|Some Prominent British Generals and their Fortunes in The Great War|
ALLENBY, (Bull / al Nabi – the Prophet) Edmund Henry Hynman (1861-1936)
Allenby was a classic case of mixed military fortunes in the Great War. At least to some extent, this was due to an irrational bad temper and an inability to get on with his superiors – particularly Haig (idem.).
As General Officer Commanding of the BEF Cavalry Division, Allenby took it to France in August 1914, and did well in the retreat from Mons. He was rapidly promoted to GOC Cavalry Corps and his corps put up a dogged performance in the First Battle of Ypres in September/October 1914.
In May 1915, Allenby was given the command of V Corps during the Second Battle of Ypres, and, then, in October 1915, that of Third Army. Despite his early promising start on the Western Front at Mons, Le Cateau, Ypres and Frezenberg Ridge, Allenby hit a bad patch in 1916-17. He did not do as well as expected in the diversionary action at Gommecourt on the Somme in July 1916, incurring high casualty figures that were brought about, it was said, by his penchant for the immediate counterattack (à la francaise), irrespective of longer term operational considerations and casualties. And, in particular, he ‘became unstuck’ during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Despite an initial advance of four miles, and employing original tactics such as the use of cellars and sewers as staging posts, Allenby eventually lost the plot and the attack degenerated into a costly slogging match within the deep defence system of the Germans. These accumulative failings eventually caused conflict with his subordinate commanders, and brought about his downfall.
However, with Lloyd George’s support, he was unexpectedly transferred, against his wishes, to another theatre of war as GOC, Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF); in fact, a promotion. Here his formerly unwelcome abrasive manner and natural hyperactivity did much to reorganise and re-energise what had become a rather moribund British-led army in Egypt and Palestine. This ‘new broom’ included the relocation of the EEF HQ to the front line in the desert at Khan Yunis, Gaza, Palestine, well away from the flesh pots and diversions of Cairo!
Allenby’s first campaign, in October 1917, was the Third Battle of Gaza, based on the axis Gaza – Beersheba, with the final objective being Jerusalem. Beersheba fell on 31 October 1917 to mounted Australian troops, and Jerusalem was formally entered by Allenby on 11 December 1917. A most welcome Christmas present to a beleaguered Lloyd George and a grateful British Nation.
Although he lost many of his best troops to the Western Front to meet the German 1918 Spring Offensive, within two years of taking command of the EEF, Allenby had: completely revitalised the EEF; established a modus operandi with the Hashemite Arab nationalists; achieved a spectacular victory over the Ottomans in Palestine and Syria, and brought about the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire in October 1918. Thus he had amply justified his mentor’s trust. His success at Megiddo (Armageddon), Palestine, with mounted British and Commonwealth troops in September 1918, albeit against a much weakened Ottoman Army, is considered to be his greatest triumph.
Appropriate levels of promotion – Field Marshal – honours, fame, and fortune followed, including an award by Parliament of £50,000, now equivalent to more than £500,000.
General comment: Allenby was a generally capable officer, faults and all, in search of a suitable role to play in the Great War. However, like other Western Front generals, Allenby did not find his true métier in the slogging matches of the Western Front. But rather with an independent command far away from the centres of power and intrigue, located in the new more free-ranging, free-booting, battle-zone of the Levant. Here his strength of character came to the fore, and his personal weaknesses became less disruptive. Against his own intuition, the post of GOC, EEF proved to be a perfect foil for his talents. With it he found both fame and fortune beyond his expectations, and in the process also served his country well.
It cannot be said that Allenby’s EEF troops liked him personally, as did Byng’s, (idem.) Plumer’s’s (idem.) and Birdwood (idem.), but they certainly came to respect his energy and military success.