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Analyzing the Ottoman Empire’s Defeat in Palestine and the Fall of Jerusalem During World War I

The Ottoman armies experienced a significant defeat that began in Palestine and extended to Anatolia at the end of World War I. After the defeat, commanders attributed the reasons for the debacle to the inadequacy of the soldiers and supply problems, while corps and army commanders blamed the top command, especially Enver Pasha, and the Germans.

OTTOMAN ARMIES

The Ottoman armies were fighting in the Sinai-Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, and Hejaz fronts during World War I. Despite the victory in the Kut Al-Amara Campaign in Iraq, the British had started advancing again and captured Baghdad on March 11, 1917. Meanwhile, a low-intensity conflict was occurring on the Hejaz front, where Fahrettin Pasha was trying to defend Medina and keep the Hejaz railway connection open.

Cemal Pasha, who served as the commander of the IV Army and the Governor of Syria, was in charge of the Syria-Palestine front. The IV Army had conducted two Canal Campaigns to recapture Egypt but had not been successful. Now, it was facing British offensives.

Enver Pasha, on the other hand, viewed these fronts as secondary and believed that once Germany won the war on the European fronts, the occupations would come to an end. He initially adopted a strategy aimed at recapturing Baghdad.

Within the army, a group believed in a policy called “separate peace,” arguing that the Ottoman Empire, which had no chance of continuing the war, should make a separate ceasefire agreement with the British, breaking away from the allies.

During this period, there were rumors that some commanders, including Mustafa Kemal Pasha, were planning to march to Istanbul to overthrow the government, citing the “poor management of the war.” Similar rumors were spread about Cemal Pasha, but their accuracy is questionable. However, the concept of “separate peace” and these rumors were significant indicators of differences of opinion among commanders.

Erich von Falkenhayn, German General Enver Pasha had established the Yıldırım Armies Group, which consisted of the VI Army in Iraq and the units returning from the European fronts, to recapture Baghdad and had appointed the German commander Falkenhayn as its head.

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Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn had served as Chief of the General Staff in Germany from 1914 to 1916. He had formed his headquarters with 65 German and 9 Turkish officers. The headquarters was a typical German one, and most of the correspondence was conducted in German.

M. Kemal Pasha was appointed as the commander of the VII Army, which was part of the Yıldırım Armies Group. Cemal Pasha’s IV Army was dissolved, and a new command called the General Command of Syria and Western Arabia was established under his leadership. The Sinai Front Command also became the VIII Army under the command of Colonel Von Kress. Later, the VI Army would not be included in Yıldırım Armies Group. Turkish commanders were uncomfortable with this organization and being under German command.

Mustafa Kemal, having disagreements with Falkenhayn, returned to Istanbul. In fact, on September 20, 1917, he had written a report to Enver, Cemal, and Talat Pashas about the state of the army and the course of the war. In his report, he stated that the country’s general situation was very bad, the people were in a terrible condition, and the army was in a very poor state, with half of it being deserters.

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According to him, the forces in Europe should be brought back, and the units in Syria, Hejaz, and Sinai regions should be under the command of “Muslim-Ottoman” commanders. Pasha also expressed his unwillingness to be under the command of a German officer and indicated that he could take command of the Sinai (Palestine) front. He wrote to Falkenhayn that he had no military or political confidence in him.

Pasha was reappointed to this position in August 1918. His VII Army was composed of the XX Corps under A. Fuat Pasha and the III Corps under İsmet Bey (İnönü). It is evident that Pasha was not pleased with this appointment, despite it being personally delivered by Vahdettin.

Mustafa Kemal also expressed his belief that a defense could be made with the existing troops. Sanders, in his memoirs, also mentioned that the forces in the region were inadequate both in terms of nutrition and qualifications, and there were insufficient animals and transport vehicles.

THE FALL OF JERUSALEM

In December 1916, Lloyd George came to power in England. The British launched the First Battle of Gaza on March 26, 1917, attacking south of Gaza. However, they were unsuccessful and had to withdraw. This success in stopping the advancing British in the region was crucial.

On April 17, 1917, the British launched another attack on Gaza, starting the Second Battle of Gaza. In these attacks led by General Murray, the British losses were around 6,500.

Cemal Pasha also could not get along with Falkenhayn, and in December 1917, he resigned from his post and went to Istanbul, never to return. His forces and region were also included in the Yıldırım Armies Group. However, Falkenhayn was also relieved of his duties in February 1918.

By the end of October, the British were preparing for a new offensive. Meanwhile, in London, the Foreign Secretary Balfour, in charge of the war cabinet, had informed Zionist leader Rothschild on November 2, 1917, that Britain would provide the necessary support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In June 1917, General Allenby, known for his successes on the Western Front, was appointed as the Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.

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Given the task of capturing Jerusalem as a “Christmas gift” by the Prime Minister, Allenby, after inspecting the front, tried to complete the necessary preparations quickly. The aim was to eliminate the Ottoman Empire from the war. Allenby’s forces consisted of units returning from Gallipoli, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Indian soldiers, and even though symbolically, French and Italian troops were also present.

After completing their preparations, the British started moving towards Beersheba. Four days after the arrival of Fevzi Pasha, the new commander of the VII Army, the Third Battle of Gaza began, defeating the still-organizing VII Army. The headquarters lost contact with the other armies, and Gaza was captured by the British. The Ottoman forces withdrew to Yafa-Jerusalem line, and the Yıldırım headquarters moved to Nablus.

On November 21, the siege of Jerusalem began. A. Fuat Pasha, the commander of the XX Corps defending the city, evacuated the city on December 9, 1917, after a tough resistance of twenty days, and started withdrawing his troops to the east. On December 11, Allenby entered Jerusalem, which was declared an open city.

