The Fall of Jerusalem II

The Turkish retreat from Jerusalem began during the evening of 8 December, not long after the British had suspended operations for the day. The entire city was vacated within a few hours, the Turkish governor being the last official to leave (in a cart commandeered from an American resident). By the early hours of 9 December the city was in the hands of the civic authorities. Public order was largely maintained and only a few isolated examples of looting were reported before the British arrived. Four hundred years of Ottoman occupation had come to an abrupt end. The transfer of power was completed during the course of the day. Early in the morning, the mayor came out of the city carrying a white flag but he had some difficulty in handing the keys over to a representative of the victorious army. Having been refused by some cooks of a London regiment who had lost their way and by several other individuals, he finally succeeded in making contact with the commanding officer of 303 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (60th Division). Lieutenant-Colonel Bayley described their meeting:

At the top of the hill I came to houses on the outskirts of the town, still no sniping. Suddenly ahead I spotted a white flag and to my utter astonishment it appeared through my glasses that numbers of persons surrounded it and that three were coming towards me … Well, I beckoned the leading one and he came up to me … He said the Turks … had bolted in the night and that the mayor of the town was at the flag … I walked on to him and there he was with three chairs in a row on the road. I sat down with the mayor on one side and his chief of police on the other, when the mayor formally said that he wished to hand over the city to the British authorities as the Turks had fled, so I accepted the city …

While formal arrangements for the handover were being made and the arrival of a British general officer was awaited, Bayley’s troops occupied key buildings, including the post office. In the meantime, as Bayley recorded, ‘I got all my guns up and pointed their muzzles to the north and east over the city just to let them know that the British had arrived’. At around noon, in a short surrender ceremony outside the city gates, the Mayor of Jerusalem handed the city keys over to Major-General Shea, commander of the 60th Division, who accepted them on behalf of Allenby. The first occupying troops arrived later in the day. One of them described their reception:

We entered Jerusalem about four o’clock, our division being the first within the city. The people received us with a heartiness quieted by a real sense of the greatness of the event. They did not shout much, but on their faces there was a great welcome. The departing Turks had looted them as thoroughly as haste would permit, so it is not exactly surprising that their affection for us should be very fresh and strong.

Meanwhile, mopping-up operations continued. During the course of 9 December, Jerusalem was encircled by Allied forces as the key units moved up to secure their final positions. Although most of the Turkish defenders had slipped away under cover of darkness during the previous night, the enemy briefly retained its hold on the nearby Mount of Olives. The 60th Division ejected this enemy rearguard during a brief but fierce engagement on the afternoon of 10 December that cost 70 lives.

On 11 December, two days after the official surrender, General Allenby made his entry into Jerusalem. It was exactly six weeks since he had launched his attack on Beersheba. Emphasizing his respect for Jerusalem as a religious centre – it was sacred to three of the world’s religions – Allenby entered the city on foot, passing through the Jaffa Gate. Accompanied by French and Italian representatives, he was followed by Sir Philip Chetwode, commander of XX Corps, and some of his staff officers. Also present in the procession was T.E. Lawrence, who said that ‘it was impressive in its way – no show but an accompaniment of machine guns & anti-aircraft fire, with aeroplanes circling over us continually. Jerusalem has not been taken for so long: nor has it ever fallen so tamely before.’

Allenby proceeded through the streets towards the citadel, where he read a short proclamation and met various notables. The streets were lined with men of the 60th Division and other units, who according to Guy Dawnay ‘had a touch of colour added to them by the light blue of the French and the cocked hats à la Napoleon of the carabinieri’. The ceremony ended when the procession returned to the Jaffa Gate. Allenby described the event in a letter to his wife:

Today I entered Jerusalem, on foot, with the French and Italian commanders … of the detachments in my army; and the attachés, and a few staff officers. We entered at the Jaffa Gate; and, from the steps of the citadel, hard by, issued a proclamation in many languages to the assembled multitude. Great enthusiasm – real or feigned – was shown. Then I received many notables and heads of all the churches, of which there are many … After this, we reformed our procession and returned to our horses.

