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The only Triumphant Campaign of 1917

The Great War and the only Triumphant Campaign of 1917

Today, when newspapers give reports of fighting in Gaza, Jerusalem and Megiddo (formerly, Armageddon), many readers are largely unaware of the battles that raged in Palestine during the Great War and the British General who obtained there the only real victory the Entente had in 1917. His name was Edmund Henry Hyman Allenby a.k.a. 'The Bull' (1881-1936).

In fact, Allenby didn't want to go from the Western Front to Palestine at all, although much of his record on the Western Front could only be described as rather lack-lustre. He was the commander in 1914 of the Cavalry Division in the retreat from Mons (August) and the 1st Battle of Ypres (October). In 1915, he led the Cavalry V Corps at the 2nd Battle of Ypres (April-May) and Frezenberg Ridge (May). He also participated in the First Battle of the Somme (July 1916). With rather more success, he commanded the Third Army at the Battle of Arras/Vimy Ridge, (April 1917).

Moreover, overall, he had acquired an unfortunate reputation for a fearsome short temper and an insensitivity to casualty numbers - hence the sobriquet 'Bull'. When, in June 1917, he did accept the command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, he still had considerable doubts. To be sure, the omens weren't that bright. Two earlier campaigns in Gaza had failed and, even earlier, in 1916, Townshend and his army in Mesopotamia had been besieged at Kut el Amara and surrendered to a man. But, released from the restrictive atmosphere of the Entente military hierarchy of the Western Front, take command of the EEP Allenby did; eventually leading it in a victorious campaign. Indeed, he achieved a degree of success he could have scarcely dreamed possible in those grim days in the mud and blood on the Western Front in 1917.

Allenby takes command
General Edmund Henry Hyman Allenby replaced General Sir Achibald Murray as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, in June 1917. From the start of his command, Allenby set about with great vigour to completely overhaul the EEP and to put the cavalry (Desert Mounted Force) firmly in the van of his offensive. After all, he was a cavalryman and claimed he knew how they should be used in this much more open scenario of warfare.

Allenby also wielded a very brisk 'new broom', dispatching vacillating subordinates, bar-propping commanders and superannuated regimental colonels alike to the boat home; largely replacing them with officers he knew well, and trusted, from the Western Front. To emphasise his insistence on the proper application to the job, he transferred his headquarters from the flesh-pots of the Savoy Hotel, Cairo, to a largely tented camp near Rafa - on the Egypt/Palestine border. From there he slowly amassed the troops he needed for the campaign in Palestine with the first major objective of capturing Jerusalem. He also made it his business, and that of his subordinates, to conduct frequent site visits to the forward areas and to ensure that the rank and file had a clear understanding of the overall plan of operations and the role they were expected to play in it. This direct personal approach quickly transformed the generally demoralised EEF. He gave them new hope that at last they had a commander with a clear understanding of what had to be done, knew how to do it, and had a firm determination to see it through to a victorious conclusion. And they responded accordingly.

Allenbury, and his advisers, were of the conviction that the direct frontal offensive approach, which had failed Murray in the First and Second Battles of Gaza, in March and April 1917, was not the way to proceed. No doubt the hard lessons of the Western Front in this regard were firmly set in their minds. Allenby had also realised he needed more troops and wisely had made their provision a condition to his acceptance of the job. (Shades of Montgomery at El Alamein in the Second World War).

Somewhat surprisingly, the War Office met his demands for additional resources - except a few pieces of field artillery - in full. One infantry division (the B.10th)* was relocated from Salonika and another (B.75th) constituted from various formations of the British and Indian troops stationed in Eygpt.

(* N.B #1. For the purpose of this article, because of the amazing similarity of the numbering of the British and Turkish military units, British forces will be prefixed with B and the Turkish with T, e.g. B.XX Corps, T.XX corps).

Once these units became available, the entire Eastern Force was reorganised to form the Desert Mounted Column (Lieutenant-General Chauvel), B.XX Army Corps (Lieutenant-General Chetwode) and B.XX1 Corps (Major-General Bulfin). A few other infantry and cavalry units remained directly under B.HQ command.

Thereafter, with the instruction of the War Cabinet to '…strike the Turks as hard as possible', Allenby's newly organised Palestine Force was largely on its own.

The opponent
Allenby's immediate opponent was the German General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein. Kress' forces consisted of the strong Turkish Eighth Army and the weaker T.Seventh Army. Originally, this was part of the Yidderin Force under the overall command of the German General Erich von Falkenhayn - late of the Western, Roumanian and Mesopotamian Fronts.

