The British Conquest of Palestine

Described by W. T. Massey

[The New York Times/Current History, January 1918]

The British resumed active operations in Palestine in October, 1917, under General Sir Edmund Allenby, and made rapid progress. Beersheba, at the southern end, was taken on Oct. 31, Gaza on Nov. 7, Jaffa on Nov. 19, and on Dec. 10 it was officially announced that the British troops had taken Jerusalem. The subjoined descriptions of the capture of important strongholds in Palestine were written by W. T. Massey, the British war correspondent:

Beersheba, Oct. 31, 1917.

By a rapid and well-delivered surprise blow, General Allenby's army has smashed the western end of the Turks' intrenched line in Southern Palestine and wrested one of the most ancient Biblical towns from the enemy. In the early moonlight hours of Oct. 31 Beersheba was occupied by Australian mounted troops and British infantry after a stern day-long fight, in which our troops displayed great endurance and courage, doing everything planned for them, and working out the Staff scheme as if by the clock. Although meeting with a strong resistance from the enemy in extremely strong positions, nothing went wrong, and the story of the day will add to the military glory of soldiers from English cities and shires and from Australia and New Zealand. The splendid British infantry made long night marches and attacked with such determination that they tore down wire entanglements with their hands, and just as the moon rose over the Judaea hills the Australian Horse charged mounted against strongly held trenches with bayonets on rifles, overwhelming the Turks, and galloping cheering into the town.

Our movements were all done by night. At dawn yesterday the cavalry were south of the town, and the infantry were facing the northern, western, and southwestern defenses, which were cut in the range of hills hiding Beersheba from view. These intrenchments were elaborate and skillfully chosen, and generally were heavily protected by wire, while guns covered all approaches. The country we had to march over was in a bad condition. In the Spring it consists of fertile rolling downs; now the sun has parched the desert, the slightest movement raising enormous clouds of dust. Only a few trees and cactus hedges between the sea and the gaunt Judaea hills relieve the picture of a land laid bare by war. Yet with these surrounding against us General Allenby was able to effect a surprise which the Turks considered impossible. The prisoners declare that all thought Beersheba could never be taken in a day, and that many believed the place to be impregnable.

Preliminary Cavalry Work

On Oct. 27 before our movement began there was a little affair in which British mounted troops acquitted themselves magnificently. A cavalry screen occupied the high ground five miles west of Abu Irgeig station, on the Jerusalem-Beersheba railway. Three thousand Turks, with twelve guns, moved against this position, with the intention of shelling the construction parties. Infantry were about to replace the cavalry, but before they could do so the Turks descended from Kauwakah and attacked the cavalry west of the Wadi Hanafish, a rough watercourse with many twisting tributaries in the torrent-torn country parallel to the Beersheba-Gaza road. One of our squadrons at Girheir held out all day with both flanks enveloped. Another, south of the line, faced by troops on three sides, put up a splendid fight, beating off two determined cavalry charges supported by gunfire, and only retiring after a third charge, keeping the enemy at bay for six hours. At least 200 Turks were accounted for; the enemy had the heart so taken out of him by this resistance that when the infantry arrived the line was secured without difficulty, and we did not have to make a night attack which might have cost many casualties.

This gallant fight was a fitting prelude for the operations against Beersheba. The troops had been well trained. Indeed, this force was never in such efficient condition. The infantry marched by night and remained as well hidden as possible in the daytime in the folds of the ground or in the river beds. The cavalry got well round to the southwest, and their position was doubtless seen by enemy airmen. On the night of Oct. 30-31, under a beautiful moon, our horsemen made a wide, rapid sweep round from the south to southeast, ready at dawn to rush up and cover the town from the east and get astride the Hebron road to prevent a retirement in that direction. The infantry were to attack the trenches on the southeast, but before that could be done Hill 1,070, about three miles to the south, had to be taken. This hill had been made into a very strong redoubt, commanding a wide stretch, but an extremely heavy fire was brought to bear against it, and the gallant infantry carried it with an irresistible rush within half an hour of the attack. There was a German machine-gun section on the hill, but prisoners admitted that every machine gun was knocked out by our fire. Our casualties in taking the hill were very small. We took eight officers and eighty men prisoners on this hill, while there were many killed and wounded.

Enemy Taken by Surprise

When this important outpost had been secured the infantry prepared to attack the system of trenches southwest of the Wadi Saba, from the Khalassa road to the Beersheba-Sheria railway, camel corps and other infantry making a holding attack north of the Wadi. There had been some rifle firing and shelling by the enemy just before dawn, and thereafter the guns north of the Wadi fired heavily on the troops moving across the open ground to the south until one of our batteries located them and silenced them for the remainder of the day. The advance against the southwestern trench system was a great achievement. The Turks held on desperately, and time would not permit more than an hour's bombardment to cut the wire. The advance, too, was over exposed ground, and but for an extremely clever scheme the infantry must have sustained serious loss.

