The Egypt (Sinai) and Palestine Campaign of the First World War was fought between the British Empire and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire backed by the German Empire. The fighting began in January 1915 with an attack by the Turks on the British held Suez Canal, and ended with the Armistice of Mudros in 1918 and the end of Ottoman rule in Syria and Palestine.
For centuries before the Great War, this land which today covers Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Slicing through the west of this region is the Suez Canal (photograph right), a vitally important shipping channel and hence supply route for the British Empire. During the war, troops and equipment of the Australian, New Zealand and Indian forces passed this way en-route for the Western Front, in addition to millions of tons of foodstuffs, minerals and other provisions bound for Britain and her Allies. The importance of the Canal had been recognised by the British Government long before the war, and steps were taken to provide defences.
Initially, Britain set out only to defend the Canal from the Turkish troops that were massed in Palestine. During this phase of operations, actions were also necessary against the Senussi Arabs, who attacked Egypt from the west, thus from late 1914 until mid-1915, the British force stood on the defensive along the Suez Canal, defeating various Turkish and German/Turk-led Senussi attempts (where the Australians first saw fighting) to capture or damage the canal.
The Australian involvement in the Middle East started in December 1914 as part of the 30,000 strong defensive garrison of Egypt and the Suez Canal, with the troops (originally destined for England and the Western Front) arriving and preparing for the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. During this period they were kept in the reserve and focused on their training. After the evacuation from Gallipoli the total British force in Egypt had grown by an order of magnitude and was nearly 400,000 men in 13 infantry and mounted divisions, a force regarded as the strategic reserve for the whole Empire.
While most of the Australian Imperial Force went to France in 1916, the bulk of Australia’s mounted forces remained in Egypt to fight the Turks threatening the Suez Canal. Unlike their counterparts in France and Belgium, the Australians in the Middle East fought a mobile war against the Ottoman Empire in conditions completely different from the mud and stagnation of the Western Front. Under the command of Australian born Major General Sir Harry Chauvel (photograph left) the light horsemen (aka mounted riflemen) and their horses of the ANZAC Mounted Division and the Australian Mounted Division had to survive extreme heat, harsh terrain, and water shortages. Some of its events, most notably the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba, have captured the popular Australian imagination and popular history in a way that few other episodes of the war have. Tied up with the romance associated with the Light Horse, the Palestine campaign, could be viewed as a cleaner, gentler, and less vicious part of the war. Casualties were comparatively light, with 1,394 Australians killed or wounded in the three years of war.
Following the unsuccessful Turkish attempt in January and February 1915 to take the Suez Canal, having been beaten back by the Indian Cavalry and Camel Corps, the British made plans to move its defence to the eastern bank of the canal and prepared to take the attack to the Turkish Army. At this time the Australians were responsible for the central sector of the canal, with its Headquarters at Ismailia. In March 1916, Sir Archibald Murray took command of all the forces which were united into the new Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Murray believed a British advance into the Sinai and to occupy would be more effective than the static defences recently established. British occupation of the oasis area which stretched eastwards from Romani and Katia to Bir el Abd along the ancient silk road would deny drinking water to any Ottoman invasion force.
After the surprise Turkish attack at Katia in April 1916 the Australian 2nd Light Horse Brigade and New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigades of Chauvel’s Anzac Mounted Division were ordered to occupy the Romani area, with the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade arriving towards the end of May 1916. A vital victory was gained in August 1916 at Romani near the coast, which relieved the canal position and saw the limit of Turkish ambitions in the Sinai. On the 9th August the Anzac Mounted Division launched an attack, and after fierce fighting the Turkish base at Bir el Abd was abandoned on the 12th August. The British began to construct a railway and supply roads along the coastal plain at this time, both of which were to prove vitally important when two years later it was necessary to provide for a larger force advancing into Palestine.
