The Capture of Jerusalem
The same year that saw the capture of Bagdad by General Maude and the retreat of the Turkish army, saw the occupation of Jerusalem by General Allenby and another great retreat of the Turks.
The capture of Jerusalem—the Holy City—was one of the great achievements of the war, but equally important was the long preparation that led to the conquest of all Palestine, and put an end to the 400 years of Turkish oppression.
One of the baits held out by Germany to induce Turkey to enter the war was that they should have complete supremacy in Egypt. The Turks were in possession of Palestine and part of Arabia. They now threatened the Suez Canal.
The boundary line between Egypt and Palestine in 1914 ran from Rafa on the Mediterranean to Akaba to the north of the Red Sea; therefore, to reach the Suez Canal, it was necessary to cross the desert land of Sinai. Dragging light pontoons, they made their way laboriously across the waterless sands in considerable strength, and on the night of 2nd February 1915 they tried to launch their craft and pontoons for crossing the canal. But British troops from Egypt were prepared, and a heavy fire quickly destroyed their light craft. True, four resolute Turks swam the canal, and landed under cover of darkness, but the next day the whole body of invading Turks were in full retreat across the desert, only saved from pursuit by a great sandstorm.
Another year passed before the Turks from Palestine renewed their activities in the desert of Sinai with designs on Egypt. They were fresh from their successful defence of Gallipoli, and, stiffened by German troops, they once more crossed the desert for a further attack on the canal. But they found awaiting them some of their old opponents of Gallipoli fame, Anzacs and others, and after two days of stubborn fighting, they were flying back on their camels across the desert, hotly pursued by mounted troops. Their losses were great in men, munitions and transport.
British preparations in Egypt now began for pushing them back once for all over their own frontier. From the shores of the canal a railway was constructed, and gradually pushed across the desert sands, while a water system was ingeniously devised by which pipes should carry the filtered water of the Nile for 200 miles right into Palestine.
Thus was fulfilled the old Arab prophecy that a deliverer should come from the West, and would enter Jerusalem on foot, but not until "the Nile flowed into Palestine."
Then a well-equipped Desert Column started off from Ismailia, and advanced with mounted troops and camel corps across the desert so quickly that the Turks retreated before them—even to El Arish—a seaport of some importance to the Allies, since there they could feed their troops by sea from Port Said.
Still on marched the Desert Column, some 2000 in number, in pursuit of the retreating Turks, until after a night march of twenty-five miles in the moonlight, they fought and captured a force of Turks, utterly surprised at their rapid movements. And early in January 1917, another moonlight march of thirty miles resulted in the capture of Rafa—the frontier city of Palestine.
And all the while, as they marched, the railway line followed, and the "waterpipes crept across the desert like a great snake behind the advancing troops."
The Turks had now withdrawn to Gaza, the "outpost of Africa, the gate of Asia," a city divided from the Mediterranean by two miles of sand-dunes. It had often been invaded through past ages, and no city in the world had been destroyed more often.
A British attack on Gaza in March 1917 failed, for the city had been very strongly fortified by the Turks, and a second attack three weeks later likewise failed, despite the help of some of the newly invented tanks from England, and the help of British ships which shelled the Turkish positions from the sea. But the enemy had received extra troops from their Allies, Germany and Austria, and the British failed to capture this stronghold.
In June 1917 General Allenby, who had already distinguished himself on the Western Front, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which was considerably strengthened by Territorials and Indian troops for the conquest of Palestine. The summer was spent in preparing for further advance. The Turks too were improving their lines. Their loss of Bagdad in March was a great blow to them, and they were determined to hold Gaza at all costs.
By October all was ready, and by a series of secret surprises, General Allenby captured both Beersheba and Gaza. While British and French warships bombarded Gaza from the sea, leading the enemy to suppose that an attack on Gaza would follow, British forces—mounted troops and camel corps—started off into the bright moon-light for Beersheba, some thousand feet above sea-level, among the hills of Judea. A sudden swoop was made on the city next day, and a rush of Australian mounted troops that evening captured 2000 Turkish prisoners and compelled a general retreat.
"A very strong position was taken with slight loss," General Allenby reported, "and the Turkish detachment at Beersheba almost completely put out of action." No time was to be lost. Gaza must be attacked now. On the night of 1st November Umbrella Hill, between Gaza and the sea, was stormed with startling suddenness, and soon the Turks were in full retreat along the coast.
Gaza had fallen at last.
"In fifteen days," wrote General Allenby, our force had advanced sixty miles on its right and about forty on its left. It had driven a Turkish army out of a position in which it had been en-trenched for six months, and had pursued it, giving battle whenever it attempted to stand. Over 9000 prisoners, 100 machine-guns and other stores have been captured."
The way was now clear for an attack on Jerusalem, the old capital of the Holy Land—sacred alike to Christian, Mohammedan, and Jew—which had been under Turkish rule since 1517.
On 7th December 1917 the British advance on Jerusalem began. The enemy had strengthened his positions with trenches and barbed-wire entanglements, while the summit of the ridge over-looking the Holy City was bristling with machine-guns. Rain was falling in torrents as the attacking forces advanced, the roads were heavy with mud, the hill slopes slippery and dangerous. A bitter wind was blowing, but in spite of difficulty and hardship, the troops advanced steadily, fighting their way. On the afternoon of 8th December command was given to London troops to charge the ridges above the city. Up the steep slopes the men clambered with a splendid courage, facing a very storm of machine-gun bullets. Many fell in the deadly struggle, but the survivors pressed on till the summit was reached, and a desperate bayonet fight took place. The Turks were no match for such hand to hand fighting. They broke and fled. Darkness found them in full retreat. Next morning the Turkish Governor surrendered, and on 11th December General Allenby advanced to take possession of the city. "Praise be to God that the British have come," exclaimed a Mohammedan from out the city. "Now we shall live in peace and prosperity. Our sufferings have reached an end."
Entering by the Jaffa Gate, the General walked on foot to the Citadel. There was no flying of flags, no bell-ringing or firing of salutes. The ceremony was utterly simple, utterly dignified.
Crowds lined the way picturesquely clad, Arabs, Syrians, Indians, and representatives of British troops. There was clapping of hands and strewing of flowers as the Conqueror of Jerusalem passed to read his proclamation to the "inhabitants of Jerusalem the Blessed."
"The defeat inflicted upon the Turks by the troops under my command," it ran, "has resulted in the occupation of your city by my forces. Since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind, and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people for many centuries, therefore do I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine or place of prayer will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred."
Then he quietly left the Holy City.
And the whole world rejoiced that Turkish oppression of the great city so famous throughout the ages had ceased, and that Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of those who would give her freedom and justice.