Allenby, Edmund Henry Hynman, first Viscount Allenby of Megiddo 1861-1936, field-marshal, was born 23 April 1861 on the estate of his maternal grandfather, Brackenhurst, near Southwell, Nottinghamshire. He was the eldest son and second child of Hynman Allenby, a country gentleman, by his wife, Catherine Anne, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Coats Cane. From the year of their marriage (1859) until that of Edmund's birth his parents had lived at Dartmouth. Soon afterwards they purchased Felixstowe House, in Suffolk, and West Bilney Lodge, with a considerable estate, in Norfolk. The family thenceforth spent spring and summer at Felixstowe, autumn and winter at West Bilney. Young Allenby grew up in close contact with the life and sport of the countryside. He rode, shot, fished, and sailed, and he early acquired the ornithological and botanical interests which were to remain with him all his life.
Allenby was educated at Haileybury, a new public school founded the year after his birth, and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. It had been his original intention to enter the Indian civil service, but he failed to pass the entrance examinations in 1879 and 1880, when there were vacancies for only about one-seventh of the candidates. His next choice was the army. He was not particularly distinguished at work or sport at Haileybury but he passed well into and out of Sandhurst, where he was an under-officer in his last term. In May 1882 he was gazetted to a commission in the Inniskillings (6th Dragoons). He was then a big, strong, good-looking young man, somewhat clumsy in build, although his weight did not increase unduly to his dying day. His eye had been trained for observation of country, and he possessed a strong and dominating character, physical and moral courage, and presence of mind, so that he had good prospects in his career.
The Inniskillings were stationed in South Africa, and Allenby gained invaluable experience in two little expeditions, both bloodless, or nearly so, into Bechuanaland (1884-1885) and Zululand (1888), as well as knowledge of people and country which were to serve him well later on. In 1886 he went home for two years' service at the cavalry depot at Canterbury. He was promoted captain early in 1888, the year of his return, and appointed adjutant next year. It was noted by his brother officers that the new responsibility not only made him take his profession much more seriously but also induced a certain grimness of disposition.
The regiment returned to England in 1890, and in 1896 Allenby passed into the Staff College, by competition, at a time when few cavalrymen entered except by nomination. He made no outstanding mark in his military studies but was popular with his fellow students, and was elected master of the drag hounds in preference to Douglas (afterwards Earl) Haig, a better horseman than himself. He passed out with a good report. While at Camberley he had been promoted major in May 1897, and qualified as an army interpreter in French. He had also married, in 1896, Adelaide Mabel, daughter of Horace Edward Chapman, of Donhead House, Salisbury. In March 1898 he became what would now be termed brigade-major but was then termed adjutant to the 3rd Cavalry brigade at the Curragh, in Ireland. While he was holding this appointment his only child, a son, was born.
Allenby rejoined his regiment the following year on the outbreak of the South African war. Shrewd and cautious, with knowledge of the character and qualities of his adversary, he fell into none of the traps laid by the Boers, and it was due to his good work in the operations round Colesberg that his squadron was chosen as part of the cavalry division formed under General French for the relief of Kimberley in the early part of 1900. In the numerous small actions or marches with convoys his losses were small.
Early in 1900 Allenby assumed temporary command of his regiment at Bloemfontein and with it took part in the main advance to Pretoria. His great chance came with the final period between January 1901 and May of the following year, when the Boers remaining under arms had been reduced to a handful of picked men, not exceeding 50,000 even at the outset, yet brilliantly maneuvred against the numerous columns sent out to round them up and to clear the country. In these trying operations he commanded a column, generally of two regiments of cavalry, artillery, and half a battalion of infantry. He suffered no reverse and never lost a convoy, and at the end of the war had established a sound if not a spectacular reputation. He received brevet promotion to colonel and was appointed C.B.
