Viscount Henry J. H. Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe and John Benson are not typical Jerusalem tourists.
The great-great nephew of Field Marshal Edmund Allenby and the great-grandson of Major General John Shea, respectively, Allenby and Benson are currently in Israel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the capture of the Holy City from the Ottoman Turks by British forces led by their military leader ancestors.
Benson and Lord Allenby, along with Lord Allenby’s mother Sara Viscountess Allenby, are in the capital at the invitation of The Tower of David Museum, which on Monday will stage a public reenactment of General Allenby’s proclamation delivered from the front of the ancient citadel inside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate on December 11, 1917.
The special guests received a preview on Sunday of the museum’s new exhibition, “A General and A Gentleman: Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,” which officially opens on Monday. The exhibition focuses on the events of three pivotal days in December 1917, from the the moment the Ottomans surrendered to Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force on December 9 to Allenby’s proclamation of martial law on December 11.
The proclamation, issued in seven languages (English, French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and Greek), promised protection for the holy places and assured freedom of religious practice for all the city’s inhabitants:
However, lest any of you should be alarmed by reason of your experiences at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person should pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption…Therefore do I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest of 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 faiths they are sacred.
Constituting the first official, quasi-governmental use of Hebrew in Palestine, Allenby’s proclamation was welcomed by all of Jerusalem’s communities, which had suffered great hardship under Ottoman rule.
The British conquest, coming as it did in December and a month after the Balfour Declaration, was interpreted by the Jews as a Hanukkah miracle and the beginning of the fulfillment of revived Jewish sovereignty. The Christian world regarded it as a Christmas gift, the return of Christian rule to Jerusalem for the first time since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom.
“The populace was apparently glad to see us,” wrote General Allenby to his mother in a letter dated December 7, 1917.
The exhibition showcases rare artifacts, returning them to exactly where they were a century ago. Curator Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa and her team tracked down some items locally, such as a remnant of the white flag of surrender improvised from torn bedsheets in The Tower of David’s own collection.
Others, like the keys to the city of Jerusalem and its post office handed over by the Turkish governor to the British, and a sword and walking stick gifted to 60th Division commander General Shea by grateful residents, are on loan from London’s Imperial War Museum and other institutions and collectors in the UK and New Zealand.
Lady Allenby, widow of Michael Jaffray Hynman Allenby, 3rd Viscount Allenby, was an honorary member of the curatorial team. She sourced and loaned several items to the show.
“Not long ago, I finally got around to cleaning the loft in our home, and I found a trunk. I almost threw it away. Fortunately I opened it first and discovered letters written by the 1st Viscount Allenby to his wife and mother,” she said.
She also found a commemorative sash presented to General Allenby by a grateful Ashkenazi Jewish community of Jerusalem in a ceremony held in May 1918.
Wearing an engraved gold Jerusalem Cross on a chain originally given by General Allenby to his wife and passed down through the generations to each Lady Allenby, the viscountess admitted to having mixed emotions about travelling to Jerusalem to mark the centennial.
“I wanted to come to represent my late husband, whom I accompanied to Israel when he came for the 75th anniversary. I am delighted my son has come with me this time,” said Lady Allenby.
This is Lord Allenby’s first visit to Israel. The owner of a woodlands and hedgerows management company, Allenby, 49, has a new found interest in his great-great uncle’s experiences in Palestine during World War I.
“To understand about Field Marshall Allenby you had to go to a museum. There were no movies made about him, as there were about Lawrence of Arabia,” he said.
According to Allenby, the British public has a strong awareness of the Great War battles on the Western Front in France and Belgium, but little knowledge of other campaigns fought by British forces.
“I’m so glad I got to come here to absorb it all. There is a lot of passion here and it comes in a crescendo for me,” Allenby said.
“I hope to develop a rapport and understanding. There’s a lot to learn,” he said.
Benson, 56, said he had always known about his great-grandfather Shea, nicknamed “Jimmy of Jerusalem,” and his family history.
“But it’s not part of our everyday life,” said Benson, managing director of a digital medial company.
Visiting Israel for the first time has proven more emotional than Benson expected.
“I’m very impressed and daunted by the history of Jerusalem, I’m proud of the role my ancestor played in it,” Benson said.
The proximity of the centennial to President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of the United State’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as ensuing violent reaction by some Palestinians, could not be ignored.
But these visitors to Jerusalem are focused on the past, not the present.
“We are here to honor our families, who were military men. It’s all about the 100th anniversary, and not what is happening now,” Lord Allenby said.