Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 319th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!
SEPTEMBER 19-25, 1918: BRITS VICTORIOUS AT MEGIDDO
Following their victory in the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of the ancient holy city of Jerusalem in December 1917, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force led by British commander Edmund Allenby kept continuous pressure on the Turkish Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Armies. Those armies were all part of the Army Group Yıldırım (“Thunderbolt”) under German commander Liman von Sanders in northern Palestine. The new offensives were enabled by construction of military railroads to bring up guns and ammunition, and benefited from the growing momentum of the Arab Rebellion, led by Prince Feisal with help from his British intelligence attaché, Major T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence had captured the key port of Aqaba in July 1917 and now distracted and harried the Turks with lightning guerrilla attacks from out of the trackless eastern deserts.
By September 1918 the outnumbered and outgunned Turks had withdrawn to a line running from the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea, west to the Mediterranean shore north of Jaffa, and bisecting Palestine. Intent on capturing Damascus before the end of the war, part of British maneuvering to exploit the Sykes-Picot Agreement, from September 19-25, 1918 Allenby achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Megiddo. British sea power, resilient Indian and Egyptian infantry, dashing Australian cavalry, and the fighting grit of the rebel Arab Army made it possible. (Ironically, there was no actual fighting at Tel Megiddo, roughly in the center of the battlefield, which covered the Plain of Sharon, the Judean Hills, and the Jezreel Valley. Nevertheless, Allenby chose the name for symbolic resonance—Megiddo is the biblical site of Armageddon.)
The offensive, known to the Turks as the “Breakthrough at Nablus,” involved three main sections. First, to the east on September 18, the Arab Army attacked the enemy’s lines of communication, distracting the Turks and forcing von Sanders to send reinforcements to protect the desert railway. With the Turks now even more overstretched, on September 19 on the western end of the front, Anglo-Indian forces including the 54th (East Anglian) Division, 75th Division, Indian 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian 7th (Meerut) Division, and the 60th (London) Division attacked and overwhelmed the Turkish Eighth Army, concentrated near the Mediterranean shore. Following the infantry breakthroughs, Allenby sent the Desert Mounted Corps, consisting of the British Fourth and Fifth Cavalry divisions and the Australian Mounted Division, racing ahead to cut off and encircle the Turkish Eighth and Seventh Armies—one of the most successful uses of cavalry in the war. Meanwhile, in the center, the 10th (Irish) Division and 53rd (Welsh) Division pivoted east towards the River Jordan, attacking the Turkish Fourth Army between Jericho and Amman from the west as the Arabs closed in from the east.
These victories reflected Allenby’s careful preparation and adoption of cutting-edge tactics, including the relatively short but devastating “creeping barrage” preceding the infantry advance and combined arms tactics that closely coordinated artillery, cavalry, air power, and a small but deadly fleet of armored cars (below, an armored car).
By September 21, the breakthrough had turned into a rout as the outnumbered and demoralized Turkish armies simply disintegrated. Virtually the entire force of 35,000 became casualties or surrendered, with just 6000 ragtag survivors left to make their escape to the north. Nablus and Nazareth fell on September 21 (top, Nablus after the war), followed by the key port of Haifa on September 23, the rail hub of Amman on September 25, and the strategic outpost of Daraa on September 27, 1918.
For the British and their Arab allies, the way now lay open to Damascus—but who would arrive first? This issue would have symbolic importance for the post-war world, and Feisal and Lawrence were determined that Damascus should be liberated by the Arabs, not European troops, to cement their claims to independence and nationhood.
The Battle of Megiddo was a study in contrasts as modern British weaponry and techniques were complemented by the ancient fighting techniques of Feisal’s Bedouin tribesmen. The Arab fighters’ motivations also tended to be more personal than the British, as most had lost family and friends to Turkish brutality long predating the Arab Rebellion. On September 27, after the Arabs captured the strategic town of Daraa, Lawrence’s party came across an Arab village that had just been destroyed by the retreating Turks:
“The village lay stilly under its slow wreaths of white smoke, as we rode near, on our guard. Some gray heaps seemed to hide in the long grass, embracing the ground in the close way of corpses. We looked away from these, knowing they were dead; but from one a little figure tottered off, as if to escape us. It was a child, 3 or 4 years old, whose dirty smock was stained red over one shoulder and side, with blood from a large half-fibrous wound, perhaps a lance thrust, just where neck and body joined.”
The Turkish atrocity provoked swift, terrible retribution from the desert nomads:
“I said, ‘The best of you bring me the most Turkish dead,’ and we turned after the fading enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three bullets from an automatic through the man’s bare chest. The blood came out with his heart beats, throb, throb, throb, slower and slower.”
With Lawrence’s old ally Auda abu Tayi in charge, the Arab Army annihilates the Turkish column of around 2000 soldiers:
“The old lion of battled waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable leader. By a skillful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split their formation into three parts. The third part, the smallest, was mostly made up of German and Austria machine-gunners around three motor cars and a handful of mounted officers or troopers. They fought magnificently and repulsed us time and again despite our hardiness. The Arabs were fighting like devils, the sweat blurring their eyes, dust parching their throats … By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war … In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”
Turkish dead included around 200 prisoners whom Lawrence apparently ordered executed with machine guns after an Arab was found horribly mutilated:
“We ranged our Hotchkiss on them, and pointed at him silently. They said nothing in the moment before we opened fire: and at last their heap ceased moving, and Hassan was dead, and we mounted again and rode home slowly.”