The Battle for Palestine 1917, John D. Grainger

The Battle for Palestine 1917, John D. Grainger

On most fronts the Allies were on the back foot during 1917. On the Eastern Front the two Russian revolutions eventually knocked her out of the war. The French armies mutinied, leaving the British army as the only force capable of attacking in the west. The battle of Arras began with the longest advance since the start of trench warfare but ended in stalemate. The third battle of Ypres became famous for the mud of Passchendaele. The United States did enter the war, but wouldn’t make any real contribution until 1918. Only in the Middle East were there clear Allied successes, and the year saw the fall of Baghdad and Jerusalem to British troops.

This book looks at the second of those campaigns, the year long battle for Palestine. Earlier in the war the British had been on the defensive in Egypt, and the Ottomans had attempted to cut the Suez Canal. However by the end of 1916 the British had carefully advanced across the Sinai, and now found themselves facing the Ottoman defences at the southern end of Palestine. Rafa and Gaza had been the site of many battles over the centuries (in particular during the Hellenistic age) and Gaze would now be the target of three British attacks.

At the start of the year the British forces were commanded by General Archibald Murray. In a precursor to the Second World War, Murray was faced with a series of competing tasks, including the Ottoman threat to the Suez Canal, the Senussi rebelling in the western desert, and in the south a revolt based around Darfur in Sudan. Murray also had to keep control of Egypt itself, where the British presence wasn’t welcome.  However like many of his Second World War successors he was judged on the success or failure of his main offensives, in this case two failures at Gaza, and replaced by Allenby.

The larger part of the book looks at Allenby’s time in command. His behaviour after he arrived clearly helped boost the morale of his men, including visits to the front to visit his units (shades of Montgomery here). However Allenby was also willing to listen to his subordinates when they disagreed with him or made suggests to alter his plans (not so similar here..). Grainger’s key point about Allenby is that he was also willing to alter his plans as they developed (despite later claims that each of his attacks went off exactly as planned). Allenby was also closer to the front and to his subordinates, and was thus able to grasp at fleeting changes for success – the failure to do this had caused the failure of the first two attacks on Gaza. The advance towards Jerusalem also saw a series of failures (mainly in the Judean Hills), but also saw him once again demonstrate a flexible command style. One thing I didn’t know was just how carefully orchestrated Allenby’s famously low key entry into Jerusalem was. Every account of the campaign mentions that he walked into the city, but I didn’t realise that this approach was ordered from London.

This is an excellent account of this pivotal campaign, with Grainger giving convincing reasons for Murray’s failures and Allenby’s successes, as well as give due credit to the Ottoman infantry, who held up remarkable well during a period of repeated retreats.

1 - The Decision to Invade
2 - Defeat at Gaza
3 - Defeated Again
4 - The Wider Context
5 - The Allenby Effect
6 - The Third Attempt at Gaza
7 - The Turkish Lines Broken
8 - The Drive North
9 - The Hills of Judaea
10 - Jerusalem for Christmas
11 - Why the British Won

Author: John D. Grainger
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 300
Publisher: Boydell
Year: 2006

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