World War I in the Middle East. How the Allied campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine rebuked the popular definitions of World War I era warfare
Elaboration 2016 26 Pages
World War I is most often explained in the context of how it was the terminal turning point in how warfare was waged, namely that World War I was when the weapons of industrial powers outpaced the type of head-on collision of massive numbers of men that had been the preemptive military strategy for millennia. This paper does not attempt to dispute this argument, instead it argues that while World War I was undoubtedly “a war that changed war”, there was a campaign waged between major powers in World War I that can be deemed “traditional” in the sense that men and their actions decided the fate and outcome, versus the manufactured warfare fought elsewhere, especially the western front in Europe. This campaign was the war waged in the Middle East between the British and the Ottoman Turks over the contested territory of Palestine, which may well have been one of the last “traditional” campaigns fought on this Earth.
By using primary sources from World War I and more contemporary material, this paper will compare how drastically different the Palestine campaign was compared to how people view World War I in popular memory. World War I often gets “squeezed” into an easy definition that can explain a truly “world” war. It is important for historians, students of history, and everyday world citizens however to understand that historical events, especially involving war, are often vastly more complicated and diverse than they are made out to be.
The reasons why the Palestine campaign defies popular conceptions of World War I are plentiful. One of the most prominent however, is the numbers of troops involved there. Both the British and the Ottoman Turks had “main” fronts elsewhere, such as the western front in Europe for the British and the Gallipoli and Caucasus campaign by the Turks. Therefore, the numbers of troops involved in actions in the Middle East were a fraction of those employed elsewhere.
In addition, the environment largely dictated how battles would be fought in Palestine. The harsh desert heat meant that many large-movement operations had to occur at night, while resting during the hottest parts of the day. The desert sand hindered movement dramatically, so many of the newer technological innovations employed on other fronts had no factor in the Middle East. Water became one of, if not the most important factor in deciding when battles would be waged and how it would be obtained after the battle was over. In this way, the Palestine campaign was a much more primitive campaign. Robin Prior says of Sir Archibald Murray’s advance across the Sinai, “So he would advance across the Sinai but only at the pace of the water pipeline, a railway, and an improvised wire-based road across the sand that accompanied him. The pace of all this was glacial.” The ability of armies to procure water in the desert landscape and transport it, along with food and ammunition across vast distances was as equally important as planning and waging warfare itself was.
The style of warfare waged in the Palestine campaign also differed from the common conceptions of World War I battle. The vastly smaller numbers of troops, coupled with wide uninhabited desert landscapes dictated that for the vast majority of the campaign, movement would consume battle. Unlike the western front in Europe, every day held open the possibility of large-scale attacks that could cover dozens of miles of land. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau says, “It was only in the Near East, in an immense and fluid theatre of operations in desert conditions, that movement remained fully operational as a daily possibility until the end.” This also meant that battles were waged relatively quickly, lasting hours even, compared with those in Europe and elsewhere that could be waged for months. As before mentioned, troop levels were incredibly low when compared elsewhere, and supply lines were often stretched thin. Therefore, the armies of Britain and the Ottoman Turks often did not have either the manpower or the supplies to constantly reinforce and resupply weakened defenses, and a retreat was more often than not the tactic employed when the battle was lost.
World War I also changed the dogma of how much a role “natural forces” and machinery would respectively play in battle. On the western front in Europe, horses and cavalry became essentially useless in actual battles due to the prominence of repeating rifles and machineguns, being relegated to actions behind the lines such as moving heavy artillery pieces and equipment. “The massive presence of aircraft and tanks on the Western Front at the end of the war signaled the definitive end of the role of traditional cavalry as a breakthrough force on the modern battlefield.” In Egypt and Palestine, “nature”, in this case horses and camels were still a preeminent force in warfare. The great distances between battles and harsh desert environment dictated that “primal” forms of transportation still acted paramount. Even military maneuvers like the cavalry charge with sabers drawn occurred in the Palestinian campaign.
