This intriguing and unique map of the Levant was made in the Spring or Summer of 1918, just in advance of the Ottomans’ ‘last stand’ in World War I and was created for the high command of the Yıldırım Army Group, a recently formed elite Ottoman-German force serving in the Palestine Campaign. The large format, separately issued map, entitled in manuscript, “The Yıldırım Army Group Bases showing Health Stations for People and Animals…”, consists of three scenes, being a main map, and two insets, of which all aspects are built upon the template of a black skeletal map which outlines basic topographical features, names key cities and towns, and details transportation routes. The main map embraces the coastal Northern Levant and southcentral Anatolia, from Haifa (today in Israel) and Dera’a (Syria), in the south, and then as far north as Adana, in today’s Turkey; in between are the major centres of Damascus, Beirut, Tripoli, Homs, Aleppo and Iskenderun. The inset in the lower right extends the coverage southward, as far as Ma’an (Jordan), and includes Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Amman and Nablus. Above, the third inset, embraces eastern Syria, notably the Euphrates Valley, including Deir ez-Zor. Of note the black template labels all major roads and, most importantly, the railway system which was the lifeblood of the Central Powers’ operations. These delineated lines include a key stretch of the Baghdad Railway, in the north; the rail line down from there to Damascus; the Damascus-Beirut Railway; the northern part of the Hejaz Railway; and the Jezreel Valley Railway, connecting Dera’a to Haifa. The underlying map template, which is printed upon thick paper, could have been made almost anywhere, but likely either in Istanbul or Damascus.
Overlaying the black map template are a series of red handstamps and manuscript additions, perhaps added in Damascus, for the Yıldırım Army Group high command. First, the dashed lines and numbering in orange crayon divide the region into 5 military zones. However, the dominant feature of the map are the copious clusters of red handstamps placed at virtually every major city and town, representing numerous different symbols for the locations of Ottoman army hospitals, veterinary clinics (for cavalry), as well as the locations of barracks, troop placements, munitions supplies and the services available to Ottoman and German forces (including post offices, telegraph offices, mechanics’ garages, petroleum depots, etc.). The map’s emphasis on medical and veterinary services are features not often seen on military maps, even though they were always necessary factors in maintaining military success.
Featuring highly sensitive, secret information, the map was clearly designed to have been hung on the walls of an Ottoman Army HQ (it even sports tack marks in the corners) for strategic consultation by senior officers. It is brilliantly successful in conveying a vast amount of sophisticated information in a simple and easily digestible fashion, ideal for guiding those who had to make quick decisions under high pressure. Additionally, in manuscript, the map labels several additional towns that are not present upon the template.
The Yıldırım (‘Thunderbolt’) Army Group was a special elite force of the Ottoman Army formed in June 1917, just after the war in the Levant had turned strongly against the Central Powers. It had a joint Ottoman-German command structure and included the highly competent German ‘Asia Corps’. The best and most experienced commanders were charged with leading the force, which included many crack troops trained in infiltration tactics, supplied with the latest close-combat weapons and backed by modern heavy artillery. Comprised of 150,000 troops, the Yıldırım Army was intended to turbo-charge the Ottoman defense of Palestine, and while ultimately unsuccessful, it succeeded in greatly hindering the progress of the British forces. The force was initially led by Field Marshall Eric von Falkenhayn, the former Prussian War Minister, but in February 1918, he was replaced by General Otto Liman von Sanders, a respected veteran of the Gallipoli Campaign; the present map was made under Sanders’ watch. The army was led in its final days by General Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later known as ‘Atatürk’, the founding President of Turkey) when it mounted the Ottomans’ last stand in World War I in the Levant.
We have come across literally hundreds of World War I military maps, both in the trade and in institutional collections, but we have never encountered a map anything like this, in terms of its design and mode of production. Perhaps a handful of examples of the map were made (with each being slightly different from each other), although it is more than likely that this is only survivor, as almost all such ephemeral wartime wall maps perished.
