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The War in Syria and Palestine, 1917

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.

Image text

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, 1917

Syria/Palestine Front

The Arab Revolt

Despite the initial success of the Arab Revolt in capturing Mecca and cities in the Hejaz and sabotaging the Turkish railway in 1916, the Turks still held Medina and the Hejaz Railway, and troops of the Turkish Fourth Army garrisoned the railway stations as 1917 began. The Turks tried to retake the coastal ports of Yembo in December 1916 and Rabegh in January 1917, but were defeated by Arab forces with British naval support.

On February 20, British Officer Herbert Garland and his guide Abdel Kerim conducted the first successful raid, and the first successful British act of sabotage behind Turkish lines, on the railway in Hejaz on the Red Sea coast of Arabia. The railway was well-constructed, well-guarded, and had few bridges. The raid focused, as future raids would, on destroying the locomotive, which was irreplaceable during the war. Garland and Kerim used a pressure trigger which was set off, not by the locomotive's front wheels, but by its heavier driving wheels.

Despite Garland's and Kerim's success, Turkish trains continued to run both north and south. On March 3, Stewart Newcombe and Sharif Nasir led a raid on the railway station at Dar al Hamra, but were driven off by the Turkish defenders. As part of the raid, the Arabs destroyed a mile of track both north and south of the station. The raiders took eight Arab prisoners during the action, members of a work force the loyalty of which the Turks were skeptical.

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

First and Second Battles of Gaza

While the Arab Revolt was harrying the Turks in the Hejaz, the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea, British and Empire forces continued advancing eastward along the Mediterranean coast in northern Sinai after having taken the coastal town of El Arish and Magdhaba further inland and to the southeast. British and Empire forces built the infrastructure for their advance as they went, with a rail line along the coast and gravel roads in northern Sinai. Water was crucial in the desert and to the advance, as it had been at Gallipoli, and was in Mesopotamia.

Commanding British forces in the sector, General Archibald Murray was pressed by Prime Minister Lloyd George to attack the Turks in Palestine, but had inadequate arms and forces. In December 1916, British forces had taken Magdhaba and El Arish, and on January 9, 1917, they took Rafah, on the border of Egypt and Palestine. By March, they had constructed the rail line supplying arms and supplies, including water, that would be critical to an advance beyond the border.

In March, 1917 the Turkish Fourth Army under the command of German General Otto Liman von Sanders, was in Palestine, holding a line with 35,000 troops from Gaza on the coast southeast to Beersheba at the end of a railway spur from the north. Turkish defenses on the front were strong, and included artillery and air support. On March 26, 1917, the British attacked at Gaza. Cavalry units achieved their initial objectives, but failed to communicate with other units and withdrew. In the battle that ended on the 28th, the Turks lost 2,447 men, and the British 3,967. Murray's report to London on the battle significantly overstated Turkish losses at 8,000 and understated British at 3,500.

With the failure of the Allied Nivelle Offensive on the Western Front, London was eager to build on what seemed to be Murray's success, and pushed him to advance to Jerusalem. Murray launched the Second Battle of Gaza on April 17, and failed, ending the attack on the 19th. The British lost 6,444 and the Turks about 2,000 in the battle.

Turkish heliograph signallers from

The British had lost 10,000 men to 3,500 Turks in these two defeats at Gaza. In June, General Archibald Murray, commanding British forces in the Middle East from his headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, was replaced by General Edmund Allenby who had been held responsible for the British failure in the Western Front Battle of Arras that had ended the prior month. Allenby, a cavalry commander, would build on Murray's methodical construction of roads and supply lines along the Mediterranean coast to support the British advance. Lloyd George charged him with taking Jerusalem by the end of the year. Allenby identified Beersheba on the Turkish left flank as the focus of his offensive. He requested, and received, artillery, aircraft, and an additional three divisions.


T. E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — and the Arab forces fought a guerilla war against the Turks in the desert and along the coast and the Hejaz railway from Medina north to Maan in Palestine. Lawrence set out on June 5, 1917 to raid Turkish infrastructure and outposts in Syria. Many of the Arabs with him were loyal to Auda abu Tayi of the Huwaytat tribe, an outlaw to the Turks. For months Auda had been pressing the British to seize the port of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula at the head of the narrow Gulf of Akaba, a spur of the Gulf of Suez. British ships shelled the town, but it was well-defended against attack from the sea to the south and from the north, the direction of the railway. The port was lightly defended to the east inland side, where the desert presented a seemingly impregnable defence.

Colonel T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, from With Lawrence in Arabia by Lowell Thomas.

After a two-month campaign of raids across the desert from Bair southwest to Jafr and Maan, Lawrence and the Arabs captured the Turkish garrison town of Akaba on July 6. Twelve hundred Turks were killed or captured at a cost of two killed. The victory secured British communications in Sinai and positioned the Allies 70 miles south of Maan and the inland, southeastern end of the Turkish defensive line in Palestine. They were within 130 miles of the British in Sinai. In the coming months, the Arabs continued to tie up Turkish forces.

As the British developed the infrastructure to supply its forces, the Turks withdrew northwards, harried by Lawrence and the Arabs. Lawrence and his Arab forces raided Turkish infrastructure and outposts in Syria, in particular the rail system in the Hijaz, along the west coast of the Arabian peninsula. Rail lines could be easily repaired, but not the engines that were the targets of the sabotage.

