Resources, Civilizations and Empires

Desert Warfare

The beckoning desert...

By Jack Barkstrom

Alexander the Great may be one of the few generals in history, perhaps the only one, to view the desert as an enemy to be conquered.  The Makran or Gedrosian Desert was not merely a difficult route to be taken or an obstacle to be overcome -  it was, in and of itself, the enemy. Perhaps, in an existential moment, Alexander fundamentally questioned the meaning of his military achievements. What had seemed like a truly monumental goal when he began his Asian invasion - the conquest of the Persian Empire - in retrospect might have looked somewhat ordinary. What was the point of winning, what of permanence had been accomplished, if there was little risk of losing?  If he wanted to achieve true immortality, he needed some kind of ultimate test. Taking an army into the Gedrosian Desert, one of the most cruel and difficult deserts in the world - and surviving - now that would be a real accomplishment!  Beginning with the Battle of the Granicus in 334 B.C., continuing with the battle of Issus (333), the siege of Tyre (332), and the battle of Gaugamela (331), no earthly army had been able to defeat him. His own army finally put an end to his string of victories.  Reaching the Hyphasis River in India, it refused to advance further. Alexander, after sulking a few days, agreed to take the army home.

Some believe that Alexander, in entering the Gedrosia, was following the path of another legendary military commander, the Babylonian Queen Semiramis.  The story was that she, like Alexander, had once invaded India. The route she took on the return journey to Babylon was through  the desert.   Added to that legend was the story that the Persian ruler Cyrus had been defeated by the desert.  Others wondered whether Alexander's real reason for entering the desert was to punish his army for its mutiny at the Hyphasis. He did survive the nearly two hundred mile journey, but at a cost to his army of three-fourths of its fighting men and all the noncombatants, by some estimates.

Alexander may have escaped a desert death, but he also seemed to lead a charmed life. Other generals and armies were not so lucky.  Cambyses, the Persian king, is said to have lost an army of 50,000 to the Sahara.  Marching to the town of Oasis, the army was buried by a sandstorm. Darius came close to losing his own life and another Persian army in the semi-arid steppes during the Scythian campaign.  Crassus, who, along with Pompey and Caesar, had formed the Second Triumvirate to share power in Rome, destroyed the arrangement when the legions he led into Parthia were annihilated at Carrhae in 53 BC.  Some 20,000 troops fell victim to the heat and the Parthian cavalry.  The vaunted Knights Templar lost another battle with the heat and the Saracens in July 1187, when Saladin lured them out of their castle safeguards into the desert near the Sea of Galilee, at a place known as the Horns of Hattin.  The city of Jerusalem would fall three months later.  Seemingly invincible modern armies were not immune. A British force of some 1,800, equipped with up-to-date rifles, was crushed by spear-carrying Zulu warriors at Isandlwana on January 22, 1879. Some 600 Imperial regulars were among the 1,300 killed.  As disastrous a day as Isandlwana was, it did not match that of the Khyber Pass during the First Afghan War in January 1842, when an entire army was lost to a tribal alliance.  Few of the 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers survived a winter march through the pass.  Headline-making disasters were not a monopoly of colonial British armies.  George Armstrong Custer would be immortalized for leading the US 7h Cavalry into the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Ironically, the battle, which occurred on June 25, 1876, two-and-a-half years before Isandlwana, received just as much notoriety, although comparatively smaller in terms of deaths.  The number of cavalry killed at "Custer's Last Stand," was 260.

If the lesson seemed to be that it was dangerous for an army to be caught out in the open, fortress walls were no guarantee either.  The Spaniards had built 144 of them by the 1920s, stretching across the desert in Morocco, then failed to provision many.  Water supplies were sometimes outside garrison or outpost walls. On June 22, 1921, when the garrison of 4,000 at Anual was surrounded by Berber tribesmen, Major General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre ordered a general retreat. The panicked soldiers leaving the garrison threw away their rifles and ran. Only a cavalry unit survived.  Silvestre, remaining behind, is said to have mocked the fleeing men:  "Run, run, the bogeyman is coming!"  Shortly after, the fortress fell and he was killed.  In 1925, many of the French garrisons to the south met the same fate.  The British would suffer the embarrassment of the loss of the city of Khartoum in January 1885, along with their general, Charles "Chinese" Gordon, after a failed rescue attempt across the desert.   Sir Charles Townshend surrendered Kut-al-Imara, (about a hundred miles south of Baghdad), to a besieging force of Turks, under General Nur-ud-din, on April 29, 1916, after a four-month siege. Adding to the embarrassment was the fact that T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, attempted to bribe the Turks with £2,000,000, and was turned down.  The British had suffered 7,000 casualties in their attempts to lift the siege. About two-thirds of the 13,000 prisoners who surrendered later died.