While the map is not dated, its place in the chronology of the war can be determined by the red handstamped details on the map. First, the map only shows the Ottoman positions as extending in Palestine only as far south as the Judean Hills. This indicates that the map postdated the British capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. Also, the map shows no Ottoman positions to the immediate north and east of Jerusalem suggesting that the map dated from after March 1918, when the British managed to gain control of that area. The concentration of Ottoman positions and the seeming ‘line of control’ as running through the Judean Hills, to south Nablus, and down the Jordan River (the Ottomans retained control of Transjordan until very late in the war), indicates that the present map was made in the spring or summer of 1918, when the Ottoman-German and British positions in Palestine were deadlocked. Indeed, the Central Powers defensive positions in the Judean Hills were so formidable, that despite constant herculean efforts, the British were unable to progress for six months.
The deadlock in the Judean Hills was only resolved by the momentous British victory at the Battle of Megiddo (September 19-25, 1918), the ‘Breakthrough at Nablus’, following which the Entente forces (the British and their Arab allies) invaded Syria and Lebanon. This set up the final act of World War I in the Levant, the ‘Pursuit to Haritan’, the flight of the Ottoman forces, moving just ahead of the British, all the way to a town in northern Syria, whereupon the end of hostilities was declared on October 30, 1918.
The Ottomans’ Last Stand: WWI in the Levant and the ‘Pursuit to Haritan’
During World War I, the Levant and Egypt were considered to be strategically critical for both sides. Britain had to defend the Suez Canal, the lifeline of its empire, while Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, mainly populated by Arabs who resented the sultan’s rule, were seen to comprise the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Ottoman Empire, as well as providing the bridgehead between Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula and the holiest cities of Islam (Mecca and Medina).
In this theatre, the British Imperial forces, headquartered in Cairo, assumed the form of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). The Central Powers side, headquartered in Damascus, was dominated by Ottoman Troops, but had a mixed Turkish-German command structure. For much of the war, this force was dominated by the Ottoman Fourth Army, technically led the Djemal Pasha, one of the ‘Young Turk’ triumvirs, although it was commanded in the field by the German Colonel Kress von Kressenstein. Laterally, and relevant to the present map, the Central Powers reenforced their effort upon the formation
(in June 1917) of the Yıldırım (‘Thunderbolt’) Army Group, which featured well-armed crack troops and was led successively by the former Prussian War Minister, Field Marshal Eric von Falkenhayn, and the famed Gallipoli veterans, the German General Liman von Sanders and General Mustafa Kemal Pasha (‘Atatürk’).
For the first two years of the war, the Ottoman-German side was generally on the offensive, terrifying the British by invading the Sinai and mounting two (albeit unsuccessful) assaults upon the Suez Canal.
However, in 1916, the British were gradually able to improve their performance in Egypt. Meanwhile, the Arab Revolt (June 1916 – October 1918), in which forces loyal to the Sharif of Mecca, advised by ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, mounted an insurgency against the Ottomans in Hejaz and Transjordan, began to sap the Sublime Porte’s strength and their authority in the Arab World.
By the beginning of 1917, the EEF had turned the tables, crossing onto Palestine and, albeit with difficulty, taking Jerusalem in December of that year.
However, the EEF seen lost its momentum, as it was compelled to send thousands of troops to the Western Front to counter a great German offensive. Despite valiant efforts, they became bogged down fighting in the Judean Hills and failed on two separate occasions to open up a new front by invading Transjordan in the Spring of 1918. However, the Ottoman-German side was worn down by the attacks and began to suffer from supply shortages.
The present map was made during the stalemate period, in the spring or summer of 1918, and graphically illustrates how the strong concentration of Ottoman forces in the Northern Levant would have discouraged the northward progress of British forces.
