General Sir Edmund Allenby

When Allenby arrived in Egypt on 27 June 1917 (he assumed command the following day), EEF morale had collapsed. Under the uninspiring leadership of General Archibald Murray the force had been defeated twice at the town of Gaza in spring 1917. Allenby set about rebuilding the EEF into a force capable of taking the offensive. He moved his headquarters to Khan Yunis, just behind the front line at Gaza, and embarked on a series of tours of EEF front-line troops. The tough Australian and New Zealand mounted troops that formed a mobile core to the EEF soon noticed the change in atmosphere. One Australian light horseman remembered how under Murray he and his comrades were ‘fed up—we considered we hadn't had the leadership we were due for and it seemed to be one blunder after another. Then the arrival of Allenby, morale rose’. Allenby's impact resonated through the EEF. Richard Meinertzhagen, an EEF staff officer, recorded how the force was finally awakening from its ‘lethargic sleep under Murray’, while Ronald Storrs, a future military governor of Jerusalem, noted that under Allenby the EEF was advancing with ‘exhilaration into new hope’ (Storrs, 270). With the weight of the western front lifted from his shoulders, Allenby rose to meet the challenges of his new post. Unlike Murray, he was no office general and, physically fit, was willing and able to travel over bumpy tracks in the stifling heat to visit units in the desert. Allenby's experience in field command of everything from a troop in southern Africa in the 1880s to an army in France gave him the standing to talk to rankers and lift their spirits. His sheer presence helped lift morale, and, like General Bernard Montgomery before the battle of Alamein in 1942, show his men that the impending battle was winnable.

While Allenby's personality remained fundamentally unchanged, the different circumstances in Palestine drew out his best qualities and emphasized a more sympathetic and thoughtful side. The Australian official historian Henry Gullett remembered Allenby visiting an Australian unit out in the desert where the canteen had been open for some time before he arrived, with the result that many of the men were drunk. The drunks struck matches on Allenby's car, ‘almost leaned on him. The tighter they were the closer they wished to get to him’.Allenby's reaction to this incident was afterwards to write an appreciative note to the unit commander. Major-General George de Symons Barrow, one of Allenby's divisional commanders, compared Allenby favourably to Haig, writing about how Allenby was happy to be contradicted as long as this was backed up by a cogent argument. Storrs recalled that being told off by Allenby was like being blown from the muzzle of a gun, but when the victim regained the ground Allenby bore him no malice. Allenby's mix of martinet and motivation infused new life into the EEF, transforming it into a fighting force. His first action opened in October 1917 with the third battle of Gaza, the objective being to capture Jerusalem.

Prior to third Gaza, artillery, aeroplanes, men, and equipment poured into Egypt, turning the EEF into a well-equipped force of ten divisions—seven infantry and three cavalry. On 12 August 1917 Allenby organized these units into three corps: the 20th and 21st infantry corps and the desert mounted corps. These reinforcements were vital for the offensive to break the Turkish lines that stretched in a ragged line from Gaza to Beersheba. For the third battle of Gaza, Allenby adopted a plan worked out by Murray's staff before his arrival. This plan involved shifting the emphasis of attack away from Gaza, with two of his three mounted divisions, plus four of the infantry divisions available, attacking the weaker eastern extremity of the Turkish lines at Beersheba, before rolling up the enemy defences from the east. The plan worked. Australian light horse troops charged in and took Beersheba on 31 October and moved west to join up with the force at Gaza prior to the push on Jerusalem. The city was finally captured on 9 December 1917. The surrender was taken by two ‘cockney’ privates from the 60th (London) division out looking for water; they were accosted by the mayor of Jerusalem bearing the keys to the city, and looking for someone to surrender to.

