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The War in Syria and Palestine, 1916

Northern Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Sinai from Cram's 1896 Railway Map of the Turkish Empire.

Northern Egypt, the Suez Canal, and Sinai from Cram's 1896 Railway Map of the Turkish Empire.

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Egy[pt], Cairo, Penisula of Sinai, Gulf of Suez, Suez Canal, Suez, and other place names

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January 1 to December 31, 1916

Syria/Palestine Front

The Ottoman Empire extended southwards from Turkey through Syria and Palestine along the Mediterranean coast to the border of Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula. When Turkey entered the war, Britain had declared Egypt a British protectorate, deposed its ruler, and increased its forces in the country.

In January, 1916, General Archibald Murray was given command of British Commonwealth forces in Egypt. With the Turkish victory in Gallipoli and the Allied evacuation, Allied strength reached 400,000 men, although many were stationed there temporarily.

Victory at Gallipoli also released Turkish troops for redeployment to the Palestine/Syria front. German General Liman von Sanders, who had commanded Turkish forces at Gallipoli, took command of Ottoman forces in the theater. The Turkish defensive line faced the Sinai peninsula and extended from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to the southeast. It protected the railway that continued north to Damascus and on to the Turkish homeland. The railway also connected to line running south to Maan, the Hejaz, and the terminus at Medina.

Connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal was critical to Britain. Through it passed oil from Mesopotamia and Persia, and troops from India, Australia, and New Zealand. In January 1915 the Turks crossed the Sinai Peninsula along the Mediterranean coast, and attempted to seize the Suez Canal. They failed, but that attempt demonstrated the threat facing the Canal. In April 1916 a Turkish force of 18,000 clashed with British forces 25 miles east of the Canal, but failed to advance further. In response to these attacks, the British created a defensive zone east of the canal, building the infrastructure to defend it far to the east, including a railroad to bring water and other supplies to El Arish in the northern Sinai peninsula. The Turks would not threaten the Canal again.

The Arab Revolt

Nationalism was rising within the Ottoman Empire. Yusuf al-Hani, a Maronite Christian, had sought French support for an independent Lebanon before the war. With others, he discussed inviting the French into the Levant as Lebanon's protector and, with 60 others, was arrested. On April 5, 1916, al-Hani was hanged in Beirut. Some Arab groups were also beginning to seek independence. A month after al-Hani's execution, 21 Arabs were publicly hanged in Beirut and Damascus for their association with nationalist groups. Further south, Hussein ibn Ali and Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud would rebel against the Turks, allying with the British.

Hand-painted miniatures of Mecca and the Ka

There was much Arab opposition to the secularization of the Ottoman Empire promulgated by the Young Turks after their successful 1908 revolution, and Arab members of the restored Ottoman Parliament tended to support the countercoup of 1909. By mid-1916 this opposition had coalesced into an Arab Revolt in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the Hejaz, the west coast of the peninsula along the Red Sea and site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Grand Sherif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, was a leader of a revolt and, on June 5, proclaimed the independence of Arabia at Mecca. The Turkish garrison refused to surrender, and turned their artillery on the Great Mosque. With Arabs supporting the Sherif, the Turks surrendered on June 13, Hussein taking 1,100 prisoners. The Turkish garrison at the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, west of Mecca, surrendered to the Arabs on June 16.

In his June 27, 1916 proclamation of independence, Hussein ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca and King of Hijaz, cited the behavior of the Society of Union and Progress, the party of the Young Turks, as the justification for his declaration. The Party had stripped the Sultan of his power, putting command of the Ottoman Empire in the hands of Enver Pasha, Djemal Pasha, and Talaat Bey who were responsible for the loss of the empire's territory and the impoverishment of its people. The crimes Hussein attributed to them included religious offenses, the hanging of 21 'eminent and cultured Moslems and Arabs of distinction,' and the shelling of the Kaaba in Mecca, which set its covering cloth ablaze and nearly struck the Black Stone set into the eastern corner of the building.

