150: Middle East: Gaza and Beersheba


The war in the Middle East would come to an end, but not before a successful British attack at Gaza and Beersheba.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 150, we made it to 150. This is our fifth episode in our chronicle of events in the Middle East in the last two years of the war. Last episode saw the British troops advance out of Egypt and into Palestine where they were stopped by Ottoman troops at Gaza. This episode will see a new leader arrive for the troops in the theatre in the form of General Allenby. Allenby would then lead the British and Commonwealth forces in the Third Battle of Gaza, by far the most well known of the battles in the Palestinian theatre. Victory during this battle would then lead to the capture of Jerusalem, and then to advances beyond, eventually all the way into Syria. This will be our final episode on the events of the war in the Middle East, with our focus next week shifting to events after the armistice in 1918.

When General Edmund Allenby found out that he was being moved from France to Palestine in June 1917 he was not very pleased. France was seen as the main event, the main theatre, everything else was just a sideshow, and Allenby saw this transfer to the Middle East as basically a demotion. he was being sent because Lloyd George still strongly believed that the war would be won outside of Western Europe, and he was constantly searching for an alternative place to focus the British war effort. The Middle East was the prime point of these efforts, but the failure at Second Gaza prompted him to want a new commander, which would hopefully be more successful. When Allenby was sent to Egypt Lloyd George would recall that “I told him in the presence of Sir William Robertson that he was to ask us for such reinforcements and supplies as he found necessary, and we would do our best to provide them. ‘If you do not ask it will be your fault. If you do ask and do not get what you need it will be ours.’ I said the Cabinet expected ‘Jerusalem before Christmas.’” When Allenby arrived he would indeed ask for reinforcements, a lot of them, he wanted several more infantry divisions and with those divisions he would once again attack at Gaza.

The plan for the Third Battle would in some ways be very similar to what had been done at the second. The big change, and the most famous change, was the decision to also launch an attack at Beersheba. In 1917 Beersheba was just a small village, but it was still a major nexus of roads, with five major roads radiating out of the village and then several smaller tracks leading in all directions. This action had been discussed during the planning for previous attacks but had been denied due to a lack of resources, which was not as much of a problem for Allenby. The plan that would be used would be the one put forward by General Chetwode and in this attack the Beersheba operation would be the responsibility of a newly created Desert Mounted Corps, which contained 3 cavalry divisions, and the 20th Corps, made up of four infantry divisions. This troops would move forward with their attack several days after the bombardment at Gaza had begun, but before the attack had began. The hope was that this large effort would pull Ottoman reinforcements to the east, while still capturing the city and its surroundings. Once the city, and more importantly the wells within the city, were captured the cavalry would then continue to the north and west to try and cut off the Ottoman retreat. This retreat would be caused by the second main point of effort, near Gaza, which would be launched after several days of artillery fire. This would then hopefully put the Ottomans to flight, then run them right into the Desert Mounted Corps from Beersheba. If all of this could be achieved the British would be able to advance almost as far as their feet could take them.

During the planning and preparation phase it was critical that the British cheep the attack at Beersheba a secret, while the British would have more men, they were far away from more support and they had to capture the village quickly or they would run out of water. To try and maintain the required secrecy there was a lengthy series of deceptions built into the preparations for the attack. The longest lasting of these would be the cavalry demonstrations that were made near the twon that got the Ottomans used to seeing some troops near their lines, and it also gave the British good cover to allow them to examine the ground and survey the Ottoman defenses. The second, more immediately impactful, and quite honestly far more interesting deception was performed by Colonel Meinertzhagen. Meinertzhagen would have a plan which was permitted where he went out on a fake reconnaissance mission towards the Ottoman lines near Beersheba. During this mission he allowed himself to be spotted and engaged by the Ottomans. When this engagement began he dropped his rifle, notebooks, some letters, and some money and ran away while also faking a wound. These documents, which were all fake and spoke of fake plans, were recovered by the Ottomans and sent up the chain of command. An Australian patrol was sent into the area to act like they were frantically searching for the lost possessions, which they knew that the Ottomans already had, so that the Ottomans would be more likely to think that they were genuine. When these documents were given to the German and Ottoman commanders in the area they were not sure that they should believe them, knowing that there was a chance they were fake. Even though they were skeptical of the information it would still throw them off the scent of the upcoming attack, sowing doubt which was just enough to give the British the opportunity for surprise.

