Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, February 3, 2017

Edmund Allenby 1917: A Scapegoat in the Spring, A Rising Star in the Fall

General Allenby

Lt. General Edmund Allenby's Third Army had minimal responsibility for 1916's Battle of the Somme. The following year, however, it had principal responsibility for the British portion of the main Allied initiative. Third Army was to drive east from Arras and hopefully hook up with the French forces of General Nivelle, which were to be concurrently attacking the Chemin des Dames and breaking through from the south.

His plans, however, were undermined by the German retreat to their new defenses along the Hindenburg Line. Allenby's superior, General Haig, refused his request for a delay to allow for re-planning the offensive.

At first, though, the Arras offensive went well with the Third Army breaking through the German lines and advancing three and half miles in one day.  However, the Germans reinforced the sector and sent staff officers with expertise in defensive tactics. There followed weeks of heavy fighting that deteriorated into trench-fighting positional warfare with heavy casualties to 3rd Army. Allenby and Haig mutually lost confidence in one another. Haig expressed the opinion that Allenby "was lacking in aptitude for high command." His time on the Western Front was not to extend much 

Allenby was dismayed by the criticism he was receiving, but his skills were better suited for open warfare than the trenches and no one appreciated this more than the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  William Robertson. Earlier in 1917 the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of Sir Archibald Murray, was having problems.  It failed twice in its efforts to take Gaza.  Murray's failure at Second Gaza left officials in London no choice but to replace him with a commander who could achieve much-needed results in an otherwise gloomy war effort.  Prime Minister David Lloyd George initially offered command to Gen Jan Smuts, but the South African declined in the belief that he would not receive support from the War Office  for a "sideshow" effort. Upon Chief of Staff Robertson's recommendation, command fell to Gen Allenby.  He was relieved of command of the Third Army, awarded a fourth star, and sent to relieve General Murray.

Allenby and Staff, Conquerors of Jerusalem, December 1917

General Allenby was 56 years old when he took command of the EEF in June 1917. Within days of arriving in Palestine, the new commander of the EEF would dispel any misgivings regarding his capacity for independent command. EEF's change in command climate: "Allenby went through the hot, dusty camps of his army like a strong, fresh, reviving wind." He immediately moved the general headquarters from Cairo to the field, thus sending a strong message to front line troops. Allenby kept up a vigorous pace his first few weeks in theater, visiting units, making corrections, and developing a general framework for his first campaign. Almost immediately, he sought the advice of his senior subordinates. As commander of the 4th Cavalry Division Maj Gen George Barrow related, "Allenby was always glad to listen to other opinions and advice, provided this was backed by knowledge and common sense. What angered him was stupidity, negligence, and, most of all, disregard of orders."

In the remaining 17 months of the war, Allenby would earn the reputation as one of the finest field commanders of the Great War.  His achievements will be the subject of numerous postings on Roads to the Great War and in the other publications at in the months ahead.

Sources: Over the Top, Wikipedia, British Army Museum


  1. When Lowell Thomas learned of Allenby's posting he hopped aboard a British warship bound for Palestine and you know the rest of the story. Later Lawrence of Arabia would say, " I made Lowell Thomas's reputation."

  2. The photo is not of Allenby, but of General Sir John Shea, OC of the 60th (2/2nd London) Division, and his staff. The photo was taken in the yard of the English Hospital, near Jaffa Road, which became the HQ of the division after the capture of Jerusalem, December 1917