By November 12, 2017 Read More →

1917 The Last Crusade

David Lloyd GeorgeIn late 1915 Indian Army units were sent up to Tigris valley from Basra, where they were protecting Britain’s oil interests on the Persian Gulf, on the assumption that they could soon capture Baghdad and redeem the shame of Gallipoli. Instead tough Turkish resistance and the collapse of supply lines forced 13,000 troops to surrender at the town of Kut in April 1916 ― a humiliation that was likened to Yorktown in 1781 … The outcry in Britain about the debacles at Gallipoli and Kut helped topple the Asquith government. This marked a turning point: henceforth Britain’s war against the Ottoman Empire became a serious operation fueled by revenge. One British army, now properly supplied, marched up the Tigris into Baghdad in 1917 while another slogged up the coast from Egypt into Palestine. These were major campaigns, involving nearly a million men. During the course of the whole war the British Empire deployed about one-third of its troops on the various Ottoman fronts.

Revenge aside, ideology also featured in the Middle Eastern war. To boost morale at home when the Western Front was deadlocked, the government played up the 1917 victories in Palestine as “the last Crusade” that had finally ended four hundred years of Ottoman oppression in “the Holy Land.” These were themes that resonated with a populace steeped in biblical Protestantism. Lloyd George, raised a strict Baptist in Wales, celebrated a campaign in which “every hamlet and hill” ― places such as Beersheba and Hebron, Bethany and Bethlehem ― “thrills with sacred memories.” He confessed: “I was brought up in a school where I was taught more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land.” But the crusading theme was soft-pedaled in the Middle East. When Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917 he did so on foot, in a deliberate contrast with the Kaiser’s visit in 1898 on horseback wearing a white cloak and plumed helmet. With his eye on Muslim opinion, so important in the Indian Empire, Allenby promised to protect the holy places sacred to all faiths. The Palestine campaign was therefore presented to show the superior morality of Britain’s empire compared with that of its enemies.

Geopolitics also loomed large for the British. In the spring of 1918 Russia’s exit from the war, Germany’s victories in France, and Ottoman capture of the oil port of Baku on the Caspian Sea conjured up nightmare visions of the Kaiser and his allies driving across the Caucasus toward India. “We must stop the wave of German influence sweeping right into the heart of Asia,” a panic-stricken Lord Milner warned Lloyd George.  During the autumn, of course, British fears were dispelled by the sudden collapse of Germany and the Ottomans, leaving British armies in control of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. But by now policymakers in London were convinced that the Middle East, hitherto a minor British interest, must henceforth be treated as the fulcrum of imperial defense. This new and, as it proved, durable strategic imperative was a direct result of the Great War.

Source: Reynolds, David. The Long Shadow. (p. 88 – 89); Ibid., pp. 180-81; Eitan Bar-Yosef, “The Last Crusade? British Propaganda and the Palestine Campaign, 1917-18,” JCH 36 (2001), pp. 87-109, quoting Lloyd George on p. 105.

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