For the effort at Gaza the British had assembled over 200 artillery pieces, including, critically, 68 heavy guns. These guns were then provided with mountains of ammunition, allowing them to fire for over a week while the fighting was occurring both in Gaza and Beersheba. Overall, this would be the heaviest bombardment of the war in the Middle East, and it would be against Ottoman defenses that were not nearly as strong as those that the British encountered on the Western Front. In many places the defenses were only a single line, instead of a defense in depth, and this allowed for the guns to focus on just a few targets. As I mentioned earlier, even though the guns would begin to fire at Gaza, that was not the first point of effort, instead that would be the attack at Beersheba.

The movement of troops to the east and toward Beersheba would take place over the course of an entire week. The reason that it took this long was to allow for the greatest possible secrecy while both the Desert Mounted Corps and the XX Corps were slowly shifts. Two whole corps was a large number of troops in comparison to the total strength that Allenby had at his disposal and the total number of expected Ottoman defenders. This overwhelming force was thought necessary becuase quickly capturing Beersheba was essential. The large number of British troops and cavalry dedicated to the attack could not be properly supplied from the main British area around Gaza, it was essential that they capture the wells in Beersheba to allow them to have the required water for both men and horses. The attempts to keep these large movemetns secret, for the most part, failed, and by October 23, a full week before the attack was due to launch, the Ottomans already knew that something was going to happen. The biggest clue was that so many of the camps behind the British front had been abandoned. While they realized that an attack might happen there was not too much that the Ottomans could do other than work harder on their defenses that they were even right before the attack trying to complete. The fortifications were the sparsest to the east and north of the town, while to the south and west they were in far better shape. The Ottomans did have one advantage that the British could not take away, the British had to get into Beersheba, the water issue was critical, and therefore all the defenders had to do was hunker down in their trenches, behind their barbed wire and with their machine guns and hold out, even for a single day, and let third defeat their enemies. Before the attack was launched the British infantry, who would be responsible for capturing the stronger Ottoman defenses to the south and westof Beersheba, slowly pushed closer to Ottoman lines. Behind them the mounted troops, who were the last to arrive, pushed to the eastern side of the village, hoping that they remained partially out of sight of the Ottoman defenders to maintain some form of surprise.

While the Ottomans knew that something might happen soon, when it did actually occur and the infantry assault went forward early in the morning of October 31 they were taken, at least momentarily, by surprise. The infantry attack went forward in two stages, the first was an advance over the broken ground up to the Ottoman wire. Then the infantry paused while they cut the wire, which had been partially damaged by the artillery but not completely cleared. Once this was complete the artillery was moved forward so that it would be in better range of the defenders. During this lull the attackers were vulnerable to Ottoman fire, but the infantry were able to partially protect themselves in the broken ground and this helped to reduce the number of casualties they took, although it did not eliminate them entirely. Once the guns were in their new positions the attack continued and while the Ottoman defenders put up a good fight there were just too many attackers and by the early afternoon their positions had been taken. Casualties were around 1100 for the British and probably similar for the Ottomans although their numbers are a bit more fuzzy.

To the east of the village the ANZAC cavalry was in position for their attack by 8:30AM after having been on the move all night to hide their movements. Their objectives were the two important hills of Tell es-Saba and Bir es-Sqati which were two the east and northeast of the village respectively. Bir es-Sqati was the responsibility of the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade and when they attacked they moved forward quickly in a dispersed formation. When they came within rifle range of the defenders they then dismounted and made their final assault on foot. This was a textbook attack for the Australian cavalry as they prepared before the war, with the cavalry acting more as mounted infantry armed with rifles, instead of the more traditional saber armed cavalry. While Bir es-Sqati had not been greatly difficult to capture, Tell es-Saba was a different matter. Here the New Zealand Mounted Brigade was tasked with taking the hill, with the Australian 3rd Light Horse Regiment on their left for support. On this hill the Ottoman defenses were stronger and better aided by the terrain, the hill was steeper and it provided better fields of fire for machine guns. Even with this increased difficulty the hill would still be captured, although it would take until mid-afternoon which delayed the next part of the attack.

