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Palestine campaign

Page 6 – The Trans-Jordan raids

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) spent the first three months of 1918 consolidating its hold on southern Judea and extending its reach across the lower Jordan Valley in preparation for a large-scale offensive against the Ottoman forces in Palestine.

In February and early March 1918 the EEF carried out a series of local attacks, capturing Jericho in the Jordan Valley and establishing a new front line on the coastal plain north of the River Auja. This provided a springboard for further operations by British and Anzac forces, not only in the Jordan Valley but into the Moab Mountains to the east and, potentially, towards the city of Amman and the strategically important Hejaz railway.

In March the EEF’s commander, Lieutenant-General Edmund Allenby, ordered a large-scale raid on Amman via the town of Es Salt, which sat astride the only metalled road running up from the Jordan Valley through the Moab Mountains. The raiding force was made up of the 60th (London) Division, the Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) Brigade. It was named ‘Shea’s Force’ after the commander of 60th Division.

Shea’s Force had four major tasks: crossing the River Jordan; capturing Es Salt; crossing the Moab Mountains; capturing Amman and destroying the Hejaz railway facilities there. Allenby did not intend to hold Amman. The troops were to stay there only as long as it took to destroy the railway station, a tunnel and a number of bridges. Shea’s Force was then to withdraw to the Jordan Valley, although a strong garrison would be detached to hold Es Salt.

With Es Salt occupied, Ottoman forces would be locked out of the southern Jordan Valley and unable to threaten Allenby’s right flank in future operations. Destroying the Hejaz railway link to the Ottoman garrisons in Arabia would assist the Arab Revolt there and also sow doubt in the minds of his counterparts as to the likely direction of the next British offensive – inland or along the coast. Allenby knew that the Arab Northern Army was raiding the Hejaz railway between Ma’an and Amman. If Es Salt was taken, direct links between the two armies could well be established. This was an ambitious plan, but arguably worth the risk.

The raid began on the night of 21 March 1918 with attempts to establish two bridgeheads on the Ottoman-controlled east bank of the Jordan River: for the 60th Division at Ghoraniyeh and for the Anzac Mounted Division at Hijla.

From the outset luck and the elements turned against Shea’s Force. Recent heavy rains made the crossing difficult and time-consuming, and it took two days to get the bulk of the troops across to the east bank. As Shea’s Force began to advance into the Moab Mountains the unseasonal heavy rain returned, turning the metalled road (and the dirt tracks being used by some of the raiding units) into a quagmire. Es Salt was taken on the evening of 25 March, but the raid was already badly behind schedule. The hard slog over muddy broken ground in the cold and rain exhausted the men and their mounts, particularly the camels.

Two days later, still in miserable conditions, the Anzac Mounted Division and the ICC Brigade reached the outskirts of Amman. By now the headquarters of the Ottoman Fourth Army knew what was happening and had reinforced the garrison there. For the next four days the Anzac troopers and cameleers, reinforced by an infantry brigade from the 60th Division, repeatedly attacked the city.

Their final attack took place in the early hours of 30 March. Fred Sterling was among the men waiting to attack:

All close together, and with our rusty bayonets pointing to the sky. We had hardly got into line when the order came. Move on, no shooting, and no prisoners. The attack, we all knew, simply had to be successful. … We had nothing behind us to fall back upon, so failure and a counter-attack from Jacko meant the finish of things … The Camel Corps’ ranks, like our own, were almost disastrously weak, so that it was a thin, tired line that set out upon its desperate errand, in the form of a half circle. A pale moon shone through a leaden sky sufficiently well enough for us to see the way. It was blowing fairly strong, which helped to deaden our footfalls. For an attack, the night was an ideal one. [1]

Although several outlying key positions were taken – notably Hill 3039, which was captured by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and the 4th Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps – the raiders failed to capture Amman itself. On the evening of 30 March, with ammunition and supplies running low and Ottoman counter-attacks gaining in strength, Shea’s Force broke off its attack and began to withdraw over the mountains. The original intention of holding Es Salt was abandoned; the troops were instead ordered to defend the Ghoraniyeh bridgehead on the east bank of the Jordan. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade went into reserve and bivouacked near Jericho.

The raid had cost the attackers 1348 casualties. It was the first real defeat suffered by the EEF since the Second Battle of Gaza. The Ottoman Turks tried to exploit the situation on 11 April by mounting a major attack on the Ghoraniyeh bridgehead, but they were beaten off with heavy losses.

Allenby still hoped to seize Es Salt. He ordered Major-General Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, to make another raid across the Jordan with this as the prime objective. The force available to Chauvel was essentially Shea’s Force plus the Australian Mounted Division. Though his objective was much more limited, the Ottoman troops were now on the alert and had improved their defences in this sector.

The attack began on 30 April and at first went well. Es Salt fell to the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade that evening. The next day, however, strong Ottoman counter-attacks, and the failure of promised local Arab tribal support to materialise, forced the British and Anzac troopers back in many places and left the Australian Light Horsemen at Es Salt in a dangerously vulnerable position. Despite two more days of fighting the approaches to Es Salt could not be secured and on 3–4 May the town was evacuated. Next day Chauvel’s force retired across the Jordan, having suffered more than 1600 casualties.

[1] Fred Sterling diary entry dated 30 March 1918, quoted in Terry Kinloch, Devils on horses: in the words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916–19, Exisle, Auckland, 2007, p. 271.

How to cite this page

The Trans-Jordan raids, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated