With the British Army in the Holy Land
MAJOR H. O. LOCK
THE DORSETSHIRE REGIMENT
LONDON: ROBERT SCOTT ROXBURGHE HOUSE PATERNOSTER ROW, E.C. 1919
CHAPTER I PAGE EGYPT AND THE SUEZ CANAL 1
Modern Egypt—Military Geography of Egypt—The Eastern Boundary—Outbreak of War, 1914—Invasion of Egypt by the Turks—The Dardanelles—Defence Problem at the Opening of 1916.
THE DESERT OF SINAI 10
Across the Canal—The Military Railway—The Pipe-line—Kantara—Oghratina, Katia and Dueidar—Romani—Bir-el-Abd—El Arish—Maghdaba—Magruntein and Rafa—Sea-borne Supplies—Khan Yunus—The Land of Promise—Personnel.
MESOPOTAMIA, THE CAUCASUS, AND THE HEJAZ 21
Landing in Mesopotamia—1915 Operations—Kut—Baghdad—Consolidation—Interdependence of Mesopotamia and Palestine—Caucasus—Collapse of Russia—The Yemen—Revolt of the Hejaz—Mecca—Medina—Maan—Arab Co-operation in Eastern Palestine.
General Idea—A Comprehensive View—The Sea—Sand Dunes—Coastal Plain—Judaean Hills—Jordan Valley—Eastern Palestine—Armageddon—Climate—Railways—Population.
History—Importance of Situation—Topography—First Battle of Gaza—Second Battle of Gaza—Reorganization of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
TRENCH WARFARE 43
Fresh Arrivals—Journey to Railhead—Acclimatization—The Turkish Line—The British Line—Campaigning Conditions—Flies and Dust—Morale—Humorous Incidents—Spies—Raiding and Shelling—Defences at the Apex—Preparations for the Offensive.
GAZA AND BEERSHEBA 51
General Plan of the Battle—Reasons—Water—Transport—Bombardment of Gaza—Capture of Beersheba—Infantry Attack on Gaza—Counter-attack at Khuweilfeh—Attack on Sheria—Evacuation of Gaza—Retreat of the Enemy—The Apex—Shelling and Raids.
FULL CRY 62
Flight of the Enemy—Cavalry Pursuit—Crossing No Man's Land—Infantry Pursuit—Water—Arak-el-Menshiyeh Demonstration—Mesmiyeh Engagement—Junction Station Captured—Naaneh—Gezer—Jaffa—Summary of the Situation.
NEBY SAMWIL 71
Routes into the Hills—Bireh—Scheme of Operations—The Saris Pass—Contrast with Hill Fighting in India—Enab—Neby Samwil—The Key to Jerusalem—Consolidation and Reliefs.
The 20th Corps Movements—The New Line—Counter-attacks—Final Advance—Fighting round Jerusalem—The Enemy Outmanoeuvred—Surrender of the City—General Allenby's Entry and Proclamation.
THE HOLY CITY 86
Sacred to the Jew, the Christian and the Moslem—The Kings—Nebuchadnezzar—Nehemiah—Alexander—Ptolemy I—Antiochus—The Maccabees—Pompey—Herod—Christ—Titus—Hadrian—Constantine—Chosroes— Islam—The Crusaders—Saladin—Richard—The Kharezmians—Expulsion of the Crusaders—Tamerlane—The Ottomans—Napoleon—Mohammed Ali—Routes taken by the several Invaders.
JUNCTION STATION AND LUDD 101
Chaos—Looting—Turkish Hospital—Prisoners of War—Vale of Sorek—Town Planning—Movements of Troops—Railway Development—Bridges—Armoured Train—Junction Station Superseded by Ludd—Development of Ludd—St. George.
THE JORDAN 109
Attempt to Retake Jerusalem—Winter in Palestine—Jericho—Advancing the Line—Crossing the Jordan—Raid on Amman—Raid on Shunat Nimrin.
THE WADI DEIR BALLUT 116
Crossing the Auja—Front Line Life in March—Musketry—Aircraft—Flowers—Wadi Deir Ballut—Capture of Deir Ballut Ridge.
THE MOUNTAINS OF EPHRAIM 124
The New Line—Turkish Reinforcements—Method of Holding the Line—A Patrol Incident—Capture of Ikba.
Arara—Rafat—Three Bushes Hill—Collapse in France—Reorganization.
THE CROWNING VICTORY 135
Situation in September, 1918—The Terrain—Preparations—Mugheir—The Sweep from Rafat to the Sea—Cavalry—Deraa—The Turkish Rout—Eastern Palestine—Sea of Galilee—Damascus—Summary of Results.
Pursuit—Beyrout—Aleppo—Armistices—Close of the War—Cross and Crescent—Resume.
SKETCH MAPS PAGE
I RAILWAYS IN 1914 1
II GAZA AND BEERSHEBA 51
III COUNTRY ROUND JERUSALEM 79
IV RAILWAYS IN 1918 101
V COUNTRY ROUND RAFAT 117
My aim in compiling this little book has been to provide a short account of the Palestine campaign, illustrated from the experiences of one who was present.
The manuscript was written on active service, soon after the occurrence of the events recorded. It may, on this account, be sketchy, but, it is hoped, not the less interesting.
My acknowledgments are due to the Official Despatches and publications, and also to the writings of Mr. W.T. Massey, Official Correspondent with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
H. O. L.
IN THE FIELD, 1918.
WITH THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE HOLY LAND
EGYPT AND THE SUEZ CANAL
The Holy Land has been the scene of war since the dawn of History. Long before Belgium became the cock-pit of Europe, Palestine was the cock-pit of the known world. Here, on the high road between Asia and Africa, were fought the great wars of Egyptians and Assyrians, Israelites and Canaanites, Greeks and Romans, Saracens and Crusaders. With these few square miles are associated the names of the world's greatest soldiers no less than that of the Prince of Peace. None can fail to be interested in the latest campaign in this Land of Armageddon.
To understand the causes and events that led up to the campaign in Palestine of 1917-1918, we must first summarize, as shortly as possible, the modern history of Egypt. That country had for many centuries formed an integral part of the Turkish Empire. But she had been rapidly slipping from the grasp of the Turk. Early in the nineteenth century Mohamed Ali had effectually thrown off the Turkish yoke. True, the Turkish suzerainty remained; but that authority was little more than nominal and was represented by an annual money tribute paid to the Porte by the Khedive out of the revenues of Egypt.
Both France and England had large financial interests in Egypt, especially after the construction of the Suez Canal, which was opened for traffic in 1869.
The Suez Canal, in fact, became of vital importance to Great Britain. By a stroke of policy the British Government acquired the shares of the almost bankrupt Khedive, Ismail Pasha, and thus had a holding in the company worth several million pounds. But far more important to Britain was the position of the Canal as the great artery of the British Empire, the most vulnerable point on the short sea route to India. Thus Britain became directly concerned in the affairs of Egypt, in its internal administration to secure peace within, and in its military defence to secure the country in general, and the Canal zone in particular, from invasion by a foreign enemy.
But the affairs of Egypt were in a most unsatisfactory condition. The army was wholly unreliable, and extravagance in high places had brought the exchequer to the verge of bankruptcy. In 1882 matters reached a crisis. A revolution broke out, headed by Arabi Pasha, and the situation looked desperate. Joint naval and military action by Britain and France was proposed, but the French ships sailed away and left Britain with a free hand. The British fleet bombarded the Forts at Alexandria and a military force, based on the Suez Canal, was landed at Ismailia. This force completely defeated the army of Arabi Pasha at Tel-el-Kebir, put down the rebellion, and restored the government of the then Khedive, Tewfik Pasha. But the Khedivial government had been unable to cope with the rebellion single-handed; it had only been restored to power by British arms; it could not hope to retain that power unless continuously backed by the power of Britain.
From this time forward, whether she liked it or not, Britain found herself effectually saddled with the direction of the government of Egypt. In this position she became more fully confirmed by the Anglo-Egyptian military operations against the Soudan in 1885, under Gordon, and in 1898, under Kitchener. Outstanding differences with France were dispelled on the conclusion of the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale, and Britain was left virtually mistress of Egypt.
