Jerusalem: December 11, 1917
100 years ago, British General Edmund Allenby dismounted his horse and entered Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate, out of respect for its status as the Holy City, important as it was to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was accompanied by Thomas Edward Lawrence “of Arabia”and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot, co-author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and newly appointed High Commissioner to Palestine and Syria.
Allenby enters Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate
The British liberation of Jerusalem from Ottoman occupation in December 1917 was the climactic moment in the history of the British Empire. Newspapers in Britain called General Allenby’s entrance through the Jaffa Gate the end of the Crusades. This was indeed true. Muslim supremacists no longer reigned supreme over Jews and Christians as they had ruthlessly done for most of the previous thirteen hundred years. Britain, however, was not quite the last imperialist power to rule Jerusalem. That honour went to Trans-Jordania (the Kingdom of Jordan), the Palestinian Arab state set up by Winston Churchill in 1921. After Jerusalem was divided in 1949, Israel was left with the task of liberating the Old City again in 1967.
Allenby in Jerusalem 1917 Video-click above image
December 6, 2017
English Victory: Jerusalem 1917
By David Semple
- Great Britain and the rise of Zionism
Israel would not exist today were it not for the brilliant wartime leadership of David Lloyd George during the First World War. For it was Britain under the leadership of Lloyd George which created the Mandate of Palestine with a policy of Zionist nation-state building. And it was Lloyd George who made Britain the victorious power which could dictate the fortunes of the modern Middle East. For the Jewish people, the period of Lloyd George’s government from 1916 to 1922 was the best period of relations between Britain and the Zionist movement.
Subsequent British governments betrayed the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, but it was Lloyd George and his ministers who made possible the Jewish State which has become one of the most innovative nations in the world today, the only free democracy in the Middle East and the most successful independent Jewish nation in four thousand years of Jewish history. Britain conquered Ottoman Palestine, liberating it from over a thousand years of Muslim occupation. And the League of Nations approved the Winston Churchill White Paper which, in 1922, set up the Mandate of Palestine, allowing Jews to create a homeland from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in the former ancient lands of Israel and Judea. Lloyd George’s government allowed the Zionist movement to build the foundations of what would become the State of Israel within the British Empire between 1922 and 1948, much as the American colonists built the foundations of the United States between 1620 and 1776, the date when they declared independence from Great Britain.
David Lloyd George was one of the four or five political giants who shaped the destiny of the British Empire; along with William Pitt, who brought Canada and India into the Empire; William Pitt the Younger, the pilot who weathered the storm blowing from Revolutionary France during the world wars that were the Napoleonic Wars; Benjamin Disraeli, who purchased the Suez Canal and acquired Cyprus from the Ottoman Empire; and Winston Churchill, who saved Britain from the Nazis and extended the life of the Empire for a further twenty years after its almost near collapse in the Pacific in the early months of 1942.
Lloyd George, like Winston Churchill, won a world war which his predecessor was losing badly. Kaiser Wilhelm threatened to destroy the British Empire by using its ally, the Ottoman Empire, to declare a ‘holy war of jihad’ by the Muslim World against the West. Germany almost succeeded. Lloyd George made sure this German strategy failed, thus maintaining the unity of the Empire in a time of great trouble.
David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill (centre)
When Lloyd George entered Number 10 Downing Street, Britain’s back was to the wall and the war was going badly on all fronts. Yet, within a year, Britain and her Dominion allies had shattered the previously impenetrable front in Egypt and victoriously entered the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem, with German and Turkish armies facing an inevitable defeat in Palestine and Syria. In the West, no significant territorial gains were made between August 1914 and December 1917. In the Middle East, General Allenby broke through the Sinai border with Palestine and entered Jerusalem in just six months, making significant territorial gains.
Had his predecessor, fellow Liberal Herbert Asquith, retained the premiership, Britain would by no means have won this final battle in Jerusalem and taken control of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, a victory that eventually proved to be the rock upon which victory in the Second World War was built. Lloyd George made the difference when he dictated that General Allenby must take Jerusalem “as a Christmas present for the British nation”. Like Churchill in the 1940s, Lloyd George saw his first major victories of the war in the Middle East, not Europe.
