The Suez Canal was one of the most important objectives in the war plans of the German High Command. Capturing the Canal would deal a severe blow to the Allies, hindering British troop movements from India and other dominions to bolster their European warfront.

Turkish map of Palestine, Sinai and Suez Canal
Map of Palestine and Sinai
Turkish map of Syria and Palestine

Since 1882, Britain had maintained control over Egypt's government, despite the latter's its nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. In 1914, Egypt threw its support behind the British war effort, prompting Britain to declare a protectorate and depose Governor Abbas Hilmi Pasha. Hüseyin Kamil Pasha, the second son of Khedive Ismail Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879,  assumed leadership as the officially appointed Sultan of Egypt. Facing challenges from anti-British sentiments among Arab citizens and the looming threat of an Ottoman Army attack, Britain found itself in a precarious position.

From the Ottoman perspective, the capture of Egypt was a matter of prestige and an avenue to enhance influence in the Muslim world. The stage was set for a significant offensive, with the Ottoman High Command deciding to establish a new formation in Syria by November 1914. Complicating matters, the Second Army and VI Corps, initially stationed in Syria, had already shifted to their war stations around Istanbul.

The Suez project unfolded unexpectedly, prompting the establishment of a new army headquarters, the Fourth, in Syria. In the absence of the Second Army and the VI Corps, a need arose for a fresh formation to spearhead the impending attack. Consequently, the XII Corps was transferred from Iraq to Syria. The 8th, 10th, and 22nd Infantry Divisions received orders to relocate from Thrace, Izmir, and Hejaz to Syria and Palestine. Additionally, the newly formed 25th division joined the VIII Corps.

Cemal Paşa with his entourage in Damascus, 1915

A few days after the Ottoman declaration of war, Enver Pasha summoned Cemal Pasha, then the Minister of Navy, for a crucial meeting. Enver expressed his desire for Cemal to replace General Halepli Zeki Pasha as the Fourth Army commander. The latter had been seeking reinforcements to defend Syria, contrary to Enver's directive for an unyielding attack on Egypt. Accepting the offer, Cemal Pasha departed Istanbul on 21 November 1914 for Syria.

After a lengthy trip through Anatolia, Cemal Pasha reached Aleppo, Syria. Disappointed by the state of transportation infrastructure, he found the roads unsuitable for an army's passage, resembling swamps more than proper thoroughfares. The road from Iskenderun (Alexandretta) to Aleppo, submerged in floodwaters, rendered automobiles impractical, forcing Cemal Pasha to traverse on horseback and occasionally 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)

Attack on Suez Canal

In early December, after inspecting the XII Corps under the command of Colonel Fahreddin Bey in Aleppo, Cemal Pasha made his way to Damascus. Setting up his headquarters at Hotel Damascus Palace, he delved into the strategic intricacies of forthcoming campaigns alongside Mersinli Cemal Pasha (leading the VIII Corps), Colonel von Frankenberg (chief of staff of the Fourth Army), and Colonel von Kressenstein (chief of staff of the VIII Corps).

Turkish camel cavalry

Cemal Pasha's arrival in Syria coincided with the assembly of approximately 70,000 British troops in Egypt. Major General Sir John Maxwell, the commander-in-chief, oversaw Indian divisions, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, local formations, and the I Anzac Corps. Along the Suez Canal, 30,000 troops stood vigilant, while the vast expanse of the desert east of the canal remained unoccupied, as the British showed little interest in the region. Simultaneously, Turkish secret service operatives infiltrated the area, meticulously devising their strategies.

The Turkish plan unfolded with the 25th Division of the VII Corps and a regiment amalgamated from elements of the 23rd and 27th divisions advancing across the Sinai Desert to sever the Suez Canal at its midpoint in Ismailia. This initial thrust, escorted by eight batteries of field artillery, 1,000 horses, 300 oxen, and 12,000 camels, formed the first echelon. The second echelon featured the 10th Infantry Division, with flank guards provided by the 23rd Infantry Division. Concurrently, the remaining forces of the VIII Corps were tasked with guarding the extensive Lebanese coast, while other units of the Fourth Army secured Syria and Palestine.

Turkish artillery in Palestine

The gathering point for the VIII Corps was Beersheba, which was inland, beyond the reach of British naval artillery. Over 300 kilometres of inhospitable desert lay ahead, an ambitious quest for the 25,000 men destined for Ismailia. However, this venture seemed nothing short of an impossible mission. Each man, allotted a meagre one kilogram of food and a daily water ration, faced a daunting challenge - a requirement of 15,000 camels. Alas, a mere 2,000 animals were at their disposal.

