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Campaigns of World War One:
The Ottoman Front  1917-1919


1917


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In January the General Murray, who was now at El Arish, launched an offensive in Sinai. After their victory at the Battle of Magdhaba they seized the Ottoman supply base at Rafah and drove the remaining Turks out of the Peninsula. The Turks commanded by German General Falkenhayen built a fortified line stretching from Gaza on the Mediterranean inland to Beersheba to protect their supply lines to Arabia and Mesopotamia. The British attacked Gaza in March and again in April but were repulsed both times with heavy losses. While this front held little strategic value, it was important for propaganda purposes and both the British and the Germans sent in reinforcements by the fall. The poor performance by Murray at Gaza led to his downfall and command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was turned over to General Edmund Allenby.

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The Senussi still holding onto Siwa in the Western Desert of Egypt were attacked by the British in February, which forced them back into Libya. In April an accord was reached between the British and the Senussi and fighting in this sector came to a halt. The Italian army in Tripolitania that was besieged by the Ottomans in Zuwarah, Al Khums, and Tripoli made attempts to break out in January. After this effort failed, attempts to break the siege were made again in April, and September but both these efforts also failed.

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In late October Allenby launched a two prong attack pining the Turks down in Gaza while making his main thrust against Beersheba. Unable to defend both points at once, the Turks in Bersheba were nearly surrounded by fast moving cavalry and the city fell in early November. Though the British attempt to trap the Turks failed, their defenses began to crumbled and they made a fighting withdrawal putting up resistance at Jaffa before retiring to the Judean Hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Near Jerusalem the British scored a victory at El-Mughar Ridge but the reinforced Turks held the British back from Jerusalem for a month.

Unwilling to risk the destruction of holy sites, the Turks put up scant resistance when the battle reached the gates of Jerusalem in December and evacuated the city after one day of fighting. Loss of the Holy City was a severe blow to Ottoman moral and General Falkenhayen was blamed; he would be replaced in February of 1918. The city’s capture ignited celebrations in Britain where it was seen as more than a military victory but a religious omen. Despite official efforts to control the story in order not to offend the vast amount of Muslim soldiers in their colonial armies, many stories hailed this as the end of the crusades against the infidel.

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While the British employed Jewish volunteers in a Mule Corps to help move supplies in the Gallipoli Campaign, serious attempts to recruit them did not begin until casualties mounted. By August the first elements of a Jewish Legion was formed, which would grow to five battalions by April 1918. The Legion was mostly made up of Russian Jews that had settled in Palestine but many American and Canadian Jews would join as well. Recruitment was encouraged by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in November, where the British Foreign Secretary wrote that his government was in favor of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” This commitment was only possible because of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, signed by the Allies in 1916 that pledged British control over Palestine should they defeat the Ottoman Empire.

Jerusalem had long been a destination for tourists and pilgrims who were provided with souvenirs and postcards by local Jewish photographers. When the British army took control over this region, there were ample photo studios to record these events. Some produced cards depicting the Jewish Legion titled in both English and Hebrew.

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Unable to take Medina, T.E. Lawrence persuaded the Howeitat tribe to switch allegiances, and join the Arab army in an attack against Aqaba. In a surprise attack they captured the Red Sea port in July. This not only secured the flank of the British army operating in Palestine, the port provided the Arabs with a reliable supply line so they could turned their attention northwards. After subduing the last of the Turkish forces around Aqaba, the Arab army moved into Palestine and by the end of the year they had joined with General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Jerusalem. The Turks holding Medina were now completely isolated and put under siege.

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After their army at Kut surrendered, the British considered abandoning Mesopotamia altogether, but concern over the oil fields in the region tipped their decision to stay. Reinforcements were sent in as the new year started allowing General Maude launched a new offensive up the Tigris toward Bagdad. His flotilla met up with the Turks now holding the stronghold of Kut in February. The British and Indian troops were able to seize Kut in battle but most its Ottoman defenders escaped upriver. Maude continued his advanced on Bagdad, reaching it in March. Bagdad was of no real strategic value to the Turks, but they had held it since the early 16th century and so heavy fighting ensued when they put up a strong defense. After being driven from the city, the Turks planned a counterattack but it had to be called off when ordered to reinforce their army in Palestine protecting Jerusalem. The Ottoman defeat here was a great blow to their morale. The British were so low on supplies that they could not advance any further.

