestine and the Yıldırım Army Group does not have to intervene there. He said that he insisted on his position and concluded the council. Meanwhile the Seventh Army was gathering in Aleppo, under the command of Mustafa Kemal Pasha.
At that point, Cemal Pasha received an invitation from Kaiser Wilhelm to visit Germany. He visited the fleet at Kiel, the Krupp works and the headquarters at Bad Kreuznach. When he arrived Bad Kreuznach, he received a cable from Enver Pasha: “After consulting the matter again with Von Falkenhayn, I decided to attack the British in Palestine with the forces of the Yıldırım Army Group. I sent Von Falkenhayn to Palestine to carry out this operation. Under these circumstances, the Palestine front has to be under Von Falkenhayn’s command. Therefore, I kindly ask you to inform Col. von Kressenstein about this situation.”
Cemal Pasha was practically dismissed from the command of Turkish forces in Palestine. He replied Enver’s cable: “General Falkenhayn, who had doomed the Germans with the Verdun disaster, will cause us the trouble of an attack on Palestine.” Enver Pasha gave him the title of "Commander of Armies in Syria and West Arabia" which meant nothing at all, and moved the headquarters of the Fourth Army to Damascus.
In this way, Enver wanted to eliminate Cemal’s influence in Palestine. Meanwhile the Germans sent the “German Asia Corps” to help the new Army Group; however it was in reality only a brigade sized force.
It was not only Cemal, who was upset. Mustafa Kemal Pasha also had problems with the new structure. He knew that he could not work with Falkenhayn. He sent a report to Enver Pasha and to the Prime Minister Said Halim Pasha on October 2, 1917. In this report he stated that his Army has only one fifth strength and it is made of only boy soldiers and sick old men. In his opinion, it was not possible to start an offensive with this army.
Both Cemal and Mustafa Kemal were complaining about Falkenhayn. He was definitely against the offensive plans and he advocated a return to a defensive policy. In a letter to Enver Pasha, Mustafa Kemal wrote: “We are losing our country, which is likely to become a German colony soon. For this purpose, General Falkenhayn is using the gold he brought from Germany and the blood of the last remaining Turkish sons from Anatolia. Leaving any corner of our country to the influence and administration of a foreigner would mean the complete abandonment of our sovereignty at a time when it is all about the defense of the motherland. This is what I am worried about...”
Falkenhayn was also not happy with Mustafa Kemal. He saw him as a nuisance and sent complaints to Enver about him. Mustafa Kemal Pasha resigned on October 6, 1917 and he was replaced by Fevzi Pasha.
The Yıldırım Army Group was now consisting of three armies: the Fourth, the Seventh and the Eighth. However their total manpower was less than the normal size of a single army. Only the Seventh Army was to be deployed in Syria and it would be assembled in Aleppo. The XV Corps arrived from Galicia and a new III Corps was established. There were problems with the entrainment of forces to Aleppo and the explosion at the HaydarPasha train station in Istanbul on September 6, 1917 was a big shock, because it blew up large quantities of supplies needed by the Yıldırım Army Group.
The total strength of the Seventh Army was 18,350 men, 7,724 animals, 14,839 rifles and 74 artillery pieces. The Eighth Army had only 6,572 men and the Fourth Army was nothing but a shadow.
The British had superior artillery plus naval support whereas the Turks held a supremely defensible position. Critically the British were superior in both quantity and quality of mounted troops. Seven infantry divisions plus a Light Horse unit were assembled, a total of 88,000 men. Meanwhile Gen. Allenby was tasked by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the capture of Jerusalem by Christmas 1917. In order to ensure this, he needed first to break the Turkish line at Gaza-Beersheba and he would use the plans formulated by Gen. Chetwode following the failure of the two frontal assaults against Gaza.
The Turkish defenses were formidable in the vicinity of Gaza but in the east there was a wide gap between the last redoubt and the Beersheba fortifications. The Turks trusted that the lack of reliable water in this region, other than at the wells in Beersheba, would limit British operations to mounted raids. In Gaza, there was the Turkish Eighth Amy, commanded by Col. von Kressenstein, composed of the XX Corps and the XXII Corps. The Seventh Army, commanded by Fevzi Pasha, held Beersheba. This army was composed of the III Corps, commanded by Col. Ismet Bey, and the 16th Division. 19th and 24th Divisions were kept in reserve. The total manpower at Beersheba was only 3,500 men, 44 machine guns and 4 batteries.
