Battle of Jisr Benat Yakub
In the summer of 1918, the Palestine campaign entered its final throes as British & Commonwealth forces pursued the retreating Ottoman army
The Allies push on to Damascus across the Daughters of Jacob Bridge in 1918
The battle of ‘Jisr Benat Yakub’ Bridge, today known as the ‘Daughters of Jacob Bridge’, was one of the major clashes of the Palestine campaign in 1918. The battle serves as an important link in the chain of historical events surrounding the bridge, and a vital part in the advance of the Allied forces in the Middle East during the war.
On 26 September 1918, tidings of the victory against the Ottoman forces in Galilee arrived in Jerusalem. The news spurred Mordechai Ben-hillel, a Jewish author, to joyously write in his diary about the delight that spread through the city as word got around. The general feeling across Jerusalem was that the war was over, the Ottoman and German forces were beaten and the victory celebrations could finally begin.
The truth, of course, was different. Benhillel’s joy was slightly premature and the end of the war itself was still some time away. His diary entry came only one day after the end of the Battle of Megiddo, the final part of the vast campaign led by General Edmund Allenby to conquer the northern part of Palestine from the Ottoman forces, which took place on 19-25 September 1918 – although very little fighting occurred around the site of Megiddo itself.
The battle for the Daughters of Jacob Bridge on 27 September 1918 was essentially the last phase of the greater Battle of Megiddo. On 26 September Allenby ordered the forces to move northwards and continue with the plan to capture Damascus. In order to do that, the forces had to first secure the pass over the Jordan River and eventually team up with the forces of Lawrence of Arabia and conquer Damascus.
The Jordan River, flowing southward from the slopes of Mount Hermon all the way to the Dead Sea became an important strategic point during the final months of World War I. However it also held even older military significance.
Slightly south to Lake Hula, wedged in between the Golan Heights in the east and the Korazim Block in the west, is Jacob’s Ford, and crossing it is the bridge then known as Jisr Benat Yakub. Various Galilean traditions and legends, some dating to the Crusader period and even earlier, tie the location of the bridge to the biblical stories of Jacob and his sons from the book of Genesis, and it is from these stories that the bridge acquired its name.
It is said that the location of the bridge is the place through which Jacob re-entered the land of Israel after the time he spent with his uncle Laban (Genesis 31). It is also, according to these traditions, the place where Jacob fought with the angel and where he received the news of the death of his son Joseph in the story of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. One story tells that Jacob’s daughters were present when he received the news, and the tears they cried turned the white stones black.
Another tale revolves around a crusader monastery in Zefat, which garnered donations from taxes levied at the bridge, a monastery that found its end in a brutal massacre at the hands of the Mamluks during their conquest of Zefat. The name of the bridge serves as a memorial to that monastery. As is usually the case with these situations, the authenticity of the stories is up for debate, but the traditions stand to this day.
The importance of this pass is also the reason behind the many military clashes
throughout history. The Crusaders fought the armies of Saladin more than once for control of the bridge. This campaign ended with the battle of ‘Vadum Jakob’, which took place in August 1179. This battle also brought with it the fall of the fortress of Chastelet, which is located to the south of the bridge, and foreshadowed the demise of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, which fell on 4 July 1187 following the Battle of the Horns of Hattin.
The bridge also served as a battlefield for the French against the Ottomans, which the French ultimately lost, and served as the northernmost point the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte reached in April 1799.
Even after World War I, this place was regarded as a point of key importance. It was blown up as part of the ‘Night of the Bridges’, an operation executed by the Israeli resistance movement against the British Mandate Government in Israel in 1946, and was a fierce battlefield between Israel and Syria in the
Israeli independence war of 1948.
Moving towards the bridge
On the morning of 25 September 1918,
General Allenby gave his British forces the order to continue their manoeuvre towards Damascus. By this point, the 7th and 8th Divisions of the Ottoman army had fallen apart. These divisions were made up of the famous Yildirim force. The word yildirim means ‘lightning’ in Turkish. These were new Ottoman units that were organised in a German manner, and were basically a combination of Turkish soldiers and a full German infantry division.
