Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Conquest of Palestine

"Through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein there was no water."

It was not till the summer of 1918 that General Allenby was able to complete the conquest of Palestine by a series of brilliant movements resulting in the capture of the Turks' last strongholds, Damascus and Aleppo. In the spring a large number of his best troops were called away to the Western Front to stem the great German offensive. It was therefore with an amazingly mixed army of Eastern rather than Western fighters that he began his new advance along the coast west of the river Jordan, "leaving the great Arab army under the Mohammedan, Prince Feisal, and a young Englishman, Colonel Lawrence, to march to Damascus by the desert railway route on the east of the Jordan.

The story of this Englishman, "who destroyed the thousand-year-old network of blood feuds, who built up the Arabian army, who planned the strategy of the desert campaign and led the Arabs into battle, who swept the Turks from a thousand miles of country between Mecca and Damascus" must be briefly told, for it is one of the most dramatic stories in the whole war.

A quiet visionary scholar from Oxford, an archaeologist in Mesopotamia and Arabia, this Englishman had learnt and loved Arab language and Arab history. Some time after the outbreak of war, he found himself a staff captain in Cairo doing work irksome to one of his mould. Applying for leave, he went across to Jiddah, the seaport of Mecca, on the coast of the Red Sea, to learn more of the Arab revolt known to be progressing against the Turks, who dominated the whole country from Mecca to Damascus. Now the strip of land known as the Hejaz, along the shores of the Red Sea from Mecca to Akaba, was held by one Hussein, an Arab chief in direct descent from Mohammed. His four sons had been living in the luxurious atmosphere of Constantinople; indeed, the third son, Prince Feisal, had for some years been private secretary to the Sultan, Abdul Hamid. On the outbreak of war, when Turkey had thrown in her lot with Germany, Hussein recalled his sons.

"Henceforth," he commanded, "thou art to make thy home under the canopy of Heaven that our house may not be disgraced."

Suiting the deed to his word, he sent them forth, each with a company of fighting Arabs, to patrol the pilgrim routes across the burning sands round about Mecca and Medina, in the province of the Hejaz. It was not till June 1916, after the important Turkish victory at Kut, that Hussein at last publicly denounced the Turks, and threw in his lot with the Allies. Then "with all the pent-up fury and hatred of 500 years of oppression and dishonour," the Arabs of the Hejaz rushed into the war!

The Turks, strengthened by Germans, at once attacked Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, the Holy City of Arabia, from her seaport of Jiddah. Within a month the Arabs had saved their city, taking over 1000 Turks and Germans prisoner. In all the fighting the sons of Hussein took a leading part, but Medina, where lay the tomb of Mohammed, still remained in Turkish hands.

At this critical moment Lawrence arrived from Cairo with Prince Feisal to help the Arab Army in its war against their common foe.

In him the Prince found a kindred spirit—an enlightened young man, modern in his views, enthusiastic in his work, and inspired with ideals. The Arab Prince and the young English staff captain agreed that the Arab rabble of fighters might be organised into a force to help in the work of freeing Arabia from Turkish control, and from that momentous meeting, Lawrence became the moving spirit in the Arab revolt. Persuaded by Feisal, he adopted Arab dress, and his knowledge of the language enabled him to go about the desert. Calling the headmen of the tribes together, he explained his mission, and over their camp fires he spoke to them of their past greatness and of their ability to drive away the Turks from their land, till in a high state of frenzy they promised their allegiance. For months on end he worked, until he had united most of the tribes of the Hejaz into an alliance of some 10,000 men. Then, marching along the waterless desert by the shores of the Red Sea, they attacked the ports on the coast till they reached the most important of all, Akaba, the last seaport in Turkish hands, once the naval base of King Solomon's Fleet, and strongly fortified.

The capture of Akaba involved a desert march of some 1000 miles along the coast of Hejaz in scorching summer heat, but Lawrence had laid his plans so well that the Turks were outwitted, and Akaba, not without some fierce fighting, was won with the loss of two Arabs only. But here a problem awaited solution. There were 700 Turkish prisoners to feed, in addition to the Arab army, numbering some 2500 Arabs, and they were forced to eat the "tough and sinewy camels which had carried them to victory."

Help was badly needed, and the morning after the battle, Lawrence started off to cross the Sinai desert, 150 miles of waterless sand, to Suez. It took him forty-nine hours, and this followed on the coast march of 1000 miles.

This all happened in 1917. In the summer, Lawrence met General Allenby, and the powerful khaki-clad General, fresh from France, soon realised that this young Englishman, dressed as an Arab and fresh from Akaba, could be of immense use to him with his Arab army in the conquest of Northern Palestine.

From this time onward both Feisal and Lawrence were transferred from the command of Hussein, whose province of Hejaz had been wrested from the Turks, to that of General Allenby.

The Turks had learnt the value of Lawrence, and after Akaba they put a heavy price on his head, captured alive or dead.

While General Allenby and his army—Indians, Australians, and Yeomanry—marched between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea toward Damascus, Feisal and Lawrence, with their army of Arabs freshly recruited from the tribes of the north Arabian desert, were to keep to the Turkish line of railway running from Mecca and Medina to Damascus on the far side of the river Jordan. A start was made from Akaba. The caravan consisted of 2000 baggage camels, 450 Arab regulars on racing camels, machine-guns, two aeroplanes and armoured cars, a total force of 1000 men mounted on camels, whilst others were added as they marched.

A march of 500 miles across uncharted desert had first to be faced and water carried, but this was accomplished in a fortnight, and the railway reached and telegraph-wires cut to prevent the Turks communicating with Damascus, Aleppo, or Constantinople when Allenby started his advance. About the middle of September Allenby began his move for Damascus, most of his fighting taking place on the Field of Armageddon—famous as the battle-ground of Israel and Judah. Nazareth, the headquarters of the German Commander, was captured on 20th September. At first the Turks had fought well to escape the net which was being cast round them, but now, pressed on all sides and "bombed into confusion" by British airmen from above, they began to surrender in large numbers. Meanwhile Lawrence and his Arab army played their part on the Turkish railway; they blew up Turkish trains, tore up rails, and dynamited bridges.

Then came the final round-up of the Turks and the brilliant dash to Damascus—"the most ancient of the world's cities." The Turkish armies had melted away under the joint charges of Allenby, a famous Desert Corps, and the Arabs. Enormous numbers of prisoners and guns had fallen into British hands, when early on the morning of 1st October Lawrence and his camel corps entered Damascus—a veritable dream city, its minarets and cupolas rising out of the early morning mist. All the inhabitants, together with "tens of thousands of Arabs from the fringes of the desert," crowded the "street that is called straight," as Lawrence, dressed in snowy white as a prince of Mecca, rode in on his camel with his picturesque bodyguard behind him.

A few days later, having established an Arab government in Damascus, Lawrence asked Allenby for leave to go home and, refusing all honours and decorations, disappeared from the land of his victories.

Meanwhile, Allenby was pushing now for Aleppo, whither all those Turks who had escaped destruction were fleeing. On 27th September his troops entered the city—the capital of Turkey-in-Asia. Turkish power was now completely destroyed and the way was open to Constantinople.

The loss of Aleppo was the last straw, and Turkey now sued for peace on terms of complete surrender.

It was only eleven days before the Armistice ended the great World War.

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