One hundred years ago – though it could have been a thousand, or two, or three, or four – a war raged in the Holy Land. The Turks had held the land for six hundred years; the British were moving to take it from them. For Jews in Palestine, and Zionists around the world, the hope of British sovereignty was, on its very face, promising. The Turks had, after all, just expelled the Jews from Jaffa and Tel-Aviv. Worse was feared. Only two years earlier, a million and a half Christians in Turkish-ruled Armenia had been slaughtered. But now, the British were resolved to liberate the Holy Land – and better still, declare on November 2, 1917, that His Majesty’s Government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” It looked, then, as if the most fought over land in history might finally return, full circle, from King David – through the Babylonians, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, and the Turks – back to the Jews. First, however, the British had to win, and take Jerusalem. That is the story told here.
What British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted for Christmas in 1917 was Jerusalem, and he wanted General Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby to get it for him. He did not want this for himself, he said, but for the British people who, having battled the Central Powers to a stalemate along the Western Front, were pining for a victory. Yet it was not just the Tommies in European trenches desperate for a victory, but those British Empire troops fighting in the deserts of the Middle East as well. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force had tried for Gaza twice, and lost. Which was why, when Allenby took command of the EEF in June 1917, he realized that striking at Gaza for a third time, where the Turks were dug in, wouldn’t do. He would attack Beersheba, 25 miles away, instead.
The town of Beersheba, where Abraham once dug a well and Isaac built an altar, now held some 5,000 Turkish soldiers, four batteries of artillery, and fifty machine guns. A line of barb-wire trenches with sturdy redoubts ran along the south and west perimeters; to the north and east, the forbidding landscape defended mercilessly. But its best defense was water: The Turks knew that anyone needing water would not be able to find any within a day’s ride of Beersheba. A Jewish agronomist, however, knew differently.
Aaron Aaronsohn, a Palestinian Jew who had seemingly botanically mapped every square foot of the Holy Land, knew his Hebrew Bible inside-out, and Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Joseph, too. Both sources, he informed the British, told of water in the vast wasteland of the Negev. Buried under centuries-old sand were ancient cities whose wells, he insisted, were still there. All Allenby had to do was dig.
By the last week of October, British troops, under Aaronsohn’s direction, were drilling for water in the desert; by October 29th, the water supply at Asluj, a small Bedouin village south of Beersheba, was reported capable of providing one “drink per day per horse for the whole division.” This meant, then, that it would be possible for Allenby’s men, horses, camels, and motorized vehicles to cross the desiccated landscape to Beersheba.
On the night of October 30th, some 40,000 allied troops moved toward Beersheba. By 5:55 a.m., on the morning of the 31st, they were in position to begin their bombardment. When it ended some three hours later, the Desert Mounted Corps swung into action – and remained engaged all afternoon. The Turks, though losing, were losing slowly, and Allenby had insisted that Beersheba be taken on the first day of operations – before, crucially, the enemy could destroy the water wells within. Once again, water was key. Some of the horses, waiting in reserve and not having been watered at Asluj, had been without water for almost two days. That was why, late in the afternoon, as the sun was almost setting, the order was given for the Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments to do something unheard of in modern warfare: to charge, at full gallop, using their bayonets as swords. They thundered across five miles of open ground against an entrenched enemy with artillery and machine guns and, as much for water and survival as for glory and victory, breached the Turkish trenches in the south west of the town – and won.
With the Turks in retreat, the southern approach to Palestine was open. By December 11, 1917, General Allenby – having defeated the Turks for good at the Battle of Jerusalem – walked through the Jaffa Gate, victorious. He entered the Holy City on foot, he said, out of respect.
Almost exactly a year later, Allenby here writes this equally humble letter, datelined “Palestine,” just five weeks after Armistice Day, in which he commemorates the Allied victory:
I thank you sincerely for your very kind letter, just received. Your words of good will and of sympathy are very welcome to me. And I, for my part, congratulate you on the great feat of arms which have led your Nation to Victory, a Victory in which we have been proud to assist.
Allenby’s victory at Beersheba was, for the Jews in Palestine and Zionists around the world, not merely an ending, but a beginning. With the oppressive Turks gone, the British, it seemed, would not want to stay. And although it took another three decades, and yet another war, they too left, defeated; the Jewish State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. This perennial marvel continues to owe something to the last major cavalry charge in history.
EDMUND HENRY HYNMAN ALLENBY, 1st VISCOUNT ALLENBY. 1861-1936. British soldier famous for leading the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in World War I in the conquest of Palestine.
Autograph Letter Signed, as General, 1 page, quarto, Palestine, December 18, 1918. To “Dear Madam.”
Signed Photo (“Allenby F.M.”), as Field Marshall, black and white, oblong octavo. Undated, but as Allenby was promoted to Field Marshall only in 1919, it would have been signed either in that year or later.