While the first wave of attacks had went well, although they were slightly delayed, the most important attack still had to take place, the assault on the village itself. The slight delay in the previous attacks from the west and east meant that there was some question about whether or not the attack on the village should be performed at all. General Chauvel, who commanded the Desert Mounted Corps, only had two mounted brigades left in reserve, the 4th Australian Light Horse and the British 5th Mounted Brigade. If left to his own devices it is likely that Chauvel would have chosen to close down the attacks at this point. In this type of situation it was often felt, and had been taught before the war, that it was better to put the health of the horses near the top of the list of concerns, even if it meant not capturing an objective. If the attack was launched and failed there could have been some very serious consequences for the horses. However, when Chauvel discussed the situation with Allenby, he was told by Allenby that the attack should definitely be performed, and as soon as possible. With his orders in hand Chauvel began planning for the attack, although there were not many otpions. Really the only thing that could be done was a direct cavalry charge against the Turkish positions, it was the only option that could be done by the forces at hand, and the only one fast enough to capture the village on that day. These orders would be sent out at about 4:30 in the afternoon with the 4th Light Horse Brigade ordered to assault, over open ground, the Ottoman positions to the southeast of Beersheba, and then to drive through them and into the village. Also at roughly 4:30 the Ottoman commander in Beersheba, Ismet Bey began the process of evacuating his forces, believing that his situation was untenable. With this order the town would fall to the Australian attack, the only question was whether or not the Ottomans would have enough time to properly sabotage and destroy the wells first. The British did not know that the process of destruction had begun, or that they were now racing against time.

Two of the Australian cavalry regiments lined up with 4 yards between each man, and began to move forward. They were supported by two batteries of horse artillery and a few other artillery guns. With most of the Ottoman forces abandoning the city those left in the rearguard would have little support. Those that were in this rearguard would stay and fight, but they found it difficult to accurately aim at the fast charging cavalry. One of the cavalrymen was Lieutenant-Colonel Murray Bourchier “It was noticed […] that the morale of the enemy was greatly shaken through our troops galloping over his positions thereby causing his riflemen and machine gunners to lose all control of fire discipline” Some Ottoman machine guns began to fire on the left, but were rapidly silenced by British guns. When the first Australians reached the first line of trenches they dismounted and fought hand to hand with the defenders, those behind continued the charge towards the town. The Ottoman defenders had no hope of holding the line, and while they did inflict some casualties, almost 2,000 of them would be captured. With the attack developing so rapidly, the Ottoman and German engineers who were trying to sabotage the wells were only partially successful. However, they did have enough time to destroy some of the wells, reducing the ability of the cavalrymen to water their horses. This would then result in the cancellation of the third phase of the attack, the advance to the north and west to get behind the Ottoman troops at Gaza. The attack at Beersheba is best known for the cavalry charge that ended the day, it is a good example of how a properly executed cavalry charge could still be effective, but it was against an enemy that was already starting to retreat, in positions that were quite weak and not adequately protected by barbed wire.

With the capture of Beersheba the focus of the attack shifted back to the west and to Gaza. The goal of this attack was to break through the defensive line between the city and the coast. The Ottoman defenders had put a lot of work into these defenses in the 6 months before the attack and it resulted in fortification complexes that were far stronger than during the first two battles of Gaza. One advantage that the defenders had, and a disadvantage that the British would have to deal with was the composition of the ground which they were on. The Ottoman defenses were based on firm ground, often anchored in stone, however the British would have to attack over sand dunes, which is never easy. There were also grand plans for the attack, with up to five stages being planned, however, they would be mostly unsuccessful. The British were able to pry the Ottoman defenders out of some positions but by the afternoon they were no longer pushing forward, even at great cost. This would necesitate more fighting on November 4th, and then on the 6th as well. By this point the Ottoman defenders were finally pushed out of some of their strongest positions around Gaza and the decision was made to retreat. By the time that the British realized what was happening the Ottomans were already on their way out of the city.

After the attack, and even until today, there has been a lot of discussion about the attacks at Gaza and Beersheba. There are many who believe that the attacks at Beersheba were a mistake, and they weakened the attacks at Gaza which made them much less successful. The biggest area where the attacks were weakened was in cavalry support and perhaps if the cavalry that attacked at Beersheba had been instead been used at Gaza then the Ottoman retreat could have been properly followed and exploited, perhaps even preventing the Ottomans from reestablishing a defensive line to the north of Jerusalem. However, all of these possible outcome are complete guesses. One concrete change that came about due to the actions at Beersheba was a change in how cavalry were used for the rest of the war in the Middle East. The Australians had come into the war strongly believing in the supremacy of mounted infantry, not traditional cavalry. Mounted infantry were designed to move forward on horse, and to use the speed of their horses to close the distance quickly, but then they were expected to dismount before getting into any serious fighting. The success of the charge at Beersheba began to change this. A memorandum that was circulated in January 1918 would state the new viewpoint of cavalry in the Middle East like this “(i). Mounted troops are capable today, as in the past, of crossing a fire swept zone, so long as they move quickly and extended. In most of the attacks the Squadrons of each Regiment followed on another in a succession of waves. They were carried through at the gallop. (ii). The moral effect of a mounted attack has lost none of its potency. On one occasion the horses were so exhausted, after the gallop, that the enemy, if he had stood his ground, could have shot down our men with ease as they topped the crest. (iii). It is in close cooperation with infantry and not when acting independently, that mounted troops may expect to find the most favourable conditions, and to gain the most far-reaching results”