The Third Battle of Gaza, also referred to as the Battle of Beersheba, was initiated early on the morning of October 31, 1917. General Allenby’s attack, carried out by two infantry divisions of the XX Corps and two mounted divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps (Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division) caught the Turks by surprise. The infantry attack quickly reached all its initial objectives and so was in position for the main assault with the Australian light horse and New Zealanders.
The mounted attack began with attempts to capture Turkish outposts to the east of Beersheba. The advance of the Anzac Mounted Division was held up at the Tel-es-Saba redoubt and by the time it was captured the attack was running many hours behind schedule. The Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse Brigades were ordered to launch the charge on Beersheba.
The Turkish defenders opened fire from long range but it was ineffective against the widely spaced Australian horsemen and the charge was not checked. Machine guns that opened fire were quickly destroyed by a battery of horse artillery. The later waves continued through the town where the charge was finally halted by the Turks, however resistance in the town soon collapsed and Beersheba fell. Before abandoning the town, they managed to destroy only two out of 17 water wells. 38 Turkish officers and 700 men were taken prisoner, whereas 31 Australians were killed during the charge.
After the fall of Beersheba, the Turkish defensive line began to collapse. The first action at Gaza took place before dawn on November 2 when British forces attacked the Turkish trench system in the sand dunes between Gaza and the sea. Falkenhayn realised that the tactical situation was lost and ordered a fighting withdrawal. Both Gaza and Tel-es-Sharia fell on November 7. Two days later, the Turkish Eight Army was driven back 20 kilometers. The headquarters of the Yıldırım Army Group retired to Jerusalem and the Seventh Army’s headquarters moved to Bethlehem.
Gen. Allenby continued his offensive driving the Eighth Army along the coast. The Seventh Army was worried about a flanking attack and therefore decided to withdraw. The British were now heading towards the holy city of Jerusalem. On November 13, 1917, they won the battle that took place at El-Mughar Ridge, where the Haifa-Jerusalem line branches to Beersheba.
Erich von Falkenhayn, commander of the Turkish forces in Palestine had recently received reinforcements and was quickly planning to launch a counter offensive against Allenby. Falkenhayn and Fevzi Pasha lost little time in launching attacks with the Seventh Army, succeeding in slowing the British advance to some extent.
British attack on Jerusalem began on December 8. The city was defended by the XX Corps, commanded by Ali Fuad Pasha. Falkenhayn did not send reinforcements to Jerusalem because he did not want the relics and the holy places damaged due to severe fighting. The British assault took two forms: a central thrust from Nebi-Samweil, a commanding series of heights some 13 kilometers to the west; and a secondary attack south at Bethlehem.
Jerusalem fell after a single day's fighting, with the Turkish morale having plummeted in the face of continuous British success combined with the failure of Turkish counterattacks. Gen. Allenby entered the city on foot on December 11, 1917. He placed the city under martial law, and posted guards at several points within the city and in Bethlehem to protect sites held sacred by the Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions.
After withdrawing from Jerusalem, Ali Fuad Pasha sent a cable to Cemal Pasha: “Since my first day as the commander of the defense of Jerusalem, I did not receive any support, except one single cavalry regiment, from the Yıldırım Army Group. The British, who benefited from the fatigue of my poor soldiers who had to fight at the first line without having an opportunity to rest, invaded the beautiful town of Jerusalem. I believe that the responsibility of this disaster belongs completely to Falkenhayn Pasha.”
Falkenhayn put the blame on Col. von Kressenstein and his chief of staff, Col. Refet Bey. He accused them with "cowardice". Refet Bey managed to keep his post thanks to Cemal’s intervention. Von Kressenstein was dismissed and later replaced by Brigadier General Cevat Pasha.
In the wake of Allenby's success and due to torrential rainstorms in the region, the British War Office postponed operations in Mesopotamia in preparation for a renewed offensive in Palestine. For Turks, Jerusalem was gone and so was the prestige in the region. Between October 31 and December 31, 1917, the Yıldırım Army Group lost 25, 337 men in casualties, 3,540 of them dead. Allenby had lost about 18,000 men.
Battles of Jordan
Dissatisfaction with the advice and command of Gen. Falkenhayn was growing. His lack of competence had resulted in the loss of the Gaza-Beersheba line. His refusal to send reinforcements had resulted in the loss of Jerusalem. In addition, he was not allowing Turkish staff officers to take part in planning processes. On February 6, 1918, the first assistant chief of staff from the German High Command, Gen. von Seeckt, visited Falkenhayn’s headquarters and came away disappointed. Enver Pasha was losing his patience too. On February 24, 1918, he replaced Falkenhayn with Gen. Liman von Sanders.
