Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 292nd installment in the series.
October 31-November 2, 1917: British Victory at Gaza and the Balfour Declaration
In the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, in which Britain and France agreed on the post-war division of the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territories, the territory of Palestine was assigned to the British sphere, reflecting British concerns about its proximity to the Suez Canal, among other strategic concerns. But first the British would have to conquer it—and this conquest would give them a central role in the formation of a Jewish homeland in the modern era.
After a long, painful advance across the Sinai Peninsula in 1916-1917—assisted by Zionist scouts who helped locate desert wells on the way to Palestine, and accompanied by the pro-Allied Arab Rebellion organized by T.E. Lawrence on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba—the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force seemed fated, like Moses, to remain trapped outside the promised land. Due in part to relatively scarce artillery support, in March-April 1917 the EEF’s first two attacks on the Turkish Fourth Army, fortified at Gaza in southern Palestine, failed decisively, leaving the Turks well entrenched in strong defensive positions stretching from the coast at Gaza inland to Beersheba (above, Turkish machine gunners at the Second Battle of Gaza).
There followed a long period of stalemate in southern Palestine, but the British were determined to have their prize. After the defeat at the Second Battle of Gaza the British war office removed the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Archibald Murray, and replaced him in June 1917 with General Edmund Allenby—a skilled campaigner, diplomat, and politician, who’d previously led the British Third Army on the Western Front, winning praise for both his thorough, methodical preparations and willingness to take calculated risks.
By the end of October 1917, the reinvigorated EEF under Allenby was ready to attack again, thanks to the arrival of more artillery and the reorganization of his three cavalry divisions into the Desert Mounted Corps, including ANZAC horsemen who received special training in desert maneuver warfare. They would fight in coordination with British infantry, the XX and XXI Army Corps, drawn mostly from England, Wales, and Ireland. Altogether the EEG now numbered around 200,000, including 100,000 fighting men.
Allenby’s successful attack in the Third Battle of Gaza began with a punishing bombardment of the Turkish line, held by the new Turkish Eighth Army under the unforgettably named German commander, General Kress von Kressenstein, starting October 27, 1917. On October 31, British forces included ANZAC horsemen captured Beersheba, guarding the eastern end of Ottoman defensive lines in Palestine, allowing the advancing EEF to threaten to turn the Turkish flank from the east. One British medical officer serving in the EEF, Oskar Teichman, described the fighting at Beersheba on October 31, 1917, where a dashing, last-minute Australian cavalry charge (of the kind not seen in Europe since 1914) yielded a surprise victory:
We could see the explosions caused by our guns from Karm and the Buggar Ridge occurring on the outskirts of Beersheba on the west. The batteries of Desert Mounted Corps were active from the east, south-east and north-east … Although the infantry were now closing in from the west and the cavalry from the east, the garrison in Beersheba, which had remained after the last train had left for the north, appeared to be going to make a very stubborn resistance; however, about 5 p.m. the 4th Australian Light Horse, in the fading light, galloped the trenches just outside the town and broke the resistance of the enemy.
On the evening of November 1, 1917, Teichman wrote about entering recently captured Beersheba in his diary, noting that the retreating Turks had sabotaged some key infrastructure:
We rode into the town and saw the railway station and one railway train which had been unable to escape. The hospital, Governor’s house, and chief mosque were imposing buildings. Some of the houses and factories, and especially the waterworks, had been blown up by the Turks, and the ground was strewn with corpses and dead horses.
The capture of Beersheba opened the road to Hebron and Jerusalem and exposed the Turkish left flank to envelopment from the east. Meanwhile Allenby unleashed the main attack against the Turkish lines, beginning with a furious artillery bombardment including participation by British and French warships targeting Turkish positions exposed to the sea. In many places the high explosive shells flattened the Turks’ trenches in sandy areas, although poison gas shells had little effect.
Finally, at 11 p.m. on the night of November 1-2, 1917, British infantry attacked on the western portion of the front, rushing Turkish positions in sand hills and dunes at Umbrella Hill, which was captured with relatively light casualties. After that, the attackers turned their focus to the El Arish redoubt, a Turkish strong point, and later phases of the battle expanded to include the Rafa redoubt. Although the Turks launched several desperate counterattacks, some of which succeeded in temporarily capturing lost defensive positions, but most were forced to withdraw again.
After the fall of the main Turkish trenches protecting Gaza, the Turkish commander in the city itself held out until November 5, when dwindling artillery supplies and the threat of envelopment from the east forced the last elements of the garrison to withdraw. As the Turkish defenses collapsed, on November 6-7 the advancing British forces discovered that Gaza had been abandoned, and occupied the city. However Anglo-Egyptian forces remained vulnerable to aerial attack by German planes operating with the Turkish Eighth Army, according to Teichman, who wrote on November 2:
We began to wish that our anti-aircraft guns would arrive soon, as Fritz was again very spiteful … In the afternoon many more prisoners were rounded up and brought into the camp. When night fell we had a very bad doing from Fritz, who dropped a hundred bombs and caused a large number of casualties in our Field Ambulances.