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By September the British holding Baghdad had recovered and continued their offensive. One force pushed up the Euphrates but were halted at the Battle of Ar Ramadi. The main thrust up the Tigris toward Mosul was halted at Tikrit after General Maude died from cholera in late November. The Russian army in Persia had been maneuvering so that they could unite their force with the British in Mesopotamia, but by the time of the Revolution in November most of their men had left for home.

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The Russians had secured a good foothold in the Caucasus, and they were speedily building new rail lines to the region to supply a large offensive aimed at driving Turkey out of the War. Despite its promise, the winter of 1916-1917 ended very slowly in the Caucasus, and by spring the Russian army was already disintegrating due to the February Revolution. The Turks who desperately needed to send reinforcements to other fronts could not take advantage of this situation, and there was no fighting in this sector this year. On December 16th the Armistice of Erzincan was signed and the Russians began withdrawing their remaining troops. A new Ottoman army under Yakub Shevki was sent to Persia in December 1917 to disrupt any efforts the Allies might make to help the Armenian and Assyrian forces that remained active in the region.



1918


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While Arab irregulars continued to harass and destroy Ottoman railways, they also pushed the Turks back at the Battle of Tafileh in January. Bad weather had forced the Palestine campaign to halt after the capture of Jerusalem, but by February General Allenby was able to advance on the Turks at Jericho and capture it. In March a new offensive was launched against the Turkish defenses running between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley but many of his men were being siphoned off to help deal with Germany’s spring offensive on the Western Front. As he continued into the Jordan Valley the Egyptian Expeditionary Force fought its way across the Jordan River and occupied Es Salt. Allenby wanted to cut the Hedjaz Railway but his movements against the Ottoman forces holding Amman were repulsed, and only a raiding party managed to reach and destroy small sections of track. With the introduction of bad weather the campaign was called off in May.

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As the Crisis in Europe subsided, General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force was slowly reinforced during the summer. This temped him to become more aggressive in the Jordan Valley but the Turks were also being reinforced and put up stiff resistance under their new commander, General Liman von Sanders. While Sanders believed that further retreats might inspire local revolts, his defenses were overwhelmed when Allenby launched the Megiddo Offensive in mid-September. Sanders tried to establish a new line of defense but constant harassment from the air and by cavalry kept his army on the move. After the fall of Amman, British forces quickly advanced to capture Haifa, Acre, and Nazareth. By the end of the month the British were entering Syria.

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As the Turks continued to fall back in Syria, the British and Arabs advanced winning several minor actions as they closed in on Damascus. These victories however opened up political problems as there was an agreement in place that any Syrian city conquered by a Western army would fall under the civil administration of France. Those disliking these arrangements encouraged General Allenby to hoist Arab flags so that these lands might fall under the Jurisdiction of Faisal’s Arab army rather than the French. Instructions became confused at Damascus where the Australian cavalry that was supposed to circle around the city in pursuit of the Turks went through it instead days ahead of Arab forces. T.E. Laurence would spin a tale about being the first to arrive with his Arab irregulars as a bit of political maneuvering against French interests in the region. Faisal would eventually enter and administer the city, but arguments over the fate of Syria would extend into the Paris Peace Talks.

After the fall of Damascus, the British continued their advance into Beirut, Homs, and Aleppo. With Turkey’s armies collapsing, Mustafa Kemel Pasha gave up defending the outer provinces and rallied what troops he could to set up a defensive position at Iskenderun to protect the Turkish homeland of Anatolia.

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Even though the Turks desperately needed men to defend the many battlefronts within their empire, they still sent some of their best troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian defenses during the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, and again to support the campaign against Romania. Despite this influx of Ottoman troops into the European theater of war, the presence of its Bulgarian ally kept Allied troops away from its border with the Balkans. All this changed at the end of September with the surrender of Bulgaria. As vital supply lines to Germany were cut, a political crisis erupted in Constantinople. The Young Turks resigned and a new government was then formed under Ahmed Izzet Pasha. With no hope of victory and the threat of a new invasion rising from the Balkans, which they had no resources to meet, Turkey signed the Armistice of Mudros at the end of October taking them out of the War.

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In Tripolitania the Italian army still under siege in Zuwarah, Al Khums, and Tripoli made a few minor attempts to break out, but they remained trapped in their strongholds for the remainder of the War. After the armistice was signed with the Ottomans at the end of October, the Turks and Sanussi in Tripolitania refused to stop fighting. They eventually made their way to Tunisia where they surrendered to the French. The French broke the terms of the surrender sending the Turks off to Italian prison camps while executing most of the Sanussi tribesmen.

