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24 November 2020

From the NS archive: The fight for Jerusalem

1 December 1917: How British troops would come to take the Holy City from the Ottoman Empire.

By Anonymous

In this article, written by an anonymous author in the penultimate year of the First World War, the author described the task ahead of British troops in the capture of Jerusalem, to which many nations and cultural groups claimed a right. Aware that they were writing as the action continued, “it is possible”, they wrote, “that, by the time these lines are read, the Holy City will be in their hands”. The path up until now had not been easy – indeed, an Ottoman plan for holding British General Allenby was “exceedingly formidable”. When, on 11 December, General Allenby entered the Holy City on foot, British prime minister David Lloyd George described the capture as “a Christmas present for the British people”.


For the past fortnight British troops have been manoeuvring and fighting with the direct object of capturing Jerusalem; and it is possible (though we risk no prophecy) that, by the time these lines are read, the Holy City will be in their hands. Such an event would damage the political and religious prestige of the Ottomans even more than the fall of Baghdad. It is four centuries since the city and the Holy Places came into their possession; and their eviction, especially on the morrow of our government’s adhesion to a Zionist policy, could not fail to strike every imagination as a historical event of the first order.

The immediate object of General Allenby’s campaign, however, was military. Even if Jerusalem is not won, this object will have been largely attained. When the campaigning-season in Turkey opened three months ago, the situation seemed to favour a Turkish, rather than a British, offensive. The inactivity of the Russians in Armenia had released man-power for use against us, and their withdrawal in Persia uncovered the right flank of our Mesopotamian army. Our army in Palestine was facing a fortified line, on which the labour of many months had been spent to make it impregnable. The supreme direction of the Ottoman forces had been confided to General von Falkenhayn, who fixed his headquarters at Aleppo, and developed a plan for holding General Allenby with ten divisions and devoting the rest of his strength to the envelopment of General Maude and the recovery of Baghdad. The plan was exceedingly formidable, and the first necessity for us was to counter it.

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The late General Maude was not a man to sit still and see preparations made against himself without interfering. As the chief element in a mobile defence he perfected his own communications; and before the enemy were ready, he struck three sharp surprise blows – on the Euphrates, on the Diala, and on the Tigris – by each of which he destroyed an enemy advanced base. In a thinly-populated country without railways the necessity for such bases, and the time required for establishing or re-establishing them, are such that their destruction meant at least a serious postponement of Falkenhayn’s plan. But the principal British counter-move was General Allenby’s offensive in Palestine. It would never have done to let those ten Turkish divisions rest securely behind their colossal earthworks. It was essential to destroy their security and to divert further Ottoman forces to that front.

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So long as the Russians were conducting an active campaign in Armenia and Persia, Mesopotamia had given better scope for British effort than Palestine. It was nearer to India, which, since Sir Charles Monro became the Indian Commander-in-Chief, has become, what it should always have been, an efficient and all-round base for furnishing alike troops, labour, munitions, and supplies. Moreover, the prospect of linking-up closely with the advancing Russians offered very large possibilities. Had these conditions continued, we might have seen the campaign against Baghdad succeeded by one against Mosul, and the consolidation between Mesopotamia and the Black Sea of a continuous Anglo-Russian line working westward against the heart of Turkey. The altered attitude of the Russians compelled us to revise our plans. Any further advance in Mesopotamia would increase the peril of a flank now dangerously “in the air.” But there was no similar objection to a short advance in Palestine. Anything more than a short one would entail operations against Jerusalem; but the difficulty of these might be compensated for by their political importance.

It should be remembered that Jerusalem is a Holy City not only for Jews and Christians, but also for Mussulmans. General Allenby’s attack on the Gaza-Beersheba line does not seem to have been intended in the first instance to carry him far beyond it. But one success has grown out of another. The turning of the Turkish flank at Beersheba was followed, perhaps sooner than was expected, by the turning of their other flank at Gaza. But for this the Turks might have fallen back – not without serious losses and the need for reinforcements on another line south of Jerusalem. But an opportunity presented itself of destroying a large part of their army, and it was not General Allenby’s business to let it slip. He ordered a vigorous pursuit, broke up successive attempts to rally, and ultimately accounted for about half his original opponents as killed, wounded, or prisoners. The Turks behaved doggedly, as usual; but the circumstances of their defeat were too much for them. The English commander pushed quickly up the maritime plain on his left, as Napoleon and many other conquerors of Palestine had done before; and then struck in against the main railway, capturing the junction from which runs the sole pre-war railway to Jerusalem.

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The position thus created was one which most of our newspapers misunderstood, because they were unaware that since the war Jerusalem has been connected by a new branch-line with the Hedjaz Railway east of Jordan. They suggested that the Turks who had rallied in the mountains round Jerusalem would be ousted, because they no longer had the support of a railway communication. On the contrary, it was just because they still had such a communication open that it became urgent for General Allenby to oust them without delay. Otherwise they might have used the railway to concentrate a large striking force in the Jerusalem-Hebron mountains behind the flank of his advance up the maritime plain, and hang a threat over him somewhat similar to that which the Trentino hangs over the Italian army in Venetia. These mountains run to about the heights of Snowdon or Scafell, and constitute a very formidable military bastion. The best hope of overcoming them was to attack quickly before the enemy had fully rallied and organised his defences. Hence the prompt offensive of General Allenby, directed simultaneously along the Ramleh Jerusalem railway and all the roads from the west and north-west; and hence, too, the stubborn rearguard resistance of the Turks defending successive ridges.

Militarily the Holy City itself is of no importance, and even the capture of the heights round it will not give us a good military resting-place in Palestine. To obtain one it will be necessary to seize on the north of our advance the passes of Megiddo, which lead from the maritime plain into the plain of Esdraelon, and also on the east and north-east to push down to the Jordan and effectively secure it against enemy crossings. This programme, if carried out, would mean incidentally the emancipation, not of all Palestine, but of all those parts with which we are most familiar in the Old Testament, and which formed the patrimony of the ruling Israelitish tribes. The most important Zionist colonies in Palestine have been recovered already, by the advance up the maritime plain; but the occupation of the latter is, as we have seen, somewhat precarious without that of the Judrean highlands.

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Palestine has been invaded and fought over times without number; and the strategical factors which have to be considered, though somewhat modified by the Hedjaz railway, are fairly constant. For an army invading from the south the task falls into five stages: (1) the capture of Gaza, which is the gate to the maritime plain; (2) the conquest of the maritime plain; (3) the conquest of the Judrean highlands (including Jerusalem); (4) the capture of the Megiddo passes; (5) the control of the Jordan crossings. Of these we have achieved (1) and (2); and the fall of Jerusalem would denote our achievement of (3). Whether General Allenby would then proceed to attempt (4) and (5) would probably depend on the forces against him. Since, however, his aim must be to get a good defensive position, and since there is no really good one which lacks those essentials, it is to be hoped that his initial impetus may yet avail to carry him forward.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)