Judgement Day

The transformations of four years of war were readily apparent at 1am in the skies above Al-Afuleh in Palestine on September 19th, 1918.  One British Handley Page 0/400 bomber flew over the city, the headquarters of the Ottoman/German command for Palestine in the Jezreel Valley, dropping it’s payload of sixteen 112-pound bombs.  Four years earlier, the first “heavy” bomber in aerial history, the French Voisin III, could carry one 132-pound bomb, dropping it indiscriminately with little to no accuracy.  Aerial operations in 1914 were reconnaissance-focus; by 1918, both sides were using planes in intra-service coordination to attack and overwhelm their enemy’s lines.  With a singular strike, the Handley Page bomber destroyed the telephone exchange and main railway station, serving communications between the Ottoman/German High Command and their soldiers.

A few hours later, the British army roared to life, with 385 field guns lashing out at the Ottoman line.  A massive coordinated campaign of artillery, cavalry, infantry and Arabian guerillas would destabilize what remained of the Central Powers’ position in Palestine, destroying two Ottoman armies and reducing the Ottoman morale to dust.  As had happened to the Germans and the Bulgarians, now the Turks would face a killing stroke that would set in motion the end of their Empire.  It would be a fitting conclusion to a battle chosen by the British because of the proximity to the ancient city of Megiddo – or as it was known in Hebrew, Armageddon.

British troops advance with air cover – the modern ability of airpower to attack ground forces would set a historic precedent at Megiddo

The capture of Jerusalem in late 1917 had been a welcome victory for an Allied war effort that appeared to be falling apart.  In a few sharp battles, British General Edmund Allenby had driven the Turks out of southern Palestine with thousands of casualties to few losses of his own.  Where the British had been stymied in the Sinai and Gaza for years, racking up losses of tens of thousands of men, in six months Allenby had gutted the Ottoman line, destroyed entire armies and all for the loss of perhaps just over 3,000 men.  Accuracy, speed and guile had been Allenby’s tools and they had worked wonders against veteran Turkish soldiers and accomplished German commanders like Erich von Falkenhayn and Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein.  But the victories hadn’t meant the end of the Palestinian campaign and Allenby would now face his greatest opponent – the British War Office. 

Allenby had barely begun his next campaign when London forced him to transfer units from the Middle East to France to counter the German Spring Offensive.  60,000 men and Allenby’s entire tank corps were sacrificed from the Middle East to block the rampaging Boche in France, leaving Allenby with a depleted force to try and drive the Turks out of Palestine and the Jordan Valley.  Further complicating Allenby’s objectives was the presence of the Arabian Sharifian Army, or Arab Northern Army, to his east.  Lead by Faisal bin-Hussein, who had risen in prominence within the Arab Revolt due to his control of the guerilla Hashemite Army and the media campaign of T.E. Lawrence, the conventionally armed and organized Sharifian Army was one part ally, one part enemy.   The Hashemite guerrillas and Lawrence had sowed chaos in the Arabian interior, but now were marching to gain and hold territory of their own.  And twice within four months Faisal had attempted to switch sides if only the Turks would grant him control over Syria; offers that Enver Pasha would arrogantly refuse as he remained bizarrely confident of the Ottoman Empire’s chances at victory.

Pasha’s confidence might have been because of the Ottoman/German changes in command.  Former Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn had been exceptionally unpopular with the Ottomans, despite Falkenhayn’s reputation and successes on other fronts.  The Turks hated Falkenhayn’s “yielding defense” strategy of slowly surrendering territory until the British exceeded their ability to resupply, as the strategy cost them Gaza and Jerusalem.  Top Ottoman brass also disliked Falkenhayn’s moral indignations against Turkish policies, such as the Ottoman attempt to essentially engage in ethnically cleansing the Jews out of Palestine and Syria which the German refused to carry out.  Falkenhayn would be replaced by the chief German liaison to Constantinople – Otto Liman von Sanders, whose role in modernizing the Ottoman Army and leadership at Gallipoli inspired Turkish officers that they finally had a supreme commander who both respected them and knew how to win.  Instead, Sanders might have felt captive to the Turkish demands to draw a literal line in the sand and fight.  Falkenhayn’s slow retreat had been unpopular but was likely the right strategy for an army group running on empty.  The Ottomans didn’t much fight left in them; Sanders was tasked with wringing the last vestiges of combat out of them before their morale vanished.