But there was something very special about Jerusalem to Lloyd George. He was the son of a Welsh Baptist schoolmaster. “I was taught more in school about the history of the Jews than about my own land”, he stated. The former Liberal social reformer transformed into an outstanding war minister, and under the influence of Lord Milner, became an ambitious imperialist. As one of Lloyd George’s aides observed, “Bible-reading and Bible-thinking England was the only country where the desire of the Jews to return to their ancient homeland” was a natural aspiration not to be denied.
I have watched History Channel documentaries that claimed the Balfour Declaration was a last minute gesture, designed to gain the support of Russian Jews for the war in the period between the two Russian Revolutions of 1917. This is complete nonsense. The British desire to restore Muslim-occupied Palestine as a Jewish nation goes back many centuries, as far back as the Protestant Reformation. Lloyd George’s own adventure with Zionism goes back to the period of Arthur Balfour’s administration over a decade before the Balfour Declaration, during which Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered Theodore Herzl the African colony of Uganda as a Jewish homeland, as an alternative to then Turkish-occupied Palestine. Lloyd George, then a Liberal backbencher, acted as legal counsel to Herzl.
Lloyd George, although a Welshman, was born in Manchester, and it was Manchester that became the British birthplace of the most successful Zionist movement in history. Chaim Weizmann was teaching chemistry at Manchester University when he formed the Manchester School of Zionism in offices on Manchester’s Cheetham Hill, then the home of the city’s fast growing Jewish community. Balfour was Member of Parliament for Manchester East when he met Chaim Weizmann during the General Election campaign of 1905 to discuss the reasons why the Zionist movement had rejected his government’s offer of Uganda. By the end of that meeting, the outgoing Prime Minister understood the significance of Jerusalem to the Jews and why Palestine was the only possible home for a Jewish nation. The Prime Minister’s conversion to Zionism at this meeting thus became the only political cause that he embraced with great passion.
It was the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of ‘jihad’ against Great Britain and France which made it possible for the British government to commit itself to the conquest of the Middle East and to pursue the policy of Zionism. At the close of 1914, the proprietor of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, C P Scott, embraced the Zionist cause after meeting Chaim Weizmann at an event in Manchester. This led to a lunch in London, where Scott introduced Weizmann to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, together with Home Secretary Sir Herbert Samuel. In early 1915, Samuel drew up a proposal for a Jewish colony in Palestine, which was dismissed cynically by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.
During the next two years, Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, proposed turning the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire into a British-controlled Muslim Caliphate with a suitable Arab candidate to act as Britain’s proxy ruler. This was done in order to keep Muslims in India from joining the Turkish jihad against the West. Kitchener’s Caliphate died with him during the war. The Hashemites of Mecca were recruited as Britain’s allies in the Muslim world against the Ottoman jihad. Thus, in 1916, an “Arab revolt” was guaranteed to make the British Empire the largest Muslim power in the world, and Muslims in India remained loyal to the Empire, despite the fact that Britain was at war with the Ottoman Caliphate. The Arab revolt remained a sideshow to the British conquest of the Middle East. The Hashemites always promised more than they could realistically deliver. Yet Colonel T E Lawrence managed to turn the relatively ineffective Arab fighting forces into a successful terrorist group, blowing up Turkish trains on the railway route between Damascus and Medina.
Sir Mark Sykes
Sir Mark Sykes became the architect of Britain’s policy in the Ottoman Empire. He was an aristocrat who had spent much of his youth traveling throughout Ottoman lands. But during the war, as junior minister on Kitchener’s staff in Cairo and also at the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office, Sykes turned against the Turks and embraced the causes of Arab and Armenian nationalism. On a trip to Russia, to negotiate what was to become the Sykes-Picot Agreement, this former anti-Semite became a convert to the cause of Zionism. Sykes-Picot was designed to divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between Britain, France and Russia, with Britain getting everything south of “a line in the sand” through the middle of the Arab territories, France getting Syria to the north, with a share of Palestine, and Russia getting the centre of Orthodox Christendom in the East, Constantinople, together with the Dardanelles. Sykes-Picot was later abandoned. The French lost their share of Palestine. Instead, the region was divided up into Arab nation states, not a new Caliphate. The French wanted control of Syria and Lebanon, which became new nation states. The British wanted Mesopotamia and Palestine, the Roman names for Iraq and Judea. The British carefully excluded the territories which made up Palestine from the lands promised to the Hashemite Arabs, led by King Husayn, Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hijaz.
