First Battle of Amman

Amman. Hill 3039 in the background.

The First Raid on Amman was mounted from 22 to 30 March 1918 during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of World War I.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, consisting of British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops, under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby, had pursued the retreating Ottoman armies and advanced into Palestine, capturing Gaza, Jaffa and Jerusalem and on to the shores of the Dead Sea. These territorial gains were consolidated and the front line established. In early March the front line from the Mediterranean to Abu Tellul in the Judean Hills, was pushed north during the Action of Tell’Asur.

It was at this point that Allenby decided on a raid across the River Jordan, with the aim of attacking the railway tunnels and viaducts at Amman. The aim was to seriously disrupt Turkish communications in the region as well as their access to Damascus.

The plan was to establish bridgeheads across the Jordan at Ghoraniye and Makkadaet Hajla, just north of the Dead Sea and about 10 kilometres apart. The three brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division were concentrated around Jerusalem, the Camel Brigade was at Bethlehem, the 60th Infantry Division was waiting in the Jordan Valley and on the hills overlooking Jericho.  The mounted men were within a night’s march of Tala ted Dumm and all were ready to attempt the crossing.  C.W. Bean describes the weather conditions which caused significant delays to the planned crossing –  “… the Jordan was in high flood (during one night at this time the waters rose seven feet); the swollen current added greatly to the task of building the pontoon bridges; the approaches to the river were sodden and difficult.

On the night of 20 March, the Jordan was still in flood but the waters were falling and the rain had stopped.  The horses and camels were concealed in the hills and care was taken when lighting fires and general movements around the camps. The responsibility for the Hajla crossing was given to D Troop, 1st Field Squadron, Australian Engineers, who commonly referred to themselves as ‘Desert Mounted Corps Bridging Train’.

Just before midnight on 21 March selected swimmers entered the fast flowing river and attempted to carry a light rope to the other side while under fire. Rafts carrying troops and supplies followed and construction began at 6.00am the next day. By 7.15am the Jordan was spanned by a floating bridge of seven steel pontoons. Numerous casualties were suffered on both the bridges and the rafts.

The Hedjaz Railway and country east of the Dead Sea

The remainder of the day was spent in consolidation of the bridgehead and early on the morning of 23 March, New Zealand mounted riflemen broke the Turkish defence.  The attack on Amman commenced on the morning of 27 March.

Although serious damage was inflicted on the railway and Australia’s 2nd Light Horse Brigade, working with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, had captured Hill 3039 overlooking the city, Turkish resistance was strong and after holding out for 24 hours, the British forces withdrew on 30 March.

It was during the raid on Amman that Trooper Alfred Weaver of 4th Anzac Camel Battalion was wounded and later died. Trooper Weaver was one of five brothers from Rosewater in Adelaide, who joined the AIF.   He and four of his brothers would make the supreme sacrifice during World War I.

Australians of the Imperial Camel Corps on the march toward Amman to support the British 60th Infantry Division and Anzac Mounted Division in the raid on Amman, March 1918. Photo by Frank Hurley.

The raid on Amman proved a costly failure and despite several kilometres of railway track being destroyed, neither the tunnels nor aqueducts were damaged. The bridging operations were however recognised as a success. Captain Edward Howells, commander of the bridging party, was awarded the Military Cross. Lance Corporal Samuel Dawson, the first to undertake the hazardous swim across the River Jordan, received the Military Medal, while Lance Corporal Frederick Bell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for repeatedly swimming down-stream under heavy fire, carrying the cables which would hold the bridge in position.

It would be September 1918 before the area was captured in a major offensive east of the Jordan.

Bean, C., Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volumes I-IV, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1921-1942

R. Kearney and S. Cleary, Valour & Violets South Australia in the Great War

Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2018