Otto Liman Von Sanders – Sanders had been the head of the German military mission to Turkey since 1913

Sanders’ orders to stand and fight played right into Allenby’s strategy.  Allenby had been seeking a decisive fight on flat ground in the hopes of recreating the cavalry charge at the Battle of Beersheba on October 31st of 1917, in which his mounted troops had driven through and behind the Turkish line, destroying their entire force for a handful of British casualties.  Megiddo, situated at a plateau base near an adjoining valley, would be a perfect launching point if the Turks, rallying at this location, could be defeated.  Like he had before, Allenby constructed a series of deceptions, including secretly transferring forces from the Jordan Valley and having Arab guerillas “accidentally” leave traces of British goods and materials scattered for the Turks to find east of the Valley, letting the Ottomans believe the Allied forces might try to flank them.  

Sanders wasn’t fooled by the misdirection – he had fairly corrected surmised Allenby’s intention and the size of the British force.  But Sanders had committed nearly the entirety of his force to defending his first trench lines; a tactic now abandoned on the Western Front in favor of “defense-in-depth.”  Everything Allenby wanted at Megiddo had been put into place – the Turks would stand and fight on favorable ground to British cavalry and could potentially be overwhelmed at the front of the battle.  The fact that the battle would take place at a site listed in the Book of Revelations as home to the climatic struggle between good and evil was merely icing on the cake.

The opening of the British attack went about as well as Allenby could have wished.  The Turkish line was pierced within hours and Sanders’ own headquarters was overrun, with the German commander narrowly avoiding capture himself.  The British and Australian cavalry charged through the Ottoman rear lines, breaking down the entire front.  Mustafa Kemal, like Sanders, one of the Turkish heroes of the Gallipoli Campaign who had been transferred to Palestine to save the failing effort, ordered his 7th Army to retreat into the Jordan Valley.  Barely 48 hours after the start of the attack, Kemal had seen enough; he was now trying to save the lives of his men and keep them from falling prisoner to the Allies.  Kemal’s rearguard units successfully blocked the advancing British, but the man soon to be known as Ataturk and founder of the Turkish Republic could hardly have foreseen that his army was about to fall into the history books.

Turkish prisoners marched into captivity

On September 21st, 1918, the Royal Air Force spotted Kemal’s retreating 7th Army.  The British had long since established air superiority in the region and now intended to unleash their airpower against the Turkish columns.  The RAF had hoped that they might get four or five hours of combat time before the 7th Army moved outside of their range.  In 60 minutes, the entire 7th Army was destroyed by airpower alone.  Arab guerillas found the remains of 87 guns, 55 motor-lorries, 4 motor-cars, 75 carts, 837 four-wheeled wagons, and thousands of dead and wounded Turks.  As T.E. Lawrence noted, “the RAF lost four killed. The Turks lost a corps.”

Typically in any of the handful of Great War battles that turned into routs, the attacking force eventually had to halt to resupply or otherwise stop due to battlefield losses.  There would be no “halt” to Allenby’s Turkish Armageddon.  The mobility of Allenby’s forces, and their Arabian allies, meant they could continue to keep pressuring the Ottomans.  And Sanders couldn’t find the men or battleground to make another stand.  City upon city in Palestine and Jordan fell to the Allies and by the end of September, less than two weeks after launching the initial assault, Damascus was captured, along with 20,000 Turkish soldiers.  In all, Allenby had destroyed two armies and captured 75,000 additional Ottoman troops by the 1st of October. 

Remains of the Turkish 7th Army; for the first time in history, airpower had solely defeated ground forces

In March of 1918, Enver Pasha had dismissed Faisal bin-Hussein’s second offer of alliance in the belief that the Turks would be victorious without Arab help; by October 4th, 1918, the man who ruled the Ottoman Empire so completely that diplomats referred to the nation as “Enverland” was out of power.  

