Ireland’s Wars: The End In The Holy Land

The Egyptian Expeditionary Forces had pressed into the Holy Land, taken Jerusalem, and secured their lines to the north. The Ottoman Empire’s military, despite the support of German advisors, was not in a great state to resist them, and, with some reinforcements sent from different parts of the British Empire, it was not unlikely that Edmund Allenby’s troops would end the war in the theatre within a few months.

Or so it seemed. The launching of the Spring Offensive on the western front altered the worldwide strategic situation, and London was very quickly looking for soldiers in the Middle-East to be rapidly transferred to France and Belgium. The 10th (Irish) Division was one of those units selected for, essentially, dissection, with plenty of its best battalions taken out of the theatre, put on a boat, and shipped for the western front.

But the 10th remained in the Holy Land, and there were holes to be filled. The missing battalions were replaced with colonial equivalents, the process commonly known as “Indianisation” from the primary source of the new units. By the time this reorganisation was finished, there were only three of the original battalions left: the 1st Leinsters, the 1st Royal Irish Regiment and the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, who were joined by one new incoming unit, the 1st Connaught Rangers. The entire process was taking place amid constant low-level warfare: one battalion, the 6th Royal Irish Rifles, took an Ottoman position during operations near the town of Mesra at the end of April 1918, and were then disbanded two days later. While sometimes characterised as poor troops, the Indian battalions weren’t all that bad: only a third of them were new recruits, with the rest having experience in other theatres or in pre-war campaigns in various places.

While all of this was going on, Allenby was doing the best that he could with what he had. Jericho was captured and the EEF pushed into the Jordan Valley, but then things stalled. Major offensives had to wait owing to the lack of reinforcements, the reorganisation of the existing troops, and the need to consolidate and extend transport links. Raids continued back and forth, but for the most part the opposing sides were left looking back at each other on a line stretching from sea to sea, Mediterranean and Dead, while the summer rolled on.

Allenby prepared what he hoped would be his final attack in Palestine for September 1918, even while the main drama of the war was being concluded elsewhere. The Ottomans didn’t have enough troops to cover the entire line or the main targets of opportunity: thus, when Allenby’s EEF went forward in the direction of Megiddo on the 19th September, the Ottoman’s were quickly sent reeling into retreat by the extent of British artillery dominance, as well as their control of the skies.

A day after the start of the fighting – the Battle of Sharon – the other section or the offensive – the Battle of Nablus – began. Both towns needed to be taken to smash the enemy offensive line. The Indian battalions of the 10th were involved from the start, in the efforts to break through the Ottoman line and outflank the Nablus position. The 10th would take the town, while the 53rd would swing around and block a retreat. Some of the still in-theatre Irish battalions were not initially ear-marked for serious military operations, with the 1st Royal Irish Regiment repairing roads ahead of the front line on the first night of the offensive. On the evening of the 19th, after a brief artillery bombardment, the 10th, one half of XX corps, smashed into Ottoman positions ahead of Nablus, at the union of two different army groups.

After some initially stiff resistance, the 10th and other divisions made significant ground, advancing nearly seven miles by the time dawn arrived on the 20th. It was the beginning of a spectacular Ottoman collapse, but as their more fluid military forces in the field melted away, those in the more entrenced positions remained. It was not an uncoordinated rout, but neither was it a glorious withdrawal.

It was not until the 10th reached near the village of Kafr Haris that they were seriously slowed by Ottoman rearguards, a situation made worse by the fact that they had advanced ahead of their own artillery support. The 10th’s brigades spent the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon attacking the village from different sides, flustered at points by the skill of German manned machine-gun posts, before Haris fell. The hilly country favoured the defender, but the Ottoman’s were not interested in sustained resistance.

The following day, the 10th was pointed at its overall objective, the town of Nablus. Bitter fighting took place at the small village of Rajib, taken after a brutal bayonet charge from numerous units, including the 1st Royal Irish Regiment. Elsewhere, the 1st Connaught Rangers took the Fir Hill and El Funduk positions. By now, the 10th had been moving or fighting for a few days in the brutal desert heat, and all of the troops were increasingly exhausted. But their task was too important for that to be taken into account, with Allenby himself showing up to urge on the 10th’s forward units towards Nablus.

Nablus, increasingly surrounded, couldn’t hold, and the Ottomans in the town fled, only to be torn to pieces by Allied air power and the attacks of the waiting 53rd. The 10th was among the first of the British units into the town, whose civil authorities were left with the task of a formally surrendering. With that, the Ottoman defences were shattered.

The 10th’s part in the Megiddo offensive were only part of the overall plan, whereby a huge section of the enemy force disintegrated before Allenby’s eyes, opening up the path to take Nazareth and then Damascus within ten days. By then the risk of enemy injury was no longer really a factor for the 10th or the rest of the EEF. Instead, a serious outbreak of malaria was a much bigger killer, typical of the nature of the Palestine war.

As the fighting continued into October, the Ottoman effort in the Holy Land completely collapsed: Aleppo, the third biggest city in the entire Empire, fell on the 25th. The Ottoman leadership was willing to cede these outlying sections of the Empire if the Anatolian core could be retained: as noted, they had already retreated from Mesopotamia, and even enacted offensive operations in the Caucuses region during this time. But the clock was ticking. By that time, it was clear that the Allies were marching to victory on both the western front and in the Balkans, where a breakout from Salonika led to Bulgarian exit from the war by the end of September. Cut off from the rest of the Central Powers, and with Germany no longer in a position to help them, the Ottomans faced the possibility of a landward assault on Istanbul. With the Empire crumbling, its leadership faced facts, and signed the Armistice of Mudros on the 30th October, leaving the war, and essentially leaving their fate in the hands of the Allies. They would dismember the Empire over the following few years.

The achievements of Allenby, the EEF and the 10th (Irish) Division in the Holy Land were spectacular. They had advanced deep into the territory of a Central Powers tentpole, operating in a harsh and dangerous environment. They had done so with a dearth of reinforcements. The end result was a significant weakening of the Ottoman Empire, and a trailblazing combined arms demonstration of what could be achieved with infantry, artillery, cavalry and, by the end, air power.

And yet, their achievements were largely forgotten. While the 10th Division in the Holy Land was forging ahead, the majority of its Irish battalions were in France, where the main focus of attention of the war was. In comparison, the Middle-East seemed like an unimportant sideshow, and perhaps more given that units like the 10th were now largely Indianised. Men like “Lawrence of Arabia” would eventually capture the public imagination, with his role in the Arab revolt and the asymmetrical war he helped to fight. Meanwhile, the 10th, it’s struggles and losses, have not received as much notice or credit as they arguably deserve.

But its individual battalions would have a chance, on the main stage, of grabbing some attention. Our time looking at the other fronts of the First World War are over: what is left is the end of the war in its central theatre, as we look at the remainder of the Spring Offensive, the Allied counter-attack, the emergence of the American Expeditionary Force, and how the Irish units fared.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The End In The Holy Land

  1. Don O'Connell says:

    I have always considered the 10th the forgotten division but this is excellent stuff. Wrong but the 16th was Munster’s division and the 10th, Leinster’s.

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