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  • James Houser

December 9, 1917 - The British Capture of Jerusalem and WWI in the Middle East

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 9, 1917. After almost 800 years, a European army once again enters the holiest of cities. The British General Sir Edmund Allenby has finally defeated the Ottoman armies in Palestine, and on this date his armies will capture Jerusalem. But there are already signs of trouble, and you could say this about every part of World War I in the Middle East. The seeds of today’s strife are sown here.

The Ottoman Empire is one of the more important parts of World War I that isn’t understood well enough. This was a dynasty that had controlled the Middle East for almost four centuries, keeping the peace among the many peoples of that land – even if it had to use a little violence and oppression along the way. Once the Ottomans were gone, though, things went to hell in a handbasket pretty fast, and here we are. But no one thinks about the Middle East when they think of World War I, even though it’s arguably the most obvious long-term effect that we see on the news daily. The Ottoman experience of World War I led directly to the creation of Israel, the rise of radical Islam, and the modern states of the Middle East. So in my final “broad World War I” overview post of the year, we’re looking at World War I in the Middle East.

The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, and everyone knew it. For about two centuries, they had been referred to as “the sick man of Europe,” since it was obvious that the Empire could no longer adequately defend itself due to its broken government, backwards economy and underdeveloped infrastructure. As the Ottomans continued to decline in power, they faced threats from every angle. The Austrians and then independent Balkan states stripped away almost all of their European lands, while the Russians advanced relentlessly south. The only time the Ottomans ever managed to stop the Europeans is when other, jealous Europeans joined them, like in the Crimean War in the 1850s. By 1914, Ottoman territory was still pretty large, but not what it once was: it still controlled modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Arabia, in addition to its Turkish heartlands. But for how long?

The Ottoman Empire’s citizens had no intention of going quietly. In 1908, a faction known as the Young Turks overthrew the old Emperor, replaced him with a compliant puppet, and took over the reins of government. The Young Turks were a set of modernizing nationalists, who wanted to save the Empire from utter collapse – which would inevitably mean European imperialism. If they’d been given time, the Young Turks might have had some success; their ideas weren’t bad. But it turned out to be too late for the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, an alliance of Balkan states launched an offensive against the Ottomans’ European territories, finally driving the Muslims from lands they had held since the 1300s. Italy, too, jumped on the Ottomans to conquer Libya. If the Young Turks had wanted to gain a breathing space to get their shit together and somehow take the Empire off life support, it didn’t look like they were going to get it.

The problem was that the Ottoman Empire was a state, but not a nation. The Young Turks wanted to build a unified country, but the problem was that nothing kept their subjects together besides the borders of the Empire. Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Kurds, and Turks all shared this land – and that’s before you got into religious differences. While the Young Turks tried to create an artificial nationalism, an “Ottomanist” kind of cultural unity, it was pointless. Such unity just didn’t exist. The Ottoman Empire was going to pull itself apart even if the Europeans didn’t pull it apart.

Ultimately, though, fear of the Europeans would hold the Ottoman Empire together just long enough to last throughout World War I. In contrast to many other countries in the Great War, the Ottomans would perform far BETTER than expected, and hold out much longer than anyone had predicted. The Ottoman military might not have loved the Sultan, but they realized that the European powers posed a direct mortal threat to Islamic lands, and rallied to defend their territories from the invader.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Young Turks faced a dilemma: it would be impossible for the Ottoman Empire to stay neutral and survive. In the years before the war, the Ottomans had been looking desperately for allies to help them preserve their territory from the other European powers. With Britain, France, and Russia all looking hungrily at certain Ottoman lands, the Young Turks had only one possible option for an alliance: Germany. This meant that they had no option but to join World War I. If the Germans won, but the Turks didn’t help, they would forfeit any gratitude and lose any hope of reclaiming their lost territories. If the Germans lost, then no one would stand in the way of Britain, France, and Russia cutting them up like a pork roast. For its own survival, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on October 29, 1914, in an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The entrance of the Ottoman Empire totally changed the complexion of the First World War, and helped to truly turn it into a global conflict. Russia, who was already in trouble after the battles of 1914, was now almost completely cut off from French and British war supplies, since the only open sea route was through the Ottoman-controlled Dardanelles. This turned the war against the Ottomans into a high priority for the Allies, and it would be the focus of their 1915 campaign – the attack on Gallipoli. But the Ottomans faced threats on many other borders.

