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Turks Surrender Jerusalem to the British

(December 9, 1917)

The Palestine theater of war (there was another battle zone in the Middle East – the war in Mesopotamia/Iraq in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats – the siege of Kut el-Amara) was secondary to the European war (especially the western front, but also the eastern front) but on the other hand, it was a more dynamic and fast going war, unlike the static and indecisive war on the western front.

Turkey entered the war on November 2, 1914, after concluding a secret pact with Germany. The war in the Middle East started at the end of that month, when a British force, sent from India, landed in Basra and conquered it. On February 1915, a Turkish force (under German command) attacked the British-controlled Suez Canal - and was repulsed. The British decided that the best way to defend the Strategic Canal was by capturing the Sinai Peninsula and advancing on Palestine. On January 1917, the British took Rafah and on March and April tried to capture Gaza (the gate to the land of Israel since ancient times) and failed.

After the failure in the second battle of Gaza (in which the British used gas and tanks), the British commander, General Archibald Murray was recalled and replaced with General Edmond Allenby. Allenby, a veteran cavalry officer, had commanded the 3rd British army on the western front and commanded the Arras offensive in France in the spring of 1917. Although the initial stages of the attack were successful (relatively for the western front), the battle soon deteriorated into regular static trench warfare. Allenby was removed from his command and was returned to Britain.

Allenby received the command of the Palestine front in the summer of 1917 and started preparing  for another attack on Gaza, but this time in another fashion: He made the Turks and the Germans believe that he was about to attack Gaza again but instead attacked Beersheba. Australian, New Zealand and British cavalry (The Palestine front saw the deployment of large cavalry forces – including French and Indian cavalry units – something that the western front’s trench system and fire power did not allow) and conquered it after a fierce fight. From there, Allenby’s forces moved north from Gaza to outflank the Turks. The Turks retreated toward the Yarkon River and Jerusalem. The British moved toward Jerusalem in the end of November 1917 in three main routes – north of Jerusalem (today's Route 443 – the ancient road to Jerusalem), the main highway to Jerusalem (today’s Route number 1) and from the south – via Hebron and Bethlehem.

At the beginning of December 1917, the Turks began to retreat from Jerusalem (the Germans managed to dissuade the Turks from their plan ofexpelling the Jews of Jerusalem, as they did to the Jews of Tel Aviv and the neighboring towns) and, on December 9, the mayor of Jerusalem, Hussein el Husseini, went out with a group of dignitaries to present to the British the surrender of Jerusalem. With them came an American photographer, a member of the American colony in Jerusalem, named Lewis Larson. According to SimonSebag-Montefiore in his book, Jerusalem – the biography, the delegation met two British soldiers, cooks of a commander in the 60thDivision (a Cockney unit from east London) who were in a mission to find eggs for their commander’s breakfast…The cooks refused to accept the city's surrender – We don’t want the surrender of the ‘oly city,’ we want heggs for ur hofficer (I hope I got the cockney accent right…). The delegation moved on, and soon encountered two more British soldiers (from the same division), sergeants Sedgwick and Hurcomb, who were scouts for their unit. They too refused to accept the surrender of the Jerusalem but were willing to be photographed with the delegation and accepted cigarettes from them… (At the place where this meeting happened, a monument was erected in memorial to the surrender of Jerusalem to the British army and the soldiers of the 60th division that fell in the First World War. The monument can be found today behind Jerusalem’s central bus station, in the Romema neighborhood).

After being rejected by a British artillery officer, the delegation met Brigadier Watson, commander of the 180th brigade, who accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. After the short ceremony, Watson informed his commander, General Shea (commander of the 60th division) that he had accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. Shea canceled the surrender to Watson and demanded that el Husseini surrender to him. Husseini again came out of Jerusalem and surrendered to Shea. Shea entered Jerusalem and declared martial law. He then informed Allenby that he accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. Allenby cancelled the two former surrenders and demanded that the city surrender to him and to him only. At this point el Husseini became ill and the third surrender took place without him. (He later succumbed to pneumonia – no doubt from too frequent exposure to the cold Jerusalem December mornings).

Two days later, Allenby rode his horse to the Jaffa gate, but entered the city on foot – as a sign of respect to the holiness of the city (and in striking contrast to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pompous entry to Jerusalem 20 years earlier) – with his staff marching after him. He walked to the entrance of Jerusalem citadel (known as Tower of David), met the heads of the different communities in the city and declared martial law in the city.

The war in Palestine continued until September 1918. After a winter and a spring of static warfare, Allenby attacked the Turkish lines with his typical deception, feinting an attack on Trans Jordan while sending a large cavalry force covered by large numbers of airplanes toward Nazareth and Haifa. It was a textbook operation, still regarded to this day. The British arrived in Damascus on October 1 and, on October 31, Turkey surrendered.

Sources: Israel State Archives.

Photos: Wikipedia.