Lastly, the Palestine campaign in World War I was traditional and unique compared to the other campaigns in that “personality” did not disappear. Until World
War I, war had been described in all of its glory often by the popular names of the men who waged it. Names like Napoleon, Lee, Helmuth von Moltke and others formed the perception of what warfare should be; formidable generals whose battlefield bravery and wits dictated the outcome of war. On most fronts in World War I this was not the case. Generals and battlefield leaders took on an inferior status when juxtaposed with the slaughter created by the new weapons like machineguns and massive artillery barrages of the twentieth century. However, because the Palestinian Campaign was unique, the effect of personality did exist, and even flourished. Esteemed men such as General Allenby, Prince Feisal and of course Lawrence of Arabia were the definitions of “popular culture” in warfare. While the weapons and technology of warfare undoubtedly had a major effect on warfare in the Middle East as well, they did not overshadow the people like they did elsewhere. Instead, Allenby, and even more so T.E. Lawrence would go on to become essentially mythological, much as their counterparts of the past did.
Therefore, the narrative of warfare in Palestine was one less about the horrors of machineguns and artillery, but one about the men who lead and waged battled, and their character on society.
One of the most obvious distinctions that characterized the Sinai and Palestinian campaign in relation to the other fronts was the concept of battle, and more precisely the battlefield. For millennia, the location where battles were fought could easily be identified as “battlefields”, the physical location where warfare occurred between opposing forces. Although battlefields could vary greatly in size, they were largely a constrained phenomenon, often relatively obscure in a broader geographic context. The fronts in Europe during World War I however did not characterize the traditional battlefield; they were immensely longer, with the Western front in Europe stretching from the English Channel to the Swiss border. These “modern battlefields” were also wider as well, with trench warfare and artillery strategy leading to a layered system of confrontation that could stretch miles in width when accounting for the different models of artillery. The Germans for example were at the forefront of developing trench warfare tactics. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau says,
“On the Western Front, the Germans were also responsible for the systematic application of the principle of ‘defence in depth’. From 1916, their development of successive lines of trenches, two or three kilometers apart and flanked by concrete machine-gun positions, made it possible to yield ground to the enemy in case of attack, to regroup in well-prepared positions and then to counter-attack. On the Somme in 1916, and then on the Chemin des Dames in 1917, this plan proved its deadly effectiveness in the face of British and French assaults.”
Unlike this new modern battlefield that was being constructed in Europe, the battles in the Sinai and Palestine maintained the traditional sense of what a battlefield is. In the Middle East, the battlefield remained the place where war was fought, but where after the battle ended, the significance of the site differed dramatically than modern warfare. In Middle Eastern battlefields, soldiers could expect to possibly spend a few days reorganizing and refreshing on the battlefield after a victory, but the physical importance of the battlefield was largely much less important than it was in Europe. Therefore the battlefield in the Middle East was not a constant fact of life. Unlike the soldiers of Europe who fought, slept, and lived constantly on the “battlefield”, the construction of the idea of the battlefield in the Middle East was the more limited, traditional battlefield that was limited in both size and scope.
Another defining characteristic of defining what traits traditional battle exhibits is looking at the length of an engagement. World War One included battles which lasted months at a time, shattering the expectations of what one should expect he length of a decisive engagement to be. Historian John Keegan says:
“One statement can be safely made - is, indeed, a commonplace: battles have been getting longer. Agincourt could have been timed in hours and minutes. And Waterloo, though part of a three-day ordeal, as we have seen, for several regiments, was for others a one-day affair; for that reason it was rated less severe by Wellington than Talavera, which had lasted two days and a night. But fifty years later, Gettysburg, bloodiest of the battles of the American Civil War, endured three days, from midmorning on the first to late afternoon on the third. And by the beginning of the twentieth century battles between large armies, like that of Liao-yang between the Russians and Japanese in Manchuria, could occupy a fortnight. By the middle of the First World War their span had reached several months: the Somme had an official duration of four and a half months (July 1st - November 18th), Paschendaele of just over three (July 31st - November 10th, 1917), Verdun of ten (February 21st - December 20th, 1916).” Therefore when we examine the battles of the Middle East and compare them to the Somme and Verdun, they can be much more easily grouped with Keegan’s examples of Agincourt, Waterloo, and Gettysburg in terms of the length of battle, than they can be with the Somme or Verdun. Even the Eastern Front had much longer battle lengths than the Middle East, although far shorter than the battles of Western Europe. The Battle of Lódz (1914) lasted slightly over a month, while the battles of Masurian Lakes and Lake Naroch lasted one and two weeks respectively. Compare these two European fronts to the three major battles fought by Britain to take the Sinai; the Battle of Romani lasted less than three days, while the battles of El Megdhaba and Rafa lasted one day apiece.
