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WWI Centennial: Arabs Take Aqaba, Kerensky Offensive Fails

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 281st installment in the series.

JULY 1-6, 1917: ARABS TAKE AQABA, KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

In mid-1917 the leaders of the Arab Revolt, Prince Faisal and his chief advisor, the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, faced a conundrum. While they hoped to raise all the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire in rebellion and eventually capture Damascus as the capital of a new Arab state, to achieve these sweeping ambitions they required more supplies including rifles, machine guns, explosives, and armored cars, not to mention ammunition, food, medicine, and fuel. 

Britain’s mighty Royal Navy, with its unchallenged control of the seas, could supply all this and more, if only the Arabs could gain control of a suitable port on the Red Sea with a harbor deep enough to admit cargo ships and transports. Just as important, the port had to be close enough to the main theater of the Arab Revolt (northwestern Arabia, the modern country of Jordan, and their immediate surroundings) for the supplies to reach the itinerant Arab Army fast enough to make a difference; other ports already under Arab control, such as Duba and Al Wajh, were simply too far away in a region with no modern infrastructure aside from the Hejaz Railway, still under Turkish control. 

Arab Revolt Map
Erik Sass

There was just one port that fit the bill: Aqaba, a protected harbor that gave its name to the Gulf of Aqaba, one of two northern inlets of the Red Sea along with the Gulf of Suez, between which lay the arid Sinai Peninsula (see map above). However Aqaba was a formidable target to say the least, protected on the landward side by the trackless wastes of the An Nafud, an impenetrable desert hundreds of miles wide, and on the seaward side by heavy guns (and in any event the warships of the Royal Navy’s local squadrons were too busy guarding the approaches to the Suez Canal against enemy U-boats to attempt an amphibious assault). 

And so the Arab Revolt seemed doomed to wither on the vine, a small conflict on the fringes of a secondary theater of the First World War – that is, until Lawrence had a clever idea. The Arab Army simply had to do the impossible.

ACROSS THE DESERT 

The decision to attack Aqaba from the landward side by crossing the Nafud was widely considered suicidal, even by the Bedouin nomads: temperatures in July can reach as high as 54° Celsius or 129° Fahrenheit during the day, and without water even the camels would begin dying after a few weeks, at which point the human beings would be doomed as well. Thus Lawrence received permission to take only a small, expendable group of warriors with him, and would have to try to recruit more tribesmen living in the vicinity of Aqaba once – or rather if – they arrived.

Of course Lawrence had his own strategic reasons for wanting to capture Aqaba: in addition to allowing the British to supply the Arab Army, taking the town would deprive the Turks of a base from which they could threaten the advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a combined British and Egyptian army, across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine under Edmund Allenby, who took command on June 27, 1917. From the British perspective the whole Arab Revolt was just another gambit in their chess game with the Turks, and Lawrence shared their priorities – but secretly hoped to make it something more as well.

Climate wasn’t the only adversary during their epic journey across the Nafud, forcing them to confront natural and human foes in combination. Although the Arabs usually avoided battle in unfavorable conditions, the small band of warriors led by Lawrence and the fierce Howeitat chieftain Auda Abu Tayi, an ally of Faisal (above), were forced to attack a Turkish outpost blocking a key pass on the way to Aqaba. Lawrence recalled the desperate fight over sharp rocks in blazing desert heat:

Then we began to snipe them steadily in their positions under the slopes and rock-faces by the water hoping to provoke them out and up the hill in a charge against us… This went on all day. It was terribly hot, hotter than ever before I had felt it in Arabia, and the anxiety and constant moving made it hard for us. Some even of the tough tribesmen broke down under the cruelty of the sun and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade. We had to run up and down, supplying our lack of numbers by mobility, ever looking over the long ranges of hill for a new spot from which to counter this or that Turkish effort. The hillsides were steep and exhausted our breath, and the plants and grasses twined like little hands about our ankles as we ran and plucked us back. The sharp ground tore our feet, and before evening the more energetic men were leaving rusty prints upon the ground with their every stride. Our rifles grew so hot with the sun and shooting that they seared our hands… The rocks on which flung ourselves to get our aim were burning with the sun, so that they scorched our breasts and arms, from which later the skin peeled off in ragged sheets.

After this battle for a Turkish outpost the attack on Aqaba itself was almost anticlimactic, in part because the Arabs soon enjoyed numerical superiority thanks to the arrival of local tribesmen eager for plunder, along with the advantage of surprise:

Unfortunately for the enemy, they never imagined attack from the interior and of all their great works not one trench or post faced inland. Our advance from so new a direction threw them into panic, and wisely they did not progressively resist us. The attempt if made would have availed them nothing, for we had the hill tribes with us, and by their help we could occupy the sheer peaks with riflemen whose plunging fire would render the gorge untenable for troops without overhead cover.

