This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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Last week in Middle Eastern history: the First Battle of Gaza (1917)

Two Sundays ago, March 26, marked the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, a small and, to be honest, fairly inconsequential affair (the Second Battle of Gaza was fought less than a month later, so clearly neither side expended itself this time around) that is nonetheless interesting in that what could have been a decisive British victory became instead an indecisive Ottoman one because British forces, having actually taken Gaza, decided to retreat rather than prepare for an Ottoman counterattack. That’s why there was a second engagement in April, which was also an Ottoman victory, and then a third one in November when the Brits finally were victorious.

Why am I only writing about this now, and not last week when it might have been appropriate? Well, the simple answer is that, as regular readers know, when World War I stuff comes around I generally like to send you all to read Michael Collins Dunn instead of writing about these things myself. And, well, it took him a few days to get his account written so it’s taken me a few days to point you at it. But if you’re interested in WWI history, do go check these out: part I (introducing the key people) and part II (recapping the engagement itself).

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Fall of Baghdad (1917)

I’ve been a little lax on the World War I centennials lately, and to be honest I’m not about to fix that at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but as I often do on these occasions I can cheat and send you to read the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn.

For background you’ll want to read his account of the Second Battle of Kut from late February. April 1916’s First Battle of Kut, as we know, was a complete Ottoman victory and one of the low points for Britain in the whole war. Following that disaster, the British army replaced its commander in Mesopotamia, Lt. General Percy Lake, with newly arrived (from Gallipoli) corps commander, Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude.


Hello, General Maude!

Maude wisely spent the rest of 1916 repairing the damage that had been done in the campaign that culminated at Kut. He recruited new troops from India, trained them, and had his engineers build out a rail network that could support a full-scale northern offensive. His target was Baghdad, which at this particular point in history was really of no great military significance, but which was a high profile target whose capture would be a morale booster for the British war effort. Plus, just advancing that far north would put Maude’s army in position to threaten important Ottoman positions in northern Iraq and Anatolia.

As Dunn notes, the “Second Battle” of Kut wasn’t much of a battle. The Ottomans were damn sure not going to repeat Charles Townsend’s mistake of the year before and allow themselves to be bottled up there, so they withdrew north on February 24 without much resistance. Baghdad fell pretty much the same way:

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

Khalil Pasha made straight for–wait for it–the city of Mosul, which was of much greater importance to the Ottomans (still is, apparently, per Sultan Recep I), where he set up a defense and prepared for a British attack that never came. Maude, wanting to avoid Townsend’s biggest mistake–overextending his supply lines–decided to stop his advance at Baghdad and take the necessary logistical steps to properly support the next phase of his advance. In fact, the Brits decided to shut down their Mesopotamian operations for the winter, maybe in part because Maude died of cholera in November.

In 1918, the Levant front was where the action was, and the British Mesopotamian army was ordered to send part of its force west to help on that front. Then, of course, the war ended. Although the Mesopotamian army eventually entered Mosul in November 1918, that was after the Armistace of Mudros had put the Ottomans out of the war, and the post-war status of the city had to be ironed out later on.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Deadline posting: the Battle of Rafa (January 2017)

Hi everybody! I’m on a deadline that may keep me from posting anything else today (stay tuned if you like), but in anticipation of just such a thing I’ve been holding on to Michael Collins Dunn’s two-part look at the Battle of Rafah, which took place 100 years ago this month. Rafah wasn’t a huge engagement, but it marks the end of World War I’s Sinai Campaign and the last time Ottoman soldiers found themselves in Egypt. As such, it prefaces the resulting Palestine Campaign (these are sometimes lumped together as the “Sinai and Palestine Campaign”) and the British push north toward Syria. It was also an important battle for Britain’s ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), and particularly for the New Zealanders, whose mounted rifle division’s bayonet charge–undertaken after a general order to retreat had been issued–broke what had been a pretty staunch Ottoman resistance and won the battle.

Part one covers the lead up to the battle:

On December 20, 1916, the Allied force reached El ‘Arish, where they discovered the Ottoman force had evacuated the town and withdrawn up the Wadi El ‘Arish to the vicinity of Magdhaba to the southeast. (See map above. Illustrations are from Wikimedia.) Unwilling to advance beyond El rish while leaving Turkish and German forces behind their right in a fortified position at Magdhaba (not far from the big Turkish support base at Hafr al-‘Auja, just inside the Palestinian side of the border).

The Commander of the Desert Column, Sir Phillip Chetwode, arrived at El ‘Arish with supplies from Port Said, and prepared to dispatch the ANZACs under Sir Harry Chauvel. The German Commander of the Ottoman Desert Force, Kress von Kressenstein, had constructed a series of fortified redoubts at Magdhaba which he thought could resist attack, but he reckoned without the high mobility of the Light Horsemen.

Part two covers the battle itself. And here’s a map of the battle via Wikipedia to help you visualize it:


I highly recommend all of Dunn’s World War I accounts if you feel like poking around his blog. They’re really good.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

Today in World War I: the Battle of Sarikamish ends (1915)

and that's the way it was

The Battle of Sarikamish was an overwhelming Russian victory whose outcome put the Ottomans on the defensive in World War I’s Caucasus theater of operations right up until the 1917 October Revolution took Russia out of the war altogether. Its military impact was fairly substantial–World War I might have been much different if the Ottomans had been able to make a sustained offensive into Russia via the Caucasus–but the Ottomans ultimately gained back the territory they’d lost as a result of this battle. Sarikamish’s greatest impact was felt off the battlefield, by the Armenian people. The Armenian Genocide was a long time coming and had multiple causes. But Sarikamish was one of the most immediate ones, owing to one man’s desperate need to dodge the blame for his failures on the battlefield.

The state of Europe and the Caucasus in January 1915; note Sarikamish there on the right (via mental_floss

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Today in Middle Eastern history: General Allenby comes to Jerusalem (1917)

and that's the way it was

British General Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem in 1917 (Wikimedia)

Edmund Allenby was the first Christian commander to capture Jerusalem in battle since the leaders of the First Crusade managed the feat in 1099. There had been brief periods during the later Crusades, after Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, when the city nominally came back under Christian control via negotiations, and there was technically a “Kingdom of Jerusalem” in the Levant until the fall of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291, but that stuff was mostly for show. Now obviously World War I wasn’t a religious crusade, and Allenby wasn’t there to establish a new Christian kingdom in the Holy Land, but I do think there’s something to be said for the parallel, and the fact that Jerusalem remained (remains) so symbolically important.

The Battle of Jerusalem was an almost six-week affair that began in mid-November, when…

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Today in Middle Eastern history: the Balfour Declaration (1917)

and that's the way it was

I’m kind of cringing at writing this, because you can’t really talk about the Balfour Declaration without pissing somebody off and I actually approach these historical pieces with the hope that I won’t do that (I don’t so much care whether or not I do it with the other stuff I write). But I wouldn’t be keeping up with this history business if I didn’t mention that today is the 98th anniversary of the day when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to Walter Rothschild that would wind up becoming one of the most important letters of the 20th century, at least insofar as the makeup of the modern Middle East is concerned.

The Declaration as it was printed in The Times on November 9, 1917 (Wikimedia)

The Balfour Declaration has a lot more importance in hindsight than it really had at the time Balfour…

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