General Edmund H.H. Allenby’s road to fame essentially began with two failed attempts by the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally during World War I, to dislodge the British from the Suez Canal. A determined British military went on the offensive and, after crossing the Sinai, stood at the southern border of Eretz Yisrael facing Turkish forces holding the line from Gaza to Beersheba.
Despite the use of advanced weaponry by the British, the Turks turned them back. In June 1917, Allenby (1861 – 1936) was sent to Cairo as commander of British forces in Egypt and Eretz Yisrael with orders from new British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to “capture Jerusalem by Christmas.”
Allenby was severely limited in his efforts against the Turks because many of his troops were sent as reinforcements to the western front in response to the great German offensive in France. After two failed battles, however, he received critical assistance from NILI, an underground intelligence network established by Jewish agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, which had assumed monumental risks to transmit crucial intelligence to British military authorities.
When Aaronsohn was finally granted an audience with Allenby in Cairo, he presented his plan: through a clever ruse, the general would deceive the Turks into thinking that British forces would attempt yet another frontal attack on Gaza – but instead they would launch an all-out assault on Beersheba.
The general went on to attack and capture Beersheba, force the Turks to retreat from Gaza, capture Jaffa, roll into the Judean Hills, and overcome determined Ottoman resistance to capture Jerusalem. He later credited Aaronsohn as “the mastermind of the Palestine campaign.”
Allenby entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, the first day of Chanukah. In a gesture of great respect – and in deliberate contrast to the arrogance of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, during a trip to Eretz Yisrael almost 20 years earlier (1898), had insisted on entering the Old City sitting proudly astride a white horse – Allenby famously dismounted from his steed and modestly entered Jerusalem through Jaffa Gate on foot.
Shown here is a one-of-a-kind item, perhaps the only existing signed version of the iconic photograph of Allenby’s historic entry into Jerusalem. He has written at the bottom: “Field Marshall Allenby, Entry into Jerusalem, London, Decem. 11th 1917.” The verso (not shown) bears the original ink stamp of the “Imperial War Museum, Photographic Section Crystal Palace, London.”
When Allenby was first assigned to the Middle East, a fellow general showed him The Jew and the Passion for Israel (circa 1880) by George Brooks, which was widely read in Britain. Brooks predicted that Jerusalem would be liberated in 1917, an idea that intrigued Allenby, who began to view his own role in Eretz Yisrael in prophetic terms.
Many British leaders, both political and military, were raised with a broad education in the Bible, including its prophecies, and Allenby, a student of the Bible who read it daily during his Eretz Yisrael campaign, understood the moral magnitude of Jerusalem’s capture was greater than its military importance. As such, when he declared martial law in Jerusalem, he proclaimed:
Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired [i.e., the Ottoman Turks], 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 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…
Shown here is the official card issued by the British military in 1917 depicting the public reading of Allenby’s proclamation at Migdal David to the people of Jerusalem.
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The Jews of Eretz Yisrael had suffered terribly under the despotic rule of Kemal Pasha. The Turks hanged Jews on the walls of Jerusalem and violated their corpses; expelled many Yishuv leaders, including David Ben-Gurion; and starved hundreds of Jews to death in Jerusalem. Upon entering the city, Allenby is reported to have said, “Only now have the Crusades ended.”
Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why Allenby was viewed by Jews as a liberator and hero; indeed, he was beloved by the Jews, many of whom believed that his victory marked the beginning of the Messianic Age after four bitter centuries of Ottoman rule.
One of Allenby’s first acts upon entering Jerusalem was to ensure the safe return of Torah scrolls the Jewish community had transferred from various synagogues to Jaffa in order to prevent their falling into Turkish hands.
On May 24, 1918, garland-decorated horses harnessed to carriages adorned with flowers and carrying the sifrei Torah were accompanied by a throng of singing and dancing Jews, who escorted the sacred scrolls through the streets of Jerusalem back to their synagogues. They halted before Allenby, who presided over an emotional ceremony marking the formal return of the scrolls.
Shown here is an official card depicting Jerusalem’s grateful Jews at the ceremony during which Chaim Weizmann, as head of the Jewish Administrative Commission, presented Allenby with a copy of a scroll in a silver case attractively ornamented by artists from the Bezalel School in Jerusalem.
Several historic cards were issued in honor of Allenby’s liberation of Jerusalem. Shown here is one particularly beautiful example, a “souvenir of the occupation of Palestine by British troops Dec. 9th, 1917” that depicts the site of the Har Habayit (with the Mosque of Omar) with the Hebrew inscription “The Holy City, Jerusalem.”
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As Allenby himself later noted, the Jewish welcome was of limited duration: “[The citizens of Jerusalem were] at first welcoming because they were glad the Ottomans were gone and they wanted a good relationship with the British. [But they were] also cautious as they did not want the British to stay.”
