Saturday , May 25 2024

Beersheba, Balfour and the Modern Near East

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, now known as Be’er Sheva. A key town in the southern Israeli desert, it formed the flank of the Ottoman-German line during the First World War. For the British Imperial forces who formed the backbone of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, it was the turning point of the campaign, which hereafter no longer entangled in the attritional battles for control over the seacoast to create a buffer zone for the Suez Canal.

The origins of the Battle, possibly the most important in the history of the modern Middle East began in 1914, when the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia, joining the war for the Central Powers, and threatening to cut off the strategically vital Suez Canal by advancing from their border into the Suez Peninsula and British Egypt. Unable to reliably hold the Suez, the British were forced to retreat to the Canal in 1915. In Desert Warfare, control of water supplies is vital, and this forced the British to advance through the Sinai to create a defendable and suppliable defensive perimeter. By 1917, the Allied force, mainly comprising British and ANZAC (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) forces had pushed up to Gaza. Through the Spring and Summer, the attempts to capture the wells and town of Gaza failed, leaving the Imperial force on the end of extended lines of supply.

Further, at this time, the famous T.E. Lawrence ‘Of Arabia’ had successfully inspired the Arabs to revolt against the oppressive Ottoman Turkish rule and were conducting a guerrilla campaign in the area that now forms Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, they could not achieve their objectives of an independent Arab state in the region unless the main British Army could dislodge the Turkish-German Army. Faced with this impasse, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was bleeding its offensive capability away with no results.

Unlike the Western Front, the Palestine (for so the region was unanimously known at that point since it was renamed by the Romans following the final Jewish Revolt some 1800 years previously) front had flanks. The difficulty was the Ottoman one ended at the ancient city of Beersheba, famous since Biblical times for its many wells. Therefore, British General Allenby developed a strategy that would offer his forces one final attempt at breaking through the Turkish lines and shortening his supply lines. It would involve a march into the desert with insufficient water or supplies. The city and its wells would have to be taken intact in one day, or the allied soldiers would die of thirst. Beersheba itself was defended by over 500o well equipped Turks. It was an all-or-nothing gamble that ended with the famous ‘mounted bayonet’ charge by the Australian Light Horse regiments, who charged determined and entrenched Ottoman forces to capture the city in the one day required.

The battle from planning to its hair-raising end had all the necessary aspects of a disaster, yet it was a ringing victory. The Ottomans had been outflanked, and the Imperial forces were now in a position to advance through the fertile Palestine to support the Arabs, rout the Turks, and ensure the Canal Zone remained well defended.

Two days after the attack, the British Cabinet decided on the famous Balfour Declaration, which announced that part of the Middle East they had captured would be used to create a “national home for the Jewish people”. Therefore, had it not been for the pivotal Battle of Beersheba, the Declaration could not have been written as “His Majesty’s Government” would have had no land to give to the Jews.

Yet it would be a mistake to view Beersheba as a victory only for the British Imperial, now Commonwealth forces and Israel. It ensured that Prince Feisal’s rebellion against the Turks would not be stamped out. T.E. Lawrence’s allies were now firmly attached to the British line, who would continue to support their Hashemite allies as they supported the British during the campaign. The Battle of Beersheba enabled the British to expand their offensive into the Trans-Jordan, ensuring that the modern nations of Jordan and Saudi Arabia would be created.

Key battles do often have major effects on the globe and subsequent history, but perhaps few so as the Battle of Beersheba: it also resorted confidence to the Australians and New Zealanders following the debacle at Gallipoli. Today, and on the 2nd of November, we can celebrate a battle which changed the world, created three key allies in the region and gave the ANZACS the victory they so richly deserved. In memory of all those who died fighting in the First World War, especially those in the Battle of Beersheba, let us not forget what they created that day: the modern Middle East, especially our ‘big three’ Near East allies. Lastly, let us not forget those who fought with us to create the world we see today: Australians and Australian Aboriginals, Arabs, New Zealanders, Britons and Jews, fighting together to create a peaceful future. Can we hope that in celebration of their victory today, we can determine to work together again for the common good? That would be the best way of remembering their sacrifice.

About Ted Yarbrough

Ted is the co-founder and editor of the Daily Globe. He is a long-time blogger on British politics and has written a thesis on Thatcherism.

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One comment

  1. A timely reminder that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces were pivotal in saving the world from totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. In WWI they revitalised British forces that had suffered appalling attrition and for a year after Europe had fallen in WWII it was only the Dominions that gave the UK hope.

    I think Gallipoli was not a waste. It severely damaged the Turkish army and led to the rise of Mustafa Kemel (Attaturk) and the secularisation of Turkey.