Sinai and Palestine Campaign

Sinai and Palestine Campaign

The Sinai and Palestine Campaign during the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War I was a series of battles which took place on the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine, and Syria between January 28, 1915 and October 28, 1918. British, Australian, and New Zealand forces opposed the German 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 Canal in the First Suez Offensive. The Ottoman army, under the command of the Turkish Minister of Marine, Djemal Pasha, was based in Jerusalem. At this time, the Sinai was an almost empty desert and very hard for an army to cross (no roads, no water). The chief of staff for Ottoman army was 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 February 2 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, the Ottoman army tried another offensive against the Suez. 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 August 3 - August 5, 1916.

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 Magdhaba on December 23 1916. This was a success, the fort was captured.

On January 8, 1917 the Anzac Mounted Division attacked the fort-town of Rafa. 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, in part this was to try and 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 Gaza, on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, to the town of Beersheba, which was the terminus of the Ottoman railway that extended north to Damascus. The British commander in the field, Dobell, choose to attack Gaza, using a short hook move on March 26, 1917.

First Battle of Gaza

The British attack was essentially a failure. Due to mis-communication, 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 Jerusalem. The British were in no position to attack Jerusalem as they first needed 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.

econd Battle of Gaza

A second attack on the fort of Gaza was launched one month later on April 17, 1917. This attack, supported by naval gunfire and even a few early tanks was also a failure. It was essentially a frontal assault on a fortified position, and it didn't work at the cost of 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 Jerusalem by Christmas.

Allenby - after personally reviewing the Ottoman defensive positions - asked for more forces: 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 Constantinople and in the (now quiet) Caucasus front. Given all these demands, the army in Gaza was only about 35,000 strong, lead by the Ottoman General Kustafa and concentrated in three main defensive locations: Gaza, Tell Esh Sheria, and Beersheba. Allenby's army was now much larger, some 88,000 troops in good condition and well equipped. Many of the British forces were "Anzacs" from Australia and New Zealand.

Battle of Beersheba

A key feature to the British attack 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. When the British in fact launched their attack on Beersheba, the Turks were caught by surprise. The attack on Beersheba has been called "the last successful cavalry charge in history". The victory on October 31, 1917 did not end the campaign because the Turks redeployed some forces and largely held their position.

The British then attacked the Ottoman position at Tal Esh Sheria on November 6 and they forced the Turks to abandon this position after a short battle.

Third Battle of Gaza

On the 7th, the British attacked Gaza for the 3rd time and this 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, 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 November 13, 1917. General Falkenhayn next tried to form a new defensive line from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Jaffa. The first British attack on Jerusalem failed but with a short rest and the gathering of more infantry divisions, Allenby tried again and on December 9, 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 back to Istanbul. Djemal had given real command to German officers like von Kressenstein and von Falkenhayn more than a year earlier but now, defeated like Enver Pasha was at the Battle of Sarikamis, 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

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 he was given brand new divisions recruited from India. These divisions spent the spring and summer of 1918 training.

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. T. E. Lawrence and his Arab fighters were of significant use during this time. His forces staged many hit-and-run attacks on Turkish supply lines and tied down thousands of soldiers in garrisons throughout Palestine, Jordan, and Syria.

Battle of Megiddo

General Allenby finally launched his long-delayed attack on September 19, 1918. The campaign has been called the Battle of Megiddo (which is the correct spelling of the name of an ancient town known in the west as Armageddon). Again, the British spent a great deal of effort 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 had ceased to exist as a military force.

Australian Lighthorse troops marched unopposed into Damascus on September 30 1918. T.E. Lawrence and his Arab troops entered Damascus the next day to receive an "Official" surrender. The war in Palestine was over. The Turkish government signed an armistice on October 28, 1918 and outright surrendered two days later. 600 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 by far 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 cavalry forces during the campaign.


The British lost a total of 550,000 casualties [citation needed] - more than 90% of these were not due to battle but instead due to disease, heat, etc. Total Turkish losses are unknown but almost certainly larger. They lost an entire army in the fighting and the Turks poured a vast number of troops into the front over the three years of combat. Military historians argue if this campaign by the British was worth the effort. In the opinion of General Esposito (the editor of the West Point Atlas of American Wars) "This considerable subsidiary effort might have been put to better use on the more decisive Western front."

Even so, the historical consequences of this campaign are hard to overestimate. The British conquest of Palestine led directly to the British mandate over Palestine and Trans-Jordan which, in turn, paved the way for the creation of the states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

External links

* First World [ Defence of the Suez Canal, 1915] . Retrieved December 19, 2005.
* [ Australian Light Horse Studies Centre]


* 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. []

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