Allenby began his home service, which was to last until the outbreak of war twelve years later, in command of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers at Colchester. In October 1905, as a brigadier-general, he took over command of the 4th Cavalry brigade. In September 1909 he was promoted major-general, and after some six months on half-pay, during which he visited South Africa, was appointed inspector-general of cavalry. So far he had been generally popular in the army and with his subordinates, but his always high temper was now becoming even less under control and his roughness of manner was unwelcome to the staffs and regimental officers. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he was appointed to the command of the unwieldy cavalry division, of which the brigades had seldom trained together, to accompany the British Expeditionary Force to France.
Allenby's conduct of his command in the retreat from Mons is a matter which has aroused controversy. By some he is held to have displayed weakness in losing control of a large proportion of it, while others consider that circumstances would have been too much for any commander in his position. It is universally acknowledged, however, that he showed coolness and resolution throughout and that the rear and flanks of the retreating British infantry corps were effectively protected from a superior force of German cavalry. In the advance to the Aisne the cavalry was handled with a prudence approaching timidity, but that was in part founded on orders from British headquarters and in part upon reactions from previous over-confidence, in which, however, Allenby himself had never shared.
Five British cavalry brigades were now formed into two divisions of more manageable size, and after the transfer of the Expeditionary Force from the Aisne to Flanders these became the Cavalry Corps, to the command of which Allenby was appointed. In the first battle of Ypres (19 October-22 November) the cavalry performed magnificent service. One of the decisive elements in the British defence proved to be the skill of the dismounted trooper with the rifle, for which the former inspector-general must be given at least part of the credit. In fighting of this nature there was little that a corps commander could effect beyond maintaining a reserve for the ugliest situations, and this Allenby contrived to do. On 6 May 1915 he took over command of the V Corps in the midst of the second battle of Ypres, which had opened with the German gas attack. Later in the year he carried out local operations in support of offensives farther south, but his efforts were rendered abortive by superior German observation and equipment.
In October 1915 Allenby was appointed to the command of the newly formed Third Army north of the Somme. He was not, however, destined to take part in the battle, as in the following March his army side-slipped northward to relieve the French in front of Arras. He was by this time identified with the costly and somewhat unimaginative methods on which the offensives and counter-attacks had been conducted, but it should be recognized that his loyalty to his superiors was so complete that he always fulfilled his orders to the letter and allowed no criticism even in the bosom of his own military family, his staff. His nickname of the Bull, dating from days of peace, had by now become universal.
The outstanding episode in Allenby's military career in Europe was the battle of Arras in 1917. The plan had been to a certain extent compromised by the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, which extended on its northern flank to the front of his right corps and necessitated an improvisation of dispositions prejudicial to its chances of success. In an effort to obtain a measure of surprise Allenby had decided to cut down the length of the preliminary bombardment, at the same time intensifying it by increasing the rate of fire. This project met with objections from general headquarters resulting in a compromise by which the bombardment was to cover four days instead of the forty-eight hours proposed by him. As the attack was postponed by one day to suit the French, the bombardment was in fact increased to five days. The object of the Third Army's offensive was to break the German defences between Arras and Cambrai while the First Army on the left captured the Vimy ridge. The attack was launched on Easter Monday, 9 April, a day punctuated by squalls of snow and sleet, which, however, blew in the faces of the enemy. Although the right-hand corps made only limited progress, the main attack on the first day was remarkably successful. The maximum advance, just north of the Scarpe, was three and a half miles, believed to be the longest carried out by any belligerent on the western front since trench warfare had set in. As so often in that war, however, the success was not exploited. The complete breach through which it had been hoped to pass the Cavalry Corps was never fully opened or cleared of wire. The Germans made a partial recovery and brought up some reinforcements. The fighting degenerated into costly local actions, until Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief, ordered a pause on the 14th to reorganize for a further co-ordinated attack. This, known officially as the second battle of the Scarpe, was launched on 23 April and achieved only limited success after very heavy fighting. A third attempt, on 3 May (the third battle of the Scarpe), was disastrous. Against Allenby's will the assault was carried out in darkness, and the half-trained reinforcements with which the ranks of the divisions had been filled fell into confusion.
