The British General’s muted entry through the Jaffa Gate as the tidewater moment in his well-conceived and hard-fought campaign for Palestine.
In June 1917, amid another round of distressing news from the Western Front, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George summoned General Edmund Allenby to London. Allenby had boasted a meteoric rise from command of the original British Expeditionary Force’s lone cavalry corps in 1914 to command of the Third Army by 1916. But his units had taken heavy casualties in recent campaigns, and he incurred criticism for the handling of his army during the Battle of Arras. Allenby knew he had lost the confidence of his commanding officer, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and he went to the meeting at 10 Downing Street full of dread, expecting bad news from the mercurial and often hostile Lloyd George.
Instead of harsh criticism, however, Lloyd George offered Allenby a new command, that of Lt. Gen. Sir Archibald Murray’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The prime minister promised Allenby all resources necessary to put British troops in Jerusalem by Christmas. Weary of the bloody stalemate on the Western Front, Lloyd George had sought to identify other strategic areas where British military forces could make inroads. Palestine not only contained the lure of the Holy Land but also guarded the eastern approaches to the Suez Canal and the western approaches to India. It was just the place to launch a renewed effort.
Allenby at first thought his new assignment a joke. He knew the Middle Eastern theater had been short of resources for most of the war, and he was certain the war would be decided on the Western Front, not in Palestine. Rumor had it even Murray thought his command was an unnecessary distraction from the real war being fought in France. Allenby knew the British army commanders would strongly resist any attempt to move precious men and equipment from France to such an obvious sideshow. Furthermore, Murray’s command had a reputation for inefficiency, and Murray himself rarely left his posh Cairo headquarters. Morale in the unit was low, and the Egyptians proved unreliable allies. No commander in his right mind would willingly leave the heart of the action in France for an obvious backwater like the Middle East.
Under Lloyd George, British attitudes toward Palestine—and the Middle East at large— had undergone a dramatic change. At the outset of the war the British didn’t pursue the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. They feared that a broken and fragmented Otto- man empire offered too many opportunities for their French and Russian allies (not to mention the Germans) to boost their influence in a region uncomfortably close to Britain’s core strategic interests. Far better, they thought, to hold the Turks together but keep them too weak to challenge British power.
But, as with many other strategic preconceptions, the war prompted a sea change in British thinking about the Middle East. Attitudes toward the Turks hardened in the wake of Britain’s two massive defeats at Ottoman hands—on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 and at the Mesopotamian town of Kut-al-Amara, where 8,000 British and Indian troops surrendered ignominiously to the Turks in 1916. It was the largest surrender of British-led forces to date and a deep humiliation to a proud people. Dismemberment of the Ottoman empire seemed both increasingly attractive and, in the eyes of many British strategists, more and more inevitable. By the time Lloyd George and Allenby met, Russia was in the throes of revolution, and France was reeling from the mutinies that followed the disastrous April assault on the German-held Chemin des Dames. Neither country would threaten British interests in the region after the war.
The British, moreover, had help on the ground. Thanks in part to the efforts of the eccentric but efficient intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and the dynamic Hejaz prince Faisal bin Hussein, the British were backing an indigenous Arab revolt that—though it lacked universal Arab support—had won them a powerful military ally. Through its diplomatic promises in the Balfour Declaration to make Palestine a national homeland for the Jewish people, Britain also believed it had the support of the region’s Jewish population.
Lloyd George thus made a strong case. Allenby took the job despite the warnings of Chief of the Imperial General Staff General William “Wully” Robertson that he for one would not support Lloyd George’s promises to send more men and equipment to Egypt and Palestine. Regardless, just over two weeks after his meeting with the prime minister, Allenby was in Cairo. A month later the general learned that his only son, Michael, had been killed in action on the Western Front. Displaying little public emotion, Allenby threw himself into his new assignment, ready to make some changes.
The first of these changes involved getting his headquarters out of comfortable Cairo and closer to the actual front line, in the city of Rafah, on the present-day border of the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Cairo, a hotbed of political intrigue, swarming with Ottoman spies, struck Allenby as a poor place in which to plan military operations. The move to Rafah also sent a strong signal to his men that their new commander intended to lead from the front. Allenby reorganized his units into three corps—the XX, XXI and the Desert Mounted Corps —an organizational scheme allowing him greater flexibility and striking power. Finally, he gave Lawrence more money to ensure the loyalty of the Arab irregulars fighting alongside British forces.