Let us look for a minute at the military geography of Egypt, particularly with regard to the security of her frontiers from invasion. Egypt consists, or prior to the seventies consisted, of the Nile, its valley and delta, and the country rendered fertile by that river. On either side of this fertile belt is dry, barren desert. On the north is the Mediterranean Sea, and on the south the tropical Soudan. Thus, in the hands of a power that holds the command of the sea, Egypt is well adapted for defence. The tropical Soudan makes a well-nigh impossible line of advance for a large hostile force from the south, and the routes of approach from the east and from the west, across the waterless deserts, present obstacles scarcely less formidable. Since the seventies, however, another important factor has entered the problem, namely, the Suez Canal and the area of cultivation and civilization which has sprung up along its banks. The large amount of fresh water required for the maintenance of the Canal, for the use of the towns that have sprung up along its banks, and for the existence of the large population which the Canal has attracted, is brought by a Canal known as the Sweet Water Canal, from the river Nile. This Sweet Water Canal, and the piped services which it supplied, were, in 1914, wholly upon the western or Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. This western side was also well provided with communications. Trunk railways connected Ismailia, at the centre of the Canal, with Cairo and Alexandria, and lateral railways, running along the whole length of the Canal, connected it with Port Said and Suez.
Although, as was subsequently discovered, the problem of defending the Suez Canal was by no means the same as that of defending Egypt, the problems may, at first sight, appear identical. An enemy force moving from Palestine against the Suez Canal and Egypt, would have to cross a comparatively waterless desert for a distance of over a hundred miles. On coming into collision with the defenders of the Canal, such an enemy would be operating far from his base, with a long and vulnerable line of communications, and with little or no available fresh water. The defenders, operating along the line of the Suez Canal, would be close to their base, with admirable communications, both lateral and to the rear, and with the rich cultivated lands of Egypt on which to draw for supplies, whilst their supply of fresh water would be unlimited.
The boundary line between Egypt and Palestine in 1914 ran from Rafa, on the Mediterranean, to the head of the Gulf of Akaba, the north-eastern arm of the Red Sea. This line runs right across the desert and is distant about 120 miles from the Suez Canal. At first sight the boundary seems ideal, and in so far as the defence of Egypt alone was concerned, it left little or nothing to be desired. But, as subsequent events proved, this line was not good enough to safeguard the defences of the Canal.
On the outbreak of war, in August, 1914, between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Great Britain, France, Russia and Belgium on the other, the garrison of Egypt was augmented by troops sent out from England and India and from Australia. The Suez Canal, through which vast numbers of troops were passing, was of vital importance to the communications of the allies, and was strongly guarded accordingly. Two months later (November 5), Turkey threw in her hand with the Central Powers. One of the baits held out by Germany to induce the Turks to enter the struggle, was a promise that they should be restored to complete supremacy in Egypt. With the entering of Turkey into the war, and her open threats to invade Egypt, the protection of that country and of the Canal became a matter of extreme urgency.
The policy of defence adopted was that of making the line of the Canal the line of resistance. A large portion of the low-lying desert to the north-east of the Canal was flooded, so as to render approach by that direction impossible. Warships took up stations in the Canal itself, while naval patrol launches took over the duty of guarding the Bitter Lakes. The troops detailed for the defence of the Canal itself were entrenched upon the western side, with reserves concentrated at points of tactical importance. In this way full advantage was taken of the lateral communications on the western side of the Canal, while it was thought that the difficulties of crossing the desert on the eastern side would make approach by the Turks well-nigh impossible.
Meanwhile, the Turk was not letting the grass grow under his feet. Whether the Germans ever intended to pay the price for Turkish adhesion by sending a strong enough force to make the invasion of Egypt practicable is open to doubt. The Turkish rank and file were certainly led to believe that a serious invasion of Egypt was intended. But it is much more likely that the object of the Germans was to detain as large a British force as possible in Egypt and thus prevent their taking part in the fighting in France. A secondary object may have been to render the Suez Canal temporarily impassable. Whatever may have been the chestnuts that Germany hoped to get out of the fire, it was clear that Turkey was willing to act as catspaw, and attempt a foolhardy invasion of Egypt. Consequently, the construction of a new military railway in Syria was put in hand, and by January, 1915, the Turks had formed advanced posts at Auja, on the frontier, and also at Kosseima, El Arish, and Khan Epenus in the desert. The problem of water supply has always presented a difficulty to armies crossing this waterless desert. There are a certain number of reservoirs and cisterns which hold up water during the rains. In the winter time these would be full. The Turk is less particular about the water which he drinks than the white man, and doubtless he could, to some extent, be supplied from some of the brackish pools in the desert, with water that no one would think of offering to a British soldier.
The light pontoons that the Turks dragged across the desert for crossing the Canal are said to have been used for carrying water during certain stages of the advance. Suffice it to say that the Turks did succeed in solving the water problem, and in crossing the desert with a force of some considerable strength.
On the 3rd February, 1915, the threatened attack materialized. Before dawn, some of the light pontoons which the Turks had brought with them, were launched on the Canal. These were manned, while other Turks deployed along the eastern bank and opened fire to cover the crossing. The troops defending this portion of the Canal, mostly Indians, opened fire upon the pontoons, with the result that many of them were sunk. Two of the pontoons, however, reached the western bank, and their crews, numbering about twenty, surrendered. There was fighting throughout the day, but no further crossing of the Canal. On the next day the east bank was swept, with the result that a considerable party of the enemy were captured. After this, the Turks withdrew, and marched back to Palestine. This was the only time that a formed body of the enemy succeeded in reaching the Canal. But they had shown that it was possible for them to achieve the almost impossible, and thus they gave the authorities responsible for the defence of Egypt much food for thought.
The menace to Egypt was for a time delayed, though not wholly removed, by the expedition against the Dardanelles.
To co-operate with our Russian allies, the British Government decided, early in 1915, to attempt to force the passage of the Dardanelles. The strategic gains promised were highly attractive, and included—the passage of arms and munitions from the allies to Russia in exchange for wheat, the neutrality and possible adherence of the outstanding Balkan States, the severing of communications between European and Asiatic Turkey, the drawing off of Turkish troops from the theatres of the war, and the expulsion of the Turks from Constantinople, and ultimately from Europe. Incidentally, it was considered, on the principle that the best defensive is an offensive, that a thrust at the very heart of Turkey, a threat against Constantinople itself, would afford the best means of defending Egypt.
The story of the Dardanelles expedition has been often told, and scarcely forms a part of this history, so a few words must suffice. In February, 1915, we started by bombarding the forts with a few old warships. The forts at the outer entrance were soon silenced, and early in March, the warships moved up to the Narrows. On the 18th, a great effort was made to reduce the forts about the Narrows; but it failed, with the loss of three battleships and more than 2,000 men. This demonstrated the fact that the Dardanelles could never be opened by sea power alone, and, accordingly, amphibious operations became necessary. An expeditionary force was assembled in Egypt, and Mudros was selected as the advanced base. On April 25, landings were effected on the extreme point of the Gallipoli Peninsula. In spite of heroic attempts, we did little more than effect a precarious lodgment. Further operations were necessary; additional divisions were brought out from home; and on the night of the 6th/7th August, another landing was effected at Suvla Bay. But the new plan was no more successful than the old. Within a couple of days this force also had settled down to a war of positions. Winter was approaching; our positions on the peninsula would then become no longer tenable. No progress could be made, and at length it was decided to evacuate. The Suvla Bay force was withdrawn first; and the evacuation of the main body of troops was completed on the 20th December. The withdrawal was carried out with the same brilliance that had characterized the various landings, and with so small a number of casualties that it was described as "an achievement without parallel in the annals of war."
Many of the regiments that fought against the Turks at Gallipoli were withdrawn, directly or indirectly to Egypt, and subsequently met the Turk again during the advance into Palestine. Included among these were the 10th, 52nd, 53rd and 54th Divisions, besides regiments of Anzacs and Yeomanry. In so far as the Dardanelles operations aimed at protecting Egypt, they were a success; for, while they were in progress, no organized invasion of Egypt was attempted. But the evacuation had the effect of liberating a large force of Turkey's best troops for operations against Mesopotamia and Egypt.
It would be convenient to pause here and take stock of the military situation in Egypt, in the light of over a year's experience of actual war.
In the first place, the Turks had disillusioned us as to the impossibility of crossing the waterless desert, and had actually crossed it with a considerable armed and organized force. They announced that what they had effected had been nothing more than a reconnaissance. In any case, they had shown us what they could do, and that, backed by the resources of the Central Powers, there would be no insuperable obstacle to their bringing a large and fully equipped army across the desert.
In the second place, we had discovered that the problems of defending the Suez Canal and of defending Egypt were not identical. While the Canal formed an admirable moat, an obstacle difficult to negotiate when stoutly defended, and so a capital defensive line for the protection of the Nile; yet this line was inadequate for the protection of the Canal itself or for securing the immunity of the passing shipping.
