The First World War battle that actually went to plan

How Lloyd George and his general gave war-weary Britons a surprise Christmas gift

December 10, 2021
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Allenby enters Jerusalem. Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

On 11th December 1917, celebratory peals in London and the Vatican announced Britain’s first significant land victory in the First World War. But though the conflict was well into its fourth year, the bells were not ringing for ground gained across the Channel, where most of Britain’s fighting was taking place. They were applauding a more distant triumph. General Edmund Allenby had just defeated a German-led Turkish army and captured Jerusalem. For the first time since the 13th century, when Turkic-speaking Central Asian invaders ruthlessly ejected the last of the Crusaders and laid down the tentative beginnings of Ottoman rule, a western army ruled the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Of all the anniversaries of Britain’s blood-soaked progress through the First World War, this month’s is the oddest. For unlike the Somme and Passchendaele—what historian Alistair Horne called “the indecisive battles of an indecisive war”—this one commemorates a clear-cut victory where almost everything went according to plan.

Allenby left London for Cairo on 21st June 1917, shortly after a private meeting with Prime Minister David Lloyd George who made it plain what was expected of him. His task was to deliver Jerusalem “as a Christmas present to the British people.” No more, no less. At that point Lloyd George had been in office for about six months having, with the support of Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail, deposed his fellow liberal Herbert Asquith. The newspaper magnate had long campaigned against the older Asquith, accusing him of lacking the vigour required of a war leader—not something the famously priapic Welshman's worst enemies could accuse him of. Now the Welsh Wizard was determined to show Northcliffe that his faith in him was deserved and deliver a war-weary nation some good news.

His strategy was not without risk. Twice in 1915-1916 Britain had come to grief by underestimating the Turks, first at Gallipoli and more recently at Kut-el-Amara on the Iraqi Tigris, where 13,000 British and Indian troops advancing on Baghdad under the overweeningly ambitious General Charles Townsend were besieged for five months and starved into humiliating surrender. Initially, Allenby himself was reluctant to accept his transfer from France to the Middle East. He regarded it as “a badge of failure” following his inability to win the battle of Arras which, after a good start, had degenerated into yet another indecisive pounding match and precipitated a fraught relationship with his boss Field Marshal Haig. Then, within a month of his arrival in Egypt, he received the shattering news of the death in France of his only child. Lieutenant Michael Allenby, still six months short of his 20th birthday, had already been decorated with the Military Cross for bravery when he was killed by a shell splinter.

In Palestine, Ottoman Turkish forces, some of them Arabic-speaking regiments, were under the de facto command of senior Prussian “advisers”—the most senior of them General Erich von Falkenhayn, who had failed to crack the French at Verdun. To stiffen Turkish resolve, von Falkenhayn also had at his disposal what he called his “corset staves”: small detachments of German machine-gunners, aircraft and Austro-Hungarian artillery against which a couple of Allenby’s English yeomanry regiments—the Warwicks and the Worcesters, officered by their fox-hunting squirarchy—would mount a successful, if almost just as costly, Balaclava-style charge.

“Despite protests from Haig, Allenby had been sent enough reinforcements to outnumber the Turks three to one”

The frontline ran inland for some 25 miles, from the Mediterranean port of Gaza to Beersheba, an oasis town in Negev desert. Since 1916 the Turks had twice repulsed attempts made by Archibald Murray, Allenby's sacked predecessor, to exploit his successful defence of the Suez Canal with a counter-attack straight up the Gaza coast road into the Holy Land itself. But thanks to Lloyd George, Allenby now enjoyed strength beyond poor Murray’s wildest dreams. Despite protests from Haig, who objected to squandering troops on what he regarded as a Levantine sideshow, by the time he was ready to attack, Allenby had been sent enough reinforcements to outnumber the Turks by three to one.

Apart from numerical superiority, recent intelligence reports indicated that he was also in a position to try something new. Previously the British were convinced that there was insufficient water around Beersheba to deploy a lot of thirsty horses in that direction. But Jewish agents of the pro-British spy group Nili had sent Allenby carrier pigeon messages reporting that, with the assistance of German engineers, the Turks had bored new wells on their Beersheba flank. Instead of attempting to breach the strong Turkish positions around Gaza, this gave Allenby the option of using his Australian Light Horse (essentially mounted infantry) to capture the vital wells intact. But if it was to succeed, it was essential that the Turks continued to believe that the British still thought that Beersheba didn’t have enough water to support a big cavalry operation and defended it accordingly.

Literally galloping to the rescue came Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a Buchanesque character of partly German descent who was Allenby's chief intelligence officer. Well horsed, Meinertzhagen rode into the no man’s land on the Beersheba sector until he got close enough to the Turkish side to lure a cavalry patrol into close but ultimately futile pursuit—though their efforts were not entirely wasted. For they soon discovered that before their apparently panic-stricken quarry had reached his own lines he had dropped a small haversack.