Even as it began, the Arab Revolt was being betrayed by the French and English. On March 13, 1916, Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia, met with Russian Tsar Nicholas II to inform him of the progress of the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement, formally the Asia Minor Agreement, for dividing post-war Asia Minor — much of it part of the Ottoman Empire — between France and Great Britain, with the latter taking much of Mesopotamia, from the Persian Gulf to Baghdad, between the desert and Persia as well as Palestine. France was to have Syria, the Mediterannean coast including present day Lebanon and Syria, and land extending deep into Turkey, less than 100 miles from the Black Sea to the north and Lake Van to the east. The Ambassador wanted urgently to settle post-war spoils noting, 'the problems of Constantinople, Persia, the Adriatic and Transylvania have now been solved.' Constantinople was to be Russian, Persia divided between Britain and Russia, the Adriatic an Italian sea, and Transylvania to be Romania's if it entered the war. In the Caucasus, the Russians had taken the Turkish fortress of Erzerum in February, and were closing on the Black Sea city of Trebizond when the Nicholas and Paléologue met. Both cities were in eastern Turkey, which had, before the Genocide of 1915, a large population of Armenian Christians.

British Efforts

As the Arabs tried to seize other coastal cities including Jeddah and Yembo, British ships supported them by shelling Turkish forces and launching seaplanes to bomb them. The Arabs seizure of the port of Jeddah in June allowed the British to land food and weapons to support the Revolt. Through these ports, the British supplied arms to the Arabs, and landed troops of the Arab Regular Army, including captured Ottoman soldiers who had volunteered to fight for the Arab Revolt.

Syria and Palestine Front: Showing Cairo, Egypt, the northern Sinai peninsula, Akaba on the Red Sea, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo. The Hejaz Railway runs north, parallel to the Mediterranean coast. From

Among the British in Cairo was a young Intelligence officer, T.E. Lawrence, who developed a divisionary plan against Turkey to bring the Arab population into the war on the Allied side. The Revolt demonstrated the value of Lawrence's vision, and Murray dispatched a military mission that included Lawrence to work with the Arabs including Feisal Ibn Hussein, son of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, and a leading commander of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence offered Feisal and the Arabs more than he would be able to deliver as the French and English had no intention of turning Arabia, Syria, and Palestine over to the native population, but Lawrence's plans, and his reputation as Lawrence of Arabia, would wax in the coming year.

Despite the Arab success, the Turks still held Medina and the Hejaz Railway, and troops of the Fourth Army garrisoned the railway stations. The Turks tried to retake the coastal ports of Yembo — Feisal's base — in December and Rabegh in January, 1917, but were defeated by Arab forces with British naval support. Lawrence and other British officers and the Arab forces fought a guerilla war against the Turks in the desert and along the Red Sea coast and the Hejaz railway from Medina north towards Maan.

In April 1916, a Turkish force of 18,000 crossed the Sinai Peninsula and clashed with British forces 25 miles east of the Suez Canal, but failed to advance further. This second attempt on the Canal (following that of January 1915) reawakened the British to the threat facing the Canal, and they continued extending their defensive zone east of the canal, building the infrastructure to defend it far to the east, including a railroad and gravel roads along the northern Sinai to bring water and other supplies to El Arish in the northern Sinai peninsula. The construction would be the basis for future advances into Palestine and beyond. Continuing their eastward expansion, British forces took El Arish and Magdhaba in December 1916. The Turks would not threaten Britain's critical waterway again.



Syria/Palestine Front 1915

Syria/Palestine Front 1917

Events contemporaneous with The War in Syria and Palestine, 1916

Start Date End Date View
1915-02-19 1916-01-09 Dardanelles and Gallipoli Campaigns
1915-04-25 1916-01-09 Gallipoli Campaign
1915-06-23 1917-11-12 Battles of the Isonzo
1916-02-21 1916-09-02 Battle of Verdun
1916-04-24 1916-04-29 Easter Rising
1916-05-14 1916-06-16 Asiago Offensive
1916-05-31 1916-05-31 Battle of Jutland
1916-06-04 1916-09-20 Brusilov Offensive
1916-06-05 Arab Revolt
1916-07-01 1916-11-13 Battle of the Somme