Battle of Megiddo, 19-25 September 1918

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The battle of Megiddo, 19-25 September 1918, was the climactic battle of the British invasion of Palestine of 1917-1918. It is also famous as the last great cavalry victory. The battle was subdivided by the British Battles Nomenclature Committee into the battles of Sharon, on the coast, and of Nablus, in the Judean Hills, either of which name makes rather more sense the Megiddo. The cavalry advance flowed past the ancient site of Megiddo, location of the first battle in recorded history (c.1457 BC), on the night of 19/20 September, and the temptation to adopt the name was clearly too great.

After the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917 the fighting died down over the winter. The spring of 1918 saw the series of great German offensives on the Western Front, forcing the British to abandon any plans for a further campaign in Palestine. General Allenby had the authority to undertake small scale operations, but any major offensive would have to wait until the crisis was over.

The Turks now had three armies in the line in Palestine, a total of 34,000 men to defend the line from the coast, across the Judean Hills, the Jordan valley and out to the Hejaz Railway, under the overall command of Liman von Sanders, a German officer who had spent three years in Turkey.  

The British had 69,000 men in Palestine (57,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry). Allenby had decided to attack along the coast, on the Plain of Sharon, where the ground was well suited for cavalry. The Turkish front line defences were 3,000 yards deep, well constructed and protected by thin barbed wire. The second line, three miles to the rear, was less well prepared and consisted of unconnected strong-points, unprotected by wire.

During the spring of 1918 Allenby sent a series of expeditions into the Jordan Valley. This convinced the Turks that the British attack was going to come along the line of the Jordan. An advance up the valley would threaten Beisan and the railway supplying the Seventh and Eighth Armies, while further east a strike towards Deraa would threaten all three Turkish armies.

Allenby’s plan worked perfectly. By the middle of September the British had 35,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and 383 guns on the western fifteen miles of the front line, facing 8,000 infantry and 130 guns. On the remaining forty five miles of the front the British had 22,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 157 guns and the Turks and 24,000 men and 270 guns. 11,000 of them were east of the Jordan Valley, and were effectively out of the battle.

Allenby developed an ambitious plan for the battle itself. XXI corps, with five divisions, would attack along the coast and force the Turks to pull back along the line of the railway, north to Tul Keram and then east to Messudieh Junction. This would open a gap along the coast for the Desert Mounted Corps. Once they were past the Turkish lines their job was to ride north along the plain, cross a spur of the Judean hills and enter the Plain of Esdraelon. That would allow them to captured El Afule and Beisan, blocking the retreat of the Turkish Eighth and Seventh Armies. Their only possible line of retreat would have been east, across the Jordan Valley. XX corps was given the job of advancing along the hills towards Nablus to block the best passes down into the valley.

The preliminary operations began on 16 September. The Air Force bombed Deraa, further convincing Liman von Sanders that the British attack would come inland. At the same time a force of Arab rebels, amongst them T.E. Lawrence, cut the railways north, south and west from Deraa. Liman von Sanders moved some of his reserves east to deal with the perceived threat.

A second preliminary attack was launched by the 53rd Division of XX corps in the east of the Judean Hills. The attack was launched to move the 53rd Division into place for its main advance, to be once the attack on the left was well underway.

The main attack began at 4.30am on 19 September with a 15 minute artillery bombardment. The main infantry attack overwhelmed the outnumbered Turks in the front line. The 60th Division, on the left of the line, advanced 7,000 yards (nearly four miles) in the first two and a half hours, breaking through both the first and second Turkish lines, and capturing a bridgehead over the Nahr el Falik. This allowed the cavalry to begin its own advance. By the end of the first day XXI corps had captured most of the railway line north to Tul Keram. The Turkish Eighth Army, attempting to retreat through Tul Keram, was stopped by a combination of attack from the air, a rapid advance by the 5th Australian Light Horse and finally by the 60th Division, who by the end of the day had advanced seventeen miles and captured Tul Keram.

Meanwhile the cavalry advance achieved all of its objectives. By the end of the first day of the battle the cavalry had reached the edge of the Plain of Esdraelon, and by 2.30am on 20 September were advancing down into the valley. El Afule and Beisan were captured later in the day. The cavalry even came close to capturing Liman von Sanders in his headquarters at Nazareth. Early in the battle all communications with the front had broken down, as happened so often during the First World War. The approach of the British cavalry was the first warning Liman von Sanders received of the scale of the Turkish defeat. While the British attempted to find his headquarters, he made his escape back towards Tiberias.

By the end of the second day the Turkish Eighth Army had been destroyed and the Seventh Army was in serious danger. With the railway blocked, its only chance of escape was east from Nablus, along a road that led down the Wadi Fara into the Jordan Valley. This had been the target of XX corps, but their advance, which began during the afternoon of 19 September, had not been as successful as on the left. During 20 September XX corps made very little progress, and on the night of 20/21 September the Turks began to evacuate Nablus.

They were stopped by air power. Allied aircraft caught the Turkish column just east of Nablus, where the road passed through a gorge. Bombing soon blocked the road, and the survivors scattered into the hills, where most were soon captured. The advancing British found over 1,000 vehicles (including 90 guns and 50 lorries) abandoned on the road.

The British took 25,000 prisoners during the battle of Megiddo. Less than 10,000 Turkish and German soldiers escaped to retreat north. The pursuit continued throughout October. The Turks lost control of Damascus on 30 September. Ali Riza Pasha Rehabi, an Arab general in the Turkish army had been placed in command of the city by Liman von Sanders, but he was actually the president of the Syrian branch of the Arab Secret Society, and had met with T.E. Lawrence in 1917. Now with Turkish rule clearly collapsed, they seized control. On 1 October the first troops of the Arab Revolt entered the city, followed on the next day by the first of Allenby’s men.

Over the next month the British captured Beirut (8 October), Tripoli (18 October) and Aleppo (25 October). On 30 October, with Palestine, Syria and Iraq lost, the Turks requested an armistice.  Megiddo was one of the best planned and executed British battles of the First World War, and had the most dramatic results. Allenby must take much of the credit for this, emerging as one of the more imaginative generals of the war.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 September 2007), Battle of Megiddo, 19-25 September 1918 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_megiddo1918.html

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