Once Asquith was overthrown and Lloyd George entered Downing Street in December 1916, Sir Mark Sykes was delegated the task of designing Britain’s policy for the shaping of the post-Ottoman world in the Middle East. He negotiated with Chaim Weizmann the Zionist policy that led to the drafting of the Balfour Declaration in October 1917, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine. The British now made up for all the terrible crimes committed by the Crusaders against Jews in Jerusalem and Palestine during the time of Richard the Lionheart. It was as if the British Empire was brought into existence to fulfill God’s Biblical promise to restore Israel and bring the Jews back to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Sykes, however, had a practical reason for his new design for the Middle East. He wanted the Arabs to be loyal subjects of the new nation states instead of being influenced by the religious extremism which governed many of the Caliphates. And Sykes wanted Jews to show Arabs how to build a modern nation.
It was David Lloyd George who set in motion the Eastern Strategy which liberated Jews and Arabs from the four hundred year old Ottoman Caliphate. Without Lloyd George, the Zionists within the British government would not have achieved their war aims, to create a Jewish homeland, which would be central to Britain’s civilizing mission in the Middle East. In addition to Sir Mark Sykes, Sir Herbert Samuel and Arthur Balfour, Lloyd George called on the services of his Cabinet Secretary, Leo Amery, who wrote the Balfour Declaration and, after the war, Winston Churchill, who wrote the British Mandate of Palestine White Paper.
Without the brilliant military leadership of General Edmund Allenby, however, Britain was never going to get out of Egypt into Palestine and Syria. Twice in early 1917, General Archibald Murray, Allenby’s predecessor, tried but failed to invade Palestine through Gaza. Allenby decided upon a different strategy. He used Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen to plan a deception wherein Britain was going to attack Gaza a third time. Instead, with intelligence provided by a Jewish spy network run by Aaron Aaronsohn out of Palestine, Allenby realized that Beersheba was the best point at which to attack.
The Battle of Beersheba was a decisive victory for Britain against the Turks and Germans. What eleven crusades had been unable to achieve in the Middle Ages was accomplished by less than a thousand members of the Australian Light Horsemen at Beersheba, breaking through the enemy defences with an old-fashioned cavalry charge, perhaps the last and the greatest cavalry charge of the 20th Century. “God had used one of the smallest and youngest nations in the world to open the gateway to His chosen city – Jerusalem. They had achieved the impossible!” wrote Col Stringer, “For the first time in 400 years, the road to Jerusalem was open, the Muslim stranglehold on the Holy Land was at last broken.”
After victory in the third battle of Gaza on November 7th, Jaffa fell to British forces on November 16th. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade secured a left flank for the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and occupied Jaffa on November 16th. The Ottoman 7th Army retreated from Jaffa into the Judean Hills before the Turks had any time to regroup or construct defences. General Allenby decided to follow the retreating Ottoman Army, avoiding any direct fighting near Jerusalem. Instead, he cut off all road access to the city, hoping to force an Ottoman evacuation. On November 18th, British and Australian divisions entered the Judean Hills. The next day thunderstorms broke out, followed by a heavy downpour of rain, flooding the foothills and making roads almost impassable for heavy vehicles. Indian and Gurkha troops out-manoeuvered the rearguard Ottoman troops German commander General Erich Von Falkenhayn had established on the commanding ridges above Jerusalem.
2. Allenby in Jerusalem
Preparations for the assault on Jerusalem started on November 17th, with the Battle of Nebi Samwil, the place where Richard the Lionheart stopped in his retreat from Jerusalem over seven centuries before Allenby’s campaign. This was also the location of the Tomb of Samuel. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force attacked the Ottomans at Nebi Samwil using Gurkha troops between November 17th and 24th. A Turkish counter-attack on November 27th almost broke through the British lines, but Allenby’s troops prevailed. On December 1st, the Ottoman counter-attack on Nebi Samwil was finally repulsed, leading to heavy losses for the Ottoman 7th Army. Allenby now decided it was time to begin the assault on Jerusalem, as British troop reserves started to increase while the Ottoman armies continued to dwindle. As so with the battle for Gaza, Allenby decided to use deception to confuse the enemy. At the approach to Jerusalem, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force artillery employed a massive bombardment of the Turkish lines, capturing four miles of trenches in six hours. By December 8th, British troops had reached the suburbs of Jerusalem. A heavy fog hung over the city. General Allenby had surrounded the Ottoman and German forces outside Jerusalem from the Judean Hills.