The remnants of these forces, together with the Fourth Ottoman Army, which had also suffered many casualties, retreated deep into Syria, making their way towards Damascus.
The task of capturing Damascus was given to the Australian Mounted Division together with the 4th and 5th Indian Cavalry Divisions. The forces were split and were to arrive at the target through different routes: the 4th Australian
Light Horse (ALH), commanded by Barrow, was sent through the Hauran and Daraa, with a planned rendezvous with Feisal and Lawrence of Arabia along the way, while the two remaining divisions, commanded by Hodgson and Macandrew, made their way to the rendezvous point through the Daughters of Jacob Bridge and the Golan Heights. All the forces were to arrive at Damascus by 29 September.
Given the planned schedule, the date for crossing the Jordan River was set for the 28th. The information supplied by T. E. Lawrence and air reconnaissance reported that some 20,000-30,000 Turkish soldiers had retreated back in the direction of Damascus, and that the Germans and Turks still held the city of Daraa. In addition, there was some doubt as to whether Lawrence’s forces would be able to overcome them.
The force arriving to Damascus via the Daughters of Jacob Bridge therefore had a crucial role in the battle – it was to arrive at the bridge, conquer it, stop the retreating enemy before they joined with the forces in Damascus, and thus help ensure the speedy capture of the region’s capital.
“THE CRUSADERS FOUGHT THE ARMIES OF SALADIN MORE THAN ONCE FOR CONTROL OF THE BRIDGE”
After arriving at Tiberias on 25 September and finding it empty of enemy forces, who had retreated east towards Damascus, the 9th Australian Light Horse Regiment began making its way from the settlement of Migdal, which resides on the shores of the lake, to the town of Zefat. Following a 2.5-hour ride through the Korazim ridge, which was uneventful and mostly included the soldiers sight-seeing at locations only known to them from scripture, they finally arrived at the ‘Jewish Colony’, as it is called in the British documentation, of Rosh Pina, which was situated by the Arab village of ‘Ja Auneh’.
The force was welcomed by the Jewish settlers with enthusiasm, and due to the fact that some of the settlers spoke English and French, the soldiers were able to acquire some information from the locals. Of all the information given to the commanders of the 9th ALH by the settlers, the most important was that the Turks had retreated from the area of the Daughters of Jacob Bridge that same morning.
Shortly after their meeting with the settlers of Rosh Pina the force proceeded towards its objective, the town of Zefat. Situated on a high vantage point on the Cana’an mountain range, west of the area of the bridge and overlooking it, the Australian forces had to take control of the town before they could advance on the bridge, in order to avoid being attacked from the rear during their advance eastwards.
They climbed the steep slope up the hills from Rosh Pina towards Zefat, and as they approached the town they saw no enemy force in the vicinity, only a large white flag on top of one of the buildings. Soon after their arrival, the force was met by a group of locals, headed by one of their chiefs. He too was carrying a large white flag in his hands.
Having taken the high ground, Bleechmore, who commanded the force, and four of his men entered Zefat between two rows made up of the settlers, who cheered them as they moved along. They made their way up to the English Hospital, which had served as the Turkish governor’s headquarters until 8am that same morning, and there the Australian force officially received control of the town and were asked by the settlers to protect them from raiding Arabs. In addition, they received 50 tons of grain, which belonged to the Turkish government, and 70 rifles.
Following that, the troops left Zefat. Some immediately took on the duty of protecting the townspeople from Arab raids, as promised, while another force continued on, and spread out tactically along the Tiberias-damascus road south of Rosh Pina.
With Zefat conquered quietly and without bloodshed, the Australian forces were now ready to tackle the obstacle of the bridge without fear of attack from the rear.
As the dawn of 27 September arrived, the troops still in Zefat left the town to join the forces on the western bank of the Jordan River, who were by the bridge, close to the settlement of Mishmar Hayarden.
As they were some two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the river, one scout was sent north and another sent south, while a small team of three men was sent into the settlement of Mishmar Hayarden. The three who made their way to the settlement immediately drew fire from the enemy and exposed a number of previously concealed Turkish positions.
