The Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914, declaring a holy war on France, Britain and Russia. They assembled a force of 600,000 troops divided into 38 divisions and beneficiated from the support of German officers and resources. The Ottomans targeted the British at the Suez Canal to weaken them on all fronts. In early February 1915, the Ottoman Empire launched a surprise attack against the British to break through their defences on the Suez Canal. The attack was a failure and cost the Ottomans heavy losses.
The British assembled a British and Indian force and launched a first attack at Basra in November. The British Indian force captured Basra, near the estuary of the Tigris and the Euphrates, on 20th November 1914 and Qurna on 9th December 1914.
The commander of the British and Indian force in Mesopotamia was General Sir Stanley Frederick Maude. There he assembled 150,000 men. Basra was transformed into a modern port, the British constructed a railway and a metal road and river transportation on the Tigris was expanded. The commander of the British and Indian force in Egypt was General Sir Archibald Murray. He assembled the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, first with the objective of defending Egypt, then that of invading Palestine. Murray’s force had to march across the Sinai Desert where they had to resist the sand storms and searing temperatures, and their advance was limited by the water supply they could access. Thousands of camels and drivers supplied water to the soldiers and a water pipe and railway were extended to the border of Palestine. The conditions in the Middle East were far different than that on the European fronts. The soldiers were attacked by mosquitoes and flies. They suffered from the cold during the nights and from the heat in the summer months. They had to walk in the muddy banks of the overflowing Tigris during the rainy season.
On 12th April 1915, the Ottoman army, led by General Süleyman Askeri Bey, attacked the British camp at Shaiba. The Ottoman lost many casualties and had to surrender. From Basra, the British and Indian force advanced along the River Tigris and marched toward Baghdad. General Charles Townshend was commanding the British Army in Mesopotamia. On 28th September 1915, he captured Kut-el-Amara. Under the command of Mehmed Nurettin Pasha, the Ottoman 6th Army met Townshend’s army at Selman Pak (Ctesiphon) on 22nd November 1915. Both sides suffered heavy casualties and by 25th November, the British and Indian force had retreated to Kut-el-Amara. The Ottoman pursued the British and besieged the city. The siege of Kut-el-Amara lasted 149 days. The Ottoman successfully repulsed British attempts to send relief forces to Kut-el-Amara. The British and Indian had rations for sixty days and their supplies slowly depleted. Many men died of starvation and typhus. Townshend surrendered to Halil Pasha, who had replaced Nurettin Pasha, on 29th April. 13,309 men, of whom 3,305 non-combatants, were taken into captivity and about a third died on the way to prisoner camps.
In the summer and fall of 1916, the British expanded their forces in Mesopotamia, while Enver Pasha diverted more troops to Europe to support the Central Powers. In July 1916, Cemal Pasha, the commander of the forces in Syria-Palestine, ordered an attack on the British in Romani to try and push them back towards the Suez Canal. The attack was led by German General Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein. It failed and the Ottomans were forced to pull back on a defensive line between Gaza and Beersheba. Between December 1916 and February 1917, the British and Indian Army advanced and recaptured Kut-el-Amara. Halil Pasha was quickly outnumbered and he ordered to abandon the city. The Ottoman retreated to Baghdad but under the pressure from the British Indian Army, Halil surrendered Baghdad to Maude’s army on 11th March 1917. On 26th March, Murray launched a strike against Gaza. It was a failure and a new assault was ordered on 17th April 1917. The British launched a frontal attack but their poor artillery support could not breach the strong Ottoman defence. After the failure of the second Battle of Gaza, Murray was replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby. Allenby started to build up his forces and to improve his lines of communication. The third battle of Gaza and Beersheba was fought from 31st October to 7th November 1917. The Ottoman army expected a direct attack on Gaza and were surprised when the British launched an assault on Beersheba before marching towards Gaza. The infantry and mounted force, including Australian and New Zealander troops, successfully broke through the Gaza-Beersheba front. The Ottomans were forced to abandon the city and withdrew back to Jerusalem. On the second and third battles of Gaza, the British used tanks and chemicals shells of chlorine and lachrymatory gases for the first time in the Middle East.