Allenby intended to begin his effort in Palestine by breaking the Ottoman line of defense from the Gaza coastline to the desert town of Beersheba, about 40 miles inland along a series of primitive roads. British forces had tried twice before to break through, attacking the line close to the coast to take advantage of support from the Royal Navy’s offshore gunfire. The coast also offered better logistics, notably its ample water supply and rail lines. Despite these advantages the first two Battles of Gaza had ended in failure, owing in large part to the Turks’ strong defensive positions on favorable terrain.
By 1917 the Ottomans also had the benefit of experienced commanders, two of them German. General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein had overseen the first two defenses of Gaza and been promoted to command the Ottoman Eighth Army. Commanding the Yildirim (“Thunderbolt”) Army Group in the region was General Erich von Falkenhayn, German architect of the murderous Verdun campaign of 1916 and the man who had destroyed the Romanian army in a brutal campaign later that year. Many of the Ottoman unit commanders had gained valuable experience at Gallipoli or fighting the Russians in the imposing Caucasus Mountains under the two Germans. In all, the Ottoman units in Palestine could field 21,000 infantrymen and 3,000 cavalrymen.
Allenby had no interest in launching another frontal assault against such a well-led force protected by solid resistance. He may well have also overestimated the number of Ottoman troops in front of him. Still, he knew he likely had just one chance to justify Lloyd George’s confidence and overcome the skepticism of his fellow British generals. Whatever he designed, it had to succeed, and Allenby had little faith in the methods Murray had used before him.
A plan already existed in the mind of Lt. Gen. Philip Chetwode, who briefed Allenby shortly after his arrival in Egypt. Chetwode argued the real British advantage in the Palestine theater centered on superior numbers of well-trained cavalry, including the elite Australian Light Horse brigades. If the British could find a way to compensate for the logistical problems of the desert—particularly the dearth of water—they could strike at Beersheba, where Ottoman defenses were significantly weaker, then encircle and outflank Turkish lines of communication while British infantry pressed on the main enemy positions in Gaza. Sooner or later one of the positions would crack, creating opportunities for exploitation and breakthrough for which cavalry units were ideally suited.
British preparations for the battle therefore depended on two factors. First, they had to pay enough attention to the coast to convince the Ottomans it remained the main axis of the British advance. Second, while Allenby had the Turks thus distracted, British engineers must lay rail tracks through the desert toward Beersheba in order to move tens of thousands of gallons of potable water, without which neither the men nor the horses could operate. In other words, the British had to make as much noise as possible on the coast while working quietly but diligently on the support structure for a major offensive in the desert.
The British undertook an elaborate ruse, including false orders, misleading radio traffic and a series of daring escapades to convince the Turks the British would again attack Gaza on the coast. In one such episode a brave British intelligence officer rode close enough to the Turkish lines to entice the Ottomans to pursue him. He escaped by a hair’s breadth, leaving behind a blood-soaked bag containing a set of plans for the attack on Gaza and an army position paper arguing against an attack on Beersheba due to the lack of water for horses. The plans, of course, were false, and the blood had come from a horse, but the scheme worked: The Turks were convinced they had shot and wounded a British officer reconnoitering their lines and had fortuitously captured their enemy’s primary battle plans.
The Southern Palestine Offensive began on Oct. 31, 1917, just as Allenby had designed it, as XX Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps, led by Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) mounted troops, hit Beersheba. Success depended on surprise; despite the best efforts of British engineers, there was just not enough water to sustain operations for very long in the hot and arid clime of the Negev Desert. British forces would need to get into Beersheba and capture its water supplies before Ottoman forces could destroy the wells or poison the water.
British infantry from XX Corps’ four divisions attacked the city from the south and southwest, while the cavalry approached at a gallop from the east. At a few places, notably the Ottoman hilltop redoubt at Tel el Saba, British and ANZAC forces met resistance, but they achieved the surprise they needed. Water proved every bit the problem Allenby and Chetwode feared, but the Turks had no answer to the speed and maneuverability of the British cavalry. Ottoman forces, surprised and confused, fought for a time but ultimately surrendered. The British took nearly 2,000 prisoners in just a few hours of fighting.