The importance of movement and mobility in the Sinai and Palestinian campaigns cannot be overstated. The First World War is often the epitome of static warfare, where even though there was no lack of action or casualties, the physical movement of warfare was very stagnant. This is represented perfectly by the Western Front, and to a somewhat lesser degree the Eastern Front between Germany and the Russian Empire as well. On both of the European fronts, the knowledge was directly available, and obvious by the sounds and direction of artillery shells, which direction the enemy lay and where they would approach from in an attack. The Sinai and Palestine regions were the opposite.
Vast, uninhabited landscapes and spread out places and cities of strategic importance dictated that warfare would be fought in a different way. Combatant armies did not have to attack each other over highly contested grounds that would result in terrible losses; rather they could maneuver and flank, and start battles on their own terms that they believed would benefit their success. In addition, especially concerning the Arab contingent, asymmetrical warfare was always an available option, resulting in attacks on the Ottoman Turks that they could or did not even prepare for. T.E. Lawrence, the British liaison officer to the Arab Army described this type of warfare well, “Most wars were wars of contact, both forces striving into touch to avoid tactical surprise. Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff; so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.” This guerilla warfare allowed the smaller Arab army to be a powerful military force against a larger and better-equipped Turkish army. Mobility was a powerful aspect of warfare, and the importance of it in the Middle East contributed to a degree of “unpredictability” in warfare that was not present on other fronts.
This mobile war contrasted significantly with the other fronts. The battles of the Sinai and Palestine were more meticulous and cunning than the battles of Europe, where the only available option was often to throw a great number of men at an opposite force made up of a great number of men. The style of warfare in Europe reduced the effectiveness of military tactics that had been studied and ingrained in military leadership for generations.
“On the Western Front, no later than the autumn of 1914, soldiers were often spontaneously burrowing into the ground. As this practice came to be prescribed systematically by the High Command, a conflict initially based on movement and speed was transformed into ‘trench warfare’. Its origins can be found in the defensive measures improvised by the infantry after the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, and then at the end of the ‘race to the sea’, which extended into the autumn.” The mobile war in the Middle East did not develop the static warfare of Europe. It remained fluid and open, with opposing armies generally separated from one another until the moment of battle. The degree of flexibility that remained in the front also allowed a wider range of military tactics to be used. The comparatively smaller numbers of troops and wider areas left unprotected flanks and weaknesses in ones position. Military leaders could use this to their advantage to flank and surround their enemies; it dictated that nothing was for certain.
One of the great examples of deception in the Middle East was at the “third” Battle of Gaza. British General Murray had almost taken Gaza in the first engagement, but pulled his troops out with victory in sight due to false intelligence. The second battle was more disastrous, with the Turks having had the time to reinforce their positions. By the Third Battle of Gaza, Murray was out and the commander was General Allenby. The battle was won for the British on this occasion, and deception and mobility were the most important factors in determining the outcome.