The capture of Jerusalem was the logical conclusion of an offensive, designed and launched by Allenby and his staff, that had finally forced open the door to Palestine at the third attempt and then initiated a relatively brief war of movement. The enemy had been driven from the heart of territories it had ruled for centuries in a matter of five weeks (instead of the six months originally estimated by British military planners). The fact that superior British forces were unable to cut off the retreating Turkish forces in their entirety was explained partly by the supply constraints – particularly lack of water – that they had to face. The advance was slowed at various points to enable men and horses to be refreshed; even so, there was a tendency for British forces to outrun their supply lines, which were still under construction. The troops also faced remarkable variations in weather conditions. Almost unbearable heat lasted until late November but within a few days there had been a substantial drop in temperature and the onset of heavy rains.

These factors affected the course of the campaign but not its final outcome. Allenby’s drive and determination had produced a much needed victory for the Allies within the timescale demanded by the British prime minister. This was reflected in reactions to the victory in Allied capitals, where there were public celebrations for the first time since the war began. A War Cabinet telegram summed up the general mood: ‘the capture of Jerusalem … is an event of historic and world-wide significance and has given the greatest pleasure to the British and other Allied peoples.’

Although there is little doubt that, in Wavell’s words, ‘the occupation of Jerusalem itself had no special strategical importance, its moral significance was great’. It was a heavy blow to Turkish prestige, particularly following their expulsion from two other holy places – Mecca and Baghdad – during the course of the war. On the other hand, the victory was not simply a victory for Christian interests. The holy places of Jerusalem were now in the hands of an occupying power that was more likely to adopt an even-handed approach to the varying religious claims on the city.

Beyond the symbolism of the event, the Allied capture of Jerusalem had wider strategic consequences that were to help to determine the subsequent course of the war in the Middle East. One of the intended effects of the Palestine operations was to draw off Turkish reserves destined for other campaigns. The British advance had forced the Turks to deploy troops from other theatres, thus ensuring that the British capture of Baghdad was secure and the progress of the offensive across Mesopotamia could continue unimpeded. The Turkish position in the area was further weakened by the steady progress of the Arab revolt, which was to gain further encouragement from Turkey’s defeat at Jerusalem. Added to this were the heavy losses sustained by the Turks during a campaign which had resulted in the defeat of eleven divisions. In total, the Turks suffered 28,443 casualties compared with the British losses of 18,928 men. In addition, according to Allenby, some 12,000 Turkish troops had been taken prisoner and 100 guns and scores of machine guns had been lost to the British. They had also lost ‘more than 20 aeroplanes and 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition’.

As a result of the Palestine operations, the Turkish army had been split in two, although, as already indicated, their supply lines had not been cut off. One part of the army had retired northwards and had come to a halt on the hills overlooking the plain lying north of Jaffa and Ramleh. This force consisted of five divisions, four of which had been badly shaken in the recent retreat. Opposite the Turks the XXI Corps held a line which started at the Nahr el Auja, three miles north of Jaffa, crossed the Turkish railway from Ludd to Jiljulieh at a point five miles north of Ludd and thence ran in a south-easterly direction to Midieh. Other surviving parts of the enemy force had retired in an easterly direction to Jerusalem, where the remains of six divisions had been concentrated. The British XX Corps, having forced the enemy to evacuate Jerusalem, held a line across the roads leading from Jerusalem to Jericho and Nablus, four miles east and north of the city and then westwards through the hills past Beit Ur el Foka to Suffa. The two wings of the Turkish army were separated by an area dominated by a series of spurs running westwards, with rocky valleys between them. There were no roads capable of taking military vehicles or artillery, ruling out the possibility of a large-scale British operation in the area. The only lateral communication available to the Turks lay some 30 miles to the north.

