Remembering the British commander who captured Jerusalem

Following US President Donald Trump's recogniition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, historian Gordon Lucy looks at the 1917 capture of the city by a soldier who began his career with the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and went on to be lauded as 'the best British general of the Great War':

General Edmund Allenby
General Edmund Allenby

On December 11, 1917 – a century ago today – Allied troops ‘respectfully’ captured Jerusalem.

Although the supreme master of cavalry warfare, before entering Jerusalem General Sir Edmund Allenby dismounted and, together with his officers, entered the city on foot through the Jaffa Gate out of respect for the status of Jerusalem as the Holy City important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The capture of the city was one of the few incontrovertible successes the British could point to after three horrendous years of war.

1917 had been an especially grim year for the Allies: the French army was mutinous, Russia had succumbed to revolution, Italy had suffered a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto and for the British it had been the year of Passchendaele.

For Prime Minister David Lloyd George the capture of Jerusalem was extremely welcome news. He described the city’s capture as “a Christmas present for the British people”.

Allenby, who was commissioned into the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons in 1881, conducted a stunningly successful campaign in Palestine during the First World War and later unveiled the Belfast Cenotaph on November 11, 1929.

Allenby’s official proclamation of martial law following the fall of Jerusalem was a remarkably sensitive document.

He wrote: “To the Inhabitants of Jerusalem the Blessed and the People Dwelling in Its Vicinity: The defeat inflicted upon the Turks by the troops under my command has resulted in the occupation of your city by my forces. I, therefore, here now proclaim it to be under martial law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make necessary.

“However, lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption.

“Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

“Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive Moslem control.

“The hereditary custodians at the gates of the Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar, who protected that church.’

In truth, Allenby was a remarkable general. He was nicknamed ‘the Bull’, probably a commentary on his thick neck, florid complexion and explosive temper.

Subordinates were known to faint in his presence. However his temper subsided very quickly and he was lavish in his praise of those who had served him well.

Allenby was an intelligent soldier. In 1880, when he sat the exam for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he came fifth out of 110 applicants. After 10 months at Sandhurst, he passed out twelfth and was commissioned into the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons in 1881.

He was thoughtful, extremely well read and had a passionate interest in poetry, ornithology, travel and botany.

Prior to his despatch to Palestine in June 1917 Lloyd George presented him with a copy of Sir George Adam Smith’s ‘Historical Geography of the Holy Land’. Predictably, he already had a copy.

He had a keen and intelligent interest in history. What other general would have discovered that Richard the Lionheart failed to capture Jerusalem because he chose the malarial season for his advance, or investigated the reasons for the ophthalmia which blinded so many of Napoleon’s solders in Egypt in 1789-1801, or studied of Strabo’s account of the ancient route through the Sinai desert in the original Greek?

Allenby had served in South Africa and at the outbreak of the Great War was appointed commander of the cavalry division of the British Expeditionary Force.

He covered the retreat after the Battle of Mons.

Between 1915 and 1917 he commanded the Third Army on the Western Front.

At the Battle of Arras, his forces failed to exploit a breakthrough and he was replaced by Julian Byng, the hero of Vimy Ridge.

Allenby initially regarded his transfer to Palestine as a demotion but Lloyd George was both encouraging and supportive.

In terms of military strategy Lloyd George was an ‘Easterner’.

In other words, Lloyd George and other ‘Easterners’ (notably Churchill and Bonar Law) believed the war would be won by attacking the Central Powers on their strategic flanks rather than by defeating the Germans on the Western Front as the ‘Westerners’ (Sir Douglas Haig and Sir William Robertson) contended.

Interestingly, the ‘Easterners’ were invariably politicians whereas the ‘Westerners’ were professional soldiers.

Allenby began a methodically-planned advance in October through Gaza and Jaffa, culminating in the capture of Jerusalem.

The withdrawal of troops to France weakened his position but skilful use of cavalry enabled him to begin a major offensive on September 18, 1918 which rolled the Turks back through Syria.

The Ottoman Empire capitulated on October 31, 1918.

Allenby’s unpopularity meant he had his detractors who denigrated his achievements and denied him the recognition he richly deserved.

Field Marshal Viscount Wavell claimed Allenby was ‘the best British general of the Great War’.

Wavell was fascinated by the Palestine campaign and wrote a history of the campaign in the 1930s and a biography of Allenby in the 1940s.

Wavell contended that Allenby was a commander of the same stamp as the Duke of Wellington.

He acknowledged that, like the Duke, Allenby lacked the common touch but he and the Duke were both hard-headed realists, were both insistent on the paramount importance of good administration and logistics, were both supremely gifted in their ability to conceal their intentions from the enemy and both knew how to strike with maximum surprise.

On November 11, 1929, Allenby, now Viscount Allenby of Megiddo, officially unveiled the Belfast Cenotaph in Northern Ireland’s capital city.