... the outbreak of a murderous war that would devour the cultivated lands and the dry earth. Ahmad Rida, quoted in The Fall of the Ottoman Empire, by Eugene Rogan.
The Ottoman Empire entered the war on 11 November 1914, on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It had been in decline for many decades, but its possessions still contained much to fight over, as had been the case in the few years before 1914. Two communication bottlenecks were important, the Dardanelles held by Turkey, and the Suez Canal, held by the British.
Suez was vital to British links with India, and beyond to Australia and New Zealand. The Ottoman army began attacking it on 26 January 1915, and at one point two companies crossed it. The remainder of the war saw the British, with substantial number of Indian, Australian, and New Zealand troops, push the Ottomans out of Egypt and into Palestine and beyond. A small body of German troops, the Asienkorps, intervened on the Turkish side. Nevertheless, General Allenby and his troops occupied Jerusalem on 9 December 1917.
In comparison to the Western Front, it was a war of movement. The British advanced into Palestine as fast as they could build a water pipeline, a road, and crucially, a railway. Benjamin Morrison, a Shetland private in the Scottish Rifles, noted the importance of transport in a letter to a friend –
This success we owe in a large measure to the wonderful contribution of roads and railways in the desert, a thing at one time man would have thought impossible.
Shetland participants in the Palestine campaign seem to have been drawn mainly from the diaspora. Australian and New Zealand troops were committed heavily. According to the Shetland Roll of Honour, at least six servicemen died in Palestine and Egypt. Five were ANZACs. One died while training for the Dardanelles. The sixth death was in the R.A.M.C. Of soldiers who served and survived, the majority were from Australia and New Zealand. Benjamin Morrison, who had joined the army while living in Glasgow, was wounded, and then went on to serve in the Western Front.
Malcolm Smith, the son of the Shetland born Provost of Leith, had seen fighting at Gallipoli. A report by him survives, about an engagement at Nebi Samwil in November 1917. It was an important engagement in the British approach to Jerusalem. He was to distinguish himself in Palestine, being awarded the Military Cross, 25 March 1918.
In retrospect, these Middle East campaign were enormously important. At the time it was the main allied victory of the year. The Shetland newspapers ran the communiques, casualties, and noted achievements like Captain Smith's. The war in Europe and conditions at home were more important, though. Like the Mesopotamian war, Palestine was seen as something of a sideshow. The Shetland News newspaper editorials for December were about food production, educations, teachers’ salaries, and local authority appointments.