Various factors, including the continuation of winter weather and the need to develop lines of communication, militated against an early renewal of a full-scale British offensive, although pressure to do so was soon to be applied from London. But before the British could rest for the winter, further action was needed to secure their positions in the Jaffa area and in front of Jerusalem. It was essential in both areas that the distance between the Turkish army and these two key centres was increased. Accordingly the British conducted two separate operations to advance their line, reflecting the fact that the two defending Turkish armies were still isolated from one another. The XX Corps was ordered to move to a line from Beitin to Nalin. This involved an advance on a 12-mile front to a depth of six miles immediately north of Jerusalem. On the left the XXI Corps was to advance to a line running from Kibbeh to El Jelil, which passed through Rantieh, Mulebbis and Sheikh el Ballutah. Once successfully completed, the latter operation would increase the distance of the enemy from Jaffa to eight miles.

The XXI Corps, which formed the British left on the coast, began moving its units into position from 7 December, with the aim of enhancing the security of the port of Jaffa which, now in Allied hands, would become an increasingly important centre for the landing and distribution of military supplies. The three divisions of XXI Corps – 52nd, 54th and 75th – were assembled from left to right and ordered to advance northwards. If they succeeded, they would move the Turkish army well out of artillery range of Jaffa. A major obstacle to the British operation was the River Auja, a significant natural barrier that entered the sea some four miles north of Jaffa. Turkish troops occupied the northern bank of the Auja and controlled the main crossing points, including a ford at the mouth of the river. The Turks were assisted by the fact that all approaches to the river were overlooked from Sheikh Muannis and Khurbet Hadrah. At these places two spurs running from north to south terminated abruptly in a steep slope some 500 yards from the river. However, security was lax and it was decided to take advantage of apparent Turkish shortcomings by launching a surprise attack. The main difficulty lay in concealing the collection and preparation of rafts and bridging material. However, the preparations were completed without attracting the enemy’s attention. Heavy rain fell on 19 and 20 December and raised the water level of the Auja, causing the Turks to believe that there would be no early British attempt to cross it in these conditions.

The operation was in fact timed for the following night and despite the less favourable conditions the 52nd Division crossed the river in three columns without difficulty. The left column, fording the river near its mouth, at this point four feet deep, captured Tell el Rekkeit, 4,000 yards north of the river mouth. The centre and right crossed the river on rafts. They rushed Sheikh Muannis and Khurbet Hadrah at the point of the bayonet. By dawn a line from Khurbet Hadrah to Tell el Rekkeit had been consolidated, and the enemy was deprived of all observation from the north over the valley of the Nahr el Auja. The successful crossing of the river reflected, according to Allenby, ‘great credit on the 52nd (Lowland) Division’. This difficult operation, which required considerable preparation, was complicated by the ‘sodden state of the ground and the swollen state of the river’. Despite these difficulties, the whole of the division had crossed the river during the hours of darkness. Even more remarkable was the fact that the enemy was taken completely by surprise and that ‘all resistance was overcome with the bayonet without a shot being fired’. Over 300 Turkish troops and 10 machine guns were captured during the operation.

Once temporary bridges had been built and the artillery could cross the river, the 52nd Division was ready to move on. On 23 December, the advance continued up the coast for a further five miles as the 52nd and 54th Divisions ejected the enemy from key defensive positions. Supported by British warships, the left of the 52nd Division reached Arsuf, a coastal settlement eight miles north of Jaffa. With the port now safe from further Turkish attack the objective of the operation had been secured. As the British official history described it:

The passage of the Auja has always been regarded as one of the most remarkable feats of the Palestine campaign … its chief merits were its boldness – justifiable against troops known to be sluggish and slack in outpost work and already shaken by defeat – its planning, the skill of the engineers; the promptitude with which unexpected difficulties in the bridging of the river were met; finally, the combined discipline and dash of the infantry which carried out the operation without a shot being fired and won the works on the right bank with the bayonet.

