About the middle of August it was the intention that the attack on the Turks' front line in Southern Palestine should be launched some time in September. General Allenby knew his force would not be then at full strength, but what was happening at other points in the Turkish theatres of operations might make it necessary to strike an early blow at Gaza to spoil enemy plans elsewhere. However, it was soon seen that a September advance was not absolutely necessary. General Allenby decided that instead of making an early attack it would be far more profitable to wait until his Army had been improved by a longer period of training, and until he had got his artillery, particularly some of his heavy batteries, into a high state of efficiency. He would risk having to take Jerusalem after bad weather had set in rather than be unable, owing to the condition of his troops, to exploit an initial success to the fullest extent. How wholly justified was this decision the subsequent fighting proved, and it is doubtful if there was ever a more complete illustration of the wisdom of those directing war policy at home submitting to the cool, balanced calculations of the man on the spot. The extra six weeks spent in training and preparation were of incalculable service to the Allies. I have heard it said that a September victory in Palestine would have had its reflex on the Italian front, and that the Caporetto disaster would not have assumed the gigantic proportions which necessitated the withdrawal to Italy of British and French divisions from the Western Front and prevented Cambrai being a big victory. That is very doubtful. On the contrary, a September battle in Palestine before we were fully ready to follow the Turks after breaking and rolling up their line, even if we had succeeded in doing this completely, might have deprived us of the moral effect of the capture of Jerusalem and of the wonderful influence which that victory had on the whole civilised world by reason of the sacrifices the Commander-in-Chief made to prevent any fighting at all in the precincts of the Holy City. Of this I shall speak later, giving the fullest details at my command, for there is no page in the story of British arms which better upholds the honour and chivalry of the soldier than the preservation of the Holy Place from the clash of battle.

That last six weeks of preparation were unforgettable. The London newspapers I had the honour to represent as War Correspondent knew operations were about to begin, but I did not cable or mail them one word which would give an indication that big things were afoot. They never asked for news, but were content to wait till they could tell the public that victory was ours. In accordance with their practice throughout the war the London Press set an example to the world by refraining from publishing anything which would give information of the slightest value to the enemy. It was a privilege to see that victory in the making. Some divisions which had allotted to them the hardest part of the attack on Beersheba were drawn out of the line, and forming up in big camps between Belah and Shellal set about a course of training such as athletes undergo. They had long marches in the sand carrying packs and equipment. They were put on a short allowance of water, except for washing purposes. They dug, they had bombing practice, and with all this extra exercise while the days were still very hot they needed no encouragement to continue their games. Football was their favourite sport, and the British Tommy is such a remarkable fellow that it was usual to see him trudge home to camp looking 'fed up' with exercise, and then, after throwing off his pack and tunic, run out to kick a ball. The Italian and French detachments used to look at him in astonishment, and doubtless they thought his enthusiasm for sport was a sore trial. He got thoroughly fit for marches over sand, over stony ground, over shifting shingle. During the period of concentration he had to cross a district desperately bad for marching, and it is more than probable the enemy never believed him capable of such endurance. He was often tired, no doubt, but he always got to his destination, was rarely footsore, and laughed at the worst parts of his journey. The sand was choking, the flies were an irritating pest, equipment became painfully heavy; but a big, brave heart carried Tommy through his training to a state of perfect condition for the heavy test.

To enable about two-thirds of the force to carry on a moving battle while the remainder kept half the enemy pinned down to his trench system on his right-centre and right, it was necessary to reinforce strongly the transport service for our mobile columns. The XXIst Corps gave up most of its lorries, tractors, and camels to XXth Corps. These had to be moved across from the Gaza sector to our right as secretly as possible, and they were not brought up to load at the supply depots at Shellal and about Karm until the moment they were required to carry supplies for the corps moving to attack.

It is not easy to convey to any one who has not seen an army on the move what a vast amount of transport is required to provision two corps. In France, where roads are numerous and in comparatively good condition, the supply problem could be worked out to a nicety, but in a roadless country where there was not a sound half-mile of track, and where water had to be developed and every gallon was precious, the question of supply needed most anxious consideration, and a big margin had to be allowed for contingencies. It will give some idea of the requirements when I state that for the supply of water alone the XXth Corps had allotted to it 6000 camels and 73 lorries. To feed these water camels alone needed a big convoy.

