The Ottoman defensive line that had caused such a prolonged period of stalemate in the Holy Land had been breached, and Jerusalem had fallen. But the Ottomans, despite this setback and the losses elsewhere, were not knocked out of the war yet.
General Allenby’s immediate task after the capture of the Holy City was consolidation, to stretch out his frontier to the east, ensure communication and supply lines were extended and secured, and to continue to support the Arab revolt. Alongside that, the winter rainy season precluded further operations, but once that was cleared in the new year of 1918, more offensive operations in a northward direction could be contemplated.
Allenby had to fight hard for this to take place though. As I will outline with more detail in future entries, the Allies were awaiting an inevitable German offensive on the western front, owing to the pull-out of the Russians from the war and the release of a gargantuan amount of German troops from that front. The argument was made that future offensives in Palestine were a waste of time, needing a great deal of resources and additional manpower if they were truly going to stand a chance of knocking the Ottomans out of the fighting entirely, and especially wasteful when every man would be needed in France and Belgium.
The counter-argument was that the western front already had all the men it needed, American reinforcements would soon be flooding in anyway, and the Allies could ill-afford to surrender the strategic initiative on other fronts when they seemingly had a key part of the Central Powers on the ropes. Warned that the only additional reinforcements he could expect would be pulled from India or Mesopotamia, Allenby was eventually cleared to continue.
The British plan called for an advance across the Jordan River to the vital Hedjaz railway. Before that could take place, Allenby wanted his right flank to be extended somewhat, in order to give the British position more depth ahead of a general advance all along the line. That was where the 10th (Irish) Division came in.
The 10th had spent the preceding months doing much the same work as other divisions, helping to build and maintain roads and railways. Such work was difficult, in the rocky terrain, with the cold, wet weather and always susceptible to sudden Ottoman ambush. On several occasions, regiments of the 10th were called upon to beat off an attack or clear Ottoman patrols from high ground ahead of where transport links were supposed to go, small-scale actions that do little to lodge themselves in popular memory, but which continued to eke away at the strength of the 10th. Progress was generally slow, more to do with the terrain than anything else.
But the coming attack offered the chance for actual soldiering. The 10th went ahead as part of XX Corps, alongside the 74th (Yeomanry), the 53rd (Welsh) and 1st Light Horse (operating without their horses, the local terrain being especially unsuited to them). The 10th was to advance on either side of the Jerusalem to Nablus road, aiming for the Kalrawani Ridge and the village of Jiljilya beyond, cutting off all transport links to the lower Jordan Valley, while other units went straight up the middle of Ottoman defences.
On the 9th of March, the attack was launched, the 30th and 31st Brigades of the division aimed at the villages of ‘Atara and ‘Ajul, and the 29th at more general terrain. The fighting was marked by a series of rushes, with fire and manoeuvre tactics being the order of the day, the only thing possible in the craggy hills from which dug-in defenders had such an innate advantage. Foggy weather made things worse, and the nature of the ground meant that artillery support was practically impossible.
Still, the Irish and the other British units did their job. Better trained, supplied and armed than their Ottoman counterparts, they were able to inch forward, despite the Ottoman advantage in holding the high ground. The 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers swept into ‘Atara on the first day of the mini-offensive, and the 1st Royal Irish Regiment seized ‘Ajul the following day, after the Ottoman defenders in the village had been outflanked by the 2nd Irish Fusiliers, whose capture of a section of the Kalrawani meant any effort to hold would be suicidal. The 1st Leinsters and 6th Irish Rifles broke the Ottoman defences on the left flank of the attack at the same time, while the 5th Connaught Rangers stormed across the Wadi-el-Jib and took the heights on the northern bank.
Further attacks on northward heights were now required, leading to the bloodiest part of the action. The 1st Royal Irish Regiment and 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers were called up again, to attack and take an Ottoman position ahead of Jiljilya, that overlooked the new British lines.
This was a difficult task. Scrambling down the north side of the Wadi, the Irish then had to scramble back up, this time on the new Ottoman-held hills, designated “Hill K4”. The advance was, by necessity, slow, as the carefully placed Ottoman machine guns, usually aiming right down the narrow defiles that soldiers were all too easily funnelled into, had to be scouted out. The two sides were strangely close to each other at points, with even inter-unit messengers frequently targeted by Ottoman marksman.
Eventually, the Irish made headway, through it took at least three attacks on K4 for the Ottomans to be dislodged, one of them an outright bayonet charge. The 6th Dublin Fusiliers were called into support, but it was the Royal Irish Regiment that eventually took the position, late on March 10th, taking 113 casualties in the process. The dead would be buried on top of the rise, later dubbed “Clonmel Hill” by the men who had taken it. Jiljilya fell shortly after, the Ottomans choosing to melt away northward and let their artillery do the fighting.
The action at Tell’Asur was a complete British victory. At a cost 1’300 casualties across the divisions involved, a 14 mile stretch of the frontline had been moved forward five to seven miles, and a difficult section of ground captured. Allenby naturally hoped that he now had the means and the facility to launch a greater offensive that could roll up the Ottomans and lead to their departure from the war’s stage.
But unfortunately for him, and to a certain extent the 10th, events elsewhere were to lead to a reappraisal of the Palestinian theatre. The action at Tell’Asur was over on the 12th March. Nine days later, the anticipated German offensive on the western front began. And the Irish Divisions were right in its path.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.