Modern equipment and weapons proved that desert obstacles could be overcome.  Tank battles between the Afrika Korps, under Irwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, and the British Eighth Army, during World War II, turned into slugfests.  Defeat in battle did not bring annihilation, merely tactical retreat.  Repulsed by the British forces around Tobruk in April and May 1942, Rommel would regroup and capture the fortress in June. Pursuing the retreating British to El Alamein, 240 miles inside the Egyptian border, the German advance was halted by the defensive line there.  An attack in September was stopped by a minefield, dug-in armor, and RAF bombing.  The Battle of El Alamein, lasting from October 23rd to November 2nd, finally forced Rommel to withdraw.  Even in retreat, the Germans were still able to counterattack, as the Americans found at Kasserine Pass in February, 1943, when they lost over 6,000 troops.  What appeared to be a battle between tank armies was, in reality, a war of supply lines and airpower.

Defeat in the desert or in war was sometimes a matter of perspective, time, and place.  Custer's loss at the Little Big Horn, which came at a time when the country was not at war, was considered a catastrophe.  Grant had suffered 7,000 casualties in thirty minutes when he ordered a charge against Confederate fixed positions at Cold Harbor in June 1864.  In his memoirs, he would not even admit to a mistake, let alone a failure or catastrophe. He 'regretted' the attack, stating that no advantage had been gained to compensate for the heavy losses.  Union casualty figures in two days of fighting during the Wilderness Campaign in May had been higher, 17,000, yet when Grant ignored the loss and ordered an advance, his troops cheered. At Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), Union losses were 18,000.  Total Union losses for May and June 1864 were 77,452.  Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's wife, considered Grant a butcher for such losses, but the nation, at the end of the war, regarded him as a hero for his victories.  Grant was judged by a standard which measured victory in terms of geography and fighting capabilities. Whether a loss was just a minor set-back or a total disaster depended as much on the attitude of the commander as on his military skills.  The determination to win often went hand-in-hand with a  willingness to absorb casualties. The victory at El Alamein cost the British 13,500 in killed, missing, or wounded.  Montgomery, the victor, was elated; many of his officers were bitter. Rommel lost over 1,000 men in one of the failed attempts to take Tobruk. Lieutenant General Friedrich Paulus, viewing the attack, was appalled by the casualties and Rommel was ordered to call it off.  During the Tunisian campaign, Axis casualties are estimated to have been around 40,000.  The British lost 35,940, the Americans 13,984, and the French, 16,180.

It was easy to take the desert for granted, given the ease with which battling armies moved back and forth across the sands confronting each other. Yet, it was dangerous to discount it entirely.  The size of many desert armies, and the effort put into keeping them supplied, suggest that defeating both the desert and an opposing army required extraordinary amounts of energy.  When the Spanish and French moved to suppress the Berber revolt in 1925, their combined force numbered 360,000, 200,000 soldiers being supplied by Spain and 160,000 by France.  At El Alamein, the British Eighth Army had assembled an army of 195,000, supported by 1,029 medium tanks, with an almost two-to-one superiority in antitank guns and artillery.  The Axis forces numbered 104,000, with 496 tanks.  Tank and artillery numbers were not the entire story, when it came to military expenditures.  In the few months in their positions, the Germans had managed to sow some 500,000 mines across a front forty miles long and five miles deep. Getting the mines and other supplies to the front lines, where they could be included in the count, was another easily overlooked aspect of logistics.  Rommel's supplies, at his most advanced position, had to come overland - from Tobruk, 300 miles away, from Benghazi, 600 miles away, or from Tripoli, 1,200 miles away.  Submarine and bomb attacks on Mediterranean shipping had also reduced monthly supplies to the ports from 30,000 to 6,000 tons.  The supply shortages meant that it was difficult to move tanks from one area to another, since there was not enough gasoline.

Supply difficulties were not unique to northern Africa or the Second World War.  During the American Civil War, a Confederate invasion of the Southwest was stopped at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.  The Union force, circling behind the main body, found the Confederate base camp virtually unguarded.  They burned the supply wagons and killed some 500 horses and mules. Returning to find the camp in ruins, the Confederates withdrew.  Unable to find food during the retreat, the army eventually melted away.  Some individuals managed to return to Texas, others headed for the gold fields of California.  Before entering the First World War, the U.S. Army found itself unable to catch Poncho Villa, in part, because it could not find a way to transport supplies through the mountains and deserts of Mexico.

Battles such as El Alamein, Carrhae, Hattin, and Kut were one measure of success or failure, but they told only part of the story of desert warfare.  Unmindful of history's measures of success or greatness - the size of armies, the number of casualties, or the renown of generals - the desert mounted an unrelenting attack  Where it was unable to punish with military defeat or wholesale slaughter, it attacked in piecemeal fashion.  Those not among the casualties of great battles succumbed to heat or disease. The miseries of the desert were not a punishment visited on the losing side alone, but an experience to be shared by victors as well.  Those who survived bouts of jaundice, dysentery, diarrhea, or enteritis had to endure unrelenting attacks from lice, flies, snakes, or scorpions, in addition to the ever-present sand.  Sores, exposed to the sand, refused to heal. The Sahara produced the hot windstorm, known by its Arabic name as the khamsin or ghibli, which, with its 90 mile-an-hour, sand-carrying, winds, could drop visibility to zero and stop all movement for days.

