Croydon and WWI’s Sinai & Palestine Campaign

By - Wednesday 6th December, 2017

A century on from events in the Levant that changed the world, we should remember the role played by Croydonians

100 years ago, in 1917, major battles were occurring in the Sinai & Palestine Campaign of WWI that would shape the future of the Middle East. Croydon men played a key role within the British-led forces that counter-attacked from Egypt to Palestine and eventually reached Jerusalem in December. Yet, centenary commemorations for this momentous part of WWI remain muted and research shows that public awareness of the link between WWI and today’s Middle East is very limited. The coming centenary anniversaries of the fall of Ottoman Palestine to British-led forces is an opportunity to remember the losses and the history.

Fought between January 1915 and October 1918, the Sinai & Palestine Campaign claimed some 550,000 British Empire casualties. The Croydon Roll of Honour records 24 local men who died in Palestine during the campaign. Most of these deaths occurred in the final months of 1917, as the British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) fought major battles to capture Gaza, Beersheba and then Jerusalem in the ‘Holy Land’ from the Ottoman Empire, who were backed by Germany.

Two years earlier, in 1915, the Ottoman Empire had initiated an attack on the Suez Canal in the British protectorate of Egypt. British forces, supported by men returning from the failed attack on Gallipoli, resisted the attacks and crossed the Sinai desert to launch a counter-attack in Palestine during 1917. They suffered defeats at Gaza leading to the appointment of General Edmund Allenby to command the EEF in June 1917. Gaza was captured on the third attempt, in early November 1917, opening the road to Jerusalem.

A railway was built from Kantara in Egypt to Haifa in Palestine to supply troops

The 2/4 Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment was one of the regiments brought in to bolster the attack. Amongst them were many Croydon men, including 18-year-old Stuart Nightingale of Thornton Heath, a junior assistant with Croydon Public Libraries who fought in the capture and securing of Beersheba, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He had served at Gallipoli the year before and would die in France in 1918, months before the Armistice.

A 411km railway was built from Kantara in Egypt to Haifa in Palestine to supply troops, along with a water pipeline that ran alongside it. A soldier’s letter home published in the Croydon Advertiser on 23rd June 1917 reported that, “he had met a great deal of Croydon boys out there. They all seem merry and bright, notwithstanding the heat and the flies, which are now almost unbearable”.

The contributor to the Advertiser had, like Stuart Nightingale of the Queen’s, served in Gallipoli before being evacuated and re-deployed to Egypt for the counter-attack. “We left the (Suez) canal zone at a place called Kuntara, in pursuit of the Turks. And here we are after covering close upon two hundred miles of desert, passing through El Ariah and Rafu… in the ‘Promised Land’.”

General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa gate on foot as a mark of respect to the holy city and its inhabitants

Croydon men were represented in other regiments, such as Captain John Hume Mabey, a former student of Whitgift School and youngest son of a former councillor in Croydon who died of wounds in Palestine on 7th November 1917. Also of the London Regiment, Alan Tegetmeier, a secretary from Purley, was killed at Ain Karim, Palestine on 8th December 1917.

On 11th December 1917, General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa gate on foot as a mark of respect to the holy city and its inhabitants. The Ottomans had issued a surrender two days earlier, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule over the city. British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who had asked Allenby to capture the city before Christmas, described the moment as “a Christmas present for the British people”.

Men from the 2/4 Queen’s were amongst those who manned the gates of the city and were deployed to secure the roads from Jerusalem and the neighbouring hills where the Ottomans had positioned themselves. Frederick Gerald Warren, from Croydon, died in one of these battles on 21st December 1917. The regiment would be transferred to the Western Front in May 1918 to take part in the final offensive in Europe.

The capture of Jerusalem was a major step towards creation of a Jewish state in Palestine

The 1917 capture of Jerusalem by British forces, together with the Balfour Declaration issued on 2nd November 1917 by the British Government, marked a significant moment in the history of the Middle East. For the British Empire, it was an opportunity to secure a strategically and culturally important foothold in the region. For the political Zionist movement, it was a major step towards creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, to form “a secure haven, under public law, for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel”.

In Australia and New Zealand, the Palestine & Sinai Campaign, like the Gallipoli Campaign, is widely remembered for the sacrifice of ANZAC forces fighting with the British-led army and has been used to forge their respective national identities as independent states. The mounted charge by the Australian Light Horse at the Battle of Beersheba on 31st October 1917, was celebrated this year on the centenary anniversary with a re-enactment in Israel. The event was attended by Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Arab hopes for self-determination and a new peace after WWI were dashed when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration on 2nd November 1917, in a brief paragraph written by Sir Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary, reading:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The “non-Jewish communities” consisted of some 91% of the population in Palestine, the majority of whom were Arabs. Lord Curzon, a member of the War Cabinet, questioned the Balfour Declaration asking, “What is to become of the people of the country? … [The Arabs] and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years, and they own the soil… They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter.”

An estimated 500,000 civilians died of famine between 1915-18 in Palestine and Greater Syria. A drought was followed by an attack of locusts in early 1915 that devastated crops. The situation was worsened by the war, with the Allies enforcing a blockade on the region and Ottoman conscription and acquisition policies exacerbating under-production and starvation.

The Croydon Times ran a notice on 28th March 1917 encouraging readers to donate to a famine relief fund, with a call from the Archbishop of Canterbury that, “as soon as the Allied operations permit, food and materials must be poured into the country”.

It is important that the lives sacrificed and the events unleashed are remembered

The Balfour Declaration became international law at the 1920 San Remo conference and Palestine became a British mandate – a Palestinian delegation were barred from taking any part in the post-war negotiations. However, the competing interests of the British mandate, political Zionist movement and the Arab majority were untenable and protest and violence grew, forcing Britain to relinquish the territory in 1948, when the State of Israel was declared.

Further regional conflict resulted in military expansion by Israel and, today, there are 5 million Palestinian refugees who are eligible for support from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Many live in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, which remain under effective occupation fifty years after the territories were taken over.

The Palestine & Sinai Campaign of WWI is not well-known in the UK. However, it is important that the lives sacrificed and the events unleashed are remembered. The anniversaries this year and next are an opportunity to, in the words of professor Sir Hew Strachan, “create a new legacy from the conflict’s legacy”.

Samuel Ali

Samuel Ali

Samuel recently worked as a Heritage Trainee with the Museum of Croydon, in conjunction with arts and heritage charity, Culture&. He is interested in opening archives and museum collections to engage diverse and under-represented audiences. All views are his own. Contact: sam491812 (at) protonmail (dot) com or @museumpoetry

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