The British seized Beersheba in less than a day. The momentum and surprise of the attack meant the British managed to take 15 of Beersheba’s 17 crucial water wells and its two largest reservoirs intact. The British also caught a break from nature when runoff from a passing rainstorm filled shell holes, providing additional water for the horses.
The victory at Beersheba exposed the left flank of Ottoman positions on the coast, making them untenable. For days prior to the strike at Beersheba land-based artillery, supported by the big naval guns of British and French warships, had pounded Gaza, reducing to rubble the carefully designed and built Ottoman defenses. With Beersheba in British hands, XXI Corps infantrymen opened the Third Battle of Gaza on November 1 with probing nighttime assaults along the line. Over the next several days the British alternated between targeted assaults and renewed bombardment of the Turkish positions. Recognizing the real threat of encirclement, the Ottomans then began a skillful nighttime evacuation of the Gaza–Beersheba line. Rear guards slowed the British pursuit and bought the retreating Turkish units badly needed time and space. The two Ottoman armies split, one retreating up the coast and the other falling back to Junction Station, north of Beersheba, to guard the rail and road lines leading to Jaffa and Jerusalem. Allenby wanted to conduct an immediate pursuit while Ottoman forces were disorganized and in retreat, but the lack of water forced him to move much more cautiously.
Yet time was of the essence. He had to launch his next attack before the Turks sent reinforcements, and before they had a chance to set up a new defensive line in front of Jerusalem. Thus on November 13 he pressed ahead and attacked Junction Station. Despite heavier than expected casualties, the British captured the key transportation hub the next morning, endangering the entire Ottoman position in southern Palestine.
Allenby finally had the opportunity he had so long craved. Jerusalem lay within his grasp. Still, he faced a dilemma. The short, sharp battles for Gaza and Beersheba had left those towns in ruins. Jerusalem boasted much stouter defenses and meant enough to the Ottomans that a protracted fight was likely. Allenby wanted to liberate Jerusalem, not preside over a battle that might reduce it to rubble.
British forces caught another break on December 9 when the Ottoman mayor of Jerusalem ventured out in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by policemen carrying white flags. A crowd of curious villagers followed close behind. The strange procession happened upon two British cooks out scrounging for food. The officials informed the soldiers that the Ottoman army had retreated toward Nablus and Jericho, and that the Holy City stood undefended, waiting for the British entrance. The flustered cooks rushed back to inform their officers. Two British scouts also encountered the mayor and posed for a photo (at right) before also notifying their commanders.
Allenby and his superiors in London thought carefully about the symbolism of the coming moment. They did not want British forces to enter Jerusalem as Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had done during a state visit in 1898—his grandiose entry through ceremonial arches on an enormous white horse struck contemporaries as arrogant and posturing. Allenby’s own entry was decidedly more modest and measured. On December 11 he strolled through the Jaffa Gate with as little fanfare as possible given the circumstances. The British flew no flags for the occasion, and they dispatched Muslim soldiers from the Punjab to guard the al’Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Allenby read a proclamation of goodwill written for him in London and had it published in seven languages throughout the city. It pledged the British would not interfere with Jerusalem’s commerce or governance and promised respect for and protection of the city’s many holy sites.
Allenby became an instant hero for, as he later put it, ending 673 years of Mohammedan rule over the Holy Land. Church bells worldwide chimed in celebration of his capture of the great city. The general, however, had more work to do. Militarily, his next problem involved pressing the retreating Ottomans and capturing Damascus, a city both the Arabs and French coveted. That problem grew more difficult in the spring of 1918 when Germany’s offensives on the Western Front forced Allenby to return some of his forces to France. Politically, he faced the process of reconciling all of the British empire’s many wartime promises to the Arabs, the Jews and the French. Allenby played a role in that process as field marshal, viscount of Megiddo and high commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan.
The man who captured Jerusalem from the Ottomans retired from official life in 1925 after a League of Nations mandate for Palestine, which he’d helped make possible, put Britain in control. Thanks to Allenby’s success at Beersheba, Britain’s tangled history in Palestine began with great fanfare, but by the time he died in 1936, Palestine had become a source of unending trouble for the British empire.
Michael Neiberg has authored a dozen books, including Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (2011) and The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris (2012). For further reading he recommends Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East, by David R. Woodward; Allenby in Palestine, by Matthew Hughes; and Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman Army in the First World War, by Edward J. Erickson.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.