The final battle of the Palestine campaign in September 1918 resulted in arguably the most decisive British victory of the war – and one of the most decisive in the history of modern warfare.
The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) prepared for months to launch an offensive against the Ottoman Eighth and Seventh field armies in northern Palestine and the Jordan Valley. EEF commander Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby’s plan was to concentrate most of his infantry and artillery on the Plain of Sharon in the coastal sector, which was ideal horse country.
Allenby intended to use his infantry to break through the Ottoman front line. Then the British cavalry and Australian light horsemen of the Desert Mounted Corps would pour through the gap to strike deep and hard across the plain, cutting off the Ottoman line of retreat. The immediate aim was to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Palestine and destroy the Ottoman Eighth and Seventh armies. If this could be achieved, new strategic possibilities would open up.
Much effort went into convincing the Ottoman generals that the impending British offensive was aimed against the Ottoman line in the Trans-Jordan. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, which together with the rest of the Anzac Mounted Division remained in the Jordan Valley, took part in various ruses to give the impression that the entire Desert Mounted Corps was still in the valley. Fires were lit at night in vacated camps, fake horse lines (complete with rows of dummy horses) were maintained, and the number of patrols was increased.
Meanwhile, the build-up of EEF forces in the coastal sector was hidden as much as possible. Camps were disguised, cooking on open fires was banned, and large troop movements were permitted only at night. Allenby had the services of six Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons and one Australian Flying Corps (AFC) squadron. The dominance of these airmen over their Ottoman and German counterparts helped conceal his preparations from enemy eyes.
The offensive began at 4.30 a.m. on 19 September 1918 with the most intense artillery bombardment of the war in the Middle East. For a quarter of an hour, up to 1000 shells a minute rained down upon the stunned Ottoman defenders on the Plain of Sharon. Waves of British and Indian infantrymen followed closely behind this surprise bombardment.
The Turkish trenches were quickly overrun and by the end of the day the two Ottoman infantry divisions in the sector had disintegrated. With the infantry attack a total success, the Desert Mounted Corps’ three divisions rode along the coast deep into the enemy’s right flank. The RAF and AFC squadrons also played a key role, bombing the Ottoman army and army group headquarters and cutting their communications with the front.
On 20 September the mounted troops made even more dramatic gains, seizing important road and rail junctions such as El Afule and Jenin and natural chokepoints such as the Musmus Pass, blocking the escape to the north of the Ottoman forces west of the River Jordan. Meanwhile, the infantry continued to advance from the south and east, rolling up any units that tried to stand and fight. Most of the Ottoman soldiers were already in headlong retreat, the Allied cavalry thrust behind the lines having caused mass panic. The Ottoman Eighth Army had ceased to function as an organised force. Its men were now focused on a futile flight for safety to the north or east.
The next day the Seventh Army also collapsed under the relentless pressure of the Allied advance. Ottoman soldiers now began to surrender in thousands. Those still trying to flee were ridden down by Allied horsemen or faced repeated air attack by Allied planes. By 26 September the Battle of Megiddo was over and the race for Damascus was on.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the Anzac Mounted Division played an important supporting role in the Jordan Valley during this offensive. Their initial task was to prevent the Ottoman Fourth Army from interfering in the opening stages of the battle. They were to go on the attack once the Ottoman forces in the valley were sufficiently weakened. The objective was the well-worn trail from the east bank of the River Jordan over the Moab Mountains via Es Salt to Amman and the Hejaz railway. Two days after the main offensive began, the Anzac Mounted Division was ordered to attack.
The result was the complete opposite of the two raids earlier in the year. Es Salt was captured by the New Zealanders on the afternoon of 23 September, and Amman fell two days later after occasionally defiant but largely isolated Ottoman resistance. The Ottoman Fourth Army was succumbing to confusion, panic and defeatism. General Allenby and the soldiers of the EEF had achieved a stunning and comprehensive victory over their old enemy.