“Prior to the attack the Turkish army believed that there were still six British divisions encamped outside Gaza, whereas in reality there were three. The Turkish assessment of the position at Beersheba was equally flawed: they believed that no more than one infantry division and one cavalry division had been moved to the area. This impression had been reinforced by the fact that camps opposite Gaza were left intact after having been evacuated by the British, and the illusion that they were occupied was maintained by keeping them alight at night and by other means. In reality the British force now assembled for action against Beersheba was very substantial - it consisted of two mounted divisions and three infantry divisions. According to British calculations, this meant that the Allies had a preponderance in infantry of 2:1; in mounted troops of 8:1; and in guns of 3:2”
Although the Allies held an advantage in troop numbers against the Turks, the mobility that the environment offered meant that instead of risking a third direct assault, by tricking the Turks into believing the attack would come at Gaza, the Allied forces could secretly move their main force to Beersheba and attack the weak flank of the Turkish position. These types of tactics were far different than the brute head-on assaults that largely characterized the fronts in Europe. Another example of the importance of movement occurred late in the war, in the fall of 1918 when the Allies were moving north to capture Damascus. British observer W. T. Massey said, “In ten days the mounted troops have covered fully 150 miles, in a country that yielded no food for man or beast, and are now practically surrounding the white city, set in a most beautiful green frame.”
The ability to move was often allowed or disallowed by the land. An account from February 1918 describes the advance of the ANZAC Division (Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division) during an advance against the Turks in the Jordan Valley. “The advance was impeded more by the difficulty of the terrain than any opposition offered by the enemy. The eastern flank of the Judean hills was not intended for rapid movement: it falls away sharply to the valley below and its dominant features are narrow gorges and inaccessible ridges.” When one contrasts the problems with movement in the Middle East to those in Europe, the main difference lies in what proved the main obstacle to movement. In Europe, that obstacle was the effect of warfare itself, the gaping holes left in the ground from the millions of artillery rounds, compounded with what formed when the rains fell. Thus, in the Middle East, the land itself dictated movement and the pace allowed, whereas in Europe, warfare artificially transformed the natural landscape into a barrier to movement.
In calling the Sinai and Palestine campaigns in Word War One “traditional battles”, movement is one of the most paramount features. The style of mobile warfare fought in the Middle East was how traditional warfare had been fought for centuries, and contrasted significantly with the bogged down trench warfare in Europe. Movement allowed the armies of the Middle East to execute attacks and maneuvers that simply would have been infeasible in the European theatre.
While the battlefield and mobility are important when characterizing the Middle East theatre, another issue that contributed to the Allied campaign in the Middle East as traditional was how industrial warfare, or the lack of it, affected the front. The introduction of machineguns and artillery dominated warfare in Europe, but for reasons detailed below, even though these weapons existed in the Middle Eastern theatre, they did not contribute to the type of warfare in Europe that led to the death of millions.
The role of artillery in particular was a much more prevalent phenomenon in Europe than it was in the Middle East. For instance, before major battles near Gaza or Jerusalem, the number of shells fired numbers in the thousands. While still a significant weapon of war, contrast this with the Western Front:
“On the Somme, during the week-long Allied bombardment which preceded the offensive on 1 July 1916, 1.5 million shells were fired by the British artillery alone (with incalculable physical efforts on the part of the men and animals who carried the ordnance) representing on average some thirty strikes per 1,000 square meters. In 1918, the Allied offensives on the Western or Italian Fronts were regularly driven home by between 5,000 and 8,000 artillery guns.”
The numbers of guns in Europe were the main factor that dictated how warfare was fought there. As before mentioned, artillery was used in the Middle East but the importance placed on it is displayed by the numbers of guns used there, and also explains that the physical location of battle was smaller, as well as the numbers of soldiers who participated in them. Archibald Wavell, who served in the Palestinian campaign, said on the Beersheba Battle:
“The artillery to support the attack of the 60th and 74th Divisions consisted of seventy-six 18-pdrs., twenty-four 4-5 inch howitzers, eight 60-pdrs., and eight 6-inch howitzers - a total of 116 guns, of which all but sixteen were light pieces, for bombardment on a front of over five thousand yards and for counter-battery work. Now this is approximately the same proportion of artillery as a corps of two divisions may expect to dispose of in mobile warfare under our present organisation. It is of course a very much smaller proportion than was normal in France, where, from 1916 onwards, a gun to every ten yards of the front of attack was usual.”
