Seizing Damascus – Megiddo and beyond, 1918
An edited transcript of the presentation by Dr Jean Bou, Australian National University
At the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, 25th September, 2018
Today I’m talking about the seizure of Damascus and what went on afterwards. I’m going to outline the events themselves, the before and after, and what I’m really going to try to focus on today is context. As a military historian I seek to teach people about history in depth and breath. Context is everything, and only by understanding the context can you understand what the events here mean. In the broader sense of the war, there is a tendency, (and the equivalent tendencies exist elsewhere), to focus upon the Australian aspects. I am going to be examining on the Light Horse within the context of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, within the context of the Palestine Campaign, within the context of the wider war, with some boundaries.
In that vein, let’s have a look at the ground….. Hopefully, you already know that this event took place in Palestine, and what is now known as Syria and Lebanon as well. If you look at the broader map of the Middle East, that’s Palestine there which is essentially modern-day Israel, going into Lebanon, with Syria here, going into Damascus. From the Ottoman point of view, Lebanon and Syria was pretty much the same piece of territory rather than the delineated territories and nation states they are today. Looking at another map which gives a little more detail of Northern Palestine, you can see the lay of the land… On the coast there’s a port called Jaffa which is essentially where Tel Aviv is today, and of course you have Jerusalem there, and the Jordan Valley there and the Jordan River. To the east of the Jordan you have some pretty rugged terrain, quite mountainous, not very developed. There are railway lines; the Ottomans have built railway lines down south there [through Jordan and down into Arabia], and there are railway lines going into Palestine as well. To the west of the Jordan River, there is also a chain of hills, some of which is quite rugged in places, but it is not quite so high or difficult as the terrain to the east of the Jordan River. And as you get to the coast, you get the coastal plain, and this little mountain ridge, that runs up there towards Haifa. Jaffa and Haifa are ports and who runs those ports is important because in British hands they can be used as entry points for supplies. A lot of what supports the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (the EEF) is actually coming in by railway line from Egypt, but a certain amount of it is coming in from the Mediterranean. The problem is most of these ports are very small, not very well developed. Jaffa is a very small port with limited capacities and the ports north are not substantially different in that regard.
Alright, so we get an idea of what the terrain looks like, now what about the armies that are fighting on it? The Ottoman Army, by 1918, is an army that is starting to look a little bit broken, it’s had a difficult war- everyone’s had a difficult war, but the Ottoman state is… not as resilient or doesn’t have as deep pockets or it doesn’t have industrial capacity behind it in the way that many of the other participants do. So, by 1918, it’s starting to have considerable problems maintaining its war effort. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in 1918 even though Palestine is part of its territory, as is Mesopotamia, Constantinople’s main strategic focus is on the Caucasus. Russia has been knocked out of the war and there’s a bit of a scrap going on between the Central Powers about who’s going to control resources, particularly the oil resources around Baku. At one point the Germans and the Ottomans start shooting at each other around Baku.
So there’s still a large number of Ottoman troops in Palestine, but the amount of material support, which has never been high, is relatively low. And Ottoman administrative systems are not that great, their health system is not that good and sickness is significant problem for the Ottoman Army. On paper, their strength is roughly equivalent to the British and Allied forces opposed to them, but that is a number that’s got a certain amount of hollowness to it.
The British, on the other hand, in 1918 are at their peak. The year has been affected by a few things, which I’ll come back to, but by 1918 their empire is at full bore, its industrial production is completely ramped up to support the war. The British Armies have significant manpower issues (like everyone else, apart from the Americans who have just joined), but nonetheless, the EEF of 1918 has a lot of experience behind it and a massive amount of material sources. It also has the breadbasket, if you like, of Egypt behind it. The EEF is in a very good position to be able to conduct offensive operations.