“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 this many within one month." (Cemal Pasha in his memoirs)

Troops maneuvering

Water presented a particular problem. The march, essential during the rainy season spanning December and January, proved impossible in the dry season. In the desert, daytime temperatures soared to 50 degrees Celsius, plummeting to minus 10 at night.

To address the challenge, a specially tailored rationing system emerged for this campaign, known as the "desert ration." It comprised 600 grams of biscuits, 150 grams of palm fruit, nine grams of tea, and four kilograms of water per man daily. Horses were allocated five kilograms of barley and 18 kilograms of water, while camels received three kilograms of barley and five kilograms of water. On the Beersheba-to-Ismailia route, devoid of villages or towns, the Turkish forces calculated they would have only four days of rations upon reaching Ismailia

German postcard showing Turkish troops advancing to the Canal

Movement forward began on 14 January 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." (Colonel Ali Fuad Bey in his memoirs)

A Turkish gun in the desert | Hayat Tarih, December 1972

For the first week, they traversed under the sun, accompanied by vast water tanks. Subsequently, Turkish units opted for nocturnal marches to elude detection by British reconnaissance planes. Along the journey, essential pontoons and boats for canal crossings were transported across the arid expanse. Morale remained elevated, resonating with the favoured chant, “Let the crescent rise over Cairo!”

Amidst the journey, diverse Muslim contingents, including Bedouins, Kurds, Durzis, and Arabs, were enlisted. Cemal Pasha harboured aspirations that Egyptian patriots might incite a rebellion, strategically striking the British from the rear.

"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." (Colonel Ali Fuad Bey in his memoirs)

The point where the Turks attempted to cross the Canal | The Illustrated War News, March 3, 1915
Map of Sinai Peninsula

On 31 January, the 25th Division, positioned as the central column, alongside the right and left wing columns, reached their assembly points ten kilometers to the east of the town of Ismailia.

Two days later, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ali Fuad Bey, the 25th Division, supported by eight field artillery batteries, advanced to its assault position on the east bank of the canal. Meanwhile, the right and left wing columns planned feint attacks on Kuneytre and Suez. However, these actions were thwarted by a sudden sandstorm.

During the early hours of the subsequent morning, the main Turkish offensive unfolded, utilizing inflatable pontoons and rafts to navigate the canal. As the Turkish troops ventured into the water, they were met with relentless Anglo-Indian machine gun fire. This barrage devastated the advancing boats and inflicted significant casualties on the assembling Turkish forces at the water's edge.

Cemal Paşa and his staff at an observation post near the Canal

On the fateful day of 3 February, Turkish troops, ill-prepared for water-crossing operations, found themselves tardy as they entered the waterways with the rising sun. Merely two companies successfully reached the west bank, while others, abandoning their boats, faced either inland flight or the relentless fire of the British forces.

Attack on the Suez Canal

Despite managing to secure a bridgehead during the day, the Turkish forces recognized the overwhelming strength of their adversaries. With heavy artillery barrages originating from British naval units in the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah (Crocodile) as well as railroad guns, the situation intensified. Positioned on a sand hill 3.5 km east of the canal, the army headquarters itself endured direct hits.

By 3:00 pm on 3 February, a mere three pontoons remained, rendering any attempt to force the canal and cross it utterly impossible. In response to this dire predicament, Cemal Pasha convened with his staff to deliberate on the unfolding crisis.

The toll of the Suez Canal assault was heavy on the Fourth Army, resulting in a total of 1,300 casualties, encompassing 192 killed in action, 381 wounded soldiers, and 727 individuals either missing or captured. In stark contrast, British forces suffered relatively light casualties, with only 150 reported.

German postcard depicting the Turkish attack at the Canal
Cemal Paşa and von Frankenberg | Illustrierte Kriegszeitung, 1915

In a pivotal exchange between Cemal Pasha and Colonel von Kressenstein, a noteworthy episode unfolds. Von Kressenstein, grappling with the sting of defeat, voices his steadfast refusal: "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 response, succinct and resolute: "If success is elusive, I shan't let my forces perish merely for the sake of honour." Thus, the order for withdrawal was issued.

“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 in his memoirs)

Cemal Pasha further claims in his memoirs that the campaign was actually successful because after all it was only a reconnaissance attack which achieved the target of “exploring the canal and possibilities of crossing it”.