With the outskirts now under Arab control, over 1,000 Bedouin warriors were left facing around 300 unhappy Turkish defenders dug into trenches a few miles from Aqaba, and it was only a matter of time; in fact Lawrence’s main concern now was to prevent a massacre of the holdouts. A parlay with the Turkish commander yielded a tentative agreement to surrender at daylight, but chaotic combat soon erupted again, until Lawrence restored order with considerable personal bravery: 

Next day at dawn fighting broke out on all sides, for hundreds more hill men, again doubling our number, had come about us in the night and, not knowing the arrangement, began shooting at the Turks, who defended themselves. Nasir and I went out… to the open bend of the valley below our men, who ceased fire not to hit us. The Turks also stopped at once, for they had no more fight or food left in them, and thought that we were well supplied. So the surrender went off quietly after all.

Among the prisoners was a hapless German engineer who, like so many people caught in up in the whirlwind of war in a foreign land, freely admitted had no idea what was going on and generally seemed grateful just to be alive: 

As the Arabs rushed in to plunder the camp I noticed one of the prisoners in field-grey uniform, with a red beard and puzzled blue eyes, and spoke to him in German. He was the well-borer, and knew no Turkish and was amazed at the doings of the last two days. He begged me to explain what it all meant, since he had not understood the officers. I said that we were a rebellion, of the Arabs against the Turks. This took him time to appreciate. He wanted to know who was our leader and I said the Sherif of Mecca. He supposed he would be sent to Mecca. I said rather to Egypt, and he enquired the price of sugar there, and when I told him it was cheap and plentiful he was glad.

Aqaba had no direct communications with Egypt, so Lawrence was now forced to embark on another epic desert journey, this time across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, to inform his superiors in Cairo that the Arab Army had performed a miracle, totally changing the outlook for Allenby’s planned advance into Palestine as well as the prospects of the Arab Revolt. 

KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

The fall of Aqaba was an unexpected, but much-needed, piece of good news for the Allies following another unmitigated disaster on the Eastern Front. This time it was the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, which would prove to be Russia’s last major effort of the First World War, as the vast realm quickly descended into the chaos of civil war. 

The offensive, named for the Provisional Government’s charismatic minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, was intended to show the Allies that Russia’s new revolutionary government was committed to continuing the war effort, as well as enhance its prestige in the eyes of the Russian people. Like his fellow cabinet ministers Kerensky was worried about the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet, a popular assembly dominated by socialists, which seemed determined to sideline the Provisional Government under Prince Lviv; they hoped that a big victory would shore up their legitimacy and check the ambitions of the Soviet’s radical members, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

North East Europe July 1917
Erik Sass

Things didn’t turn out the way, however. The Kerensky Offensive got off to a promising start, but this was largely due to the choice of a soft target – the demoralized, disorganized Austro-Hungarian armies facing the Russians in Galicia. After a fierce two-day bombardment from June 28-30, on July 1 troops from the Russian Eleventh, Eighth and Seventh Armies began a short-lived advance, and in some places made considerable progress towards Lemberg, which had already traded hands countless times over the course of the war – but then the wheels came off.

On July 3 many of the Russian troops, figuring they had made enough progress, simply stopped advancing, and their officers – stripped of their authority by the Soviet’s famous Order No. 1 in March – were powerless to enforce any kind of discipline. By July 16 the advance had stopped in its tracks. The pause not only gave the Habsburg forces a break, but also allowed their formidable German allies to dispatch reinforcements who immediately staged a counterattack beginning on July 19, turning the Russian advance into a rout (below, Russian troops fleeing after the failure of the offensive).

By early August the Germans and Habsburg armies had advanced over 150 miles in places in pursuit of the retreating Russians, with no prospect of serious resistance; on the road to this debacle the Russians had sustained 200,000 casualties, including 40,000 killed and many more taken prisoner, as units surrendered en masse. The demoralization of the Russian Army was complete, and mass desertions and mutinies would undermine whatever was left of the once-mighty “steamroller” in the months to come. 

Everyone immediately recognized the enormity of the disaster, which helped set the stage for the militant Bolsheviks’ first attempt to seize power, further destabilizing the already weak government. On July 25, 1917, an anonymous English diplomatic courier believed to be Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary: 

The news from the Front is too terrible to think of – two Army Corps surrendered, and all the towns lost which were so lately won. Thank God, the Huns will find nothing to eat. I know what that is, as we are starving here. [The loss of] Tarnpol is a great disaster, and really last night… when that news came, we were all disheartened. You have no idea how tired it makes one; I sleep eight hours, only to wake up much more tired. There is nothing to eat, either; I am always hungry. For the moment all is quiet here, but there may yet be a pitched battle between those who want to maintain order and carry on the war, and those who don’t want to do either.

GREECE JOINS ALLIES 

The Allies had received another very modest piece of encouragement with the belated entry of Greece into the war on July 2, 1917. The decision came after months of paralysis resulting from the rift between King Constantine, the country’s pro-German monarch, and Eleftherios Venizelos, its pro-Allied senior statesman and most popular politician. 

Greek neutrality had already been violated in 1915 when the Allies landed at Salonika, where Venizelos soon set up a rival pro-Allied government and worked to marginalize King Constantine with the full encouragement and support of the Allies. Under intense pressure from the Allies, who had enforced a naval blockade and financial embargo against his regime, King Constantine finally resigned on June 11, 1917 and went into exile with his eldest son George, making way for his second son, Alexander, who now took the throne and ruled as a figurehead under the thumb of Venizelos. 