The day was remarkably still. Usually a strongish breeze blows for hours in the middle of the day, but a sluggish, oppressive air overhung the downs. During the morning the shells were tearing up so much earth that a dense sand pall hid the line of entanglements they were cutting. Our infantry made rushes across the open, heeding neither the enfilade fire of the guns nor the spasmodic machine-gun fire. In a few places the shells had broken down the wire, and into these the bombers dashed, while others tore down the wire from the iron supports with their hands and were in upon the Turks before they realized that resistance was futile.

This grand work was done by soldiers from English counties, many of them men who had prepared themselves for Great Britain's defense before the war burst upon the world. They showed inspiring courage and resource. This onslaught on the southwestern trenches only served to whet their appetite. Resting awhile, they crossed the rough, pebbly bed of the Wadi Saba to reduce the chain of holes and trenches on the western sides of Beersheba, which, strongly held, were even more formidable. Fighting for more than twelve hours had not lessened their determination, and, moving steadily and methodically on the same well-thought-out plan which had been so successful throughout the day, they proceeded to capture one length of defenses after another, until at 9:30 all the Beersheba stronghold was ours.

Australian Cavalry's Exploits

The cavalry work was equally meritorious. Many horsemen rode thirty miles before getting into action. They had two very difficult places to reduce during the day. The Australians in their widest sweep had to capture Sakaty, a high hill six miles northeast of Beersheba, dominating a wide district. With their usual élan these big Australians stopped at nothing, and rounded up every Turk on the hill by 1 o'clock. Thereafter they proceeded across the Hebron road and the Wadi Itmy, and closed that exit from Beersheba.

Even more difficult was the taking of Tel-el-Saba, of 1,000 feet, three miles east of the town, which had been converted into a redoubt of great strength, and made almost unapproachable by the steep banks of the Wadi running alongside it on the south. But the New Zealanders and Australians carried it by half-past 3, and then turned their attention to the group of houses between the hill and the Hebron road held by a German machine-gun company. This felt the full weight of the colonial arm. It was getting dark, and anxiety was felt about water for the horses. Another Australian force settled the difficulty. They formed up against the eastern trenches, fixed their bayonets, and, charging line after line, went for the enemy. Wave followed wave, until long before the last line reached the trenches the machine gun and rifle fire had withered away and told the tale of enemy dead. Dismounting at the first-line trenches, the Australians went on foot, overpowering all the Turks, and then, bringing forward again their brave chargers they , remounted and galloped cheering into the town.

I was in Beersheba in the early hours of today. There was everywhere evidence of the Turks being taken completely by surprise. They had blown up the railway engine and burned the engine house, but the train was standing in the station and the warehouses, full of corn, were almost intact, though attempts had been made to fire them. A direct hit by a heavy gun on the bridge over the Wadi, north of the town, prevented the removal of rolling stock. The long stone bridge south of the town was intact, as are the new buildings in the high part of the town, which bear evidence of German construction. They are of stone, with red tiled roofs. The natives had left Beersheba several months ago, their quarters being poor.

The Capture of Gaza

Gaza, Nov. 7, 1917.

This Philistine stronghold has been captured, and the British Army is a long step nearer Jerusalem. This ancient city has been the scene of many desperate conflicts, but during the last week there have been more violent shocks here than there were in all the battles which have raged about its walls for 4,000 years. General Allenby's strategy made the fall of Gaza inevitable, though it is puzzling why the city was not the last part of the line to fall.

When Beersheba had been taken and the victories on the enemy's shrunken left made the capture of Gaza a certainty, the Turks hurriedly departed just when General Allenby began to launch the attack. The Turks had had enough of the artillery preparation; they had experienced nothing like it at Gallipoli.

To troops from the western counties and Indians was given the task of attacking along the ridge southeast of Gaza, terminating at Alimuntar or Samson's Hill, East Anglian and Home Counties men operating along the seashore where a few days ago, using bombs and bayonets, they cleared the enemy out of the first line trenches.

The opposition was weak, and only a few men remained in the trenches, the whole place becoming ours at daylight. The Scottish Territorials pushed on through the town for a considerable distance, and the North Indian Cavalry pursued the Turks nearly as far as the Wadi Hesi. At sunset the Turks, who had been holding Beit Hanun, four miles northeast of Gaza railway terminus which has been damaged by fire from the warships with three infantry divisions, were retiring rapidly, many crossing the Wadi Hesi, harassed continually by us.

