WWI Centennial: British Victory at Gaza and the Balfour Declaration

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.


Erik Sass

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.

Balfour Declaration

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

The Ingenious Reason Medieval Castle Staircases Were Built Clockwise

Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images
Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or medieval programs in general, you’re probably familiar with action-packed battle scenes during which soldiers storm castles, dodge arrows, and dash up spiral staircases. And, while those spiral staircases might not necessarily ascend clockwise in every television show or movie you’ve watched, they usually did in real life.

According to Nerdist, medieval architects built staircases to wrap around in a clockwise direction in order to disadvantage any enemies who might climb them. Since most soldiers wielded swords in their right hands, this meant that their swings would be inhibited by the inner wall, and they’d have to round each curve before striking—fully exposing themselves in the process.

Just as the clockwise spiral hindered attackers, so, too, did it favor the castle’s defenders. As they descended, they could swing their swords in arcs that matched the curve of the outer wall, and use the inner wall as a partial shield. And, because the outer wall runs along the wider edge of the stairs, there was also more room for defenders to swing. So, if you’re planning on storming a medieval castle any time soon, you should try to recruit as many left-handed soldiers as possible. And if you’re defending one, it’s best to station your lefties on crossbow duty and leave the tower-defending to the righties.

On his blog All Things Medieval, Will Kalif explains that the individual stairs themselves provided another useful advantage to protectors of the realm. Because the individual steps weren’t all designed with the same specifications, it made for much more uneven staircases than what we see today. This wouldn’t impede the defenders, having grown accustomed to the inconsistencies of the staircases in their home castle, but it could definitely trip up the attackers. Plus, going down a set of stairs is always less labor-intensive than going up.

Staircase construction and battle tactics are far from the only things that have changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, people even walked differently than we do—find out how (and why) here.

[h/t Nerdist]

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