As may well be obvious, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the ridiculous way posterity – another word for popular history – devalues the crucial role in our development played by the First World War. Whenever that bee starts buzzing, and I feel the need to irritate some innocent interlocutor with a blockbuster example of why we should look back beyond Hitler’s war to find blueprints for the modern, the first words out of my mouth usually involve the Middle East.
I think it’s safe to call the modern Middle East a mess, and I never cease to be amazed by how little attention we pay to the fundamental links between what was done to the region during the Great War and how it stands today. By way of illustration, and by a neat coincidence (I hesitate to call it happy), the eyes of the modern world are on exactly the same spot that dominated the news a century ago, because on 11 December 1917 the British Empire formally occupied Jerusalem.
In strictly military terms, Jerusalem was not the most important target for General Allenby’s British armies invading Palestine, because it could easily be bypassed on the way to the far more strategically valuable prizes of Baghdad or Damascus. On the other hand, although the city wasn’t quite the symbolic powder keg it is today (no Israel, obviously), it was considered sacred by all the major biblical religions and it was central to the faltering religious prestige of the Ottoman Empire. So Allenby, who had anyway taken command under orders from Prime Minister Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas, had little choice about attacking the city, and Ottoman forces were bound to defend it.
In the aftermath of defeat at Gaza in late October, the 15,000-strong remnant of the Ottoman Seventh Army had fallen back on positions southwest of Jerusalem to await reinforcement from the Germano-Turkish Yilderim Force, most of which was en route for the front under the command of regional c-in-c Falkenhayn. Allenby meanwhile cut railway links between the two Ottoman armies, took up positions for an advance on Jerusalem and, from mid-November, paused to consolidate supplies and bring up his own reinforcements (31 October, 1917: Promised Land).
Afraid that the arrival of Yilderim Force would be a game changer, the British didn’t pause for long. Allenby launched an attack against the Seventh Army’s positions west of Jerusalem on 18 November, backed by a secondary advance up the coast to the River Auja. Hampered more by the winter rains than by Ottoman resistance, the main advance had almost reached Jerusalem when it turned north on 21 November. The turn was intended to cut the road to Nablus, where Falkenhayn had set up his headquarters, and to surround Jerusalem – but it also reflected a prior (and indeed PR) arrangement made between Allenby and Falkenhayn to avoid fighting in or around the holy city if at all possible. The plan was in any case thwarted by strong Ottoman defence of elevated positions to the west of the road, and the British advance came to a halt after two days of heavy, costly fighting.
Meanwhile the secondary coastal attack had degenerated into static warfare after making some progress but failing to cross the Auja, and the same fate subsequently befell two relatively minor Ottoman counterattacks – one against lightly defended positions just inland from the coast, the other from the east by the vanguard of Yilderim forces against the British rearguard north of the city, at Nabi Samweil. By the end of November the whole front was stable, if busy, giving Allenby time to bring up his reinforcements and cement a considerable numerical advantage.
Allenby renewed his attacks in pouring rain on the night of 7/8 December, when infantry, supported by mobile artillery, advanced on the Jerusalem suburbs along the main road from the west, and a second force approached the city from the south, via Bethlehem. The main attack was launched without a preliminary bombardment and achieved complete surprise, driving defenders back some 7km by dawn and reaching positions south and east of Nabi Samweil by evening, when operations were temporarily suspended to allow the secondary advance to catch up. Hopelessly outnumbered, demoralised and all but surrounded, surviving Ottoman units used the pause to escape, and by the morning of 9 December the entire force north of Jerusalem was in full retreat towards Jericho and Nablus.
Despite regular attacks by RFC aircraft, the remains of the Seventh Army got away, because heavy rain and thick mud made pursuit on the ground virtually impossible. Meanwhile Jerusalem’s fate was sealed, and the city formally surrendered to the Allies on 10 December. The surrender in fact took place three times, initially to the first British troops encountered by city authorities, then to the nearest divisional general and finally, when he arrived in Jerusalem on 11 December, to Allenby himself.
Along with the adventures of Lawrence, Allenby’s well-orchestrated acceptance of the surrender is the best-remembered aspect of Britain’s entire Middle Eastern campaign during the First World War. Both the orchestration and its long-term impact reflect an enormous British propaganda effort at the time.
Lloyd George knew what he was doing when he demanded the capture of Jerusalem because, regardless of the city’s military importance, it was far and away the most famous prize taken by Allied forces during the War so far. After a year of miserable disappointments on every European front – encompassing the Nivelle and Ypres offensives, near disaster in Italy and the collapse of Russia – the prime minister understood how badly a worried British public needed to revel in Allenby’s ‘Christmas present’.
For the record, and for that matter recorded by a small army of press photographers and a film camera, Allenby dismounted his horse at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and entered the city on foot. Coming from a man who had long cultivated a reputation for high moral standards, the gesture was generally accepted as the expression of humility it was intended to be, but it was also intended to strike an obvious contrast with the behaviour of Wilhelm II. The Kaiser had generated almost as much publicity on his state visit of 1898, but had arrived on a white horse at the head of a big parade and been perceived in the Arab world as arrogant (perish the thought!).
When the fuss had died down, British forces by the coast finally crossed the Auja after a surprise attack on 20 December, and Allenby prepared to defend Jerusalem against the counterattack expected once the rest of Yilderim Force joined up with the Seventh Army. The attack came during the night of 26/27 December, against the Khadase Ridge just north of Jerusalem, but Falkenhayn’s 20,000 combat troops made no progress against 33,000 defenders, and by 28 December it had turned into a retreat on Jericho. A combination of bad weather and mutual exhaustion then forced suspension of major operations in the theatre until the spring, by which time the British high command had put further advances in Mesopotamia on hold and made preparations for a decisive offensive in Palestine.
Noisily though the fanfares blared in Britain for Allenby’s success, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Jerusalem was much bigger and more important news to the Arab world in 1917. Imperial prestige, or lack of it, was a major factor determining the loyalty of tribal societies, and the Arab Revolt’s recruitment efforts benefitted accordingly. Meanwhile the Ottoman regime, no longer able to pin its hopes on the offensive potential of Yilderim Force, turned its back on the Empire’s evaporating southern territories. Inspired by war minister Enver Pasha’s boundlessly optimistic ambition, it instead committed dwindling resources to an ill-judged and ultimately disastrous attempt to exploit Russian military collapse by expansion into the Caucasus.
In the longer term, British occupation of Jerusalem turned out to be big news for the whole world. The British remained in control of the city, one way or another, for thirty years, and had shaped most of the Middle East to suit their strategic priorities by the time they departed in 1947. They left behind a set of arrangements that, whatever your viewpoint, are still dangerous for everyone, so dangerous that these days all it takes are a few ill-chosen words about Jerusalem to set the whole world on edge. There you go: the First World War did that.