19/5/1917 Faisal sends his agents north into Syria

Thanks to a steady inflow of British arms and money the Arab Revolt is now pretty secure in its dominance of the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula. The Turks still have a garrison in place in Medina but it is unable to contest control of the region with the rebels. British aeroplanes are bombing the railway line to Medina, keeping the Turks there too undersupplied to bother the Arabs.

To the discomfiture of his British patrons, Emir Hussein of Mecca has declared himself King of the Arabs. Now his son Faisal prepares to extend his father’s writ north into Syria. He sends his cousin Nasir ibn Ali and other trusted associates to reconnoitre the region. They are to make contact with the rural tribesmen and also with the Arab nationalists in Damascus.

Travelling with Faisal’s men is British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, who has been liaising between Faisal and the British in Cairo. Lawrence has become sympathetic to the Arab cause. By now Lawrence is aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East between them. Lawrence dislikes the French and hopes to assist Faisal in staking a claim to Syria before the French are able to establish themselves there.

image sources:

Faisal ibn Ali (Ruth’s Jordan Jubilee)

T.E. Lawrence (Wikipedia)

24/4/1917 Britain consolidates its gains in Mesopotomia

While the British have suffered another reverse at Gaza, in Mesopotamia they continue to make progress. Maude has continued offensive operations since capturing Baghdad, not content to rest on his laurels. His goal is to push back Halil, the Turkish commander, so that his still powerful army does not present a threat to Baghdad. Maude is also concerned about Halil being reinforced by Turkish troops retreating from Persia, from which they have been expelled by the Russians. He may also want to prevent the Russians from expanding into upper Mesopotamia ahead of him.

Maude’s offensive halts today. With Fallujah on the Euphrates and Samarra on the Tigris now in British hands, he is confident that British possession of Baghdad is now secure.

19/4/1917 Second Gaza: Britain fails again to break into Palestine

After their previous failure, British and Commonwealth troops are attacking Gaza again, hoping to clear the Turks from this position and then advance into Palestine. Tanks, poison gas and the guns of offshore battleships have been brought to bear on the enemy. However the Turks have not been daunted by the British terror weapons. They have held their positions and staged counter-attacks to push back their assailants. Fighting has raged over the past three days but there is no sign of the Turks being dislodged from their positions around Gaza.

Now Murray, the British commander, accepts defeat and pulls his men back. He has suffered some 6,444 casualties, substantially higher than the Turks’ 2,013 losses. Three of the eight British tanks have also been destroyed.

For now the gateway to Palestine remains closed to the British.

images source (Wikipedia)

19/4/1917 Italy secures its share of the Turkish spoils

The war is not yet won but the Allies have been busily agreeing a post-war division of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople and the Straits have been promised to Russia while the Sykes-Picot agreement has carved up the Middle East between Britain and France.

Italian leaders have been a bit late to this party, as their main interests are in the domination of the Adriatic. Nevertheless, if there are spoils to be had then the Italians want in on them. So they have staked claims to the entire south west of Anatolia.

French, British and Italian leaders meet today at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to clarify their plans for the partition of Turkey (Russia’s disordered state means that its allies have gone ahead without Russian representatives). Italy is promised control of the areas around Konya and Smyrna and influence over an area to the north. Given their non-existent contribution to the war against Turkey and their lack of success in the war as a whole, this promise is quite an achievement for Sidney Sonnino, the Italian foreign minister.

image source; this is the map as signed by Arthur Balfour, Britain’s foreign minister later in the year. The A and B areas on the map are the British and French zones from Sykes-Picot, with the areas northwest and southeast of them to be spheres of influence.

17/4/1917 Second Gaza: another British attempt to push into Palestine

The British and their Commonwealth Allies are having another crack at attacking Gaza. The last time the British attempted to storm the gateway to Palestine they suffered a bloody reverse. This time they are doing everything to improve their chances. Battleships are bombarding the Turkish defences. The British are also using new terror weapons not previously seen in this theatre of war. As well as firing gas shells at the Turks, the British are also deploying tanks for the first time in the Middle East. Hopes are high that the Turks will flee in terror at the first sight of these metal leviathans.

The battle is not quite the pushover the British were expecting. The gas attack proves curiously ineffective while the artillery fails to dislodge the Turks. The Allied assault is met with a murderous fire of machine guns and artillery. The tanks fail to strike terror into the hearts of the Turks, who maintain a continuous fire upon the lumbering contraptions.

The Allies nevertheless make some initial gains, but strong Turkish counterattacks prevent a breakthrough. Murray, the British commander, determines that the assaults must continue in the hope of breaking the Turks over the coming days.

image source: Turkish machine gunners (Wikipedia)

2/4/1917 London orders an advance on Jerusalem

Britain’s General Murray has successfully cleared the Turks from the Sinai but when he tried to advance into Palestine he came a cropper. This did not stop him from sending a report back to London that made his defeat at Gaza sound like victory, exaggerating Turkish losses and claiming an advance of some 15 miles. These reports were then trumpeted in the British press as a great triumph.

Now Robertson, the British chief of staff in London, calls Murray’s bluff. He sends Murray orders stating that in view of his successes and those of Maude in Mesopotamia, the time is right to hit the Turks hard. He is ordered to press on forthwith into southern Palestine and then on to Jerusalem.

So Murray begins preparations for a new attack on Gaza. His men are uneasy, knowing that despite what they are reading in the newspapers the first attack was a failure. As if to ram the point home, enemy aircraft are dropping propaganda leaflets telling the unvarnished truth: “You beat us at communiqu├ęs, but we beat you at Gaza”.

30/3/1917 Faisal eyes up Syria

The revolt in western Arabia has taken over much of the Hejaz region. British aid is flowing in through coastal ports. Emir Faisal is now trying to turn his tribal host into something approximating to a modern army. He has recruited Arab officers captured as prisoners of war from the Turks to provide the nucleus of an officer corps for his army. Many of these are natives of Mesopotamia and had a prior involvement in secret Arab nationalist organisations.

The Turks retain one outpost in the Hejaz, the city of Medina. Fahreddin Pasha holds this for the Ottoman Empire and is determined not to abandon it. His garrison is too strong for the rebels to attack him there. While they have attacked the railroad to Medina, the rebels have not been able to completely sever Fahreddin’s supply lines.

With Medina unassailable, Feisal now begins to think of expanding his operations elsewhere. Perhaps the time has come for the rebels to start moving northwards into Syria.

image sources:

Arab troops (Wikipedia)

The Medina railroad (Wikipedia)