This rare and important map was made by the German Army high command during the height of World War I and depicts almost all of the critical Sinai-Levant theatre of the conflict, extending from Beirut and Damascus, in the north, down to the Suez Canal, in the southwest. In February 1915, the Ottoman-German forces (headquartered in Damascus) attempted to take the Suez Canal, the lifeline of the British Empire, and then hopefully Cairo (the British headquarters in the Middle East). However, in a campaign of brutal desert fighting that see-sawed back and forth, by January 1917, the British drove the German-Ottoman army out of the Sinai and into Palestine. After a great stalemate, the British eventually pushed their opposition northwards, taking Jerusalem in December 1917. After another protracted period of deadlock, in September 1918, after winning the Battle of Megiddo, they drove the Ottoman-German forces out of Palestine, and advanced to conquer Lebanon and most of Syria by war’s end.
While he is not credited on the map as the author, the present map was prepared under the supervision of Franz Gustav Taeschner (1888 – 1867), subsequently a famous orientalist, who was then working as a mapmaker at the Kartographische Abteilung des Stellvertretenden Generalstabes der Armee in Berlin, the cartographic department of the General Staff of the German Army. The map, labelled, ‘Nur für den Dienstgebrach!’ (For official use only!), was intended for use in strategic planning only by senor German and Ottoman officers and was the best general map of the region available at the time.
The map is predicated upon a composite of the most recent surveys and features the most up-to-date information with regards to wartime infrastructure development. Areas of elevation are shown by careful shading, while coasts, rivers and wadis are precisely depicted. All cities, towns and villages of any import are marked, while, importantly, the map labels all railways (being major, small gauge, and proposed), as well as key roads; caravan routes; telegraph lines; and the locations of wells (critically important in a desert land).
Notably, the map depicts, the railway that the Ottoman-Germans completed running north-south down the heart of Palestine, from Tulkarm to Beersheba. To aid their venture in the Sinai they also built rail lines in southern Palestine down to and crossing the Egyptian boundary, along with a vast network of camps, forts and defensive works. Also shown is a good part of the Hejaz Railway that ran from Damascus down to Medina, providing the Ottomans with their only link to the Red Sea. The Suez Canal, the Ottoman-German side’s key target, runs along the lower-left corner of the map.
The present map was part of the ‘Operationskarte’ series that the German Army debuted early in the war to depict major conflict zones in Europe and the Middle East to a strategically useful scale of 1:800,000. The Operationskarte maps were the ‘gold standard’ of Central Powers cartography used during the early part of the conflict, while the maps were eventually superseded by the Karte von Mesopotamien und Syrien (a series of 29 adjoining maps), drawn to double the scale (1:400,000), covering all of the Levant and Southern Anatolia, while arching down to take in all of Iraq (the sheets were gradually rolled out between 1916 and 1918).
A Note on Editions and Rarity
The present ‘Beirut’ Operationskarte appears to have be issued in two editions, with the present being the first edition (dated 1916), followed by another dated 1917.
Both editions of the map were issued in small print runs for the classified use of senior field commanders, they were not be otherwise distributed or sold. Moreover, most examples, would have perished due to field use. Indeed, the present example shows signs of having been tacked up to a headquarters wall where it would have been presumably the focus of many a strategy session.
While we can trace about a dozen or so examples in various libraries worldwide, examples the map only very rarely ever appears on the market.
World War I in the Sinai and the Levant
During World War I, the Suez Canal was the seminal lifeline of the British Empire, the funnel through which hundreds of thousands of troops and vast amounts of critical commodities flowed in to Europe from India, Australia, New Zealand and Malaya. The 100-mile long channel was also considered by the German-Ottoman side to be the ‘weakest link’ in Britain’s global transport network. The Suez Canal was bordered on the east by the vast deserts of the Sinai Peninsula, beyond which was Ottoman Palestine. On one hand, the Sinai provided a level of protection for the Suez, as with no real roads, few waterholes and scorching temperatures that could reach 50 Celsius, it was notoriously difficult to cross. On the other hand, the place was so desolate that it would be difficult to detect any force that somehow managed to traverse the peninsula, leaving the Suez vulnerable to stealth attack. Moreover, a clear breach of the canal by a large enemy force would leave Cairo in grave danger.
The Ottoman-German desire to strike the Suez was hardly a secret. Djemal Pasha, the Ottoman Navy Minister, and one of the ‘Young Turk’ triumvirate that ruled the Sublime Porte, set off from Istanbul on November 21, 1914 to lead the Ottoman Army in Syria, publicly declaring to a large crowd that he would not return until he has conquered Egypt.