The gridlock was only shattered by the Battle of Megiddo, the ‘Breakthrough at Nablus’ (September 19-25, 1918), whereupon a force of 70,000 British Imperial troops, under General Edmund Allenby, backed by over 4,000 warriors loyal to Emir Faisal of Hejaz, broke the lines of an Ottoman force of 35,000 troops commanded by Liman von Sanders.
In the wake of Megiddo, the EEF and their Hejazi allies embarked upon a campaign to conquer Syria and Lebanon in anticipation of the end of the war; such an achievement would strengthen the Entente’s leverage in any post-war settlement.
In what became known as the ‘Pursuit to Haritan’ the British-Hejazi forces chased the Ottoman Yıldırım Army and their allied detachments as they retreated northwards. The Entente forces mounted their offensive in two prongs, one departed from Haifa along the coast, on September 29, while the other would attempt to conquer Damascus (the headquarters of the Ottoman-German forces in the Levant and Arabia), before moving north through the interior, up the Beqaa Valley, and then over to Homs, Hama and Aleppo.
The Entente forces captured Damascus on October 1, 1918, just after the Ottoman-Germans beat a hasty retreat northward. Lawrence of Arabia, who was part of the conquering force, was disappointed not to have been amongst the first Entente troops to enter the city, especially as he envisaged Damascus as the future capital of an independent and unified Arab state.
Deploying from Damascus on October 3, the interior offensive forces entered Baalbek, in the Beqaa Valley, on October 10, after the town had been abandoned by the Ottomans. Next, the Entente forces briefly besieged Homs, taking the city on October 16. From there it was considered fairly easy running towards Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the Entente force’s coastal campaign made short work of conquering Lebanon, encountered only very light resistance. They took Beirut on October 10, and Tripoli three days later. After consolidating their gains, the coastal force was able to re-enforce the inland Entente armies. The scene was now set for the attack on Aleppo.
Aleppo was considered to be the ultimate strategic prize in the Levant. With its famous ancient bazaar, Aleppo, with a population of 150,000, was the gateway to the heart of the Ottoman Empire. It was also in close proximity to the vital railway junction at Mouslimie Station, where the Levant-Hejaz railway system linked up with the Baghdad Railway, both systems being the main arteries of the Central Powers’ war effort in the Middle East.
Aleppo was defenced by two Yıldırım Army divisions, one led by Nehen Pasha, and the other by Mustafa Kemal Pasha. Unfortunately for the defenders, they had only 7,000 troops at the disposal, as most of the Ottoman forces had withdrawn further to the north.
On October 23, the British commanders asked Mustafa Kemal Pasha to surrender the city, in return for favourable terms. This was refused.
On October 25, the forces of Emir Faisal of Hejaz took the initiative, mounting a daytime attack, but this was repulsed. However, the Hejazi forces executed another attack on the night of October 25-26, which caught the Ottomans on the back foot, and Aleppo fell, although only after hours of brutal street-by-street, hand-to-hand combat.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s force held at Haritan, today commonly known in English as Hraytan. On October 26, in what became known as the ‘Charge at Hartian’, Indian detachments of the EEF, the Jodhpore and Mysore Lancer Regiments, made what at first seemed like a rash frontal attack upon the Ottoman lines (they were far outnumbered), and the attack was repulsed. The Indians tried again and were, once again, pushed back. However, while unsuccessful in and of itself, the frontal attacks proved strategically successful, as the following night they compelled Kemal to withdraw his force to Deir el Jemel, 32 km away from Aleppo, giving the Entente forces some valuable breathing room. Importantly, the Charge at Haritan was the last significant military action fought in the Levant during World War I.
On October 29, Hejazi forces took control of the vital railway junction at Mouslimie Station, so cutting all contact between Istanbul and the Ottoman forces in Iraq (as the railway was paired with the telegraph lines).
As it turned out, delegates representing the Sublime Porte and Britain signed the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918), which formally ended the Ottoman’s participation in World War I. It also ensured the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Middle East and the Republic of Turkey.
References: N/A – Map is an Unrecorded, Unique Item.