Postcard depicting the Turkish attack at the Canal

By 15 February, the VIII Corps had withdrawn to Gaza, and the 10th Division held the end of the defensive line in Beersheba. In 1915, responding to Enver Pasha's orders, the 8th, 10th, and 25th divisions moved to Gallipoli, making way for the creation of three new divisions: 41st, 43rd, and 44th.

For the remainder of 1915, Cemal Pasha focused on organizing his forces. He established the "Desert Force Headquarters" in Beersheba, led by the German Colonel von Kressenstein, directing raids against Canal defenders. The aim was to divert British attention to the Ottoman army, potentially reducing manpower available for offensives like Gallipoli and reinforcing British forces in Egypt.

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 believed that the German High Command showed little interest in the Sinai campaign. In November 1915, during a visit to Istanbul, he conveyed his perspective to Enver Pasha, who, relieved by the conclusion of the Gallipoli troubles, welcomed the insights. Enver Pasha, in turn, embarked on a journey to Syria, Palestine, Sinai, and Medina in February 1916. Concurrently, support from Germany and Austro-Hungary arrived, including six machine gun detachments, a 15 cm howitzer battery, a 10 cm artillery battery, four anti-aircraft detachments, an aircraft group, trucks, a 21 cm mortar detachment, two field hospitals, and a mountain howitzer battalion equipped with 12 guns.

At the onset of 1916, General Sir Archibald Murray led the Allied forces in Egypt. His available forces comprised the 42nd Division, the 52nd Division, and the Anzac Mounted Division under General H.G. Chauvel. The Anzac Mounted Division included the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and the 5th Mounted Brigade. Moving left of the Canal towards Palestine, approximately 160 km away, they aimed to establish a fresh defensive line.

Transporting supplies in Sinai
Map of Suez Canal

In the backdrop of the vast desert expanse, the Turks contemplated a renewed offensive against the Canal. Their aim, however, differed from the previous venture; this time, the objective lay not in capturing the Canal itself but in securing dominance over its eastern banks. The realization dawned that achieving even this modest goal amid the scorching summer desert posed a formidable challenge. Undeterred, the Turks shifted their focus to a strategic ploy – compelling the British to allocate substantial forces to this theatre of war.

On 23 April 1916, the Turks executed a daring raid on the British outpost at Katia, deploying two infantry battalions, a mountain howitzer battery, and a volunteer camel cavalry regiment. The operation proved highly successful, resulting in the capture of the British cavalry unit stationed at Katia. The commanding officer, along with 23 officers and 257 troopers, fell into Turkish hands. According to Turkish sources, the British soldiers were engrossed in a football match when the Turks ambushed. Katia, situated on the eastern fringes of the Canal, stood as one of the outposts strategically positioned. Interestingly, during the initial Turkish attempt to seize the Canal the preceding year, the British presence at Katia was non-existent.

"Saving the nation is only possible through the capture of the Canal" | Tasfir-i Efkar, February 17, 1915

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. The heightened strength, however, faced a setback when the Arab Revolt erupted in June, compelling Cemal Pasha to divert reinforcements to Hejaz, thereby weakening Turkish efforts. The pivotal city of Mecca succumbed on 9 July.

Undeterred, the second Turkish offensive on the Canal unfolded on 4 August 1916. Commanded by Colonel von Kressenstein, the Turkish Expeditionary Force, comprising the 3rd Division and the German Pasha Detachment, positioned themselves near the town of Romani. A pursuit of the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade, returning from reconnaissance, led to a tense encounter. The Turks initiated a bayonet charge on Mount Meredith, compelling the light horsemen to evacuate the position at dawn. Forced back to a vast sand dune, the Australians found themselves in a precarious situation.

South of Romani, the Turks, having held their ground, attempted a westward outflanking manoeuvre. Concentrating 2,000 troops around another sand hill, southwest of Romani, they faced staunch resistance. At daybreak, the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade re-entered the fray, halting the Turkish advance on all fronts. Despite enduring a challenging day with temperatures soaring to 60-65 degrees Celsius, exposed to the relentless desert sun and lacking a water source, the Turkish forces managed to secure some territory after a grueling night march.

A Turkish column

At daybreak on 5 August, the Australian light horse regiments and the New Zealand Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment initiated a bold assault on Turkish positions. Remarkably, they not only captured 1,000 prisoners but also compelled the remaining forces to retreat. Acknowledging defeat, Colonel von Kressenstein commenced the withdrawal of his troops on 7 August.

In the backdrop of the Sinai landscape, Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell assumed command of the "Eastern Force" in October 1916, overseeing all Allied operations in the region. The grand offensive was strategically aligned with the completion of the British military railway traversing the vast Sinai desert. This railway, once finished, enabled the British to furnish their forces on the eastern frontier with vital supplies such as food, ammunition, and, critically, water.

