The British soldiers in Egypt and Palestine whose own words constitute a large part of this book fought in a theater very different from France and Flanders. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, advancing some 500 miles from the Suez Canal to Aleppo, marched in the footprints of ancient armies and experienced extraordinary changes in soil, climate, and scenery: the Sinai Desert, the green fields of Palestine, the rugged and treacherous Judean hills, and the suffocating humidity of the Jordan Valley. They baked on marches across the arid desert and froze in the chilly winter rains in the hills above Jerusalem. The remains of those who died are found in places such as El Arish and Kantara, where row upon row of markers rise from sandy wastes under a blazing sun.
These British soldiers and their allies were involved in a campaign that has not received the attention that it deserves. Although considered a “sideshow” when compared with the western front, the Palestinian front developed into Britain’s second most important theater of operations. After playing a key role in destroying the Ottoman Empire, London then took the lead in redrawing the map of the Arab Islamic heartlands, with ominous implications for the future.
Not only has the campaign in Egypt and Palestine been neglected in the historiography of the war, the ordinary British soldier has not been given his due. T. E. Lawrence and the stout-hearted Australians have captured the imagination of the public and are the subjects of the two best-known films on this theater of war, Lawrence of Arabia and The Lighthorsemen. One can easily get the impression that if Lawrence with his individual heroics did not defeat the Turks, the Australians did with their famous hell-for-leather charge against the Turkish defenders of Beersheba. “We used to wonder sometimes,” wrote Antony Bluett, a British soldier who served with the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps, (p.x) “whether the people at home knew there was an army at all in Egypt and Palestine; an army, moreover, longing, wistfully for the merest crumb from the table of appreciation just to show that our ‘bit’ was known and recognised.”1
Among the participants, the Territorials have been especially overlooked. The Yeomanry, the cavalry of the Territorial Force,2 and the Territorial divisions were called on to do most of the fighting in the battles for Gaza and the conquest of Jerusalem, with Territorials suffering over 90 percent of the casualties during this phase of the campaign. Casualty figures underscore the role of the Territorials in this theater. Excluding sick, the Territorials suffered 32,274 casualties for Officers and other ranks in Egypt and Palestine. The casualties for the Regular Army (12,683), Indian and native troops (9,980), Australians (4,725), and New Zealanders (1,684) pale in comparison.3
No formation represented the amateur tradition in the armed forces better than the Territorial Force, which had been organized shortly before World War I to defend Britain against raids in the event of war. Not surprisingly, the professionals were skeptical of the effectiveness of these citizen-soldiers, who were primarily led by middle-class Officers. “Peace time soldiering in the Territorial Army was largely a matter of evening and occasional weekend ‘drills’ with an Annual Camp in the park surrounding some stately home,” recalled J. W. Wintringham, a subaltern in the Lincolnshire Yeomanry.4 How could these “weekend warriors,” many in the War Office reasoned, be successful against the powerful German Army on the western front?
Members of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) resented the view that Turks were lesser opponents than Germans and that conditions in their theater were “cushy” when compared with the western front. “In France, with its incessant shelling, pouring rain, and waterlogged trenches,” Major C. S. Jarvis noted in his memoirs, “the soldier envied and in fact felt intensely hostile to his opposite number in Egypt, who in his opinion, was having a ‘cushy’ time basking in the warm sunshine and being fanned to sleep by lovely houris.”5 Major Lord Hampton, a squadron commander in the Worcestershire Yeomanry, sarcastically wrote, “I have been told that it was at one time the vogue in England to consider the soldiers, whom fate and the War Office had condemned to serve in Egypt, only one degree better than a conscientious objector.”6 Nothing could be further from the truth, as this account of Britain’s forgotten soldiers will demonstrate.
A detailed account of the war in Egypt and Palestine can be found (p.xi) in the official histories, but one must look elsewhere for the personal and individual side of this campaign. This is my focus, with the participants speaking for themselves through their own accounts, most of which have the rigor and directness that comes from being written at the time, by men coping as best they could with the harsh conditions of what proved to be one of the most strenuous and demanding campaigns of World War I.
The spelling, capitalization, and punctuation of the many quotations have been quoted exactly with the following exceptions: The initial letters may have been changed to a capital or a lowercase letter to make a quotation conform to the syntax of the text. Also, in a few instances, spelling or punctuation has been silently changed to make a quotation comprehensible.
(1) . Antony Bluett, With Our Army in Palestine (London: Andrew Melrose, 1919), 144–45.
(2) . Not a single regiment of regular cavalry from home participated in this theater.
(3) . Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914–1920 (1922; reprint ed., Dallington, Heathfield, East Sussex: Naval and Military Press, 1999), 238–39.
(4) . Memoir, Imperial War Museum (hereinafter IWM), Wintringham MSS 78/9/1.
(5) . Major C. S. Jarvis, The Back Garden of Allah, 4th ed. (London: John Murray, 1941), 88.
(6) . Memoir (“The Chronicle of a Yeomanry Squadron in Palestine, Jordan and Syria,”. n.d.), IWM, Hampton MSS DS/Misc/82.