And so, thirdly, we realized that some other line must be found for the protection of the Canal. While we were sitting on the west bank, small parties of Turks approached the eastern bank. On more than one occasion, in the summer of 1915, they succeeded in placing mines in the fairway of the Canal. It would, therefore, have been quite possible for them to have seriously interfered with the working of the Canal and the passage of shipping. Granted that a new line must be found, the question arises where such new line should be drawn. A line across the actual desert may be all very well in war time, though none too easy to hold, for the reasons that we have already discussed. But to keep a garrison on such a line for ever would be well-nigh intolerable. Thus, by a process of elimination, we find that the most suitable line for the permanent defence of the Suez Canal is the fertile country beyond the eastern desert—in other words, Palestine.
Fourthly, it had been brought home to us that the worst form of defence is a passive defence. As, therefore, the Turk would not leave well alone, but insisted on attacking us in Egypt, so it became necessary for us to meet him on his own ground, to push a vigorous offensive, and eventually to carry the war into Palestine.
THE DESERT OF SINAI
In accordance with the policy of defending the Suez Canal upon a line further east, the construction of a new defensive line was put in hand during the early months of 1916. No longer were the Turks to be allowed to annoy us by actually reaching the Canal. A line of trenches, protected by barbed wire entanglements, was constructed out in the desert, a few miles to the east of the Canal. As may be imagined, this was no easy task. A large amount of excavation was necessary for a small amount of trench; walls had to be built up with sandbags; and other steps had to be taken to prevent the sides from foundering, and to construct a work that would withstand shell fire.
Meanwhile, other preparations were put in hand for carrying the defensive line further to the east. The construction was commenced of a broad gauge of railway from Kantara eastwards across the desert. This railway eventually became the trunk line between Egypt and Palestine. In the days of trench warfare before Gaza, it transported freight trains heavily laden with rations and ammunitions, troop trains conveying officers and men in open trucks, hospital trains evacuating sick and wounded, and an all-sleeping-car express running nightly in each direction. In 1918, a swing-bridge was improvised across the Suez Canal, and Jerusalem and Cairo were then connected by rail without change of carriage being necessary. The future prospects of this railway seem unbounded. It will undoubtedly be continued through to Damascus and Aleppo, where it will connect with railways to Constantinople and to Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. Thus it will form part of a grand trunk railway system along the old caravan routes connecting the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In its conception, it was just a military railway, laid, with but little preparation, across the sands of the desert. To this railway, however, was largely due the success of the campaign that we are about to consider.
We have already seen that the Sinaitic Desert is almost waterless. Although it has often been crossed by invading armies in both directions, the provision of water has always presented the greatest difficulty. The carriage of water in tanks upon the backs of camels, a method used by us for locally supplying troops between water dumps and the headquarters of units, proved successful here thousands of years ago. The plan adopted by the Turks of dragging water-holding pontoons across the desert was not to be despised. Further progress was made when supplies of water were transported in tank-trucks along the railway. But a bolder adaptation of modern science to desert fighting was reached, when it was decided to lay on a piped supply of water from the Nile.
We have seen that the western bank of the Suez Canal was already provided with a plentiful supply of fresh water by the Sweet Water Canal. Plant was now installed for making this water available for the troops. Purity had to be considered as well as adequacy of supply. A peculiar danger had to be guarded against. There is a disease prevalent in Egypt, of a particularly unpleasant character and persistent type, called by the medical profession Bilhaziosis, but better known to our men as "Bill Harris." This disease is conveyed by a parasitic worm found in the waters of the Nile, and affects not only those who drink the water, but also those who bathe in it or merely wash. Consequently, orders were stringent against even touching Nile water which had not previously been treated. This necessitated the troops east of the Canal being put upon a very restricted supply, and they were accordingly rationed at the rate of a gallon of water per head per day for all purposes, including washing, cooking and drinking. At the Kantara waterworks water was drawn in from the Sweet Water Canal, mixed with alum, and pumped through settling tanks into filters. When it had passed through these, it was pumped underneath the Suez Canal into reservoirs on the eastern bank. Here it was chlorinated; and hence the water, now fit for all purposes, was pumped forward to its destination. There being no gradient to assist the natural flow of the water, it had to be pumped forward by successive stages. The first stage was as far as Romani; when working at greatest length the pumping stages numbered no less than seventeen. At times, during the advance, the railway had to be called in aid; and train-loads of water for the use of advanced troops were railed from pipe-head up to rail-head. At some stages of the advance this supply could be supplemented by local water, which, though generally somewhat brackish, was employed for the horses, mules and camels. It was even found to have no ill-effect upon the troops, if used for a limited period, and if necessary precautions were taken. At other stages, where water was non-existent, or rendered wholly unapproachable by enemy dispositions, our force became entirely dependent upon the supply delivered through the pipe-line. Ultimately, when we settled down to protracted trench warfare before Gaza, this pipe-line was delivering a constant supply of water into our trenches, distant some couple of hundred miles from the banks of the Nile.
Kantara started upon a process of development worthy of the base of such an expedition. Before the war, it had been little more than a small Canal village, comprising a few huts. It eventually grew into an important railway terminus with wharves and cranes, a railway ferry and 40 miles of sidings. Miles of first-class macadamized roads were made, vast ordnance and supply dumps arose, and camps and depots were established for man and beast. The scale on which this mushroom town developed was stupendous.
Early in 1916, the Turks, relieved from imminent danger near home by our evacuation of Gallipoli, came down again in force through Syria, Palestine and the Desert, to attack us in Egypt. Our construction gangs, engaged upon the new railway and upon the development of local water supplies, were at this time covered by escorts, mainly of cavalry, spread out upon a wide front. On the 23rd of April several thousand Turks, operating in three columns, attacked our desert posts at Oghratina, Katia and Dueidar respectively, the two former being about 30 miles and the last named about 10 miles to the east of Kantara. Oghratina and Katia, being well out in the desert, were cavalry posts held by yeomanry. These two posts were rushed by a large force of the enemy under cover of fog, and, though a stubborn resistance was offered, and the fighting was severe, the posts were overwhelmed. At Dueidar, an infantry post, some 20 miles or so nearer our base, the Turk was less successful. Under cover of the same fog, about 900 Turks tried to rush this post at dawn. They found the garrison standing to, and were beaten off. Though they made three distinct attempts to break through, they were unsuccessful. The garrison was reinforced and the Turks were repulsed.
In order to hamper or prevent such bodies of Turks from again crossing the desert and approaching the Canal, it was decided to draw off the local water supplies in the desert. Accordingly, these supplies, mainly in pools and cisterns constructed by men in a bygone age, were systematically pumped or drained dry. By the end of June, no water was left available for enemy use within easy reach of the Canal. From this time forward the enemy attempted no more sporadic raids. He concentrated instead upon a serious attack against our main positions, which attack materialized at Romani.
By July, 1916, our railway had reached the village of Romani, which is some 25 miles from Kantara, and is in the neighbourhood of Oghratina and Katia, where the enemy had secured his success in April. The Turkish force had been stiffened with Germans and Austrians, and was under the command of the German General Von Kressenstein. It moved from the Turkish railroad at Auja on the frontier, and advanced by way of Maghdaba and the Wadi El Arish to El Arish, and thence westward along the caravan route towards Egypt. This force had been well equipped and trained for this class of warfare, and it succeeded in dragging heavy guns across the desert byroads which it improvised for the purpose. Making his advanced base at Bir-el-Abd, the enemy first occupied and fortified a line about Mageiba. On the morning of the 3rd August, he made a general advance, and took up a line fronting our position at Romani. Here our left flank rested on the sea; the left of the line was held by the 52nd Division, while the 53rd Division was on the right. The East Lancashire Division was in reserve. The right flank comprised a chain of posts, behind which were a force of cavalry. The weak point was, therefore, our right flank, for a little force working round by the south would threaten our communications and might possibly cut us off from our reinforcements down the line and from our base at Kantara. Accordingly, on the night of the 3rd/4th, one Light Horse Brigade moved out to hold a three-miles line from our infantry post on the right, sending out patrols a considerable distance in front. About midnight, the enemy were found to be advancing in this direction. Before light next morning this Brigade were heavily engaged, holding up the advance of a considerable body of the enemy. Gradually the Brigade were pressed back by weight of numbers, until, at about five o'clock in the morning, the timely arrival of reinforcements secured the complete arrest of the enemy advance in this direction. Soon after daylight the enemy swung round his left flank and established himself upon Mount Royston. This enforced upon us a further retirement; but he had reached the limit of his success. Towards the sea, the enemy attacks against the 52nd Division were beaten off, and here he could make no progress. At about 5.30 in the afternoon, a counter-attack was launched against Mount Royston, and this position was recaptured. Early on the following morning, the 5th, before daylight, the 52nd Division recaptured Wellington Ridge, the last of our lost positions remaining in the hands of the Turk. The tide had now turned definitely in our favour and the Turk was in full retreat. An attempt was made to encircle his southern flank and to cut him off with our cavalry, but his rearguard actions were fought stubbornly, and the pursuing cavalry had to be withdrawn. During the night of the 5th/6th, the enemy evacuated Katia, which was occupied by us on the following morning. By the 8th, he had abandoned Oghratina, and had fallen back to his advanced base at Bir-el-Abd. From this base he now proceeded to evacuate camps and stores, but he was not allowed to do so unmolested. He was followed up by the whole of our cavalry and effectually shelled by our horse artillery. On the afternoon and evening of this day (the 8th) the Turk counter-attacked our cavalry, who were clearly outnumbered. Nevertheless the Turk considered it more prudent to burn the remainder of his stores. He completed the evacuation of Abd by the 12th, and it remained in our hands from this time forward. This abortive advance against Romani marked the last determined attempt of the Turks to invade the Suez Canal and Egypt. Henceforth the efforts of the Turks were confined to opposing the storm which their misguided cupidity had raised up against them.