Further east there are two enemy divisions at Mejadil opposed to the men from " Gallant Little Wales " and Home Counties troops, whose stubborn guarding of the right flank against big odds yesterday kept Khuweilfeh for us, and enabled the rapid advance to be made against Kauwukah and Tel-el-Sharia. These Welshmen magnificently avenged their losses in the second battle of Gaza. Abu Hareira was carried at daybreak by Irish troops, who went forward with the bayonet into the trenches, though raked by machine-gun fire, and captured 100 prisoners and several guns.

Elaborate Turkish Defenses

General Allenby's strategy has saved many lives. Gaza, framed in a deep margin of field fortifications, was taken at a cost of few casualties; yet, if it had been defended with the tenacity which the Turks usually show, and we had had to assault it, the cost of victory would have been heavy. Rolling up the Turks on the left step by step with a Targe toll of prisoners and guns, gave us Gaza at a small expenditure of men.

The prisoners taken all thought Gaza to have been impregnable. One officer prisoner ridiculed the idea of capture. An immense amount of labor had been expended on the defenses. I saw many dugouts with a head cover of nine thick palm logs beneath sandbag tops, and winding stairs leading to a shelter a dozen feet below the ground. The shell craters all around the enemy lines show how wonderfully accurate our fire was, but if the Turks had held out the artillery preparation for a direct assault would have been much prolonged. Nothing which cunning suggested was omitted in the considerable efforts to make the dugouts comfortable, and the Turkish soldier must have regarded them as luxurious. The guns had played havoc with the thick cactus hedges which formed natural defenses around the south end of the town; still, these were in many places untouched, and a few machine guns would have held up battalions. With all these advantages remaining to him, the Turk had to go. He left some snipers behind, but they have all been rounded up now.

Gaza at close quarters is a disappointment. The picturesqueness of the red-topped roofs and colored walls as seen over the olive groves vanishes. Most of the houses had their roofs blown in; huge rents in the walls show the passage of the shells; the blackened carcasses of the dwellings tell how the Turks destroyed what they could not appropriate. The city has once more been a victim of war's devastation, this time by the hand of the defender.

The Taking of Jaffa

Jaffa, Nov. 19.

As we press forward, notwithstanding the resistance of the enemy, the indications grow that the Turks are continuing their preparations for a northeast march, not only on the front immediately facing Jaffa and Lydda, but further to the east, where our troops have made their weight felt. We are well over the Jaffa-Jerusalem road. North of the junction station the yeomanry got into the foothills and mountains of Judaea ground very different from the plains over which they had charged to put so many Turks to the sword. We are now in a roadless country, with hills as rocky, bare, and inhospitable as those of County Clare. Welcome rains, which were much overdue, are now falling, and if they do nothing more than keep down the dust and lessen the fly pest they will be a grateful relief to the troops.

A number of the inhabitants of Jaffa left the town last March, but many remain. The Turks did not attempt to destroy the town, which is in good order. A few Europeans were in Jaffa when the Anzac troops entered. The harbor between the reef and the shore is capable of sheltering small craft, and affords a fair landing place. The convents and hospitals are undamaged. The German colony of Sarona, which is intact, is well within our lines, and I hear that its inhabitants are remaining.

The magnificent orchards to the east of the town have been somewhat thinned by the cutting down of orange trees for fuel. Further south whole plantations have been uprooted. On the road to Ramleh excellent buildings at Rishonle-zion, a Jewish agricultural colony, have been left unharmed by the retreating enemy.

General Allenby's Official Report

The official report of General Allenby on the operations in Palestine resulting in the capture of Beersheba and Gaza, up to Nov. 8, 1917, is as follows:

The attack on Beersheba was fixed for Oct. 31. Seven days before this date the railway was begun from our railhead at Shellal, [fourteen miles south of Gaza, on the Wadi Ghuzze], toward Karm, [six miles southeast of Shellal, on the road to Beersheba], and a light line from Gamli [three and one-half miles south of Shellal] to El Buggar, [eight miles east of Gamli, on the Beersheba Road]. Detachments were developing water at Asluj [sixteen miles south of Beersheba].

On Oct. 27 the Turks made a strong reconnoissance from the direction of Kawukah [three miles southwest of Tell el Sheria] against Karm, employing two regiments of cavalry and 2,000 or 3,000 Infantry. A London yeomanry brigade holding the outpost line covering railhead made a gallant fight against greatly superior numbers, enabling our Infantry to get up in time, the Turkish attack being repulsed with great loss.

On the same day the bombardment of the Gaza defenses commenced, and on Oct. 30 British and French naval forces commenced to co-operate by firing on the Gaza defenses, and on the road and railway bridges and the railway junction at Dir Sineid, [eight miles north of Gaza]. The shooting was very accurate.

