(W)Archives: With Allenby at Gaza
As everyone who has seen Lawrence of Arabia knows, British General Edmund Allenby led Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) during the latter part of World War I and campaigned successfully in Palestine against the Ottoman Army. An important part of Allenby’s work was the capture of Gaza in November 1917 and the breaking of the Gaza-Beersheba line. Accompanying Allenby was U.S. Army officer Colonel Edward Davis whose photo album from Palestine is available online thanks to Fort Leavenworth’s Combined Arms Research Library (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Davis’ photographs are a remarkable glimpse into a pivotal period of modern military and political history. They bring into relief some of the similarities of war across the last century and highlight some of the differences.
Allenby’s predecessor General Archibald Murray had made two costly and unsuccessful attempts against the town of Gaza, on March 26 and April 17-19. Allenby replaced Murray in June 1917 and soon started receiving reinforcements in preparation for a renewed offensive. In the meantime, the Turks had been busily fortifying Gaza since Murray’s first assault.
On October 27, Allenby’s artillery forces started a relentless bombardment of Gaza. They were joined two days later by a naval bombardment from British and French warships. However, Allenby had actually decided that his main effort would be against Beersheba. His forces’ attack there on October 31 was successful and the battle was culminated by a dramatic cavalry charge by Australian forces. Davis provides some fascinating photos of the trenches around Beersheba over which the Australian cavalry jumped (see p. 11, for instance), as well as some that show the arrival of British forces in the town.
Allenby wanted to keep the Turks fixed in the area of Gaza, however, while he maneuvered around Beersheba. Accordingly, he launched ground assaults against the Turkish positions just south of Gaza on the night of November 1. These were only modestly successful in terms of capturing their assigned objectives, but they did hold the Turks in place and even attracted some Turkish reinforcements. In any event, Allenby kept up the pressure. Intensified bombardment followed on the night of November 6, accompanied by renewed British assaults that drove the Turks out of several major parts of their trench lines. The next morning British observation planes spotted Turkish units pulling back. The Ottoman Army had concluded that holding Gaza was a losing proposition given the loss of Beersheba and had slipped away in the night. Upon arriving in the Turkish trenches, the British found that their adversaries had pulled down houses in the town of Gaza in order to obtain better materials for their revetments (p. 31). The resulting pursuit led to the British capture of Jerusalem in early December (pp. 73 to 93.)
As debates and disagreements flare over the still sputtering shooting match between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, it is interesting to examine Davis’ photographs. In an effort to maintain the support of the Arabs, many of whom were not happy about their domination by Turks, Allenby had issued orders that mosques were to be respected sometimes even when they were being used by Turkish forces. However, Davis’ album includes a photograph on page 25 of the badly damaged Great Mosque in Gaza. All sides agree that the Turks were using the mosque as an ammunition depot. One account from the time claims that the Turks blew the mosque up themselves but generally it is agreed that the British did it, apparently carefully, after the Turkish malfeasance had been established.
In 1917 image like this one or a similar one on page 33 had little power. It was expected that war brought utter devastation and neither the misuse of a mosque (or other nominally protected sites) nor its destruction brought particular outrage, beyond the inhabitants of the immediate area. Today the internet and television networks allow such images to spark fury around the world and lead to exchanges of war crimes accusations.
Also in 1917 neither the intelligence capabilities nor the accuracy of munitions were sufficient to allow the precise delivery of violence that seems so morally imperative today. The Israeli Defense Forces have full motion video of events in Gaza, they knows the phone numbers of the people who inhabit the buildings they are about to bomb, they know where every mosque and hospital is, and they can select the most appropriate munition for the particular target. In 1917, such capabilities did not exist and a bludgeoning bombardment that rivaled that of the first day of the Battle of the Somme was expected. In fact, one eyewitness (not Davis) described Gaza after Allenby’s victory as being mostly a “mass of ruins, stark and silent.”
Today such a victory would be called genocide. In 1917 it was just another day in the Great War.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.