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When General Allenby arrived in Egypt in June 1917, and assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, British prestige in the East was at a very low ebb. The evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915, followed by the fall of Kut el Amara four months later, and by our two unsuccessful attacks on Gaza in the spring of the following year, had invested the Turkish arms with a legend of invincibility which was spreading rapidly in all Moslem countries. For the first time in seven centuries, sang the journalistic bards of Stamboul, the followers of Islam had triumphed over the Infidel; Allah was leading the Faithful to victory; the Empire of the Moslems was at hand.
The fall of Baghdad in March 1917 somewhat dashed these high hopes, it is true. But the Germans, to whom the city was, at the moment, of no more importance than any other dirty Eastern village, had little difficulty in persuading the Turks that its loss was a mere incident in the world war, which would be more than made good in the final, and glorious, peace terms. Nevertheless, the Turks insisted on making an effort to recapture the place, and for this purpose a special, picked force, known as the Yilderim,[Pg 2] or Lightning, Army Group, was in process of formation in northern Syria at this time. The command of this group had been entrusted to the redoubtable von Falkenhayn, who was at Aleppo, directing the training and organisation of the troops.
Comforted by highly coloured accounts of the efficiency and fighting value of this force, the Turks rapidly recovered from the effects of the loss of Baghdad. Bombastic articles, inspired by Potsdam, began to make their appearance in the Turkish press, chronicling the doings of the 'Lightning' armies. They were to recapture Baghdad, drive the British into the Persian Gulf, and then march to the 'relief' of India. Afterwards the presumptuous little force that had dared to oppose the Turks' advance into their own province of Egypt would be dealt with in a suitable manner; Egypt would be delivered; and the Suez Canal, 'the jugular vein of the British Empire,' would be severed.
Aided by such writings, and supported by German money, Pan-Islamic emissaries were busily engaged in every Moslem or partly Moslem country, stirring up the Faithful to sedition and revolt. India, Afghanistan, Persia, and Egypt were all in a state of suppressed excitement and unrest, and it is probable that one more British reverse in the East would have been sufficient to set all these countries in a blaze. The least imaginative can form some idea of the tremendous consequences that such an upheaval would have had upon the war in general. Yet the newspapers of that time show clearly that there was a considerable, and vociferous, body of public opinion, both in England and in France, that regarded the Syrian and Mesopotamian campaigns as useless and extravagant 'side-shows,' and clamoured insistently for the recall of the troops engaged in them.
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