After the battle of Romani, our mounted troops held a line about Abd. The enemy now consolidated a position at Mazar, a little more than 20 miles further to the east. In the middle of September, a cavalry column moved out to Mazar and attacked the Turkish positions. Neither side was anxious to bring on a general engagement at that time. However, the losses which the Turk suffered in this operation caused him sufficient uneasiness to induce him to withdraw altogether from Mazar. He therefore withdrew his troops to a position close to El Arish.
The Turkish garrison at El Arish consisted of some 1,600 infantry in all, in a strong entrenched position. In the second week of December increased activity was shown by the Turks, and aerial reconnaissance of their camps behind their front line showed evidence of the proximity of reinforcements. Our preparations for a forward move were pressed on strenuously, and, though they were somewhat delayed through lack of water, we were ready to move by the 20th December. The enemy realized that the swiftness of our final preparations had been too much for him. Knowing that his reinforcements could not arrive in time, he hurriedly withdrew his troops from El Arish. This retirement was reported by the R.F.C. on the 20th December, and our mounted troops, supported by infantry, were ordered to move on El Arish the same night. The town was found to be evacuated. Aircraft reports showed that about 1,600 of the enemy were on the march, in two columns, in the neighbourhood of Maghdaba and Abu Aweigila, while Sheikh Zowaid and Rafa appeared to be clear. The enemy were evidently not retreating by the caravan route towards Gaza, but were falling back southwards by the Wadi El Arish (the Biblical "River of Egypt") upon their rail-head at Auja.
This evidence went to show that the garrison which had recently evacuated El Arish were at Maghdaba, and it seemed likely that this force were preparing to hold Maghdaba as a rearguard. A flying column of cavalry was immediately despatched against them from El Arish. This column found the enemy strongly posted and entrenched on both banks of the Wadi El Arish. An attack was set in motion on the morning of the 23rd December, and lasted for the greater part of the day. By half-past four that afternoon, however, all organized resistance was over, and the enemy were surrendering everywhere. No further advance was attempted along the enemy's line of communications towards Auja, and the troops, being but a flying column, retired at once to El Arish.
Within a few days after the destruction at Maghdaba of the rearguard, or garrison withdrawing from El Arish, another body of the enemy started to entrench a position at Magruntein near Rafa. This was obviously intended to bar our progress eastwards along the coastal route, the old caravan route to Gaza. Rafa is the frontier town upon the Turco-Egyptian frontier. The operation to which we are about to refer was, therefore, the last engagement that took place upon Egyptian territory. It was not possible at the end of December for the British force to push on and occupy Rafa permanently, owing to difficulties of supply. But since the enemy had again placed a small detached garrison within striking distance of our mounted troops, the temptation was held out for a repetition of the Maghdaba success at Magruntein. Accordingly, a flying column, composed wholly of mounted troops and artillery, moved out from El Arish on the evening of the 8th/9th January, 1917. The enemy was taken completely by surprise, and by dawn on the 9th January his position was almost entirely surrounded. The position, however, was a formidable one, with ground in front entirely open and devoid of cover. The main attack was timed for ten o'clock a.m., and was delivered from the east and south-east. The town of Rafa was soon occupied, and, in the course of the morning, our attack against the Turkish system of defences developed on every side. The enemy's works were dominated by a central redoubt or keep, and orders were given for a concerted attack to be developed against this at 3.30 p.m. Meanwhile the enemy had despatched a relieving force from Shellal, which is about twenty miles to the south-east of Rafa and mid-way between that town and the nearest Turkish railway. This relieving force was detected by our aircraft, who frequently attacked it with bombs and machine gun fire. Orders were at once given for the attack on the redoubt to be pressed with vigour, and, before five o'clock, the redoubt was captured. With this position in our hands, the remaining works soon fell, and by 5.30 p.m. all organized resistance was over, and the enemy position, with all its garrison, was captured. The relieving force were driven off without much difficulty, and withdrew, presumably, to Shellal, which thereafter became the enemy's next point of concentration. Our column, taking with them all prisoners, animals and captured material, withdrew again to El Arish.
From the time of our occupation of El Arish on the 22nd December, that town developed apace. Mine-sweeping operations were at once commenced in the roadstead, a pier was erected, and, on the 24th, the supply ships from Port Said began unloading stores and supplies. The lie of the land gives unlimited opportunity to a power having the command of the sea to supplement his other means of bringing forward supplies by landing sea-borne goods upon the open beach. Repeatedly, in the subsequent history of this war, we availed ourselves of this means of supply, as our army moved northwards in Palestine. The landing of stores at El Arish, however, was not wholly successful, owing to the strong currents, a shelving and shifting beach, and heavy surf. In winter, the sea is apt to be stormy here, and then such landing may become impossible. Supplies were also hastened to El Arish by camel convoy, and dumps were accumulated. The railway was pushed on with and, before the end of January, the railway station at El Arish was completed; during the following month the railway was pushed further out along the coast preparatory to another advance.
After the destruction of their post at Rafa, the Turks immediately began to concentrate their forces near Shellal. West of this place they prepared a strong defensive position near Weli Sheikh Nuran, with the object of covering their lines of communication both along the Beersheba railway and along the Jerusalem-Hebron-Beersheba road. They also established themselves at Khan Yunus, on the coastal road a few miles to the east of Rafa. On the 23rd February, a reconnaissance was carried out against Khan Yunus. The column, arriving at dawn, found the position strongly held, and, after manoeuvring the enemy out of his front line of defence and capturing prisoners, withdrew without difficulty. Continuous pressure maintained by our troops in this neighbourhood, however, induced the enemy to withdraw the garrison of Khan Yunus, which place was entered by our cavalry without opposition on the 28th February. The enemy also evacuated without firing a shot the position which he had prepared near Weli Sheikh Nuran.
Our troops had crossed the desert with success attending them at every stage. And now at last they had set foot in the Promised Land. Many of them must have felt, what a soldier was afterwards heard to express, "This may be the land of promise; it's certainly not the land of fulfilment." History repeats itself. As the Israelites had much trial and suffering to endure after reaching this stage of their journey from Egypt, before they were permitted to "go in and possess the land," so had our lads many a fierce and bloody battle to fight before they, too, might set foot within the Holy City.
A few words as to personnel may not be out of place before we leave the subject of this Desert campaign. Throughout this time the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was General Sir Archibald Murray, G.C.M.G., K.C.B. A reorganization of the force took place in October, 1917, in consequence of which General Murray moved his headquarters back from Ismailia to Cairo. At the same time, the new headquarters of the Eastern Force came into existence at Ismailia under the command of Lieut.-General Sir Charles Dobell, K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., under whose direction thus came more immediately the operations in the eastern desert.
Amongst the troops employed were the Australians and New Zealanders and several regiments of English Yeomanry, and, included among the infantry, were the 52nd (Lowland), the 53rd (Welsh and Home Counties), the 54th (East Anglian) and the 74th (Dismounted Yeomanry) Divisions.
