WWI Centennial: British Advance Into Sinai

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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.

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