A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 31, 1917: The Light Horse Charge at Beersheba

George Lambert, The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917
When we last discussed the centenary of the Palestine campaign last June, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was stalled after te First and Second Battles of Gaza, with the Ottomans secure behind strong fortifications along a line running from Gazainland to Beersheba at the edge of the Negev. Archibald Murray had been relieved and a new general, Edmund Allenby, dispatched to take over the campaign.

Over the summer, Allenby moved his headquarters from Cairo to the front, received only limited reinforcement, but was ordered to advance with the forces he had.

The Ottomans had reinforced their defenses, but Minister of War Enver Pasha wanted to move to retake Baghdad from the British, and so assembled a joint Turkish-German force near Aleppo intended to move into Mesopotamia under German command, known as the Yıldırım Force. Enver's generals objected, both to being put under German command and to leaving the Palestine defenses undermanned in order to concentrate on retaking Baghdad when there were threats on other fronts.

The British operated best along the coast, where they could depend on the guns of the Royal Navy, but Murray having twice failed to break the line at Gaza, Allenby resolved to try something different. As I've noted in earlier posts, the British had slowly extended the railroad and a pipeline carrying fresh water across Sinai to the borders of Palestine. But to operate inland beyond the end of the pipeline required a source of water for the troops, and for the horses of the Desert Mounted Corps.

Allenby's first biographer, Archibald Wavell (who would himself command in Egypt in a later war), wrote that Allenby carried with him two books, the Bible and Sir George Adam Smith's Historical Geography of the Holy Land, a wonderful Victorian description of the historical landscape of Palestine. He would, then, understand the importance of finding water once he abandoned the coast road.

Gaza to Beersheba
The Ottoman lines were solidly fortified from the coast at Gaza to Hareira (modern Tel Haror in Israel), and beyond that lay the Ottoman garrison at Beersheba (Beer-Sheva) on the edge of the Negev. And, as Allenby would have known from George Adam Smith, that ancient town's Hebrew name means "Seven Wells." Allenby decided to take Beersheba by surprise with a fast-moving column and seize its wells; then, with water available, he would roll up the Turkish line along the 43 kilometers from Beersheba to Gaza.

Every effort was made to persuade the Turks that the main attack would be along the coast. Beginning october 27, field artillery and naval guns bombarded the Turkish lines at Gaza, and the main force of British and Empire forces, centered on XXI Corps, remained in front of Gaza. Meanwhile the British XX Corps and the largely Australian Desert Mounted Corps were moved quietly and by night far to the right. Allenby's center was weak and potentially vulnerable to Turkish attack, but Allenby gambled that the Turks would remain secure in their defenses.

Beersheba in 1917
Both Allenby himself and the new German overall commander of the Yıldırım Force, Erich von Falkenhayn, were veterans of the stalemated trench warfare on the Western Front (which at this moment was undergoing the bloodletting of Passchendaele), and Allenby had served with the cavalry in the Boer War, and so appreciated the importance of mobility on the battlefield. Though tanks had been used at Second Gaza, mobility at this time still meant horses, and at Beersheba that meant the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.

Sir Harry Chauvel
On October 31, the infantry force approached Beersheba from the West while the mounted troops concentrated against an Ottoman outpost at Tel el Saba east of Beersheba. Once Tel el Saba was taken, the Ottomans  began withdrawing from Beersheba, unknown to the British.

After a long day of fighting, Allenby urged Sir Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, to take Beersheba by nightfall. This produced one of history's famous cavalry charges, by the 4th and 12th Light Horse. It was the 12th that actually occupied the center of Beersheba, but the 4th got most of the credit.

The Charge
Sometimes called the last great cavalry charge, there would actually be many more in this war and later ones; cavalry charges have occurred in Afghanistan in recent times. But Beersheba became an iconic moment for the Light Horse and thus a key moment or Australian national identity; the Prime Minister and other Australian dignitaries were in Israel today for the centennial observations.

Harry Chauvel had one knighthood already; he won another (Knight Commander of the Bath) for Beersheba. At a moment when the Western Front was being bled dry at Passchendaele, Allenby had struck the first blow in a campaign that would have him in Jerusalem before Christmas.

A Busy Week for Historical Anniversaries

I'll be doing a lot of historical posts this week. Today is the 100th anniverary of the Battle of Beersheba, one of the great cavalry charges of the 20th Century and a coming-of -age moment for Australian pride, and I'll be posting on that later today. From November 1-7 the British rolled up the Ottoman line from Beersheba to Gaza and advanced into Palestine; and by December 11 General Allenby entered Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, on November 2, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a short note to Lord Rothschild. We call it the Balfour Declaration.

The last week of October and the first week of November in years ending in -17 include other events that didn't directly impact the Middle East. Half a Millennium ago today, on October 31, 1517, an obscure German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, and Europe was shaken to the root.

And a century ago on November 7, Lenin launched the Bolshevik October Revolution, so named as Russia was still on the Julian calendar, which considered it October 25.  That did eventually affect the Middle East by driving Russia out of the war and ending Russian advances in the Caucasus.

I won't be dealing with Luther or Lenin, but I'll continue to post on the centenary of the Great War in the Middle East and much besides.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Mas‘oud Barzani Steps Down

Mas‘oud Barzani's decision not to seek another term as President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) (despite his current term's having technically expired in 2015) is a rare case of a Middle Eastern leader stepping down as a consequence of his own mistakes. Barzani's insistence on forging ahead with the September independence referendum proved to be a serious miscalculation, and has led to the KRG's increasing isolation, with international air connections cut and neighboring coutries supporting Baghdad against Erbil. At this point, it will take considerable diplomatic skill to prevent civil war.

