On Viscount Allenby

Review of Allenby: Making the Modern Middle East, by C. Brad Faught, (I. B. Tauris 2020) pp.231

Edward Henry Hynman Allenby was born in 1861 in Brackenhurst, Nottinghamshire in comfortable circumstances — a Victorian squire, seemingly destined to 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 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. Megiddo, the site of Allenby’s greatest victory, is today better known as Armaggedon — a location which 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 was 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 this was the era of incipient national movements and the beginning of the decline of empire. The British were defeated by the Boers were no exception and proved no walkover. The British were defeated 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’. On 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 the cavalry’s role was exhausted as the war settled into trench stalemate. Allenby served for 34 uninterrupted months on the Western Front – a period of service which culminated in his command at the Battle of Arras — before his greatest opportunity arose. Ironically it was a dispute with Field Marshall Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, that brought about his transfer to the Middle East in June 1917. The South African, Field Marshall 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 a 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’.

Before Allenby’s arrival, the Turks, often under German command, proved to be a determined adversary. The EEF had failed twice to take the fortified town of Gaza, suffering heavy loss 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 flowing 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 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 Jaffa Gate, followed by Lawrence. It was a dramatic contrast when the Kaiser on a white charger 20 years before had insisted that the entrance be widened to accommodate his entourage. Lloyd-George described it as ‘an event of historic and worldwide significance’.   

Allenby then moved on to capture Jericho. But Whitehall wanted troops and artillery to resist the last throw of the German army in 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 Damascus.

All this was just the beginning of Allenby’s 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 influence — in which Syria and Lebanon would 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 stimulating, concise account of the life and times of Allenby. He communicates the romanticism and the 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.

Military History December 2020

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