Today in Middle Eastern history: the Capture of Damascus (1918)

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The Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s capture of Damascus in early October, 1918, marks the end of World War I in the Middle East. Some scattered fighting continued around Aleppo, but it took only two weeks after losing Damascus for the Ottoman Empire to undergo a complete political upheaval and reach out to the British government to begin talks on its surrender, the Armistice of Mudros.

In truth, even before Damascus fell Ottoman Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha had made the decision to resign in favor of a new government that would negotiate a surrender. He’d already visited Berlin and Sofia and been told that the Germans and Bulgarians were each preparing for their own surrenders, which made continuing the Ottoman war effort inconceivable. But it was the fall of Damascus that put an exclamation point on things and broke the back of the Ottoman military in the Levant. Even imperial elites, who’d spent much of World War I blithely adhering to a very artfully contrived version of events relayed to them by Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha, now had to see that the war—and possibly the empire itself along with it—was at an end.

The Damascus operation began on September 26 and was made possible by the much larger Battle of Megiddo, which ended on September 25. So we’re treating them as one thing here. Megiddo was the much delayed followup to the EEF’s capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. A series of events, including bad weather and the Allies’ need for reinforcements to fend off the Germans’ Spring Offensive in western Europe, left the EEF and its commander, British General Edmund Allenby, basically stuck in place for several months after Jerusalem’s capture. Because of this, as 1918 rolled on an observer might have gotten the impression that the Ottomans were in better shape than their German, Austrian, and Bulgarian pals. But this was something of an illusion, albeit one that even ensnared the German commander of the Ottomans’ Yıldırım Army Group, General Otto Liman von Sanders. Rather than pulling back to more defensible positions further north, he chose to hold on to the territory the Ottomans still held in Palestine, both because he thought it would be better for morale and with an eye toward an eventual counterattack. As it turned out, he was wrong on both counts

Once his army was back at full strength, Allenby crafted what’s considered one of the most effective battle plans any commander devised in any theater during World War I. He used his Arab irregulars under Emir Faysal and T.E. Lawrence to strike at Ottoman rail lines and communications networks in Syria while sending a diversionary force into the Jordan Valley to freeze the Ottoman forces in place. His main attack came in two waves a few miles inland of the Mediterranean coast, where thanks to the other elements of the operation the EEF enjoyed a massive localized superiority in numbers. A fourth unit, named “Chaytor’s Force” after its commander, Edward Chaytor, was deployed to the Jordan Valley in the days before the battle so as to convince the Ottomans that the EEF was actually massing its forces there. Once the battle started they moved east and captured Amman, after first cutting communications between the Ottoman Fourth Army, stationed at al-Salt in what is today north-central Jordan, and the rest of the Yıldırım group.

I should note that these Ottoman “armies” were barely even corps by this point. The empire was depleted in both manpower and materiel and the EEF had upwards of a 2-to-1 overall numbers edge in this battle, as well as virtually unchecked control of the airspace. Allenby by most accounts did an excellent job of devising a plan and executing it, but it’s not like he pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.

Remnants of an Ottoman military unit wiped out by EEF airplanes on the road between Nablus and Beit She’an (Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the reason I like writing about old battles more than writing about modern ones is that modern battles are comparatively much more complicated. Partly that’s because we have better records of modern engagements, and partly that’s because modern advances in transportation and communications have allowed armies to sprawl themselves out all over the place without falling into chaos. The “Battle of Megiddo” that took place in 1457 BCE can probably be summarized in a couple of paragraphs. This “Battle of Megiddo,” which began in earnest on September 19, is really several battles happening simultaneously in multiple locations stretching across the Levant, and recapping the whole thing could be a novella. Nobody wants that.

With that in mind, and to make a long story short, Allenby’s main attack worked as planned, with an initial EEF wave breaking through the Ottoman line and allowing Lieutenant Harry Cauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps to exploit the breach and race in behind the Ottomans, to the north. This allowed Allenby’s forces to encircle the Ottoman Eighth and Seventh Armies—the former dissolved in a chaotic retreat and the latter was effectively destroyed (though its commander, Mustafa Kemal, managed to escape and later of course became the founding father of the Republic of Turkey). The Ottoman Fourth Army, across the Jordan, was similarly taken out of the fight.

Map of the Battle of Megiddo and subsequent advance on Damascus (Wikimedia Commons)

The EEF’s victory at Megiddo was overwhelming with thousands of Ottoman soldiers killed and tens of thousands captured. Allenby next took Deraa, which had already surrendered to the Arab irregulars, and from there his EEF marched on Quneitra, led by Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps. The Ottomans steadily retreated, though they did fight some rearguard engagements and periodically took out their frustrations on Arab towns and villages as they passed through—atrocities for which Faysal’s Arab army retaliated repeatedly. Liman von Sanders organized a defense of Damascus, but realized it would be futile and ordered his forces to continue north to Aleppo. The final Ottoman column marched out of the city on October 1, leaving it in the EEF’s control. Chauvel moved his headquarters into the city on October 2 and Allenby arrived the following day to meet with Chauvel and Faysal.

The Arabs proclaimed Syria’s independence under a Hashemite monarchy, though despite Lawrence’s, Chauvel’s, and Britain’s efforts the French government would ultimately quash that monarchy and establish direct colonial rule. EEF units captured Beirut a few days later and Tripoli and Homs on October 13, then prepared to advance on Aleppo. That offensive never came, as the Ottomans surrendered for good on October 30.