As Wavell’s account explains, the use of artillery was minimal when compared to Europe. This is further evidence to show that the battles of the Middle East were very unlike the Western Front. Mobile positions and a lack of infrastructure including trenches, bunkers, and heavily fortified defensive positions made the use of artillery in an entirely different way than the European theatres, precisely because it was not needed to break up and destroy those types of defenses so prevalent in Europe.
Similarly, machineguns while existing in the Middle East did not cause the death and terror that they inflicted elsewhere. Mobile positions and wide-open landscapes reduced their capability to shred entire units of soldiers down with bullets. So while artillery and machineguns were used in the Middle East, their utility was not comparable to the infamous reputation these weapons earned in Europe.
These newly developed and tested weapons of war, combined with massive amounts of men led to war casualties that dwarfed anything before seen in the history of warfare. Over the course of the war, the Russian empire lost two million men, and that is not even incorporating German or Austrian casualties from the Eastern Front. The losses on the Eastern Front are staggering, especially when considering that the type of warfare existing there was somewhat more mobile and fluid than the trench warfare in the West. In mentioning the West, it must be noted that the highest single-day casualties in the history of warfare occurred there. For example, at the Battle of the Frontiers on the 22nd of August 1914, over 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day of action. It is thus important to note that many of the most important battles that occurred in the Middle East saw no more than 1,000 killed in an engagement, let alone during an entire day. This is because of many factors, including the smaller length of front, troop numbers involved, and the type of warfare that characterized battle in the Middle East.
The role that cavalry played in battles of the Sinai and Palestine is quite extraordinary in the context of World War One. As mentioned, because of the relatively “light” use of artillery and machineguns in the Middle East, the use of cavalry remained not only a possible tactic of warfare but also one of the most important. Unlike the European theatres where cavalry became largely useless and removing an aspect of warfare that had existed for thousands of years, it was extremely influential in the Middle East and was a decisive factor in the outcome of every major battle. So unlike the fronts of Europe where industrial warfare overpowered and removed the option of cavalry attacks, this now “primitive” (in the context of World War One) method of executing warfare thrived in the campaigns of the Middle East.
Cavalry remained a weapon of war because units made up of riding horses and camels could execute maneuvers and attacks that the regular infantry divisions simply could not. In the battles for Beersheba and Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus, being able to flank and surround the enemy quickly was paramount and was only a possibility with cavalry units. The following is an account of a member of the Australian Mounted Division at the Battle of Beersheba:
"We rode all night to get right around Beersheba ... It was a terrible ride in heavy dust all the way. The horses have still got the saddles on & I don’t know when they will get them off. The attack started at 4.30 PM & within half an hour the first trenches were cleared & then they never stop till they got Beersheba. Our casualties were fairly light considering the ground was as level as a table."
In one of the most decisive battles of the Middle East campaign, it was the cavalry units that made it possible to outflank the Turks and win the battle. Harry Langtip even notes in his account that the troopers were able to clear Turkish trenches during the onset of the attack and did not take heavy casualties. Another Australian soldier, Major James Lawson, said, “At Beersheba, on 31st Oct. a determined resistance was being put up by the enemy about 2 miles from the town, so our Brigade was ordered to take the trenches mounted. Your brother was in the first Squadron that charged (led by myself) & after galloping over two trenches, full of Turks, we dismounted at the third & got in with the bayonet.” These accounts tell us that cavalry was a truly instrumental tool in battle for the campaign, even though its use had been relegated to a much lesser role in Europe. Industrial warfare changed the “rules” of battle in Europe, and the animals that people had relied on to conduct warfare up until that point in history were suddenly obsolete and useless in battle. The Middle East campaign, even with new weapons that characterized industrialized warfare, managed to defy the new paradigm that arose in World War One that essentially dictated that industry and mechanization outpaced the “natural” tools of war, horses, which had been a definition of warfare.
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Figure 2: On the 31st October 800 men of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade attacked Beersheba. Three lines of horsemen with bayonets flashing in hand, stretching 1100 meters across, advanced 3 miles up the broad gently sloping valley. It is believed that the Turks must have failed to lower their rifle sights (set at 1500 meters). Only 31 Light Horse men died in the Turkish hail of fire as they charged in with the hail of rifle and machine gun bullets passing over their heads.
