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
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.