At daybreak on 5 August, the Australian light horse regiments and the New Zealand Wellington Mounted Rifle Regiment initiated a bold assault on Turkish positions. Remarkably, they not only captured 1,000 prisoners but also compelled the remaining forces to retreat. Acknowledging defeat, Colonel von Kressenstein commenced the withdrawal of his troops on 7 August.

In the backdrop of the Sinai landscape, Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell assumed command of the "Eastern Force" in October 1916, overseeing all Allied operations in the region. The grand offensive was strategically aligned with the completion of the British military railway traversing the vast Sinai desert. This railway, once finished, enabled the British to furnish their forces on the eastern frontier with vital supplies such as food, ammunition, and, critically, water.

Pressured by the advancing Allied forces, the Turks tactically retreated to Al-Arish. By 16 December, they vacated El-Arish and strategically moved along the coastal route to Rafa, then inland through the valley to Magdhaba. Upon reaching Al-Arish on 21 December, the Australian Light Horse Brigade discovered the Turks had abandoned the location and received orders to proceed to Magdhaba.

Colonel von Kressenstein, inspecting the Turkish forces in Magdhaba, noted deficiencies but remained steadfast in his belief that the garrison could withstand any assault. 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, spearheaded the Allied assault on Magdhaba. Arriving at the town just before dawn on 23 December, Australian aircraft initiated an attack at 6:30 am, unveiling the positions of Turkish machine guns and trenches to the approaching horsemen.

The primary thrust of the assault came from the north and east, facing formidable Turkish machine gun fire. Despite staunch resistance, the defenders succumbed to mounted charges, and by 4:30 pm, all Turkish redoubts had capitulated.

Camel transport through the desert

The British were keen to complete the advance across the north of the Sinai, believing this would compel the Turks to relinquish their inland outposts. On the eve of 8 January 1917, the Anzac Mounted Division set forth from Al-Arish towards Rafa, the site of a Turkish garrison.

The offensive unfolded as dismounted troops progressed from the east and south, encountering formidable Turkish defenses. Strategically positioned redoubts facilitated mutual support among the defenders. The British advance encountered resistance, halting a mere mile from their intended objectives. Simultaneously, an approaching Turkish relief force from the east prompted British commanders to abort the attack and retreat towards Al-Arish.

Yet, with dusk approaching, two brigades persisted with final assaults, aiming to infiltrate the Turkish redoubts. Remarkably, each instance of attackers breaching Turkish trenches resulted in swift surrenders, culminating in the capture of the entire position by nightfall. British casualties numbered 71 killed and 415 wounded, while the Turks suffered approximately 200 killed, 168 wounded, and 1,434 taken as prisoners.

As the remaining Turkish garrisons in the Sinai, situated at Al-Hassana (near Magdhaba) and Nekhl, were either captured or expelled in mid-February, this marked a significant chapter in the unfolding narrative of the campaign.

Battles of Gaza

After an arduous eight-month conflict, the British achieved success in expelling Turkish forces from the Sinai Peninsula. Their next endeavour was to advance into Palestine, with the ultimate objective of severing the Turkish presence in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. This ambitious plan hinged on the capture of the strategic Turkish fortress of Gaza, a crucial gateway for armies navigating the coastal route to and from Egypt and Palestine.

Turkish machine gunners

In consultation with Enver Pasha, Cemal Pasha opted to establish a formidable defensive line stretching from Gaza on the coast, traversing Tel-es-Sheria, to Beersheba, situated 30 km inland to the southeast. The topography favoured a defensive stance, and by 15 March 1917, all Turkish units in Palestine were positioned along this line, with reliable water supplies concentrated around Beersheba. Cemal Pasha's memoirs provide a comprehensive account of Turkish forces on the defensive line in 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, under the command of General Sir Charles Dobbell, organized two offensive lines, comprising three infantry and three cavalry divisions, supplemented by naval artillery support.

The British initiated their attack on the night of 25/26 March, deploying infantry to assault Gaza and encircling the town with cavalry. Despite the determined British assault, the well-entrenched Turkish forces stood their ground, steadfastly refusing to retreat. Reinforcements from Cemame and Tel-es-Sheria, along with the 3rd Cavalry Division from Beersheba, bolstered the Turkish positions. By 27 March, recognizing the formidable Turkish resistance, the British called off their attacks. The casualties were starkly asymmetric, with the Turks losing 14 officers and 571 men, while the British suffered a toll of approximately 4,000.

