On the coattails of history

Viscount Allenby retraces his ancestor’s victorious entry to Jerusalem a century ago.

 Viscount Henry Allenby reading the Allenby proclamation of martial rule (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Viscount Henry Allenby reading the Allenby proclamation of martial rule
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ON DECEMBER 11, 2017, Viscount Henry J.H. Allenby of Megiddo and Felixtowe, stood on a balcony inside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and read out the proclamation of martial law made by his great-great-uncle, General Edmund Allenby, in the same spot after he entered by foot with his officers to take control of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks exactly a century before. It was part of a festive reenactment of the historic event staged by the Tower of David Museum and attended by thousands of visitors, who were welcomed by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Also on the balcony were the Viscount’s mother, Sara Viscountess Allenby (the wife of the third Viscount), as well as Christina and John Benson, the great-great grandson of Maj.-Gen. John Shea, the officer commanding the 60th Division in Palestine who reportedly received the keys of the city from the mayor, Hussein al-Husseini, in a gesture symbolic of the Ottoman surrender to the British Army.
If Lt. Horace Michael Allenby, the son of General Allenby, had not been mortally wounded in battle in July 1917 at the age of 19, someone other than Henry, the 4th Viscount Allenby, might have come from England to Jerusalem to celebrate the British conquest of Jerusalem signifying the end of 400 years of Turkish rule.
Then again, Henry is the general’s greatgreat- nephew, and anyone so closely related to someone who has left an indelible imprint on the destiny of a country is hanging on to the coattails of history.
Viscount Allenby’s title is inherited, but not directly, and he was quite candid about the fact that he would not have it but for the unfortunate fate of “the field marshall’s only son.”
Israeli historians refer to Edmund Allenby as “the general,” which was the rank he held when he walked into the Old City of Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, but the Viscount – who was visiting Israel for the first time – referred to him as “the field marshall.”
In his original proclamation 100 years ago, Allenby recognized the importance and uniqueness of Jerusalem, and urged the city’s residents to enjoy freedom of worship, religion and tradition under the patronage of the new British government.
Barkat paid tribute to the general. “Allenby was a great military man as well as a distinguished thinker who understood the city of Jerusalem and its role in the world and that the city has unique properties as a uniting force for the entire world open and open to all peoples,” he said.
There is a great passion here in Israel for what happened,” Viscount Allenby said. “I am so glad I got to come here to absorb it all,”
“The warmth of our welcome here has been very moving, and it is humbling to be here and be part of it,” said Benson. “This is part of our family and we are enormously proud to play a part in the history of this wonderful city.”
IN RECENT months there have been lectures, seminars, reviews and exhibitions related to events that took place in Gaza, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Tzemach, Megiddo and of course London a 100 years ago and the commemorative merry-go-round is still spinning and will continue in 1918 with celebrations and commemorations of the centennial of Armistice Day on November 11, which marked the end of World War I.
In addition, Jews around the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, while yet another anniversary for Israelis will be the jubilee of Israel Television as it was known before it became Channel 1, and more recently Kan 11.
The three latter events are indeed related – but they are also related to the Balfour Declaration and Allenby’s conquest of Jerusalem.
It was long believed that Jews confined to official and unofficial ghettoes in so many countries were unable to fight. But Jews had been fighting in European, American, South African and Australian armies, and in most cases, they did so long before World Wars I and II.
The Jewish Legion fought with the British against the Turks in World War I; and members of the Jewish Brigade comprising Jewish soldiers from British Mandate Palestine, fought with the British against the Nazis during World War II.
Without the Balfour Declaration, it would have arguably taken a lot longer than three years after the Holocaust to proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state; and without the knowledge of the large number of Jews fighting in the allied armies, perhaps the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and of other ghettoes in Europe, especially Poland, might not have been as courageous as they were. A considerable number of the ghetto fighters who survived, as well as those who came out of the camps, subsequently fought in Israel’s War of Independence and on the 20th anniversary of the Proclamation of Independence, Israel Television launched its initial broadcast, which was primarily coverage of the Independence Day Parade.
The centennial anniversary focus in Israel in recent months has been on Balfour and Allenby – both separately and in the same breath.
To be honest, if a casual street survey had been conducted amongst Israelis a year ago, and they’d been asked about Balfour and Allenby, they would have said that they were intersecting streets in Tel Aviv. Pressed a little further, they might also recall that Balfour also intersects with Rothschild Boulevard.
It should be remembered that British Foreign Secretary James Balfour sent a letter (later known as the Balfour Declaration) to Lord Walter Rothschild, a British Zionist leader, after Australian and New Zealand troops under the leadership of Allenby won the Battle of Beersheba.
At an exhibition titled “Where Balfour Meets Allenby” that is currently on view at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, Prof. Shlomo Avineri – an internationally acclaimed political scientist and former director-general of Israel’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs – noted that it had been a private letter that was written on plain paper and not on Balfour’s official letterhead (although the words “Foreign Office” have been typed above the date.)
Although there are quite a lot of original documents in this exhibition, Belfour’s letter isn’t one of them
The British Library refused to release the original, said Dr. Gil Weissblei, a co-curator of the exhibition. One of the reasons for the refusal was that on the evening of November 2, the 100th anniversary of the date on which the letter was conveyed to Lord Rothschild, the original was displayed at Lancaster House, where Prime Minister Theresa May was hosting a special Balfour Day event attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Jerusalem, Avineri referred to the Balfour Declaration as “a private letter sent by the British foreign secretary to a Jewish magnate.”
