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Hell in the Holy Land

Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Hell in the Holy Land
    Book Description:

    In the modern popular imagination, the British Army's campaign in the Middle East during World War I is considered somehow less brutal than the fighting on European battlefields. A romantic view of this conflict has been further encouraged by such films as Lawrence of Arabia and The Light Horsemen. In Hell in the Holy Land, David R. Woodward uses graphic eyewitness accounts from the diaries, letters, and memoirs of British soldiers who fought in that war to describe in rigorous detail the genuine experience of the fighting and dying in Egypt and Palestine. The massive flow of troops and equipment to Egypt eventually made that country host to the largest British military base outside of Britain and France. Though many soldiers found the atmosphere in Cairo exotic, the desert countryside made the fundamentals of fighting and troop maintenance extremely difficult. The intense heat frequently sickened soldiers, and unruly camels were the only practical means of transport across the soft sands of the Sinai. The constant shortage of potable water was a persistent problem for the troops; one soldier recalled, "It is impossible to realize the depth a man will sink to endeavor to appease the terrible horror of thirst." The voices of these British soldiers offer a forgotten perspective of the Great War, describing not only the physical and psychological toll of combat but the daily struggles of soldiers who were stationed in an unfamiliar environment that often proved just as antagonistic as the enemy. A soldier of the Dorset Yeomanry, stationed in Egypt, wrote: "There are three sounds in Egypt which never cease -- the creaking of the waterwheels, the song of the frogs, and the buzz of flies.... Letter writing is an impossibility in the evening, for as soon as the sun goes down, if a lamp is lighted, the air all round is thick with little grey sand-flies which bite disgustingly." Using archival records, many from the Imperial War Museum in London, England, Woodward paints a vivid picture of the mayhem, terror, boredom, filth, and sacrifice that marked the daily life of British soldiers in the Middle East. In telling the story of these soldiers, Woodward provides a personal history of a campaign that laid the groundwork for the continuing turmoil in the Middle East.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4673-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xi)
    (pp. xii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-14)

    In September 1915, Private A. S. Benbow experienced perhaps the most exciting day of his young life. He had worked for London Assurance in Pall Mall before his Yeomanry unit had been mobilized. Marching through the streets of Liverpool, he was on his way to a foreign land. His memory of that moment was that “a lot of people had gathered on either side of the road and many were in tears as we marched (or rather staggered) along; one old woman, I remember, called out ‘God bless you all and bring you back soon.’ Gaining the dockside at last...

    (pp. 15-32)

    The massive flow of troops and equipment to Egypt eventually made that country the greatest British military base outside of Britain and France. Before 1916, however, the actual defense of the Empire’s lifeline, the Suez Canal, depended almost entirely on Indian troops. The original garrison of British Regulars had been recalled to Europe shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, and the New Zealand and Australian troops in the country were kept back from the canal zone for training and organization.

    Berlin, of course, posed little threat to the Empire’s lifeline until Turkey became an ally...

    (pp. 33-55)

    On Christmas Day 1916, with British troops occupying El Arish, Brigadier General Guy Payan Dawnay described the accomplishments of the Eastern Force, of which he was chief of staff: “It really has been an extraordinary ‘campaign,’ this one in Sinai,” he wrote his wife.

    It necessitated the fitting out of much the biggest desert column that there has ever been, with actuallytensof thousands of camels. No wheels practically; camels, camels AND camels! Then we have had to lay a railway 100 miles over a howling wilderness for the supply of the troops, the camels being used to carry...

    (pp. 56-80)

    In late March 1917 the Eastern Force was on the move, advancing in stages along the coastal road toward Gaza, whose very name meantfortress. The infantry began its march as darkness approached to avoid the prying eyes of Turkish aircraft. “The sensations of the march were rather peculiar,” Captain E. T. Townsend, 1/5 Highland Light Infantry, 157th Brigade, 52nd (Lowlands) Division, reported to his parents in a letter. “A glorious sunset with a cool breeze blowing gave way to a darkness very slightly lightened by a mere slip of moon. The air grew dead and a thick pall of...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 81-103)

    As the Eastern Force butted its head against the Gaza defenses in April, General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army found itself in a similarly futile operation on the western front. The Battle of Arras had gotten off to a promising start with the Canadians capturing Vimy Ridge. For a moment, it appeared that a gap could be torn in the German front that could be exploited by the cavalry. This had long been Haig’s dream, and he was bitterly disappointed that Allenby, a cavalryman, could not deliver. It was not that Allenby did not make the effort. In fact, three...