Although Col. von Kressenstein advocated for a counteroffensive, Cemal Pasha prioritized the protection of the defensive line between Gaza and Beersheba. He adamantly refused to jeopardize this crucial line, emphasizing the strategic importance of maintaining a steadfast defence.

“The greatest hero of the Gaza defence is Major Hayri Efendi, who is the commander of the 125th Regiment. This distinguished officer 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. Captain Truschkowski, commander of Austrian batteries, died at one of his guns, in a way deserved by the most distinguished heroes.” (Cemal Pasha in his memoirs)

Officers of the regiment that succcessfully defended Gaza

In the wake of a demoralizing retreat through the Sinai, Turkish forces, initially considering withdrawal towards Jerusalem, found renewed determination along the Gaza-Beersheba line. The pivotal moment unfolded on 17 April, marking the commencement of a second attempt to seize Gaza. This time, Turkish defenses had fortified further, presenting a formidable challenge.

The unfolding drama initiated with a sustained bombardment of the fortifications by British heavy guns, supplemented by naval gunfire for a relentless two days. The infantry's decisive assault unfolded on 19 April, accompanied by the novel deployment of tanks and gas shells by the British forces.

Turkish officers wearing the gas mask | Harp Mecmuası

Executing a multifaceted attack, the British engaged on three fronts: between Gaza and the Mediterranean shore, at the centre, and between Gaza and the "Tank" Redoubt. Despite their concerted efforts, the infantry encountered insurmountable obstacles, halting well short of their objectives and enduring significant casualties due to relentless machine gun fire. Poignantly, three British tanks were left stranded within the Turkish trench lines. With approximately 7,000 casualties, the British ultimately called off the attack, leaving the Turks to retain Gaza, albeit at a cost of 2,000 casualties.

The second battle of Gaza was a disastrous defeat for the British. Characterized by a lack of progress, minimal inflicted damage, and an unsustainable toll of heavy casualties, the episode prompted swift action from the War Office in London. General Murray was replaced by the cavalry commander, Gen. Edmund Allenby, who assumed command over an expanded force comprising three full army corps - two infantry and one mounted. This strategic shift marked a pivotal moment in the unfolding narrative of this historical theatre.

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.

Yıldırım Army Group

Enver Pasha, gripped by the loss of Baghdad and the challenges in Hejaz, including the fall of Mecca and the dire situation in Medina, was driven by a sense of urgency. Syria, he believed, needed salvation. However, simultaneous pressures from the German High Command demanded the capture of Baghdad.

Falkenhayn arriving in Damascus

Fuelled by this dual imperative, Enver Pasha conceived the ambitious plan to establish the "Yıldırım" (Lightning) Army Group. The Sixth Army would merge with a newly forged Seventh Army, destined for deployment in upper Mesopotamia. German General Erich von Falkenhayn, accompanied by a military and political mission, arrived in Turkey on 7 May, armed with five million German marks.

A Turkish mountain battery

On 24 June 1917, Enver Pasha gathered his army commanders in Aleppo to unveil his strategy. The Seventh Army would materialise from the forces freed up after European operations. This new force would strike along the Euphrates, while the Sixth Army advanced along the Tigris. The ultimate aim: the annihilation of the British forces in Baghdad.

In the intricate chess game of wartime strategy, dissenting voices emerged against Enver Pasha's plan. Cemal Pasha, asserting that the Palestine/Syria front warranted priority due to an anticipated British counterstrike, expressed concerns about a potential amphibious landing in Adana. İzzet Pasha proposed that even if an attack on Baghdad ensued, at least one division could be stationed in Aleppo. Mustafa Kemal argued for securing Anatolia, the Turkish homeland of Anatolia, as a paramount objective. Despite these perspectives, Enver Pasha remained resolute, dismissing the varied counsel.

Talat Pasha, engaged in discussions with Cemal Pasha in Istanbul, reflected on the unfolding scenario, remarking, "Now we strive to salvage Baghdad, yet I fear the need may arise to rescue Jerusalem and Damascus soon."

Firing from the trenches

In mid-August, another Council of War was held in Istanbul, this time featuring General von Falkenhayn, who harboured doubts about the viability of capturing 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 redirect the Yıldırım Army Group towards British forces in Palestine before revisiting the Mesopotamia campaign.