In figure one above, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade attacked Turkish positions at the Battle of Beersheba. The attack commenced over three miles of land, and astoundingly the troops suffered very little in casualties. This type of attack would be unheard of on the Western Front, and shows in detail the scope of how important a method of warfare that cavalry remained in the Middle East. It is astounding to contemplate that over the course of one war, in most cases the utility of horses or other forms of cavalry during war became useless, yet the Sinai and Palestinian fronts managed not only to continue using cavalry, but how they placed such emphasis on its role in warfare.
Another aspect of the war that defied the expectations of modern warfare was how armies and thousands of men supply themselves with the basic necessities necessary to function in war. The system of trenches and layered defenses in Europe created an environment that was built around supply. Goods and equipment like food, water, and ammunition could be brought from the industrialized manufacturer to the rear of the military command, and slowly progressed forward to the troops on the front lines. The distance these goods needed to travel was not very substantial, as almost all war goods manufactured in Britain or France would end up somewhere along the line in France. In the Sinai and Palestine though, the ability to equip and resupply troops with the basic things they needed to fight, and survive, was infinitely a more complicated process. This was due to many factors, including the distance from Britain itself, the geography of the land, and the climate.
The biggest problem that faced the Allied forces, and to a lesser extent the Ottoman Turks, was the availability and distribution of water. With how tumultuous war is, the subject of water availability seems like an afterthought, but its importance was on par in significance as winning the war itself. In crossing the Sinai and advancing against the Turks towards Palestine, besides warfare itself, the major inhibitor to the Allied advance was procuring a steady and secure supply of water. The Sinai especially was a vast desert land that afforded essentially no water, especially on the scale needed to supply an entire army. A British soldier working on building the canal defense in 1916 said:
“The camp was roused at 3.45 a.m and started work at 4 a. m., [we] carry on until half past five then we used to knock off for tea and some bully beef stew, and in that half an hour we had to clean our tents, and lay our blankets out in the sun to air. At six o'clock we started work again, and carried on until eight o’clock, when it was too hot to be outside one’s tent let alone working . . . [we] finished until 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we went and [did] another hour’s work . . . in between nine o’clock in the morning and four in the afternoon it was almost too hot to breath and we used to . . . lay in the tent, trying to keep cool . . .” Remarkably, this account from Sergeant Barron is written before the British advanced against the Turks into the Sinai. One wonders that if the situation with unbearable heat was this devastating while having access to drinkable water, what it must have been like in the middle of the Sinai where supplies were constantly stressed. Archibald Murray, leader of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force from 1916 into 1917 wrote about the possible Turkish invasion to take the Canal Zone in early 1916:
“In any case the enemy’s first step must be to collect his forces, either towards Beersheba, or further south, say about Ma’an, on the Hejaz railway. The latter is not considered a very likely contingency, since the Pilgrim roads from Ma’an, to Nekhl is very difficult for wheeled traffic, while the roads from Nekhl to the Canal, as has already been stated, are in bad order, cross a difficult country with little water, and during the hot season will hardly admit of the passage of any large force.”
General Murray’s account describes how much emphasis the Allies were placing on the supply of water as a tool for planning war plans, in this case deciding where to position the Allied forces in defense in response to the coming Turkish advance. By considering what the possible water supply was, forces were positioned in ways that made sense for the Turkish Army to advance depending on where they would be in response to their need of resupplying their animals and men with water.
Additionally, when the Allied forces attacked cities or installations held by the Turks, the ability to capture and secure an enemy’s water supply was incredibly vital, sometimes taking priority over defeating the enemy even. Thus, water, a required substance for human survival but largely an afterthought in modern warfare, was a determining factor in the Allied campaigns in Sinai and Palestine.
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Figure 3 : British Army engineers lay track down for the railway in the Sinai.
