The Ottoman Empire secretly joined the Central Powers alliance on 2 August 1914. It hoped to use the war as a means of reasserting control over its former territories in Egypt and the Balkans. On 26 January 1915 it had launched a surprise attack on the Suez Canal.
After successfully defending the canal, British Empire forces went on the offensive, crossing the canal and pushing into the Sinai Peninsula. Success there led General Sir Archibald Murray to press the advantage by invading Palestine. However, two attacks on Ottoman-held Gaza in March and April 1917 both failed, and Murray was replaced by General Edmund Allenby.
Allenby’s experiences commanding mounted units in the Boer War (1899-1902) saw him place his faith in mobile warfare. Rather than risk another failure at Gaza, he planned an extraordinary strategic manoeuvre to encircle Gaza and take Beersheba by driving deep into the desert on a long and arduous ride. Supported by British infantry and accurate artillery support, a daring charge by the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba stunned the Ottoman defenders. This attack broke the deadlock, opening the road to Jerusalem.
By the summer of 1918 the Ottoman Army was on the defensive. Forced to retreat northwards through Palestine, they regrouped at Megiddo hoping to counter-attack. However, this left them in a position that favoured Allenby’s own planned offensive.
General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855-1929) was the German commander responsible for modernising the Ottoman Army. He commanded the joint German-Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia. When the Palestine campaign started to go wrong, he was called upon to re-organise Ottoman defences. By then, however, the Entente was in a position of strategic strength.
General Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938, later called Atatürk) was an astute career solider who had been crucial to the Ottoman success at Gallipoli in 1915. For much of 1916-17 he commanded Ottoman defences in the Caucasus to great effect. But by the time his leadership was called for in Palestine, the campaign there was already unravelling.
General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) was a veteran commander from the Boer War, where he had learned much about the value of mounted troops and unconventional warfare. When he took command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force he was fortunate to have the highly mobile units of the Desert Mounted Corps under his command, which he used to great effect. He was also tactically astute in the deployment of his infantry and artillery.
Lieutenant-General Henry Chauvel (1865-1945) was a charismatic and daring Australian officer. Gaining experience leading colonial mounted rifles in the Boer War, he later commanded the 1st Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli with distinction. After commanding the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Mounted Brigade during the Sinai campaign, he then led the Desert Mounted Corps in Palestine where his generalship was crucial in the victory at Beersheba.
General Allenby planned to bring about the final destruction of the Ottoman Army. He used mobile warfare skilfully to deploy his forces before launching a surprise attack. Allenby sought to trap the Ottoman forces, which were encamped and re-grouping on the plains of Megiddo, and block off any escape routes. He aimed to launch a co-ordinated attack with cavalry, infantry, artillery, armoured vehicles and aircraft to annihilate them in one fell swoop. As the infantry and artillery closed on their positions, the Desert Mounted Corps quickly encircled the enemy, preventing escape.
Arab rebels launched attacks on Ottoman lines of communication, while British and Indian divisions battered the Ottoman armies at Sharon and Nablus. At the Battle of Sharon (19 September), accurate and deadly creeping artillery barrages preceded an assault by the infantry of 21 Corps who punched holes through the defences. The Desert Mounted Corps then poured through into the Ottoman rear positions. They advanced many miles, capturing the key strongholds at Afulah, Beisan, and Jenin. Sweeping through the region, they took thousands of prisoners, and also secured Nazareth, Haifa, and Samakh.
The desired breakthroughs at Sharon were achieved by nightfall. The Battle of Nablus then began with 20 Corps attacking the well-defended Ottoman front line in the Judean Hills. A mixed mounted and infantry unit known as Chaytor’s Force captured the Jordan River crossings, while an artillery barrage softened up the Ottoman 8th Army.
At the same time, the Ottoman 4th Army came under sustained attack in the Hills of Moab, at Es Salt and Amman. The battles raged throughout the night and into the next day, allowing 21 Corps to begin outflanking the 8th Army. Meanwhile the Desert Mounted Corps completed their encirclement of the Ottoman Army, securing the important defiles of the Carmel Range.