Venizelos wasted no time declaring war on the Central Powers, including the Bulgarians, who had occupied parts of northern Greece alongside German, Habsburg, and Ottoman forces, and who still laid claim to the ancient city of Salonika despite their disastrous defeat in the Second Balkan War. However the Greek contribution to the war effort was symbolic at best: for most of the conflict the main body of the Greek Army remained encamped far to the south of the frontlines in Thessaly, and just 5,000 Greek soldiers died in battle, a pinprick by the standards of the First World War. Many more would die in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, when the Greeks, at the encouragement of the Allies, tried to detach Turkish territory without success.

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WWI Centennial: Salonika In Flames

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 285th installment in the series.

August 18-19, 1917: Salonika In Flames

The fact that millions of people were being killed deliberately in the First World War did nothing to stop fate from claiming its usual share of victims through accidents; in fact the war made bloody mishaps far more likely by cramming too many people together in strange places, disrupting transportation and communications, and generally sowing chaos.

On August 18, 1917, one of the worst accidents of the war began with the conflagration in the ancient Greek port city of Salonika (or Thessaloniki), now the main base for French, British, and Serbian forces stationed in the Balkans. After a spark ignited dry straw in a house sheltering refugees, over 32 hours the Great Salonika Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city, gutting its downtown commercial district and leaving 73,000 people homeless. On the evening of August 18 one witness, Dr. Isabel Emslie Hutton, recorded the scene in her diary:

About 7pm Dr McIlroy and I went into the town and walked up to the city walls; there below us was a belt of leaping, roaring fire that stretched almost from one end of the town to the other, and right across the middle part of it above the Rue Egnatia. This great ferocious monster ate up house after house with lightning speed, for the little evening breeze had developed into a mild Vardar wind, and now all the authorities saw that the situation was as bad as it could be, and that nothing could stop the progress of that roaring furnace. It was unforgettable; all the pictures of hell that were ever painted fall short of it in fearfulness, and its hungry roar, mingled with snarls and hisses and the crash of the falling ruins, was most awe-inspiring. The inhabitants ran about trying to save their possessions and not knowing where to take refuge.

Inhabitants paid porters as they desperately sought to save their prized possessions, leading to some absurd scenes in the narrow city streets, Hutton added:

The progress of the flames was now so fast that the streets were thronged with the people carrying what they could, and the hamals were making a fortune carrying great loads of household goods for the highest bidder. A huge wardrobe, an enormous and hideous mirror or a piano would come blundering down one of the narrow streets, a hamal peeping out from under it, and it would sometimes meet a sewing-machine or a feather-bed going in the other direction and get jammed. Mothers and children scurried along with as much as they could carry, and bedridden grandmothers or invalids were half-dragged, half-carried along. All was confusion, grief and hopelessness.

Many witnesses emphasized the unusual speed of the fire, which seemed to consume entire blocks in a single fiery lunge. Another observer, British supply officer Douglas Walshe, recalled:

Salonica is no ordinary city, and this was no ordinary fire. Its progress was appalling… It leapt all barriers. It was not a case of houses catching fire from neighbouring houses; whole districts burst into flame at once. The wind whistled and the fire roared; sobs and shrieks and shouts echoed on every side; mules and oxen and springless native carts clattered on the cobble-stones…” Frantic families surrounded the drivers of those long, noisy native carts, gesticulating, imploring, oubidding each other for their goods to be taken next.

Walshe also recorded a classic moment of wartime fatalism mingled with romance, set as always in a hotel bar:

It was obvious now that the centre of the city was doomed, and that the dwater-front would go with the rest. Officers staying in the hotels began hastily to pack their things, and wondered where they would finish the night. The manager of one of the most crowded hotels, resigning himself to the inevitable, doled out parting tots of whisky free of charge – “the last drink you will have in my hotel, gentlemen!” His unconcern was superb.

The fire reached its climax on the morning of August 19, when two arms of the fire combined to wipe out Salonika’s famed commercial district. For its part Salonika had no official fire brigade, and firefighting was further hampered by the fact that that the Anglo-French forces in Salonika had commandeered the city’s water supply in order to ensure adequate supplies for their own needs, although French and British troops did man their own fire brigades.

While there wasn’t much good news to look for in the Great Salonika Fire, the loss of life was relatively light and at least the city’s iconic White Tower landmark was spared. The presence of the Allies was also a small comfort to the victims, who were transported to temporary homes and refugees camps aboard British and French trucks, and received emergency rations. The fire also had surprisingly little impact on the flow of supplies to the Allied troops on the Macedonian front to the north, since most food and ammunition was delivered by routes that circumvented the town center.

In the longer term, British insurance companies ended up paying the huge claims brought by the fire victims in Salonika (under pressure from the Greek and British governments, the latter more sympathetic no doubt due to Greek’s recent entry into the war). However the war delayed rebuilding, and French plans to create an entirely new city center never came to fruition.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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