We got an impression of the might and majesty of an army in the field as we saw it preparing to take the offensive. The camp of General Headquarters where I was located was situated north of Rafa. The railway ran on two sides of the camping ground, one line going to Belah and the other stretching out to Shellal, where everything was in readiness to extend the iron road to the north-east of Karm, on the plain which, because the Turks enjoyed complete observation over it, had hitherto been No Man's Land. We saw and heard the traffic on this section of the line. It was enormous. Heavily laden trains ran night and day with a mass of stores and supplies, with motor lorries, cars, and tractors; and the ever-increasing volume of traffic told those of us who knew nothing of the date of 'Zero day' that it was not far off. The heaviest trains seemed to run at night, and the returning empty trains were hurried forward at a speed suggesting the urgency of clearing the line for a fully loaded train awaiting at Rafa the signal to proceed with its valuable load to railhead. Perfect control not only on the railway system but in the forward supply yards prevented congestion, and when a train arrived at its destination and was split up into several parts, well-drilled gangs of troops and Egyptian labourers were allotted to each truck, and whether a lorry or a tractor had to be unshipped and moved down a ramp, or a truck had to be relieved of its ten tons of tibbin, boxes of biscuit and bully, or of engineers' stores, the goods were cleared away from the vicinity of the line with a celerity which a goods-yard foreman at home would have applauded as the smartest work he had ever seen. There was no room for slackers in the Army, and the value of each truck was so high that it could not be left standing idle for an hour. The organisation was equally good at Kantara, where the loading and making up of trains had to be arranged precisely as the needs at the front demanded. Those remarkable haulers, the caterpillar tractors, cut many a passage through the sand, tugging heavy guns and ammunition, stores for the air and signal services, machinery for engineers and mobile workshops, and sometimes towing a weighty load of petrol to satisfy their voracious appetites for that fuel. The tractors did well. Sand was no trouble to them, and when mud marooned lorries during the advance in November the rattling, rumbling old tractor made fair weather of it. The mechanical transport trains will not forget the service of the tractors on the morning after Beersheba was taken. From railhead to the spot where Father Abraham and his people fed their flocks the country was bare and the earth's crust had yielded all its strength under the influence of the summer sun. Loaded lorries under their own power could not move more than a few yards before they were several inches deep in the sandy soil, but a Motor Transport officer devised a plan for beating down a track which all lorries could use. He got a tractor to haul six unladen lorries, and with all the vehicles using their own power the tractor managed to pull them through to Beersheba, leaving behind some wheel tracks with a hard foundation. A hundred lorries followed, the drivers steering them in the ruts, and they made such good progress that by the afternoon they had deposited between 200 and 300 tons of supplies in Beersheba. The path the tractor cut did not last very long, but it was sound enough for the immediate and pressing requirements of the Army.

Within a month of his arrival in Egypt, General Allenby had visited the whole of his front line and had decided the form his offensive should take. As soon as his force had been made up to seven infantry divisions and the Desert Mounted Corps, and they had been brought up to strength and trained, he would attack, making his main offensive against the enemy's left flank while conducting operations vigorously and on an extensive scale against the Turkish right-centre and right. The principal operation against the left was to be conducted by General Chetwode's XXth Corps, consisting of four infantry divisions and the Imperial Camel Brigade, and by General Chauvel's Desert Mounted Corps. General Bulfin's XXIst Corps was to operate against Gaza and the Turkish right-centre south-east of that ancient town. If the situation became such as to make it necessary to take the offensive before the force had been brought up to strength, the XXIst Corps would have had to undertake its task with only two divisions, but in those circumstances its operations were to be limited to demonstrations and raids. By throwing forward his right, the XXIst Corps Commander was to pin the enemy down in the Atawineh district, and on the left he would move against the south-western defences of Gaza so as to lead the Turks to suppose an attack was to come in this sector. That movement being made, the XXth Corps and Desert Mounted Corps were to advance against Beersheba, and, having taken it, to secure the valuable water supply which was known to have existed there since Abraham dug the well of the oath which gave its name to the town. Because of water difficulties it was considered vital that Beersheba should be captured in one day, a formidable undertaking owing to the situation of the town, the high entrenched hills around it and the long marches for cavalry and infantry before the attack; and in drawing up the scheme based on the Commander-in-Chief's plan, the commanders of XXth Corps and Desert Mounted Corps had always to work on the assumption that Beersheba would be in their hands by nightfall of the first day of the attack. General Barrow's Yeomanry Mounted Division was to remain at Shellal in the gap between XXth Corps and XXIst Corps in case the enemy should attempt to attack the XXth Corps' left flank. Having dealt with the enemy in Beersheba, General Chetwode with mounted troops protecting his right was to move north and north-west against the enemy's left flank, to drive him from his strong positions at Sheria and Hareira, enveloping his left flank and striking it obliquely.

While the XXth Corps was moving against this section of the enemy line, Desert Mounted Corps was to bring up the mounted division left at Shellal, and passing behind the XXth Corps to march on Nejile, where there was an excellent water supply, and the wadi Hesi, so as to threaten the left rear and the line of retreat of the Turkish Army.

It was always doubtful whether XXth Corps would be able to close up the gap between it and the XXIst Corps owing to the length of its marches and the distance it was from railhead, and the scheme therefore provided that the XXIst Corps should confirm successes gained on our right by forcing its way through the tremendously strong Gaza position to the line of the wadi Hesi and joining up with Desert Mounted Corps. A considerable number of XXth Corps troops would then return to the neighbourhood of railhead and release the greater part of its transport for the infantry of XXIst Corps moving up the Maritime Plain.

