Liman von Sanders Pasha was assigned as the Commander of the Yıldırım Army Group in late February, replacing Erich von Falkenhayn. He was responsible for northern Palestine and his army group made up of the 7th, 8th, and 4th Army, east of Jordan River. Yıldırım Army Group’s line run from Mediterranean north of Arsuf and after slightly turning southeast, the line cut Jordan valley 10 km north of River Auja. Then it was twisted south. As the Seventh and Eighth armies were responsible for W of Jordan valley, 4th Army’s main units were deployed around Salt and Amman.
In 1918, the Ottoman troops on the Palestine front faced several challenges, including insufficient logistical support, the large number of deserters and sick soldiers. Furthermore, the temperature climbed as high as 50-55°C, and there were no sources of potable water nearby. Also, the army’s logistical needs were far from being met. And small-scale clashes on the various points of the fronts and occasional British air bombardments had demoralised Ottoman soldiers. Liman Pasha tried to strengthen his battered, exhausted Ottoman troops. He also relied on his elite German troops, i.e. the Infantry Battalions 702 and 703, and the 11th Jäger Battalion. But in the summer of mid-1918, the German General Headquarters called back these troops urgently and put pressure on Enver Pasha. According to the official explanation, the reason for this rather unexpected order was that these troops were going to be deployed in the Western front. It was, however, probably a result of the disagreement between the Turkish and the German on the Caucasus policy. Liman Pasha didn’t quite agree with his superiors. He frequently reported military and diplomatic missions emphasizing that the German troops must have been stayed, and that the Palestine front could not be held without them.
So, what was the course of events on the Palestine front that ensued the departure of many British elite units for the Western Front due to Ludendorff’s grand offensive? Initially, the 20th Corps and the 4th Army units under Ali Fuad’s (Cebesoy) command prevented Allenby’s forces from advancing to the east of the Jordan Valley following the battles that were to be called “the Sheria Battles” in Turkish sources. It seemed that Allenby had given up fighting for the time being, and decided to reorganize his forces.
East of the line, a British salient to the north of Al-Auja River posed a threat to the communication between the 7th and the 4th armies. Liman planned to attack the British salient Musallebeh and Abu Tellul Hills, and drive the enemy back to Auja river valley, removing thereby the threat. The 20th Corps was given the leading role in this plan. Capturing Musallebeh would not itself guarantee victory. It would, however, hamper Allenby’s subsequent attacks towards Salt Amman and to the north of Al-Auja River. If this strategy turned out to be successful, 4th Army positions would be settled and Allenby would no longer be capable of assaulting Salt or Amman due mainly to the narrowing of his front.
This operation against the British forces had to be a surprise attack. The main raid was to be carried out by the 20th Corps units, including the 53th Division and the 24th Division units, 2 battalions from the 3rd Cavalry Division and most importantly the German Infantry Battalions 702 and 703 infantry battalions. Ali Fuad Pasha placed these latter German battalions at the center. The 4th Army was to make a holding attack from the east to the enemy’s back in an attempt to distract them. The last order was given on 11 July 1918. All units were to launch the attack on 14 July 1918.
Gallipoli veteran General Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps garrisoned around Musallebeh and the Abu Tellul Hills. There were various posts positioned on these hills. Chauvel divided his troops into two sectors, i.e. the left sector (Br. Gen Hodgson) and the right sector (Chaytor’s NZ Mounted Division).
The Ottoman-German Attack commenced as was planned with approximately 5000 rifles on 14 July 1918 at 02.30 a.m. German troops in the middle of the Turkish line overran the 2nd Light Horse Brigade’s first positions without significant losses. They even occupied the Vaux post. This came as a complete surprise to the British. But the Turkish troops on the right and left halted after a short advance, and no further attempt was made due to the effective bombardment by the British artillery after sunrise. By 7.00 a.m. German troops were forced to withdraw. Lack of adequate drinking water contributed to the failure as was the case for the Turks at the battle of Romani.
Liman Pasha was frustrated. “Had the Turkish troops simply advanced alongside the Germans, the Musallebeh would have been overrun”, he wrote later in his memoirs. The attacks cost the Ottoman-German side about 1000 casualties and 540 prisoners. The casualities that the German troops suffered was particularly heavy, including Captain Gressman, the commander of the 703th Battalion, who lost his life during the attack.
At this certain point, we need to answer some important questions. Why did this operation fail? Was Liman Pasha right in his view that the Turkish troops didn’t support the German battalions in the Battle of Musallebeh?
In my opinion, the Battle of Musallebeh closely resembles the Battle of Hill 60 in the Gallipoli Campaign, the latter taking place between 27 August and 28 August 1915. General Cox’s forces attacked a Turkish salient, i.e. Hill 60 (Bombatepe) to form a straight line by joining Ağıldere (Anzak) and Suvla (British) positions together. It costed heavy casualties.
Liman Pasha criticized Turkish soldiers and Ali Fuad Pasha, the Commander of the 20th Corps, for not supporting the advancing German battalions who occupied the enemy’s first positions. The truth is that Turkish soldiers in the Palestine front were less resilient than before in the mid-1918. German troops enjoyed far better equipments, logistical capacities, and nutrition than their Turkish counterparts. Besides, Turkish officers and ordinary soldiers were probably aware of the Turkish – German dispute over strategy. Official Turkish history do not make any comments on the defeat, and yet, assessing Liman’s memoirs in 1921, GHQ Military History Department maintains that the Musallebeh attack was an unnecessary, futile attack and that all officers in the army, including Fevzi Pasha (Commander of the 7th Army), were against it.
Moreover, Liman Pasha claimed that many Turkish officers stationed in the Palestine front were originally called in to join the Caucasus operation, which aimed at securing control over Baku’s oil reserves. Moreover, these officers were offered high salaries and prizes in return for their services. Although I couldn’t verify this information with Turkish sources, it is known that the German – Ottoman relationship was gradually eroded to be eventually broken down entirely due to the post-Brestlitovsk (3 March 1918) order in the Caucasus. It is likely that this new order accounts for the German General Headquarters’ decision to withdraw their troops from the Palestine front. Although I do not have definitive evidence to prove my point, it seems quite apparent to me that Liman has probably used his best troops in the Musallebeh operation to prevent their retirement to Germany or the Western Front. But the result was failure and foreshadowed worse days for the Ottoman side.
Turkish WWI Official History, Birinci Dünya Harbinde Türk Harbi, Sina Filistin Cephesi , IV. Cilt 2. Kısım
Alan H. Smith, Allenby’s Gunners, Artillery in the Sinai Palestine Campaigns 1916-1918, Pen Sword Military, 2017
Liman von Sanders, Five Years in Turkey, United States Naval Institute, Anapolis 1927
Ottoman GHQ Military History department’s answers to Liman Von Sanders’ claims (It added LVS Memories Turkish 1921 edition; it was printed again by Muzaffer Albayrak/ Yeditepe Yayınevi, 2006)