After the Ottoman retreat from Gaza it was only a matter of time before the British captured Jerusalem, and this was accomplished on December 11th. I’m sure it would not shock modern listeners to hear that the capture of this city was important, but it was also fraught with new difficulties for Allenby. I will let Matthew Hughes from his work General Allenby and the Campaign of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, June 1917 - November 1919 explain some of the difficulties experienced by Allenby and how he tried to get around them “With Allenby’s advance to Jerusalem France and Britain had to deal with the political problem of who was to administer Palestine. François Georges Picot, as the head of the French mission in Palestine, attempted to assert his control with Allenby at a meal following Jerusalem’s fall. The result is amusingly recounted by T.E. Lawrence who was present and remembered how when Picot told Allenby that he would take over the civil government of Jerusalem, ‘a silence followed’ as ‘salad, chicken mayonnaise, and foie gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched’. For a moment Allenby’s entourage thought that their, ‘idol might betray a frailty. But his [Allenby] face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward.. .whilst he said grimly, “In the military zone the only authority is that of the Commander-in-Chief - myself.”’ Allenby’s intransigence forced Picot to protest: “But Sir Grey, Sir Edward Grey”.. .He was cut short. “Sir Edward Grey referred to the civil government which will be established when I judge that the military situation permits”.”

The capture of Jerusalem would represent a milestone for the attack into Palestine, it had been the most important objective, and capruting it by Christmas had been the goal since Allenby arrived. With it now achieved, the question became what to do next. The British knew that they would have to take some time to prepare for the next steps, and there were both ambitious and non-ambitious suggestions in terms of what those next steps should be. By far the most ambitious was a proposal to launch and amphibious landing at Alexandretta. This city was hundreds of miles north of Allenby and his forces in Palestine, but a successful landing would have been a huge blow to the Ottoman war effort and would have cut the railway that was supplying all of the Ottoman forces in Palestine and Syria. This plan never came to fruition with the previous British amphibious failures, like at a place called Gallipoli, playing no small part in giving the British cold feet. A less ambitious plan which was followed through on was the launching of raiding expeditions north of Jerusalem. In these raids the Arab forces under Feisal Hussein played a critical role. There were two primary raids launched, one in late March and the other in early May. During these attacks the Arab cavalry would harrass and execute hit and run attacks against the Ottoman supply areas. These raids would make the situation for the Ottoman troops, especially those south of Damascus, almsot untenable.

For the first half of 1918 Allenby did not think that he would be able to advance deep into Syria, to start with, after the capture of Jerusalem many of his British units were sent back to Europe. Much like almost every other European general, and not without a slight dash of racism, Allenby believed that these British infantry units were his best men. There was also the slight problem of geography and how extended such an advance would make the British supply lines. In some ways Allenby’s mindset would mirror the views of many Western Front generals who did not believe that the attacks in 1918 would actually end the war and when they did launch an offensive, which for Allenby came at the Battle of Megiddo, the massive success surprised them. Instead of being able to properly retreat like they had at Gaza and Beersheba the Ottoman forces instead, just sort of fell apart. Once it was clear to Allenby that the ottoman forces were disintegrating in front of him, the race was on. Soon Indian cavalry was on its way to Damascus and other troops continued ever further north. Damascus would soon be captured, a symbolic victory on par with Jerusalem, and with its fall the Ottomans began to discuss peace.

The Ottoman government began to send out serious peace feelers during the first week of October. The British wanted to discuss possible peace terms with the Supreme War Council which contained British, French, American, and Italian representatives. The British also began to move even greater naval strength into the eastern Mediterranean. Much like in other areas, as soon as the war appeared to be on its way to completion the greatest enemy for the British became the French. The greatest fear in London was that the war would end too soon, before the British could occupy all of the areas that they wanted to control after the war. This fear would cause them to move troops from Mesopotamia to Mosul and in Syria it meant an advance towards Aleppo. The final armistice would be signed on October 30th, its conditions represented, essentially, a total surrender for the Ottoman Empire, their empire was finished.