Meanwhile a new commander was wanted in Palestine, where the British had suffered a sharp check in April in front of Gaza. Allenby was known as a man of abounding energy and it was considered that he would be more likely to give of his best outside the orbit of Haig. The two men were uncongenial to each other and Allenby always felt himself tongue-tied in the presence of the commander-in-chief. He assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the end of June 1917, and, as soon as the move could be carried out, transferred general headquarters to the Palestine border, close behind the front. He came like a fresh breeze to the somewhat dispirited troops. As he drove from camp to camp for brief visits of inspection he contrived to impress his personality upon them. The independently minded Australians took to him at once and gave him their full confidence. It was a promising beginning to his command. He received most of the reinforcements which he demanded, bringing his army to a strength of seven infantry and three mounted divisions.
Allenby's plan, largely based upon an appreciation put forward by Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Chetwode, and the work of his staff officer, Brigadier-General Guy Payan Dawnay, was to capture Beersheba, on the Turkish left, then roll up the enemy's centre and net the largest possible proportion of the forces between it and the coast by a sweep with his three mounted divisions. It was a difficult operation in which every move depended upon the capture of water supplies for men, horses, and camels. The attack on Beersheba began on 31 October. The opening stages of the offensive were brilliantly successful, but, as so often happens in a campaign of this type, there were some delays and the cavalry became more dispersed than was desirable. As a consequence, although the Turks suffered heavily, their main body escaped envelopment. Meanwhile, however, Allenby's left had broken through at Gaza. He immediately transferred all available transport to this flank, leaving much of the rest of the force temporarily immobilized round the railhead, and drove the enemy northward up the Philistine plain, beyond Jaffa, to the Nahr el Auja.
Allenby then decided to wheel a strong force into the hills and capture Jerusalem¾which for religious and political reasons it was important not to harm¾by envelopment between this force and another advancing northward from Beersheba up the road through Hebron. He penetrated without excessive difficulty almost to the Nablus road, but then his XXI Corps and Yeomanry mounted division became involved in fierce and bloody fighting. To the east progress was blocked; to the north the thinly held British flank was fiercely counter-attacked by the able and energetic hostile commander-in-chief, General (Marshal in the Turkish army) von Falkenhayn. Floods in the plain delayed the movement of supplies. But the flank held and the supply situation gradually improved. Allenby brought up the XX Corps. Another assault proved successful, and on 9 December Jerusalem was surrendered intact to Allenby, who made his impressive ceremonial entry on foot into the holy city on 11 December. During the following days a counter-offensive was defeated and the front advanced to a distance sufficiently far north and east of the city to ensure its safety. The Turks had suffered some 28,000 casualties, almost half as many again as those of the British.
Allenby was called upon by the government to exploit his success to the extent of driving Turkey right out of the war, but his attitude was cautious. Storms prevented the unloading of supplies on the coast. Railway construction was required. While it was in progress he proposed to operate against the enemy beyond Jordan, on the Hejaz railway. His plans were finally approved, but all hope of a major offensive early in 1918 was removed by the success of the German offensives of March and April in France. Heavy demands fell upon the Egyptian Expeditionary Force for reinforcements. Two whole divisions, nine yeomanry regiments, twenty-three infantry battalions, heavy artillery, machine-gun battalions, etc., were withdrawn. Their place was taken by two Indian divisions, and by Indian cavalry regiments and infantry battalions, the latter being in many cases raw and without experienced officers or specialists. The spring and summer were occupied in reorganization and training, and it was not until mid-September that Allenby was ready for his next main stroke. His operations beyond Jordan were not particularly successful, but they caused acute anxiety to the new Turkish commander-in-chief, the German Liman von Sanders. Allenby accentuated this by keeping a strong force in the low-lying Jordan valley despite its torrid heat and other discomforts.
