Edward Henry Hynman Allenby was born in 1861 in Brackenhurst, Nottinghamshire in comfortable circumstances – a Victorian squire perhaps destined to help govern the British Empire on behalf of the Queen-Empress.
Yet he failed his civil service exams and instead enrolled at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, evolving several decades later into the legendary conqueror of Jerusalem and securing the Holy Land for the British Crown.
The author of this detailed book about the man who became Viscount Allenby of Felixstowe and Megiddo describes how he routed the Turks with ‘a withering and pulverising carpet of steel’ – an unrelenting bombardment first tested, albeit unsuccessfully, at the Battle of the Somme.
The name Megiddo, the site of Allenby’s greatest victory, is today better known as Armaggedon – a location that lived up to its legend, for the battle fought here in 1918 triggered the collapse of the 400-year-old Ottoman Empire.
Allenby’s first commission had been with the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons in South Africa. This was a cavalry regiment which had seen action at Waterloo, and in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.
Yet now was the era of incipient national movements and the beginning of the decline of Empire. The British were defeated by the Boers at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso. Allenby bore witness to this and to the difficult guerrilla war and counter-insurgency that followed, including the concentration camps into which Boer families were herded.
As he was promoted through the ranks, Allenby developed a reputation for possessing ‘an overbearing manner’ and ‘a sharp tongue’. His soldiers referred to him as ‘The Bull’.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Allenby departed for France within a fortnight. His cavalry provided cover for the British retreat from Mons and participated in the Battle of the Marne, but cavalry’s role was soon exhausted as the war settled into trench stalemate.
Allenby served for 34 uninterrupted months on the Western Front – a period of service that culminated in his command at the Battle of Arras – before his greatest opportunity arose. Ironically, it was a dispute with Field-Marshal Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, that brought about his transfer to the Middle East in June 1917.
The South African, Field-Marshal Jan Smuts, was offered the post of commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), but rejected it because he felt that it was no more than a sideshow.
Allenby was therefore second choice. He was told by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George that his task was ‘to deliver Jerusalem before Christmas for the war-weary British nation.’
Gaza and Megiddo
Before Allenby’s arrival, the Turks, often under German command, had proved themselves to be determined adversaries. The EEF had failed twice in early 1917 to take the fortified town of Gaza, the ‘Gateway to Palestine’, suffering heavy losses on both occasions.
On the other hand, Allenby arrived in Cairo just as the Arab Bureau’s T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) had proved successful in assisting the Arab Revolt to take Aqaba. Lawrence then travelled across the desert to Suez, where he took a train to Cairo and presented himself to the new commander-in-chief – a bedraggled figure ‘dressed in owing robes and looking like an Arab chieftain, riding on the welcome tide of triumph.’
A puzzled Allenby was quietly impressed by Lawrence, whose knowledge of Arabic, intimacy with the Hashemite leaders of the revolt, and success in the field implied a useful man. Lawrence even possessed a bodyguard of loyal Ageyl tribesmen who ‘cut throats, but they only cut throats on my order.’
As the author describes in absorbing detail, 80,000 British, Anzac, and Indian troops, employing 200 heavy guns, laid siege to Gaza for two weeks. After its fall, rapid pursuit, spearheaded by units of the Australian Light Horse, carried the EEF all the way to Jerusalem.
On 11 December 1917, out of respect for the Holy City, Allenby famously dismounted and walked through Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, followed by Lawrence. It was a dramatic contrast to the way in which the Kaiser, 20 years before, had insisted on the entrance being widened to accommodate himself on a white charger with his entourage. Lloyd-George described it as ‘an event of historic and worldwide significance’.
Allenby moved on to the capture of Jericho. But Whitehall wanted troops and artillery to resist the last throw of the German Army in spring 1918: 60,000 men were transferred and Allenby’s campaign was slowed down.
It took time to accumulate, acclimatise, and train a new army, with much larger contingents of Indian troops, but when Allenby launched his Megiddo offensive in September 1918, it shattered the Ottoman line and broke all three armies stationed in the Levant. The Turks fell back to Damascus, but were unable to improvise a defence, and were eventually bundled all the way to Aleppo.
This was the beginning of Allenby’s political troubles. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 had been revealed by the newly installed Bolsheviks in Russia. The British and French, with the acquiescence of the (Tsarist) Russians and the Italians, had agreed to divide up the Middle East into spheres of influences – in which Syria and Lebanon were to be allocated to France.
The Arabs had been kept in the dark. The San Remo Conference conferred the Mandate for Syria on the French, who soon defeated Faisal’s forces at the Battle of Maysalun (in June 1920) and ejected the Hashemites from Damascus.
Allenby remained in the Middle East for six years as High Commissioner for Egypt, where he was involved in the suppression of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, part of a wave of anti-colonial revolt across the region and the wider world following World War I.
Professor Faught has written a concise, stimulating account of the life and times of Allenby. He communicates the romanticism and complexity of the conflicts in which he was embroiled, and brings his story to a new audience at a time when the Middle East is again, as so often, headline news.
Review by Colin Shindler