British Forces in the Middle East

Photograph, 1918

The First World War had a profound and transformative effect on the Middle East. Four years of intense Allied combat—waged primarily by British, Australian, and Indian troops—resulted in the decisive defeat of Ottoman and German forces, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the imposition of a postwar political settlement that permanently affected the region.

British forces fought on three primary fronts in the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire—initially neutral after war broke out in Europe in August 1914—joined the Central Powers on 29 October 1914. In Mesopotamia, a small Anglo-Indian contingent captured the town of Basra in November 1914 to ensure the uninterrupted flow of oil. Emboldened by this success, the British led a halting advance towards Baghdad throughout 1915, but stiffening Turkish resistance and logistical problems caused the disastrous surrender of Anglo-Indian troops at Kut-el-Amara in April 1916. Thereafter, a concerted build-up of personnel and the arrival of a new British military commander in Mesopotamia allowed Allied forces to regain the initiative; Baghdad fell in March 1917 and Turkish forces eventually surrendered at Sharqat in October 1918, leaving the British in charge of the oil-rich region surrounding Mosul by the end of the war.

The second Middle Eastern front in the Dardanelles witnessed the infamous Allied debacle at Gallipoli. Seeking a decisive victory away from the stalemate occurring in the Western Front trenches, the British War Cabinet in January 1915 approved an audacious, poorly conceived plan, championed by Winston Churchill, to wrestle the Straits from Ottoman control. After naval attacks failed to penetrate Turkish defences in February and March 1915, Allied forces staged a series of landings along the Gallipoli Peninsula beginning 25 April 1915. Nearly 500,000 British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops waged a futile eight-month struggle to dislodge the Ottoman defenders before they were evacuated in December 1915 and January 1916. British and colonial casualties in the Dardanelles campaign amounted to nearly 205,000 men, and Churchill resigned temporarily from the War Cabinet because of his role in the Gallipoli fiasco.

Finally, British forces were ultimately successful in their efforts to defend Egypt and capture Palestine during the war. Two major attacks by Turkish forces against the Suez Canal in February 1915 and August 1916 were repulsed by Indian and British troops, and the Sinai Peninsula was in Allied hands by December 1916. But the campaign to take control of Palestine from the Ottomans proved difficult; British forces were routed at the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917 due to inept command decisions and effective Ottoman defences. Charged with capturing Jerusalem before Christmas 1917, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Sir Edmund Allenby, punched through Turkish and German lines at Beersheba in October 1917 and entered Jerusalem in December 1917. Murray returned to the offensive in September 1917, quickly advancing hundreds of miles and forcing an Armistice with the Ottoman Empire on 31 October 1918.

00001511.jpg The Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University contains an extensive collection of diaries, journals, scrapbooks, albums, maps, and military memorabilia related to the experiences of British service personnel in the Middle East during the First World War, particularly in the Dardanelles, Egypt, and Palestine. For the Gallipoli campaign, one of the most detailed archival sources is the log (Album 20) kept by Walter Dennis, who served on HMS Vengeance from 28 July 1914 to 30 July 1915. Vengeance arrived in the Dardanelles in early-February 1915, and Dennis provides a comprehensive account of the failed British naval incursions into the Straits in February and March. After refitting at Malta, Vengeance returned to support the Allied landings at Gallipoli, with Dennis recording on 25 April that “we saw the commencement of probably the most gigantic operations of this war, or any other war…being the ship furthest up the Dardanelles, we were under fire practically from the start and received our first hit shortly after 11 o/c am”. Although the log reflects the unduly optimistic patriotism of its author, Dennis nonetheless conveys the intensity of both the naval and land operations in the Dardanelles before Vengeance left this theatre on 3 June 1915 to return to England.

Another valuable archival source is a comprehensive collection of photographs (Album 13) kept by Lieutenant G.W.M. Grover illustrating soldiers’ experiences in the Gallipoli campaign.

00000054.jpg McMaster’s holdings also contain excellent accounts of British soldiers in Egypt and Palestine. Chief among these is the John Merrylees fonds, which includes a detailed diary. A captain in the Middlesex Regiment, forming part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Merrylees arrived in Egypt on 12 June 1916, and his diary records the routine existence many soldiers experienced before the major Allied incursion into Palestine in 1917. In February 1917, for example, Merrylees documents his sightseeing tour of the Giza Pyramids and his visit to the Mohamed Ali Mosque in Cairo’s Citadel. Merrylees also provides an extensive account of his participation in the crucial offensive against Beersheba in October and early November 1917:

[O]rdered to take company up hill & hold on. While doing so stopped by OC Kents who wanted me to attack Hill I. I refused point blank & said 'I'll be damned if I do' After many contradictory orders we went forward & occupied the hill. Lack of water greatly felt. In response to call for company commanders I returned to B.H.Q. & had fit of hysterics, from which I soon got better. Considerable agony caused by this lack of water. Water arrived at 1500, 2 bottles per man, which eased situation considerably. I spent night in wadi & sent Stringer to relieve Sussex with one platoon. Again fainted with exhaustion but soon recovered. Peaceful night. Later that night a third water bottle per man arrived. [4-5 November 1917]

Merrylees’s superb diary observations can be supplemented by correspondence written by William Bailey, a member of the London Regiment who frequently documented the deplorable conditions facing many soldiers. In December 1917, for example, Bailey noted that his teeth 'are rotting & we can get no attention & have to eat dog biscuits. Similarly, on 27 February 1918, after defeating Turkish forces at Jericho, Bailey informed his mother that 'as a reward we are being half starved again. Bully & biscuits that's all & not much water. Still we hope for something better.'

McMaster's holdings also contain unattributed photographs (Album 15) documenting the British presence in Egypt and Palestine; included in this collection are photographs of important Egyptian landmarks and Turkish casualties during the British campaign to capture Jerusalem. One photograph from Album 36, “Mesopotamia and Bombay, 1916”, 1915-1919, compiled by H. Wicks, Royal Naval Air Squadron also appears here.

Britain’s role in the Middle East during the First World War had major repercussions in the postwar period. At an enormous cost in human lives and material resources, Britain emerged as the dominant power in the region after 1918 and assumed League of Nations mandates to control former possessions of the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq, Palestine, and the Hashemite Emirate of Trans-Jordan. In concert with France, which assumed mandates in Lebanon and Syria, Britain determined many key elements of the often volatile political and territorial evolution of the Middle East during the twentieth century.

Further resources

Bruce, Anthony. The Last Crusade: The Palestinian Campaign in the First World War (London: John Murray Publishers, 2002)
Karsh, Efraim, and Inari Karsh. Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999)
Steel, Nigel, and Peter Hart. Defeat at Gallipoli (London: Macmillan, 1994)

Archival descriptions

Related Images