With a notoriously pro-Arab and anti-Zionist British military government administering Eretz Yisrael from 1918-1920, Allenby thereafter became, at best, noncommittal toward Zionist aspirations, and he expressed great doubt about the wisdom of British policy regarding a Jewish National Home.
In fact, notwithstanding his sensitivity about Jerusalem and the return of the Torah scrolls, Allenby’s outward sympathy for the Jews was likely more a manifestation of his keen statesmanship – which he carefully designed to facilitate the effective management of the diverse religious and political groups in Eretz Yisrael now subject to his authority – than a reflection of genuine affection. Indeed, Allenby’s General Headquarters were rife with overt anti-Semitism, including the disparagement and oppression of members of the Jewish Legion.
As the commander of the Legion, Lt.-Colonel John Henry Patterson, described (1919):
Certain areas were placed out of bounds to “Jewish soldiers” but not to men in other battalions. Jewish soldiers were so molested by the military police that the only way they could enjoy a peaceful walk outside camp limits was by removing their Fusilier badges and substituting others which they kept conveniently in their pockets for the purpose. They found that by adopting this method they were never interfered with by the Military Police.
General Headquarters issued orders to harass and demoralize Jewish Legionnaires. As Shmuel Katz writes in Lone Wolf: A Biography of Jabotinsky:
Anti-Semitic behavior filtered down from the heights of G.H.Q. into the rank and file.… Patterson records the case of a British officer who, after spending a year at G.H.Q., was seconded to his staff in the Thirty-eighth. There he made insulting remarks to a Jewish officer. When he was forced by the brigadier to apologize to his victim he burst out: ‘I don’t like Jews. The Jews are not liked at G.H.Q. and you know it, sir.’…
Allenby – contrary to the widespread view – knew of the charges [of anti-Semitism], which were specific. His failure to investigate them compels the conclusion that he was not appalled at the idea of anti-Semitism in his administration and under his army command. This implication is considerably strengthened by his reaction to Jabotinsky’s letter [concerning anti-Semitic acts by the administration]. That letter was couched in language that could leave no doubt as to the severity of the charge and the strong feelings of those who voiced it. He then simply used his military authority to ignore the accusation – and to punish the accuser.
Allenby’s anti-Semitic behavior was directed at the very fighters whom the British Army had trained to fight the Ottomans, the 38th, 39th and 40th Battalions of The Royal Fusiliers, the same soldiers who had provided exceptional service in the fight against the Ottomans. His antipathy to Jewish soldiers was particularly reprehensible given that his conquest of Jerusalem was facilitated by NILI and Aaronson – and not only did several Jews, including Aaronsohn’s sister, Sarah, sacrifice their lives to help the British, their efforts also saved an estimated 40,000 British lives.
Later, when Jabotinsky and his Jewish followers were blamed for the violence arising out of their defense of their fellow Jews against Arab rioters and were convicted by a kangaroo British court, Allenby upheld the charges and concealed British perfidy in the matter.
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Allenby went on to serve as high commissioner in Egypt (1919 – 1925), and his transition from anti-Semite and non-Zionist, due primarily to the influence of Chaim Weizmann, is actually a fascinating story in itself.
Under Weizmann’s persuasion, Allenby’s attitude toward Zionism and the Jews changed to the point that when he visited the United States in 1928, he was hailed by the Jews as a great friend and was honored at a dinner by the Zionist Organization of America. In opening the reception, Herman Bernstein, ZOA Chairman for Political Affairs said:
To the Jews of the world and especially to the Zionists working for the rebuilding of the Holy Land, General Allenby has endeared himself for all time. The names of Lord Balfour and Lord Allenby are recorded in golden letters in the history of the Jewish people, the veteran of history, whose dream and hope of centuries were realized through Great Britain’s act of historic justice, as expressed through the Balfour Declaration and made possible through the genius and heroism of Field Marshall Allenby.
In his own address, Allenby, apparently repenting for his mistreatment of the Jews under his command, commented that:
I had the honor of commanding several Jewish battalions, and I also had, before these Jewish battalions were raised, many Jewish soldiers under my command. Judah Maccabeus could not have fought better than they did. Their courage and patriotism to the cause for which they fought was distinguished; they realized it was not only the cause of Judaism but of humanity.
Shown here is a stamp issued by the Israeli Postal Service honoring the centenary of Allenby’s liberation of Jerusalem. Against a background of the famous photo of the general entering Jerusalem (the first picture shown above), it illustrates the two British sergeants who met at the entrance to Jerusalem with Mayor Hussein al-Husseini and his delegation waving white flags of surrender.
Allenby’s lasting legacy is that notwithstanding all of Britain’s grandiose plans for the Mideast, not the least of which was the Balfour Declaration, all would have come to naught – and a state of Israel could not have arisen – had the Ottoman Empire retained hegemony.
Thus, for Jews, the names Allenby and Balfour will always be linked: one for liberating Eretz Yisrael and the other for facilitating the creation of a Jewish homeland.