The Fall of Jerusalem I

Now that the Allied pursuit of the Turks up the Plain of Philistra had come to a natural end, General Allenby had to decide his next step. His original plan, after Jaffa had been captured, was to suspend further operations until his supply lines and communications had caught up with the rapid British advance. He wanted to ensure he was in a position to sustain his whole army at the front without difficulty before moving on. Units also needed to be restored to full strength and the troops given a period of rest after two weeks of hard campaigning when water and rations had been in short supply. As Private Blunt of the London Regiment commented: ‘Owing to casualties the battalion is now only just over half strength. Everyone seems just beat and worn out. I am as weak as a kitten, feeling done up all over. My face is covered in septic sores and my feet are all blistered.’

However, powerful political and military pressures suggested that the immediate suspension of offensive operations would be unwise. In the end there was no more than a day’s break in operations (on 17 November) before Allenby decided to press on to Jerusalem. In ordering an immediate renewal of hostilities the British would be able to take advantage of the fact that the Turkish Seventh Army would have had no time to regroup after its long retreat and its troops would be tired and demoralized. Its new base in the Judean hills was potentially strong but there would have been no opportunity to organize proper defences. Allenby was concerned that ‘if we had given the Turks time to organize a defence we should never have stormed the heights.’

At the same time, Allenby believed that it should be possible to contain the Turkish Eighth Army on the coastal plain while this new advance to Jerusalem took place. He accepted that there was, however, a risk of a Turkish counter-attack at Jaffa and Ludd. He was also aware that the War Cabinet had expressed concern at the risk of operating in the rugged and difficult terrain that separated the Allies from their goal of Jerusalem and, given that Allied troops were tired and their ranks depleted after the Gaza campaign, had advised extreme caution. As well as the hazard of winter rains that were due at any moment and could make a difficult route impassable, he was reminded of the possibility that a substantial part of his force could be withdrawn early in 1918 to meet manpower demands on the Western Front. Lloyd George’s earlier requirement that Jerusalem be captured before Christmas 1917 had been tempered by a recognition of the potentially dangerous circumstances in which Allenby’s troops now found themselves.

Allenby’s revised plans envisaged the creation of a new defensive line in the Plain of Philistra which would serve to protect the main Allied communications to the south. It would be located opposite the recently established Turkish line of defence based on the Nahr el Auja, a river some four miles north-east of Jaffa. This defensive role was allotted to the Anzac Division with support from the 54th Division. The main operation, which involved the bulk of his forces, consisted of an advance eastwards into the Judean hills towards Jerusalem. As Allenby wished to avoid fighting in the vicinity of Jerusalem – with the risk of damage to the holy city and the resulting propaganda advantage that would be handed to the enemy – he planned an encircling movement that would be much more difficult to execute than a direct attack. Once British units were within striking distance of the city they were to advance to the north-east, cutting Turkish communications by pivoting on the right and swinging to the left across the road between Nablus and Jerusalem. As essential supplies dried up, the enemy garrison would be forced to surrender or withdraw.

In these operations, units of XXI Corps were to play a leading part. The 75th Division (which consisted of West Country territorials) would advance up the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem – the only one in the whole area with a metalled surface – as far as Kuryet el Enab. The 52nd Division (Lowland Scottish) would advance on its immediate left. To the left of the 52nd Division was the Yeomanry Mounted Division, which was ordered to advance on Bireh, ten miles to the north of Jerusalem, via Beit Ur el Foka. It would be joined by the 75th Division which was ordered to turn north-east to Bireh as it approached Jerusalem. The combined force would then cut the Nablus-Jerusalem road. This would disrupt the Turks’ main line of supply and force the enemy to evacuate the city.

The advance eastwards into the hills towards Jerusalem began on 18 November. The Australian Mounted Division was responsible for clearing the enemy from Latron, on the Jaffa–Jerusalem road, before the 75th Division prepared to move off. The Yeomanry Mounted Division began its advance towards Bireh. The two infantry divisions prepared to follow them: the 52nd Division started from Ludd and Ramleh, while the 75th began its advance from a position near Latron. Their move into the Judean hills began on 19 November, the same day that saw the outbreak of the heavy winter rains. The 75th Division advanced through Latron towards the villages of Saris and Kuryet el Enab, where the Turks had damaged the road in several places.