This, in summary form, was the scheme General Allenby planned before the middle of August, and though the details were not, and could not be, worked out until a couple of months had passed, it is noteworthy as showing that, notwithstanding the moves an enterprising enemy had at his command in a country where positions were entirely favourable to him, where he had water near at hand, where the transport of supplies was never so serious a problem for him as for us when we got on the move, and where he could make us fight almost every step of the way, the Commander-in-Chief foresaw and provided for every eventuality, and his scheme worked out absolutely and entirely 'according to plan,' to use the favourite phrase of the German High Command.

When the Corps Commanders began working out the details two of the greatest problems were transport and water. Only patience and skilful development of known sources of supply would surmount the water difficulty, and we had to wait till the period of concentration before commencing its solution. But to lighten the transport load which must have weighed heavily on Corps Staffs, the Commander-in-Chief agreed to allow the extension of the railway east of Shellal to be begun sooner than he had provided for. It was imperative that railway construction should not give the enemy an indication of our intentions. If he had realised the nature and scope of our preparations he would have done something to counteract them and to deny us that element of surprise which exerted so great an influence on the course of the battle. General Allenby, however, was willing to take some risks to simplify supply difficulties, and he ordered that the extension to a railway station north-east of Karm should be completed by the evening of the third day before the attack, that a Decauville line from Gamli, not to be begun before the sixth day prior to the attack, was to be completed to Karm by the day preceding the opening of the fighting at Beersheba, and that a new Decauville line should be started at Karm when fighting had begun, and should be carried nearly three miles in the Beersheba direction early on the following morning. These new lines, though of short length, were an inestimable boon to the conductors of supply trains. The new railheads both of the standard gauge and light lines were well placed, and they not only saved time and shortened the journeys of camel convoys and lorry transport columns, but prevented congestion at depots in one central spot.

A big effort was made to escape detection by enemy aircraft. For the first time since the Egyptian Expeditionary Force took the field we had obtained mastery in the air. On the 8th and 15th October two enemy planes were shot down behind our lines, and the keenness of our airmen for combat made the German aviators extremely careful. They had been bold and resolute, taking their observations several thousand feet higher than our pilots, it is true, but neither anti-aircraft fire nor the presence of our machines in the air had up to this time deterred them. However, just at the moment when airwork was of extreme importance to the Turks, the German flying men, recognising that our pilots had new battle planes and were full of resource and daring, showed an unusual lack of enterprise, and we profited from their inactivity. The concentration of the force in the positions from which it was to attack Beersheba was to have taken seven days, but owing to the difficulties attending the development of water at Asluj and Khalasa the time was extended to ten days. During this period the uppermost thought of commanders was to conceal their movements. All marching was done at night and no move of any kind was permitted till nearly six o'clock in the evening, when enemy aircraft were usually at rest and the light was sufficiently dull to prevent the Fritzes seeing much if they had made an exceptionally late excursion. All the tents and temporary shelters which had been occupied for weeks were left standing. Cookhouses, horse lines, canteens, and so on were untouched, and one had an eerie feeling in passing at night through these untenanted camping grounds, deserted and lifeless, and a prey to the jackal and pariah dog. A vast area of many square miles which had held tens of thousands of troops and animals almost became a wilderness again, and the few natives hereabouts who had made large profits from the sale of eggs, fruit, and vegetables looked disconsolate and bewildered at the change, hoping and believing that the empty tents merely denoted a temporary absence. But the great majority of the Army never came that way again.

When the infantry started on the march, divisions and brigades had allotted to them particular areas for their march routes, and all over that country, where scarcely a tree or native hut existed to make a landmark, there were dotted small arrow-pointed boards with the direction 'A road,' 'B road,' 'Z road,' as the case might be. Marching in the dark hours when a refreshing air succeeded the heat of the day, the troops halted as soon as a purple flush threw into high relief the southern end of the Judean hills, and they hid themselves in the wadis and broken ground; and on one unit vacating a bivouac area it was occupied by another, thus making the areas in which the troops rested as few as possible.

The concentration was worked to a time-table. Not only were brigades allotted certain marches each night, but they were given specified times to cover certain distances, and these were arranged according to the condition of the ground. In parts it was very broken and covered with loose stones, and the pace of infantry by night was very slightly more than one mile per hour. The routes for guns were not chosen until the whole country had been reconnoitred, and it was a highly creditable performance for artillery to get their field guns and heavy howitzer batteries through to the time-table. But the clockwork precision of the movements reflected even more highly on the staff working out the details than on the infantry and artillery, and it may be said with perfect truth that the staff made no miscalculation or mistake. The XXth Corps staff maps and plans, and the details accompanying them, were masterpieces of clearness and completeness. The men who fought out the plans to a triumphant finish were glad to recognise this perfection of staff work.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Appendix VI.]