Since it’s founding in the 4th millennium BC, Jerusalem had known many masters. In that time, Philistines, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Jews, Romans, Greeks, Europeans and Turks had all held claim to the ancient city – all part of being besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and completely destroyed twice.
On November 17th, 1917, the British soldiers of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) began to stake their claim to the holy city’s history, marching to evict the Ottoman and German troops fighting to hold Palestine. It would be the dénouement to a campaign that the British General Staff had resisted executing and on which David Lloyd George had staked his political capital.
Of the multitude of fronts that constituted the Great War, perhaps no front was as fundamentally impacted by the change of government in London in the winter of 1916 as the Middle East.
While Britain had repeatedly flirted with tertiary fronts after being stalemated in Flanders, failures like Gallipoli and Kut had weakened London’s appetite for colonial misadventures. But with the Western Front draining the morale and manpower of the Entente, newly appointed Prime Minister David Lloyd George was adamant that the solution to the trenches in France was to completely bypass them, focusing on other fronts. Expanded campaigns in the Balkans and Italy were extensively debated by Britain’s War Council, but whether in France, Salonika or along the Isonzo, the reality remained the same – British troops would fight in similar conditions, requiring massive numbers of men to likely move the front by a handful of miles.
Such a tactical deadlock was absent in the Middle East. While the terrain could be unforgiving in it’s harshness, the deserts of the Sinai and Palestine provided for the near endless opportunity to turn the enemy’s flank. The Ottoman Empire was a long way from it’s early defensive victories of the war. Despite German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, the Turks had been driven out of Mesopotamia and most of the Sinai. The Ottoman Empire was engulfed in an Arab Revolt and was even in retreat against the Russians. The centuries-old “sick man of Europe” looked to be finally on his deathbed.
Despite the Palestinian Front being all but inactive since the British failings at Gaza in the spring of 1917, both sides could see the deteriorating condition of the Ottoman Army. For the Central Powers, the solution was the appointment to command of the former Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn. Since losing his role to Paul von Hindenburg following the Verdun campaign, Falkenhayn had become Germany’s traveling problem-solver. Falkenhayn’s improvised counterattack to Romania’s entry into the war had, in the mind of Berlin, saved Vienna from potential defeat. With a hodgepodge of Central Powers divisions, Falkenhayn had thrown back the Romanian offensive and captured Bucharest within less than two months. Now, Falkenhayn was expected to work similar magic against a British army that was well-rested and well-supplied.
What Britain had lacked was a forceful commanding officer. Gen. Archibald Murray had done excellent work building a war-time infrastructure as a springboard to a potential invasion of Palestine, but Murray’s timidity in Gaza had robbed Britain of a victory and his lying to his superiors strained the General Staff’s credibility with the government and public. David Lloyd George wanted, in his words, a “dashing type” of general to replace Murray, but few generals were willing to take the command. When Gen. Edmund Allenby accepted the offer in June of 1917, he soon understood why so many had passed. George was blunt with Allenby’s goal – “Jerusalem before Christmas.” And Allenby’s superiors in the War Office were equally as blunt that he would receive no significant reinforcements towards his objective. Any reserves of men or materials were earmarked for France.
Allenby was being asked to assault prepared Turkish positions with a force only slightly larger than his opposition – an opposition commanded by one of the most resourceful generals in the entire Central Powers. George’s demand seemed for less of a Christmas present than a lump of coal.
Both Allenby’s and Falkenhayn’s arrivals were greeted by a level of skepticism, if not opposition, by their respective officer corps.
Falkenhayn quickly decided that his reconstituted Ottoman Yildirim Army Group shouldn’t set up defensive positions within Jerusalem itself. The decision was as much religious as practical. The deserts to the East of Jerusalem meant the city could easily be cut off and surrounded, making holding fixed defensive positions unwise. Falkenhayn was unwilling to subject Jerusalem to a third destruction – especially if doing so didn’t benefit his army. Nor did the German general agree to the proposed campaign by the Turks of forcibly removing Palestine’s Jewish population in a manner similar to the Armenians. Constantinople complained of Falkenhayn’s meddling in what they perceived as domestic affairs, but Falkenhayn refused to execute the order.
That Allenby might rub the press or those under him the wrong way wouldn’t have been surprising. Given the nickname “The Bull”, Allenby was notorious for his temper, leading his critics to call him a “thunder and blunder” general. Allenby had lost his post in France by questioning Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s strategy, suggesting that a greater reliance on planes and tanks would help minimize casualties. Haig saw the move as insubordinate; David Lloyd George saw a kindred spirit of opposition against the prevalent attitudes in the British General Staff. But it wasn’t a moment of bluntness or anger that caused many to question Allenby’s appointment. Upon arriving in Egypt, Allenby gave a welcoming address complete with a poem. He broke down in tears, unable to continue. What no one had known is that Allenby had received a telegram shortly before the address – his son Michael had been killed on the Western Front.
Both Allenby and Falkenhayn had been appointed to shake-up the stalemate in Palestine, with each planning their own fall offensive. Little could they have imagined that both operations had been planned to start on the same date.
The Battle of Beersheba on October 31st, 1917 was a Halloween trick for both the Ottomans and British. Falkenhayn had planned to launch an attack against a recently completed British railway near the city; Allenby had planned to take Beersheba itself. It would be the first full battle since the previous spring and both operations had been set for the 31st.