Like their peers in Europe and elsewhere, ordinary British and Egyptian soldiers in the EEF found conditions remained abominable. A British soldier, William G. Johnson, recalled their arrival outside Tell-el-Sheria on November 7, 1917:
We are hard on the heels of the Turk … From dawn all Tuesday we have ploughed through sand and sun, no food to speak of … The grit on my teeth! The mud on my tongue! Lord! I can taste it now! Trekking the best part of a month, we are tired, ragged, verminous, and itchy with septic sores. Now we have halted and know we are close to the Turk. Petulantly through the twilight half-spent bullets whine out their last breath overhead. Nobody cares; we are too fagged out to heed them … Our spirits are low with fatigue and thirst and dirt. This hopeless, unending misery, this madness, this ultimate futility! Would I could sleep for ever.
They were also worried about the attitudes of the locals towards the British invaders: Would local Arab tribes view them as liberators or just the latest in a series of occupiers? Teichman did make some promising contact with Zionist settlers, writing in his diary on November 15, 1917:
During the morning two of us rode over to a Jewish village east of Beit Duras, in order to buy provisions. This was the first of the European-looking Jewish villages, founded under the Rothschild Colonization Scheme, which we had come across. After being accustomed for many months to see nothing but mud-huts and Bedouin tents, it seemed extraordinary to come across a clean, European-looking village with red-tiled roofs and well-kept roads. The Jews appeared to be of all nationalities, including English … the village seemed to be thriving, and we were able to purchase a considerable amount of food without any difficulty.
As British forces advanced in the Holy Land, the British deepened their commitment to the troubled region with the Balfour Declaration, an official statement of support for the Zionist aspirations of European Jews to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine—a cause dating back to before the founding of the World Zionist Organization in 1897. On November 2, 1917 Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a public letter to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a Jewish member of Parliament who had served as an organizer and representative for the Zionist cause in Britain, declaring:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The British promises to the Jews were made in the context of the First World War, and were part of a complex, multifaceted global campaign by the Allies to win support for their cause wherever they could. The global Zionist movement became one of many nationalist causes courted by both sides in the war, often with the tantalizing promise of self-determination or an independent state.
For example, Germany used the promise of independence for Flanders, in northern to Belgium, in an attempt to divide Belgium (possibly leading to the outright annexation of the Germanic north), while Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia all promised independence or more autonomy to ethnic Poles in a new, expanded kingdom of Poland—which would still wind up being a client state of someone, of course. The Allies also promised postwar independence to the Czechs, successfully persuading tens of thousands of Czechs in the Habsburg Army to switch sides and serve under the Allies on first the Eastern and then Western fronts. The Allies also made conflicting promises of territory around the Adriatic Sea to Serbia, the nucleus of a new Yugoslav state, and Italy. And Russia had been using Armenians as pawns before the war even resulted, with tragic results.
The Zionist cause, which had already seen Jewish settlers from Europe colonizing Palestine, gained adherents among Jewish populations on both sides during the upheaval of the Great War, which seemed to promise liberation and nationhood for small peoples. It also reflected a new embrace of a specifically Jewish identity in many places, resulting partly from a rise in anti-Semitism and nationalist feeling overall, as well as the dissolution of old communities based on loyalty to kings and dynasties.
Maximilian Reiter, a Jewish officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, wrote in his diary of an incident in the final days of the war, which illustrated how Jewish identity seemed to become more important through even casual interactions:
I boarded the train that day and in my compartment found two officers already seated. One of them, a Hungarian, asked his companion, as would be quite normal, where he came from, which Regiment and what was his Nationality. The officer answered the first two questions, but gave as an answer to the last enquiry, about his Nationality, the reply 'Jewish.' The Hungarian was astonished: 'I didn’t mean your Religion, I meant your Nationality: are you Hungarian, Rumanian, German, or Czech?' 'I am a Jew,' the other persisted. Whereupon the Hungarian, who seemingly already knew something about Zionism, remarked: 'Well, then, you must be a Zionist?' 'Most certainly,' came the answer. And then the inquisitive traveler turned to me with the same questions. I had been much impressed by the proud reply of the previous traveler … So, when the question of Nationality was addressed to me in turn, I too replied 'Jewish.'
As history would soon reveal, the British Foreign Office (and their French colleagues) had once again made conflicting promises to local allies, in this case the Arabs under Prince Faisal. If they cared about these contradictions at all, British and French officials would probably have shrugged and justified their strategy of calculated ambiguity and deliberate deception on the grounds that “the ends justify the means”: there was a war to be won, and the exact nature of Allied obligations to smaller groups—who aspired to nationhood eventually but were currently little more than Allied pawns—would simply have to wait until after the defeat of the Central Powers.
Tragically, ethnic tension and hatreds were already roiling Palestine, as the Turks and Germans exploited the British public statement of support for the Zionist cause to stir up hatred among native Palestinian Arabs against both the Allies and the Jews (not to mention Arab and Assyrian Christians). Growing dissension boiled over in the form of riots and official persecution of these groups by increasingly paranoid Ottoman administrators, according to the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar. He wrote in his diary on November 30, 1917:
We find ourselves in a complete mania of anti-Semite persecution, since the governor does nothing but arrest right and left all the Jewish notables: Dr. Thon, the leader of the Zionists; Astroc, director of the Rothschild hospital; Dr. Ticho, Farhi of the Israeli Alliance; Barouchan and Dr. Schatz of Bezalel, also the dragoman of the Franciscans, and other notable Christians and even a Muslim from Jaffa.