The 52nd Division and the Yeomanry Division had a much more difficult task. They soon found that the routes they had been ordered to follow were no more than unmade tracks that were often steep and difficult for all but mule transport to negotiate; vehicles and guns could go no further and had to be returned to their starting points. As Guy Dawnay described it, the landscape was typically ‘very rough and rugged … Great hills overhanging deep valleys 1,500 or 2,000 feet almost sheer down in many places. Hill villages perched as in Italy on the tops of conical mountains. No roads – or only one, that to Jerusalem.’ The deteriorating weather added to British problems: troops were equipped for the extreme heat of Sinai and Gaza earlier in the year, rather than the cold and wet winter conditions that they now had to face. There was no early relief to the suffering of the rank and file as winter clothing was slow to arrive because of continuing transport bottlenecks.

Despite these constraints, however, some progress was made on the ground and during the course of 19 November the leading brigade of 52nd Division reached Beit Likia, while the Yeomanry advanced to Beit Ur el Tahta. By 20 November, the 75th Division had reached the villages of Saris and Kuryet el Enab. The Turks were strongly entrenched in ridges above these settlements and proved to be difficult to dislodge. The Turkish position at Saris fell during the afternoon but strong resistance was maintained on the ridge at Kuryet el Enab. On this occasion, for once, bad weather came to the aid of the British. Thick fog obscured the view of the Turkish gunners, giving the three British battalions the opportunity to charge the enemy positions without effective challenge. The result was that the entire ridge had been taken by the early evening, thus reopening the road towards Jerusalem. By this point, according to the official history, it was

pretty certain that the enemy meant to defend Jerusalem. Only small rearguard detachments had yet been encountered, and the great difficulty found in dislodging them from positions so admirably suited to their tactics augured ill for the moment drawing nigh when the Turks should be met with in strength.

The advance also continued on other parts of the front line. The 52nd made useful progress, but further to its left the Yeomanry Division was unable to reach Bireh, where it was charged with cutting the vital Nablus road. Instructed to capture Zeitun ridge to the west of Bireh, which was held by a determined enemy force of 3,000 troops and several artillery batteries, the yeomanry was initially unable to dislodge them. (It did in fact take it briefly on 21 November but was soon forced to relinquish it.) At this point for the first time, Falkenhayn’s strategy had been revealed. He left small rearguards to delay the progress of the Allied advance and thus gave the Turkish Seventh Army additional time to organize the defences surrounding Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the 75th Division continued its advance, turning north-east on 21 November towards Bireh and moving across the front of the 52nd Division on its left. The progress of the 75th Division was brought to a rapid halt when it discovered that its route to Bireh was completely blocked at Biddu. Here they encountered the dominating hill of Nebi Samweil, often described as the ‘key to Jerusalem’, which provided uninterrupted views of the city. The hill was taken by the 234th Brigade during the late evening, but the 52nd and 75th Divisions could make no further progress. Their attack on El Jib, the next important height beyond Nebi Samweil, on 22–24 November, was unsuccessful. Without substantial reinforcements, and in the absence of artillery support because of the lack of roads in the area north-west of Jerusalem, it was likely to stay beyond their reach. The Turkish defensive positions were held in strength and could not be dislodged by infantry action alone. General Allenby recognized that there was nothing to be gained by prolonging the fighting and, on 24 November, he ordered it to be broken off. The existing battle line was to be held and consolidated until fresh troops could be brought forward to renew the offensive.