Following this, it became much easier for the Australian forces to estimate the numbers and firepower of the Turkish forces opposing them on the eastern bank of the river. The ALH forces estimated that there was somewhere in the region of 1,000 soldiers with two field guns and 14 machine guns on the Turkish side, an estimation that soon proved to be fairly accurate.
By the time the rest of the force had reached the Daughters of Jacob Bridge they already knew, based on information received by the soldiers and the reports of the front patrol force commanded by Bleechmoore, that the bridge had been bombed. The Australian forces then sent a force from the 9th Regiment of the 3rd Brigade to evaluate the defences around the bridge and discovered that they had a commanding view of the whole area from the southern edge of the Hula Lake, and all the way south of the bridge itself.
As the Australian vanguard was assessing the force pitched against them and targeting the enemy artillery battery, the Turkish forces managed to hit a British patrol plane, which had flown over at a low altitude. The event occurred at around 9am, and one of the shots fired at the plane wounded the pilot and damaged part of the controls of the aircraft.
The pilot managed to land the plane about a kilometre behind the Australian line, and soon a group of 15 Bedouins, some of them armed with rifles, made their way towards his position. The Australian force noticed this and sent a team of soldiers, who captured the Bedouins, disarmed them, and stayed to guard the plane, slightly diminishing the size of the available Australian force.
“ALONG THIS LINE, THE BOTTLENECK THAT WAS THE BRIDGE OF THE DAUGHTERS OF JACOB WAS ONE OF THE KEY ELEMENTS IN HIS DEFENSIVE STRATEGY”
A strong defensive position
The commander of the German-ottoman forces, Otto Liman von Sanders, who oversaw the retreat from Allenby’s forces, was of a mind to hold a defensive line between the Samakhyarmouk area (located at the southern point of the Sea of Galilee) and the Hula Lake. Along this line, the bottleneck that was the Daughters of Jacob Bridge was one of the key elements in his defensive strategy. The Ottoman and German forces that retreated from Nazareth, Tiberias and Samakh, heading for Damascus, blew up the bridge after they crossed it and arrived at its eastern side. Some 100 Turkish soldiers who arrived from Damascus, plus a mobilised German machine gun unit, which arrived to assist them in holding their positions, joined these forces on the eastern banks of the Jordan River.
The force that arrived from Damascus was commanded by Captain von Keyserling, who deployed his soldiers to advantage posts above the river and by the possible crossing points along it. The German and Ottoman force on the eastern bank of the Jordan River was tasked with the mission of not only capturing and defending this pass of the river, but also to delay any attempts by the Australian force to advance eastward, and thus to help the retreating German and Ottoman forces get away. According to the Australian intelligence information, the forces guarding the bridge numbered no more than 1,000 soldiers.
Given that the bridge had been blown up, the attacking Australian forces were hard-pressed to find alternative solutions to pass the river, and the conditions of the terrain around the bridge were in no way to their advantage, to say the least.
In addition to them having to deal with crossing the river, the western slopes around the bridge were, and are to this day, very steep – a situation that hindered any plan for a mounted advance. The slopes on the eastern side were even steeper, which once again created a major problem for any plans for a swift attack once the crossing of the river was completed. The lack of bushes and hiding points on the western side was yet another problem for the Australians, as the Australian forces would be that much more exposed, and it turned the area into an ideal killing ground for the Germans and Ottomans on the eastern side to exploit.
The German and Ottoman forces held a higher position, with thicker bushes and large basalt boulders behind which they could hide on the eastern side. The bridge itself was already destroyed and unusable, so the German and Ottoman forces saw no need to focus on it, but the buildings on the western bank were a worthy target, being the only built shelters on the river’s western side.
Crossing the river
The Australian force at this stage held its fire and waited for reinforcements to arrive before engaging the enemy, all the while not sitting idle but assessing the best way to deal with the significant obstacle in front of them. The artillery, on the other hand, continued its bombardment of the German and Ottoman force, successfully hitting several of the enemy’s positions.