On the night of Oct. 30-31 General Allenby's forces were disposed as follows:
Mounted troops at Asluj, Khalasa, and about Shellal. Infantry at Esani and on the Far-Beersheba road, the extreme left forming a defensive flank toward Abu Irgeig, [six miles from Beersheba, on the Beersheba-Gaza road].

To the troops Immediately before Gaza was attached a composite force, consisting of West Indian and Indian troops, with detachments from the French and Italian contingents.

On the night of Oct. 30 the mounted troops made a night march, and at daybreak on Oct. 31 had reached the northeast of Beersheba. Meanwhile the infantry, who had also made a night march, arrived at dawn on the 31st opposite the southwest defenses of Beersheba, between the Kalasa-Beersheba road and the Wadi Saba. At an early hour London troops and dismounted yeomanry, attacking with great dash, had gained the whole of the first-line defenses, while our mounted yeomanry on their right kept touch with the Australian and New Zealand mounted forces east and northeast of Beersheba.

Fighting lasted all day. In the evening the Turks still held trenches a mile east of the town. The 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment charged these trenches, which were 8 feet deep and 4 feet wide, and galloped over them. This ended all resistance.

On Nov. 1 infantry moved forward to Aln Kohle, (nine miles north of Beersheba), and mounted troops pushed up the Hebron road to within four miles of Dhaheriye. While the water supply at Beersheba was being organized the remainder of our infantry moved into a position northwest of the town facing Kawukah on a northeast-southwest line about Abu Irgeig.

On the morning of Nov. 2 Scottish and East Anglian troops captured Umbrella Hill, [some 500 yards due west of the Direl Belah-Gaza road], and the whole of the Gaza first-line defenses thence to the sea, including Sheik Hassan. In this attack tanks co-operated with success.

There was no further important action until Nov. 6, the intervening time being occupied in bombardment and raids, and in the redistribution of troops.

On the morning of Nov. 6 our infantry, already mentioned as being at Aln Kohle, captured Khuwelifeh [some two miles further to the north], and in conjunction with mounted troops were heavily engaged in beating off repeated counterattacks made by at least two hostile divisions with the object of cutting us off from our water supply at Beersheba and thereby stopping our turning movement. Our troops, which included Welsh and English county regiments, behaved splendidly, and the Turkish casualties were enormous. Meanwhile, dismounted, yeomanry and Irish and London infantry had advanced from their positions about Abu Irgeig and before nightfall had taken the whole of the Kawukah and Rushdi systems of defense up to Abu Hareira. Tell el Sheria was also captured, and our right in this zone connected by mounted troops with our forces at Khuwelifeh. At nightfall the Turks were beaten and retreating, and mounted troops, supported by infantry, were sent north via Sheria to pursue them toward Jemmameh and Huj [eleven and nine miles, respectively, east of Gaza].

At midnight an attack was launched against the very strong works covering Gaza, which was captured with very little opposition, and Infantry was pushed forward on the morning of the 7th toward the mouth of the Wadi Hesi [nine miles north of Gaza]. Some Turks still held on in the Atawina position [six to seven miles from Gaza, on the Beersheba road], but by the morning of Nov. 8 these works were also in our possession. On this day (7th) Scottish infantry, after an exhausting march through the sand dunes, reached the mouth of the Wadi Hesi Australian and New Zealand mounted troops, supported by Londoners, pushed forward from Sheria, meeting with opposition from strong rearguards, which was finally overcome by a gallant charge made by the Warwick and Worcester yeomanry. On our extreme right the troops were still opposed by 4,000 to 5,000 Turks.

At nightfall the general position was as follows: Our mounted troops held the Hebron road with infantry at Tell Khuwelifeh and mounted troops connecting up with our forces at Sheria. Other mounted troops were on the line Jemmameh- Huj, while mounted troops from Gaza were in contact with strong bodies of the enemy about Beit Hanun, and our infantry had reached the mouth of the Wadi Hesi.

During the night and the morning of Nov. 8 good progress was made, and by 6 P. M. on this day our mounted troops had reached the upper course of the Wadi Hesi, north of Tell el Hesi, [five miles north of Jemmameh], and had possession of Huj, where stores of all sorts were on fire. A smart action was fought near Beit Hanun, where Indian Imperial Service Cavalry captured prisoners and a heavy howitzer, while the Scottish troops, now on the right bank of the Wadi Hesi, had captured Herbieh, [eight and one-half miles from Gaza], and commanded the coastal railway.

Up to Nov. 11 the number of prisoners had reached 5,894, including 286 officers.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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