The battle of Nebi Samwil, 17-24 November 1917, was the first British attempt to capture Jerusalem during their 1917 invasion of Palestine. The battle of Junction Station (13-14 November) had effectively split the Turkish army in Palestine in two by capturing the railway west of Jerusalem. General Allenby’s British army was west of Jerusalem. The British held the coastal plan towards Jaffa, the railway up to and beyond Ramleh and Ludd, and had advanced east toward Latron.
The Turkish Eighth Army was on the coast plain north of the British position, and could rely on the main railway for supplies. The Seventh Army was at Jerusalem. All supplies had to come over poor roads from Nablus, forty miles to the north, or from Amman, on the Hejaz Railway, fifth miles to the east.
Allenby had originally planned to halt after capturing Junction Station, to allow his logistical support to catch up with the rapid advance from Gaza. Instead, faced with an apparently demoralised opponent he decided to make an attempt to capture Jerusalem. It was always going to be a difficult operation. The Judean Mountains provided the Turks with a series of ideal defensive positions, while the British lacked good maps, and were moving ever further away from their own railhead at Deir Sineid, just to the north east of Gaza.
Allenby’s first plan was for a cavalry advance into the hill. The infantry of XXI corps, with the help of the Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade would hold the coastal plains, while the Australian Cavalry Division and the Yeomanry Mounted Division would mount the attack.
This plan lasted for one day. On 18 November the cavalry attacked Latron, the most westerly of the Turkish positions, and suffered heavily. In response Allenby modified his plan to use two infantry divisions in the attack on Jerusalem, with the cavalry in support. It was hoped to swing around Jerusalem to the north, cutting the road to Nablus. This would force the Turks to abandon Jerusalem before they were entirely cut off.
The new attack began on 19 November. On the same day the winter rains began. Transport was difficult on the narrow roads of the area, and artillery support was limited or non-existent away from those roads. Some progress was made, and on 21 November the British captured the hill of Nebi Samwil, north west of Jerusalem, from where they could see into Jerusalem. This was the furthest point reached. Attempts to make progress east towards the Nablus road all failed, and on 24 November General Allenby called off the offensive.
Although Jerusalem had not been captured, this first offensive had pushed the Turkish line back from Latron, nearly fifteen miles outside Jerusalem, to Nebi Samwil, only five miles to the north west of the city. Over the next two weeks the Turks launched a series of counterattacks against the British positions, causing a number of small scale crisis along the line north west of Jerusalem, but at heavy cost. When the British launched their next attack on Jerusalem (7-9 December) the city fell surprisingly easily.