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.

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

11 Facts About Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Edmund LeightonCassell and Company, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The subject of a recent Netflix original movie called Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s great national heroes. Get to know King Bob a little better.

1. Robert the Bruce was a polyglot who loved telling stories.

He likely spoke Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and Norman French, and was an avid reader who loved studying the lives of previous monarchs. According to a parliamentary brief from around 1364, Robert the Bruce "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their times, both in wartime and in peacetime.” In his free time, he would recite tales about Charlemagne and Hannibal from memory.

2. Despite his reputation as Scotland’s savior, he spent years siding with England.

The Bruce family spent the 1290s complaining that they had been robbed of the Scottish Crown. That’s because, after the deaths of King Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, it was unclear who Scotland's next monarch should be. Debates raged until John Balliol was declared King in 1292. The Bruces, who had closer blood ties to the previous royal family (but not closer paternal ties) considered Balliol an usurper. So when tensions later flared between Balliol and Edward I of England, the resentful Bruces took England’s side.

3. He murdered his biggest political rival.

John Comyn is killed by Robert Bruce and Roger de Kirkpatrick before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, 10 February 1306
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading figures standing in the way of Robert the Bruce’s path to Scotland’s throne was Balliol's nephew, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars in Dumfries, Scotland. There, Robert accused Comyn of treachery and stabbed him. (And when word spread that Comyn had somehow survived, two of Robert’s cronies returned to the church and finished the deed, spilling Comyn’s blood on the steps of the altar.) Shortly after, Robert declared himself King of Scotland and started to plot an uprising against England.

4. He lived in a cave and was inspired by a very persistent spider.

The uprising did not go exactly according to plan. After Robert the Bruce killed Comyn in a church, Pope Clement V excommunicated him. To add salt to his wounds, Robert's ensuing attempts to battle England became a total failure. In the winter of 1306, he was forced to flee Scotland and was exiled to a cave on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as Robert took shelter in the cave, he saw a spider trying—and failing—to spin a web. The creature kept attempting to swing toward a nearby rock and refused to give up. Bruce was so inspired by the spider’s tenacity that he vowed to return to Scotland and fight. Within three years, he was holding his first session of parliament.

5. He went to battle with a legion of ponies.

For battle, Robert the Bruce preferred to employ a light cavalry of ponies (called hobbies) and small horses (called palfreys) in a tactic known as hobelar warfare. In one famous story, a young English knight named Sir Henry de Bohun sat atop a large warhorse and saw Robert the Bruce mounted upon a palfrey. Bohun decided to charge. Robert saw his oncoming attacker and stood in his stirrups—putting him at the perfect height to swing a battleaxe at the oncoming horseman’s head. After slaying his opponent, the king reportedly complained, “I have broken my good axe.”

6. He loved to eat eels.

Robert the Bruce
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Robert the Bruce’s physician, Maino de Maineri, criticized the king’s penchant for devouring eels. “I am certain that this fish should not be eaten because I have seen it during the time I was with the king of the Scots, Robert Bruce, who risked many dangers by eating [moray eels], which are by nature like lampreys," de Maineri wrote. "It is true that these [morays] were caught in muddy and corrupt waters.” (Notably, overeating eels was considered the cause of King Henry I England’s death.)

7. His underdog victory at Bannockburn proved that quality could defeat quantity.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, sending England (as the popular anthem Flower of Scotland goes) “homeward tae think again.” It was a surprising victory; the English had about 2000 armored horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, compared to the Scots's 500 horsemen and 7000 foot soldiers. But Robert the Bruce used geography to his advantage, forcing the English to attempt crossing two large and boggy streams. The victory was a huge turning point in the Scottish War of Independence and would help secure Scotland's freedom.

8. He’s firmly intertwined with the Knights Templar mythology.

Treasure hunters speculate that in the 14th century, the Knights Templar fled to Scotland with a trove of valuables because they received support and protection from King Robert the Bruce. Thanks to his help, they say, the Knights were able to hide gold and holy relics—from ancient Gospel scrolls to the Holy Grail—in secret spots across the country (including in Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame). But there is little evidence to support these colorful myths. Templar scholar and medieval historian Helen Nicholson said that any remaining Knights Templar were likely hanging out in the balmy climes of Cyprus.

9. He’s still donating money to a Scottish church.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the death of his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce decreed to give the Auld Kirk in Cullen, Scotland—now the Cullen and Deskford Parish—a total of five Scots pounds every year. That's because, in 1327, Elizabeth had died after falling off a horse, and the local congregation generously took care of her remains. Robert was so touched by the gesture that he promised to donate money “for all eternity.” To this day, his bequest is still being paid.

10. Parts of his body are buried in multiple places.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329, just a month before his 55th birthday. The cause of his death has been a source of much discussion, and disagreement, but most modern scholars believe that he succumbed to leprosy. His funeral was a rather elaborate affair that required nearly 7000 pounds of candle wax just for the funerary candles. Following the fashion for royalty, he was buried in multiple places. His chest was sawed open and his heart and internal organs removed: The guts were buried near his death-place at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton; his corpse interred in Dunfermline Abbey; and his heart placed inside a metal urn to be worn around the neck of Sir James Douglas, who promised to take it to the Holy Lord.

11. His heart was the original “Brave Heart.”

Unfortunately, Sir Douglas never made it to the Holy Land: He got sidetracked and took a detour to fight the Moors in Spain, where he was killed. Before his attackers reached him, Douglas reportedly threw the urn containing the king’s heart and yelled, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was soon returned to Scotland, where its location was forgotten until a team of archaeologists discovered it in 1921. It’s now interred in Melrose Abbey.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER