WWI Centennial: Brits Victorious At Megiddo

Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 319th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 19-25, 1918: BRITS VICTORIOUS AT MEGIDDO

Following their victory in the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of the ancient holy city of Jerusalem in December 1917, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force led by British commander Edmund Allenby kept continuous pressure on the Turkish Fourth, Seventh, and Eighth Armies. Those armies were all part of the Army Group Yıldırım (“Thunderbolt”) under German commander Liman von Sanders in northern Palestine. The new offensives were enabled by construction of military railroads to bring up guns and ammunition, and benefited from the growing momentum of the Arab Rebellion, led by Prince Feisal with help from his British intelligence attaché, Major T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence had captured the key port of Aqaba in July 1917 and now distracted and harried the Turks with lightning guerrilla attacks from out of the trackless eastern deserts.

By September 1918 the outnumbered and outgunned Turks had withdrawn to a line running from the River Jordan just north of the Dead Sea, west to the Mediterranean shore north of Jaffa, and bisecting Palestine. Intent on capturing Damascus before the end of the war, part of British maneuvering to exploit the Sykes-Picot Agreement, from September 19-25, 1918 Allenby achieved a breakthrough at the Battle of Megiddo. British sea power, resilient Indian and Egyptian infantry, dashing Australian cavalry, and the fighting grit of the rebel Arab Army made it possible. (Ironically, there was no actual fighting at Tel Megiddo, roughly in the center of the battlefield, which covered the Plain of Sharon, the Judean Hills, and the Jezreel Valley. Nevertheless, Allenby chose the name for symbolic resonance—Megiddo is the biblical site of Armageddon.)

The offensive, known to the Turks as the “Breakthrough at Nablus,” involved three main sections. First, to the east on September 18, the Arab Army attacked the enemy’s lines of communication, distracting the Turks and forcing von Sanders to send reinforcements to protect the desert railway. With the Turks now even more overstretched, on September 19 on the western end of the front, Anglo-Indian forces including the 54th (East Anglian) Division, 75th Division, Indian 3rd (Lahore) Division, Indian 7th (Meerut) Division, and the 60th (London) Division attacked and overwhelmed the Turkish Eighth Army, concentrated near the Mediterranean shore. Following the infantry breakthroughs, Allenby sent the Desert Mounted Corps, consisting of the British Fourth and Fifth Cavalry divisions and the Australian Mounted Division, racing ahead to cut off and encircle the Turkish Eighth and Seventh Armies—one of the most successful uses of cavalry in the war. Meanwhile, in the center, the 10th (Irish) Division and 53rd (Welsh) Division pivoted east towards the River Jordan, attacking the Turkish Fourth Army between Jericho and Amman from the west as the Arabs closed in from the east.

These victories reflected Allenby’s careful preparation and adoption of cutting-edge tactics, including the relatively short but devastating “creeping barrage” preceding the infantry advance and combined arms tactics that closely coordinated artillery, cavalry, air power, and a small but deadly fleet of armored cars (below, an armored car).

Armored car in World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By September 21, the breakthrough had turned into a rout as the outnumbered and demoralized Turkish armies simply disintegrated. Virtually the entire force of 35,000 became casualties or surrendered, with just 6000 ragtag survivors left to make their escape to the north. Nablus and Nazareth fell on September 21 (top, Nablus after the war), followed by the key port of Haifa on September 23, the rail hub of Amman on September 25, and the strategic outpost of Daraa on September 27, 1918.

For the British and their Arab allies, the way now lay open to Damascus—but who would arrive first? This issue would have symbolic importance for the post-war world, and Feisal and Lawrence were determined that Damascus should be liberated by the Arabs, not European troops, to cement their claims to independence and nationhood.

The Battle of Megiddo was a study in contrasts as modern British weaponry and techniques were complemented by the ancient fighting techniques of Feisal’s Bedouin tribesmen. The Arab fighters’ motivations also tended to be more personal than the British, as most had lost family and friends to Turkish brutality long predating the Arab Rebellion. On September 27, after the Arabs captured the strategic town of Daraa, Lawrence’s party came across an Arab village that had just been destroyed by the retreating Turks:

“The village lay stilly under its slow wreaths of white smoke, as we rode near, on our guard. Some gray heaps seemed to hide in the long grass, embracing the ground in the close way of corpses. We looked away from these, knowing they were dead; but from one a little figure tottered off, as if to escape us. It was a child, 3 or 4 years old, whose dirty smock was stained red over one shoulder and side, with blood from a large half-fibrous wound, perhaps a lance thrust, just where neck and body joined.”

The Turkish atrocity provoked swift, terrible retribution from the desert nomads:

“I said, ‘The best of you bring me the most Turkish dead,’ and we turned after the fading enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three bullets from an automatic through the man’s bare chest. The blood came out with his heart beats, throb, throb, throb, slower and slower.”

