The Battle for Syria, 1918-1920, Boydell and Brewer, pp.270, by John D. Grainger
On December 11, 1917, the General Sir Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem after its capture by British forces. In propaganda terms, his entry marked the climax to the Palestine campaign, but, as John D. Grainger reminds us in this book, it was not its end. Two days later the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, contacted Allenby to request a further advance as far as Aleppo, in northern Syria. Allenby's fulfilment of Robertson's demand is the subject of The Battle for Syria, 1918–1920.
Allenby made a slow start. "Weariness, logistics and the Palestinian winter" stopped him capitalizing on the capture of the Holy City. An attempt in March 1918 to establish a bridgehead on the east bank of the Jordan was a failure. Then Germany's spring offensive on the Western Front required him to give up his best troops to fight in France. Their replacements came from far and wide, and included West Indians, Kashmiris, Jews, Baluchis, even members of a "robber tribe" from the Punjab. They all took time to train.
Allenby decided that his forces were ready for a major offensive after they repelled a concerted attack by German and Turkish forces on one of his outposts in the Jordan Valley. But his options for the timing and location of a big push were limited. There was only a relatively short window between the summer heat and the winter rains, and the hilly east and west banks of the Jordan offered the Turks plenty of opportunities for dogged defence – their greatest strength. Only an attack along the coastal plain was feasible.
Allenby pioneered extensive deception measures to encourage his enemy to think that he would nonetheless attack across the Jordan. A bogus HQ, complete with telephone lines, was set up in Jerusalem. Men marched daily up and down the filthily hot Jordan valley to generate the impression of much larger troop movements, and hundreds of dummy horses were tethered in fields, while the real cavalry moved at night to rest camps hidden in orange groves beside the sea. These efforts seem to have reinforced the Turks' existing fear that their line east of the river Jordan was the weakest link in their defence. Certainly their only reserves were on the wrong side of the river when, on September 19, 1918, Allenby's assault began.
The attack caught the Turks by surprise. Allenby's cavalry followed through to exploit the gap forced in the Turkish defences. Grainger explains that one advantage of going into battle on horseback is that a bullet will not immediately stop a horse.
The Turks fought hard, if only because they were often underfed and lacked the energy to run away. Their German general, Liman von Sandars, gambled that Allenby would have to pause after his early gains to resupply his spearhead troops. When this proved wrong his ragged forces were chased through Damascus, and northwards to Aleppo. By the end, malaria and influenza were the fiercer of the enemies the British faced.
Grainger, who has written widely about ancient and modern military campaigns, mixes personal memoirs, regimental histories and the war diaries of the fighting units to retell this story. He is a military historian of the old school, and he might have got away with the details of precisely which units were involved at every step if he had also provided the reader with compelling pen portraits of the leading generals, and a mastery of their tactics and of the politics they had to grapple with.
Alas, the characters are flat and the narrative lacks clarity. Occasionally the trundling cogs inside the author's brain are audible. After Grainger explains how British cavalry moved around at night both because of the high daytime temperatures and to preserve the secrecy of their precise location, he continues, "The mounted forces moved out of the Jordan valley in succession, usually taking four days on the march to the coast – or rather four nights". His editor, if he had one, should have fixed this.
The book's most fundamental flaw is its failure to set out the political background clearly at the outset. Why was Robertson so keen that Allenby should take Aleppo, given that both men agreed that the campaign was a "sideshow"? The answer lies in the three, contradictory promises of territory Britain had already made by the time that Allenby entered Jerusalem – an empire to the Arabs; Syria, Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French; and then Palestine to the Jews. With each the British had tried to solve a neurosis that frightened them: the spectre of an Islamic jihad, the shakiness of the Entente, the influence in St Petersburg and Washington of the Jews. But Grainger's handling of this context is glib. "And so it went on, any agreement scarcely surviving long enough for the ink to dry on the signatures." He dismisses all three commitments as "temporary", and belief in their legitimacy as "futile".
Yet it was the persistence of all three promises and Britain's growing fear that they might have to honour them, that drove Allenby forward. For, much as the British might have hoped that each promise was a temporary expedient that would get them out of trouble, that is not how the Arabs, the French or the Jews saw them at the time. This was why the British were so anxious to conquer the territory to which the pledges related. By conquest, they hoped to become masters of their destiny again by arguing that their wartime promises had since been overtaken by events.
The book is billed as "a timely account of the war that created modern Syria" by the publisher, who presumably wants to attract readers trying to understand the chaos enveloping the country now. But the story of how the war gave way to the modern state is only covered briefly and is unreliable. Grainger speculates that the man the Turks left behind to rule Damascus, Said Al Jazairi, "cannot have looked with much favour on any European takeover, and nor would the French be likely to be able to bring themselves to work with him", because he was the grandson of the famous Algerian rebel, Abdel Qadir.
This guess is logical enough, but utterly wrong. As an Arab with ambitions, Said had everything to lose from the appearance of a rival, Feisal, in Damascus and quickly volunteered his services to the French, who willingly backed him against the man they rightly saw as T. E. Lawrence's puppet. When the British realized what the French were trying to do, they imprisoned Said. The episode is a brief illustration of Syria's problem: throughout its existence, the country has been an arena in which foreign powers play out their rivalries.
Grainger does identify the greatest irony which was that Allenby, afterwards, did not think that the invasion of Palestine had been necessary at all. The idea behind it had been to consolidate British control of the Suez Canal by creating a client "buffer Jewish state" to its east. But by May 1919 Allenby believed that "the old frontier of Egypt" – roughly the border between Egypt and Israel today – "gives a better defence than any in northern Palestine". By then, that brainwave was too late.
© James Barr 2013