This review of the advance across the desert has of necessity been superficial. Strictly speaking, the Desert campaign is outside the scope of this book. But a summarized history of the advance forms a necessary introduction to our subject. Here, on the threshold of Palestine, we must leave this army for a short space, while we review some other operations, and while we take a glance at the nature of the country in which this army was about to operate.
MESOPOTAMIA, THE CAUCASUS, AND THE HEJAZ
Having taken a hurried glance at the campaign in Sinai, which directly led up to that in Palestine, we will take a yet more hurried glance at three other campaigns in Asiatic Turkey which had their bearing, direct or indirect, upon the Palestine operations.
Most important among these was the expedition to Mesopotamia. In 1914, when Turkey came into the war against us, a British Indian Brigade was landed at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab, the common estuary by which the Tigris and the Euphrates reach the Persian Gulf. The objects of this expedition were to secure the oil-fields of Persia in which Britain was largely interested; to neutralize German ascendancy, which was rapidly developing in this part of the world through her interests in the Baghdad Railway; and to embarrass Turkey by attacking her at a point where facilities of manoeuvre and supply seemed to hold out a reasonable promise of success.
Throughout 1915 this expedition met with uninterrupted success. The British Indian forces engaged were increased in number and strength, and, in spite of appalling conditions of climate, and notwithstanding more than one narrow escape from disaster, the British flag was pushed further and further forward into this flat alluvial country. In the autumn of 1915, we held all the country up to Nasiriyeh on the Euphrates and to Kut el Amara on the Tigris. Then that ill-fated decision was arrived at which sent General Townshend, with the inadequate force at his command, up the Tigris to capture Baghdad. This force went heroically forward, and, just short of that city, defeated the Turks at the battle of Ctesiphon. But General Townshend's casualties were heavy, and his available reinforcements were neither sufficiently numerous nor at hand. The pick of the Turkish army released by our withdrawal from Gallipoli, had poured down to reinforce the enemy, and General Townshend had no alternative but to beat a hasty retreat. Accordingly, he fell back to Kut el Amara. Partly from inability to get his war-worn forces further away, and partly from a disinclination to abandon this important tactical point to the enemy, he consolidated here and prepared to withstand a siege. The history of that siege will live as one of the noblest in the annals of the British army. But the stars in their courses fought against us. Strong enemy positions, inadequate supplies and transport arrangements, floods, and appalling conditions of country and weather, proved overwhelming. In spite of the unremitting efforts of the relieving army, which fought battle after battle without stint of labour or loss, the garrison of Kut found themselves, at the beginning of May, 1916, left with no alternative but to capitulate. Almost the whole of the garrison were removed into Asia Minor, to a captivity which few were destined to survive. Naturally the Turks were much elated by this success, following upon their successes in Gallipoli, and were persuaded that the might of the British arm was nothing which they need fear.
Leaving a sufficient force to check any further British advance into Mesopotamia, the Turk withdrew the bulk of his forces to operate against the Russians and, perhaps wisely, made no great effort to dislodge us from the territory which we already occupied. The opposing forces sat down and watched each other for many months in the entrenched positions below Kut. In March of the following year, 1917, General Maude, on whom had fallen the command of the British army in Mesopotamia, won a decisive victory at Kut; and, pursuing the remnants of the routed enemy, entered Baghdad. The Turks withdrew to the higher country north and north-east of the city, whither they were pursued. After these operations, the British were in occupation of the completed section of the Baghdad railway, which was then open from Baghdad as far north as Samarra. They also effected a junction with the Russian troops operating in Persia. In the following September, engagements were fought at Ramadi and elsewhere on the Euphrates, with the result that the Turkish garrisons were rounded up, and but few Turkish troops were left to oppose the British forces in Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, an immediate advance was not made up to Mosul and the upper territories of Mesopotamia. Owing to the collapse of Russia, it became necessary for us to take over some of the country in Persia, which had previously been occupied by Russian troops, and an expedition was also sent to assist the Armenians at Baku on the Caspian Sea. Other troops which could be spared from Mesopotamia were sent round, in the spring of 1918, to take part in the operations in Palestine, and the forces that remained were devoted to the garrisoning and consolidation of the territory already occupied.
A glance at the map of Turkey in Asia will show that the provinces of Mesopotamia and Syria consist of long narrow strips of fertile country bordered by desert, and resemble two legs which fork at Aleppo.
As far as Aleppo, troops and supplies from Europe passed over one common route. From the Turkish point of view, therefore, the campaigns in these two countries were to some extent interdependent. This enabled the Turks to concentrate a reserve at Aleppo, ready to be moved down into either theatre of war as the exigencies of the situation might demand. Conversely, therefore, a British offensive in Mesopotamia might draw off troops destined for Palestine, or an offensive in Palestine might attract troops otherwise intended for operations in Mesopotamia. There is strong evidence that a Turco-German offensive was contemplated in Mesopotamia for 1918. In the spring of that year, however, a British offensive was undertaken in Palestine, which had the immediate effect of drawing to that country strong Turkish and German reinforcements from Aleppo. Nothing more was heard of the offensive in Mesopotamia, and, by the autumn of 1918, there was scarcely a fighting Turk to be found in that country. Just as our expedition against the Dardanelles, by engaging the enemy at a vital spot near home, had materially assisted the defence of Egypt, so did our offensives in Palestine materially assist the defence of Mesopotamia.
Turning to another corner of the map of Turkey, where Europe and Asia meet in the mountains of the Caucasus, we see that the Turkish frontier here marches with that of Russia. In the earlier days of the war, the Russians carried out an important and successful advance in this neighbourhood, and, early in 1916, occupied the cities of Trebizond and Erzerum. Thus, at the time when the campaign in Palestine was embarked upon, the armies of the allies were closing in upon Eastern Turkey simultaneously from three directions, the Russian Caucasus army from the north-east, the British Mesopotamian army from the south-east, and the Egyptian Expeditionary Force from the south. Strategically, the situation seemed full of promise. But, in the winter of 1917-18, followed the disastrous collapse of Russia, and the setting free of many Turkish soldiers of good quality from all the Russian fronts for service elsewhere. We had hoped that our offensive in Syria might have been supported by the co-operation of the Russians. Instead, we felt the pinch of their defection in the stiffening of enemy resistance on our front by the transfer of good troops from the Caucasus to Palestine.
There is yet another theatre of warfare in Asiatic Turkey, the operations in which exerted considerable influence on those in Palestine. The whole of the eastern shores of the Red Sea formed part of the Ottoman Empire. The southernmost sector, known as the Yemen, was the farthest outpost of that Empire. Here a few Turks and Arabs conducted a sporadic warfare against our garrison at Aden, more calculated to cause annoyance and to detain a British force of some strength than to exercise much influence upon the war as a whole.
Farther to the north, on this Red Sea littoral, is a province of much more importance, the Hejaz, in which are situate the most holy of cities in the Moslem world, Mecca and Medina. To Christians, the Hejaz is forbidden ground. To Mahomedans, it is the focus of pilgrimage from all parts of the world. The Sultan of Turkey, as the ruler of Mecca, is looked up to by the Sunni or orthodox Mahomedans in all lands as the spiritual head of their Church. Though rulers of the Hejaz, the Turks were not at one with the local population. These are Arabs, and to them the Turkish rule was as unpopular as to most other non-Turkish subjects of that decaying Empire. Profiting by Turkey's embarrassments in other parts, the Arabs rose in the summer of 1916, resolved on ridding themselves of the hated Turkish yoke. Sheikh Hussein of Mecca was proclaimed King of the Hejaz.
At this time there were garrisons of Turkish troops stationed at Mecca, Medina and at the port of Jiddah. Their communication with Turkey was by the recently opened railway to Damascus and Aleppo. This railway, south of Damascus, ran along the high plateau on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, through Maan, and along the desert to Medina. The intention was to carry the line ultimately through to Mecca, but at this time it was only open for traffic as far as Medina. The revolt broke out on the 5th June, 1916, at which date a cordon was spread round Medina. Jiddah was attacked on the 9th, and capitulated after holding out for only a week. The bulk of the Mecca garrison were at this time at Taif. Accordingly, the town of Mecca passed into the hands of the Emir, with the exception of the ports. These put up a small fight, but had all surrendered by the middle of July. The force at Taif were blockaded, and, on the 23rd September, this force also surrendered. By this time, all the outlying garrisons had been disposed of, and the Hejaz generally cleared of Turks.