The Ottoman Empire’s sprawling nature meant that four separate fronts would require its attention, arrayed like the four points of a tilted compass. To the northwest, near Constantinople itself, the Ottomans would have to fight off the great Allied offensive at Gallipoli throughout 1915-1916. The Allies were trying to launch a large offensive to capture Constantinople and open up the Dardanelles, so as to reestablish a link with Russia. The Turkish troops, though, put up a heroic resistance that surpassed all expectation. This was one of World War I’s epic and tragic battles, a monument to courage on all sides. It was at Gallipoli that the Ottomans revealed their inner strength and demonstrated that they were not going to go out easily. It also gave the Turks their war hero and future nationalist icon, Mustafa Kemal, the future “Ataturk.”

To the northeast, however, the Ottomans fared less well. Here their borders in the Caucasus – the modern states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan – ran up against those of Russia. The Caucasus was the site of the Ottomans’ first major campaign of the war when they tried to overwhelm a Russian army at Sarikamish in December 1914. The hideous weather and unforgiving terrain of the snowbound, lonely Caucasus killed more Turkish soldiers than the Russians, and by 1915 the Russians had gained victory and were pushing the Ottomans back. The Young Turks ended up blaming their defeat on the alleged treason of Armenian soldiers, and the result was the 20th Century’s first large-scale genocide. The Young Turk government would kill around a million Armenian Christians throughout 1915 and 1916. Armenian insurgent cells would later hunt down and assassinate several of the Young Turk leaders after the war. But the war in the Caucasus – miserable for both Russian and Ottoman – ground on, with mostly bad results for the Ottomans, until the Russian Revolution ended fighting there in 1917.

With the Gallipoli Offensive defeated, and the Russians out of the war, the main threat to the Ottoman Empire now came from its two southern fronts. Both of these were against its most dangerous enemy: the British Empire. The British had long had a love-hate relationship with the Ottoman Empire; they were often its most important trade partner and protected its integrity from other European powers. However, the British clearly had long-term designs on Ottoman territory, especially the oil-rich provinces of Iraq. It would be the British who ended up as the Ottoman nemesis in the end.

When Britain and the Ottomans found themselves at war, the British high command were of two minds. Some – the “Westerners” – wanted to concentrate all British strength on the Western Front against Germany, while the “Easterners” wanted to strike at Germany’s weaker Allies, particularly the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottomans were both a valid war target and an immediate target of British interests, this seemed ideal – but once again, the Ottomans proved to be a tougher nut to crack than anyone expected.

After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign against Constantinople, two avenues remained for the British to attack the Ottomans. The first was across the Suez Canal from British-controlled Egypt, with the goal of capturing Palestine and Syria, advancing up the Mediterranean coast. The other was from Kuwait, a British protectorate and ally, implying an advance up the Tigris and Euphrates into the heart of Iraq and possibly capturing Baghdad. Between these two routes of advance was the vast Arabian desert, which meant they would be unable to link up and support each other for most of the war. The Ottomans would use this to their advantage, shipping troops back and forth as needed.

The British tried to launch their major effort in Iraq at first, and experienced humiliating failure in the process. On October 23, 1914, four days after the Ottomans had declared war, the British landed an expeditionary force in southern Iraq. By November 23, they had seized the major port of Basra and begun the much-forgotten Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. The British force was primarily composed not of Tommies from Europe, but of Indian Army units from Bengal and Rajputana under British leadership. This army began a slow, poking campaign up the Tigris River under General Charles Townshend.

By November 1915, a year later, Townshend and his Indian troops had almost made their painstaking way up to Baghdad when they ran into a brick wall of solid Ottoman defense. When Townshend withdrew, the Ottomans followed, and soon surrounded his bedraggled army at the town of Kut. Despite attempts to break through and save the trapped British-Indian force, Townshend was eventually forced to surrender on April 29, 1916. The disaster at Kut sent 8,000 British Empire soldiers into captivity, with 21,000 more casualties from the British attempts to save them. The Mesopotamia campaign had turned out to be a dud – for now.

Townshend’s successor in Iraq, General Frederick Stanley Maude, was determined to renew the offensive. The British government debated for months over whether it was a good idea, but finally gave the OK, and in October Maude moved back up the Tigris in Townshend’s footsteps. He had 166,000 men, two-thirds of them Indians, but this time advanced cautiously and made no mistakes. By March 11, 1917, Baghdad was in British hands under Maude’s steady leadership, and by September the British had also taken Ramadi and were aiming for the oil fields of Mosul. The Ottomans had lost Iraq to the British for good.