Soldiers do not have summer uniforms and suitable underwear. They simply wrap their naked bodies with worn-out pieces of old clothes. The temperature is 55 degrees out there. Most of the soldiers wrap their feet with pieces of clothes. Sandals are found rare, let alone proper boots. Even battalion commanders walk around in sandals. The terrain is desert and in some places rocky. (Gen. von Sanders in his memoirs)
After a five-day long trip from Istanbul, Liman Pasha arrived in Nazareth, where the headquarters of the Yıldırım Army Group was located, at Hotel Casanova. On March 9, 1918, the British launched another offensive towards Nablus. Three days of intense fighting was followed by a short period of silence and on March 21, the British launched a new attack breaking through the Jordan River (also known as River of Şeria in Turkish) line in five days.
By March 28, British forces were already at the outskirts of the city of Amman. However they had huge problems with transportation. The roads were all damaged and slippery because of heavy rainfall. It was hardly possible to move the artillery guns under such conditions.
Meanwhile the city was defended by the 48th Division, which resisted well. Facing strong resistance, experiencing logistic problems and suffering from a Turkish counterattack, Allenby decided to withdraw on March 31. It has to be noted, that during this phase of the war, and also during later stages of the Palestinian campaign, German officers and troops fought with great dedication along with their Turkish comrades.
On April 30, the British stroke back, but this time the Turks were reinforced with the 24th Division, commanded by German Col. Boehme, and the 3rd Cavalry Division, commanded by Col. Esat Bey. Turkish counterattacks between May 2 and 4 brought the British offensive to a quick termination.
Turkish units were getting weaker and weaker. For example, as of May 1918, two regiments of the 24th Division had only 150 men each. On June 15, Enver Pasha cabled Gen. von Sanders, informing him that the German High Command was considering to withdraw the German units from Palestine and deploy them to the Caucasus. Liman Pasha said that he would prefer to resign instead of leaving Palestine, yet he could not prevent a group of German commanders, including von Kressenstein, and the German Fighter Battalion from being sent to Tbilisi in Georgia.
As of mid-1918, the Yıldırım Army Group disposed 40,598 men, 19,819 rifles, 273 light and 696 heavy machine guns. Allenby had 56,000 men, 11,000 cavalry and 552 artillery pieces.
Battle of Nablus
On the morning of September 19, at 5.50 am, Gen. Allenby launched a major offensive, which started with heavy artillery fire pounding the units of the Eighth Army. Within only one hour the British had broken through the Turkish defenses. The 7th Division and two regiments from the 20th Division collapsed without even having contact with the British infantry. By 10 am two British cavalry divisions were riding towards the Turkish rear. On September 20, the British cavalry captured Nazareth. The XXII Corps was destroyed.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha had returned to his post as the commander of the Seventh Army on September 1. His forces retired towards the River of Jordan. Between September 21 and 23, the III Corps fought a gallant rear guard action from Tubas to the river, buying enough time for the retreating Turkish troops.
The great coastal cities of Haifa and Accra fell by September 25. So did Megiddo. This was a huge success for the British cavalry. Two days later, Allenby’s forces entered Syria and the Battle of Nablus was over.
Why did the Turkish forces melt away so quickly? Edward Erickson provides three explanations: (a) The terrain was favorable for the attackers, (b) there was scope at the operational level for Allenby to shift corps-sized formations around the battlefield for deception and concentration, (c) the British Army had made mighty improvements in its tactical techniques at the lower battlefield level in 1917 and 1918.
Farewell to Syria
Allenby ordered his powerful cavalry to seize Damascus. The III Corps was supposed to defend the city, but it was completely worn down. Arabs were firing at Turkish troops in the city. Mustafa Kemal himself could hardly save his life. Damascus fell on October 1, 1918 and soon Beirut was occupied by the British.
The Eight Army had been destroyed and its headquarters was dissolved. On October 16, the headquarters of the Fourth Army was encircled and destroyed in Homs. The 48th Division attempted to stop the British, but could not prevent the British army to enter Aleppo on October 25. Syria was lost.
The headquarters of the Yıldırım Army Group was moved to the Anatolian town of Adana on October 26, and four days later Gen. Liman von Sanders left for Istanbul, leaving his post to Mustafa Kemal Pasha. With the remnants of the army, Mustafa Kemal established a defensive position at Iskenderun (Alexandretta) against the British. All the Ottoman territories in the Middle East were gone and now the only thing that had to be done was to protect the Turkish homeland of Anatolia.
The Yıldırım Army Group was dissolved on November 7, 1918.