But where Falkenhayn had prepared for a minor offensive with 4,400 men, Allenby had brought nearly 60,000 soldiers. “The Bull” had left little to chance – fake battle plans were sent via open radio. False operational orders were even left close to the Turkish front lines, complete with smeared horse blood to give the impression the carrier had been killed and the plans lost. The fake intelligence pointed to a British offensive against Gaza, where they had been twice defeated earlier in 1917. For Falkenhayn, a move against Gaza made sense – Britain wouldn’t care to advance in Palestine which such a large base of operations threatening their flank. Allenby reasoned differently. The Turks, despite their Central Powers reinforcements, were unlikely to ever be able to launch a sustained counteroffensive that could push the British back. Why attack a heavily defended city when he could simply move around it?
The full weight of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force crushed the Turkish/German forces at Beersheba. Allenby deployed his cavalry in a manner similar to the German tank blitzkriegs a generation later – swooping in, between and behind the Ottoman line while harassing retreating units. Entire units fell under the hoofs, swords and guns of the Australian Light Cavalry and word spread through the Ottoman ranks of the terrifying experience from the few survivors. It was said that “from then on to the end of the war the Turks never forgot Beersheba,” with Ottoman units fleeing or surrendering quickly wherever British cavalry units appeared. Nearly the entire Ottoman force of 4,400 men at Beersheba had been either killed, wounded or captured, all for the loss of only 171 British soldiers.
Allenby’s bypass strategy paid another immediate dividend – the Turks withdrew from Gaza. Falkenhayn assumed that Allenby wouldn’t advance with such a large force behind his line. Germany’s former Chief of the General Staff was ultimately projecting – he wouldn’t risk his army so far behind the British line. Gaza was surrendered with barely a fight. In mere days of fighting, Allenby had overcome what had stalled the British army for the better part of 1917.
The path to Jerusalem lay before Allenby and the British army, but was far from open.
Allenby had succeed thus far by flanking his Ottoman opponent, but the known routes from Beersheba to Jerusalem were narrow, rocky and easily blocked – perfect grounds for a prolonged defense. Worse for the British, the region’s winter weather set in, meaning pouring rain and bitterly cold desert nights. The EEF was still in their summer uniforms and men froze at night in the muddy morass. Ottoman snipers and hidden machine gun nests kept soldiers on edge and further slowed the already sluggish advance.
The situation was ripe for an Ottoman counterattack. And Falkenhayn and his Ottoman superiors did – too often. Small offensives with limited numbers of troops repeatedly struck the British line throughout late November, draining the Turkish pool of soldiers available to defend Jerusalem for little appreciable gain. The decisiveness that Falkenhayn had shown earlier in the war appeared to melting in the desert heat. Unwilling to fully commit to a defensive posture or to fully counterattack, the Ottomans under his command did both. Perhaps part of the reason was the dysfunction within the Ottoman ranks themselves. Pressure from the Turks forced Falkenhayn to relieve Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, the region’s original commander since the beginning of the war. Von Kressenstein had been a bold and creative commander, but the Turks wanted their own general. As word spread of the change of command, Allenby spoke for most experts: “I fancy that there is little love lost now between Turk and Boche.”
By December 1st, 1917, the road to Jerusalem was nearly clear. The Turkish counteroffensives had petered out, and while some individual units fought with immense bravery, requiring British bayonet charges to dislodge them from their positions, the overall morale of the defending Ottomans was pessimistic at best. Still, Allenby wanted to make sure the Turks didn’t have plans to conduct a street-to-street defense of the holy city. When Jerusalem’s mayor attempted to surrender on December 8th, British forces refused. Allenby wanted to make sure the city was completely surrounded before his men entered it on December 11th.
For all of his reputation as unnecessarily brash, “The Bull” was exceedingly diplomatic with his entrance into Jerusalem. Allenby had learned from recent history. When Kaiser Wilhelm II entered Jerusalem on a diplomatic tour in 1898, he had done so on horseback – a move that the locals claimed reeked of Germanic hubris. Allenby would walk into the holy city, to much approval, and demonstrate he was no Christian missionary looking to re-establish some sort of Crusade-era Frankish rule: “I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.” Ottoman hopes that the locals would rebel against a Christian authority – the first since the 13th Century – quickly faded.
Allenby had fulfilled his orders – Britain had their Christmas present.
David Lloyd George had envisioned the Palestinian campaign as a boost of morale for a war-weary populace. Allenby’s victory in December of 1917 represented much more.
A year of hardships and defeats had ended with some of the worst outcomes the Allies had experienced throughout the entire Great War. In merely the last few months, the British had lost thousands upon thousands of men in Flanders while the Italian army had nearly been driven out of the war. Russia, finally, had succumb to the twin pressures of revolution and war, and the Allies had lost an entire front, freeing up millions of German and Austro-Hungarians soldiers. If the closing months of 1917 were any preview of 1918, it would appear that Germany and her allies might emerge the victor.
Lloyd George declared from London that the victory was “a Christmas gift for the British people.” More accurately, it was a Christmas present to entire alliance – the first sign of legitimate hope that Germany’s allies could be beaten in nearly a year. If the Ottomans could be beaten, the Allied populace began to reason, perhaps the larger war itself could still be won.