Barzani, who like his farher before him has strong tribal and family ties in northwestern Kurdistan and is likely to remain a force in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, where many of his clansmen hold important positions. A nephew, Nechirvan Idris Barzani, remains the KRG Prime Minister. The influence of the Barzani clan has dominated Kurdish politics since the days of the Mahabad Republic, and I suspect we have not seen the last of Mas‘oud Barzani.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When Raqqa was the Capital of a Real Caliph: Harun al-Rashid

The glories of Baghdad during the reign of the ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid have been much celebrated and elaborated upon in the tales of the 1001 Nights, so his reign is generally identified with the great period of Baghdad's glories. Yet of the 23 solar years, 786-809 AD, of Harun's Caliphate, for 13 of those he reigned not from Baghdad, but from Raqqa on the Euphrates. Long before Raqqa served as the capital of ISIS' self-declared "Caliphate," it was the capital of the ‘Abbasids when they ruled most of the Islamic world (except Umayyad Spain).

With the announcement today that Raqqa has fallen to the Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly the Kurdish YPG), it may be worth remembering Raqqa's previous glories. The Islamic State most likely chose Raqqa as its capital because it was one of the few cities it controlled, but it was surely aware of its role as a onetime Caliphal capital.

Raqqa was an ancient foundation, known in classical times as Kallinikos. Harun was the fifth ‘Abbasid Caliph. His grandfather the second ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (Harun's father and brother had reigned between the two), who was the real founder of Baghdad, noticed the attractive elements of Raqqa and founded a suburb he named al-Rafiqa ("the companion"). Though proud of his great new Round City of Baghdad, al-Mansur adopted Rafiqa as the ‘Abbasid summer capital. (For the nitpickers: I know Mansur did not found "Baghdad," the Persian name for the village on the Tigris which preceded Mansur's city, which was officially named Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. But everyone called it by the older name. Al-Mansur's Round City, until destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, lay where the al-Mansur neighborhood of modern Baghdad is today.)

In 796 AD, ten solar years into his Caliphate, Harun moved his administrative capital to Raqqa, though the state bureaucracy mostly remained in Baghdad. Many of the descriptions (mostly anachronistic) of the glories of Harun's Baghdad refer to Raqqa, where outside the view of the religious establishment and the Baghdad populace, Harun was more free to indulge his penchants for horse-racing, wine, and other pleasures. Some of the songs/poems in the Kitab al-Aghani refer to the pleasures of Harun's place at Raqqa.

Not much remains of ‘Abbasid-era Raqqa, even before ISIS and the fight to retake the city. Some ancient walls and the Baghdad Gate at left, less whatever damage ISIS and the air and artillery assaults on the city may have destroyed.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Iraqi Forces Enter Kirkuk

Iraqi Armed Forces entered Kirkuk today, pushing back Kurdish Peshmerga and lowering the Kurdish flag. Following a period of threats and symbolic gestures after the Kurdish independence referendum, the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are now teetering on the brink of war, especially in Kirkuk, where ethnic Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen dispute control of the city at the heart of Iraq's northern oilfields.

The US, which in many ways has encouraged autonomous Kurdistan since the early 1990s and has supported the Peshmerga as a counterweight to ISIS, now finds two of its allies, the governments in Baghdad and Erbil, at daggers drawn. The Iraqi Army and its allies, the Shi‘ite militia the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi) seem determined to take all of Kirkuk, though some  Yezidi units in the PMF are said to have refused to fight the Peshmerga, since most Yezidis are ethnic Kurds.

As a sign of the dangers posed by the Iraqi-KRG clashes, ISIS reportedly took two villages north of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga.

Dumbarton Oaks Makes Irfan Shahid's Mastetpiece Available for Free Download

After Irfan Shahid died in 2016, I lamented the fact that his multi-volume life's work, Byzantium and the Arabs, and its "Prolegomenon," Rome and the Arabs, were in several cases out of print (and not inexpensive when available).

Well, there's great news for anyone interested in the Arabs in Late Antiquity or the pre-Islamic context of the rise of Islam (especially the Ghassanids): Dumbarton Oaks has made all seven of the volumes available for free download.

If you have any interest in the subject, download them all now.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jalal Talabani, 1933-2017

Jalal Talabani, former President of Iraq and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has died in Germany at the age of 83. One of the two historic leaders of Iraq's Kurds, along with the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani (father of Kurdish Regional Government President Mas‘oud Barzani), he was also President of Iraq (a position now constitutionally reserved for a Kurd) from 2005-2014. The impact of his passing barely a week after the referendum on Kurdish independence remains to be seen.

In 1961 Talabani joined in the Kurdish uprising, originally as a supporter of the elder Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). He and his supporters, mostly based in eastern and southern Kurdistan around Suleimaniyya (now frequently known by the Kurdish form Sulaimani), and with support from leftists and intellectuals, were increasingly at odds with Barzani's KDP, which largely depended on tribal support from northern and western Kurdistan.

After the Kurdish revolt failed following a deal between Iran and Iraq in 1975, Talabani and his supporters founded the PUK. Though a rival of the KDP, the two major parties have shared power within the Kurdish Regional Government.

The PUK was, generally speaking, less enthusiastic than the KDP about the recent unilateral referendum on independence.

Talabani left the Presidency after a stroke in 2014 and went to Germany for treatment. His PUK co-founder Fuad Masum succeeded him as President. Talabani's son Qubad is Deputy Prime Minister in the Kurdish Regional Government.