The Turks made a concerted effort to recapture the Nebi Samweil height during the period 27–30 November but they were repulsed. Its defence was a brilliant feat of arms. Some 750 Turkish prisoners were taken during these few days. Fresh British forces now needed to be brought up to replace weary front-line troops who had been campaigning for three weeks in strenuous conditions. The first campaign to capture Jerusalem had stalled in face of the difficult terrain north-west of the capital where the British were unsupported by artillery; the Turks on the other hand had more flexibility because the Jerusalem to Nablus road remained under their control. The British action, however – generally characterized, in the words of the official history, by ‘boldness’ and ‘determination’ – was not entirely without benefit as it had left them in a stronger position than if they had delayed an attack until the Turks had dug themselves in. Allenby was quite clear about the gains that had so far been secured:

The narrow passes from the plain to the plateau of the Judean range have seldom been forced, and have been fatal to many invading armies. Had the attempt not been made at once, or had it been pressed with less determination, the enemy would have had time to reinforce his defences in the passes lower down, and the conquest of the plateau would then have been slow, costly, and precarious. As it was, positions had been won from which the final attack could be prepared and delivered with good prospects of success.

In the meantime, there had been far less action on the coastal plain and it was only on the day that the first Battle of Jerusalem ended, 24 November, that the Anzacs were ordered to advance across the River Auja and establish a bridgehead. The aim was to keep the defending Turkish Eighth Army on its guard and to discourage the possible transfer of troops from the coast to the Jerusalem area. Following a successful action by the New Zealand Mounted Brigade, two battalions of the 54th Division held two small bridgeheads on the northern banks of the wadi for a brief period. The occupation was, however, short-lived as the British infantry was forced to withdraw when the Turks attacked in overwhelming strength on 25 November.

Following this action there was a lull in the fighting on both fronts while the British made preparations for a second attack on Turkish forces in the area. In better weather conditions, existing roads and tracks were improved and new ones constructed to enable heavy and field artillery to be placed in position and ammunition and supplies brought up. The water supply was also developed. The British front-line forces needed both renewal and reinforcement and Allenby decided that the effectiveness of his front-line troops would be enhanced if he were to exchange his forces in the Judean hills with those on the coast. Under these plans XX Corps would leave its coastal bases and move inland, while units of XXI Corps would move in the opposite direction. XX Corps, under Chetwode, assumed its new duties on 28 November.

It was inevitable that the Turks would seek to capitalize on this time of uncertainty and instability. Over the period of a week they launched a series of attacks designed to test the resilience of the British position, in particular exploiting the gap of some five miles that existed between the right of the line in the plain and the left of the force in the hills. Using the ‘shock tactics’ employed by German troops on the Western Front, the Turks achieved a series of short-lived successes at the end of November and early in December. However, as British reinforcements arrived, lost ground was recovered and gaps in the line were soon closed. By 3 December the Turks had abandoned their action.

By 7 December, the exchange of British forces had been completed and XX Corps was prepared to make a second attempt to overcome the Turkish defences that protected Jerusalem. The Turkish Seventh Army, which consisted of some 16,000 troops, remained strongly entrenched in the hills to the west of Jerusalem. However, its morale had been seriously damaged by a succession of setbacks and defeats and it was not clear how much more resistance it would offer before withdrawing. The renewed attack was led by General Chetwode, commander of XX Corps, who adopted a very different plan from that of his predecessor. The original plan, to pivot on the right of the British line with the left swinging across the Nablus road, had entailed crossing rugged country with poor access. It failed because rapid movement had been impossible and wheeled transport, including artillery, could not be deployed. The Turks, on the other hand, could use the Jerusalem–Nablus road to bring up reinforcements quickly to meet any British advance.

As outlined by Chetwode at a conference on 3 December, which was attended by his divisional commanders, the new plan sought to address the weaknesses inherent in the original attack. Chetwode decided to pivot at Nebi Samweil on the left, with his right advancing up the Enab–Jerusalem road and past the western suburbs before cutting the Nablus road immediately to the north of the city. This plan, unlike its predecessor, would enable the British to deploy sufficient artillery against the Turkish defences by using the Jaffa road for this purpose, one of the few routes in the area that had the capacity to handle it. The main attack would be carried out by the 60th and 74th Divisions. To protect their right flank, two brigades of the 53rd Division were to advance up the Hebron road towards Bethlehem, moving round the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem and cutting the city’s road links with Jericho.

