The Archaeology of World War I in Palestine and the Beginning of the Modern Middle East

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By: Jeffrey A. Blakely

Most Americans understand World War I in the Middle East through the epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Who can forget Peter O’Toole’s vibrant blue eyes as he blew up trains on the Hejaz railroad in modern Saudi Arabia and Jordan? Since American forces were not involved in the Egyptian/Palestine front, it probably would have escaped American interest were it not for the film.

But World War I shaped the modern Middle East. Nation-states from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf were brought into being by the British and French mandates. Their borders were drawn by colonial administrators in European chancelleries using inadequate maps and with little regard for and no input from the local populations, which were a swirl of ethnic and religious groups. Many of these states and boundaries are now breaking down.


Figure 1. General Edmund Allenby reviewing troops in Jerusalem, 11 December 1917.

World War I also reshaped the landscape of the Middle East, and the archaeology of the war is a record of a region on the verge of immense and irreversible change. Most of Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits took place in what is now Jordan and are in part behind the current Great Arab Revolt Project that is researching the archaeology of the war in that country. Fortunately, some of these remains are adequately preserved thanks to their general isolation in a desert environment. The vast majority of World War I on the Palestine front, however, occurred west of the Jordan River and Dead Sea. There General Archibald Murray and then General Edmund Allenby (see Figure 1) commanded the forces of the British Empire against the German and Ottoman armies, led for much of the time by General Kress von Kressenstein.

Few in America have seen Forty Thousand Horsemen, the classic 1949 Australian film that culminates in the fall of Beersheba on October 31, 1917. But the story behind this front and the eventual capture of Gaza, Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Damascus leads to the eventual British Mandate in Palestine. The political and military history can be studied in detail, but the soldiers also created a record, both historical and archaeological, which is vital to archaeology.

One of the ways both armies moved people and goods was through railroads and these systems should be viewed as archaeological sites. The German and Ottoman forces built one from Ramleh to Beersheba and on to Qusseima in Egypt and another from Ramleh to Huj, just east of the Gaza region. The British forces built a railroad from the Suez Canal to Gaza and then to both Beersheba and Ramleh. These routes have cuts, embankments, viaducts, culverts, and bridges as well as cisterns and stations. These systems are now in very poor repair, effaced in some places, but good examples of the technology remain in the Nessana region in the Negev. The original Beersheba depot also still stands. Unfortunately many of the railroad bridges, as well as road bridges, were destroyed as the German and Ottoman forces retreated north in 1917 and 1918 (see Figure 2).

Blakely2_blowing bridges

Figure 2. British troops blowing up a Turkish Railroad bridge near Asluj in May 1917. In N. Annabell, Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War, 1914-1919: A Record of the Work Carried out by the Field Companies, Field Troops, Signal Troop, and Wireless Troop, During the Operations in Samoa (1914-15); Egypt, Gallipoli, Sinai, and Palestine (1914-1918); France, Belgium and Germany (1916-1919); and Mesopotamia (1916-1918). (Wanganui, N.Z.: Evans, Cobb & Sharpe, 1927), facing p. 288.

Study of the remains of World War I yields valuable information about the war itself but also broader insights into tactics. For example, trench warfare was not limited to Europe. At one point a complex system of trenches extended from Gaza to Beersheba, and British and Ottoman trenches often faced one another. A century of agriculture has eliminated many of these, but on hill slopes and ridges trenches from both sides can be studied (see Figure 3).  Since World War I was the last war fought on the ground largely by non-mechanized forces, study of these trenches may help clarify tactics applicable to the region in earlier times. The locations of the most extensive systems indicate that the most important features to protect were towns, such as Gaza, but even more importantly, wells.

Blakely3_turkish trench

Figure 3. A Turkish trench outside of Jemmameh as it appears today. Photo courtesy of the Hesi Regional Project.

Archaeologists should reflect on what this implies. The British invasion of Palestine in 1917 was the last where much of the invading army was on foot, horseback, or camelback. The biggest challenge faced by generals Murray and Allenby was the lack of water, both for animals and the soldiers. Facing a competent foe, an invasion out of Egypt would be almost reckless without controlling Gaza first, for it was only there and in the surrounding area where water was available. Fortunately we have detailed records of the British campaign that can be used to understand the supply problems facing earlier generations of armies and would be conquerors. It also highlights the problem of the reverse, attacking Egypt from Gaza. This reminds us of the foresight of the Persian king Cambyses II who, as Herodotus tells us, had allies bring water to the desert for use by the army.