Meanwhile, the British command in Cairo was highly confident that the vast expanse of the Sinai could not be crossed by a force strong enough to overcome their entrenched defensive systems along the canal, manned by the 50,000 troops of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. They attributed Djemal’s declaration to be one of the Young Turks’ many grandiose, yet empty PR exercises. However, these assumptions bred a dangerous sense of complacency.
As it turned out, the Ottoman-German side was deadly serious about striking the Suez. While Djemal remained the figurehead, the field commander of the project was the German Colonel (later General) Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, a brilliant logistical planner, albeit not the best tactician.
In early January 1915, in Beersheba, in Southern Palestine, the Ottoman-German side assembled the Ottoman Expeditionary Force, a mixed army of Turkish regulars, a wide assortment of Arab volunteers, plus a small number of German officers; their total numbers rivalled that of the British forces in Egypt. Kressenstein gradually moved his force into the Sinai, all the while building rough roads, and setting up re-victualling stations at regular intervals to maintain a healthy army and a tight supply chain; he even extended the Palestine Railway a ways to ease the route.
Kressenstein’s plan was to methodically cross the Sinai to make a stealth strike upon the canal, hopefully breaching the British defences, and causing the enemy to fall into disarray. It was also hoped (and confidently assumed by Djemal, amongst others) that upon seeing the weakness of the British forces, the Egyptian masses would rebel against their ‘infidel occupiers’ in favour an invading force dominated by fellow Muslims. In the best-case scenario, the British side would fold, leaving the Ottoman-German force to simply march into Cairo, cheered by the people.
The Ottoman Expeditionary Force was aided by the fact that the British command decided upon a defensive strategy, to simply bunker down along the canal. They elected not to send any reconnaissance parties into the Sinai lest they be cut down by the enemy. While the British and French sent planes to fly over the desert, their coverage only extended a short distance.
In January 1915, the Ottoman-German forces crossed the Sinai in about two weeks, perfectly following Kressenstein’s masterly plan, their final approach to the canal concealed by a sandstorm. While the British gained some last-minute intelligence that the enemy was approaching, they had no idea as to where along the canal they would strike, or in what kind of numbers. Fearing being trapped between the enemy and the water; the British withdrew all their forces to the western (far side) of the canal.
On the night of February 2-4, 1915, the Ottoman-German forces struck the Suez Canal near Ismailia, mounting smaller diversionary strikes at other points. The British were caught off-guard and initially struggled to marshal their forces. However, Kressenstein’s plan depended upon a rapid and smooth crossing of the canal and the quick opening of a breach in the British lines on the opposite side. As it turned out, the crossing of the canal was conducted in clumsy, sloth manner, giving the British time to reinforce their positions. The British managed to blow up the pontoon bridge that attackers had constructed before significant numbers of Ottoman troops were able to cross the canal; those that did were promptly cut down or captured. The British then directed a hellfire of artillery upon the Ottoman-German side, rendering further crossings impossible. Realizing that their objective was lost, the Ottoman-German forces mounted a hasty and disorderly retreat eastward into the Sinai.
While the British crossed the canal and mopped up stragglers, they decided not to pursue the enemy into the desert. This decision was subsequently criticized, as many thought it possible that the British could have annihilated the Ottoman Expeditionary Force if they gave chase. However, desert warfare is inherently unpredictable (especially, as the true size of the Ottoman-German force was unknown), and it was reasoned by the local British command that it was best to guarantee the safety of the canal, and not risk an excursion into the Sinai.
The Ottoman-German force managed to safely return to their bases in Palestine and the far north-eastern Sinai, having preserved most of its men and equipment; they lived to fight another day.
For the next 18 months both sides generally assumed defensive positions. The nightmarish Gallipoli Campaign (February 1915 – January 1916) distracted the high commands of both sides, as well as severely depleting their local troop strength (as many divisions were redeployed from Egypt to fight in Turkey). Additionally, the Ottomans were concerned about the loyalty of their Arab subjects. These fears would prove to be well-founded upon the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in June 1916, when the Hashemites of Hejaz joined the British side, with the help of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
During the early part of 1916, once the Gallipoli Campaign was over, the Ottoman-German forces created a massive forward base at El Arish, in the north-eastern Sinai. There they received significant troop reinforcements and shipments of the most advanced equipment from Germany, including airplanes and mobile heavy artillery.
Meanwhile, the British established a forward base at the Qatiya Oasis (marked as ‘el Katja’ on the map), about 35 miles east of the Suez, toward the Mediterranean shore. This ultra-modern encampment was eventually served by a railway, as well freshwater pipelines running from the Suez. This position was manned by approximately 15,000 troops. The force was commanded by Lieutenant General Archibald Murray, assisted General Herbert Lawrence and the Australian General Harry Chauvel.
