The year 1916 was awful for all nations in the First World War. The feverish adventurism of 1914 was gone, replaced by the knowledge that “your country needs you” brought almost certain death to recruits. Large set-piece battles resulted in bloody attrition and stalemate. In Belgium and north-eastern France landscape became moonscape. Cemeteries sprung up like rubbish tips to hold vast numbers of bodies who died in murderous full frontal surges. The year was dominated by two major battles that lasted months, killed millions and changed nothing.
Verdun and the Somme became etched as sites of senseless slaughter. The fort of Verdun was strategically unimportant but was an important symbol of France. They fought the Germans for almost the entire year to save it. Neither side gained much and a million men died. An even higher number – 1,100,000 – died on the banks of the Somme River. It was the spot where the French and British armies met but like Verdun, was otherwise of no strategic value.
The Somme was planned as a battle of attrition. The British deliberately walked slowly across no man’s land as generals thought this would unnerve the Germans. It didn’t unnerve German machine gunners and 20,000 died in the first hour, 60,000 in the first day – Britain’s highest ever one-day casualty list. A bloodfest that started in high summer, the Battle of the Somme went for four months until the onset of winter. Only a handful of kilometres changed hands and the overall state of the war was the same in January 1917 as it was in January 1916.
The Ottoman war was also stalemated as 1917 arrived. The Mesopotamia campaign for Mosul’s oil ended when the British army at Kut surrendered after a siege despite TE Lawrence’s entreaties and bribes. In the north the Turks feared Christian Armenia more than any other enemy and butchered almost a million Armenians. In the south Arabs were paid off to keep quiet while in the west the British Army and their Australian Light Horse trooped were hemmed in at Sinai.
Lawrence’s plan was to set up an alternative caliphate. The man he anointed, Sharif Hussein, launched a symbolic but important blow in June 1916 taking Mecca. Hussein was a nominal Ottoman subject but held semi-independent sway as long as he didn’t attack strategic Turkish interests. That changed in a lightning attack on Mecca’s small Turkish garrison. Hussein also took Red Sea ports giving the British Navy an opening for weapons and supplies.
Hussein knew the Arabs could not take the Turks on full frontal. The Ottomans held Medina, Islam’s second city and the Arabs did not have the training or equipment for open battle. They launched a guerrilla campaign swiftly attacking towns and the railway before disappearing in the desert. Lawrence arrived in Arabia in October 1916 and struck a rapport with Hussein’s son Faisal. Together they planned the 1917 revolt.
The Light Horse started the slow assault across Sinai. Victory at El Arish ended Turkish momentum and at the start of 1917 Chauvel’s troops secured important victories at Magdhaba and Rafa taking them within sight of Palestine. The way was blocked by the city of Gaza which they laid siege to twice. The British blundered at the first attempt in January 1917 when they withdrew under the belief Turkish reinforcements had arrived. Chauvel’s exasperated response was “But we have Gaza,” yet he had to obey orders. The decision demoralised his men and gave the Turks hope they could hold the line between Gaza and Beersheba. A second attempt to take Gaza in April also failed. Chauvel looked at a new option: taking Beersheba in a swift attack. It had to be done in under a day otherwise they would run out of water.
While the British stalled, the Arab Revolt gained momentum. Lawrence’s most audacious act was to cross the Nefud Desert in the hottest time of year to attack Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. The stretch of desert they had to go through was al-Houl (“the terror”), the most inhospitable region on earth. The British did not support the plan, worried about growing Arab influence. But taking Aqaba would divert Turkish defences from the Gaza line and provide a launchpad for the push on Damascus. Lawrence enlisted Howeitat leader Audu abu Tayi, with promises of Turkish gold. Lawrence and Audu made a long circuitous path across the desert and entered Aqaba on 6 July 1917. Lawrence rushed back to Cairo and was greeted by a new British leader replacing the ineffectual General Murray.
Though General Edmund Allenby was disappointed to be taken away from the Western Front to what he saw as an insignificant contest, he was inspired by the mission Prime Minister Lloyd George gave him: “take Jerusalem by Christmas”. Allenby saw Aqaba as critical to support the Gaza operation. He saw how manoeuvrable the campaign was compared to France and what role cavalry might play. He created the Desert Mounted Corps of 35,000 men with Chauvel at its head. He also moved headquarters from the corruption of Cairo to the front line near Rafa.
Allenby wanted to convince the Turks they would have a third try at taking Gaza when the real target was Beersheba. He returned to Cairo to pretend nothing was happening and gave Turks plans of a fake attack on Gaza, but vetoed a third plan to drop cigarettes packets laced with opium behind enemy lines. The Army prepared to attack Beersheba on October 31.
Beersheba was well defended by Turkish and German troops and an impressive trench system. With the Army bogged down on the edge of town, Chauvel’s cavalry made the decisive move. Beersheba lay in a shallow saucer at the foot of the Judean Hills. Chauvel could see the whole town from a nearby hill. As the day progressed the Turks offered stern resistance and Chauvel ordered his 4th Light Brigade to attack. At 4.30pm the sun was setting as they galloped towards the town. They had 3km of no man’s land to cross and halfway there the defenders opened fire with machine guns. Many horses and men died in the hail of bullets but it did not stop the advance. Terrified by the bloodcurdling cry of the Australians, the Germans ordered a withdrawal. The Light Horse butchered the remaining Turks and took the town before the Germans could blow up the well.
An elated Allenby ordered a third attack on Gaza and it fell within 24 hours. The road was open to Jerusalem. All armies had strict orders about “holy” places and the fight tiptoed around Bethlehem. The Turks fled Jerusalem on December 9 and the 60th Division’s General Shea marched into the Old City on a drizzly morning greeted wildly by people of many nationalities. Not since the 6th Crusade 674 years earlier had a Christian power had taken the city. Allenby had kept his promise to Lloyd George. The way was clear towards the even more important target of Damascus in 1918 and an end to the war.