On his arrival Allenby had taken over from his predecessor and strengthened the policy of assisting the Arabs in the Hejaz and Trans-Jordan in revolt against the Turks. He worked through a body of able officers, of whom the most outstanding was Colonel T. E. Lawrence [q.v.]. Much had already been effected in breaching the Hejaz railway and locking up garrisons at Medina, Ma'an, and elsewhere along the line. In his final offensive he called upon the Arabs, now partly organized as semi-regular forces, to keep the Turks engaged round the vital station of Der'a, the junction of the Hejaz and Palestinian systems, to interrupt the traffic in any case, and if possible to block it altogether. It was the one key objective which he could not reach quickly himself. Arab activity also increased Turkish fears of a British thrust on this flank, and they were strengthened by a number of skilful ruses.
It was actually Allenby's intention to attack on the left, in the coastal plain, massing the bulk of his forces of all arms in that sector, carrying out with the infantry of the XXI Corps a huge right wheel to drive the enemy into the hills and open a gateway for three cavalry divisions concentrated immediately in the rear. These were to cross the Samarian ridge which ends with Mount Carmel above the Bay of Acre, sweep down into the Plain of Esdraelon (or Megiddo), and pass through the Valley of Jezreel down to the Jordan near Beisan, thus throwing a net round the Turkish armies. Allenby possessed a superiority of four to one in cavalry, about six to four¾the exact figures on the Turkish side are still a matter of dispute¾in infantry, and nearly three to two in artillery. He had complete command of the air, so that his concentration could be carried out unobserved. His troops were fit and well found, whereas the Turks were ill supplied and ragged.
The assault was launched at 4.30 a.m. on 19 September with complete success. The two leading cavalry divisions entered the gateway before 9 a.m. They carried out their great drive against only scattered opposition. The hostile commander-in-chief was surprised in his headquarters at Nazareth and narrowly escaped capture in person. The 4th Cavalry division reached Beisan after covering over seventy miles in thirty-four hours. The Turkish forces west of Jordan were almost completely destroyed. Their transport was smashed by the Royal Air Force in defiles. Those down the Hejaz railway were trapped at Amman, and those east of Jordan harried and hunted by the Arabs. The remnant streamed north towards Damascus. Allenby ordered the cavalry to push on to that city, the Arabs moving parallel to its right flank. Damascus was entered on 1 October. Already malaria was taking a heavy toll, as Allenby had known would be the case when he left an area in which precautions had been taken for country in which there had been none. A wave of influenza followed. Allenby sent on his fittest cavalry division, the 5th, which captured Homs and Tripoli and entered Aleppo on 26 October. Almost immediately afterwards an armistice was signed with Turkey in Mudros harbour on 30 October. Allenby had captured 75,000 prisoners, 360 guns, and taken or destroyed all the enemy's transport. His own casualties were 5,666.
It was the last great campaign of cavalry employed in strategic mass in the annals of war, and one of the most notable. That fact alone would suffice to render Allenby's name immortal. The distances covered were enormous. The 5th Cavalry division marched 550 miles in 38 days, fighting four considerable actions and losing only 21 per cent. of its horses from all causes¾there never have been better horse-masters than Allenby's Indians, British yeomanry, Australians, and New Zealanders. And throughout the offensive his inspiration, thrustfulness, and the confidence which he inspired were priceless assets.
