The Most Orderly of Cities: Nablus At The End Of The Great War

Nablus, 1918.

In July of 1918, the final year of the Great War, British Field Marshal Sir Edmund Allenby looked to capitalize on numerous small summer operations in the Judean hills in order to push northward through the mountainous interior of Palestine. Some seven months after his triumphant – if not heavily symbolic – horseback ride into the old city of Jerusalem, Allenby wrote he was “very anxious to make a move in September.” His goal was the capture of the road to Salt as well as the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Army headquarters in Nablus and Tulkarem, respectively.

In spite of the fall of Jerusalem and an Allied advance during the summer of 1918, Ottoman troops – most of which were severely underfed and poorly clothed – ferociously resisted the loss of further ground. Unfortunately, by late September the situation looked dire for the beleaguered Turkish forces in northern Palestine. Allenby’s plan to push northward mobilized nearly all available infantry, cavalry, and artillery pieces. By Wednesday the 18th of September, approximately 70,000 combat troops were concentrated for the Battle of Megiddo, as it would later be named by the British. As for the Turks, subsequent British operations between September 19-15 would be known as Nablus Hezimeti (Rout of Nablus), or Nablus Yarması (Breakthrough at Nablus).

Turkish forces routed by the British in the Battle of Megiddo, 1918.

While Ottoman forces managed to repulse multiple attacks on Thursday the 19th, Tulkarem was overrun with Allied troops by dark. Allenby’s strategy to flank Nablus from two sides was nearly ready to execute after taking Tulkarem. Consequently, famed Seventh Army Commander Mustafa Kemal ordered his troops to begin withdrawing from Nablus in order to coalesce with what was left of the Eighth Army in Nazareth.

That evening witnessed the Battle of Nablus intensify, with artillery and aircraft sorties devastating Turkish targets. Local historian Ihsan al-Nimr, a boy of no more than thirteen at the time, writes that he and his family “sobbed and did not sleep until the morning” because of the thundering cannons along the southern front.

On Friday morning multiple British sorties bombed targets in Nablus resulting in the destruction of the railway station, a section of a primary school, and the Tuqan soap factory. The atmosphere was chaotic. Municipal President Sheikh Umar Zu’aytir was summoned by the Mutasarrif (Ottoman governor of a Sanjak, a sub region of a province) so that he could authorize Zu’aytir in the administration of government affairs.

Once care of the city had been left to Sheikh Zu’aytir, the Mutasarrif along with the whole lot of Turkish civil officials fled Nablus — the remaining contingent of the Seventh Army not far behind.

As Nablus was now, in the words of Sheikh Zu’aytir, “without a government, single officer, or policeman,” he called the local municipal council to a meeting at which time he set about appointing a sizable contingent of police and gendarme to preserve civil order in the city. In a letter written to his eldest son, Sheikh Zu’aytir boasted of his own efforts, “You’d have seen Nablus as the most orderly of cities.”

Despite the boastful tone taken by Zu’aytir, Nablus was about to be overtaken. By noon on Friday the 20th, Allied battalions had assumed the high ground outside the city in order to assault any Ottoman troops fleeing towards the Jordan Valley. Even with heavily mined roads temporarily slowing their advance, British forces were mere miles out from the city. At five o’clock that afternoon artillery fire commenced from within Nablus, possibly from a contingent of rearguard troops who stayed behind. However, once word came that the German cannon in Nablus was somehow misdirected, Sheikh Zu’aytir ordered those manning the gun to cease firing. Not only were repeated salvos landing on Ottoman military positions but the city itself had been damaged.

The people of Nablus were at their wits end after nearly twenty-four hours of bombardment. Thousands of residents and refugees assembled in front of the government house to demand action. At this point Zu’aytir sent emissaries to parley with officers of the 5th Australian Light Horse Brigade and arranged for the surrender of his city. But the fighting continued, visiting death upon the surrounding countryside.

Allenby’s forces had captured 20,000 men and the past two days of battle had left Nablus and Tulkarem’s roads littered with the bodies of Turkish soldiers, horses, and various wheeled vehicles. Lieutenant Colonel Guy Powles of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles recalled, “Dead men and animals, torn about with ruthless bombs, swollen and distorted, stank fearfully.” Seeing wounded animals and men pinned down under the wreckage, Powles quipped, “war is hell and looks only well in a picture show.”

Troops of the Fifth Australian Light Horse Brigade, under Allenby’s command, enter Nablus to establish Allied control, 21 September 1918.

As the landscape was transformed into a site of wanton destruction the likes of which its people had never seen, soldiers of the Allied Desert Mounted Corps gained possession of nearly all Ottoman lines of retreat. Still facing some small pockets of Ottoman resistance, the 5th Light Horse Brigade along the French Régiment mixte de Marche de Cavalerie du Levant pushed toward Nablus, entering the town around noon on Saturday once artillery and airplane bombardment subsided. Ihsan al-Nimr recalls standing on the roof of his family home on that “horrific day” watching the Australian cavalrymen ride through the streets of Nablus with their sabers raised in victory. Sheikh Zu’aytir and the Municipal Council surrendered immediately to commander of the British XX Corps Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode, who later described the state of northern Palestine as “a mass of half starving bodies of Turks.”

Arriving victorious and in a cloud of dust, Zu’aytir tells of the English officers who “witnessed the orderliness and conformity of things.” An unnamed officer, presumably the highest in command, told Zu’aytir he would remain the acting official over the Nablus government until his British replacement arrived. According to Zu‘aytir, his management of city affairs earned him praise from the commanding officer, “Your efforts are satisfactory in the view of the English state.” In short order he then began appointing officials to all manner of government posts in the city. The following day, a British Brigadier General exclaimed, “Among those cities we have occupied, we have not seen a city like Nablus.”

Nablus and Mount Gerizim.

Marshall Watson is a Master’s student at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His current research focuses on Palestine in the late Ottoman and early Mandate periods. He has previously lived in Palestine and Jordan.

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