At 2.30pm the order was given to advance on the target and cross the Jordan River. The manoeuvre began with the capture of positions on the ruined bridge itself and outflanking it from the south and the north.
The 3rd Brigade, headed by the 10th Regiment, was ordered to set out northward towards the pass just south of the Hula
Lake. Supporting that force was the 9th ALH Regiment and the Nottinghamshire Royal Horse Artillery battery, with the 8th ALH Regiment bringing up the rear. By 6pm the 10th Regiment had reported that it had successfully crossed the river, and an hour later the 8th Regiment followed it. The crossing eastward was hard due to thick bushes on the river banks and the heavy fire from the German and Ottoman forces. All this time, the 9th Regiment stayed behind to provide cover fire.
Once on the eastern banks, the force was led by a Bedouin guide to the Damascus road, which led eastward towards Quneitra and Damascus. The 5th Brigade, minus the 15th Regiment, which was left to guard POWS at Degania on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee, led the southward manoeuvre.
The first reinforcements to arrive was the French Régiment Mixte de Cavalerie, and it immediately entered the fighting, making its way towards the buildings on the western side of the bridge.
Due to the long and cumbersome movements of the mounted artillery batteries, which were already making their way to their north and south positions, the French force was mostly left without any cover. Even so, under heavy fire and with the number of casualties steadily growing, the French eventually succeeded in conquering their target. The Australian forces of the 4th Brigade and the 4th and 12th Regiments joined the French force at around 4pm, leaving some of their gunners as backup in the prison building held by the French to the west of the bridge.
As the force arrived at the western bank a group from the 10th Regiment, commanded by Major Hamlin and Lieutenant Macnee, broke apart, while the main force continued on its way to the enemy camp at Deir Es-saras. From there they planned to continue on the main road to Quneitra and Damascus.
The group led by Hamlin and Macnee was tasked with clearing the eastern bank of enemy soldiers, all the while advancing by foot through rough terrain and under fire. At a certain point the fighting turned into close combat as the soldiers attacked the Germans and Ottomans with bayonets.
Eventually the Australians gained the upper hand and came out victors, with over 50 captives and a substantial amount of looted goods. For this daring mission Hamlin received
“THE AUSTRALIAN FORCES WOULD BE THAT MUCH MORE EXPOSED, AND IT TURNED THE AREA INTO AN IDEAL KILLING GROUND FOR THE GERMANS AND OTTOMANS ON THE EASTERN SIDE TO EXPLOIT”
the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Macnee the Military Cross. Lieutenant Wastell from the 9th Regiment also received a Military Cross for his actions during the battle, under heavy fire and with a substantial wound. It was this manoeuvre that caused the final retreat of the German and Ottoman forces.
At the same time as the crossing in the northern part of the bridge area, the forces on the southern side of the bridge prepared to cross the river close to the Crusader fort of Chastelet, aided by Battery A.
This crossing too was done under heavy fire. Company C of the 4th Regiment served as the vanguard for the crossing, and after navigating through the rocky and steep bank they found themselves at the village of Ed-dora at around 7pm. The village is located southeast of the road leading to Quneitra and Damascus, in the vicinity of the modern-day town of Qazrin.
At 8.20pm the order to halt the river crossings until further notice was given, probably due to the difficulty of traversing the terrain in the darkness. The force that had already begun crossing could not advance anymore in the dark and spent the night near the village. The 12th Regiment finally crossed the river too at 2am on 28 September. The terrain did not allow for the crossing of the gunners with the vanguard, but it seemed as though by this time the battle was already won.
The German and Ottoman forces that held the eastern banks of the bridge were already retreating in their trucks towards Damascus, prompting the 4th Brigade to report that the bridge area was clear of enemy forces and that the French force could move eastwards freely.
As with the northern crossing, here too, medals were handed out. Sergeant Gill received a Military Medal and Sergeant Stockdale received a Mention in Dispatches.