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After the Russian Army retreated from Persia and the Caucasus, they officially end the war with the Ottomans in March with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Its terms forced them to concede the Transcaucasus back to the Turks. Not all the Russians left and hostilities between the Bolsheviks still holding Baku and the local population grew into conflict, which resulted in large massacres of Azerbaijanis during the March Days. The Armenians, now cut off from the Allies, had already been encouraged by the British to hold the line against the Turks. In response the Transcaucasian Democratic Republic was formed consisting of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians who combined their military resources in resistance in February. The British in Bagdad under General Dunsterville formed a small unit (Dunsterforce), which marched into Persia and continued on by sea to reinforced Baku in August.

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When negotiations over the Transcaucasus went nowhere, the Turks resumed their offensive in Armenia, recapturing Erzerun, Van, Kars and Trabzon. The Germans promised the Russians they would stop this advance in exchange for the oil fields at Baku, but they had lost their influence over the Turks. German relations became further strained as they argued with the Turks over spoils in the East. Enver Pasha now had grand visions of creating a Pan-Turkish empire, possibly inspired by the loss of Arab lands. He was setting out to not only regain all territory lost to the Russians in the War of 1877 but to conquer Central Asia and perhaps India as well. Relatively few Muslims had ever rallied to the Ottoman cause, so he established the jihadist Army of Islam to be led by Nuri Bey in hopes of gaining more support for this new campaign.

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This new Turkish offensive in the Caucasus marked the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani War. The Turks then demanded the breakup of the Transcaucasian Republic, which caused Germany to send troops to Georgia by way of the Black Sea in May to protect their own interests. This led to open conflict with the Turks when the Germans moved into Tbilisi. After the Turks signed a separate peace with each of the three new republics in June, they recognized the German occupation of Georgia.

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By July the Army of Islam was advancing on Baku defeating the Bolsheviks at Goychay. By the time the Turks arrived before Baku, a coup had replaced the Bolsheviks with the Central Caspian Dictatorship supported by British, Armenian, and White Russians troops. Though the Turks were initially held off, Baku fell in September after a major offensive, and Azerbaijan was then returned to Turkish control. In revenge for the March Days, the Armenians were now massacred.

In October the Army of Islam launched a new offensive along the Caspian Sea capturing Petrovsk. Despite the increasing British presence the Turks had gained control over much of northern Persia. The remaining British forces in Mesopotamia then launched an offensive in late October to take the oil fields at Mosul. The Turks facing them quickly withdrew but a battle erupted nearby at Sharqat. Sensing the end of the War was near, the Turks surrendered before a military conclusion to the fighting was reached. Even though an armistice was soon signed, the British continued to advance and took control over Mosul. They then advanced into the Caucasus to drive the Turks out of Baku in November.



1919


The Turks holding Medina who had been under siege since July 1917, continued to defend the Holy City even after the armistice was signed. They did not surrender until January.

In August 1919 the Anglo-Persian Agreement was signed guarantying British access to the oil fields if Persia. An army was then dispatched to the north under General Ironside to consolidate British control over the region and keep the Bolsheviks out. A long period of political and military unrest would follow.

Despite efforts to negotiate borders, the desire of all parties to seize more territory caused the Armenian-Azerbaijani War to continued until they were forced to stop fighting in August. This conflict would reignite again in 1920.

During the War the Allies had made a number of secret agreements among themselves on how they would divide up the Ottoman Empire between them after its defeat. These arrangements then began to be formalized at the Paris Peace Conference that opened in January. Those feeling they were not being allotted the territories they were promised began taking matters into their own hands. Italians and Serbs began fighting with Albanian nationalists, and in March Italy began landing troops at Adalia in Anatolia. The United States was so outraged it nearly went to war with Italy, and the Allies began encouraging Greek intervention. Greece landed troops at Smyrna in May but it soon became more than the Allies had wanted. This marked the beginning of the Greek military campaign against the Turks in Western Anatolia in order to reestablish a Byzantine Empire. Mustava Kemel Pasa, who was now in charge of disbanding the Turkish army began gathering military resources instead. By the following year the Armistice would be broken and Turkey would resume the War (Turkish War of Independence).


(See the Wars of Ideology section of the Guide for further post-WWI information concerning ongoing fighting with the Turks)




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