Today in Middle Eastern history: General Allenby comes to Jerusalem (1917)

British General Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem in 1917 (Wikimedia)

Welcome to the anniversary of one of the most symbolically important events of the First World War, British General Edmund Allenby’s dramatic entrance into Jerusalem.

The Battle of Jerusalem was an almost six-week affair that began in mid-November, 1917, when Allenby and his Egyptian Expeditionary Force followed up their success at Mughar Ridge by pushing into the Judean Hills. The Battle of Nabi Samwil (a hill just north of Jerusalem where the prophet Samuel is allegedly buried) followed, in late November, and was a technical British victory that was a tactical British failure but also a strategic British success. I know that makes very little sense but hear me out.

In purely technical terms Britain won the battle, in that they captured the territory they wanted to capture, on November 24. That part is pretty simple. But the attack on Nabi Samwil was meant to keep rolling right on to Jerusalem, and that didn’t happen. The British forces lost too many men taking the hill, lacked appropriate heavy artillery, and once they took the hill they were forced to defend it and the rest of their position against a continual stream of Ottoman counterattacks. Hence the tactical failure. But those successive counterattacks, all of them failures, cost the Ottomans heavy losses in manpower, losses that went a long way toward breaking the Ottoman defense of Jerusalem. Hence the strategic success.

The Brits spent the next several days calling up reinforcements, resupplying units, and improving the roads around Jerusalem so that it could bring in that heavy artillery. They began advancing again on December 2, winning a number of small engagements and nearly surrounding the city, and on December 8 the Ottomans made the decision to abandon Jerusalem as their position had become indefensible. The Battle of Jerusalem didn’t really end until the last pockets of Ottoman resistance were cleaned up (Ottoman forces stationed near Jaffa, for example, were defeated on December 21) and the final Ottoman counterattack (which came on December 27) was beaten back. On the other hand, Jerusalem proper was formally surrendered to the British army on December 9. But December 11 is often the date upon which this battle is commemorated, because it’s the day on which Allenby made his grand entrance into Jerusalem (see above), walking rather than riding a horse or riding in a car as a sign of respect for the city.

The strategic significance of the British victory at Jerusalem was certainly less impressive than the symbolism, but it was an important victory. Allenby was now in position from which to mount an attack on Damascus and Aleppo, which meant the chance to cut valuable Ottoman rail lines into Anatolia. The opening of the Levant front, meanwhile, diverted Ottoman assets from their attempt to counter the British offensive in Mesopotamia. Plus, the Ottomans lost more than 25,000 men from an already depleted army. All important developments in the ongoing war effort.

But the symbolic value of capturing Jerusalem, on the heels of the British capture of Baghdad (in March 1917) and the Arab capture of Mecca (in July 1916) and subsequent siege of Medina (which held out until January 1919, months after the Ottomans had surrendered), was greater than its practical importance. The Ottomans had now lost two of Islam’s three holiest cities (and in danger of losing the third), along with historic capital of the old Abbasid Caliphate. They were clearly reeling.

On the other side, there was some ridiculous talk both among the British army and in the British press about finally finishing the Crusades. Allenby himself, mindful that turning things into a war between Christianity and Islam would be extremely detrimental to the British war effort, tried to downplay this kind of talk official, though there’s a difficult-to-source claim that upon entering Jerusalem he said “only now have the Crusades ended.”. All of these Crusader connections were, to put it in technical British historical terms, bollocks. But nevertheless, the victory inspired the British government, whether because of its religious implications or not, to devote more badly needed resources to the Middle Eastern theater.

Author: DWD

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