In the beginning of World War One, infrastructure to transport and deliver supplies in the Middle East was not seen as a top priority. The Allies were content with defending the 101-mile Canal Zone, thus preventing the Turks from taking control of a vital waterway that connected the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. However, the problems at Gallipoli changed the plans for how to deal with the Turks, and the new aims of attacking the Ottoman Empire’s southern perimeter meant that the Allies would have to contend with how to deliver supplies to the troops. The degree to which available infrastructure affected war plans was incredible; the Allied forces could only advance as far as their supplies would reach to resupply them. For example, the Battle of Romani, which ended in a British victory, was the last time the Turks would ever threaten the Canal Zone. It was a devastating loss for the Turks, and they would not make any significant gains the rest of the war. However because the Allies had to build up their supply lines, they had to build miles and miles of railroad through the desert, as well as a parallel running water pipeline before they could make any major advances, which gave the Turks time to recuperate after the decisive loss.
The pace of the advance from the canal to Romani had been dictated by progress in laying the standard-gauge, single-track railway and water pipeline and this was to remain the case. Following the Battle of Romani railway construction was restarted and progressed eastwards across Sinai at the rate of about 15 miles a month. When completed, it ran for about 140 miles from Qantara on the Suez Canal to the Wadi Ghazze, the river opposite the town of Gaza, and had the capacity to run thirteen trains a day. Continuous supplies of good quality water were essential both for advancing troops and railway engines. British army engineers had sunk wells between Qantara and El Arish but the water they yielded was not suitable for human consumption or even for use by the trains. There was no alternative but to use water from the Sweet Water Canal which was brought to the front line by means of a pipeline that followed the railway across the desert. Pipeline construction eventually caught up with the railway at El Arish in February 1917, where it was to become an indispensable source of supply for the troops who were to invade Palestine.
Another issue that existed was that even with the pipeline in full order, the extant of water that left the source of the Sweet Water Canal and ended up refreshing the troops on the front lines was never equal. “Yet only 36,500 gallons of the 600,000 pumped daily from Qantara reached pipehead, the remainder being required for the needs of the railway and of troops and labourers between the two points.” Therefore while the pipeline was essential and the campaign most certainly would not have achieved success without it, simply having a functional pipeline was not enough and more water sources had to be placed in working order constantly. An account from an Australian horseman describes in 1917 how bad the water problem was, “A squadron of our fellows went out last night, with one water bottle each, and will be away all day. Poor devils ... Not a drop of water to drink in camp. We are going away and drinking from the horses’ well. The water is forbidden and brackish but a man must drink something.”
Thus, the British advance was almost entirely reliant on how well, and how fast they could construct a reliable system to deliver the supplies and water that were needed in order to maintain an effective army. But the ability to transport water to the front from the rear was not the only consideration with water and warfare on the Middle Eastern Front. Specifically, the Ottoman Turks understood the importance of water, and when the Allies were moving forward, they would actively try to deny the Allies their water sources if they were forced to retreat. The Allies therefore had to consider the water sources of their target, and plan an attack that would take the water sources intact so that they could be used to supply the Allied Army. Anthony Bruce describes how water was worked into the British battle plan:
“Beersheba was 15 miles from the railhead at Shellal and there was no road system linking it with other towns in the area; mechanized vehicles could not be used. There was also no water source available nearby; the attacking forces would have to carry their own food and water. The striking force, however, could only carry sufficient water supplies to take them to Beersheba. For operations beyond this point, they would need to use water drawn from the wells at Beersheba. If the British could not capture these supplies intact, the whole operation would be doomed to failure.”
Thus, the characteristics of the Middle East, such as the distance from Britain, the difficult terrain and its lesser importance compared to Europe made it difficult for the Allies to create supply lines that could deliver the troops with the basic necessities needed to fight war, and in the case of food and especially water, to even survive. The fronts in Sinai and Palestine were unable to take advantage of many of the newly industrialized support mechanisms that were feeding the war in Western Europe. Therefore, the Allies in the Middle East had to keep in mind the consideration of water resources throughout the campaign, a subject that would most likely not be in the first ten considerations of ongoing operations in Europe. Finding and sourcing adequate water supplies in the desert would be a challenge in any condition, but the state of warfare between two competing forces desperately trying to secure the liquid gold needed to breath life into their armies only exacerbated the water problem. As before mentioned, even with the pipeline, Allied water supplies were constantly under strain, and the heat, possible malfunctions or breakdowns in the water system, and an ongoing war made it so that as much as the allies tried, water was always a factor when waging war in the Middle East.