The final front, and the most dramatic front of the Ottoman war, would end up being the fault line between Egypt and Palestine. It is one of the most ancient theaters of war in history. Here was where the Ancient Egyptians fought the Hittites, where the Romans had fought the Arabs, where the Crusaders had warred with the Muslims, where Napoleon had invaded the Ottomans back in 1798. Ancient names from the Bible would gain modern relevance as their names appeared on the newspaper headlines. Gaza, Jerusalem, Megiddo, Beersheeba – all the cities of the Holy Land became one of World War I’s forgotten battlegrounds.

The British had advanced carefully from Egypt throughout 1916, and by 1917 had cleared the Sinai Peninsula of Turkish troops. Soon, though, they ran headlong into Ottoman defense lines near the city of Gaza. The “British” forces in this engagement were actually a diverse force. While the Egyptian Expeditionary Force contained several British divisions, namely the 52nd Lowland Scots Division, the 53rd Welsh Division and the 54th East Anglian Division, its striking arm was its cavalry, in large part from Australia and New Zealand. These brigades of light horse from their faraway Commonwealth homelands would provide the tip of the spear.

No one really thinks of cavalry in World War I; the mental images are all infantry, tanks, and artillery. But in the deserts of the Middle East, in this age of limited motorization and this area of wide-open spaces, cavalry was still an essential component of battle. The horsemen of the British Army were the only way it could maneuver and strike the enemy with speed and surprise, and their great sweeping movements across the Arabian desert would be the last great hurrah of the British horse – on horse, that is. By 1939, the British cavalry regiments would be running on treads and tires instead of hooves.

But those days were far away. As it stood now, the British lined up against the Turkish forces near Gaza. The fight here would be a miniature of the Western Front, but instead of the mud in Flanders, it would be the open plains and poplar trees of Palestine. It resembled the traditional World War I battle in that both sides would fight from trenches with machine guns and heavy artillery, and the British even had a handful of tanks to back up their attack. What made the three (!) battles at Gaza different were that they took place in the desolate desert, at the very limits of supply capability, and with the wide open sands to their south perfect for cavalry warfare.

The First Battle of Gaza was launched on March 26, 1917. General Archibald Murray, the British commander in Egypt, was in charge of the attack, but he sat in Cairo and delegated responsibility to General Charles Dobell. The Ottomans were commanded by German General Kress von Kressenstein. Both sides mustered only small armies, about 36,000 for the British and 18,000 for the Ottomans. The British advance aimed to use their large cavalry formations to drive around the seaport of Gaza on the landward side, strike for the ocean, and surround the city by severing its land communications. Though the cavalry managed to achieve this, bad staff work and communications errors led to the cavalry commander withdrawing after the infantry failed in their attack. Murray, wanting to put a good face on the failure, reported the First Battle of Gaza as a victory; a delighted British government told him to press on and take Jerusalem, since Gaza was apparently taken.

When Murray and Dobell attacked again, the Turks were waiting, and a fierce slaughter erupted from April 17 to 19, 1917. The strong Ottoman fortifications proved unassailable, and the desert heat and the sand of the Holy Land choked off and confused the British Tommies and Australian diggers. Even though the British were using eight of the Mark I tanks (Palestine was the only other sector besides the Western Front where tanks were ever used in World War I), their frontal attacks came to nothing but heavy casualties. The British lost 6400 men, thoroughly depleting their tired units, despite the commitment of massive artillery support and even some of their limited air power. Murray, still having never visited the warfront from his base in Cairo, relieved Dobell; in turn, the War Office relieved Murray in June 1917. In his place they sent a new man to win the war in the Middle East: Sir Edmund Allenby.

Allenby was a dashing cavalryman with the gifts of leadership, adaptability, and tactical acumen. He had been serving on the Western Front since 1914 and brought a hefty dose of lessons learned to use on the current puzzle in front of Gaza. Despite pressure from the War Office, Allenby took his time to slowly build up his force and slowly turn up the screws on the Ottomans to his front. While the two infantry forces facing Gaza took part in constant skirmishes between the trench lines, Allenby trained his infantry in assault tactics. To their south, both sides engaged in running cavalry battles throughout the open, baking desert. Allenby had an ace in the hole: he was coordinating with a British agent named T.E. Lawrence, who had helped organize a massive anti-Ottoman revolt among the Arabs to the far south. Lawrence’s intelligence and diversion of Ottoman reinforcements would assist Allenby immeasurably.