These are the two armies who are in opposition at that time. The Ottoman army is commanded by Liman von Sanders, the same man who commanded at Gallipoli in 1915. The problem for the Ottomans, which has always been a problem for Sanders, is there’s always a bit of tension between the Germans officers and the Ottoman officers. Sanders has also not been kept up to date with modern developments of the war. He has spent most of the war out in the Ottoman Empire, so all the tactical developments that have been going on in the Western Front, and on the Eastern Front and other places…… he’s mostly not abreast of these. The Ottoman Army in Palestine is using a defensive scheme that is old and very brittle. Conversely, the British commander is Edmund Allenby, who has had a mixed career on the Western front, but he’s come to Palestine and he’s done well. I get the sense with Allenby that he arrives in the Middle East and he simply relaxes. He doesn’t have Haig looking over his shoulder (who he didn’t get along with terrible well) and he gets to run his own campaign.
Which brings us to the war in 1918, and what’s going on in other places. The Western Front has become the cockpit of the war. That was not pre-ordained in any way, but of course by 1917, the Russians have been knocked out of the war and the Eastern Front has shut down. So, whilst there are other fronts (Italy, Salonika and Palestine among them) and they are significant in their own ways what matters most are events on the Western Front and that this was where the war is going to be won or lost; where the Entente can lose it and certainly where the Germans are going to need to be beaten to win the war. Now, what everyone is expecting in 1918 is a massive push from the Germans, fulfilled as a prophecy (not much of a prophecy as everyone could see it coming) in the German Spring Offensives of that year. The offensives were initially successful, but they proved unable beat the powerful, rich, highly industrialised states that they are fighting on the Western Front which can use their highly-developed railway lines to redeploy reserves. The Germans do not have the capacity, or indeed the tactical tool box (as the Allies adapt to the new German tactics), to be able to beat the opponents they are facing.
In 1918 the British and the French are very resilient. (I’m astounded by how many people continue to ignore the French.) And of course in 1918 the Americans are starting to arrive in numbers. Their troops are mostly untrained, their formations are pretty patchy. Nevertheless, if the war goes into 1919, the Americans will be playing a big role and there’s going to be so many of them. Which is what drives the Germans into launching offensives to try to knock the British and the French out before the Americans arrive. Once the Americans arrive the numerical calculus will be decisively against Germany.
As for the German offensives, they peter out in the summer, the last two or three offensives aren’t terribly successful, and the last attempt is on 15 July, which the French stop very quickly. Three days later the French launch a massive counter attack at what becomes known as the Second Battle of the Marne, which wipes out major German advances from earlier in the year. As much as we go on in Australia about the 100 days and about the 8th of August, the 18th of July is the turning point of the Western Front and from that moment on the Germans know that they are defeated, that they are going to have to find some sort of solution off the battlefield.
We’ll also note what’s going on in Italy: The Italians have had a major defeat at the end of 1917 at the Battle of Caporetto. But they have held the Austrians since, and they are looking at going on the offensive again in 1918. That offensive is not going to take place until late spring, in the last weeks of the war.
People also tend to forget Salonika (that’s northern Greece, Montenegro) – this often gets completely forgotten about because for three years the line doesn’t move at all. But at the end of 1918 this front breaks open in a big way, and it has a pretty important outcome in the way that the war comes to an end there.
So, what does Palestine look like a this time? At the end of 1917, the front line comes to rest between a point on the coast just north of Jaffa and just north of Jerusalem in the hills overlooking the Jordan Valley.. In early 1918, the EEF pushes on, captures Jericho, and its right flank comes to rest on the Jordan river.
In March, Allenby attempts a raid at Amman to blow up the railway viaduct there to make life unpleasant for the Ottomans, but it fails. It’s followed up in April by what we generally know as the Es Salt Raid. This is another fail. What Allenby was actually trying to achieve is something of a moot point as no one is entirely sure. In the aftermath, it was called a “raid”, which is basically just trying to cover up the fact that it’s a failure. Both of these trans-Jordan operations are Allenby’s low points in his campaign, if you will. His judgement is not what it was, particularly over the Es Salt one where he kind of “has a go” and the objectives are unclear (at least to everyone else, apart from maybe him). Neither of them came off.
In July, there’s a little bit of fighting across the bridge heads of the Jordan river where the Ottomans are trying to keep the British forces out of the bridge heads. The Light Horse are involved in some of these fights, as are British and Indian troops as well. This is the last time in the theatre that the Ottoman Army will attempt an offensive. Indeed Sanders looks at how the Ottoman army performs in this offensive and forms the conclusion that the army is no longer fit for offensive operations; the Ottoman Empire and its army is becoming weaker.
