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The Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War I was a series of battles which took place in the Sinai Peninsulamarker, Palestine, and Syriamarker between 28 January, 1915 and 28 October, 1918. Britishmarker, Indian, Australian, and New Zealandmarker forces opposed the Germanmarker and Turkish forces.

Ottoman advance towards the Suez Canal

The Ottoman Empire, at the urging of their German ally, chose to attack British and Egyptian forces in Egypt and shut the Suez Canalmarker in the First Suez Offensive. The Ottoman Fourth Army, under the command of the Turkish Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, was based in Jerusalemmarker. At this time, the Sinai was an almost empty desert and very hard for an army to cross as there were neither roads nor water sources. The chief of staff for the Ottoman Fourth Army was the Bavarian Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, who organized the attack and managed to get supplies for the army as it crossed the desert.

First Suez Offensive

The Ottoman Suez Expeditionary Force arrived at the canal on 2 February, 1915. The attack failed to achieve surprise as the British and Egyptians were aware of the Ottoman army's approach. In fighting that lasted for two days the Ottomans were beaten, losing some 2000 men. Allied losses were minimal.

Because the Suez Canal was vital to the Allied war effort, this failed attack caused the British to leave far more soldiers protecting the canal than they had planned on, resulting in a smaller force for the Gallipoli Campaign. The British forced the colonial Egyptian Army and Egyptian Navy to be enlarged to help defend Egypt. However, most Egyptians were poorly-armed and poorly-trained.

Battle of Romani

More than a year passed with the British troops content to guard the Suez Canal, and the Ottomans busy fighting the Russians in the Caucusus and the British at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. Then in July 1916, the Ottoman army tried another offensive against the Suez Canal. Again, the Ottomans advanced with an over-sized division. Again they ran into a well prepared Allied force, this time at Romani. Again, they retreated after two days of fighting from 3 August to 5 August, 1916.

Following this victory, the Allied forces sought to prevent the Turkish Canal Expeditionary Force threatening the Suez Canal, by removing them from Bir el Abd. On 9 August, 1916, an indecisive action was fought at Bir el Abd, leading to the Turkish withdrawal to El Arish while leaving a rear guard force at Bir el Mazar.

British advance across the Sinai

This attack convinced the British to push their defence of the Canal further out, into the Sinai, and so starting in October, the British under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell began operations into the Sinai desert and on to the border of Palestine. Initial efforts were limited to building a railway and a waterline across the Sinai. After several months building up supplies and troops, the British were ready for an attack. The first battle was the capture of a fortified position at Magdhaba on 23 December, 1916.

On 8 January, 1917, the Anzac Mounted Division attacked the fortified town of Rafamarker. The attack was successful and the majority of the Turkish garrison was captured. The British had accomplished their objective of protecting the Suez Canal from Turkish attacks, but the new government of David Lloyd George wanted more.

Palestine campaign

The British army in Egypt was ordered to go on the offensive against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine. In part this was to support the Arab revolt which had started early in 1916, but also to accomplish something positive after the years of fruitless battles on the Western Front. The British commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, suggested that he needed more troops and ships, but this request was refused.

The Ottoman forces were holding a rough line from the fort at Gazamarker, on the shore of the Mediterranean Seamarker, to the town of Beershebamarker, which was the terminus of the Ottoman railway that extended north to Damascus. The British commander in the field, Dobell, chose to attack Gaza, using a short hook move on 26 March, 1917.

First Battle of Gaza

The British attack was essentially a failure. Due to miscommunication, some units retreated when they should have held onto their gains and so the fortress was not taken.

The government in London believed the reports from the field which indicated a substantial victory had been won and ordered General Murray to move on and capture Jerusalemmarker. The British were in no position to attack Jerusalem as they had yet to break through the Ottoman defensive positions. These positions were rapidly improved and credit for the Turkish defence is given to the German chief-of-staff Baron Kress von Kressenstein.

Second Battle of Gaza

A second attack on the fort of Gaza was launched one month later on 17 April, 1917. This attack, supported by naval gunfire, chlorine gas and even a few early tanks, was also a failure. It was essentially a frontal assault on a fortified position, and its failure was due more to inflexibility in operations than to faults in planning; yet it cost some 6,000 British casualties. As a result both General Dobell and General Murray were removed from command. The new man put in charge was General Sir Edmund Allenby and his orders were clear: take Jerusalemmarker by Christmas.