What followed was pursuit and the Battle of Magdhaba in December. This Turkish outpost some 18 miles into the Sinai desert from El Arish on the Mediterranean coast was the last obstacle to the Allied advance into Palestine. Chauvel sent the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the 3rd Light Horse Brigade to move on Magdhaba by the north and north–east to cut off of retreat, while the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade followed the telegraph line straight on Magdhaba. The 1st Light Horse Brigade reinforced the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade in an attack on the redoubts, but fierce shrapnel fire forced them to advance up the wadi bed. After tough fighting on 23rd December the whole garrison had surrendered having suffered heavy casualties, and the town was captured. The victory had cost the Allies 22 dead and 121 wounded. On the 9th January 1917, mounted units of the newly formed Desert Column including the Anzac Mounted Division attacked and defeated a 2,000 to 3,000-strong Ottoman Army garrison at El Magruntein also known as Rafa, and thus completed the recapture of the Sinai.
These three victories, resulting in the recapture of substantial Egyptian territory, were followed in March and April 1917, by two EEF defeats on Ottoman Empire territory, at the First and Second Battles of Gaza in southern Palestine. After a period of stalemate in Southern Palestine from April to October 1917, on 31st October General Edmund Allenby, who replaced Murray in June, attacked the Turkish garrison of Beersheba with some 47,500 rifles of the XX Corps and about 15,000 troopers in the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions (Desert Mounted Corps). Orders were issued for a general attack on Beersheba by the dismounted 1st and 3rd Light Horse Brigades and the mounted 4th Light Horse Brigade. As the leading squadrons of the 4th Light Horse Regiment of Victorians, and the New South Wales’ 12th Light Horse Regiment came within range of the Ottoman riflemen in defences directly in their track, a number of horses were hit by sustained rapid fire. While the 4th Light Horse Regiment attacking these fortifications dismounted after jumping the trenches, most of the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left rode through a gap in the defences to gallop into Beersheba to capture the garrison. The Turkish defenders suffered many casualties and between 700 and 1,000 troops were captured.
Having weakened the Ottoman defences which had stretched almost continually from Gaza to Beersheba, they were finally over-run by 8th November after the Battle of Tel el Khuweilfe, the Battle of Hareira and Sheria, and the Third Battle of Gaza. The pursuit began and during the subsequent operations about 50 miles of formerly Ottoman territory was captured, as a result of the EEF victories at the Battle of Mughar Ridge, fought between 10th and 14th November, and the Battle of Jerusalem fought between 17th November and 30th December 1917.
Two unsuccessful attacks were made to capture Amman and to capture Es Saltin in March and April 1918 before Allenby’s force resumed the offensive during the manoeuvre warfare of the Battle of Megiddo. The successful infantry battles at Tulkarm and Tabsor created gaps in the Ottoman front line, allowing the pursuing Desert Mounted Corps to encircle the infantry fighting in the Judean Hills and fight the Battle of Nazareth and Battle of Samakh, capturing Afulah, Beisan, Jenin and Tiberias. In the process the EEF destroyed three Ottoman Armies during the Battle of Sharon, the Battle of Nablus and the Third Transjordan attack, capturing thousands of prisoners and large quantities of equipment. Damascus, and Aleppo were captured during the subsequent pursuit before the Ottoman Empire agreed to the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918, ending the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.
Following the end of fighting, units of the Light Horse were subsequently used to help put down a nationalist revolt in Egypt in 1919 and did so with efficiency and brutality, although they suffered a number of fatalities in the process.
The campaign was generally not well known or understood during the war. The English people thought of it as a minor operation and a waste of precious resources, while the peoples of India were more interested in the Mesopotamian campaign and the occupation of Baghdad. Australia did not have a war correspondent in the area until Captain Frank Hurley, the first Australian Official Photographer, arrived in August 1917 after visiting the Western Front. Henry Gullett, the first Official War Correspondent, arrived in November 1917.
The Suez Canal remained in British hands throughout the war, enabling troops and supplies to get to Europe more efficiently, and securing a strategic route for the Empire. However it came at a cost of a large number of men being tied up in this theatre, which it could be argued would have been better used on the Western Front or ensuring success in the Dardenelles.
The long-lasting effect of this campaign was the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, when France won the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, while the British Empire won the mandates for Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Republic of Turkey came into existence in 1923 after the Turkish War of Independence ended the Ottoman Empire. The European mandates ended with the formation of the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, the Lebanese Republic in 1943, the State of Israel in 1948, the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1946, and the Syrian Arab Republic in 1946. A century on, this ancient and historical part of the Middle East remains troubled.