Now we come back to the context again. What is going on when all these raids are taking place is that the war on the Western Front surges. This is where the German Spring Offensive unfolds and they attack at the same as Allenby is undertaking the Amman Raid. What this leads to is the EEF fulfilling its strategic role of being a strategic reserve. Allenby now loses a large part of his army, particularly his British troops. Those guys find themselves marching to the coast, jumping on ships, heading across the Mediterranean and being redeployed in France. It means that the EEF is to a large extent is gutted. What he has left is his Australian troops, his New Zealand troops, and his Indian troops, but only enough British troops to act as a cadre for expansion; he’s going to have to re-build.
Now it should be noted that the EEF was always an imperial army, it was probably the most imperial army of the war from the British perspective: Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, English, Scots, Welsh, probably some Irish somewhere, but now it becomes even more imperial and Indian troops make up the bulk. Most of the troops you see in 1918 look like this, Indian. As much as Australians would like to believe that the Light Horse win much of the war (well, this campaign) by themselves, actually the war is won by guys who look like this too. That’s not to say that the Australians aren’t important, but in the Desert Mounted Corps of 1918 (where the Australians are the largest single national component, if only by one regiment) there are nearly as many Indian regiments. The Indian cavalry in the Desert Mounted Corps is very good. As for the Indian infantry, a lot of it is not (yet), because they are mostly newly recruited soldiers.
Allenby spends a lot of 1918 retraining the EEF, getting it back to a point where it can conduct operations again. As time marches on, Allenby comes up with a plan. The previous year he attempted a cavalry encirclement of Beersheba and Southern Palestine, trying to get back around Gaza, but that had not worked. He’s going to try a similar scheme for what we know as the Megiddo Offensive. But instead of trying to break through on the inland flank, he’s going to try to break through on the coast. Opposing him, he’s got three Ottoman armies: the Fourth, the Seventh, and the Eighth. Allenby has three corps at his disposal: two infantry corps (which we tend to overlook completely in Australia) who are mostly Indian and British, that’s XX Corps and XXI Corps. And then he’s got the Desert Mounted Corps, under Harry Chauvel, the first Australian to become a lieutenant-general and corps commander (beating Monash to both accolades by about a year). Chauvel has done quite well up to this point and he’s going to do quite well in this offensive as well.
So, the idea is that Allenby’s going to concentrate his forces on the coast with XXI Corps in front and most of the Desert Mounted Corps behind it. At this stage the Desert Mounted Corps has four cavalry divisions, including the Australian Mounted and ANZAC Mounted Divisions. In fact at this point, the Australian Light Horse in the Australian Mounted Division will undertake this offensive as sword-wielding cavalry. The ANZAC Mounted Division under New Zealander General Chaytor still don’t do that, and they grumble because they get given the job of conducting subsidiary operations inland. They grumble about that because they think they are being penalised for not being equipped with swords.
Anyway, the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel concentrated in the orange groves near the sea, behind the frontline. Part of the story is that all this is done in secrecy and that the German airmen had never got across the lines - that’s been in the histories for nearly 100 years. We now know that the Ottoman Army, thanks in part to German airmen, did have a fairly good idea of what was coming, but they didn’t know when it was coming, and the reality is they probably couldn’t do much about it.
On the morning of the 19 September concentrated artillery opens up with a Western Front style barrage. By 1918, it’s not days and days of preparatory fire. In the same way that it’s done at Villiers-Bretonneux, Amiens, and a whole bunch of other places on the Western Front, in this period the gun registrations are hidden, silent registrations. Gunfire opens up basically just before H-hour, a creeping barrage quickly kicks in and then the infantry attacks - up they go, and they follow the creeping barrage. There’s some stiff fighting in a few places but, pretty much the line is cracked open by about 8 o’clock in the morning. This is where the Ottomans fail on the defensive line, because the Ottomans under Sanders have not adopted the latest defence in depth systems that have been used by the Germans on the Western Front. They had a traditional first line of trenches, a second line of trenches, and they have what is called ‘split-locked’ a third (marked it out but not yet constructed it). British tactics by 1918 can just absolutely roll over this type of linear defence, and that’s what they do.
