Ireland’s Wars: Into The Holy Land

We must now turn back to the fate of the other named Irish Division, the 10th, that up to this point in the war had not had the same opportunities as the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) to garner fame and praise for their martial acumen. After the fighting at Gallipoli had come the stop start of the Salonika front, but in the latter half of 1917 the 10th was one of the units embarked from portion of the war, re-directed across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. There, they would be part of the Allied advance into the Holy Land.

The fighting in this section of the war had been going on since early 1915. While ostensibly a part of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt had been under British control for decades leading up to the start of the war, a consequence of the colonial scramble for Africa; it was natural that the Ottoman’s would try and gain control of it again. In the initial time after Ottoman entry on the side of the Central Powers, British troops in the region decided to adopt a defensive stance on the western bank of the vital Suez Canal. Commanded at the time by General Sir John Maxwell, soon to be a very notable figure in Irish history, the British force withstood German advised Ottoman raids on the canal, ceding the Sinai Peninsula for a time, but there was never any significant danger of a Ottoman penetration deep into Egypt, with Alexandria being a vital HQ/staging area.

The Gallipoli offensive held the majority of both sides attention in 1915 when it came to this general area of operations, but in 1916 more scrutiny was paid to the way things stood on the Egyptian frontier. With an attack through the Dardanelles a non-starter and the Mesopotamian Front limited in what it could achieve overall, Allied command turned to their armies facing the Holy Land, soon to be re-organised as the “Egyptian Expeditionary Force”, for a way to invade the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1916, this combination of British and British colonial troops successfully pushed the enemy back and re-captured the Sinai, but were unable to follow through with success on Ottoman territory, despite the famous “Arab Revolt” that introduced a new asymmetrical dimension to the fighting. Almost unique to the British experience of the First World War, the fighting here was that of manoeuvre warfare to a large extent, with trenches difficult to dig and maintain, and easily flanked in large sections of the Sinai anyway. Cavalry was vital (provided they could be watered) and the sector, even today, still causes romantic thoughts of charges across a desert plain to come to mind (thanks largely to David Lean and his 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia). But even the emphasis on mobility did not result in decisive victories: the first half of 1917 was marked by stalemate, with the Allies apparently unable to extend their advance deep into the Holy Land, and the Central Powers unable to push the Allies back across the Sinai. Jerusalem remained a tantalisingly close, yet well defended, target.

Much like Mesopotamia, but to an even more extreme extent, the fighting in Palestine was marked by harsh weather. Scorching temperatures in the day and sometimes extreme cold at night meant a significant amount of time and energy had to go into the maintaining lines of supply, must crucially water. The successful building of water pipelines were victories of equal or greater value than those directly over the enemy, while towns with wells large enough for armies to be supplied from became objects of intense strategic value. Disease common to deserts would frequently run rampant through units, owing to poor water, infestations of flies and the terrible effect of heat on wounds. A roughly 35km front, from the coastal town of Gaza to Beersheba to the south-east, both held by the Ottomans, marked the opposing sides in mid-1917, with the featureless landscape between the lines seemingly making any offensive action suicidal.

It was into this heady mix of intense heat and operational difficulties that the 10th was sent in October 1917, as the new EEF commander, General Edmund Allenby, planned to breach Ottoman lines and exploit a breakthrough to take Jerusalem, and finally got the reinforcements to affect his plan. The 10th served a largely supporting role in the Battle of Beersheba at the end of October, having spent the previous few days marching north through the Sinai and acclimatizing: the battle saw the Allies seize Beersheba through a mixture of accurate artillery, flanking infantry and charging cavalry.

The victory there broke the stalemate, and over the next few days Allenby followed up with a series of attacks on the rest of the Ottoman line, rolling it up all the way to the sea. The 10th‘s main task was in the centre-point of this line, with the twin Ottoman defensive points of Hareira and Sheria, two redoubts that the enemy had had many years to build-up and make difficult to attack. Almost unassailable before, the capture of Beersheba gave the Allies the ability to flank these positions, and capture the vital water supplies that they harboured.

At dawn on the 6th November, the 10th held the left flank of the advance. Accurate Allied artillery fire opened the way, and the British and colonials made good progress in the morning, before the 10th were sent decisively into the conflict in the afternoon, following up attacks earlier. The Ottoman’s had been softened up significantly: the Irish took their first objective over the local railway line practically without casualties, and only brief firefights delayed them from knocking the enemy from their initial trench lines.

The Sheria position was the first of the major points to be captured, the 10th aiding the main thrust in a supportive guarding role on the left flank, but that left Hareira. The following day, the 7th November, it was the 10th that had the primary attack. The positions garrison was small enough, but the height of the redoubt (described by one soldier of the 10th as a “hollow hill, like a volcano”), the depth of its trenches, the plainness of the surrounding countryside and the extensive barbed wire lines that covered it made it a formidable task, that had undone British attacking efforts earlier in the war. However, the earlier successes now gave them the chance to attack it primarily from the weaker eastern side.

Due to a terrible miscommunication, the initial advance by battalions of the Royal Irish and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was undertaken without needed artillery support: they were lucky, to an extent, that opposing artillery fire was surprisingly inaccurate, though the machine guns were not. The 10th’s units had to deal with smaller outlying defensive points and then work their way around Hareira gradually in order to affect its encirclement and weaken the defences from as many sides as possible.

The encirclement did the trick. The Ottomans inside had little desire to fight to the last man, and facing the possibility of being surrounded, they instead evacuated the redoubt. Sensing victory, the Irish pounced, with the Fusiliers launching an assault into the teeth of the redoubts (now mostly unmanned) defences. Capturing enemy soldiers, a water source (noted by one officer as the most important gain) and other war material, the 10th took 276 casualties in the process.

The Ottoman line across the base of the Holy Land was now fragmenting everywhere. Allied attacks on Gaza, the third such offensive, would probably have smashed through this time, but their task was aided by the victory to the east, with the defenders choosing to up stakes and retreat when it became clear they were vulnerable to flanking from that direction. Allenby was free to undertake his advance to Jerusalem, but this took some time, owing to the need to rest exhausted troops and maintain access to water. He also wanted to avoid the possibility of major fighting in the city itself, and would do so by slowly strangling Ottoman supply lines around it, seizing vital roads and other transport junctures. This task was partly carried out by elements of the 10th, who now experienced the dangers of the more rocky terrain northward, where Ottoman snipers were plentiful.

After a series of smaller battles on the approaches to and heights surrounding the city, Jerusalem was duly taken on the 9th December. While the strategic significance of the city was in question – its capture certainly didn’t knock the Ottomans out of the war – the morale boosting effect of the operation was important. It had been a tough year for the Allies in many respects, with the bloodshed of the western front now coming to its end: Allenby’s success allowed them to end the year with a major success, that involved heavy religious symbolism apart from military victory. Comparisons to the Crusades of many centuries before were inevitable, though Allenby, mindful of the importance of local feeling, actively discouraged this.

It was impossible for soldiers, officers and rankers, not to be effected by the heavy weight of history in Jerusalem, and the 10th, a mixture of Protestant and Catholic, was no exception, having the opportunity, which they most likely would never have had otherwise, to visit the likes of the Holy Sepulchre or the Hill of Golgotha. But they wouldn’t have long to bask in any idealistic role as the vanguard of a last crusade. The success had prompted London to insist on continuing operations with the aim of knocking the Ottomans out of the war as quickly as possible, with Lloyd George smelling blood. The EEF, and the 10th, had fighting aplenty ahead of them as 1918 neared.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Into The Holy Land

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Action At Tell’Asur | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The End In The Holy Land | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Some Last Words On The First World War | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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