Though the physical remains of the war are significant, it is the records of World War I that are the most important archaeological resource. The soldiers of the British Empire in Palestine were mostly Australians, British, Scottish, Irish, and New Zealanders. The world they saw in the Sinai and Palestine was far different than the world they knew. Just like the Medieval European pilgrims years before, they recorded what they saw because it was so foreign to their own experiences. For Palestine, far less than Europe, World War I was the beginning of a period of rapid transition from a non-industrial, non-mechanized world to a more modern world. Before 1914 there were few recently built railroads, telegraph lines, improved roads, and deep, drilled wells. Except in very small ways these rarities seem not to have impacted the very fabric of life. Documents created during the war record this vanishing world of late Ottoman Palestine in ways and with a level of detail not seen previously.

The countless military diaries and personal letters describe in detail the different way of life in Palestine. But the fact that many of the soldiers carried cameras gives us another unique window. Some of what they saw and recorded in thousands of snapshots found their way into books, libraries, museums, and archives. In the Tell el-Hesi region, for example, we have located photographs of the all-important wells of Jammama (see Figure 4) and the bridge over Wadi el-Hesi that the Germans destroyed on 9 or 10 November 1917 in order to impede the British advance. We can see the water wheels, the ovens, the grinding stones, the wet, dirt roads and fields, and the herds of goats and sheep that the British either purchased or stole for fresh food. It is dangerous to project such scenes back too far into the past, but these images are even different from photographs taken during late 1920s and 1930s.

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Figure 4. Remains of a water tank at one of three wells at Jemmameh as it appears today. Photo courtesy of the Hesi Regional Project.

Photographs by professionals who accompanied soldiers and dignitaries form another invaluable historical and ethnographic record. The Photographic Department of the American Colony was a leading institution and many examples of their wartime work are available on-line. The far larger collection of the Matson Photographic Collection, the successors to the American Colony Photographic Department, is also available on-line through the Library of Congress. Together these are a glimpse into pre-modern Palestine.

Possibly of more importance for archaeologists, however, are the aerial photographs taken by flying services of the British, the Australians, and the Germans from 1915 to 1919. In general, cameras mounted on the airplanes were used to record troop movements and trench systems. German photography centered on troops and towns beyond the British lines, and a selection of this imagery is preserved in the Bavarian War Archive in Munich. Many of these images are now on-line. Despite the military intent, many aspects of normal daily life are visible in the dispersion and character of the fields, houses, tents, and roads.

But the British Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps were engaged in a far more complicated undertaking (see Figure 5). In essence, they attempted to photograph the entirety of the Jordan Valley and Western Palestine with sufficient overlap to create military maps for use by the British forces. Two series of maps were produced based on these photographs, a largely complete 1:40,000 series and a partial 1:20,000 series. These show various field boundaries, isolated structures, wells, roads, railroads, isolated trees, topography, cut banks, and so on. These would be essential for combat troops and their precision would be vital for artillery. But for the modern archaeologist they show the early modern landscape in remarkable detail before the advent of mechanized farming and transportation. Nothing comparable is seen again until 1945 when the Royal Air Force also photographed the entirety of Palestine. But by then it was a very different world.

Blakely5_jerusalem aerial

Figure 5. Aerial view of Jerusalem on 23 November 1917. Matson Photographic Collection, Library of Congress.

World War I and its immediate aftermath introduced a greatly enhanced rail system and new macadam-based roads with countless bridges and culverts that connected major towns. With automobiles and trucks it was vastly faster to drive a far longer circuitous route on paved roads than to follow dirt paths through wadis and puddles. Older roads started to fade and become field tracks. Drilled wells and pipes brought good water to regions formerly uninhabitable on a permanent basis, soon altering where people lived, in particular in the south, and the size of sustainable populations.

We simply accept this world today, but as we look at the photographs and maps of the World War I era a far different world is visible, a world with far greater connections to the archaeological past than our own. We see it in far more detail and from many different angles than the accounts and images provided by 19th century artists and explorers like Edward Robinson, David Roberts, William McC. Thomson, (Lord) H. H. Kitchener, Claude R. Conder, Victor Guérin, George Adam Smith, and many others, even the wonderful and vital Bonfils and American Palestine Exploration Society photographic collections of the 1860s to early 1900s that were beautiful works of art, but limited in scope. The archaeological gift given to us by World War I – a global conflict that killed over 16 million – is that we can see Palestine’s land and people, in pictures, maps, and words, as never before.

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Additional Links

The Great Arab Revolt Project

The ‘Pompeii’ of the Western Front: Archaeologists find the bodies of 21 tragic World War One German soldiers in perfectly preserved trenches where they were buried alive by an Allied shell”

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2 Comments for : The Archaeology of World War I in Palestine and the Beginning of the Modern Middle East
    • Robert Merrillees
    • June 23, 2013

    Great article on the archaeology of World War I in Palestine, but like all historians, journalists and commentators in the Northern Hemisphere, the author fails to mention the records preserved in Australia itself. Why, for example, were the archives in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra not mentioned ?

  1. Reply

    this article realy helpfull

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