The rest of the 4th Brigade crossed the river at 6am on the 28 September 1918 and took hold of the Khan (Caravanserai) on the eastern side of the bridge. All they found were 22 Turkish soldiers, mostly drunk from rum. They were all that was left of the enemy that had fought them the day before.
Almost an hour later German aircraft dropped bombs on the convoy crossing the bridge. One soldier was wounded and three horses were killed, but the Germans were unsuccessful in stopping or even delaying the crossing. This brought the Battle of the Daughters of Jacob Bridge to an end.
After the battle
The 4th Division had managed to conquer the bridge with minimal delay, and even before the dawn of 28 September, the bridging train was hard at work restoring and fixing the ruined arch of the bridge and making the bridge usable once more.
The 8th ALH Regiment moved to Tat Ahsein while the 10th Regiment caught the enemy camping at Dir Saras. By 9am the entire force had crossed the river and begun making its way forward to conquer Quneitra, and after that moved onto the main goal, Damascus.
The time spent fighting at the bridge was used by the 5th Indian Cavalry Division to close the gap that had formed due to delays the Indian force had encountered at Kfar Kana, on their way eastwards from Nazereth, and to rest at Rosh Pina.
The experience of crossing the river in this battle was used by the Australian forces to repeat the same tactics during their fight at Sa’sa’, near Damascus. Here too, it was the 10th Regiment that was on the frontline and brought about the defeat of the opposing German and Ottoman force.
Even though the imperial forces managed to subdue a stubborn defensive force and to pass the substantial obstacle of a blown-up bridge, the German and Ottoman forces did manage to slightly delay and disrupt the original plan to conquer Damascus and capture the Fourth Turkish Army. However, this had no lasting impact on either objective and did not prevent the eventual fall of Syria.
“BRITISH FORCES CONTINUED TO PURSUE THE OTTOMAN FORCES IN SYRIA EVEN AFTER THE CAPTURE OF DAMASCUS”
Fall of Damascus
The success in crossing the bridge even though it was bombed, and in pushing the enemy force back, was eventually what led to the Allies successfully conquering the Syrian capital city of Damascus just four days later, almost exactly as originally planned.
It was the 3rd ALH Regiment, the same one that crossed the Jordan River just to the south of the Hula Lake, that was awarded the distinct honour of being the first to enter the city of Damascus. By the time they entered the city the Ottoman troops were no longer there, and the flags on the city roofs had been changed from Ottoman flags to those bearing Sharifian colours. Syria had surrendered to the Hashemite dynasty – part of the rewards the British gave the Hashemites for their alliance during the war.
The British forces continued to pursue the Ottomans in Syria even after the capture of Damascus, and even though they tried, the Ottomans had a hard time establishing a new line of defence, and one by one the cities fell to the Allies. Last to fall was the city of Aleppo on 26 October – a fall that effectively marked the end of the Palestine campaign of World War I. The Ottoman forces, led by General Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, finally managed to secure a line north of Aleppo, and eventually on 31 October 1918 signed a truce with the Allied forces.
The Allies had achieved the goal of completely destroying the Ottoman army in Syria, a move that pushed the Ottomans out of the war. In the course of the Palestine campaign the Allied forces counted some
5,666 killed, wounded or missing soldiers, and claimed to have taken 75,000 Turkish soldiers as prisoners.
11 days later, World War I would come to an end across all fronts.
The 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment in action against Ottoman forces, 31 December 1917
ABOVE: A photo of a group of German soldiers, who were take prisoner in 1918
ABOVE: Horses were still in use in this theatre of WWI, even in 1918. Here, British Yeomen rest while on patrol
ABOVE: Both men and horses rest on the road to Jerusalem and Latron, 1918
A watercolour painting by James Mcbey in 1918 shows the newly repaired bridge being crossed by Indian Lancers
ABOVE, TOP: The bridge had a long history of war even before World War I: here the bridge is depicted in 1799, with British forces occupying the mountain in the distance during Napoleon’s advance through the regionABOVE, BOTTOM: The Daughters of Jacob Bridge, having been repaired and made serviceable again
Men of the Australian Light Horse guard Ottoman prisoners