Meanwhile, Medina had not only held out, but had been reinforced, and the fighting strength brought up to some 14,000. Late in September, the Turks sallied out and established a cordon of posts at a distance of some 30 to 40 miles from the city. They also pushed further afield; but, Arab armies moving up from the south, the Turks withdrew, at the end of the year, behind the cordon of posts which they had established. For the next six months, the railway to the north of Medina was frequently raided by the Arabs, but the town was effectually cut off from its communications with Turkey.
In July, 1917, Akaba, at the head of the gulf of that name, the north-eastern arm of the Red Sea, was captured. This is at no great distance from Maan, an important depot on the Hejaz Railway, the last outpost of Syria at the edge of the desert of North Arabia. From Akaba, the railway was now attacked at Maan, with serious results to Medina; nevertheless, that city continued to hold out, and was probably never very closely invested.
In October and November, 1917, about the time of the third battle of Gaza, the Turks were still in Maan, and tried to assume the offensive against the Arabs, but proved too weak to succeed. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Turks withdrew to some extent, and the Arabs advanced towards the lands east of the Dead Sea.
From this period forward, the history of the Hejaz revolt merges in that of the Palestine campaign. The Arab forces east of the Dead Sea afforded a safeguard against any possible Turkish attempt to move round our right flank and raid our line of communications. In February and in March, 1918, Turkish expeditions moving against the Arab forces of the King of the Hejaz southward from Kerak, near the south-eastern corner of the Dead Sea, met with failure. The former expedition ended in disaster, and the latter was forced to withdraw, owing to the imminence of a British crossing of the Jordan in its rear. Arab activity on the railway now definitely isolated Medina. Although the Arabs were never strong enough to push a powerful force up through Eastern Palestine, yet the presence of a friendly force operating in that country exercised considerable influence upon the later stages of the Palestine campaign. The assistance which the Arabs gave in the ultimate destruction of the Turkish army was invaluable.
The story of a campaign is more interesting if we have a general idea of the topography of the country in which it is conducted. Our time will, therefore, not be wasted if we leave the British Army on the frontiers of the Holy Land for a few minutes longer and form a mental picture of the terrain over which they are about to operate.
Picture a country, about the size of Wales, divided into parallel strips running north and south, zones of alternate elevation and depression. This will give a rough idea of the conformation of Southern Palestine. On the west is the Mediterranean Sea. Skirting the sea are a series of sand dunes, beyond which comes the Coastal Plain. Together, these form the first depressed strip, averaging about 15 miles in width. Northwards, it tapers to a point where the mountains reach the sea at Cape Carmel. Beyond the Coastal Plain is the range of mountains on which stands Jerusalem, the mountains of Samaria and of Judaea, rising to a height of about 3,000 feet above the level of the sea. On the eastern side of these mountains is a steep drop to the Valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, the level of the latter being nearly 1,300 feet below the level of the Mediterranean, and more than 4,000 feet below the summit of the adjoining Mount of Olives. Beyond the Jordan valley the country rises again abruptly into the hills of Moab or Eastern Palestine. Beyond lies the waterless desert.
Before entering into details, let us imagine ourselves to be standing on one of the mountains round about Jerusalem. Away to the north, Mount Carmel rises abruptly from the sea. Thence the chain of Carmel runs S.S.E. for some 20 miles, dividing the Coastal Plain from the Plain of Esdraelon. About Dothan and Tul Keram it merges in the range comprising the mountains of Samaria and Judaea, which range runs north and south through the land like the backbone of a fish, with steep spurs, like ribs, thrown out on either side towards the Coastal Plain and the Jordan Valley. Westwards, we look down upon the cultivated plain, and across it to the golden belt of sand dunes, tapering like the waist of an hour-glass where the olive plain touches the sea at Jaffa; beyond, lies the deep blue of the Mediterranean. Eastwards is a sheer abyss falling into the Jordan Valley, where that river, like a silver thread, winds its way along until it falls into the Dead Sea. Beyond, as if across a fifteen-mile moat, rise abruptly the mountains of Moab. The map of Palestine might be aptly compared to a bridge marker. The horizontal line is the plain of Esdraelon. In vertical columns "below the line" lie the strips of the country which we have just described. "Above the line" are the mountains of Lebanon, Tabor and Hermon, Galilee and the Sea of Tiberias, and the valleys and rivers of Damascus.
Let us consider these zones in greater detail, more especially with regard to their influence on war. The sea, which skirts Palestine throughout its length, confers a twofold advantage upon her mistress. In the first place, it provides a supplementary line of communication. We have already seen that, during the advance across the Desert, sea-borne supplies from Port Said were landed at El Arish. This method was continued throughout our advance in Palestine, and landing places were improvised at various convenient stages. There is no good harbour along this coast; and landing, which has to be done by beach boats, is difficult, especially in a westerly wind. Nevertheless, considerable supplies were thus landed, chiefly of fuel and fodder, which would be little liable to damage by immersion. In the second place, help can be given during actual military operations by the Navy. Our ships frequently lay off the coast and bombarded the enemy's positions. Of necessity, each side had a flank resting on the sea. To the British, this was a feature of strength; to the Turk, it was one of weakness. He was compelled therefore at all times to draw back or "refuse" his coastal flank, while the British flank was constantly thrown forward menacing the flank of the enemy.
There is little to be said about the Sand Dunes, though, being on the flank, they were often the scene of operations. The sand here is soft and the going bad. Recourse in these operations was therefore had to camel transport. To the field engineer, difficulties were presented much as in the desert. During the trench warfare before Gaza, when a raid was carried out on Beach Post, no attempt was made to cut the enemy wire with our artillery, but the wire was simply pulled up by hand with the standards, for which the soft sand had provided no firm foundations.
The Coastal Plain comprises, towards the north, the Biblical Plain of Sharon, and, towards the south, the land of Philistia. By this plain, and not through Judaea, lies the road from the Nile to the Euphrates. Along this plain have marched the invading armies of all the ages. Though generally a flat country, the flatness is relieved by a few rolling hills, of no great height. It is very fertile and has a good supply of water, contained in wells. It thus presents many advantages, and but few disadvantages, to an army operating in the field. Roads are good or are easily improvised, while such obstacles to an invader's advance do not exist here as in the hills. Our successes in the campaign under consideration were generally attained by first pushing forward along the plain and then turning right-handed into the hills.
From the plain, the country rises, in places through the intermediate foot hills of the Shephelah, in places more abruptly and directly into the mountains of Judaea. These mountains are of limestone formation, terraced, where possible, for cultivation, and often wooded with olive trees or tilled as corn patches or vineyards. The scenery is rugged and pretty, the hill-sides generally steep, sometimes precipitous. This is the Palestine of the picture books. Deep gorges have been cut out by water action; but, as no rain falls throughout the summer months, these are, for the most part, but dry watercourses. There are a few good springs to be found in the valleys; the villagers upon the hills are, however, mainly dependent upon cisterns constructed in the rock, in which they catch as much water as possible during the winter rains. These mountains formed the stronghold of the Israelites, who never maintained sway for any length of time over the lower surrounding country. The mountains abound in ruins and are rich in caves, such as may have been the Caves of En-gedi and Adullam. One of the caves witnessed a lurid scene in our mountain fighting. A party of the enemy had established themselves in a cave with machine guns. Ghurkhas attacked, and the enemy, after inflicting casualties, thought to make good their escape by a back exit. But outside there were other Ghurkhas lying in wait, and, as the enemy emerged, they killed them all.
We have seen that the general formation of this range of mountains is like the backbone of a fish. We should therefore expect to find communications from north to south easy enough along the "spine" or ridge, but difficult on either side, where there would be a succession of "ribs" or spurs to be crossed. This is the case. There is only one first-class road from north to south through this hill-country, namely, that which runs along the ridge from Samaria through Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron to Beersheba. Communications from east to west are, however, more easy along the spurs and intervening valleys. To attempt an advance northwards, from spur to spur, is tedious work; after a comparatively short push a pause is necessary to enable roads to be constructed for bringing forward guns and supplies. We had an illustration of this in March, 1918, when a forward move of this character met at first with but moderate opposition. A pause of a few weeks was necessary to enable fresh roads to be made. In the meantime, the enemy had been heavily reinforced, and, when the next advance was attempted, stout resistance was encountered. This hill-country lent itself readily to defence. Mutually supporting heights could be held. A hill, when captured thus, became a focus for fire concentrated from all the hills around. So when the Turks attacked us in these hills they met with much less success than in the Jordan Valley; and, on the other hand, they were able to offer a stouter resistance to our attacks in these hills than they could on the Coastal Plain.
