Today in Middle Eastern history: General Allenby comes to Jerusalem (1917)
Britain's Egyptian Expeditionary Force wins arguably its most symbolically important World War I victory.
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In a sense, if you’re into this sort of thing, there are some parallels you could draw between the British army’s capture of Jerusalem and the Crusades. I mean, Edmund Allenby was technically a European Christian, and there he was, on December 11, 1917, marching into having successfully conquered the city that had been the object of the Crusading movement. Now obviously World War I wasn’t a Crusade, and Allenby wasn’t there to establish a Christian kingdom in the Holy Land, but there is something to be said for the fact that, despite all the centuries that separated the Crusaders from the British army, 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 successes at Gaza and then 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 it was a technical British victory that was a tactical British failure but also a strategic British success.
Yes, I know that doesn’t make very much sense. The thing is that, in the most basic sense of the term, Nabi Samwil was a British victory, in that they captured the territory they wanted to capture. That part is pretty simple. But the attack on Nabi Samwil was supposed 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 stream of Ottoman counterattacks. So there’s your tactical failure. But all of those counterattacks proved to be a great Ottoman gift to the British. Their failure, and the heavy losses the Ottomans took during them, meant that once the British army had reinforced and resupplied itself, the Ottomans couldn’t put up enough of a defense to stop them from capturing the city. Hence the strategic success.
The British forces did spend the next several days in reinforcement and resupply, and also in improving the roads around Jerusalem so that they could bring in the proverbial (and in this case also literal) 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 text of the Ottoman surrender read as follows: “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city through Hussein al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem, hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.”
Here’s where we get into a little dating issue. On the one hand, Jerusalem surrendered to the British on January 9. On the other, 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. 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 had 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.” They were clearly reeling, as were their claims to leadership in the wider Islamic world beyond their dwindling empire.
The symbolism of capturing Jerusalem was also significant on the Allied side. British newspapers invoked the C-word (Crusades, of course), and the front page of the New York Herald wasn’t exactly subtle about it either:
It all seems a little silly, really. But lest you think the papers hyped the capture because it made for dramatic headlines, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George invoked another C-word, Christmas, in describing Allenby’s “present for the British people.” All this over one city that wasn’t that important, strategically-speaking. What was important is what the elation over Jerusalem’s capture did for the British war effort. Having previously denigrated the Middle Eastern front as less important than the Western Front in Europe, London suddenly started paying attention—and funneling badly needed resources to sustain Allenby’s war effort. The Ottomans were barely hanging on, but the British army was in some ways just getting started.
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