Allenby also planned to strengthen his position in the Jerusalem area, where fighting had effectively been suspended since 12 December. In the words of the British official history, the Turks were ‘breathless after their defeat and hasty withdrawal. The British were not yet ready for the effort which would be needed to win more elbow room round Jerusalem.’ Allenby’s main concern was that the city still lay within easy reach of Turkish artillery, with the attendant risk that the enemy might attempt to recapture it. His response was to plan a renewal of offensive action on 24 December, aiming to reach a line running from Beitin (Bethel) to Nalin. Three divisions were ordered to advance towards it: the 60th Division would advance up the Jerusalem to Nablus road to the ridge on which stood the Turkish defensive line from Bireh to Ramallah. Here they would join with the 74th Division, which was to advance eastwards from Beit Ur el Foka, and together move northwards towards the Bireh–Ramallah line. The 53rd Division on the British right and the 10th Division on the left were ordered to protect the flanks.

These plans, which had already been delayed by bad weather, were postponed again when British intelligence learned from a decoded radio signal that the Turks were planning a counter-attack on Jerusalem. Using troops newly arrived from the north, an attack was to be launched from the north and the east with the aim of recapturing the city. The British responded by ordering the 74th and 10th Divisions on the British left to advance as originally planned. The 53rd and 60th Divisions on the British right were to maintain their defensive positions in the face of a Turkish assault. The enemy operation, launched during the night of 26/27 December, was staged with great determination, but did not amount to much, although it persisted until the afternoon of the second day. The action was focused on Tell el Ful, a hill east of the Nablus road, some three miles north of the city, where the 60th Division successfully resisted a succession of strong Turkish attacks. At only one point did the enemy succeed in reaching the main line of defence. He was driven out at once by local reserves and in all these assaults lost heavily.

Meanwhile, early on 27 December, the 74th and 10th Divisions began their attack and during the day advanced some 4,000 yards on a six-mile front. They made sufficient progress to bring the Turkish counter-attack on Jerusalem to an end. This was the signal to launch, on 28 December, a general British advance which continued for three days. On the right, the 60th Division – supported by the 53rd Division – advanced to El Jib, Er Ram and Rafat, which fell after heavy fighting. Beitunia fell to the 74th Division, while the 10th Division also made progress as it moved eastwards. The Allied advance continued over the next three days until 30 December, when resistance was brought to an end. A front 12 miles wide had been pushed forward to a depth varying from six miles on the right to three miles on the left. This advance had to overcome not only a determined and obstinate resistance but also great natural difficulties before guns could be brought up in support of the infantry. For the Turks the attempt to recapture Jerusalem had been a complete failure and had cost the lives of over 1,000 of their soldiers. In addition, the British took some 750 Turkish prisoners, 24 machine guns and three automatic rifles.

The holy city and the Allied lines surrounding it were now secure and operations were temporarily suspended. But persistent winter rains meant that there was little opportunity for British troops to recuperate in comfort. Nor was there to be any early relief from these adverse conditions: communications and supplies had to be brought up, in line with the rapid northwards advance of the previous few weeks. Any further advance northwards was out of the question for the time being. Besides the construction of new roads and the improvement of communications in the forward areas, stores of supplies and ammunition had to be accumulated – a task made difficult by the distance between the front and the existing railhead at Ramleh, and rendered still more difficult by frequent spells of bad weather. Moreover before a further advance could be made, it would be necessary to drive the enemy across the River Jordan to ensure that the British right flank was fully secure.

British control of the Jordan crossings would have a number of other advantages. Control of the Dead Sea would be obtained; the enemy would be prevented from raiding the area to the west of the Dead Sea; while a point of departure would be gained for further operations eastwards, in conjunction with Arab forces based in Aqaba, aimed at interrupting the enemy’s line of communications to the Hejaz. An operation across the Jordan would almost certainly allow direct contact to be made for the first time with Feisal’s army.