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)

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)

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”.

26/3/1917 Britain’s advance blocked at Gaza

British forces have been hitting the Turks hard in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile in the Levant the British have also driven them out of the Sinai and are now at the gates of Palestine. Now Murray, Britain’s commander in Egypt, sends his men to attack Gaza, strongly defended by the Turks, delegating command of the assault to Dobell, his subordinate.

The British attack first with cavalry, surrounding the town. Then they begin to shell the town to destruction before the infantry move forward. The Turks do their best to hold back their attackers with snipers and machine guns but their situation becomes increasingly desperate. When Australian and New Zealand cavalry units attack Gaza from the north, the Turkish defence begins to collapse. The town’s surrender seems imminent.

But then the unthinkable happens. Dobell orders his men to withdraw from their positions around Gaza. Communications have broken down and he is unaware of how close to victory his men are. Instead he fears that night will fall and leave them in an exposed position, short of water and ammunition, vulnerable to attack by any Turkish forces coming to the aid of those in Gaza. So he orders them to withdraw to safety.

The Turks are astonished to see the British pulling back, but they quickly take advantage of the situation to launch some determined counterattacks. The British lick their wounds and prepare to attack again.

image sources:

The road to Gaza (Emerson Kent)

Prisoners of the Turks under guard after the battle (Wikipedia)

9/1/1917 Rafah: British and ANZAC troops at the gates of Palestine

British Empire forces are advancing across the Sinai, pushing back the Turkish forces that had been threatening the vital Suez Canal. To lessen the problems of supply, the British have built a railroad and laid a water pipeline as they advance. Consequently their progress is slow but methodical.

After their recent success at Maghdaba the British now push on to Rafah, on the border with Palestine. The Turks are holding a strong position but their defence is a static one. The British and ANZAC forces have the advantage of mobility, thanks to their armoured cars and cavalry (including both horse and camel-mounted troops).

The Turks soon find themselves surrounded. They put up a stout resistance but by the end of the day they are obliged to surrender. The British Empire forces take around 1,500 prisoners.

With Rafah having fallen the Turks no longer threaten the Suez Canal. Now the Turks are on the defensive, with the British and their antipodean allies threatening to push into Palestine towards Jaffa and Jerusalem and then on to the heart of Syria in the north.

image sources:

map of northern Sinai (Wikipedia)

The Battle of Rafah (Wikipedia)

Turkish prisoners after the battle

23/12/1916 Britain advances in the Sinai

The British Empire is on the march in the Sinai, hoping to advance across this arid region and into Palestine, thereby aiding the progress of the Arab Revolt further south. Previous Turkish attacks on the Suez Canal through the Sinai have foundered because of the difficulty of supplying large bodies of troops there.

To make things easier for themselves in this regard the British are building a railroad and water pipeline as the advance. Even so, things are difficult once the men move ahead to engage the Turks. Nevertheless, they have had some successes. Turkish forces withdrew without a fight from the coastal position of El-Arish, given the strength of the British marching against them and the support they could expect from the British navy.

The Turks remain in force at Magdhaba, an inland position. From here they can retake El Arish, should the British advance further towards Palestine. So the British move up to attack Magdhaba.

The advance takes the British beyond their supply lines. Their Australian commander, General Henry Chauvel, knows that the battle must be run quickly or shortage of water will force them to withdraw.

The attack sees British, Australian and New Zealand mounted infantry approach as closely as possible to the Turkish positions before dismounting to press the assault. The fighting goes on all day and Chauvel fears that he will have to withdraw his men, but in the late afternoon the tide turns against the Turks and they begin to surrender in large numbers. There are odd episodes of fraternisation between Gallipoli veterans on both sides, with the horror of that campaign creating a point of sympathy between them.

With the Magdhaba position eliminated the British are now free to press on towards Palestine. The tide of war in the Levant is now turning decisively against the Ottoman Empire.

image sources:

Infantry advance (Wikipedia)

map (Wikipedia)