The Jordan Valley, as we have already seen, is more than a thousand feet below the level of the Mediterranean, that is, below what we speak of as "sea level." In this respect it is unique in the geography of the world. In winter time the climate is equable; in summer it is unbearable. In peace time, even the Bedouin forsake it in summer. The district is pestilential to a degree, and, in no sense of the word, a white man's country. It possesses a feature of considerable importance in the river Jordan itself, almost the only river in Palestine with a perennial flow. The river is tortuous and rapid and not adapted to navigation. These features indicate this area as a difficult one in which to hold a fighting line, and a no less difficult one across which to maintain communications. In the summer of 1918, our line ran along the river valley, and the troops in this sector suffered much from diseases.
East of this strong natural boundary formed by the deep trough of the Jordan, we find a very different country. It rises abruptly from the Jordan Valley, and is in itself a plateau. It is at first fertile, but, at distances ranging from 40 to 60 miles inland, it merges into steppe and then into sheer desert. Thus it is a country apart, difficult of access from Jerusalem and Western Palestine, more easy of access from Damascus or from Arabia. Through it, from north to south, runs the Hejaz railway, on its way from Damascus to Medina. And so it proved an area in which the Turks, based on Damascus, and the Arabs, operating from Hejaz, were at greater advantage than our columns based on Jerusalem.
We have now glanced at those portions of Palestine in which took place the principal fighting in this campaign. Our review would still be incomplete if we omitted all reference to the Plain of Esdraelon. Starting from the sea coast immediately north of Cape Carmel, at the ports of Haifa and Acre, this Plain runs east south-east across the country to the Jordan Valley. Rising slightly at first, it forms the watershed of "that ancient river, the river Kishon." After the watershed is crossed, there is a drop towards the Jordan Valley; this latter portion of the Plain constitutes the Vale of Jezreel. This Plain of Esdraelon is Armageddon. Here Barak overthrew Sisera, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and Saul and Jonathan met disaster and death at the hands of the Philistines. Here Josiah was defeated and slain by Pharaoh Necho. Near here, the Christians were defeated and their kingdom overthrown by the Saracens. On this Plain Napoleon won his final and crushing victory over the Turks.
No battle, beyond a few cavalry engagements, took place here during the campaign which we are to consider. The Turks had been totally defeated before ever this line was reached. But this Plain has still for us a military interest. It may well be that here, where the mountains of Samaria overlook and command all approaches from the north, is to be found the best strategic line for the defence of the Suez Canal.
In a country like Palestine, where levels and characteristics are so divergent, diversities of climate are to be expected. We have seen that the summer climate of the Lower Jordan Valley is pestilential. Parts of the Coastal Plain also are very malarious, particularly from north of Jaffa to Mount Carmel. With these exceptions, the climate is by no means unpleasant nor unsuitable for the conduct of military operations. Far enough south to enjoy plenty of bright sunshine, it is still some distance north of the tropics. Pleasant and regular breezes from the sea mitigate the discomfort which might otherwise prevail in a country almost surrounded by desert. The whole of the rainfall comes in the winter months. From about April to October, though dews are heavy, rain is unknown. But in the winter months, especially December and January, and to some extent February, the rainfall is intense, and the country on the Plains and lower lying districts is reduced to a sea of mud well-nigh impassable. Thus military operations in summer are liable to be prejudiced by a shortage of water; in winter by an excess. The ideal season for operations is therefore in the spring, when there is an abundance of water and a plentiful feed; and, next to this, the autumn, when the heat of the summer has passed its height and the rains of winter have not yet made the country impassable.
The importance of good railways in modern war is immense. We have already traced the construction of the broad gauge line from Egypt which followed close behind the British in their advance across the Desert and into Southern Palestine. The Turks in Western Palestine were at a perpetual disadvantage through the inferiority of the railway service; but, in Eastern Palestine, i.e. across the Jordan, the position was reversed. Before the war, Syria had been connected with Asia Minor by a broad gauge line from Aleppo to Rayak, where it effected a junction with a narrow gauge line from Beyrout to Damascus. The broad gauge line was part of the Baghdad railway scheme. But at this time, that railway, even between Constantinople and Aleppo, was only partially completed. The tunnelling of the Taurus Mountains was yet unfinished. Thus troops or supplies, coming from Constantinople to Damascus, had to break the journey at the Taurus Mountains and again at Rayak. These two interruptions provided admirable opportunities for delay and confusion, which the dilatory Turk embraced. The tunnelling of the Taurus was pushed on with during the war, and in 1918 rumours reached us that these mountains had been pierced, so that trains could then run through from Constantinople (Haida Pasha) to Rayak. The installation of more business-like Germans at the latter station went far towards minimising the delays and confusion due to the break of gauge.
From Damascus, the Hejaz railway, constructed nominally for Mecca pilgrims, runs due south, and, passing along the high plateau of Eastern Palestine, had already reached Medina. A branch from this line, starting from a junction at Deraa, ran westwards along the Plain of Esdraelon to Haifa. Another line, almost parallel to the Hejaz railway, ran from Damascus due south to Mezerib; this line was removed by the Turks after the commencement of the war, as the materials were required for railway construction elsewhere. Unconnected with any of these railways, a French line ran from Jaffa to Jerusalem; this also the Turks removed, as between Jaffa and Ludd, while, for the remainder of its length, they altered the gauge so as to adapt it to the rolling stock of the Hejaz Railway. All these railways south of Damascus were narrow-gauge lines, without much rolling stock available, so that their carrying capacity was limited.
On the outbreak of war, the Turks, acting under the guidance of the Germans, embarked upon a considerable programme of railway construction. Starting from a point on the Plain of Esdraelon, El Apele, they constructed a new line which crossed the mountains about Samaria and reached the Plain of Sharon at Tul Keram. Thence it ran down the length of the Coastal Plain to Beersheba, and, ultimately, to Auja in the Desert. This railway was constructed in 1915 for the invasion of Egypt. Into this railway was incorporated portions of the old Jaffa-Jerusalem line, as between Ludd and "Junction Station." This was the none too distinctive name given to the important station which was constructed at the point where the older railway left the Plain; this now became the junction for Jerusalem. At a later date, the Turks withdrew from Auja to Beersheba, the line south of the latter place was removed and a new line was constructed from near Junction Station to points just north of Gaza.
Roads in the coastal sector are good, though difficult for heavy motor traffic after rain. In the hills, the only first-class roads were the road running north and south along the ridge from Nablus through Jerusalem to Beersheba, and the road west and east from Jaffa to Jerusalem, continued eastwards through Jericho and across the Jordan to Es Salt and Amman Station on the Hejaz Railway.
The population of Palestine is very mixed, comprising Moslems, Christians and Jews with their various subdivisions and sects. The Moslem inhabitants, Arabs and Syrians, have little in common with the Turks except their religion. The Jews and the Christians groaned under Turkish oppression. Both Jews and Christians welcomed the advent of the British, while the Moslems accepted the situation, if not with pleasure, at least with equanimity. The Turks themselves form no part of the regular population. They are alien rulers, speaking a language unknown to the people, and incapable of understanding the language of the country. Although Palestine has been governed by Moslems for upwards of a thousand years, it has only been annexed to the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. More than once during that period it would have been torn away but for the aid of the British. The government of Syria by the Ottoman Turk had been oppressive and corrupt and marked by the discouragement of all progress and enterprise. It was high time that it should cease.
[Footnote 1: The point chosen is imaginary. The view described combines those obtainable from two or three points in this neighbourhood.]
Gaza! What pictures this name conjures up in our imagination. From childhood the city has been familiar to us for its dramatic associations with Samson. It was here that he removed the city gates and carried them to the summit of Ali Muntar, "to the top of an hill that is before Hebron," and it was here that he took hold of the two middle pillars, and, bowing himself with all his might, destroyed the temple of Dagon with the thousands of Philistines that were his tormentors. The whole history of Gaza is steeped in blood. It is the outpost of Africa, the gate of Asia. Throughout the ages its strategic importance has been immense. Scarcely an invading army has passed here without fighting a battle. It figured in the wars of the Eastern invaders, was totally destroyed by Alexander the Great, was the scene of one of Napoleon's battles, and, during our campaign, saw six months of trench warfare and no less than three distinct and sanguinary engagements. In the course of its history, Gaza is said to have been taken and destroyed in war between forty and fifty times. No city in the world has been destroyed more often. Happy, indeed is the city that has no history!
