Skip to content

Response to Review no. 134

As the late Professor Elie Kedourie once observed, writing a book is like the hopeful castaway sending his message in a bottle to wash up on unknown shores. It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I read Peter Simkins’ thoughtful and constructive review of my recent monograph on Allenby and the Palestine campaign during the First World War. As Professor Simkins observes, for too long the ‘peripheral’ campaigns of the First World War have been ignored. With all the attention given to the war on the Western Front, too little has been said about other theatres of war. Moreover, what has been written about the war outside France is often dated and/or uncritical battle narrative. This is all the more noticeable considering the recent historiography on the war in France that is overturning many commonly held assumptions about the war on the Western Front and how it was won. Yet the campaigns outside France hold much for the historian. The military aspects of these ‘side-show’ campaigns are usually in desperate need of revision. In addition, Britain’s imperial concerns that were played out in Africa and Asia need to be explored. Campaigns such as the one in Palestine also tell us much about the nature of civil-military relations in London as the British leader, David Lloyd George, and his ‘ generals’, notably ‘Wully’ Robertson, struggled over the direction of the war. As Simkins observes, these were some of the key issues that my monograph on the war in Palestine tried to address

Simkins’ review raises several issues. Firstly, the matter of Allenby’s command of Third Army on the Western Front prior to his taking command in Palestine. This is an interesting question and I now think that I made an error in not dealing with Allenby’s performance in France. This gives the reader some triangulation for Allenby’s subsequent command in Palestine and provides a continuum on which to measure Allenby. In my defence, I had a problem with the word limit for the book and I was fearful that examination of Allenby outside the Palestine campaign might run the risk of a loss of focus for the book. Also, with four biographies of Allenby currently available, my aim was to contextualise Allenby within British strategy for the Middle East rather than make him the focus for the book. With this in mind, Allenby’s significance decreases in the second half of the book that covers the machinations of the politicians as they squabbled over Palestine and Syria at the Paris Peace Conference.

As for Simkins’ comment about Allenby’s relationship with Maj-Gen. J.S.M. Shea, I do make some reference to Shea’s recollection (to be found in the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive) of Allenby breaking down on hearing the news of the death of his son. To hear Shea recount how the ‘Bull’ broke down and cried opens up vistas of a personal side to an otherwise reserved commander. Allenby lived in an era without the tender mercies of agony aunts, therapy and TV chat shows. As with so many others of his generation, he got on with his life and grieved in private. As Allenby’s diaries were lost after the war, it is not easy to find a way into Allenby the man, rather than Allenby the myth.

Simkins also draws attention to my lack of analysis of the battle of Megiddo, arguably Allenby’s greatest triumph. This was also commented on in a recent review of my book in the Journal of Military History. My reasons for ignoring Megiddo were outlined (perhaps not explicitly enough) earlier in the book where I evaluated Turkish strategy and capabilities. My reading of the situation was that the Turks were in such a weak position by late 1918 that when Allenby attacked they could put up little resistance. As Megiddo is the one battle covered in some detail in the existing historiography, and as I could offer little new in the way of a different perspective on the battle I preferred to concentrate on the imperial dimension to the battle of Megiddo whereby the British allowed the Hashemite Arabs into Damascus first as a way of obstructing French designs on Syria. This seemed to me a far more fruitful area of enquiry than going over once again the triumph of Megiddo. My focus on the imperial need to promote the Hashemites was also an attempt to build upon the earlier ground-breaking work of Kedourie from the 1950s and ’60s.

I thank Professor Simkins for his incisive review and the questions he raises and hope it stimulates readers to look at the Great War in all its facets, and not just as a war fought on the Western Front.