WWI Centennial: Brits Victorious At Megiddo

Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 319th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 19-25, 1918: BRITS VICTORIOUS AT MEGIDDO

Following their victory in the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of the ancient holy city of Jerusalem in December 1917, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force led by British commander Edmund Allenby kept continuous pressure on the Turkish Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Armies. Those armies were all part of the Army Group Yıldırım (“Thunderbolt”) under German commander Liman von Sanders in northern Palestine. The new offensives were enabled by construction of military railroads to bring up guns and ammunition, and benefited from the growing momentum of the Arab Rebellion, led by Prince Feisal with help from his British intelligence attaché, Major T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence had captured the key port of Aqaba in July 1917 and now distracted and harried the Turks with lightning guerrilla attacks from out of the trackless eastern deserts.

By September 1918 the outnumbered and outgunned Turks had withdrawn to a line running from the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea, west to the Mediterranean shore north of Jaffa, and bisecting Palestine. Intent on capturing Damascus before the end of the war, part of British maneuvering to exploit the Sykes-Picot Agreement, from September 19-25, 1918 Allenby achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Megiddo. British sea power, resilient Indian and Egyptian infantry, dashing Australian cavalry, and the fighting grit of the rebel Arab Army made it possible. (Ironically, there was no actual fighting at Tel Megiddo, roughly in the center of the battlefield, which covered the Plain of Sharon, the Judean Hills, and the Jezreel Valley. Nevertheless, Allenby chose the name for symbolic resonance—Megiddo is the biblical site of Armageddon.)

The offensive, known to the Turks as the “Breakthrough at Nablus,” involved three main sections. First, to the east on September 18, the Arab Army attacked the enemy’s lines of communication, distracting the Turks and forcing von Sanders to send reinforcements to protect the desert railway. With the Turks now even more overstretched, on September 19 on the western end of the front, Anglo-Indian forces including the 54th (East Anglian) Division, 75th Division, Indian 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian 7th (Meerut) Division, and the 60th (London) Division attacked and overwhelmed the Turkish Eighth Army, concentrated near the Mediterranean shore. Following the infantry breakthroughs, Allenby sent the Desert Mounted Corps, consisting of the British Fourth and Fifth Cavalry divisions and the Australian Mounted Division, racing ahead to cut off and encircle the Turkish Eighth and Seventh Armies—one of the most successful uses of cavalry in the war. Meanwhile, in the center, the 10th (Irish) Division and 53rd (Welsh) Division pivoted east towards the River Jordan, attacking the Turkish Fourth Army between Jericho and Amman from the west as the Arabs closed in from the east.

These victories reflected Allenby’s careful preparation and adoption of cutting-edge tactics, including the relatively short but devastating “creeping barrage” preceding the infantry advance and combined arms tactics that closely coordinated artillery, cavalry, air power, and a small but deadly fleet of armored cars (below, an armored car).

Armored car in World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By September 21, the breakthrough had turned into a rout as the outnumbered and demoralized Turkish armies simply disintegrated. Virtually the entire force of 35,000 became casualties or surrendered, with just 6000 ragtag survivors left to make their escape to the north. Nablus and Nazareth fell on September 21 (top, Nablus after the war), followed by the key port of Haifa on September 23, the rail hub of Amman on September 25, and the strategic outpost of Daraa on September 27, 1918.

For the British and their Arab allies, the way now lay open to Damascus—but who would arrive first? This issue would have symbolic importance for the post-war world, and Feisal and Lawrence were determined that Damascus should be liberated by the Arabs, not European troops, to cement their claims to independence and nationhood.

The Battle of Megiddo was a study in contrasts as modern British weaponry and techniques were complemented by the ancient fighting techniques of Feisal’s Bedouin tribesmen. The Arab fighters’ motivations also tended to be more personal than the British, as most had lost family and friends to Turkish brutality long predating the Arab Rebellion. On September 27, after the Arabs captured the strategic town of Daraa, Lawrence’s party came across an Arab village that had just been destroyed by the retreating Turks:

“The village lay stilly under its slow wreaths of white smoke, as we rode near, on our guard. Some gray heaps seemed to hide in the long grass, embracing the ground in the close way of corpses. We looked away from these, knowing they were dead; but from one a little figure tottered off, as if to escape us. It was a child, 3 or 4 years old, whose dirty smock was stained red over one shoulder and side, with blood from a large half-fibrous wound, perhaps a lance thrust, just where neck and body joined.”

The Turkish atrocity provoked swift, terrible retribution from the desert nomads:

“I said, ‘The best of you bring me the most Turkish dead,’ and we turned after the fading enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three bullets from an automatic through the man’s bare chest. The blood came out with his heart beats, throb, throb, throb, slower and slower.”

T. E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With Lawrence’s old ally Auda abu Tayi in charge, the Arab Army annihilates the Turkish column of around 2000 soldiers:

“The old lion of battled waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable leader. By a skillful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split their formation into three parts. The third part, the smallest, was mostly made up of German and Austria machine-gunners around three motor cars and a handful of mounted officers or troopers. They fought magnificently and repulsed us time and again despite our hardiness. The Arabs were fighting like devils, the sweat blurring their eyes, dust parching their throats … By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war … In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”

Turkish dead included around 200 prisoners whom Lawrence apparently ordered executed with machine guns after an Arab was found horribly mutilated:

“We ranged our Hotchkiss on them, and pointed at him silently. They said nothing in the moment before we opened fire: and at last their heap ceased moving, and Hassan was dead, and we mounted again and rode home slowly.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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