October 31, 1917 is a major date in the modern history of the Jewish People. That afternoon, maneuvers and attacks by different brigades of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) collapsed the Turkish defense line from Beersheba to Gaza. From the next day Turkish forces (and their German advisers) began the 11-month retreat northwards and finally, by October 1 of the following year, Allied forces were in Damascus. Palestine was free of the 613-year-old Ottoman overlords.
The First World War ended 40 days later.
After the debacle of the Gallipoli Campaign by British naval forces and then the sad and useless invasion of Turkey (badly led by British generals), the war cabinet in London needed a victory, any victory, to prop up falling British public support.
In fact the Turkish attack into Sinai (the Ottomans had been ruling the Turkish peoples since 1299), convinced the British to use Palestine for their thrust into Damascus, Aleppo and then Constantinople. The Allies (France, Britain and Russia) were defending themselves against German expansion and the unforgivable attack on neutral Belgium (August 3, 1914) created the massive and inhuman Great War across Europe. Turkey, after siding with Germany, tried over 1916 to attack in Sinai and take the Suez Canal. They failed and the massive Allied forces in Egypt were directed to attack Palestine. The plan was to first take Gaza and then crawl up the coast.
General Archibald Murray and his 65,000 troops (he even had tanks) failed twice to capture Gaza (in March and April 1917). He was replaced by Edmond Hyman Allenby (aka The Bull), and soon the secret plan to take Beersheba instead of Gaza was born.
Allenby’s intelligence staff (under the cunning Captain Richard Meinetzhagen) used a classic trick to convince the Turks that Gaza was to be taken first. A bloodied haversack containing false plans for a Gaza assault was dropped intentionally while fleeing from a Turkish patrol. The ruse worked. The two German generals, Erich von Falkenhayn and Friedrich Kress-von Kressenstein, convinced the Turkish general of Gaza, Djevad Pasha, and his shadow, Enver Pasha, to concentrate their forces near Gaza.
Over three nights brigades of light cavalry (mostly Australians) were transferred south and east across the uninviting Negev desert to near Beersheba.
Water was a problem and German aircraft patrols almost found the massive movement of troops.
Wednesday – late afternoon – October 31, 1917 (the Jewish year 5678)
General Henry (Harry) Chauvel – a New South Wales grazier – was directing his Australian brigades (against the express advice of his British staff, who knew that this charge would fail). He, unlike most British generals, was standing with his immediate staff on a hill very close to the fighting.
The 3rd (Australian) Light Horse Brigade was trooped northwards to close off the Beersheba-Hebron road against any support from Turkish cavalry from Hebron. He then ordered his 4th Light Horse Brigade to charge, with bayonets drawn, at the Turkish trenches from the east, into the setting sun, and with the speed of the charge they overcame the firepower of the Turkish defenders. The wells of Beersheba were taken just as night fell, and the horses (and their riders) finally got a real drink of clean water.
Beersheba – the desert town, the rail station, the telegraph office and the small stores of food – were now in British hands. Casualties had been light. Few of the horsemen had had to use their slung rifles. It was mostly face-to-face bayonet work. These Australian forces (many of these young horsemen were Victorian bush sheep herders) were part of Allenby’s Desert Mounted Corps (DMC).
Turkish forces in Gaza were forced out over the next four days by attacking divisions the XX corps from the south (British soldiers) and follow-up attacks by the light horse brigades – this time from the North.
Over November and the first week in December – in spite of really bad weather and unusually thick fog – the EEF was able to advance up Palestine, and then, using four divisions, advance on Jerusalem. The Turks were not giving up – yet. Strong lines of dug-in resistance and good generalship by the Germans were making the Allied advance touch and go. Bad blood between the British generals and the Australians, and the loss of quality brigades to the Western front in Europe, created a badly flowing advance. Allenby lost his only son (an officer) on the Western Front and was in mourning. Communication was a serious problem.
Finally after several days of very bad weather, the fog lifted and the rains lessened.
Soon, on the Saturday, December 8, 1917, a patrol of Australian mounted troops were having breakfast near the southwestern wall of the old city, British troops were fighting in hand to hand combat in Ein Kerem (under a British-Jewish officer, Captain Storres), British officers were taking over the main post and telegraph office on Jaffa Road, and then toward midmorning a lost troop of Australian light horse were parading down Jaffa Road, heading northwest, looking for their command. That evening General S.F. Mott and his 53rd Division (the Welsh) came into Talpiot, after heavy fighting near Beit Lechem. The Turkish high command and their German advisers, in their HQ at the Augusta Victoria complex on the Mount Scopus ridge, finally saw the writing on the wall and decamped Jerusalem heading north, and also down to Jericho.
Jerusalem was now an open and non-military city.
At 8 a.m. on the morning of December 9 the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, Hussein E. el-Husseini (who died of pneumonia a few days later) was able to surrender his city to two lost British troopers.
On Tuesday, December 11 at 10:30 in the morning (it was Hanukka) General Allenby and 47 other officers (British, French, Italian and Jewish) walked through the 380-year-old Jaffa Gate and took over the Holy City on behalf of the Christian world, and as a Christmas present for the British people.
(It was exactly two weeks before Christmas). Prime minister Lloyd George finally got a real victory after the disasters of 1914 in France, the futile chase after German battleships in the Mediterranean, the ridiculous naval and beach battles off Gallipoli and bad news from Russia about their useless Russian military campaigns against the Germans in Prussia.
The Jews also – finally – got three presents that have become the building blocks of their old/new Jewish state. The – it was to be a secret – Balfour Declaration was made public in Manchester, the Turks who had been terrorizing Tel Aviv were thrown out and the Palestine British Emirate – based on oil from Iraq – that was established here over 30 years created the infrastructure for a state to be declared in 1948.
The four dates that lead up to the birth of the old/new Jewish state are October 31, 1917 (Beersheba), November 4, 1917 (Balfour), December 9 (the Arab mayor’s surrender of Jerusalem- Romema) and December 11 (Allenby, the march into Jerusalem).
All this happened 99 years ago – and it was the Australian forces that made it possible.