On October 31, 1917, Allenby broke the stalemate – but not at Gaza. He sent his cavalry forces on a wide loop around the southern Palestinian city of Beersheba so they could launch a surprise attack on the eastern side of the city. It was a risky move, since failure to capture Beersheba in the first stroke would leave most of the cavalry stranded in the desert without water. The Desert Mounted Corps, made up almost entirely of Australians and New Zealanders, galloped throughout the night under a bright moon to emerge suddenly behind the Turkish lines. The light horse thundered into Beersheba wielding bayonets in their hands, one of the last successful cold-steel cavalry charges in history, overwhelming the Turkish defenders and securing Beersheba for good. The capture of Beersheba intact secured a critical water supply, allowing the infantry to make a much wider flanking move through the town and around the Turkish flank.

With his forces in Beersheba now positioned for the killer blow, Allenby assaulted the lines in front of Gaza on November 1. The town’s defenses were even stronger than before, with trenches fronted by barbed wire and backed by mutually supporting artillery. But Allenby’s Western Front experience introduced the methods of modern warfare: coordinated artillery strikes, air reconnaissance, tank-infantry cooperation and careful planning. The Welsh, Irish and Scots of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force finally crunched across the Gaza lines even as the Aussie and Kiwi cavalry dashed for the Turkish rear. By November 7, the Turks had abandoned Gaza and withdrew north.

Several more battles followed, with both sides running low on water as the British continued to push north against bitter Ottoman resistance. Allenby’s instructions had been to take “Jerusalem before Christmas,” and now English-speaking boots were treading the soil of the Holy Land. Tough fighting in the hills of Judea raged, and the place-names of the Old Testament were conquered one after another. In the face of Allenby’s determined attack, Ottoman resistance finally faltered and withdrew to a line along the heights to the north. On December 9, 1917, General Edmund Allenby entered the city of Jerusalem. In contrast to Kaiser Wilhelm’s pompous visit some years before, when he rode in atop a great stallion, Allenby dismounted and respectfully entered the city on foot – a sign of his adherence to the ancient significance of the city.

The First World War in the Middle East was not over. In September 1918, Allenby would win his greatest victory of all when his multinational army overran the Turks near Megiddo (aka Armageddon), a massive breakthrough exploited to the hilt by his Desert Mounted Corps. The Megiddo Offensive nearly destroyed the Ottoman army in Palestine, and Allenby’s troops thundered north against scant resistance, shadowed to the east by T.E. Lawrence and his Arab allies. On October 1, Damascus fell to the British, and by October 25 they had also occupied Aleppo. Five days later, the Ottomans signed an armistice, and the First World War in the Middle East was truly over.

But chaos in the Middle East had only just begun. By winning their campaigns in Iraq and Palestine, the British had taken on a far greater burden than they imagined. The end of the Ottoman Empire aroused nationalist passions from many different peoples, including the Jews. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, given by British Foreign Minister David Balfour, expressed open support for a “national home of the Jewish people” in as-yet unconquered Palestine. This letter was released to the press on November 9, 1917, at the same moment that Allenby’s men were winning the Third Battle of Gaza. Though the British now officially backed Jewish settlement in Palestine, this became a tough pill to swallow in later years and would cause them – and the Middle East – no end of trouble in the future. Through their conquest of Palestine, the seeds of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict had been sown, whatever the momentary triumph of Allenby’s dramatic entry into the holiest of cities.

The European conquest of the Middle East also resulted in those lands being divided up by Western fiat rather than by ethnic or religious lines, greatly angering many Middle Easterners – including the Arab rebels who had fought by the side of the British. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided up the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, granting Syria and Lebanon to France and Palestine and Iraq to Britain. Their decisions, their policies, and their disdain for the desires of the native people would go a long way towards turning the Middle East into the mess it is today. The Ottomans hadn’t done a great job, but the British and French would be worse, and they would make the Muslim peoples of the Middle East yearn for the days when they had been respected and feared. The Ottoman war effort would be remembered, not as the last gasp of a dying empire, but of the great stand against the Western imperialists. A new, radical form of Islam would begin to rise from the ashes of the Ottoman state, committed to the final defeat of the West.

Why do I talk about World War I so much? Because in a sense, we’re still fighting parts of it to this day.

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