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.

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