During the four days before the attack the main units moved into position. The 10th Division was to operate on a wider front than had originally been envisaged. This gave the 74th Division the opportunity to work in support of the 60th Division at Nebi Samweil. Starting from a point south of the Enab–Jerusalem road, the 60th Division was to advance with its left flank on this road and its right almost touching the Hebron road, making use of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment and the Worcestershire Yeomanry to maintain contact with the 53rd Division. The 53rd was expected to be close to the Bethlehem defences before the attack began.

The British advance on Jerusalem began during the night of 7 December when the 179th Brigade of the 60th Division took the high ground south of Ain Karim. Private Wilson, 179th Machine Gun Corps, recorded his movements at the start of the operation:

We are moving tomorrow morning [7 December] for the Jerusalem operations. Apparently the place is to be ours by Sunday … We started off from Enab at nine in the morning … We were ordered to dump our packs, including bivvies and blankets, so we knew we were in for something hefty … we soon discovered why we had dumped our packs. We could never have got through with those burdens on our backs. The distance on the map which we went that night was roughly two miles as the crow flies. Not being crows, however, we had to do the journey as the donkey walks and found it a very different matter. Up hill and down ravine, winding about along ridges, and down precipitous hill paths, the whole way literally strewn with stones and boulders, it took us seven hours without a stop to traverse that two miles, ‘as the crow flies’.

The main attack followed at dawn in conditions that were less than favourable: it was cold, there was persistent heavy rain and visibility was restricted because of mist. These latter two factors slowed the pace of the advance, although the Allies were faced with a less energetic Turkish defence than they had experienced on other occasions since entering Palestine. On the Allied left, however, the 74th Division was delayed by enfilade fire from Turkish positions on Nebi Samweil. The heaviest fighting took place on the front covered by the 60th Division, which eventually prevailed against the enemy, capturing the main Turkish defences west of Jerusalem shortly after dawn. These defences, which in places were carved out of rock, should have been difficult to overcome. However, as Wavell explained, ‘the Londoners [of the 60th Division] attacked with their usual dash, and the Turks defended with less than their usual tenacity’. As a result of the adverse weather conditions, the 60th Division had lost touch with the 53rd Division on its right. With its right flank unprotected, the 60th Division was exposed to attack.

During the course of the afternoon, offensive operations were suspended to enable the British to regroup. According to the same British private, conditions for the advancing troops remained difficult in the hours leading up to the Turkish evacuation of Jerusalem:

Our quarters for the next twenty-four hours were against a ledge of rock surmounted by a stone wall which proved effective cover for shrapnel. This ledge of rock was near the top of the ravine on the side of it opposite the road … All the morning Johnnie kept shelling the road; but his range was inaccurate, and every shell fell into the ravine. Our little mountain guns were also busy speaking back. Towards evening a party was sent down to the village, who brought back water and some most welcome blankets and bits of carpet. Under the wall we kipped for the night, preserving some small warmth beneath these scant coverings … About ten o’clock over came about half a dozen more shells into the ravine. These, had we known it, were Johnnie’s parting shots.

The British had intended to renew their advance towards the Nablus road the next day, but by then it was evident that the city was about to fall into their hands. The impact of the British attack – particularly the apparent loss of their main defences – had been sufficient to convince the Turks that their position was untenable. This was underlined by the fact that panic had spread among several Turkish units after the loss of the defensive works. As explained by Kress, the British secured the city by a ‘lucky chance’:

The capture of a small sector of the Turkish front-line trench by a British patrol on the night of 7 December was magnified by a false report into the loss of the whole of the western defences. Ali Fuad, the commander, having received orders from the army group to withdraw on Jericho in case of the loss of Jerusalem, feared to execute a counter-attack lest he should be unable after it to carry out these orders, and therefore evacuated the holy city forthwith.