A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A conqueror shows his respect for the holy city

When Jerusalem surrendered to the British, General Edmund Allenby stage-managed his triumph perfectly

Click to follow
The Independent Online

“Today, I entered Jerusalem, on foot…” Edmund Allenby wrote home to his wife Mabel on 11 December 1917.  “We entered at the Jaffa Gate;  and, from the steps of the Citadel, hard by, issued a proclamation in many languages to the assembled multitude.  Great enthusiasm – real or feigned – was shown.  Then I received the notables and heads of all the churches…After this, we reformed our procession and returned to our horses, which we had left outside the walls.”  How typical of General Allenby that his rather humdrum letter home should include an allusion both to the Bible he carried with him on campaign — the “multitudes” of Jerusalem — and to the old soldier’s suspicion that their enthusiasm was not to be trusted.  His official report, remarkably similar, left out these little revelations.

"What an idol the man was to us," T.E. Lawrence would later say of Allenby.  British intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen – an anti-semite later converted to Zionism by the brilliant anthropologist and spy Aaron Aaronsohn – was to go much further.  “It would be a short but awkward step in this superstitious country to translate Allenby into a Messiah,” he wrote in his diary, “but he is much too worldly, genuine and free of all such pretensions to willingly assume such a cloak.”  But of course, it was Allenby’s step – quite literally, on foot – into Jerusalem, that was intended to capture the imagination.

Allenby, of course, had the Messiah much on his mind, along with Kaiser Wilhelm — who had himself famously visited Jerusalem 19 years earlier, a spiritual imperialist who rode into the city on horseback after a gap was specially cut into the ancient wall for him beside the Jaffa Gate.  “Cook’s Crusader,” Punch called him.  Allenby was all humility —  being humble is a British speciality when they have strategic plans for someone else’s country – and wished to honour the three great religions associated with Jerusalem.  Allenby was neither particularly pro-Arab nor pro-Zionist, although he may have known that Kaiser Wilhelm II did receive that greatest of Zionists, Theodor Herzl, in his encampment of 30 white tents directly before the entrance to the city of Jerusalem, in 1898 at the very spot where the Romans had camped before destroying the Jewish Temple.

The photographs and film footage show Allenby, a rather remote, short figure, marching briskly into Jerusalem.  A less familiar, more pensive camera shot, taken by the US military attaché, has him standing outside the Jaffa Gate, staring pensively at some Indian troops, slightly anxious, before his entry.  And then of course, we see him on the steps above the ‘multitudes’ as his famous victory proclamation is read in English, Arabic, Hebrew, French, Italian, Greek and Russian.  Religious respect was the theme.  “…every sacred building, monument, Holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer…will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.”

The script had been sent from London days earlier.  Allenby might have written something more classical.  He was a scholar of antiquity and must have known that he was the 34th conqueror of Jerusalem.  One of his biographers was to list his predecessors, among them David, Nebuchadnezzer, Alexander, Antiochus the Great, Judas Maccabeus, Pompey, Herod, Titus, Omar, Godfrey de Bouillon and Saladin.  Lesser figures stood close to Allenby at the reading of the proclamation;  staff officers, T. E . Lawrence (there by chance), a clutch of intelligence men and the abominable Francois Georges-Picot (of Sykes-Picot infamy).

The real surrender of Jerusalem, of course, had occurred three days earlier and in infinitely British confusion when the Turkish Mayor of Jerusalem, Hussein Salim al-Husseini approached a series of British soldiers with a white flag;  two were lost cooks from the 2/20th London Regiment who declined the honour.  Then al-Husseini offered the keys of the city to Sergeants Frederick Hurcomb and James Sedgewick of the 2/19th London Regiment.  The best picture to come from the whole epic of Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem’s shows the two indomitable Brits, pith helmets on their heads, puttees on their feet, Lee Enfield rifles –over Harcomb’s shoulder and in Sedgewick’s right hand – both covered head to foot in dust and sand, among a group of Ottoman and Arab notables.  Eventually, Allenby’s 60th Division commander took the keys.

Allenby walks into Jerusalem: Sergeants James Sedgwick and Frederick Hurcomb of 2/19th Battalion, London Regiment, outside the city two days earlier

If Allenby remained aloof from organised religion, his prime minister did not.  Lloyd George fantasised upon the Biblical drama played out in Palestine, telling colleagues he wanted Jerusalem for Christmas.  He got it, referring in his memoirs to “the capture by British troops of the most famous city in the world which had for centuries baffled the efforts of Christendom to regain possession of its sacred shrines.”  British censors could not stop the war magazines talking of Allenby’s “crusade” in Palestine.  Allenby was a history man who had studied the 12th century failure of Richard Coeur de Lion to reach Jerusalem.  But he had also read Herodotus and Hogarth’s ‘Ancient East’.  He wanted to succeed where the great men of the past had failed.

And he did succeed, beyond the dreams of the chiefs of staff in London.  His soldiers, having launched their offensive in Beersheba, swept through Jerusalem and Nablus and battled their way to Damascus and victory and the ultimate betrayal of the Arabs and the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.  And Allenby, the ‘Bull’ as he was called, was a braver man than many of those who knew him at his moment of triumph realised.

For less than six months earlier, his only son, 20-year old Michael Allenby, was killed on the Western Front after a piece of German shell smashed through his helmet.  Michael had been a Socialist, defended conscientious objectors, read the Manchester Guardian and died within five hours, buried not far from the Belgian coast at Nieuport.  Ever the soldier, Allenby wrote privately of Michael with both sentiment and courage.  “…he always kissed me when we met and parted – as he did when a child.  Michael achieved, early, what every great man in the world’s history has made it his life’s ambition to attain – to die honoured, loved and successful…”  The Sherrif Husain, who launched the Arab Revolt for independence – and whose aspirations would so soon be crushed by Allenby himself – sent a personal letter of condolence.

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar