CHAPTER XVII. A GREAT FEAT OF WAR
From the story of how Jerusalem was made secure (for we may hope the clamour of war has echoed for the last time about her Holy Shrines and venerable walls) we may turn back to the coastal sector and see how the XXIst Corps improved a rather dangerous situation and laid the foundations for the biggest break-through of the world struggle. For it was the preparations in this area which made possible General Allenby's tremendous gallop through Northern Palestine and Syria, and gave the Allies Haifa, Beyrout, and Tripoli on the seaboard, and Nazareth, Damascus, and Aleppo in the interior. The foundations were soundly laid when the XXIst Corps crossed the Auja before Christmas 1917, and the superstructure of the victory which put Turkey as well as Bulgaria and Austria out of the war was built up with many difficulties from the sure base provided by the XXIst Corps line. The crossing of the Auja was a great feat of war, and this is the first time I am able to mention the names of those to whom the credit of the operation is due. It was one of the strange regulations of the Army Council in connection with the censorship that no names of the commanders of army corps, divisions, brigades, or battalions should be mentioned by correspondents. Nor indeed was I permitted to identify in my despatches any particular division, yet the divisions concerned - the 52nd, 53rd, 54th, 60th, and so on - had often been mentioned in official despatches; the enemy not only knew they were in Palestine but were fully aware of their positions in the line; their commanders and brigadiers were known by name to the Turks. On the other hand, in describing a certain battle I was allowed to speak of divisions of Lowland troops, Welshmen and Londoners, allusions which would convey (if there were anything to give away) precisely as much information to the dull old Turk and his sharper Hun companion in arms as though the 52nd, 53rd, and 60th Divisions had been explicitly designated. This practice seemed in effect to be designed more with the object of keeping our people at home in the dark, of forbidding them glory in the deeds of their children and brothers, than of preventing information reaching the enemy. Some gentleman enthroned in the authority of an official armchair said 'No,' and there was an end of it. You could not get beyond him. His decision was final, complete - and silly - and the correspondent was bound hand and foot by it. Doubtless he would have liked one to plead on the knee for some little relaxation of his decision. Then he would have answered 'No' in a louder tone. Let me give one example from a number entered in my notebooks of how officers at home exercised their authority. In January 1917 the military railway from the Suez Canal had been constructed across the Sinai Desert and the first train was run into El Arish, about ninety miles from the Canal. I was asked by General Headquarters to send a cablegram to London announcing the fact that railhead was at El Arish, the town having been captured a fortnight previously after a fine night march. That message was never published, and I knew it was a waste of time to ask the reason. I happened to be in London for a few days in the following August and my duties took me to the War Office. A Colonel in the Intelligence Branch heard I was there and sent for me to tell me I had sent home information of value to the enemy. I reminded him there was a G.H.Q. censorship in Egypt which dealt with my cablegrams, and asked the nature of the valuable information which should have been concealed. 'You sent a telegram that the railway had reached El Arish when the Turks did not know it was beyond Bir el Abd.' Abd is fifty miles nearer the Suez Canal than El Arish. What did this officer care about a request made by G.H.Q. to transmit information to the British public? He knew better than G.H.Q. what the British public should know, and he was certain the enemy thought we were hauling supplies through those fifty miles of sand to our troops at El Arish, an absolutely physical impossibility, for there were not enough camels in the East to do it. But he did not know, and he should have known, being an Intelligence officer, that the Turks were so far aware of where our railhead was that they were frequently bombing it from the air. I had been in these bombing raids and knew how accurately the German airmen dropped their eggs, and had this Intelligence officer taken the trouble to inquire he would have found that between thirty and forty casualties were inflicted by one bomb at El Arish itself when railhead was being constructed. This critic imagined that the Turk knew only what the English papers told him. If the Turks' knowledge had been confined to what the War Office Intelligence Branch gave him credit for he would have been in a parlous state. While this ruling of the authorities at home prevailed it was impossible for me to give the names of officers or to mention divisions or units which were doing exceptionally meritorious work. Unfortunately the bureaucratic interdict continued till within a few days of the end of the campaign, when I was told that, 'having frequently referred to the work of the Australians, which was deserved,' the mention of British and Indian units would be welcomed. We had to wait until within a month of the end of the world war before the War Office would unbend and realise the value of the best kind of propaganda. No wonder our American friends consider us the worst national advertisers in the world.