CHAPTER XVIII. BY THE BANKS OF THE JORDAN
We have seen how impregnable the defences of Jerusalem had become as the result of the big advance northwards at the end of December. As far as any military forecast could be made we were now in an impenetrable position whatever force the Turk, with his poor communications, could employ against us either from the direction of Nablus or from the east of the Jordan. There seemed to be no risk whatever, so long as we chose to hold the line XXth Corps had won, of the Turks again approaching Jerusalem, but the Commander-in-Chief determined to make the situation absolutely safe by advancing eastwards to capture Jericho and the crossings of the Jordan. This was not solely a measure of precaution. It certainly did provide a means for preventing the foe from operating in the stern, forbidding, desolate, and awe-inspiring region which has been known as the Wilderness since Biblical days, and doubtless before. In that rough country it would be extremely difficult to stop small bands of enterprising troops getting through a line and creating diversions which, while of small military consequence, would have been troublesome, and might have had the effect of unsettling the natives. A foothold in the Jordan valley would have the great advantage of enabling us to threaten the Hedjaz railway, the Turks' sole means of communication with Medina, where their garrison was holding out staunchly against the troops of the King of the Hedjaz, and any assistance we could give the King's army would have a far-reaching effect on neutral Arabs. It would also stop the grain trade on the Dead Sea, on which the enemy set store, and would divert traffic in foodstuffs to natives in Lower Palestine, who at this time were to a considerable extent dependent on supplies furnished by our Army. The Quartermaster-General carried many responsibilities on his shoulders. Time was not the important factor, and as General Allenby was anxious to avoid an operation which might involve heavy losses, it was at first proposed that the enemy should be forced to leave Jericho by the gradually closing in on the town from north and south. The Turks had got an immensely strong position about Talat ed Dumm, the 'Mound of Blood,' where stands a ruined castle of the Crusaders, the Chastel Rouge. One can see it with the naked eye from the Mount of Olives, and weeks before the operation started I stood in the garden of the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria hospice and, looking over one of the most inhospitable regions of the world, could easily make out the Turks walking on the road near the Khan, which has been called the Good Samaritan Inn. The country has indeed been rightly named. Gaunt, bare mountains of limestone with scarcely a patch of green to relieve the nakedness of the land make a wilderness indeed, and one sees a drop of some four thousand feet in a distance of about fifteen miles. The hills rise in continuous succession, great ramparts of the Judean range, and instead of valleys between them there are huge clefts in the rock, hundreds of feet deep, which carry away the winter torrents to the Jordan and Dead Sea. Over beyond the edge of hills are the green wooded banks of the Sacred River, then a patch or two of stunted trees, and finally the dark walls of the mountains of Moab shutting out the view of the land which still holds fascinating remains of Greek civilisation.
But there was no promise of an early peep at such historic sights, and the problem of getting at the nearer land was hard enough for present deliberation. It was at first proposed that the whole of the XXth Corps and a force of cavalry should carry out operations simultaneously on the north and east of the Corps front which should give us possession of the roads from Mar Saba and Muntar, and also from Taiyibeh and the old Roman road to Jericho, thus allowing two cavalry forces supported by infantry columns to converge on Jericho from the north and south. However, by the second week of February there had been bad weather, and the difficulties of supplying a line forty miles from the railway on roads which, notwithstanding a vast amount of labour, were still far from good, were practically insuperable, and it was apparent that a northerly and easterly advance at the same time would involve a delay of three weeks.
New circumstances came to light after the advance was first arranged, and these demanded that the enemy should be driven across the Jordan as soon as possible. General Allenby decided that the operations should be carried out in two phases. The first was an easterly advance to thrust the enemy from his position covering Jericho, to force him across the Jordan, and to obtain control of the country west of the river. The northerly advance to secure the line of the wadi Aujah was to follow. This river Aujah which flows into the Jordan must not be confused with the Auja on the coast already described.