The Ottoman armies were trapped. The Entente forces held aerial and numerical superiority. Nablus was captured and a devastating aerial bombardment cut off the line of retreat along the Wadi el Fara road. Waves of British and Australian aircraft passed over the Ottoman column of retreat. The attack was due to last five or six hours, but the Ottoman forces were totally destroyed within 60 minutes. The wreckage of hundreds of vehicles, wagons, guns, and dead or wounded troops lay scattered along a six-mile stretch of road.
By 21 September, Ottoman forces around Nablus were broken, allowing 20 Corps to round up prisoners. The Australian Light Horse had been upgraded to cavalry. Now armed with sabres, they had the opportunity to use them in brutally over-running Ottoman troops at Samakh.
Elements of the Ottoman 4th Army were deployed away from the destruction at Sharon and Nablus, and still posed a risk. Receiving word of the losses at those battles, they began a northward retreat. Again British and Australian aircraft caused heavy losses on the retreating forces, as Chaytor’s Force took Es Salt and Amman.
As the last desperate elements of the 4th Army reached Ziza they found their path blocked by the ANZAC Mounted Division. Pursued by Arab irregulars embittered by years of occupation, they surrendered en masse to the Anzacs rather than face slaughter at Arab hands.
In the entire battle, the Entente had inflicted losses on the Ottoman Army of over 25,000 killed, wounded or captured, effectively ending their ability to continue the war.
The way to Damascus, Beirut and Aleppo now lay open to Allenby. Ottoman stragglers who had escaped the destruction at Megiddo continued to filter north in the hope of regrouping. What followed was one of the most remarkable military pursuits in history. Chauvel led the Desert Mounted Corps northward, covering over 100 miles (160km) in three days and crossing the Golan Heights.
On the morning of 1 October, the most advanced unit, the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade under Major Harry Olden, entered Damascus in pursuit of fleeing Ottoman troops. He was obliged to accept the city’s formal surrender, much to the annoyance of Lieutenant-Colonel TE Lawrence, who had planned a grand ceremony in support of the Arab insurgents’ claim to self-rule.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Indian (Lahore) Division headed to Beirut, and the 7th Indian (Meerut) Division towards Baalbek. Homs was also captured on 16 October. Lawrence’s arrival in Damascus allowed Chauvel to continue his pursuit north, covering a further 185 miles (296km) to Aleppo, which fell on 25 October. Five days later the Ottoman Army capitulated, suing for peace.
The Ottomans agreed to demobilise their armies, surrendering their garrisons and territories outside of Anatolia and permitted the Entente to occupy Constantinople and the fortresses of the Dardanelles and Bosporus.
The 600-year-old Ottoman Empire was subsequently partitioned, separating the Turkish and Arab regions. Much of Arabia was granted independence. A Turkish nationalist movement then arose, triggering the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23) and resulting in the creation of the Republic of Turkey.
The League of Nations granted France a mandate over Syria and Lebanon, and the British a mandate over Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. However, nationalist movements soon arose in these regions with several states eventually achieving independence.
The Ottoman Empire’s partition continues to affect the Middle East today. In drawing the boundaries of what would become Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, the Allies paid little attention to the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious differences that are at the root of much of the current conflict in the region.
Victory at Megiddo owed much to the British Army’s horses. However, at the end of the war over 20,000 animals were sold locally for food or work as it was cheaper than shipping them home. Many cavalry soldiers were dismayed at the fate of horses that had carried them through the campaign.
In response to the hardships faced by former Army horses, Dorothy Brooke, the wife of Major-General Brooke commander of the Cavalry Division in Egypt, later established a free clinic for horses in Cairo. The Brooke remains a charity that works to relieve the suffering of working horses, donkeys and mules in some of the world’s poorest communities.