Enver Pasha did not agree. He thought that there were enough forces in Palestine and the Yıldırım Army Group does not have to intervene there. Firm in his stance, he concluded the council. Simultaneously, the Seventh Army assembled in Aleppo, led by 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 in 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, however, bestowed upon him the largely symbolic title of "Commander of Armies in Syria and West Arabia" and relocated the Fourth Army's headquarters to Damascus, a move aimed at diminishing Cemal's influence in Palestine.

Turkish cavalry charge

To counter the challenges posed by the new structure, the Germans dispatched the "German Asia Corps" to reinforce the emerging Army Group. Despite its designation, this force was, in reality, no more than a brigade-sized unit.

Cemal was not the only one discontented with the situation. Mustafa Kemal Pasha also faced issues with the new setup, realizing that collaboration with Falkenhayn was impractical. On 2 October 1917, Mustafa Kemal submitted a report to Enver Pasha and Prime Minister Said Halim Pasha, outlining that his army constituted only a fifth of its optimal strength and comprised mainly young and ailing soldiers. He asserted that launching an offensive with such a depleted force was unfeasible.

Both Cemal and Mustafa Kemal voiced their grievances against Falkenhayn, who opposed the offensive plans and advocated a return to a defensive strategy. Mustafa Kemal conveyed his concerns in a letter to Enver Pasha, highlighting the risk of losing their homeland to German colonization. He emphasized that Falkenhayn utilized German resources and the dwindling Turkish populace from Anatolia. Surrendering any part of their country to foreign administration, he warned, would signify a complete relinquishment of sovereignty during a critical period of defending the motherland—an outcome he found deeply troubling.

Falkenhayn reciprocated the dissatisfaction, perceiving Mustafa Kemal as a hindrance and lodging complaints against him. Consequently, on 6 October 1917, Mustafa Kemal tendered his resignation, paving the way for the appointment of Fevzi Pasha as his successor.

The Yıldırım Army Group now comprised three armies: the Fourth, the Seventh, and the Eighth. Their combined strength, however, fell short of a typical single army. The sole deployment to Syria rested with the Seventh Army, set to assemble in Aleppo. Accompanying this force, the XV Corps arrived from Galicia, while a fresh III Corps took shape. Transporting troops to Aleppo encountered challenges, and the explosion at Istanbul's HaydarPasha train station on 6 September 1917 delivered a severe blow by destroying crucial supplies for the Yıldırım Army Group.

The Seventh Army's muster counted 18,350 men, 7,724 animals, 14,839 rifles, and 74 artillery pieces. In contrast, the Eighth Army numbered a mere 6,572 men, and the Fourth Army cast only a faint shadow.

Enver and Cemal in Jerusalem

The British boasted superior artillery and naval backing, yet the Turks occupied an exceptionally defensible position. Notably, the British held an advantage in both the quantity and quality of mounted troops. Eighty-eight thousand men, forming seven infantry divisions and a Light Horse unit, stood ready. General Allenby, entrusted by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with capturing Jerusalem by 1917's Christmas, faced the prerequisite of breaching the Turkish line at Gaza-Beersheba. His strategy drew from General Chetwode's plans after the failure of the initial frontal assaults against Gaza.

Formidable Turkish defenses encircled Gaza, while a significant gap emerged to the east between the last redoubt and the Beersheba fortifications. The Turks banked on the region's limited water sources, aside from Beersheba's wells, anticipating British operations to be confined to mounted raids. The Turkish Eighth Army, under Colonel von Kressenstein, guarded Gaza, comprising the XX Corps and the XXII Corps. Meanwhile, Beersheba was under the watch of the Seventh Army, led by Fevzi Pasha. This force consisted of the III Corps, commanded by Colonel Ismet Bey, and the 16th Division, with the 19th and 24th Divisions held in reserve. The manpower defending Beersheba numbered a modest 3,500 men, complemented by 44 machine guns and 4 batteries.

On 31 October 1917, the Third Battle of Gaza unfolded, also known as the Battle of Beersheba. At dawn, General Allenby orchestrated an attack, deploying two infantry divisions of the XX Corps and two mounted divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps, comprising the Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division. This strategic move caught the Turks off guard, allowing the infantry to swiftly reach their initial objectives, setting the stage for the main assault alongside the Australian Light Horse and New Zealanders.

The mounted attack commenced with efforts to seize Turkish outposts east of Beersheba. The Anzac Mounted Division faced delays at the Tel-es-Saba redoubt, causing a significant setback to the schedule. Despite encountering long-range fire from Turkish defenders, the widely spaced Australian horsemen pressed on, quickly neutralizing machine guns with the aid of horse artillery. The charge reached Beersheba, where Turkish resistance momentarily halted its progress. However, the town ultimately succumbed as resistance crumbled, with only two of the 17 water wells destroyed. The charge resulted in 38 Turkish officers and 700 men taken prisoner, while 31 Australians were killed during the charge.