  13. 6 BREAKOUT
    (pp. 104-121)

    On October 30, Blunt of the Civil Service Rifles and Calcutt of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, 179th Brigade, 60th Division, prepared for the final approach march to Beersheba. Their route took them across a wilderness of bare, rocky hills and numerous wadis. Allenby wanted the 60th Division, in league with the 74th Division, to pin down the Turks in the southwest defenses of Beersheba while mounted forces stormed the town on its eastern side. Calcutt and Blunt were given tea and rum for the following day and their final haversack rations: five onions, one tin of bully, a slice of...

    (pp. 122-137)

    The Turks were driven into the open and on the run, with columns of Turkish infantry and transport streaming northward to escape capture. The decisive moment had arrived for Allenby’s enormous mounted force, considered the strength of his army. Never before, in fact, had a British general had cavalry in such strength at his disposal. If the Desert Mounted Corps acted aggressively, the retreating Turkish infantry might be cut off while the British infantry came on to finish them off.

    Allenby had the highest expectations for his cavalry, arms glittering and hoofs thundering, as it swept forward through the gap...

    (pp. 138-157)

    With Junction Station in the hands of the British, the Turks lost their railway connection to Jerusalem. The Turkish 7th Army retired into the hills around Jerusalem, and the Turkish 8th Army retreated northward along the coastal plain toward Jaffa. Faced with mounting logistical problems because of his rapid advance and the approach of the wet season, a prudent policy would have been for Allenby to avoid the treacherous Judean Hills, halting his advance once Jaffa had been secured. Allenby’s daily reading of the Bible and Adam Smith’sHistorical Geography of the Holy Landhad certainly impressed upon him the...

    (pp. 158-175)

    If Lloyd George had his way, the Middle East would become the focus of Britain’s military effort in 1918. His agile mind saw political as well as military advantages in giving priority to Allenby’s forces. With Russia faltering and with France in a defensive mood after its army mutinied, Lloyd George believed British gains at the expense of Turkey might serve as an insurance policy in the event of an inconclusive end to the war. “If Russia collapsed,” he once told the War Cabinet, “it would be beyond our power to beat Germany, as the blockade would become to a...

    (pp. 176-189)

    On April 1, 1918, Allenby described the impact of the German March 21 offensive to the military correspondent for theDaily Telegraphy, Captain C. W. Battine: “Here, I have raided the Hedjaz railway, 40 miles East of Jordan, & have done much damage but my little show dwindles now into a very insufficient affair in comparison with events (?) in Europe.”¹ His theater had returned overnight from being the government’s first priority to a “side show.”

    Allenby, however, had difficultly accepting a passive role, despite the altered military landscape. Contrary to his comments to Battine, his assault across the Jordan had...

  18. 11 MEGIDDO
    (pp. 190-206)

    Megiddo is located on the southern end of the Plain of Esdraelon, where it commands the roads connecting Palestine with Syria. This ancient settlement has been the scene of many battles. It is also the site of Armageddon, which, according to the Book of Revelation, is where the final battle between good and evil will be fought. Allenby’s naming of his decisive victory over the Turks, Megiddo, may thus have a double meaning.

    In the summer of 1918, German fortunes waned on the western front. In July, their fifth attack of the year was quickly repulsed by the French at...

    (pp. 207-209)

    It is the rash person indeed who offers sweeping generalizations about the experiences of British soldiers serving in the Great War. Each soldier reacted in his own and different way to the routine of army life, his theater of operations, and combat. Having said this, it is still possible to make some comparisons between those who served in Palestine and Egypt and those who served on the western front. Bluntly stated, you were more likely to survive the war if you served in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) rather than in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The western front is...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 210-233)
    (pp. 234-240)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 241-254)