British Advance Into Sinai

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 257th installment in the series.   

November 15, 1916: British Advance Into Sinai 

Fighting in the Sinai Peninsula in 1914-1916 was unusual by the standards of the First World War, in large part because – unlike the nose-to-nose stalemate on the Western Front – the two opposing sides were separated by a “no man’s land” consisting of an inhospitable desert stretching hundreds of miles. Although both sides staged raids and larger attacks in this huge arena with scant success, in between these encounters ordinary troops might not see the enemy for months at a time.

This situation finally began to change – albeit very slowly– on November 15, 1916, when the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force under commander-in-chief Archibald Murray made its first foray into the desert with an eye to permanent occupation, rather than reconnaissance or harassing raids. Above all, the long delay in the British offensive reflected the enormous logistical difficulties attending modern desert warfare. 

The first and most challenging obstacle was also the simplest: water. With the British planning to bring a force numbering hundreds of thousands of men across the desert, the small brackish wells scattered across the Sinai Peninsula for use by Bedouin tribes were obviously going to be totally inadequate. The British decided to overcome the obstacle by building a pipeline to carry water from a base near the Suez Canal, at Qantara, across the northern Mediterranean coast of the peninsula to Palestine. 

The pipeline, and an accompanying railroad (top), were the main target of the failed Turkish campaign against the British in front of the Suez Canal at Romani in August 1916. That fall the pipeline and railroad continued to advance east, while the British received additional valuable information from Jewish Zionists who knew the terrain in Palestine, including the location of wells for when the invaders were forced to leave their pipeline behind.

In mid-November the British began their gradual pursuit of the Turkish force they’d first defeated at Romani, which had now retreated to a position at Bir Lahfan, leading to another British victory at El Arish in late December 1916 and Rafah in January 1917. But here, as in Mesopotamia, anyone expecting a colonial walkover was in for a surprise: following these early successes, Turkish resistance mounted once the British arrived in Palestine, stiffened by German officers and the prospect of a threat to the empire’s core territories. 

For ordinary British soldiers, the slow advance across the Sinai alternated with long periods of tedium, broken up by occasional leave to Cairo or Alexandria as well as a grudging appreciation of the desert’s natural beauty. Oskar Teichman, a junior medical officer serving with the British Army in Egypt, recalled the dramatic natural setting near the Suez Canal in early November: 

The landscape was grand and austere; the enormous vista of endless desert, here and there interrupted by gigantic sand mountains – fashioned into fantastic shapes according to the caprices of the wind – and by occasional palm-studded Hods nestling in tiny valleys, was most impressive. In this clear atmosphere the visibility was wonderful. Perfect silence reigned, and there appeared to be no sign of life except an occasional vulture hovering over the old Turkish battle-field or a jackal slinking homewards to his laid. At sunset the sky assumed most marvellous colours, which it is useless to try to describe. Then followed the deathly stillness of the desert night…

On the other side, conditions were already dire for Ottoman citizens living in Palestine, thanks to growing shortages of food, fuel, medicine, and other necessities. These were further underlined by disparities in the rations provided to German soldiers and officers, versus ordinary Turkish soldiers and civilians, according to the Conde de Ballobar, a Spanish diplomat who found himself acting as caretaker for Allied interests in Ottoman Palestine. On November 17, 1916 he wrote in his diary: 

Truly the contrast is notable in this Austrian-German-Turkish entente. The Teutons and Austrians live the life of princes: Sanatoriums, hospitals magnificently equipped, automobiles, economical restaurants, great free warehouses, very well stocked, while the Turks do not even have shoes, eat almost nothing and are lodged and cared for any old way. 

Lawrence Meets Faisal 

Hundreds of miles to the southeast developments marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman rule in the Hejaz, the west central coast of the Arabian Peninsula, home to the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, as well as the port of Jiddah. Here, in late October 1916 the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence finally met Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the feudal ruler of Mecca who rose up against the Turks in June of that year.

Hussein had declared himself “King of the Arab Countries,” but as Lawrence already understood he would mostly be a figurehead for the Arab Revolt, which still needed a dynamic political and diplomatic leader. On meeting Hussein’s third son at a walled compound at Wadi Safra, nestled in a valley full of palm groves, Lawrence decided he had found a true revolutionary statesman.

Lawrence later recalled their first meeting, introduced by one of Faisal’s many retainers, in typically dramatic (not to say mystical) fashion: 

He led me through a second gate into an inner court, and across it I saw standing framed between the posts of a black doorway, a white figure waiting tensely for me. This was Feisal, and I felt at the glance that now I had found the man whom I had come to Arabia to seek, the leader alone needed to make the Arab Revolt win through to success. He looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender, dressed in long white robes and a brown head cloth with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord… His hands were loosely crossed in front of him on his dagger. 