Britain at the time, both Avineri and Weissblei said, did not have the authority to make decisions pertaining to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. “The British Government made lots of promises during the war,” said Avineri. “Most were just pieces of paper. The Balfour Declaration was more than a piece of paper because of Jewish and international developments. On November 2, the British did not yet control Palestine, but at the beginning of the 19th century, if you conquered an area, you owned it.”
Even though he had no mandate from the Zionist commission, Avineri continued, Chaim Weizmann – who later became Israel’s first president – was able to convince the British Government to come to Palestine, and the British immediately started to behave as if they ruled the country.
In a sense they did. The Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916 led to the division and colonization of the Middle East. The territorial borders were determined at the San Remo conference in 1920. The League of Nations distributed these territories to the French, the British and the Italians with the aim of moving them towards independence. The wording of the Balfour Declaration was included in the reference to Palestine, said Avineri who clarified that it was not the Balfour Declaration as such that gave legitimacy to a Jewish State. “It was the League of Nations.”
The ensuing historic stepping stones were then the United Nations November 29, 1947 Resolution on the Partition of Palestine followed by the Declaration of the State of Israel in May, 1948. There are several similarities between the exhibition at the National Library and that at the Tower of David Museum, not the least of which are photographs taken by soldiers, who had been permitted to take their personal cameras in their kit bags.
Anyone old enough to remember small black-and-white photographs which were the size of two large postage stamps will experience a sense of nostalgia, even if they’re not a hundred years old.
Both exhibitions also have videos of Allenby’s entrance to Jerusalem, which for any student of the city’s history is a moving experience.
But the exhibition at the Tower of David has a greater sense of authenticity, because this was the place from which Allenby had assured all the residents of the old city that they would be free to practice their faiths and pursue their professions. The exhibition also includes genuine relics from the First World War, among them a beautifully crafted beaded belt made by a Turkish prisoner in return for four cigarettes.
Throughout the exhibition, there is the constant playing of Sir Hubert Parry’s stirring composition to William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” which is one of Britain’s most beloved hymns, the centenary of which was celebrated in 2016.
This exhibition, by its very nature, is more comprehensive than that of the National Library, although the two obviously complement each other, and both should be seen by anyone interested in the era which they represent.
The opening of the Tower of David exhibition was enhanced by a street party and the reliving of Allenby’s arrival and proclamation in Jerusalem’s Old City.
What was amazing was that the tensions generated by the announcement by US President Donald Trump of America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel bolstered by the promise that the American Embassy will be transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, albeit not immediately, did not in any way interfere with the huge festive happening that brought thousands of people including tourists to the cobble-stoned paths of the Old City.
They congregated first in the plaza leading to Jaffa Gate, and then as actors dressed in the diverse modes of attire of the early 20th century mingled in the crowd to the sound a of a brass band playing popular British songs sung during World War I, people took selfies of themselves with pseudo- characters such as Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia and then-Jerusalem mayor al-Husseini.
One of the tourists – Lorraine Harvey, who came from the Blue Mountains in Australia’s state of New South Wales – was waving a large silk flag, with prints of smaller flags of the countries whose soldiers had accompanied Allenby to Jerusalem plus, on the left-hand side of the flag, a man in a prayer shawl blowing a shofar. Harvey, who was with her friend Maureen McVicker, had the choice of coming to Israel for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba at the end of October or the 100th anniversary of Allenby’s entry to Jerusalem in December.
Everyone in Australia was making a fuss over the Battle of Beersheba, she said, but no one was talking about Allenby’s entry to Jerusalem, which she personally regards as more important (even though Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten along with other political figures were at the Beersheba centenary).
“I couldn’t come twice in such a short period,” explained Harvey, so she chose Jerusalem for which she has been praying and coming regularly for nearly 20 years. Both women described themselves as Christians who love Jerusalem, but not Evangelists.
SYMBOLICALLY, THE reenactment ceremony took place on a balcony of the ancient citadel directly facing Christ Church Guest House. It was the very balcony on which Allenby had stood, and from where the present Viscount Allenby read out the most pertinent section of the proclamation.
According to the Jewish calendar, it had been the first day of Hanukka when Allenby entered Jerusalem, and therefore a 100 years later, it was appropriate for a Hanukka party to be held in honor of the present Viscount Allenby and his mother to be hosted at the residence of the British Ambassador.
Roderick. the present Earl of Balfour, was brought to Israel for a pre-Balfour Day symposium in September, and the present Viscount Allenby and his mother together with Benson were flown to Israel for the centenary of the Turkish surrender of Jerusalem.
Sadly, Lord David Samuel, the only Israeli in the House of Lords who was the Jerusalem- born grandson of Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner of Palestine, died in 2014 at age 92. He would have thoroughly enjoyed the event. He was also one of the few people who knew almost everyone who was anyone in the pre-State Zionist movement, as well as in the British political hierarchy, and who was a personality in his own right.
Quite a number of British peers have visited Israel, but the Queen of England has never set foot in the country.
Her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, came for a Yad Vashem ceremony honoring his mother as a “Righteous among the Nations,” and to visit her grave, and Prince Charles has visited twice, first for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, and more recently for the funeral of Shimon Peres. While in Jerusalem, the prince also took the opportunity to visit his grandmother’s grave.
The only immediate member of the royal family to visit for any other reason was Prince Edward, who in September, 2007 came on what was described as a working trip for the Israel Youth Awards. The program, which was initiated by his father, has been taken up by more than 100 countries.
President Reuven Rivlin has invited Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson, Prince Harry, and his bride-to-be, actress Meghan Markle, to spend their honeymoon in Israel. As the wedding is scheduled for May 19, which is very close to the Gregorian calendar date of the State of Israel’s 70th birthday (May 14), a honeymoon in Israel could come under the rubric of the 70th anniversary of Britain’s fulfillment of its mandate. That would be a right royal celebration!