Rommel came down with jaundice in August 1941 and went home on sick leave in September 1942, just before the battle of El Alamein.  His ailments at that time included chronic stomach and intestinal catarrh, circulatory problems, and nasal diphtheria.  In Morocco, hundreds of Spanish soldiers, who had managed to reach the safety of a fortified town, died from heat prostration and gangrene.  The British general, Hoghton, died during the siege of Kut, after eating some bad grass.   The German commander in Mesopotamia, Colmar von der Goltz, died in Baghdad of typhoid,  and the victorious British commander, Sir Stanley Maude, died in November 1917 of cholera.

In spite of the long list of desert military disasters, technological advances made desert warfare manageable.  With the advent of modern weapons, such as the machine gun, high explosive shells, and the airplane, tactics became almost irrelevant. At the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, the British and their allies, armed with Maxim machine guns, killed 11,000 Dervish, while losing only 48 dead themselves. With these advantages, it almost took a complete fool to lead an army to disaster.  As history showed, there was no shortage of candidates and incompetence was not unique to any period of time or to any army.

Perhaps the real secret to desert survival was not conquest, but accommodation. Those who really challenged the desert on a long-term basis were, in fact, merchants, not armies. The enduring symbol of the desert, the camel caravan, was far better suited to desert travel and had more staying power than large armies.  Caravans and merchants survived by emphasizing economy and conservation.  The water supply system established by Cambyses during his Egyptian expedition, a series of water jars along the road through the Sinai desert, and used during Herodotus' time to help travelers, probably represented a greater victory over the desert than the expedition itself.

Still, like a mirage, the desert beckoned.  For those bent on glory and conquest, it offered no immediate or apparent obstacles.  The lessons it would teach were patience and planning, in some ways the exact opposite of war, which often rewarded speed and decisive action.

Suggestions for further reading.

Rick Atkinson, "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943," Henry Holt and Company, (New York, 2002).

Niall Barr, "Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein," The Overlook Press, (New York, NY 2004).

John Bierman and Colin Smith, "The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II," Viking, (New York, NY 2002).

J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, eds., "The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume VI: Macedon: 401-201 B.C.," Cambridge at the University Press, (London, New York 1964).

C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, "A History of the Great War 1914-1918, Second Edition," Oxford at the Clarendon Press, (London 1936).

David Eggenberger, "A Dictionary of Battles," Thomas Y. Crowell Company, (New York 1967).

John Ellis, "The Social History of the Machine Gun," The Johns Hopkins University Press, (Baltimore, MD 1975).

Ulysses S. Grant, Brian M. Thomsen, ed., "The Civil War Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," Tom Doherty Associates, (New York 2002).

General Sir John Hackett, ed., "Warfare in the Ancient World," Facts on File, (New York 1989).

Victor Hanson, "Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece," (Pisa 1983).

Archer Jones, "The Art of War in the Western World," University of Illinois Press, (Urbana, IL 1987).

Tom B. Jones, "From the Tigris to the Tiber: An Introduction to Ancient History, 4th ed." Wadsworth Publishing Company, (Belmont, CA 1989).

Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., "The Civil War in the American West," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York 1991).

John Keegan, "A History of Warfare," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York 1993).

Chuck Lawliss, "The Civil War Sourcebook: A Traveler's Guide," Harmony Books, (New York 1991).

Phebe Marr, "The Modern History of Iraq," Westview Press, (Boulder, CO 2004).

Michael S. Neiberg, "Fighting the Great War: A Global History," Harvard University Press, (Cambridge, MA 2005).

Ronald H. Nichols, "In Custer's Shadow: Major Marcus Reno," University of Oklahoma Press, (Norman, OK 1999).

Alan Palmer, "The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire," M. Evans and Company, Inc., (New York 1992).

James M. Perry, "Arrogant Armies: Great Military Disasters and the Generals Behind Them," John Wiley & Sons, Inc., (New York, NY 1996).

William R. Polk, "Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation," HarperCollins Publishers, (New York 2005).

Plutarch, "Lives: Alexander"

Plutarch, "Lives: Antony"

Plutarch, "Lives: Crassus"

John Prevas, "Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia," Da Capo Press, (Cambridge, MA 2004).

Robert Scott, "Glory Glory Glorieta: The Gettysburg of the West," Robert Scott, Johnson Books, (Boulder, CO 1992).

William Seymour, "Decisive Factors in Twenty Great Battles of the World," St. Martins' Press (New York 1988).

Michael Spilling, ed., "Battles of the Medieval World 1000 - 1500: From Hastings to Constantinople," Barnes & Noble, (New York 2006).

Hew Strachan, ed., "World War I: A History," Oxford University Press, (New York 1998).

John H. Waller, "Beyond the Khyber Pass: The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War," Random House, (New York 1990).

Willaim C. Whitford, "The Battle of Glorieta Pass: Colorado Volunteers in the Civil War - The New Mexico Campaign in 1862," The Rio Grande Press, Inc., (Glorieta, NM 1994).

Richard Wormser, "The Yellowlegs: The Story of the United States Cavalry," Doubleday & Company, Inc., (Garden City, New York 1966).