Many problems, chief among them the rivalry between French and Arab claims in Syria and the withdrawal of the Turks, were still to be solved, but Allenby was not left to deal with them for long. In March 1919 he was appointed special high commissioner for Egypt, where his former corps commander in Palestine, Lieutenant-General Sir E. S. Bulfin [q.v.], was engaged in stamping out a dangerous revolt. It was a difficult post because Egypt felt herself conscious of nationhood and had found a national champion in the person of the violent Saad Zaghlul. Allenby began with a disputed measure, for which he obtained the rather reluctant approval of the Foreign Office, the release of Zaghlul and three colleagues who had been arrested and deported to Malta. In September of that year he went on leave to England, which he had not seen since June 1917. He was fêted as one of the great victors of the war. He had already been promoted field-marshal (July 1919); he was now created a viscount (October 1919), received the thanks of parliament, and was given a grant of £50,000, while during the war he had been appointed K.C.B. (1915), G.C.M.G. (1917), and G.C.B. (1918). The allied countries had bestowed upon him their principal decorations. Among the universities which conferred honorary degrees upon him were Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. In 1920 he was made colonel of the 1st Life Guards, which included the court appointment of Gold Stick in Waiting.
Back in Egypt, Allenby carried through his task grimly and in face of difficulties in the country and differences of opinion with the Foreign Office. He produced, and persuaded the British government to accept, a declaration abolishing the protectorate and recognizing Egypt as a sovereign state in February 1922. The end of his tenure of office was clouded by the murder of Sir Lee Stack [q.v.], the sirdar, and his indifferent relations with the then foreign secretary, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Austen Chamberlain [q.v.], which brought about his resignation. He left Egypt in June 1925. There may still be discussion as to the value of his work there and by some he is considered to have committed grave mistakes, but on balance the view must be favourable. His moral courage and integrity and his grip of the essence of the Egyptian problem cannot be questioned.
As a field-marshal Allenby remained theoretically on the active list, but the remainder of his life was spent in retirement. His chief public work was done as president (1930) of the British National Cadet Association, which owes him a deep debt. He was able to indulge to the full his hobby of bird-watching, and established an aviary in the small garden of his London home. He fished enthusiastically and travelled extensively. He died very suddenly in London, through the bursting of a blood-vessel in his brain, 14 May 1936. His ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey. His son Michael, a young man of the greatest promise, had been killed in action in France in 1917. His viscountcy passed by special remainder to his nephew, Dudley Jaffray Hynman Allenby (born 1903).
Allenby's worst foe was his violent temper, but he rarely punished except with his tongue, and, like Napoleon, constantly continued to employ men whom he had forcibly abused. It is also true to say that, although he never apologized for fits of unjustified anger, he often made amends for them. He was grateful for good service and generous in rewarding it, and in many respects kindly and thoughtful. Like some other famous soldiers he was devoted to children. The men who knew him best and were brought most closely in touch with him either in the army or during his six years in Egypt were his warmest admirers, and on them he left the impression of a great man. The worst error that can be made about him is to look upon him as an unimaginative, heavy-handed soldier on the western front and a brilliant and inspired soldier in Palestine. Doubtless he expanded and gained confidence in independent command, but essentially he remained the same. The difference was in the conditions. This is not to say that his plan and performance in Palestine, especially in the final offensive, were not masterly. As a man he was ever animated by the highest sense of duty, simple and sincere, thorough in everything. The strength of his character may be exemplified by the fact that he imposed upon himself restraint in indulgence in the pleasures of the table, to which he was at one time addicted, because he feared they were injuring his health, just as he gave up smoking because he thought the habit might affect his remarkable eyesight, which he considered a professional asset. Although he had never been a scholar he was a man of considerable cultivation, widely read, and a passable Grecian and Latinist. But the most significant thing to be said of him is that he stands in the tradition of the great cavalrymen and, if the term be confined to horsemen, that he is the last of the line.
A portrait of Allenby is included in J. S. Sargent's picture, ‘Some General Officers of the Great War’, painted in 1922. There is also a chalk drawing (likewise in the National Portrait Gallery) by Eric Kennington.
The Times, 15 May 1936; Viscount Wavell, Allenby: a Study in Greatness, 2 vols., 1940-1943; Cyril Falls, (Official) History of the Great War. Military Operations. France and Belgium, 1917, 1940, and Egypt and Palestine, vol. ii, 1930; private information.
Contributor: Cyril Falls.