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When the British captured the Holy Land

98 years later, a tour of World War I sites in the Negev and Jerusalem that memorialize the conquest

  • A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Allenby Square and playground, Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Allenby Square and playground, Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • At a memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    At a memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Yehudayoff House in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Yehudayoff House in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Jerusalem’s Citadel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Jerusalem’s Citadel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The monument dedicated to the Anzac Light Horse Brigade (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The monument dedicated to the Anzac Light Horse Brigade (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In the wee hours of December 9, 1917, two British army cooks from the 60th London Division left their Jerusalem base in search of fresh eggs. Less than six weeks had passed since Commonwealth troops had breached the Turkish lines in Israel for the first time and conquered Beersheba; earlier that very morning the British had captured Jerusalem from the Turks, as well.

Now, as the cooks walked through a deserted field, they were accosted by a number of residents anxious to surrender the city. Among them were four policemen, several youths, the Jerusalem mayor and a photographer from the American Colony.

According to one version of this historic event, two British army sergeants suddenly appeared and shouted at the entourage to halt. The Jerusalemites lifted up their arms, in which they were holding a white sheet that had been hastily torn off one of the beds at the American Colony’s hospital. The sheet, attached to a broom-handle, was the Jerusalemites’ makeshift flag of truce.

A decorative monument marks the spot at which Jerusalem was officially handed over to the British. It stands in the center of Allenby Square, part of the Romema neighborhood that grew up around this memorable site after World War I.

A number of historic sites related to Britain’s conquest of Israel are located in the Negev – where it all began, and others, including the memorial in Allenby Square, are in Jerusalem. Here are just a few, with the stories behind them:

In the Negev
1) ANZAC: Early in 1917 the British made several attempts to conquer the Holy Land. Two frontal attacks on Gaza, the traditional port of entry into Israel, failed miserably and over 16,000 British troops and soldiers of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) were killed or wounded in battles for the city. This despite the fact that in Gaza the British used new secret weapons — tanks and gas shells — for the very first time.

The tide turned when General Sir Edmund Allenby was brought in to replace the previous commander. He decided on a different tack: he would gain control by way of Beersheba, since 1915 the Turks’ most important military center in the country.

Allenby developed a plan to trick the Turks into thinking that the British would attempt a third Gaza attack, while in reality Gaza was only to be a diversion so that the troops could more easily enter Beersheba. Called the Haversack Ruse, it involved sending a mounted intelligence officer across Turkish lines. Hopefully, the Turks would shoot at him, he would pretend to be wounded, and he would “accidentally” drop a haversack full of letters describing false plans for a massive attack on Gaza.

The monument dedicated to the Anzac Light Horse Brigade (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The monument dedicated to the Anzac Light Horse Brigade (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Incredibly, the first two times the pack was dropped no one picked it up and the charade had to be repeated a third time. The Turks were only mildly fooled, explained World War I enthusiast Kelvin Crombie, when he took me on a tour of Anzac battle sites in the Negev. Nevertheless, he added, there were fewer soldiers in Beersheba on the day of the attack than there otherwise might have been.

In 1967, exactly 50 years after the conquest of Beersheba, a memorial was established in Be’eri Forest – which had seen much of the action. Shaped like the letter A, the monument is dedicated to the Anzac Light Horse Brigade whose bold gallop through the Turkish defensive lines on October 31, 1917 helped British troops crush the enemy.

The Commonwealth War Cemetery in Beersheba, after a memorial ceremony (Shmuel Bar-Am)
At a memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)

2) COMMONWEALTH WAR CEMETERY: Located in the center of Beersheba, this cemetery was inaugurated in 1923 as a last resting place for soldiers who fell nearby during World War I. It is especially peaceful as the sun sets in the late afternoon.

Over 1,200 troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand are buried within the beautifully landscaped and perfectly tended plots.

A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
A memorial ceremony at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In Jerusalem
1) ALLENBY SQUARE: British-Anzac victories in the Negev paved the way for an eventual take-over of Jerusalem on the eve of Hanukkah 1917. The monument in the center of Allenby Square reads: “Near this spot the Holy City was surrendered… Erected… to those officers, NCOs and men who fell in fighting for Jerusalem.”

Allenby Square and playground, Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Allenby Square and playground, Jerusalem (Shmuel Bar-Am)

2) CITADEL: On December 11, 1917, General Allenby, Commander in Chief of the British-Anzac Egyptian Expeditionary Force, rode through the city. His procession along Jaffa Road was met with great fanfare and jubilation. There were even those who wept at the sight of the conquering heroes.

The Jews were ecstatic. After all, hadn’t the Balfour Declaration been ratified by Britain’s Parliament on the very day that Commonwealth forces had conquered Beersheba? And now, barely six weeks later and during the holiday of miracles, the commander in chief had actually entered the Holy City of Jerusalem. Unaware of what the future would bring, redemption seemed finally to be close at hand.

Jerusalem’s Citadel (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jerusalem’s Citadel (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In Anzacs, Empires and Israel’s Restoration, Crombie writes that when he reached the Old City walls Allenby dismounted, then walked humbly through the gate built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. That way he could avoid the wide entrance cut through the walls in 1898 to allow Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and an ostentatious entourage to ride through with pomp and ceremony.

Passing an honor guard of 110 troops from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland on one side, and 50 Anzac soldiers on the other, Allenby climbed the steps of the Jerusalem Citadel to proclaim martial law and freedom of worship for all faiths.

3) BEIT YEHUDAYOFF (YEHUDAYOFF HOUSE): Located in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood and built in 1905, Beit Yehudayoff was known as the “palace.” When the splendid edifice was constructed it was the most spectacular of Jerusalem dwellings and it hosted many an extravagant reception. Beautiful pillars are topped with Corinthian capitals, and at least one of a row of stone goblets is still standing on the roof.

Yehudayoff House in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Yehudayoff House in Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood (Shmuel Bar-Am)

According to legend, the house was meant to house the Messiah when he comes to Jerusalem and that’s why it is also known as Beit HaMashiach (House of the Messiah).

During World War I, the Turks commandeered the building, which the British repossessed after they conquered Jerusalem. Jewish soldiers in the British army held a Seder at the Palace on Passover in 1918, and on May 22 of the same year dozens of important people lined the double winding staircase in a fabulous reception for General Allenby.

Ironically, just over 20 years later the Palace became a center for Etzel, an underground Jewish military force organized to combat Arab terror and to engage in retaliatory attacks against the British Mandatory authorities.

4) MOUNT SCOPUS: Euphoric after the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the Jews of Israel presented the British with land for a cemetery. Most of the 2,500 soldiers buried within the meticulously kept plots fell in battles for Jerusalem and TransJordan. A number of Jewish graves are located high on the slope; many of the soldiers who are buried there served together in the Royal Fusiliers.

Every few years a moving ceremony takes place at the cemetery, whose well-kept grounds are kept tended by workers for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. On November 7, 2015, and despite an annoying London-like haze and drizzle, representatives from a variety of countries and organizations laid red-and-green wreathes at the foot of the cemetery chapel. Ninety-eight years after the conquest of Palestine, with prayers, poems, and a hushed silence, the men who fell in battle for the Holy Land are still remembered.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. This article is adapted from chapters in the book.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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