So, there’s a massive gap opened here on the coast. The 4th and 5th Calvary Divisions are ready. They have placed staff officers in the infantry headquarters, so they knew as soon as the way was clear, enabling the horsemen to be called forward and go on. The 5th Cavalry Division, on the left, is literally going up the beach. The Australian Mounted Division is in reserve. 5th Calvary division is headed for Nazareth and 4th Division is headed ultimately for Beisan. The idea is to strike deep, cutting behind the Ottoman troops that are in northern Palestine and basically catch them in a sack. The German Army would have loved this, this is a classic encirclement: get them into a cauldron and then destroy them. And within a few days 5th Division has arrived at Nazareth. The 4th Division is soon striking through the Musmus Pass on that ridge that I pointed to before.
Meanwhile, Chaytor force has captured the crossings across the Jordan, XXI Corps is making towards Nablus, XX Corps is pushing this way (northwards along the central part of the front), and the 7th and 8th Ottoman Armies effectively disappear; they no longer exist as combat formations. Ottoman troops and some units do escape across the Jordan river but not as organised formations – what is left is a real mess. The 4th Army to the east of the Jordan takes one look at its exposed flank and head back to Damascus as quickly as possible.
Nazareth is where Sanders has his headquarters and he literally escapes in a car in his pyjamas. He’s on the road, which means he’s out of touch with his troops. He has difficulty re-establishing contact with his army, because he’s on the run. The 5th Cavalry Division pushes up to Haifa quite quickly and the 4th Calvary Division pushes on to capture Beisan. All this has happened quickly – the offensive had begun on 19 September and is more or less finished by 25 September, which is when the Megiddo offensive (as opposed to the exploitation to Damascus and beyond) comes to an end. This is when the Australians, whoc had been behind the 4th Cavalry Division, get pushed north from Nablus up to take Semakh. The Australians fight a small battle at Semakh, right up there on the tip of the Sea of Galilee and also take Tiberius.
At this point the EEF briefly pauses. Allenby confers with Chauvel – Allenby is quite keen to push on to Damascus, as is Chauvel. They know the way is open and they can keep going.
The ultimate strategic objective is Aleppo, because Aleppo is the railway junction where the railway comes out of Anatolia and splits, with one line going down down into Palestine and Arabia while the other line goes down into Mesopotamia. If you take Aleppo, you’ve taken that vital railway junction from the Ottomans. Aside from the fact you’ve knocked them out of Palestine, you’ve also effectively knocked them out of Mesopotamia. So that’s the ultimate objective: Aleppo.
There are large scale Ottoman surrenders at this point and those troops often have a pretty unpleasant time. Many of them are in pretty poor health when they are captured and the British are pretty overwhelmed by the number of POWs they take. Unfortunately many of these POWs actually die during this period because of their poor health and the fact that the British are overwhelmed, meaning they cannot establish the camps and health services quickly enough.
Of course, the Allied airmen have been ranging over this the whole time, attacking retreating Ottoman troops. Before their fight at Semakh the Australian troops had followed the 4th Cavalry Division through the Musmus Pass, debouching onto the Nablus plain to the front of them. (If you ever get a chance to visit the place, you can stand on top of Tel Megiddo and all you see is that the plains to the North and the East are just flat as a tack and you can see where the cavalry went and on that plain and they could go anywhere they wanted, as fast as they wanted. That’s part of the reason why they overran the Ottomans so quickly.)
Alright, so now that they’ve essentially destroyed two Ottoman armies in northern Palestine, the third (eastern) one is running for its life trying to get back to Damascus and it is being harassed the whole way by the Arab Northern Army.
Pushing on to Damascus – the Australian Mounted Division pushes north to the Sea of Galilee and then drives inland for Damascus from the south-west. The 5th Calvary Division is following it and 4th Calvary Division crosses the Jordan, captures Deraa and drives on Damascus from the south with the Arab Northern Army bouncing around the eastern flank. The Australians fight a bunch of skirmishes on the way to Damascus. Perhaps the best-known one is at Kaukub and then they get to Damascus proper. They trap a whole bunch of troops at the Barada Gorge – there was a fair bit of bloodshed at the Barada Gorge – and then they are the first troops into Damascus. Yes, there is argument about who got to Damascus first, but the Australians were there first.