The T.Eighth Army, commanded by General Kress von Kressenstein himself, comprised of nine Turkish divisions and one cavalry division of which T.XXII Corps was based at Gaza and T.XX Corps at Sheria. The T.Seventh Army, under Fevri Pasha, had responsibility for T.III Corps based at Beersheba. Some German support units and artillery were attached to the T.Seventh Army.

Plan of Operations
Allenby's Plan of Operations was, therefore, to avoid a direct assault on Gaza, but rather to establish a defence line from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea through Jerusalem and Jaffa. Gaza would be initially be by-passed on the right flank by the majority of the Mounted Cavalry Column and B.XX Corps which would concentrate on Beersheba seizing its water sources. This access to a sustainable water supply was considered to be essential before further operations could be undertaken. Once this water supply was assured (it was known to be extensively mined) a second column - B.XXI Corps - would attack a now somewhat isolated Gaza. After a considerable period of preparation, which included various deception schemes to indicate to the Turks that the main attack would again be launched against Gaza, the advance on the Turkish positions protecting Beersheba began on 31st October 1917. The mounted troops - with the B.ANZAC formation in the van - effectively broke through the defences and rounded up some of the demoralised Turkish troops, although others - including the Turkish Commander Ismet Bey - successfully retreated to the North. The deception plans had worked. The water sources were captured, and the mines that had threatened them were de-activated.

The way was now open to Gaza. The attack on Gaza by B.XXI Corps was planned in two phases. The first, on 1st November 1917, was to be an advance along the Mediterranean cost towards Gaza to be followed, on 2nd November 1917, by a second attack to capture Sheikh Hassan north of Gaza; uniquely with the support of six tanks. The successful advance south of Gaza and the capture of Sheikh Hassan had the double effect of isolating Gaza and preventing its relief from the East where the Turks still had considerable forces. The Turkish forces in the Gaza area were thus seriously compromised.

The immediate response of the Turkish Command was to launch a counter-attack on Beersheba led by the T.7th Army. For this purpose, Kress von Kressenstein reinforced the T.Seventh Army with the T.19th Division.

The Turkish plans were further complicated by the activities northwards of the B.ANZAC Mounted Division and B.Raiding Column, led by Colonel Newcome, in the Hebron area. To counter this threat, on 2nd November 1917, the Turks sent six battalions based at Sheria eastwards towards Hebron against Newcome; they subsequently captured his entire force of about 100 mounted men. However, thereafter, these Turkish forces remained stranded in the surrounding Judean hills and took no active part in the proceedings for a week. In addition a second Turkish task force comprising of the T.3rd Cavalry Division, T.19th Division and elements of the T.24th and 27th Divisions, was dispatched to deal with the British forces north of Beersheba. The opposing forces met at Tell el Kuhweilfeh. A stalemate persisted until 6th November 1917 when B.XX Corps and the B.Desert Mounted Column broke through the Turkish defences and Sheria fell to the British forces on 7th November 1917. This significant victory, and further advances in the West, culminating in the fall of Gaza on 7th November 1917, led to the withdrawal of most of the Turkish forces northwards from the Gaza-Beersheba line, leaving behind small rearguard forces in some redoubts.

The next move
Allenby's next strategic move was to cut off the retreating Turkish armies. Already by 6th November 1917 the B.Desert Mounted Corps was advancing northwards and towards the Mediterranean Sea. However, water shortages, stiff rear-guard actions by the retreating Turks, and unanticipated logistic problems, progressively slowed this advance. It was further retarded as transportation lines lengthened and the fighting and the weather took its toll. Meanwhile, some British units remained stalled in the Beersheba/Gaza area awaiting transport northwards.

Taking advantage of this, the T.Eighth Army, having largely escaped the Allies encircling net, prepared to make a stand around Junction: A town where the Jerusalem branch railway line joined the main line. Here, the Turks once again faced the British full on. They were well situated behind a new defence line centred on the Wadi Surat.

Despite all of the logistic problems, General Allenby considered he was in a sound position to push forward an attack on the The Eighth Army. This, he hoped, would divide the two Turkish Armies and force them into defensive tactics. Accordingly, on 13th November 1917, the British launched an attack with B.XXI Corps (B.75th and 52 Divisions), the Yeomanry Division and the Cavalry Brigade, up the Gaza road to Junction. After determined resistance by the Turks centred on El Maghar Ridge, a retreat started and the Turks fell back toward Junction. The B.75th Division then successfully assaulted Junction, with the aid of armoured cars, and captured it on 14th November 1917. This broke the railway connection to Jerusalem. The road connection was also severed the following day by a spirited action of the ANZAC and British cavalry, and a breech between the two Turkish Armies was achieved.

