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

British General Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem in 1917 (Wikimedia)

Edmund Allenby was the first Christian commander to capture Jerusalem in battle since the leaders of the First Crusade managed the feat in 1099. There had been brief periods during the later Crusades, after Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187, when the city nominally came back under Christian control via negotiations, and there was technically a “Kingdom of Jerusalem” in the Levant until the fall of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291, but that stuff was mostly for show. Now obviously World War I wasn’t a religious crusade, and Allenby wasn’t there to establish a new Christian kingdom in the Holy Land, but I do think there’s something to be said for the parallel, and the fact that Jerusalem remained (remains) so symbolically important.

The Battle of Jerusalem was an almost six-week affair that began in mid-November, 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.

Wait, what?

OK, so in purely technical terms, the battle was a British success, 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. But the failure of all those counterattacks, and the heavy losses the Ottomans took during them, went a long way toward breaking the Ottoman defense of the city, hence the strategic success.

Britain spent the next several days calling up reinforcements, resupplying its units, and improving the roads around Jerusalem so that it could call up 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. And on the other hand, Jerusalem 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 dramatic 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 was important: Allenby was now in position from which to mount an eventual attack on Damascus and Aleppo, which meant the chance to cut valuable Ottoman rail lines into Anatolia, and the opening of the Levant front 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. 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), was equally important. The Ottomans, having now lost two of Islam’s three holiest cities (and they were in danger of losing the third), along with the jewel of the Caliphal “Golden Age,” were clearly reeling, while the British, energized by Allenby’s success (and because they’d just captured Jerusalem), devoted more needed resources to the Middle Eastern theater.

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Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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