Faisal would eventually prove a great leader, as Lawrence guessed – but for now the Arab Revolt was in its infancy, and the Turks felt they had little to fear from a disorganized band of Bedouin outlaws. Lawrence would have to do something to get their attention. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Amazing Facts About Stan Lee

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Comic book legend Stan Lee’s life was always an open book. The co-creator of some of the greatest superheroes and most beloved stories of all time, Lee—who passed away on November 12 at the age of 95—became just as mythical and larger-than-life as the characters in the panels. In 2015, around the time of Marvel’s 75th anniversary, Lee had the idea to reflect on his own life, as he said, “in the one form it has never been depicted, as a comic book … or if you prefer, a graphic memoir.”

The result, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015, was Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir—which was written by Lee with Peter David and features artwork by cartoonist and illustrator Colleen Doran. Here are 10 things we learned about Lee.

1. HIS WIFE WAS ALSO HIS BARBER.

As a bit of a throwaway fact, Stanley Martin Lieber (Stan Lee) revealed the secret of his slicked back mane on the second page of his memoir. “My whole adult life, I’ve never been to a barber,” he wrote. “Joanie always cuts my hair.”

2. HIS CONFIDENCE CAME FROM HIS MOTHER.

Lee wrote that as a child he loved to read books by Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and others, and his mother often watched him read: “I probably got my self-confidence from the fact that my mother thought everything I did was brilliant.”

3. YOUNG STAN LEE WROTE OBITUARIES.

Before writing about the fantastic lives of fictional characters, Lee wrote antemortem obituaries for celebrities at an undisclosed news office in New York. He said that he eventually quit that job because it was too “depressing.”

4. CAPTAIN AMERICA WAS HIS FIRST BIG BREAK.

A week into his job at Timely Comics, Lee got the opportunity to write a two-page Captain America comic. He wrote it under the pen name Stan Lee (which became his legal name) and titled it "Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge." His first full comic script would come in Captain America Issue 5, published August 1, 1941.

5. HE WROTE TRAINING FILMS FOR THE ARMY WITH DR. SEUSS.

After being transferred from the army’s Signal Corps in New Jersey, Lee worked as a playwright in the Training Film Division in Queens with eight other men, including a few who went on to be very famous: Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Saroyan, cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939] and It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

6. HE DEFIED THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY WITH AN ANTI-DRUG COMIC.

In 1971, Lee received a letter from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asking him to put an anti-drug message in one of his books. He came up with a Spider-Man story that involved his best friend Harry abusing pills because of a break-up. The CCA would not approve the story with their seal because of the mention of drugs, but Lee convinced his publisher, Martin Goodman, to run the comic anyway.

7. AN ISSUE AT THE PRINTERS TURNED THE HULK GREEN.

The character was supposed to be gray, but according to Lee, the printer had a hard time keeping the color consistent. “So as of issue #2,” Lee wrote, “with no explanation, he turned green.”

8. HIS WIFE DESTROYED HIS PRIZED TYPEWRITER.

According to Lee, during an argument, Joanie destroyed the typewriter he used to write the first issues for characters including Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. “This happened before eBay," he wrote. "Too bad. I could’ve auctioned the parts and made a mint.”

9. A FIRE DESTROYED HIS INTERVIEWS AND LECTURES.

When Lee moved his family to Los Angeles, he set up a studio in Van Nuys where he stored videotapes of his talks and interviews, along with a commissioned bust of his wife. The building was lost to a blaze that the fire department believed was arson, but no one was ever charged with the crime.

10. HIS FAVORITE MARVEL FILM CAMEO WAS BASED ON ONE FROM THE COMICS.

Beginning with the first Spider-Man film in 2002, Stan Lee has made quick cameos in Marvel films as a service to the fans. He said that his appearance in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) was inspired by the story of Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four Annual Volume 1 #3, in which he and artist/writer Jack Kirby attempt to crash the ceremony but are thwarted.

A version of this story ran in 2015.

JK Rowling Reveals the Sweet Reason Why She Wrote Fantastic Beasts

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

With the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald just a week away, ​JK Rowling is reflecting on her time writing the book that inspired the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and why she decided to expand on the Wizarding World she had created with the Harry Potter series.

While on the red carpet for the premiere of ​The Crimes of Grindelwald in Paris last week, Rowling spoke about how appreciative she is of the Harry Potter fandom that allows her to keep writing books and films. She also revealed the reason why she wanted to continue past the original series and write these movies: Potterheads!

"This fandom is the most remarkable in the world, for me, obviously," Rowling said. "Their loyalty and their passion for these stories really is the reason that I went back, because, without that, I don’t think I would have written these movies."

So there you have it, Potterheads: you really have yourselves to thank for the ​Potter universe's continued expansion. Keep it up and maybe Rowling will keep giving us more. In the meantime, Fantastic Beasts 2 hits theaters on November 16.

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