The allied campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine during the First World War remain odd and unconventional when viewed through the lens of the better-known fronts in Europe and the general features that they manifested. World War One so quickly transformed the qualities of warfare that had generally stayed somewhat similar for many years, at least the previous century. Yet, the campaigns in the Middle East managed to form their own identity, or rather continue on the identity of traditional warfare that had existed up until World War One.
The Middle Eastern campaign in World War One over the Sinai and Palestine held its own unique identity, one that constantly challenged the understanding of modern warfare. In battle, the Sinai and Palestinian campaigns were quick and mobile, decisive and short. Industrialized warfare did not blanket the narrative of the front; instead men and their actions and decisions were the main actors in contributing to the final account of the Middle Eastern campaigns. Likewise, the actions of cavalry in military action were critical to deciding the outcome of battle, and the front did not display the same horrific casualty numbers as other fronts, even while admitting for the smaller numbers of men who fought in the Sinai and Palestine. The latter, along with water as being a primary consideration in warfare, created an atmosphere of “de-modernization” in the Sinai and Palestine that was not fully expressed on an equal scale on any other front. John Keegan discusses the implications of modern warfare, saying:
“What almost all the soldiers of the First World War and many of the Second, even from the victor armies, testify to is their sense of littleness, almost of nothingness, of their abandonment in a physical wilderness, dominated by vast impersonal forces, from which even such normalities as the passage of time had been eliminated. The dimensions of the battlefield, completely depopulated of civilians and extending far beyond the boundaries of the individual’s perception, the events supervening upon it - endless artillery bombardments, sudden and shatteringly powerful aerial bombings, mass irruptions of armoured vehicles - reduced his subjective role, objectively vital though it was, to that of a mere victim. And a victim too was what he risked becoming even if he took or had forced upon him the decision to stop fighting and give himself up as a prisoner. For men, rarely coming face to face, seen by each other, if at all, only as indistinguishable figures in shapeless and monotone uniforms, generally lacked the means to communicate such intentions to each other. A shout of surrender from the darkness of a dugout was too often an invitation to receive a grenade, the wave of an arm from the hatch of a disabled vehicle the signal to unleash a burst of automatic fire”
Warfare in the Middle East contradicted the realities of modern warfare. It acted as a “time capsule” that withstood the new realities of a type of warfare that was becoming less personal and more technological and distanced. The campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine were conducted in a methodology that was becoming less and less prevalent. Warfare in World War One and beyond was becoming less focused on men and nature, and instead more on how technology could empower armies to achieve feats that had only been imaginable before. Therefore, the Allied campaigns to conquer the Sinai and Palestine marked one of the last instances of warfare that leaned on men and their ability to overcome both their enemy as well as the obstacles of the natural environment, for the most well-known campaigns in World War One such as those in Europe and in the wars that followed in the 20th century, the technological sophistication of warfare would become the most decisive factor in deciding the outcome of warfare. In this manner, the Allied campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine during the First World War can be seen as the “bridge” from the traditional campaigns before it and modern warfare, which first appeared in the Russo-Japanese War, and then in the bloody fronts of Europe, where it would go on to become dominant. Looking back at World War One now, more than 100 years after its beginnings, it is important to not view the battles of the First World War as a monolith, but instead as a varied tug between traditional and modern warfare, with the Middle East acting as one of the last campaigns of the former.
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Figure 3: This map shows the Allied campaign in the Sinai against the Turks, highlighting the three major battles. Additionally, it shows the route of the vital railway and water pipeline that supplied the army.
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Figure 4: This map shows the Allied campaigns in Palestine, both the regular troops and the Arab forces. It highlights the battles near Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as the Arab attacks on the Hejaz Railway.
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