Captain Richard Meinertzhagen discovered one sure way to end a stalemate during World War I. He tricked the enemy into getting stoned. That and a few other deceptions allowed British forces under general Edmund Allenby to break through a line in the Gaza desert that had been stubbornly defended by Turkish and German troops and take the Holy Land.

The first step was to convince the enemy that the British planned an attack on heavily fortified Gaza, and that troop movement around the true target of Beersheba, some thirty miles east of Gaza an significantly less defended, was only a feint. Captain Meinertzhagen helped to give this impression by planting on the Turks a staff officer’s notebook filled, as he later wrote, with “all sorts of nonsense about our plans and difficulties.” The dummy notebook was stuffed into a canvas sack, along with an amount of cash large enough to indicate that the bag had not been lost intentionally. Other authenticating items were added as well, like a letter supposedly written by the wife of the nonexistent officer, and a valuable cipher of British secret codes.

Meinertzhagen then rode into the no-man’s-land between the British and Turco-German lines in search of a patrol. When one fired on him, he dropped the sack – previously stained with horse’s blood – and, pretending to be wounded, retreated back to his own lines. The Turks retrieved the sack, which was then sent to German headquarters for analysis, while the British made a show of searching for it. Under the assumption that the enemy would use the cipher discovered in the bag, along with the dummy notebook. Meinertzhagen began to feed them false information from the British radio station in Egypt. One of the most significant bits of false data was that the supposed attack on Gaza would not occur before November 14 because British commander, Edmund Allenby would be on leave until November 7. Meanwhile, the real assault on Beersheba was set for October 30.

British intelligence indicated that the enemy believed the ruse and planned accordingly. It was then that Meinertzhagen launched the last phase of his plan. As British forces moved quietly from Gaza to Beersheba, leaving behind a “cavalry” of straw horses, he had one hundred and twenty thousand packs of cigarettes dropped over enemy lines. Whereas before the cigarette packages always contained propaganda messages, these smokes were laced with opium. What seemed like manna from heaven to the tobacco-starved Turks turned out to be a plague that paralyzed them. On October 30, 1917, the attack on Beersheba began. The city’s defenders were sound asleep, too stoned to repel the invasion. From Beersheba, the British moved on to Gaza and then the rest of Palestine, leaving the Ottoman Empire crushed like a cigarette butt. “Meinertzhagen’s device won the battle,” Prime Minister David Lloyd George later wrote. He was “one of the ablest and most successful brains I had met in any army . . . . Needless to say he never rose in the war above the rank of Colonel.”

 

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