“All the armies that have sought to take Jerusalem have passed this way, save only that of Joshua. Philistine and Hittite, Babylonian and Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman and Greek, Frankish Knights of the Cross, all have passed this way, and all have watered the hill of Amwas with their blood.”
(R.M.P. Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps, 1921)
In December 1917, the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, aided by other British and Australian units, occupied Jerusalem removing it from the grip of the Ottoman Empire. Sir Edmund Allenby, who had been sent to command troops in the Middle East in July of that same year, complied with the order he had received to capture the city by December.
The conquest of Jerusalem initiated originally in 1915, when a German-Ottoman contingent managed to take control of the Sinai peninsula. The following year, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces regained control of the Suez Canal and a British Expeditionary Force corps was sent to ensure protection.
Over the course of 1916, the British contingents present on the Sinai were ordered to extend the area under their control and put pressure on the enemy in Palestine. The objective was twofold: on the one hand to prevent a possible Ottoman counter-offensive and on the other to create a situation favourable to the Arab Revolt, which was undermining the power of the Sultan in the Middle East.
In addition, the situation on the European front played a role in Britain’s strategy in the Middle East. There was stalemate on the Western front and the British command was looking for a victory to combat the tiredness people were feeling towards a war that was drawing out and not achieving any significant results.
General Archibald Murray, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, was therefore ordered to conquer Jerusalem. This led to the ensuing three Battles of Gaza. Technically speaking, the British forces were at an advantage. The Ottoman army on the other hand, whilst being able to count on a smaller number of regular soldiers, had the German Generals von Kressenstein and von Falkenhayn at their disposal for advice. It was in fact these who actually commanded the troops in Palestine, while the Ottoman General, Djemal Pasha remained a commander in name only.
The First Battle of Gaza ended in disaster for the British due to communication problems between the units, which resulted in an uncoordinated offensive. Moreover, the reinforcement troops requested by Murray were denied. On 17 April, the British made another attempt with widespread deployment of artillery, asphyxiant gases and tanks, but this ended in failure once again. Murray and the Australian General Dobell were relieved of their commands and General Edmund Allenby was appointed to replace Murray as commander of the contingent in Palestine.
Allenby succeeded in obtaining the reinforcements he required and implemented a series of strategies to divert attention and take the Ottomans by surprise. Allenby’s tactic consisted of deceiving the Ottomans by prompting them to think that the main thrust was once again going to be towards Gaza. The plan worked and the Ottoman troops were taken by surprise when the British attacked Beersheba with a unit of 40,000 men and cavalry charges. The garrison housed in the most important city in the Neghev desert was forced after continuous assaults by the cavalry to retreat to positions further back, opening up the route to Jerusalem. The Ottoman forces subsequently also abandoned Gaza out of fear of being encircled.
Falkenhayn reorganised the troops along a fortified line of defence running from Bethlehem through Jerusalem to Jaffa. Jerusalem fell on ninth December despite resistance managing to repel the first British assault.
The main weakness of the Ottomans proved to be that they were outnumbered, which prevented them from relieving tired or lost soldiers. On the contrary, the British were able to rotate the units on the front line with some success.
The taking of Jerusalem sanctioned the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Palestine region, and indeed the beginning of the military crisis that led to its downfall. As far as the Entente was concerned, it was an important victory and boost to morale, which had been sorely tested by the stalemate and dramatic events on the Western front.