Prior to this war, Gaza was a town of some 40,000 inhabitants, mostly Moslems, to whom the city is sacred. It owed its importance in modern times to being the junction of the caravan routes from Egypt to Syria and from Arabia to the Mediterranean. The town itself stands back some couple of miles from the sea, from which it is separated by sand dunes. It is surrounded by gardens and plantations; most of these are bordered by thick cactus hedges, which played a prominent part in the days of trench warfare. The surrounding country is by no means level, but consists of rolling arable land with low ridges and some hills. The most prominent feature is the hill, Ali Muntar, a commanding height south-east of the town. When we first approached it, the hill was clad with trees and surrounded by a tomb; but six months' persistent bombardment soon removed the trees and tomb and altered the conformation of the hill. There are other ridges lying about the town, which were afterwards incorporated in the defensive schemes of the Turks and of ourselves. The geographical feature of principal military importance in this neighbourhood is the Wadi Ghuzzeh. This wadi is a watercourse, which, in times of rain, carries off the water from the hills between Beersheba and the Dead Sea. It runs, approximately, from south-east to north-west, at right angles to the coast line, and passes Gaza at a distance of about 4 miles from the south-western or Egyptian side of the town. During the greater part of the year this watercourse is dry, though the sides are steep, and wheeled traffic can only cross at properly constructed crossings. On either side of this wadi, distant a mile or so from its bed, are ridges which run approximately parallel to the wadi. That on the right bank is known as Mansura Ridge, that on the left bank as In Seirat. The latter is a relatively high ridge and affords cover for troops beyond. On the other side of this ridge, protected by it, and distant some nine or ten miles from Gaza, is a small village with a good supply of water. This village is known as Deir el Belah, or, more frequently, merely as Belah. It formed our advanced base during the later operations against Gaza.
We have seen that, at the end of February, 1917, General Dobell's force had reached El Arish, while portions of it had crossed the border at Rafa, and his cavalry had occupied Khan Yunus. The Turks had withdrawn to Gaza, where they now took up a position. They had one force at Gaza and another in the neighbourhood of Beersheba, with other troops between. In March, it was decided to attack the enemy at Gaza. The British force was concentrated at Rafa, whence it marched up secretly by night. On the night of the 25th March, it moved forward from Belah against the first objective, the In Seirat Ridge. This was secured without serious opposition. There was a dense fog on the morning of the 26th, and, as the troops were moving through standing crops, finding the way was none too easy. However, the Wadi Ghuzzeh was crossed, and the high ground at Mansura Ridge was secured. From there, an attack was delivered across the open against Ali Muntar and Gaza. The main attack was made by the 53rd Division, plus one Brigade of the the 54th, while the 52nd Division were in reserve. Our troops captured, and established themselves on Ali Muntar, and also on the hill beyond, known as Australia Hill. From these points they looked down upon and dominated the town of Gaza. Meanwhile, the cavalry had been ordered to go round by the right, and to cut off the enemy when he should retreat. The cavalry not only got round, but succeeded in entering the town itself, where they captured some of the Turkish staff. The Turks believed that the game was up, and were now preparing to surrender. It was the opinion of many who took part in the battle, that, had we held on for a short time longer, we should have captured the town and the whole of this force, and that we should have then been in a position to meet and to defeat the enemy reinforcements, since the 52nd Division in reserve had not yet been brought into action. However, Turkish reinforcements were now reported to be coming up from the direction of Beersheba, and to be threatening our right flank. Accordingly, a withdrawal was ordered, and our troops fell back on the Mansura Ridge, the New Zealanders coming right through the town of Gaza itself. That night, orders were given for an immediate retirement, and our forces recrossed the Wadi Ghuzzeh. The bulk of the force retired to Belah, while outposts held the In Seirat Ridge. After a two days' battle, wherein complete success had been almost within our grasp, we had but little to show save casualties.
From the summit of In Seirat Ridge, a commanding view is obtained over the whole country from Gaza to Beersheba. From this point of vantage the Turks could be seen, throughout the first fortnight in April, busily digging themselves in and wiring their positions. We, on our side, were no less assiduous in preparations for another battle. Patrols were sent out to reconnoitre the country, and working parties went out into No Man's Land to construct ramparts and make all preparations for getting guns across the Wadi Ghuzzeh. The 74th Division were brought up to Belah. A few of the newly invented "tanks" arrived from England, and aroused great expectations.
The day of the second battle of Gaza arrived. On the 16th April, the force moved out from Belah and crossed the Wadi Ghuzzeh by night. On this occasion, the first objective was Mansura Ridge, which was captured without much difficulty. The second, and principal objective, was the strong line of Turkish positions to the south and south-east of Gaza, and fronting the Gaza-Beersheba road. The troops detailed for the attack were the 52nd, the 53rd and the 54th Divisions, the 54th to move forward from Mansura, the 52nd on their left and the 53rd close to the sea. It was contemplated that most of our difficulties would be obviated by a long artillery preparation and by the newly arrived tanks which had acquired a high reputation in France. Accordingly, the enemy positions were shelled for two hours, and then the infantry advanced, preceded by these tanks. But, alas, the tanks were few in number; some were soon put out of action, or caught fire; and the hopes that they had raised were disappointed. The infantry advanced over some 3,000 yards of perfectly open plain, until they reached the enemy's uncut wire; here they were mown down by the enemy's machine guns. That night, those that were able to do so, crept back under cover of darkness to Mansura Ridge. The dead lay where they fell, a gruesome spectacle, for over six months, until buried by our own parties after the third battle of Gaza. Those that returned were collected and reorganized at Mansura Ridge, and at once commenced to dig in at this position. This was the night of the 19th April. Next morning, the Turks came pouring out of their positions to gloat over their success. By this time we had done little more than scratch the surface; had the Turks closed to deliver a determined counter-attack, they might have made matters distinctly uncomfortable. As it was, they came out merely as spectators. Our guns opened upon them and they withdrew. After this, our digging proceeded apace, and we soon had a satisfactory position entrenched from Mansura to the sea.
There is a saying in the East that the British always come back, meaning that reverses only make them more determined to try again and to succeed. Thus did the British come back into the Soudan, and into the Transvaal. Thus was the surrender of Kut wiped out by the capture of Baghdad. And so were our losses at Gaza in this spring avenged by our victory on these same battlefields in the following autumn. For the time being, however, both sides settled down to the routine life of modern trench warfare.
Now followed a complete reorganization of our army in Egypt. On the 28th June, 1917, the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was taken over by General Sir Edmund Allenby, G.C.M.G., K.C.B. The organization into an Eastern Force under a subordinate commander, which had been instituted in the summer of 1916, was abolished, and the force was organized in Corps. The strength of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was augmented, much artillery being added, besides three divisions of infantry. The 10th (Irish) and the 60th (London) Divisions were brought across from Salonica. The 75th Division was organized in the country and consisted of four battalions of Indian troops, taken from the Suez Canal Zone defences, and nine battalions of West of England Territorials, that had been in the East since the beginning of the war, and had, for the most part, been garrisoning India.
When this reorganization was complete, this army was constituted as follows: The 20th Corps, comprising the 10th (Irish), the 53rd (Welsh), the 60th (London) and the 74th (Dismounted Yeomanry) Divisions. The 21st Corps, comprising the 52nd (Scottish Lowland), the 54th (East Anglian) and the 75th (Wessex and Indian) Divisions. The Desert Mounted Corps, comprising the Australian Mounted Division, the Anzac Mounted Division and the Yeomanry Division. General Allenby had, as his Chief-of-Staff, Major-General L. J. Bols, C.B., D.S.O. In addition to the above troops, there was, on this front, a composite brigade, consisting of French and Italians, familiarly known as the "Mixed Vermouth" Brigade. Other regiments were represented, such as Indian Imperial troops, and battalions of the British West India Regiment, while representative units of the Egyptian Army did duty upon the Lines of Communication.
Although each Division was associated with some particular portion of Great Britain, from which it took its name, the association was not exclusive. Thus, the 52nd Lowland Division had at least one Highland Battalion, the 53rd Welsh had more battalions from England than from Wales, and the 54th East Anglian contained one battalion from London and one from the South of England. It will be best, therefore, if, in our future pages, we refer to divisions only by number.
An interesting feature about General Allenby's army was that, from this time forward, the greater portion consisted of Territorials.
It was in the late summer of 1917 that the regiment with which I was serving joined the Expeditionary Force. Coming from India, we landed at Suez and were railed through at once to Kantara. This place we found a hive of industry, as befitted the military base of so important an expedition. Like other units similarly arriving from India, we were kept here for a fortnight. This time was devoted to the equipping of the battalion on the scale applicable to this country, with transport, draught and riding animals, Lewis guns and such other equipment as we required for the operations on which we were to embark.