Following Beersheba's fall, the Turkish defensive line began to crumble. The initial action at Gaza unfolded before dawn on 2 November, as British forces attacked the Turkish trench system amidst the sand dunes between Gaza and the sea. Realizing the lost tactical situation, Falkenhayn ordered a strategic withdrawal. Subsequently, both Gaza and Tel-es-Sharia fell on 7 November. Within two days, the Turkish Eighth Army retreated 20 kilometers, with the Yıldırım Army Group relocating to Jerusalem and the Seventh Army’s headquarters moving to Bethlehem.

Jerusalem Falling

In the relentless pursuit along the coastal front, General Allenby pressed forward, propelling the Eighth Army. Fearing an imminent flanking maneuver, the Seventh Army opted for a strategic withdrawal. This manoeuvre directed the British forces towards the sacred city of Jerusalem. The turning point materialized on 13 November 1917, as victory unfolded at El-Mughar Ridge, where the Haifa-Jerusalem line intersects with Beersheba.

Turkish troops gathering in Jerusalem before their retreat

Erich von Falkenhayn, commander of the Turkish forces in Palestine, bolstered by recent reinforcements, swiftly devised plans for a counteroffensive against Allenby. Wasting no time, Falkenhayn and Fevzi Pasha initiated attacks with the Seventh Army, moderately impeding the British advance.

The decisive British push for Jerusalem commenced on 8 December. Guarding the city was the XX Corps, under the command of Ali Fuad Pasha. Falkenhayn refrained from dispatching reinforcements, mindful of preserving relics and holy sites amidst potential fierce conflict. The British assault unfolded on two fronts: a central thrust from Nebi-Samweil, an elevated expanse 13 kilometers to the west; and a supplementary attack southwards at Bethlehem.

Jerusalem fell after a single day's fighting. Turkish morale plummeted in the face of continuous British victories and the futility of counterattacks. On 11 December 1917, General Allenby, on foot, entered the city. Martial law promptly enveloped Jerusalem, with guards stationed strategically to safeguard sites revered by Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths in both the city and Bethlehem.

“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.” (Cable from Ali Fuad to Cemal Pasha)

In the aftermath of Allenby's triumph and amidst relentless rainstorms in the area, the British War Office delayed operations in Mesopotamia, gearing up for a fresh offensive in Palestine. For the Turks, the loss of Jerusalem marked not only a geographical setback but also a blow to their regional prestige. Between 31 October and 31 December 1917, the Yıldırım Army Group suffered 25,337 casualties, with 3,540 fatalities. Meanwhile, Allenby's forces recorded approximately 18,000 losses.

Field Marshal Falkenhayn attributed the setback to Colonel von Kressenstein and his chief of staff, Colonel Refet Bey, accusing them of "cowardice." Thanks to Cemal's intervention, Refet Bey retained his position, while von Kressenstein faced dismissal. Brigadier General Cevat Pasha took over the vacant role.

This period unfolded with pivotal events, shaping the course of the conflict. The shifting tides of war and the enduring impact on both sides became unmistakably evident during these critical months.

Battles of Jordan

General Falkenhayn faced growing dissatisfaction due to his questionable advice and command, resulting in the loss of the Gaza-Beersheba line and Jerusalem. His refusal to send reinforcements and exclusion of Turkish staff officers from planning processes added to the discontent. On 6 February 1918, General von Seeckt, the first assistant chief of staff from the German High Command, left Falkenhayn's headquarters disappointed. Enver Pasha's patience waned, leading to Falkenhayn's replacement with General Liman von Sanders on 24 February 1918.

A hospital camp in the desert

"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." (General von Sanders in his memoirs)

Liman Pasha, after a five-day journey from Istanbul, reached Nazareth, home to the Yıldırım Army Group headquarters at Hotel Casanova. On 9 March 1918, the British initiated another offensive towards Nablus, resulting in three days of intense fighting. A brief lull was followed by a renewed British attack on 21 March, breaking through the Jordan River (also known as River of Şeria in Turkish) line in just five days.

On 28 March, British forces reached the outskirts of the city of Amman, encountering substantial transportation challenges due to damaged and slippery roads caused by heavy rainfall. Maneuvering artillery guns under such conditions proved exceedingly difficult.