On April 23, 1916, Kressenstein mounted a daring raid upon the periphery of the Qatiya area. Amazingly, he surprised and easily captured an entire British cavalry unit of almost 600 men. This emboldened the Ottoman-German side towards mounting a grand operation.
Despite this event, in the weeks that followed, the British command at Qatiya naively assumed that Kressenstein would not dare mount a full-scale attack upon their forward base during the summer, when temperatures regularly exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. That being said, the British moved the location of their main camp, to the tiny village of Romani, amidst some great sand hills above the Qatiya Oasis.
During the last part of July, British advance parties reported enemy activity in the desert moving towards the Qaitiya area; however, this was mistaken for Ottoman-German reconnaissance parties.
However, during the night of August 3-4, 1916, Kressenstein managed with stealth to move his main force of 16,000 men, armed with heavy artillery within striking distance of the Romani camp.
As the sun came up on August 4, the Ottoman-German force moved in towards the British potions but was met with fierce resistance. The attackers eventually managed to take many of the highlands around Romani, seemingly a bad sign for the British. However, Kressenstein’s fierce artillery barrages fell off their mark, allowing the defenders to regroup. The British fought valiantly, while the Ottoman-German forces, suffering from heat exhaustion and a lack of ammunition, started to flag.
On August 5, the British forced the attackers off the highlands into unfavourable terrain, within the range of their heavy guns. This forced the Ottoman-German army to move further back to Qatiya, an untenable lowland position. Kressenstein then ordered a full retreat towards El Arish. The German commander, always good at logistics, managed to quickly move out his heavy artillery and valuable equipment, ensuring that they were saved for use another day. Some of the Ottoman-German detachments likewise beat a clean retreat, while others straggled, making them vulnerable to attack or capture.
The British pursued the retreating Ottoman-German army; however, they were slow out of the gate. While they did manage to take 4,000 prisoners, they failed to entrap the main body of Kressenstein’s force. The British chased the Ottomans for some days until reaching Bir el Abd, where meeting a fierce rear-guard action, they called off the pursuit. Kressenstein managed to return to El Arish with the core of his army intact and almost all his prized equipment.
While the British Imperial forces had fought brilliantly against the attack upon Romani, Whitehall was bitterly critical of Murray, Lawrence and Chauvel’s failure to hunt down and annihilate Kressenstein’s retreating army. While it is possible that this could have been achieved, in retrospect, the criticism seems a bit too harsh, as mounting such a chase in the desert in summer is certainly easier said than done. While it is true was that Kressenstein’s force lived to fight another day, so did the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Moreover, the Suez Canal was henceforth resolutely safe from attack.
The Battle of Romani marked a turning point in that prior to the event, the Ottoman-German side had always been on the offensive, while from that point onwards, they were always on the defensive.
For the next five months the British cautiously pushed eastwards, evicting the Ottoman-German forces from El Arish and the Sinai altogether by early January 1917.
The British invaded Ottoman Palestine at the beginning of 1917, winning the Battle of Rafah (January 9, 1917). However, they soon became trapped along the Ottoman-German defensive lines that ran from Gaza to Beersheba. The EEF lost the First and Second Battles of Gaza in March 1917, resulting in a stalemate that lasted over six months.
Finally, in October 1917, the British took Beersheba, and at the Third Battle of Gaza (November 1-2, 1917), managed to break the Ottoman-German lines, surging towards Jerusalem. The Battle of Jerusalem (November 17 – December 30, 1917) was long and bloody, but the EEF gained the upper hand. On December 11, before the entire environs of the city were secure, the British commander, General Edmund Allenby, famously entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate on foot (as a sign of respect for the holy city).
The EEF then lost its momentum, as it was compelled to send thousands of its troops to the Western Front in Europe to counter a great German offensive. They became bogged down in fighting in the Judean Hills and in Jordan, failing to take Amman in March 1918, while several attempts to break into northern Palestine were blocked. However, the Ottoman-German lines were worn down by the attacks and began to suffer from supply shortages.
At the Battle of Megiddo, the “Breakthrough at Nablus” (September 19-25, 1918), the British subjected a crushing defeat upon the Ottoman-German side, causing their retreat from Palestine into Lebanon and Syria. Damascus fell on October 1, 1918, and the Entente forces proceeded to chase the Ottoman-German side up to Haritan, north of Aleppo, whereupon the war in the Middle East ended upon the declaration of the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918).
References: Staatsbibliotek zu Berlin: Kart. F 1448-10<1916>; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek: Mapp. I,98 ia-Q,8 / OCLC: 163353078.