Considering the weak nature of the Turkish defences at Gaza, it has been suggested that Allenby would have done better to concentrate his augmented force, which included a substantial pool of artillery, for an assault on Gaza town rather than on Beersheba. This would have led to a more comprehensive victory. As it was, the Turks were allowed the space to retire in good order to a new defensive line across central Palestine just north of Jerusalem from which they were not dislodged until the war's end. This does not, however, diminish Allenby's success at third Gaza: he reversed the two earlier defeats at Gaza and captured the historic city of Jerusalem. While he was perhaps too cautious and methodical at third Gaza, he was also under intense pressure to invade Palestine and take Jerusalem, especially after his supposed failure at Arras. Having examined the plan offered to him on his arrival in Egypt, he felt that this offered the best likelihood of fulfilling the wishes of his political superiors in the time allotted for the task. He was also hampered by having to conduct operations within the context of a protracted struggle between Lloyd George and elements of the military, notably General William Robertson, over war strategy and the question of whether ‘side-shows’ such as Palestine were worthy of support. Caught in the middle of this acrimonious debate, Allenby had to tread carefully and please both sides.

With the capture of Jerusalem, Allenby was portrayed as a modern-day Richard Lionheart finally recapturing the holy city lost to the Muslims in 1187. For Britain the fall of Jerusalem was a notable propaganda coup at a very difficult moment in the war; for Lloyd George it was the Christmas present for the nation that he had demanded of Allenby before he left for Palestine. Allenby's entry into the city on 11 December was a carefully stage-managed show. He entered on foot through the Jaffa Gate, having dismounted outside the walls, in a gesture that compared favourably to the German Kaiser's entry on horseback in 1898, read out a proclamation of martial law, and then left, again on foot.

After third Gaza the impending German (Ludendorff) offensives on the western front hampered Allenby's plans, as the EEF was a potential reserve force for France. When the offensives broke in March 1918 he lost the bulk of his infantry and some of his cavalry. They were replaced by untrained Indian troops who needed time to be absorbed into the EEF. This restricted Allenby's plans for 1918. From March to May 1918 he launched two ‘raids’—the official nomenclature for multi-divisional attacks—across the River Jordan towards Amman. Their objectives were unclear and resulted in two comprehensive defeats by Turkish forces. These defeats shocked Allenby and for a circumspect commander such as Allenby suggest a loss of grip on operations.

Allenby's finest hour, and the crowning triumph of the Palestine campaign, came with his final offensive against the Turkish armies in Palestine, launched on 19 September 1918 and ending with the armistice signed at Mudros on 30 October 1918. This final battle was given the name Megiddo as Allenby's forces pushed by the ancient mound of Megiddo, the supposed site of the final battle (or Armageddon) revealed in the book of Revelation. Megiddo was a cavalry triumph: once artillery and infantry had punched a hole in the Turkish lines, Allenby's British, Indian, Australian, and New Zealand cavalry swept out behind Turkish lines and advanced all the way to Aleppo in northern Syria. Having said this, the poor condition of the Turkish forces in Palestine must be allowed for in assessing Allenby's success at Megiddo. Debilitated by a lack of men and equipment, they were in a much weakened state by September 1918. The Turkish high command from late 1917 had starved the Palestine front of matériel, preferring to concentrate resources on a push in the Caucasus. By the battle of Megiddo the Turks in Palestine could do little to resist when overwhelmed by Allenby's superior forces. The scale of the triumph surprised Allenby, who was planning a methodical push into Palestine and Syria. While cavalry was used extensively in the Russian civil war, and even the Second World War, the battle of Megiddo marked the swansong of cavalry, and the end of the era of the horse as a decisive weapon of war.

Throughout the campaign Allenby liaised with Hashemite Arab forces allied to Britain. Directed by Colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the Arabs were deployed on Allenby's right flank. While Allenby approved Lawrence's operations, the considerable post-war interest in the enigmatic Lawrence should not detract from Allenby's concentration on the main push by the EEF west of the River Jordan. Allenby took little account of the Arab force militarily, although he accommodated the imperial need to promote the Hashemites by ordering his troops to allow the Arabs into Damascus ‘first’, even though EEF cavalry clearly entered the city on 30 September–1 October 1918 before Arab forces arrived.

Lawrence and His Legacy

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by Stephen Luscombe