In the winter of 1917, the area around Jerusalem was a series of battlefields. The Holy City was held by the Ottomans, its mixture of Turkish and German troops under the somewhat improbable command of General Erich von Falkenhayn, who had been chief of staff of the German Army until his dismissal after Verdun. He had now found himself far to the south of the mud and slaughter of the Western Front, propping up his Turkish allies in the dusty plains of Palestine.
The Ottoman Empire was collapsing. The Arab Revolt, which had begun in 1916, had fatally undermined the southern flank and Aqaba, the only remaining Ottoman port on the Red Sea, fell to Hashemite forces directed by TE Lawrence in July 2017. Though it may not have seemed it to Allies wearied by three years of war, the end was now in sight, at least in the East.
The British commander in Palestine was General Sir Edmund Allenby, a 56-year-old cavalry officer who had seen service in South Africa and on the Western Front. 6’2” tall and powerfully built, he was nicknamed “the Bull” and his subordinates believed the only emotion he could express was volcanic rage. But Allenby had enjoyed a successful run since his appointment to Palestine in the summer of 1917, moving from Cairo to Rafah and onwards to Gaza and Beersheba in short order. Privately, he was consumed by grief: his only son Michael had been killed in action on the Western Front in July.
In his campaign against the Ottomans, Allenby had proved both pioneering and creative: his use of air power and his careful management of vulnerable supply lines laid down lessons for future campaigns and wars. But the objective was clear: Jerusalem, the Holy City. It had been under Ottoman control for 400 years, when Turkish forces had driven out the Mamluks. No Christian had governed the city since the Tatar sack of 1244. Allenby knew how important the prize in front of him was. It would be another terrible blow for the Ottoman Empire, but in propaganda terms it was worth far, far more than that.
Unlike previous changes of control in years past, there was no apocalyptic battle for Jerusalem in 1917. The Ottoman forces had suffered heavy losses in the last weeks of November, and over the first days of December, they fell back again and again as Allenby’s units moved forwards. Fighting in the Judaean Hills had ceased by 3 December, and by 8 December the Turks were no longer defending the Holy City.
The formal surrender was left in the hands of Hussein Salim al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem, a progressive leader from a prominent Arab family. After a pair of sergeants from the London Regiment refused to accept the surrender, al-Husseini eventually delivered it to Brigadier General C.F. Watson, commander of the 180th Brigade. Although there were still Ottoman troops on the Mount of Olives, the city lay open, and would not be controlled by Arabs again.
The text of the Ottoman surrender implored Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force not to use force on the city, for fear of damaging the holy sites of the three Abrahamic faiths. It expressed a hope that “you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years”.
General Allenby entered the city formally on 11 December, two days after the surrender. It was a carefully choreographed episode, redolent in imagery and designed with surprising nuance and sensitivity. It was the third day of Hanukkah, a miraculous festival for the city’s Jewish population. Allenby had been instructed by the prime minister, David Lloyd George, to deliver Jerusalem as a “Christmas present” for the Allies.
Allenby rode up to the Jaffa Gate in the west of the city walls. Already there was great symbolism. Daniel 12:12 predicted that there would be blessings for Jerusalem after 1335 days. An abstract figure, perhaps: except that 1917 in the Islamic calendar was the year 1335. More than that, the Islamic year ended on 8 December. 1335 was up. The interpretation was obvious.
There was more. In 1898, the German emperor, Wilhelm II, had visited Jerusalem. He had been set on riding into the city, because, it was said, a local prophecy foretold that Jerusalem would be seized by a ruler on a white horse entering the Jaffa Gate. Rather than allow such an incendiary scene, the authorities had made a breach in the city walls just by the gate, by which the kaiser might enter.
Allenby knew this. And he understood the symbolism. Accordingly, he arrived at the Jaffa Gate on horseback, then dismounted, and walked into Jerusalem on foot with his officers. He had come not as a conqueror but as a liberator, and believed only the Messiah would ride into the city; he conducted himself with conspicuous humility. Once he had come through the gate, he stopped at the Tower of David, and an official proclamation was read out, announcing the imposition of martial law, but with several caveats.
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 devout 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.
It was a deeply conciliatory text, designed to reassure a population which had seen Jerusalem itself fall without a shot being fired. It was printed in seven languages, including Hebrew. It was the first official use of Hebrew in the city since it had fallen to the Romans in 70 AD.
There was one more thing. In Arabic, General Allenby was called “Al-Nabi”. The phrase means “the prophet of God”.
It was a public relations masterstroke. The Jews, celebrating Hanukkah, heard their language spoken by the new masters of the city, and saw signs of the fulfilment of biblical prophecies. The Arabs, seeing their Ottoman overlords vanquished, saw the feat carried out by the “prophet of God”. And every community was included in Allenby’s pacific proclamation, each in its own tongue.
Sir Edmund Allenby, “the Bull”, was an unlikely peacemaker. Yet he staged the first capture of Jerusalem in half a millennium with extraordinary sensitivity and tact. His successors in ruling what shortly became the Mandate of Palestine would not always be so careful.