The Great War – 7 – 13 December, 1917
At the end of 1917 there was no more significant city to the British Empire than Jerusalem. Holy to Christian, Jew and Muslim, the capture of the city, so steeped in history and of such significance, was a tremendous morale boost for the Allied forces.
Following the evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915 Australian forces regrouped in Egypt. Australia’s mounted infantry units, the Light Horse, combined with British forces to form the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). In June 1917 Australian Lieutenant General Henry ‘Harry’ Chauvel was given command of the mounted infantry forces in the EEF, becoming Australia’s highest ranked soldier. The Desert Mounted Corps, consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Australian Mounted Division (formerly the Imperial Mounted Division) and the British Yeomanry Division. There were approximately 34,000 mounted troops in Chauvel’s corps. A “brass-bound brigadier” was quoted as saying, “Fancy giving the command of the biggest mounted force in the world’s history to an Australian.”
The Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was British General Edmund Allenby.
While Jerusalem had been the target of the British effort in Palestine since the end of March 1917, Allenby, on assuming command in June 1917, was given explicit orders by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas. This was in the wake of two failed efforts by his predecessor, Sir Archibald Murray, to conquer Gaza, a necessary condition for the conquest of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks.
Following success at Beersheba at the end of October and three weeks of intense fighting, the final EEF offensive to capture Jerusalem commenced on 8 December, 1917. The next morning, after only a single day of fighting, Turkish troops withdrew from the Holy City offering the keys to the city to approaching British troops.
(AWM: B01518) Australians of the Anzac Mounted Division watering their horses at the foot of Mount Zion.
General Allenby entered Jerusalem two days after the Turkish forces occupying the city raised the white flag before Allied forces. The 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment led by Major C.G. Dunckley was one of the first EEF units to enter Jerusalem. They were enthusiastically greeted by the populace who reportedly marvelled at the size of their big, long-tailed horses, very different in appearance to the more slender Arab ponies.
The British entered Jerusalem under strict instructions to respect the city, its people and traditions. In declaring martial law Allenby promised that “every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected.” There were no Allied flags flown over the city and Muslim troops from India were dispatched to guard the religious landmark, the Dome of the Rock.
General Allenby was careful to dismount from his horse before entering Jaffa Gate. This was in deliberate contrast to Kaiser Wilhelm’s entrance on horseback in 1908. Australian Captain Hugo Throssell, who was awarded the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, commanded the ceremonial guard at the Jaffa Gate. Captain Throssell, a Western Australian, was educated in Adelaide at Prince Alfred College before the war.
General Allenby enters Jerusalem on foot, 11 December, 1917.
The capture of Jerusalem was a key part of the successful 1917 -18 Palestine Campaign. Church Bells were rung in Rome and London to celebrate the Allied arrival in the holy city.
Palestine Campaign 1917-18 Map Charting the Progress of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
A letter of congratulations to General Allenby from His Majesty King George V was published in The Advertiser on Wednesday, 12 December, 1917. “The news of the occupation of Jerusalem will be received throughout the Empire with the greatest satisfaction. I heartily congratulate you and all ranks under your command on the success of an achievement which is a fitting sequel to the hard marching and the hard fighting of the troops, and the organisation by which difficulties of supply, transport, and water were overcome. I rejoice that your skilful dispositions preserved intact the holy places.”
The religious significance of the capture of Jerusalem was not lost on H.S. Gullett, author of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 VOL. VII Sinai and Palestine (p. 519) when he wrote:
“In all that great army it is doubtful if a single man of European origin entered Jerusalem for the first time untouched by the influence of the Saviour. Christ met each man on the threshold of the city; each man, as he entered was purified and exalted. The influence was, perhaps, not lasting. War is not a Christian mission. But for a brief spell at least the soldier’s mind was purged of gross-ness, and he knew again the pure and trusting faith of his early childhood.”
The Home Front
On the home front Friday, 7 December, 1917 was declared War Savings Day. A half-holiday was declared for school children and a “Monster Procession” was held featuring a military and naval parade, expeditionary and citizen forces, returned soldiers, fire brigades, bands, concert parties and living tableaus (a group of people posed to portray a famous scene or event). Australia’s many products including wine, wool, copper, tin, rabbits, wattle bark, cement and coal were featured together with street sales of war stamps. On War Savings Day approximately £30,500 was raised in Adelaide by the sale of war certificates and stamps. Mr A. A. L. Rowley, the Honorary Director of the War Savings Committee, described the outcome in The Advertiser on 22 December, 1917: “Considering the large amount of money recently invested in the war loan, which is still open, the result can be described only as highly satisfactory.”
Campaigning for the highly controversial conscription referendum, to be held on 20 December, 1917 was in full swing with the public bitterly divided on its merits. Australia’s Anglo-British Protestants and Scottish Presbyterians had swung their considerable influence behind the pro-conscription position of then Prime Minister, Billy Hughes. The Irish Catholic Australians, led by outspoken Archbishop Daniel Mannix took an anti-conscription stance, positioning themselves alongside trade unionists, feminists, pacifists (including Australia’s Quakers) and atheists, amongst others. A previous proposal for conscription held on 28 October, 1916 was narrowly defeated 48% in favour with 52% against. The nation remained closely divided on the question and campaigning was fierce on both sides of the argument.
In December, 1917 the beginnings of a tradition continued today were being seen with a battalion reunion reported in The Advertiser on 7 December, 1917.
Returned members of the 10th and 60th Battalions gathered at the Cheer-Up Hut to enjoy a musical programme and camaraderie under the presidency of Colonel Price Weir DSO, the inaugural Commanding Officer of the 10th Battalion. A decision was taken to meet quarterly and a Secretary was elected to the two battalions. Reunions are now commonplace amongst veterans. The men who gathered in December 1917 may have experienced action at Gallipoli and some of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front including Pozieres and Ypres. By war’s end over 9,000 men had served in the 10th Battalion. Casualties totalled 1,015 men killed and 2,136 wounded.
Similarly the 60th Battalion, raised in Egypt in February, 1916 from Gallipoli veterans from the 8th Battalion and fresh recruits from Australia, had experienced the horror of the Western Front in the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July, 2016 where it was virtually annihilated in the ill-fated offensive. Of its 887 officers and men that had gone into the battle only 106 men answered the roll call at brigade headquarters the following afternoon. More than two years after that battle, on the day of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Charles Bean returned to the Fromelle battle fields and made the following observation. “We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead…The skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”
The fact this reunion was held while the war raged on and that a decision to meet every three months was made shows that the veterans found the reunion a valuable part of the recovery process.
Advocacy for veterans’ welfare is now a regular activity for the large number of Ex-Service Organisations across Australia. The Advertiser carried this article on advocacy for veterans on 8 December, 1917.