WWI Centennial: Brits Victorious At Megiddo

Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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By September 1918 the outnumbered and outgunned Turks had withdrawn to a line running from the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea, west to the Mediterranean shore north of Jaffa, and bisecting Palestine.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).

Armored car in World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.”

T. E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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.

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