British planes bombed the German headquarters in the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. Indeed, air battles continued to rage over the skies of Jerusalem for four days. British planes then bombed the Ottoman headquarters as refugees started to pour out of the city. Realising they had lost the city, the last German and Ottoman troops abandoned Jerusalem to the British. The Germans did not want to get the blame for destroying the Holy City, which to them had no strategic value. They would therefore continue to fight the war from their new headquarters in Nablus. On December 8th, the Turkish Governor finally abandoned Jerusalem and handed over a writ of surrender to the Mayor, Hussein al-Husseini, uncle of the infamous future Grand Mufti. The following day German forces finally abandoned Jerusalem. To add greater meaning to the impending end of seven centuries of Muslim rule over the Holy City, seven centuries since the fall of the last Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, this was also the first day of Hanukkah, the greatest celebration of national survival in the Jewish calendar.
The Mayor of Jerusalem, Hussein al-Husseini, tried seven times to surrender the city to several British officers before Allenby finally entered the city on December 11th, 1917. The city of Jerusalem that British forces liberated on that cold day suffered much under the wartime regime of Jemal Pasha, known as the “butcher of Palestine”. Jemal ruled the city from Damascus as a tyrant, suppressing not only Zionists but also Arabs. Gruesome public executions of minorities, suspected spies and dissidents were followed by deportations of Jews. Jemal arrested Zionist leaders and banned their symbols. “Had you no conspiratorial designs, you wouldn’t have come to live here in this desolate land among Arabs, who hate you,” declared Jemal Pasha to Zionist leaders, “We deem Zionists deserving of hanging. But I’m tired of hangings. Instead, we will disperse you around the Turkish state.” After Allenby captured Jaffa, Jemal Pasha went over the top, ordering the deportation of all Christian priests. This was followed by the dynamiting of several Christian buildings. He then announced that all Jerusalem’s Jews were to be deported, declaring that there would be no Jews left alive to meet the British. German officers were appalled by Jemal’s rabid antisemitism. Fortunately, General Kress Von Kresserstein, commander of the 8th Ottoman Army, intervened at the highest level to stop this happening.
“I entered the city at noon, 11 December, with a few of my staff, the commanders of the French and Italian detachments, the heads of the political missions, and the Military Attaches of France, Italy and America”, wrote Allenby in his official report, “The procession was all afoot, and at the Jaffa gate I was received by the guards representing England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, India, France and Italy. The population received me well”.
T E Lawrence was invited by General Allenby to take part in the formal entry of Jerusalem. He saw the significance of the liberation of Jerusalem within the context of world history. The people of Jerusalem welcomed the British as liberators from hundreds of years of tyranny under Ottoman rule. During the war Jemal Pasha had made life in the city almost intolerable for Jerusalemites of all religions. Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem was carefully planned by Sir Mark Sykes in London. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had offended many Jerusamelites twenty years earlier when he entered the city arrogantly on horseback. British officials were determined they were not going to make the same mistake as the Kaiser in 1917. General Allenby showed humility and respect to the three great religions of Jerusalem by entering the city on foot through the Jaffa Gate. Behind him walked General Bertie Clayton, the head of British Intelligence in Cairo, Francois Georges-Picot, co-author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and TE Lawrence, the uncrowned king of Arabia. Unaware that Lloyd-George had absolutely no intention of sharing Palestine with the French, as had been agreed in the Asia Minor Agreement, Picot announced to his British colleagues that he intended to take steps to set up the civil administration of the city. There was silence. Allenby was not happy. He then made it clear who was actually in charge to the French diplomat, “In the military zone the only authority is that of the Commander-in-Chief, myself.”