At the coast
Meanwhile, on the coast, Jaffa was taken on 16th November 1917 by the New Zealand Brigade, without resistance, and the T.Seventh Army retreated to a new defence line behind the River Auja; about 4 miles north of Jaffa. This meant despite losing 10,000 as POW's and a considerable number of dead, the weakened Turkish 7th and 8th Armies were still largely intact, although now intractably divided.

British casualties in the 16-day offensive were over 6,000.

An operational dilemma
The question that was now posed for Allenby, and his advisers, was whether to rest and consolidate his infantry and cavalry, or to push on regardless to seize the initiative and capture Jerusalem? Not least in his consideration was the weakened physical state of his own army. Many had suffered severely from a lack of water, the adverse weather, illness and the sheer physical effort required by the rapid advances of 40 to 60 miles respectively in the Eastern and the Western Sectors.

On the other hand, logic, imposed by military and political considerations (there was a strong expectation by the British Cabinet that Jerusalem would be captured before Christmas 1917) demanded that the campaign should continue. So, after only one day of rest, on 17th November 1917, the campaign was renewed in a two-pronged offensive. Firstly, in the East, the weakened, and still not fully reorganised, T.7th Army was to be dislodged from its positions in the Judean Hills, so as to open up the road to Jerusalem. Secondly, in the West, the T.8th Army would be curtailed within its defensive positions on the Mediterranean coast until Jerusalem had been taken. A minority force made up of the B.ANZAC and B.54th Divisions was assigned to this task.

The advance northwards into the Judean Hills by the main British force began, as scheduled, on 18th November 1917. Not wishing to subject Jerusalem to a destructive direct assault, Allenby's aim was to approach the city from the rather more tactically problematic direction of the Northwest, via Nablus. Thus isolating the Turkish forces in and around the city from re-inforcement and their supply route, and forcing them into capitulation or retreat.

The B.XXI Corps led the advance, with the Australian Mounted Division in the van, by clearing obstacles on the Jaffa-Jerusalem road. The cold winter rains had begun, with fog, and the poor roads and rocky hillsides made progress difficult. Despite all efforts, progress did grind to a halt on 24th November 1917; but with the knowledge that significant gains had been made and prospects opened up for an early resumption of the offensive.

On the coastal plain there was less action, but an assault on the Turkish position across the Auja River by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade and B.54 Division, on 24th November 1917, although initially successful, was subsequently repulsed.

Another realignment
Allenbury decided to use this short hiatus to rotate his forces from the coast inland and vice versa. Naturally, once they became aware of it, the Turks seized this opportunity for a spoiling action. But by 7th December 1917 the transfers had been effected and, even earlier, on 3rd December 1917, the Turks broke off all their offensive actions.

B.XX Corps, now located just southwest of Jerusalem, renewed the offensive on 7th December 1917 against the 16,000 men of T.Seventh Army, who were well entrenched in the hills west of the city. Within the day it became evident to the Turks that their hold of the city was untenable and, despite some fierce rearguard resistance to the British forces, they began their retreat from the city late on 8th December 1917. Within hours the city was in the hands of the civic authorities.

Capitulation and success
On 9th December 1917, the mayor of Jerusalem formally handed over the keys of the city - under cover of a white flag - to an astonished officer of the Royal Artillery. At that moment, 400 years of occupation of the Holy City by the Ottoman Empire ended.

On 11th December 1917, General Allenby, accompanied by the French and Italian Commanders, entered the city on foot ahead of his Army commanders, HQ staff and representative detachments.

The British Cabinet had got its 'Victory Before Christmas' and Allenbury had set in train his campaign for the eventual capture of all of Palestine and his ultimate victory over the Turks.

The human bill was considerable. British casualties were 18,928 men; Turkish 28,433. Twelve thousand Turks were made POW's and 100 Turkish artillery guns were taken.

(N.B #2. The author of this article must declare a personal interest. His father, Cpl. Charles H. Payne, Regt. No. 12373 of the 1/4th Northamptonshire Regiment, joined the British Army 'for the duration' on 25th August 1914. After a year's stint on the Western Front, including the First Battle of the Somme, he served with the EEF in Egypt and Palestine from 1st November 1917 until 3rd June 1919, when he boarded H.T. Kashgar for repatriation to the UK and demobilisation.)

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 December 2008 12:58 )  

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