A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

November 1917: Allenby Moves North, Part I

After General Allenby's forces took Beersheba on October 31, 1917, the early days of November were spent occupying Ottoman lines between Beersheba and the coast at Gaza. It took only about another month for Allenby to take Jerusalem.

That was no easy task. Before the construction of the modern road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other major routes in the modern Israeli road system, the roads approaching Jerusalem were poor, mostly unpaved, and winding through the rough Judaean hill country. As the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies withdrew from the desert around Gaza and Beersheba into the coastal plain and adjacent hill country, it became increasingly difficult to maintain communications between them, leaving the Eight Army in the coastal plain and the Seventh in the hill country unable to cooordinate operations.

Things were no easier for Allenby. The rail line and water pipeline from Egypt ran to Deir al-Balah south of Gaza; from the railhead (nicknamed "Dear Old Bella" by the troops) Allenby had to arrange transport for food and water and other supplies to the advancing troops, and these included the Desert Mounted Corps, this had to include supplies for their mounts as well. Given the lack of deepwater ports, despite the Royal Navy's control of the sea, supplies had to be landed by small boats.

There is an old military axiom that "amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." Though Allenby was a master of tactics, his organizational logistical work in the Palestine campaign was crucial.

Allenby's aide and first biographer General Archibald Wavell (later Field Marshal Lord Wavell), who was a skilled military historian as well as a field commander, noted that Allenby relied on two books during the Palestine Campaign: the Bible and Sir George Adam Smith's Historical Geography of the Holy Land. Smith's book, first published in 1894 and still valuable to anyone interested in the impact of geography on Israel/Palestine/Jordan (I'll do a separate post about the book soon), places great (though not exaggerated) emphasis on the natural defenses of the Judaean hill country, while recognizing it has frequently been conquered. If he read Smith carefully, Allenby would have understood the challenges ahead of him.

Once embarked on the Palestine campaign, there  was really only one realistic objective: Jerusalem. It was not a major military objective: the Ottoman Seventh Army was already moving its headquarters to Nablus. But while Allenby may have carried a Bible, the Prime Minister for the past year, David Lloyd George, fancied himself something of a Bible scholar. And clearly everyone in Europe (and America, now in the war, though not with Turkey) would pay attention if the British took the Holy City. (Baghdad was a more important military objective than Jerusalem, in terms of importance ro rhe Ottomans but how often do you see photos of Gen. Maude's entry into Baghdad compared to those of Allenby entering Jerusalem?)

On the left, Allenby's forces fought a battle at Ayun Kara (also known as Mughar Ridge) on November 14, forcing the withdrawal of the Ottoman Eighth Army from Jaffa. The British occupied Jaffa November 6, but this did not free up Jaffa for use as a port by the British. The Turkish Eighth Army had only withdrawn behind the al-‘Auja River (today usually known by the Hebrew name, ha-Yarkon), which left the port of Jaffa within range of the Ottoman artillery behind the ‘Auja. (Today, Jaffa, the Yarkon, and everything in between are part of the modern Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo; Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, was still tiny in 1917.)

In Part 2, which will appear in early December, we will look at Allenby's advance into the hill country.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What Happens When You Fall Behind

I was slowly catching up on blogging when the Middle East went haywire, or even more haywire than usual. The Saudi Crown Prince removed most of his remaining rivals, including attacking the sacrosanct independence of the National Guard, then seemed to order the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign, then kept him in Riyadh until international pressure grew, and then, when he returned to Beirut, he un-resigned, maybe. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and Israel have been engaging in public flirtation, Egypt is facing major terrorism challenges, the Yemen War remains a bloody mess, and everything I ever knew about Saudi Arabia isn't  true anymore.

Almost every day I've started to blog about this, something else has happened and I've decided to wait. It seems at this point the best thing I can do is say things are very precarious at the moment. The combination of an inexperienced Saudi Crown Prince with a penchant for risky action and an inexperienced American President reluctant to learn does not bode well.

That said, I'm going to resume blogging, and not even bother to try to catch up.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Back Tomorrow, I Hope

Work has kept me busy but mostly the whole Saudi Palace Coup/Hariri "Resignation" fracas has been moving faster than I could comment. I expect to have one or more posts tomorrow.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Balfour After a Century

A century ago:

Many commentators have already analyzed the Balfour Declaration before its centennial, and there is little point in repeating their observations here. Let me make just a few points:

As I noted just two days ago, the occupation of Beersheba by Allenby on October 31,1917, was the first real British foothold inside Ottoman Palestine (unless we count the occupation of Aqaba by the Arab Revolt). Beersheba was seen as the Biblical southern boundary of Ancient Israel (from Dan to Beersheba), and two days after Britain acquired a tenuous hold there, the British Foreign Secretary made a commitment, ambiguous and hedged with conditions as it is, to the future of Palestine, then still under Ottoman control.

Now, under the Sykes-Picot agreement France and Britain had envisioned an international regime for part of Palestine including Jerusalem. But Sykes-Picot was a secret agreement, unknown to Lord Rothschild or Chaim Weizmann on November 2. (But not for long: on November 23, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia published the text in Pravda and Izvestia.) And then of course there was the Hussein-McMahon correspondence which promised Sharif Hussein territories argued about ever since.

Generations have noted that the "Promised Land" was promised to several different parties, even though Britain did not even control the territory in question. But 1917 was still an age of imperialism, and the idea that Great Powers could decide the fate of "lesser" countries. (Bonus question: Has this really changed that much?)

Israelis today are more likely to point to the League of Nations Palestine Mandate and/or the 1947 UN Partition Resolution as the legal basis for the state, since these had international legitimacy, and were not simply the diktat of a single Great Power.

To save space, I will avoid the question of what a "national home" meant or how it could be created without prejudicing the rights of "the non-Jewish communties of Palestine."

Arthur James Balfour had served as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty before becoming Foreign Secretary. But despite his long political career, his name will forever be attached to a single, run-on 67-word sentence sent a century ago today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November 1, 1954: Toussaint Rouge, The Algerian War Begins

Sixty-three years ago today, a day remembered as Toussaint Rouge, "Red All Saints' Day," the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) staged 30 or more raids against French military and police posts throughout Algeria. It heralded the beginning of the eight year war for Algerian independence, a war which would bring down the Fourth French Republic and inaugurate the Fifth with the return of Charles de Gaulle, finally leading to Algerian independence in 1962.

The war, which saw hundreds of thousands of casualties, remains an enormous event in Algerian national consciousness. Though ailing and rarely appearing in public, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is a living reminder of those days when most of the other historic leaders have passed on. Today the median age in Algeria is in the 20s; few Algerians today witnessed the War of Independence.