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General Edmund Allenby

THE STRUGGLE FOR JERUSALEM

The capture of Jerusalem was a significant achievement for the British Empire, and General Allenby’s entry into the city on foot to show respect to the city and its people was remembered. Allenby made a declaration in French, Arabic, Hebrew, and English, stating that he would treat all the people in the city equally and that their holy places would be respected.

The resistance and withdrawal of the XX Corps under A. Fuat Pasha were evaluated as “unsuccessful” by the Ottoman side. Fuat Pasha stated that he had withdrawn his troops due to supply problems. It is also said that he had brought a religious order to protect the city and that he believed that the city would be captured regardless of what he did.

On the other hand, Allenby, after entering the city, waited for Fuat Pasha for a meeting. After this meeting, which took place outside the city, the city was handed over. In the Ottoman accounts, there is an interesting expression: “General Fuat Pasha is loyal and honest. He handed over Jerusalem without a single shot being fired.” According to the British accounts, General Allenby had requested that the city be handed over peacefully, and Fuat Pasha had accepted it.

Jerusalem was an open city when the British entered it. Even though it was not captured after heavy fighting, its capture was a significant defeat for the Ottoman army. The city was the first important urban center to be captured by the British.

There is a debate as to whether the withdrawal of Fuat Pasha was justified. During the withdrawal, many of the Ottoman soldiers had to walk due to the lack of transportation, and a significant number of them were captured. Moreover, the withdrawing soldiers destroyed the Yafa-Jerusalem railway as they retreated. This railway, which was vital for supplying the city, would take a long time to repair.

The main reason for the Ottoman forces’ withdrawal was the supply problem. In fact, in the general sense, the retreat of the whole Ottoman army was due to insufficient supply. However, the main reason for this was the British blockade of the coast and the destruction of the Yafa-Jerusalem railway.

The situation was so severe that during the retreat, soldiers could not receive rations for days, and the wounded and sick had to be left behind. For example, even the Third Army, which was in a region relatively close to the supply centers, could not receive the necessary rations and materials.

The Ottoman forces in Palestine were withdrawn in disarray, and this situation turned into a great disaster. The blame for this situation was attributed to many factors, including inadequate military leadership, supply problems, and the British blockade. However, it is evident that the poor military and political situation of the Ottoman Empire and the fact that it was surrounded by the British and Russians were the main factors.

PALESTINE AFTER JERUSALEM

After the capture of Jerusalem, the British started advancing rapidly. The Yıldırım headquarters withdrew to Deraa and then to Amman. The British forces captured Jericho on February 21, 1918, and on March 8, they captured Amman. With these captures, the British gained control of the railway connecting Istanbul to Medina and Mecca.

The British advance also threatened the Yıldırım headquarters. With the entry of the British to Amman, they were now in a position to threaten the headquarters from the east. Meanwhile, General Allenby was preparing for a new offensive, called the Spring Offensive.

The new offensive was launched on March 21, 1918, with the British forces advancing from the west, north, and east. The XX Corps, commanded by A. Fuat Pasha, was the main Ottoman force in the east, and it was forced to withdraw to the Jordan River. On March 25, the British captured Es Salt, and on March 27, they captured Jordan River. The British then advanced towards the east and captured Maan on September 2.

On September 19, 1918, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, with the support of the Arab forces under Lawrence of Arabia, captured Deraa. With this capture, the railway connecting Medina to Istanbul was completely cut off.

THE END OF THE WAR

The Yıldırım headquarters, surrounded by the British from the north, west, and east, was in a very difficult position. The headquarters moved to Deraa and then to Zerka, but it was in an unsustainable position. With the capture of Deraa, the British forces were now in a position to threaten the headquarters from the south as well.

The British launched an offensive on September 19, 1918, to capture Zerka. General Allenby himself was present at the front. The Yıldırım headquarters, under the command of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, could not resist the British forces, and Zerka was captured on September 25.

Following this capture, the Yıldırım headquarters withdrew to Amman and then to Aleppo. The Arab forces under Lawrence of Arabia captured Damascus on October 1, 1918. Aleppo was captured on October 25, and the Yıldırım headquarters dissolved. General Mustafa Kemal, who was in Aleppo, was relieved of his duties.

The Armistice of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918, and this marked the end of Ottoman participation in World War I. The Ottoman Empire had suffered a significant defeat on all fronts, and its territorial integrity was severely compromised.

CONCLUSION

The capture of Jerusalem by the British in December 1917 marked a significant turning point in the Palestine front during World War I. It was a major defeat for the Ottoman Empire, and it paved the way for further British advances in the region.

While there were various factors contributing to the Ottoman defeat in Palestine, including supply problems, inadequate military leadership, and the British blockade, the overall weakened state of the Ottoman Empire and its isolation due to the British and Russian advances played a crucial role.

The loss of Jerusalem and subsequent British offensives in Palestine and Syria ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of its participation in World War I. This historical event had significant consequences for the region and its future political landscape.”

  1. Sanders, L. Von (1968), “Five Years in Turkey,” Istanbul, Burçak.
  2. Atabey, F. (2020), “A General Assessment of the Syria-Palestine Front in World War I Based on Documents,” Atatürk Yolu, No. 66, pp. 63-90.
  3. Erkilet, H. H. E. (2002), “Yıldırım” [Thunder], Ankara, Genelkurmay Basımevi [General Staff Printing House].
  4. Bayur, Y. H. , (1956), “An Unpublished Report Regarding Mustafa Kemal’s Conflict with Falkenhayn,” Belleten, No. 80, pp. 619-632.
  5. Kemal, C. (2010), “The Last Battle of the Ottoman Empire in the Palestine Front,” Atatürk Yolu, No. 45, pp. 37-69.
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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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