Amidst these logistical hurdles, the 48th Division valiantly defended the city against the British forces, demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity. Faced with formidable resistance, logistical obstacles, and a robust Turkish counterattack, General Allenby made the strategic decision to withdraw on 31 March. Noteworthy is the collaboration between German officers and troops, who exhibited unwavering dedication alongside their Turkish comrades during this phase of the war and throughout subsequent stages of the Palestinian campaign.

British forces launched a counteroffensive on 30 April. However, the Turks, now reinforced with the 24th Division under the command of German Colonel Boehme and the 3rd Cavalry Division led by Colonel Esat Bey, countered effectively. Turkish counterattacks from 2 to 4 May swiftly brought the British offensive to an abrupt halt.

Turkish troops during a break | Harp Mecmuası

Turkish forces were witnessing a notable decline in strength, epitomized by the 24th Division's regiments, each mustering a mere 150 men. By 15 June, Enver Pasha conveyed a crucial message to General von Sanders, revealing the German High Command's contemplation of withdrawing their units from Palestine to redeploy them in the Caucasus. Despite Liman Pasha's reluctance to abandon Palestine, a cadre of German commanders, including von Kressenstein, and the German Fighter Battalion, were dispatched to Tbilisi in Georgia.

As of mid-1918, the Yıldırım Army Group found itself commanding 40,598 men armed with 19,819 rifles, 273 light, and 696 heavy machine guns. Conversely, Allenby's forces numbered 56,000 individuals, comprised of 11,000 cavalry and supported by 552 artillery pieces.

Battle of Nablus

On the morning of 19 September 1918, at 5:50 am, General Allenby initiated a significant offensive. The onslaught commenced with a relentless barrage of heavy artillery, pounding the units of the Eighth Army. In a mere hour, the British forces successfully breached the Turkish defenses, causing the collapse of the 7th Division and two regiments from the 20th Division, even before encountering the British infantry. By 10 am, two British cavalry divisions were swiftly advancing towards the Turkish rear. The following day, 20 September, witnessed the capture of Nazareth by the British cavalry, leading to the destruction of the XXII Corps.

Turkish soldiers returning from the frontline | Harp Mecmuası

Mustafa Kemal Pasha resumed his role as the commander of the Seventh Army on 1 September. His forces tactically withdrew towards the River Jordan. Between 21 and 23 September, the III Corps valiantly engaged in a rear guard action from Tubas to the river, providing crucial time for the retreating Turkish troops.

The formidable coastal cities of Haifa and Accra succumbed by 25 September, alongside the fall of Megiddo. This marked a monumental triumph for the British cavalry. Two days later, on 27 September, Allenby's forces entered Syria, bringing an end to the Battle of Nablus.

The swift dissolution of the Turkish forces raises questions. Firstly, the terrain favored the attackers; secondly, at the operational level, Allenby demonstrated the capacity to maneuver corps-sized formations for deception and concentration; and thirdly, the British Army showcased remarkable advancements in tactical techniques at the lower battlefield level during 1917 and 1918.

Farewell to Syria

General Allenby issued a decisive command for his powerful cavalry to secure the ancient city of Damascus. Tasked with defending the city, the III Corps found itself in a state of exhaustion, unable to withstand the onslaught. Amidst the chaos, Arab forces engaged Turkish troops within Damascus, and even the renowned Mustafa Kemal struggled to ensure his own survival. The pivotal moment arrived on 1 October 1918 when Damascus fell to the British forces, marking the beginning of a shift in the tides of control.

Palestine and the Turkish Retreat in Fall 1918

Following the fall of Damascus, British occupation swiftly extended its reach to Beirut. The once-mighty Eighth Army crumbled, and its headquarters dissolved in the wake of defeat. On 16 October, the Fourth Army's headquarters faced a similar fate, as it was encircled and obliterated in Homs. Attempting to thwart the British advance, the 48th Division proved futile, allowing the British to penetrate Aleppo on 25 October. The fate of Syria hung in the balance.

With strategic relocations unfolding, the Yıldırım Army Group's headquarters moved to the Anatolian town of Adana on 26 October. A mere four days later, General Liman von Sanders departed for Istanbul, passing the baton to Mustafa Kemal Pasha. Faced with remnants of the Ottoman army, Mustafa Kemal fortified a defensive position at Iskenderun (Alexandretta) against the encroaching British forces. The once-vast Ottoman territories in the Middle East slipped away, leaving Anatolia as the final bastion in need of protection.

On 7 November 1918, the Yıldırım Army Group, once a formidable force, met its dissolution, signifying the end of an era in the tumultuous history of the region.


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