General Allenby went first to the Citadel of David, just around the corner from the Jaffa Gate, to read the proclamation “Jerusalem the Blessed”:
“To the Inhabitants of Jerusalem the Blessed and the People Dwelling in Its Vicinity:
“The defeat inflicted upon the Turks by the troops under my command has resulted in the occupation of your city by my forces. I, therefore, here now proclaim it to be under martial law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make necessary.
“However, lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption.
“Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devoted people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred,
“Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive Moslem control.
“The hereditary custodians at the gates of the Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar, who protected that church.”
This was read by Allenby not as conqueror but as liberator. For Lawrence, his appointment in the ceremony at the Jaffa Gate was “the supreme moment of the war, the one which for historical reasons made a greater appeal than anything on earth”. General Allenby then accepted the keys to the city of Jerusalem from Mayor Husseini, together with the writ of surrender from Izzat, the Ottoman Governor who had fled Jerusalem three days earlier. There were rumours that Allenby then remarked to Husseini, ‘Well, that ends the Crusades.” The Arab surrender party left in a hurry, seemingly upset by something. “We thought we were witnessing the triumph of the last crusade”, wrote Bertha Spafford of the American Colony, “A Christian nation had conquered Palestine.”
The battle for Palestine was not over, however. Allenby, perhaps too cautiously, waited until the summer of 1918 to resume the campaign, finally smashing the 60-mile Ottoman-German line north of Jerusalem at the Battle of Megiddo. The capture of Damascus followed in October and four hundred years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East ended. The Crusades were now well and truly over. Britain defeated the last Caliphate, liberated Jerusalem and got its revenge for the defeat of Richard the First by Saladin seven hundred years earlier. Both the Ottomans and Germans signed armistice agreements with Britain and France in October and November 1918. Russia had already dropped out of the war a year earlier, after the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to decades of Communism in nations across the globe and killed over a hundred million people. After the war’s end, traditional rivalries between Britain and France for the spoils of victory resumed in the Middle East. Sykes-Picot was abandoned in favour of the Mandate system set up after the San Remo Conference and Treaty of Sevres in 1920.
Sir Mark Sykes died at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Winston Churchill finished his job after the San Remo Conference of 1920. Britain created five new Mandated territories out of their Ottoman possessions, including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Palestine was divided into Jewish Western Palestine, which became the British Mandate, and Arab Eastern Palestine, which became the semi-autonomous Emirate of Trans-Jordan. Saudi Arabia and Turkey also arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, totally independent from Great Britain. Within Palestine, the Jewish Agency started to build their nation under British rule. The Arab leadership, unfortunately, did not want to co-exist within a Jewish homeland, and they fell under the influence of extremist anti-Jewish leaders who would not compromise with the Jewish Agency and the British. This led to a Nazi German-sponsored Arab revolt which was brutally suppressed by Britain.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the Yishuv, while supporting the Britain’s war against Nazi Germany, started to prepare for independence from British rule, whereas the Palestinian Arab leaders allied themselves with Nazi Germany. The Third Reich, after murdering seven million Jews in Europe, lost the war. The Arabs prepared to wipe out the Jews of Palestine after the war. The Palestine Jews, replenished with refugees from the German death camps, started a political campaign for independence from Great Britain. The Arabs lost the subsequent War of Independence when the Yishuv became an independent nation in 1948, three years after the death of David Lloyd George, without whom the State of Israel would not exist today.
In retrospect, General Allenby’s conquest of Palestine and Syria against the combined forces of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Reich was the most successful British military campaign of the First World War. It was also the most significant campaign too. For Allenby laid down the building blocks for Britain’s survival and ultimate victory in the Second World War. Without control of the Middle East, acquired under the leadership of David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill’s government would have lost the Second World War. By controlling the Middle East, Britain was a world power, whereas Germany was only a European power.
The British Empire reached its greatest land mass with the acquisition of the Ottoman Empire. General Allenby’s Palestine campaign was the last great conquest in the history of the Empire. David Lloyd George, Britain’s greatest liberal statesman, became the nation’s greatest imperialist. For he captured Jerusalem, the most significant city in the world, the jewel in the spiritual crown. Lloyd George succeeded where England’s King Richard the First failed. December 11, 1917 was the greatest day in English history.