After personally reviewing the Ottoman defensive positions, Allenby requested reinforcements: three more infantry divisions, aircraft, and artillery. This request was granted and by October, 1917, the British were ready for their next attack.

The Ottoman army had three active fronts at this time: Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Gaza front. They also had substantial forces deployed around Constantinoplemarker and in the (now quiet) Caucasus front. Given all these demands, the army in Gaza was only about 35,000 strong, led by the Ottoman General Kustafa and concentrated in three main defensive locations: Gaza, Tel Es Sheria, and Beersheba. Allenby's army was now much larger, with some 88,000 troops in good condition and well-equipped.

Battle of El Buggar Ridge

The occupation of Karm by the Allies on 22 October, 1917 created a major point for supply and water for the troops in the immediate area. For the Ottoman forces, the establishment of a railway station at Karm placed the defensive positions known as the Hureira Redoubt and Rushdie System which formed a powerful bulwark against any Allied action under threat.

To forestall this threat, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Commander of the Yildirim Group, proposed a two phase attack. The plan called for a reconnaissance in force from Beersheba on 27 October, to be followed by an all out attack launched by the 8th Army from Hureira. This second phase was ironically scheduled to occur on the morning of 31 October, 1917, the day when the Battle of Beersheba began.

Battle of Beersheba

A key feature of the British plan was to convince the Turks (and their German leaders) that once again, Gaza was to be attacked. This deception campaign was extremely thorough and convincing. The Battle of El Buggar Ridge, initiated by the Turks, completed the deception. When the Allies launched their attack on Beersheba, the Turks were taken by surprise. In one of the most remarkable feats of planning and execution, the Allies were able to move some 40,000 men and a similar number of horses over hostile and inhospitable terrain without being detected by the Turks. The climax of the battle was one of the last successful cavalry charges of modern warfare, when two Australian Light Horse regiments (4th and 12th) charged across open ground just before dusk and captured the town.

The Turkish defeat at Beersheba on 31 October was not a complete rout. The Turks retreated into the hills and prepared defensive positions to the north of Beersheba. For the Allies, the following days were spent fighting a difficult and bloody battle at Tel el Khuweilifeh, to the north east of Beersheba.

Allenby's Offensive, November-December 1917
To break through the Turkish defensive line, the Allied forces attacked the Ottoman positions at Tel Es Sheria on 6 November, and followed this up with a further attack at Huj the following day. With the imminent collapse of Gaza at the same time, the Turks quickly retreated to a new line of defence.

Third Battle of Gaza

On 7 November, the British attacked Gaza for the third time. The Turks, worried about being cut off, retreated in the face of the British assault. Gaza had finally been captured.

The Turkish defensive position was shattered, the Ottoman army was retreating in some disarray, and General Allenby ordered his army to pursue the enemy. The British followed closely on the heels of the retreating Ottoman forces. An attempt by the Turks to form a defence of a place called Junction Station (Wadi Sarar) was foiled by a British attack on 13 November. General Falkenhayn next tried to form a new defensive line from Bethlehemmarker to Jerusalem to Jaffamarker. The first British attack on Jerusalem failed but with a short rest and the gathering of more infantry divisions, Allenby tried again and on 9 December, 1917, Jerusalem was captured. This was a major political event for the British government of David Lloyd George, one of the few real successes the British could point to after three long bloody years of war.

On the Turkish side, this defeat marked the exit of Djemal Pasha, who returned to Istanbulmarker. Djemal had delegated the actual command of his army to German officers such as von Kressenstein and von Falkenhayn more than a year earlier, but now, defeated as Enver Pasha had been at the Battle of Sarikamismarker, he gave up even nominal command and returned to the capital. Less than a year remained before he was forced out of the government. General Falkenhayn was also replaced, in March 1918.

The final year: Palestine and Syria

Allenby's Final Attack, September 1918
The British government had hopes that the Ottoman Empire could be defeated early in the coming year with successful campaigns in Palestine and Mesopotamia but the Spring Offensive by the Germans on the Western Front delayed the expected attack on Syria for nine full months. General Allenby's army was largely redeployed to France and most of his divisions were rebuilt with units recently recruited in India. His forces spent much of the summer of 1918 training and reorganising.