Mehmed VI, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had assumed the throne just months earlier with the passing of his half-brother Mehmed V.  Unlike his half-brother, Mehmed VI was neither passive in disposition nor concerned about his relative lack of authority and demanded Enver resign as Minister of War.  Enver did and the junta of the “Three Pashas” collapsed as Talaat Pasha, the de facto Prime Minister, resigned shortly thereafter.  None of the men who had schemed to get the Ottoman Empire into the war were willing to negotiate the Empire’s now inescapable defeat.  Talaat, who had just returned from a tour of Germany and Bulgaria, had already been convinced of the Central Power’s eventual collapse.  Like the Bulgarian government, Talaat had initially attempted to seek American intervention in negotiations but to no avail.  Now the head of the Turkish government claimed that his resignation was the only avenue to minimize the terms of a future peace treaty as Talaat publicly reasoned the Allies would impose harsher penalites if the leaders that had started the war were seen as still in power.  None of the “Three Pashas” seemingly resigned with an initial belief that the move would be permanent.  Even as they escaped on a German U-boat following the Armistice of Mudros that pulled the Ottoman Empire out of the war, each of them sought to establish political connections that might allow them to resurface in power somewhere else.  

Regardless of future intentions by their leadership, by early October of 1918 it was clear that the next nation in the Central Powers alliance was about to fall.  In the span of a few months, each member of the alliance had suffered a debilitating defeat and Bulgaria, and now apparently Turkey, would surrender.  The hope for a negotiated end was fading quickly with the growing realization that a borderline unconditional surrender might be the only remaining option.

9 thoughts on “Judgement Day

  1. unconditional surrender might be the only remaining option.

    The only fitting end to a war, any war. Anything short of that is a waste of lives and a guarantee for further conflict.

  2. Just want to say how much I enjoy these essays, especially those on the less covered aspects of history.

  3. The only fitting end to a war, any war. Anything short of that is a waste of lives and a guarantee for further conflict.

    The pretty-much unconditional surrender terms imposed on the Germans after WWI didn’t forestall further conflict. In the lyrics of Tom Lehrer, “Once all the Germans were warlike and mean, but that couldn’t happen again. We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then!”

  4. The pretty-much unconditional surrender terms imposed on the Germans after WWI didn’t forestall further conflict.

    They would have if the victors would not allow Germans to violate the terms. But that’s a different story.

  5. I don’t think you’re being fair, NW. There’s unconditional surrender – meaning the defeated cannot impose any conditions, but then there’s the conditions imposed by the victor. Germany had not done itself any favors before the war but its conduct during the war was especially heinous and so taking gruesome revenge seemed “only reasonable”. The problem is that the more gruesome the revenge, the more intensely is felt need to get back at the victors. Which is pretty much what happened.

    The approach taken by the US after WWII which also imposed unconditional surrenders seems to have been more realistic and thus longer lived.

  6. No doubt that too many peace treaties function merely as a strategic pause in hostilities–in a way, it’s refreshingly honest that the Koreas are still technically at war, if I remember right. It’s also true that the more humiliating the end of the war, the more likely that nation is to desire continued peace. Read “Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, really. Occupying the nation for a while can help, too.

    That noted, one additional factor in Germany’s relative peacefulness after WW2 is that every German was forced to watch a documentary of the Holocaust. I’m guessing a huge portion of Germans decided “we’re done with that s***, that Prussian militarism”, after that. I know a pastor I met in Kiel did. I also know that after 1989, the center of neo-nazi sentiment was in East Germany–where people were not shown the movies of the death camps, and where their last memory of prosperity was during the Hitler years. It makes a difference.

  7. Contrast, to build on that, the end of WW2 with the end of WW1. WW2 ended with clear righteous victors and losers (well, excepting the Soviets, who made Hitler look like a choirboy in some ways). WW1 didn’t discredit the motivations of the losers. Hence continued militarism was more thinkable on all sides.

  8. Anything deal less than unconditional surrender would have been blocked by the French. The French also demanded reparations, and the Germans thought that since they would need the territory in Eastern Europe ceded them by Trotsky to pay these reparations, they would be allowed to keep them. It was not until well into 1919 that the French insisted the territories be returned to the USSR.
    The die was pretty much cast at that point. The Germans were impoverished and became politically unstable, and the peace movement in the once allied nations that developed after the war gave us a Germany with an extremist, militarist ideology. If it hadn’t been for Hitler & the SA, the Stalinists would have done it.

  9. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 07.13.21 : The Other McCain

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