Over the years the exact contents of Meinertzhagen’s haversack have been the subject of some debate. Most accounts agree there were sandwiches, though they rarely specify what kind. But was there really a handsome looking gold fob watch (by 1917 wrist watches were becoming popular), the kind of family heirloom a chap might be reluctant to sacrifice, even for his country? If so, it was a nice touch. Certainly there was enough among the papers it contained, some of them type-written reports of one kind or another, to confirm the bag belonged to a Cairo-based colonel on Allenby’s staff who appeared to be engaged in some solitary reconnaissance of the Beersheba flank. And for the good English speakers among von Falkenhayn’s intelligence people back in Jerusalem there was something else. A casual pencilled note, one officer friend to another, suggested en passant that the British had concluded there wasn’t yet enough water in Beersheba’s wells to sustain a strong cavalry attack from that direction. Chetwode (Major-general Philip Chetwode, Allenby’s cavalry commander) had reluctantly concluded that the best he could do was a diversion in the hope of drawing off Turkish reserves. Everything indicated that once again, the British intended to try and break through on the coastal flank at Gaza.

“The exact contents of Meinertzhagen’s haversack have been the subject of some debate. Most accounts agree there were sandwiches”

On 31st October 1917, Allenby made his successful surprise attack at Beersheba and three days later had had his first taste of its possible political repercussions. On 2nd November Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour made his famously brief declaration that Britain would support the existence of a Jewish national home in the territory, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Yet at this stage Allenby was by no means certain that the battle was won. In addition to a dogged Turkish rearguard he was also battling a powerful faction in the War Office who were urging caution. The Gaza-Beersheba line might well have been cracked but the Turks seemed far from finished. Furthermore, the hills around Jerusalem were well known for their heavy winter rains and these were due to start any day. The weather could make the rough tracks an attacking force would need to use to get its artillery in range of the enemy impassable. However much Lloyd George wanted it all in the bag by Christmas, it was felt a significant victory might be endangered if Allenby rushed things. Surely, the right thing for him to do was to consolidate his gains and wait until the spring of 1918?

The general would have none of it. He was a large man whose nickname was “The Bull,” though he was far more cerebral than he looked. At Haileybury he had a reputation for being more bookish than sporty. Waiting until the spring, he argued, would simply grant the enemy time to regroup and prepare better defences. On 18th November, just as the first heavy rains had begun to fall, his infantry began to advance into the hills—for this was no longer a cavalry campaign. Artillery was dragged up slippery slopes and, after a series of hard fights for one rocky Judean ridge line after another, the British were north of Jerusalem and poised to sever the Nablus Road, its main supply route.

One of the last of the Turkish outer strongpoints to fall was the hill of Nebi Samwil, where England's Crusader king Richard Coeur de Lion is said to have averted his gaze rather than look on the city he couldn’t take. Allenby and his entourage, which included French and Italian dignitaries who had token military contingents under British command, made their official entry into the old city by walking through its Jaffa Gate. Indian army Muslims guarded all the Islamic holy sites and there was no flying of the Union Jack within the walls of the old city. It was all part of a carefully choreographed event designed to demonstrate the British general’s humility compared to that of the Kaiser, who on a tour of the Ottoman Empire in 1898, when he also took in Saladin’s tomb in Damascus, is said to have ruffled some local feathers by entering Jerusalem mounted on a charger.

Did memories of the German emperor’s youthful indiscretion, if that’s what it was, really linger that long? Probably not, though some Arabs did approve of Allenby’s name because in Arabic script it looks like Al Neby, meaning “the prophet.” Whether the capture of Jerusalem shortened the Great War by a single day is debatable. It may even have lengthened it by depriving the western front of men just when Germany started moving thousands of its soldiers from Russia, following its separate peace with the Bolsheviks. Eventually Allenby would lose a large part of his army in transfers back to France, which is why it took him another eight months to complete the campaign and drive the Turks out of Palestine. The greatest single beneficiary was undoubtedly Prime Minister Lloyd George. His “Christmas present to the British people” probably made fresh setbacks in France in the spring more bearable. And by the end of the war his popularity had never been higher.


Jerusalem remained in British hands until May 1948, when the fighting that followed the Jewish Agency’s declaration of the state of Israel left it divided along a hair trigger ceasefire line manned by Jordanian and Israeli troops. Its eastern half, including all the holy sites, was in Jordanian hands. This remained the status quo until the Six Day War of 1967, when the Israeli army drove the Arabs back to the east bank of the Jordan River, which is spanned by the city’s Allenby Bridge.

In today's East Jerusalem, which still has a mostly Arab population, there is a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. It lies on a saddle of land between the Hebrew University and the tower blocks that after the 1967 war the Israelis built on French Hill—named after a French monastic order that originally owned the land. At the cemetery's main gate there is an inscription that starts: “The land on which the cemetery stands is the free gift of the people of Palestine…” 2,500 of Allenby’s men lie here, and on its walls are inscribed the names of another 3,500 who have no known resting place, usually because they were buried where they fell.

Correction: this piece initially referred to a 250-mile frontline between Gaza and Beersheba. The distance is 25 miles and the text has been updated