Palestine campaign

Page 2 – Overview

With the successful conclusion of the Sinai campaign the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray, had achieved their original objective – securing the Suez Canal against any further threat of Turkish attack. This victory led to pressure from the British government, under a new Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to invade Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Lloyd George was particularly impressed by the comparatively low casualties that had accompanied Murray’s victories in the desert, compared to the string of bloody failures suffered by the British Army on the Western Front in 1916.

Reorganisation of EEF, August 1917

Desert Mounted Corps

  • Anzac Mounted Division (including New Zealand Mounted Rifles)
  • Australian Mounted Division (formerly Imperial Mounted Division)
  • Yeomanry Mounted Division
  • Imperial Camel Corps Brigade

20 Corps

  • 10th (Irish) Division
  • 53rd (Welsh) Division
  • 60th (London) Division
  • 74th (Yeomanry) Division
  • four heavy artillery brigades

21 Corps

  • 52nd (Lowland) Division
  • 54th (East Anglia) Division
  • 75th Division
  • three heavy artillery brigades

There was little understanding in London of the unique conditions of the Sinai campaign, especially the powerful operational constraints the lack of water placed on both sides. Despite having reached the edge of southern Palestine, Murray’s troops were still dependent on the Sinai railway and water pipeline for nearly all their supplies. Their Ottoman opponents were not.

Murray’s mistake was to try to carry out his new orders without insisting on taking the time he needed to build up his forces and supplies. His first attack against Gaza, the traditional gateway to southern Palestine, ended in controversy and failure.

On 26 March 1917 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade all but captured the town, only to be ordered to withdraw as nightfall approached. The Second Battle of Gaza three weeks later was an even bigger disaster for Murray – a frontal attack by his infantry divisions resulted in some 6000 British casualties. This was not what Lloyd George had envisaged when he had championed the idea of a Palestine campaign. His government, embarrassed by the defeats, ensured that Murray was sacked shortly afterwards.

The British made their third attempt to capture Gaza at the end of October 1917. The EEF’s new commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby, had received much-needed reinforcements that brought its existing units up to full strength. Additional infantry, artillery and mounted units were also sent to Egypt from other fronts. This gave Allenby a core force of seven infantry and three mounted divisions, around which he reorganised his army in August.

The EEF’s logistical set-up was also much improved. The Sinai railway had now reached El Arish. It carried 13 trains a day, and work had begun to double-track the line. Rail supplies were augmented by a coastal supply route from Egypt, using small surfboats to land cargoes from coastal vessels directly on the beaches around Deir el Belah. By these means a network of forward supply depots and ammunition dumps was built up close to the front line. The New Zealand Rarotongan Company was one of the units which created and maintained this network.

The Turks had also been busy. They reinforced their defences around Gaza and extended them towards Beersheba, near the base of the Judean Hills. But Allenby, unlike Murray, had everything he needed, including time to put a clever deception plan into effect. The result was a brilliant victory in the Third Battle of Gaza (27 October – 7 November 1917) which broke the Ottoman lines and allowed Allenby to push his troops forward in pursuit for another month before the Turks were able to regroup. In that time the EEF captured the port of Jaffa, most of southern Judea and, on 9 December 1917, the city of Jerusalem. An impressed Lloyd George considered Jerusalem a ‘Christmas present for the British nation’.

Allenby was eager to launch a new offensive as soon as possible. The EEF carried out a number of small-scale operations to improve their front-line positions – most notably the capture of Jericho, a bridgehead into the Jordan Valley, on 21 February 1918. A more ambitious large-scale raid on Amman a month later by the Anzac and British mounted troops ended in failure, as did a second raid across the Jordan at the end of April.

The crisis sparked by the German offensive on the Western Front in late March saw many of Allenby’s most experienced infantry and artillery units hastily transferred to France. This meant that the EEF was unable to undertake any significant action in Palestine for the next six months. The gaps were slowly filled from the ranks of the Indian Army.

Allenby made the most of this enforced break, preparing carefully for his final offensive, which is known as the Battle of Megiddo. This began on 19 September 1918. Within a fortnight three Ottoman field armies were destroyed, with the capture of 76,000 prisoners. Palestine, Jordan and southern Syria were conquered.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-Nov-2017