Australians might have gotten to Damascus first, but everyone else is at their heels. When the Australians get into Damascus, the 4th Calvary Division’s probably about there (just south-east of the city) and in fact the 4th Ottoman Army is caught just short of Damascus – some of it staggers into Damascus, but by and large the Fourth Ottoman Army also ceases to exist.
Now whilst all this is going on, the people we completely forget about in Australia are the infantry, who are coming up the coast. This is vitally important due to the ports. So, the Indian infantry divisions are making their way up the coast, taking Beirut and ultimately pushing onwards. It means as the cavalry advance on the inland routes, the ports are being opened and you are getting lateral transportation routes for resources. And as the Desert Mounted Corps advance, they open up transport routes. If you go to the War Memorial there’s actually a written pamphlet by the chief logistics officer of Desert Mounted Corps - he was clearly very proud of what he and his troops had done and it sets out exactly what was done by the corps’ supply elements to keep the formation on the road.
The Australians are mostly held in place around Damascus while the British cavalry divisions are pushed further north: the 5th is leading, the 4th is following up. They take Homs and they take Aleppo right at the end of October. Aleppo is the objective, which they take, but just beyond the town they finally meet an Ottoman rear-guard they can’t beat. The Ottomans have finally gathered themselves and by this stage the Desert Mounted Corps is completely exhausted anyway. This has been an advance of 500 kilometres, as the crow flies – the horses are tired, the men are tired, they’re strung out along this road, the 4th and the 5th Calvary Divisions are up this way (near Aleppo). The Australians have been called forward the relive the tired Indian and British troops and actually finish up the war in Homs.
And what’s also hitting the EEF at this point is malaria, and the influenza pandemic starts to come through. The malaria rates in Desert Mounted Corps and the EEF at this point of the war are as high as the malaria rates suffered by the Australians in the Pacific during the Second World War. So, malaria is a big problem. Lots of soldiers die because of the combination of malaria and influenza. Actually, we don’t know what they’re dying of (because diagnosis is difficult), but one of the two.
So, the EEF by this stage is pretty well exhausted, and of course, the winter is starting to come, the weather is starting to change and at this point the Ottomans have called for an armistice because of other things that have been happening in the war, which we should take note of.
This is where the other theatres matter. As much as the Ottomans have been completely put back on their heels by crisis in Palestine, an even bigger crisis is besetting them in the Balkans because of Salonica (which everyone kind of ignores historically). A little bit after the breakout at Megiddo, there was a big offensive which takes place on the Salonica front and the Bulgarians collapse. The Bulgarians are the land bridge between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The Bulgarian Army is at the end of its tether, the Bulgarian state is at the end of its tether, and when the British-French-Greek-Serbian Armies go through them at the offensive at Salonica, the Army comes apart and the Bulgarian government says “Alright, that’s it, the war’s over for us.” This takes out the land bridge, but more importantly what it does is that, as the Allied Armies come out of Salonica, they advance, and they advance very quickly. The French and Serbian Armies go rampaging through the Balkans and within a couple of weeks, they’re on the Austrian-Hungarian frontier from the southeast. The French army is on the verge of crossing the Danube River when the Austro-Hungarians finally pull the pin and say, “We’re out of the war as well”.
Where the French and Serbian armies have turned left and gone northward, the British and Greek armies have come out of Salonica and turned right, and what’s to the right? Constantinople. And what’s between them and Constantinople? In short, nothing. The Ottomans have no serious troop concentration on that front. They had been relying on the Bulgarians. This combines with the problems they were having in Palestine, and at this time the British also start to become more active in Mesopotamia. Combined with the crises in the Balkans, it’s over for the Ottoman Empire as well, and they’re now seeking an armistice.
So, Megiddo is a major operation worth studying itself, but the context of what’s going on in the wider war is what gives its importance. And of course, what matters now is that the balance of power in the Middle East has changed. The Ottoman Empire, which has been controlling this part of the world for centuries no longer exists. The British are going to come out with most of it, the Arabs lose out, and that’s part of the history of the world which we inherit today.