The Turkish Ottoman Empire had once dominated the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean. But by 1914 its power and prestige had been in steady decline for many years. Yet, despite this, the Empire still covered a huge area, reaching from the Sinai desert in the west to the borders of Russia and Persia in the east.
It included among its citizens people from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Since 1908 political power within the Ottoman Empire had been in the hands of the revolutionary Young Turks, whose leading figures were Enver Pasha and Talaat Bey. Both favoured closer links with Germany, and on 2 August 1914 they signed a secret treaty with the Germans. A series of inept diplomatic decisions by Great Britain strengthened the hand of Enver and Talaat, with the consequence that, at the end of October 1914, Turkey finally entered the war on the German side.
This event had enormous consequences for the Middle East, many of which can still be felt today. British concerns focused on two issues: the security of the Suez Canal in Egypt and of the Anglo-Persian oil pipeline in Persia (modern Iran). To protect Britain’s oil supply, in November 1914 an Indian army division landed in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and captured Basra. It advanced along the river Tigris almost to Baghdad before being driven back. In December 1915 it was besieged by the Ottomans in Kutel Amara, where it surrendered
in April 1916; 8,000 British and Indian troops were taken prisoner.
In December 1914 the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) arrived in Egypt. Ostensibly the Australians had been diverted there to complete their training prior to being sent to France and Belgium to join the British Expeditionary Force. However, British concerns about the security of the Suez Canal couldalso be allayed by the addition of thousands of fresh, keen soldiers to the garrison strength in Egypt. Their presence there was soon justified. On 3 February 1915, after crossing the Sinai desert, an Ottoman force of 20,000 men attacked the Suez Canal. But it was confidently thrown back after losing more than 1,500.
A fortnight later, hoping to capture Constantinople (Istanbul) and in so doing to defeat the Ottomans, British ships assaulted the Dardanelles. When the naval assault appeared to have stalled, troops were landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915 in an attempt to reinvigorate the campaign. But it was to no avail. A further major land assault, undertaken in August, also failed. The failure of both offensives forced an evacuation four months later. In the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia, by the end of 1915 the ailing Ottoman army had shown that it was still more than a match for the British Empire.
The broad expanse of the Ottoman Empire contained many anomalies. One of these was the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Although an integral part of the Empire, the city was traditionally controlled by the Grand Sherif of Mecca. In 1914 this hereditary role was held by Sherif Hussein ibn Ali. The officers serving at the new British Military Intelligence Department in Cairo, which from December 1914 included 2nd Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence, were all greatly interested in the fortunes of the Middle East. They had a particular interest in Arabia and hoped the war would bring the Arabs some degree of independence. They had identified Sherif Hussein as the likeliest figure to be able to unite the Bedouin tribes and lead a revolt against the Turks. Towards the end of 1915, the key players in Egypt reached an understanding with Hussein, and six months later Hussein claimed independence for the Hejaz region of Arabia, in which Mecca was located.
The first phase of the Arab Revolt was fought by Hussein’s four sons: Ali, Abdullah, Feisal, and Zeid,
each commanding a small force under the Sherif ’s overall leadership. Initial operations went well, with
Mecca and Jidda secured. But the Arabs failed to capture Medina and the British authorities became
concerned about momentum stalling. Following a visit in October 1916, Lawrence identified Hussein’s
third son, Feisal, as the most charismatic and promising leader and it was to him that the British authorities now turned.
In January 1917 Feisal’s men, working with a British naval force, captured the important Red Sea port of Wejh. Heavily influenced by Lawrence, now serving as his British liaison officer, Feisal took his next step the capture of Akaba, another Red Sea base from which he could push north towards Palestine and northeast towards the Hejaz railway. After an extremely challenging journey through the desert, the Arab force swept down on Akaba and seized it, almost without casualty, on 6 July 1917. Lawrence immediately crossed the Sinai desert to Cairo and gave the news direct to the newly arrived General Sir Edmund Allenby. The two men forged an enduring relationship of trust. Both realised the value of using Arab forces to support Allenby’s
conventional military campaign in Palestine.
When the AIF had arrived in Egypt, it included three brigades of Australian Light Horse. In May 1915, leaving their horses behind in Egypt, the light horsemen had joined the Australian infantry in the trenches at Gallipoli. After its return to Egypt in 1916, the AIF was reorganised and the infantry sent to France. The light horse brigades, however, remained behind. With the New Zealand Mounted.
Rifles Brigade, they were formed into the ANZAC Mounted Division, under the command of Major
General Harry Chauvel, who was to emerge from the war as one of Australia’s most effective and widely
respected generals. His distinguished command of the Australian Light Horse played a pivotal role in the success of the subsequent Middle East campaign.
Following the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915, a new Egyptian defensive line had
been established to the east in the Sinai desert. In January 1916 a new commander-in-chief took over in Egypt, General Sir Archibald Murray. In April he moved the forward defence of Egypt to positions around Romani and began construction of a railway and a water pipeline. Murray’s ultimate goal was to push right across the Sinai beyond El Arish to Palestine.
On 23 April 1916 the Turks attacked the positions around Romani. The British defenders were driven off, but the ANZAC Mounted Division under Chauvel recaptured Romani. Over the following weeks the ANZAC horsemen regularly patrolled the desert, destroying sources of water and searching for signs of Turkish activity. On 18 July the New Zealanders reported around 8,000 Turks moving west from El Arish. Just after midnight on 4 August, the Turks advanced against Romani’s southern flank, which was thinly held by light horsemen. Outnumbered, the Australians fell back throughout the night and morning. But in the afternoon, bolstered by New Zealand and British reinforcements, the battle turned. The Turks began to retire, and early on 5 August Chauvel began to pursue them as they withdrew.