T. E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With Lawrence’s old ally Auda abu Tayi in charge, the Arab Army annihilates the Turkish column of around 2000 soldiers:

“The old lion of battled waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable leader. By a skillful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split their formation into three parts. The third part, the smallest, was mostly made up of German and Austria machine-gunners around three motor cars and a handful of mounted officers or troopers. They fought magnificently and repulsed us time and again despite our hardiness. The Arabs were fighting like devils, the sweat blurring their eyes, dust parching their throats … By my order we took no prisoners, for the only time in our war … In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals, as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”

Turkish dead included around 200 prisoners whom Lawrence apparently ordered executed with machine guns after an Arab was found horribly mutilated:

“We ranged our Hotchkiss on them, and pointed at him silently. They said nothing in the moment before we opened fire: and at last their heap ceased moving, and Hassan was dead, and we mounted again and rode home slowly.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

One Vaccination, Under God: When George Washington Kept a Smallpox Epidemic From Costing Him the American Revolution

"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1751, a teenaged George Washington emerged from a harrowing bout of smallpox, which he had contracted in Barbados, that left him weak, pockmarked, and well aware of just how catastrophic an outbreak of the insidious disease could be. Nearly 25 years later, the experience would help him prevent smallpox from ravaging the ranks of American soldiers, an event that could have dramatically affected the outcome of the American Revolution.

As Andrew Lawler reports for National Geographic, British, Canadian, and German troops surged into Boston in 1775 to quell the burgeoning revolt, bringing with them both weapons and, unwittingly, germs. While the foreign forces had built up an immunity to smallpox due to previous exposure, Boston colonists were no match for the disease, which began to spread through the city. To keep it from infecting his Continental Army, stationed across the Charles River, Washington forbade anybody from Boston from entering his camp and quarantined any soldier who showed signs of sickness. Washington’s precautionary measures proved successful, but the venerated general wasn’t satisfied with temporarily keeping smallpox at bay: He wanted to inoculate his entire army.

There were a few significant stumbling blocks to this course of action. For one, the vaccination process—known as variolation, after variola, the virus that causes smallpox—was still illegal in some states, and the Continental Congress had outright prohibited military surgeons from inoculating soldiers. Much like modern vaccinations, variolation entailed injecting a patient with a tiny quantity of the virus, just enough for the immune system to fight it off without seriously sickening or killing the patient. When administered properly, variolation resulted in immunity. If the dosage was wrong, however, it could lead to death—which had happened to King George III’s own son.

Washington wasn’t exactly abstaining from mass inoculation on behalf of the legislature, though. Even when done correctly, the vaccination can produce smallpox symptoms, and Washington couldn’t afford for thousands of his soldiers to be incapacitated for weeks right in the middle of the war. Instead, he ignored Congress’s order and mandated variolation only for newly recruited men, calculating that they would be fully recovered before heading into battle.

Despite his efforts, smallpox was already wreaking havoc on the existing troops. In May 1776, for example, Major General John Thomas lost somewhere between one third to one half of his 10,000 soldiers to smallpox during a siege on Quebec (which they did not win), and Thomas himself died of the disease on June 2.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” John Adams wrote.

In February 1777, Washington told Continental Congress president John Hancock that he saw no other way to prevent the spread of the disease than to inoculate the whole army. By the end of the year, variolation had been performed on about 40,000 soldiers, and infection rates plummeted from 20 percent to a measly 1 percent. Soon after that, legislators across the fledgling nation did away with variolation prohibition.

While Washington has long been lauded for leading American revolutionaries to victory on the battlefield, his shrewd foresight and strong leadership in the face of disease was just as, if not more, important.

“A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career,” historian Joseph Ellis told National Geographic.

[h/t National Geographic]

PBS Is Making Several Ken Burns Documentaries Available for Free to Teachers and Students

Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has a reputation for presenting audiences with incredibly comprehensive, detail-oriented portraits of American history, covering everything from baseball to the Brooklyn Bridge. His documentaries are just as informative as they are engrossing, and you might walk away considering yourself an unofficial expert on whatever topic Burns lends his talents to.

Now, PBS LearningMedia is bringing Burns’s educational spirit to housebound students and teachers across the nation with a new “Ken Burns in the Classroom” digital hub, where you can watch a number of his docuseries for free. So far, the list comprises Jazz (2001), The Roosevelts (2014), and College Behind Bars (2019), and it will include four others by the end of April: 1990’s The Civil War, 2007’s The War (about World War II), 2009’s National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and 2012’s The Dust Bowl.

“We have heard loud and clear that teachers are in need of full films to better engage students and to align with their teaching during this period of distance learning,” Ken Burns said in a statement. “We have worked closely with PBS to clear rights and package these films so they can be streamed and made accessible.”

In addition to full-length series, the hub also houses video clips from Burns’s other works, covering subjects like the Vietnam War, Lewis and Clark’s expeditions, and more, along with a wealth of supplemental materials and lesson plans that teachers can send to their students via Google Classroom or another “share” option on the site. The resources are organized in two ways—by film and by era—so educators can skip right to a section on, for example, “The Industrial Age (1870-1900)” or see what content is available from Burns’s 2011 docuseries Prohibition. The hub will remain open through June 30.

To give us yet another way to explore the history of America through his body of work, Burns has created a separate PBS-run webpage called “Unum,” where video clips and supplements are split up into different categories, from themes like “Protest,” “Elections,” and “Art” to specific events like the Great Depression and Watergate.

All things considered, both Unum and “Ken Burns in the Classroom” are wonderful opportunities to expand your historical knowledge, whether you’re a student, teacher, or just a curious person.

And if you are a teacher, you can tune in to a live Q&A session with Ken Burns on PBS LearningMedia’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m. EST, where he’ll answer questions submitted by teachers.

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