On October 5, a pressure mine that Lawrence had laid failed to detonate when a water train passed over it. Lawrence augmented the mine with one that required manual detonation and the presence of the saboteurs. On the morning of the 6th, the mine was detonated as it crossed a bridge. The explosion threw the locomotive cylinder, shattered the firebox and tubing, bent the frame and driving wheels, and broke axles.

The Turks were also facing increasing forces on their Sinai flank where Allenby was preparing for another assault on Gaza.

Third Battle of Gaza

With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution and the ceasefire between Russian and Central Power forces that followed, Turkish troops could be redeployed from the Russian Front to Mesopotamia, possibly for the reconquest of Baghdad, or to Syria and Palestine for the defense of Gaza and Jerusalem. Writing to his commanders in October, 1917, Turkish War Minister Ismail Enver created Army Group Jilderim — Turkish for 'lightning' — organizing it not with military assistance from German officers as was common during the war, but as a German army group with German officers and a German commander. Turkish forces were assembling at Aleppo in Syria to be prepared to deploy to Mesopotamia for the recapture of Baghdad, or to Palestine where the British were reinforcing their position.

Plans for reinforcing the Turkish position in Mesopotamia or Palestine were disrupted when the Haidar-Pasha, or Haydarpaşa, railway station in Constantinople exploded on September 6, 1917. Material was being concentrated at the station, at the southwestern end of the Bosphorus on the Asian shore of the Sea of Marmora, for transport to Aleppo. The explosion destroyed, besides the train station and rolling stock, two or three hundred cars of munitions and explosives, warehouses and much of the harbor. Estimates of the dead include hundreds of Turkish, German, and Austro-Hungarian troops, and 1,000 civilians (www.levantineheritage.com/haidarpasha-explosion.html, September 5, 2019).

Enver dispatched the Jilderim group and the Seventh Army to the Sinai front, subordinating the troops already on the front to Army Group Jilderim. On November 1, after having been sent to Palestine from command of operations in Romania in September, General Erich von Falkenhayn arrived in Jerusalem. He was still forming the force when Allenby attacked on October 31.

Turkish machine-gun crews, from

Allenby had 81,000 troops, and focused his assault on the Turkish left wing at Beersheba. As the infantry pushed back the outer defenses of the city through the 31st, the Australian Cavalry Division took Beersheba. The Turkish defenders fell back to the northwest, behind Tell-es-Sheria. Through the next several days, as the British continued their attacks, the Turks reinforced their positions, moving the new Seventh Army to the left at Sheria. With a successful attack at Sheria on November 6, Allenby ordered his cavalry to the coast, behind the Turkish position in Gaza. In danger of being cut-off, the Turks retreated from Gaza to Station Junction, as the Seventh Army fell back from Sheria to Hebron. After entering Gaza on the 6th, the Allies completed taking the rest of the original Turkish defensive line on the 8th. Allenby continued his advance, attacking at Station Junction on November 13 and taking the city the next day, a day on which the British also captured Jaffa.

After the fall of Gaza, the Allies continued to advance, taking prisoners and supplies as the Turks fell back while offering intermittent strong resistance. On November 15, Australian and New Zealand troops occupied Lydda and Ramleh (now Lod and Ramla, Israel) about 10 miles from the coast. New Zealand cavalrymen entered coastal Jaffa on November 16. Their next objective was Jerusalem, 40 miles to the southeast.

Indian Lancers riding through Jerusalem. The city was taken by the Allies on December 11, 1917.


After an unsuccessful attempt to seize Jerusalem, Allenby regrouped. The Turkish Seventh and Eighth Armies defended a line before Bethlehem and Jerusalem on the southeast running to the northwest and the coast north of Jaffa. In the southeast, Welsh troops advanced from Hebron towards Bethlehem on December 4, and by the 6th they were 10 miles north of Hebron. On the 7th, three days of continuous rain began.

Recognizing the religious and historical importance of the city, Allenby prevented any troops from entering Jerusalem. On December 8 many inhabitants of the city were told to be prepared to leave, but it was too late for the Turks to command them. Allenby attacked across the entire front the same day. That night, the night of December 8–9, Turkish forces evacuated the city.

Allenby officially entered Jerusalem at noon on December 11 with some of his staff, commanders of the French and Italian detachments, the heads of the political missions, and the Military Attachés of France, Italy, and the United States, all of them walking. At the Jaffa Gate they were received by guards representing England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, France, and Italy. Allenby was sensitive to the religious significance of the city, and worked with custodians of the holy sites.

Through the end of the year, the British continued their advance, pushing back the Turkish line.



Syria/Palestine Front 1916

Syria/Palestine Front 1918

Events contemporaneous with The War in Syria and Palestine, 1917

Start Date End Date View
1915-06-23 1917-11-12 Battles of the Isonzo
1917-01-01 1917-12-09 Romania at War, 1917
1917-01-19 1917-01-19 Zimmermann Telegram
1917-02-24 1917-03-18 Operation Alberich
1917-03-08 February Russian Revolution
1917-03-11 Russian Revolution
1917-04-07 Cuba declares war on Germany
1917-04-09 1917-04-10 Battle of Vimy Ridge
1917-04-09 1917-05-17 Battle of Arras
1917-04-16 1917-05-17 Nivelle Offensive