Towering officer

‘A General and a Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem.'

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, Sara Viscountess Allenby, Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, John and Christina BensonA report on the historic entry of Field Marshall Edmund Allenby to Jerusalem on December 11, 1917 (photo credit: MATSON PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, Sara Viscountess Allenby, Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, John and Christina BensonA report on the historic entry of Field Marshall Edmund Allenby to Jerusalem on December 11, 1917
2017 WAS a year of commemorating historic dates: 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem, 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, and on December 9, 2017, 100 years since the Ottoman mayor of Jerusalem surrendered to the British. The hero of this story, General Edmund Allenby, who entered the city on December 11, 1917, became a symbol of “the noble British Empire and its enlightened rule in the Holy Land.”
In a special edition marking the first anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem on December 6, 1918, the Palestine News reported: “And the conqueror of Jerusalem, holy to all nations of the world and all the regions, he is the hero of the hour, about whom legends shall be woven: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. And his memory shall remain blessed, especially in the annals of those to whom he said: I and the armies under my command are proud of the fact that it fell to us to liberate your country from tyranny.”
The Jews viewed Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem as the next step in fulfilling the vision of the Balfour Declaration, which had been issued only five weeks previous. Lord Balfour and General Allenby were declared national heroes to Jewish communities throughout the world: Balfour, for heralding the British Empire’s recognition of the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland, and Allenby, for enabling the Balfour Declaration to become a possibility. Both entered the Zionist pantheon and were acknowledged with honors, formal receptions, and tributes. Among Jews Allenby was seen as a modern Judah Maccabee and by the Christian world as a modern Crusader, establishing him as an English Christian national hero. For the Muslim population, General Allenby quickly became known as Al-Nabi “the prophet,” as they too heaped praises on the new ruler and victor of the battle. “It is quite surprising to find in newspapers of the time the same sentences voiced by people who were so different from each other,” says Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, who recently opened the exhibition “A General and A Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem” that tracks the dramatic events that unfolded in just one week, a week that marked the beginning of a new and fascinating era in the history of Jerusalem.
Among Jews and Christians, Allenby’s arrival in Jerusalem was associated with distinctly religious and national symbols. Jerusalem was captured on the 9th of December, the 24th of Kislev, the first day of Hanukka and two weeks before Christmas 1917. Church bells throughout Europe rang out in thanksgiving and special prayers were held in synagogues. “The Jews interpreted the event as a Hanukka miracle,” says Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, curator of the exhibition. “This was the beginning of the fulfillment of a promise of revival and sovereignty as in the days of the Hasmoneans; the Christian world regarded it as a Christmas present – the return of Christian rule for the first time since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.”
The city markets were flooded with souvenirs for the “war pilgrims” – soldiers and those who followed in their wake: journalists, diplomats, government officials, and tourists. Shrewd craftsmen and artisans were quick to produce illustrated and photographic albums, now including sites that traced the route of the British army in addition to the traditional depictions of the holy sites and dried flowers. Students of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts literally ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by embellishing used shell cases with motifs commemorating the British conquest of the city and producing decorative Hannuka menorahs equating the British with the Maccabees.
On his recent visit to Israel in December 2017, to mark the centenary of General Allenby’s entrance to Jerusalem, the 4th Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe said his great-great-uncle Allenby, the public figure, was a fiery personality known as “the Bull,” and yet when reading his letters that he wrote to his mother during the historic weekend of December 8-10, caring characteristics of a nature lover come to the forefront. On his way up to Jerusalem on December 8, General Allenby writes:
“I found daisies in flower, and a sort of purple anemone, beside the little white and pink crocuses. Lower down, at Artuf, on the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway, I found a clump of pink cyclamen in flower. The other day, near the coast – South of Jaffa – I came across white narcissus with yellow eye, very sweet smelling. It grows beside a bog, along the sand dunes, and there were snipe in the bog, through which ran a clear stream of water.”
GENERAL ALLENBY was a deeply religious man who was well-versed in his Bible. His genuine respect and reverence for Jerusalem is clear from his letter to his mother dated December 11, 1917.
“Today, I entered Jerusalem. I rode to the Jaffa Gate. There I dismounted. Then, accompanied by the Commander of the French and Italian contingents, I entered Jerusalem on foot. Guards were provided from all the troops – British, Australian, New Zealand, French and Italian. On the steps of the Citadel a proclamation was read out, in many languages, to the assembled multitude. Then I received the Notables and the Representatives of all the many Churches – Coptic, Armenian, Abyssinian, among the others. Afterwards, we reformed our procession, and withdrew from the city.
“I have a Military Governor there, and I have guards on all the Holy Places – Moslem guards on the Mosques, and Christian guards on the other places –. The populace was apparently glad to see us. The day was beautiful.”
“Whether the orders came from London or he was acting on his own initiative is irrelevant,” says Lieber. “Allenby entered Jerusalem modestly and on foot, like any ordinary person. In recognition of the city’s fame, its complex human fabric, and its uniqueness, the proclamation of military rule was worded with careful responsibility. He addressed the residents of the city not only in English, the language of the occupying force, but in seven different languages to ensure that they were understood.” This was the first official international ceremony at which Hebrew was heard. The words themselves were prepared and chosen with the utmost care and sensitivity:
“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 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.”
As General Allenby led his troops into Jerusalem at a time when pictures, diaries, records and even films were becoming a norm, we have a very full picture of this fascinating general, a man of his time, who was then elevated to near mythical status. In looking at the exhibits 100 years after the events, it is clear that that the real Allenby was as incredible as the myths that arose around him.
The exhibition, “A General and a Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,” will run through September 2018 at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.