Turks and Germans in Sinai

"Mit den Turken zum Suezkanal" ("With the Turks to the Suez Canal") by Friedrich Frieherr Kress von Kressenstein ("Im Ha'turkim El Ta'alat Suez" - Hebrew translation by Michael Guggenheimer, introduction and editing by Dr. Yigal Sheffy, Maarachot, 304 pages, NIS 78).

"Mit den Turken zum Suezkanal" ("With the Turks to the Suez Canal") by Friedrich Frieherr Kress von Kressenstein ("Im Ha'turkim El Ta'alat Suez" - Hebrew translation by Michael Guggenheimer, introduction and editing by Dr. Yigal Sheffy, Maarachot, 304 pages, NIS 78)

The appearance of this book, first published in 1938, is a welcome event for readers of Hebrew. Until now, the Hebrew reading public could only learn about World War I in this part of the world from translated British sources like Field Marshall Archibald Wavell's "Palestine Campaigns" and "The Great War" by Cyril Falls. For T.E. Lawrence's raids behind Turkish lines, there were his memoirs and Amram Schayer's "Lawrence, Revolt in the Desert - and Afterwards." For the story of the pro-British Jewish underground operating in Palestine, there was "Nili" by Yosef Nedava et al.

Now, for the first time, we can read about these events from the perspective of the Germans, who were allies of the Turkish rulers of Palestine and partners in the joint German-Turkish campaign against the British in Egypt.

Kress von Kressenstein was an adviser to Turkish headquarters and later a field commander. "Mit den Turken zum Suezkanal" ("With the Turks to the Suez Canal") is a careful documentation of his four years in Palestine, skillfully translated into Hebrew by Michael Guggenheimer and ably edited by Dr. Yigal Sheffy, an expert on World War I military intelligence, with the assistance of Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Zvi Ofer.

Ostensibly, it is the story of a colossal failure. The Turks, who joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria, placed a vast army at the disposal of their allies in order to open up another front, against the British occupiers in Egypt, as the war raged in Europe. Kress portrays the fascinating saga of how the Turks and their German advisers crossed the Sinai desert to reach the Suez Canal, waging a heroic battle not only against the enemy, but against the harsh climate, serious logistical problems and the stupidity of their officers.

It is a highly readable story written in a rich prose style that even non-experts in military matters will enjoy. The Turks lost Palestine in the end, but Kress feels the military campaign was not in vain: Many British troops who would otherwise have fought against the Germans in Europe were stopped in their tracks.

Kress is complimentary toward the British, but he says little about the battle that knocked the last nail into the coffin of the Turks in Palestine: the Battle of Megiddo in 1918. This was one of the British Army's most glorious victories - a tactical masterpiece of surprise, troop movement and fire, brilliantly orchestrated by General Allenby (deservedly called Lord Allenby of Megiddo from then on). In 38 days, Allenby's troops advanced 600 kilometers, fighting all the while. They wiped out almost the whole Turkish army in Palestine and captured 76,000 POWs, 360 artillery pieces and a vast quantity of booty. British losses totaled 853 dead, 4,482 wounded and 385 missing in action. But for more on that, one must go back to the British sources.

The observations of this sharp-eyed German general are illuminating and often amusing. The passages in which he describes tough German officers trying to instill Prussian discipline in their Turkish recruits will certainly bring a smile to the lips of any IDF officer who has trained South Lebanese Army troops.

But this book is a gem not only for lovers of military history. It is interesting to see how Palestine of 90 years ago appeared to Kress: "A phenomenon that was extremely odd was how the war caused an unprecedented upsurge in the battle between Zionists and non-Zionists, a battle that turned ugly and did little to promote Jewish interests in general. At the same time, the non-Zionists - i.e., the Jews without political goals, mainly belonging to the Orthodox stream - were the overwhelming majority in Palestine. The Zionists living in Palestine scarcely made up five percent of the population, but they were very active and fanatical, and terrorized the non-Zionists. During the war, the latter tried to free themselves from this terror with the help of the Turks. They feared, justifiably, that the activities of the Zionists would ruin the good relations that existed between the long-time Jewish inhabitants of Palestine and the Arabs, and that the Turks might adopt hard-line policies that would harm them, too."

Page 123 is recommended reading for the Israeli minister of transport, who will no doubt turn green with envy: Kress describes how German engineer Heinrich Meisner (Meisner Pasha) built 156 kilometers of railroad tracks, from Silat al-Dahr (north of Sebastia, near Nablus) to Be'er Sheva, within six months. Even the cost was reasonable.

On the other hand, the Turks came up with an original solution to the problem of the "old woman in the hospital corridor." When Enver Pasha, the acting commander-in-chief of the Turkish army, visited Be'er Sheva, his men buckled down and "cleaned up" the military hospital, which was terribly neglected and overcrowded. "I couldn't believe my eyes," writes Kress. "When Enver arrived at the hospital, everything was in perfect order. Each bed had a single patient in it, and all the people who had been lying on the floor between the beds had disappeared. I checked into the matter, and found out that the day before his visit, all the excess patients had been loaded on camels and sent off to the desert so that the pasha would not have to see such an unpleasant sight."

While Kress tries to describe the atmosphere and thinking in the Turkish camp, it is hard for him to avoid sounding patronizing. For the authentic Turkish version of what went on in those days, it seems that we will have to wait for the Turkish books to be translated.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that one of the Turkish generals who fought in Palestine was Mustafa Kemal, commander of the Seventh Army, who is mentioned briefly in Kress's book. Kress, however, says nothing about a memo Kemal sent to his superiors in Constantinople in September 1917, although it had already been made public by the time Kress's book came out. In it, Kemal questions the wisdom of the offensives initiated by the Germans, and calls for not a single Turkish soldier to be sacrificed to further the goals of the Germans in the Middle East. Four Turkish farmers work day and night to maintain one soldier, he argues - and for what?

Kemal's description of what a war does at home is particularly noteworthy: "The whole relationship between the government and the people has evaporated. `The people' are nothing but women, children and the disabled. For them, it is the government that is driving them to starvation and perdition. The government has no teeth. Anarchy reigns in public life. Every step taken by the government increases the animosity of the public. All the officials are corrupt and accept bribes. The police force has ceased functioning. The economy is collapsing at an alarming pace. Citizens and civil servants alike have no faith in the future. The survival instinct causes even the most decent people to set any noble thought aside. If the war continues, the whole country will be dashed to bits."

When this same Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, established modern Turkey, he practiced what he preached: Turkey withdrew to its own borders, signed peace treaties with all its neighbors, and invested all its energy in nation-building.

Uri Dromi is the publications director of the Israel Democracy Institute.