Because the British achieved complete control of the air with their new fighter planes, the Turks, and their new German commander, General Liman von Sanders, had no clear idea where the British were going to attack. Compounding the problems, the Turks, at the direction of their War Minister Enver Pasha withdrew their best troops during the summer for the creation of Enver's Army of Islam, leaving behind poor quality, dispirited soldiers. During this time, the Turks were distracted by raids against their open desert (eastern) flank by forces of the Arab Revolt commanded by the Emir Feisal and coordinated by T. E. Lawrence and other British liaison officers, which tied down thousands of soldiers in garrisons throughout Palestine, Jordanmarker, and Syria.

Battle of Megiddo

General Allenby finally launched his long-delayed attack on 19 September, 1918. The campaign has been called the Battle of Megiddo (which is a transliteration of the Hebrew name of an ancient town known in the west as Armageddon). Again, the British made major efforts to deceive the Turks as to their actual intended target of operations. This effort was, again, successful and the Turks were taken by surprise when the British attacked Meggido in a sudden storm. The Turkish troops started a full scale retreat, the British bombed the fleeing columns of men from the air and within a week, the Turkish army in Palestine had ceased to exist as a military force.

The ultimate goal of Allenby's and Feisal's armies was Damascusmarker. Two separate Allied columns marched towards Damascus. The first, composed mainly of Australian and Indian cavalry, approached from Galilee, while the other column, consisting of Indian cavalry and the ad hoc militia following T.E. Lawrence, travelled northwards along the Hejaz Railway. Australian Light Horse troops marched unopposed into Damascus on 1 October, 1918, despite the presence of some 12,000 Turkish soldiers at Baramke Barracks. Major Olden of the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment received the Official Surrender of the City at 7 am at the Serai. Later that day, Lawrence's irregulars entered Damascus to claim full credit for its capture.

The war in Palestine was over but in Syria lasted for a further month. The Turkish government was quite prepared to sacrifice these non-Turkish provinces without surrendering. Indeed, while this battle was raging, the Turks sent an expeditionary force into Russia to enlarge the ethnic Turkish elements of the empire. It was only after the surrender of Bulgaria, which put Turkey into a vulnerable position for invasion, that the Turkish government was compelled to sign an armistice on 28 October, 1918, and surrendered outright two days later. Six hundred years of Ottoman rule over the Middle East had come to an end.

In popular media

This campaign has been depicted in several films. The most famous is Lawrence of Arabia (1962), though it focused primarily on T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Other films dealing with this topic include Forty Thousand Horsemen (1941), and The Lighthorsemen (1987), with Peter Phelps and Nick Waters, both of which focused on the role of the ANZAC forces during the campaign.


The British suffered a total of 550,000 casualties: more than 90% of these were not battle losses but instead attributable to disease, heat and other secondary causes. Total Turkish losses are unknown but almost certainly larger: an entire army was lost in the fighting and the Turks poured a vast number of troops into the front over the three years of combat.

Despite the uncertainty of casualty counts, the historical consequences of this campaign are hard to overestimate. The British conquest of Palestine led directly to the British mandate over Palestine and the Trans-Jordanmarker which, in turn, paved the way for the creation of the states of Israelmarker, Jordanmarker, Lebanonmarker, and Syriamarker.

See also

External links


  • Grainger, John D. (2006) The Battle for Palestine: 1917 Boydell Press. ISBN 1 84383 263 1
  • Bruce, Anthony (2002). The Last Crusade: The Palestinian Campaign in the First World War. John Murray.
  • Esposito, Vincent (ed.) (1959). The West Point Atlas of American Wars - Vol. 2. Frederick Praeger Press.
  • Fromkin, David (1989). A Peace to End All Peace. Avon Books.
  • Keegan, John (1998). The First World War. Random House Press.
  • Woodward, David R (2006). Forgotten Soldiers of the First World War - Lost Voices from the Middle Eastern Front. Tempus Publishing.
  • Preston, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Martin (1921) The Desert Mounted Corps: An Account of the Cavalry Operations in Palestine and Syria 1914 to 1918. Houghton Mifflin Company. Google Books Search

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