The British Indian army pursued the Ottoman and advanced across the Judea Hills towards Jerusalem. They marched 69 miles in nine days. The Battle of Jerusalem took place between 16th November and 8th December 1917. What is known as the battle of Jerusalem is in fact a series of four attacks by the Ottomans, under the command of German General Erich Falkenhayn, on the marching British army. Both the British and the Ottoman governments were keen on avoiding any fighting inside or outside the gates of the Holy City. Allenby’s strategy was to use his mobile cavalry units and combine infantry and artillery operations. Deceptive operations were aimed at confusing the Ottomans about the location of the main assault. The XX Corps were assigned with the task of capturing the Holy City, under the command of Sir Philip Chetwode. The attack was launched on 8th December 1917. A central thrust was combined with an attack on the south, at Bethlehem. The Ottoman defences collapsed and lost heavy casualties. The city fell after one day of fighting. The commander in Jerusalem, Ali Fuat Pasha, defied Falkenhayn’s advice and abandoned the Holy City to save his remaining troops. The British walked through the Jaffa Gate on 11th December 1917 and Allenby became the 34th Conqueror of Jerusalem. He entered the Holy City on foot, not on horseback, and no Allied flags were flown over the city. The British did not want to appear disrespectful to the city, the people and their traditions.
In the first half of 1918, Allenby’s British soldiers were recalled to France to fight on the Western Front. They were replaced with infantry from the countries of the Empire, mostly from India, Burma and the West Indies. Allenby had retained his cavalry. On 9th September 1918, the British defeated the Ottoman armies at the battle of Megiddo. The cavalry of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force dominated the campaign. The British captured Damascus on 1st October and Aleppo fell on 26th October 1918. From 19th September 1918, the British captured 75,000 Ottoman soldiers. The Ottoman Empire signed an Armistice with Britain five days later.
John was born to John and Katherine Davies of Springfield house, Ashwell Road, Oakham. The family moved to Gloucestershire in 1892.
John attended Oakham School between 1889 and 1892. His school achievements are listed below:
After school, John went to Aldenham School and gained an Entrance scholarship to Caius College, Cambridge. He obtained a BA in Classics in 1902. He worked as a Schoolmaster at Lexden House School in Seaford, East Sussex. In November 1915, John joined the Artists’ Rifles and was promoted to Second Lieutenant with the 2nd/23rd Battalion (County London) The London Regiment, 181 Brigade, 60th Division in June 1916.
His battalion served in France and in Flanders and was involved in the Battle of the Somme from September 1916. The battalion was sent to Salonika in 1916 and to Palestine in August 1917. John was wounded during the Turkish attack on the Tomb of Samuel. He was recommended for the Military Cross.
His Colonel wrote after his death: "Although mortally wounded, he continued to direct the firing and cheer and encourage his men till he became unconscious. They all speak with much admiration of his grand conduct; he is most deeply regretted and was respected and beloved by all ranks."
John died of his wounds at a casualty clearing station on 28th November 1917. He was 38.
Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Easter term 1918, Vol. 34, no.1
John was buried at Kubeibeh Monastry Cemetery initially. He was then reburied in grave C.44 at Jerusalem War Cemetery. He is remembered in Oakham School chapel.
John Bertram was born at Netherfield Vicarage, Sussex to the Reverend Thomas Partington.
John was educated at Summerfield, Oxford. He received an exhibition in 1903 to Pembroke College, Cambridge and took Honours in the Classical Tripos in 1907. He was a member of staff at Oakham School between Winter 1910 and Summer 1913. He was a Classics teacher and was involved in the Debating Society and the Officers’ Training Corps:
The School Corps in 1911 - John is sat on the second row in the centre.
The O.T.C. 1911 Camp in Windsor Great Park - John is fourth from the left.
John is mentioned in the Oakhamian Magazine’s activity reports:
Spring 1911 Debating society report: ‘Had it not been for Mr Partington’s and Mr Macpherson’s speeches, the debate would have been very dull.’
Spring 1912 O.T.C. report: ‘The corps is going strong under Captain Cosens and Lieutenant Partington.’
After school, John took up a post as a Classics Master in St Edward’s school, Oxford. When the war broke out, he joined the 4th Battalion the Devonshire Regiment, 37 Indian Brigade, 14th Indian Division on 9th October 1914.
The Devonshire Regiment badge.
He served in Lahore, then commanded an escort of German prisoners to Australia. He became a Captain. He returned to his Regiment in Mesopotamia in October 1916. He fought at Kut-el-Amarrah on 3rd February 1917.
John was killed in action, probably by concussion from a shell explosion on 3rd February 1917. He was 32.
Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Easter term 1917, Vol.33, no.1
John is buried in grave XXI.J.5 at Amara War Cemetery, but does not have a headstone anymore. He is remembered on a screen wall there, on the War Memorial in Netherfield, on the War Memorial of Pembroke College and in Oakham School chapel.