Before the First World War, Jerusalem, as indeed the region, had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire for some four centuries. 1917 saw the fall of the Ottoman regime and, just weeks after the Balfour Declaration in Britain, saw Jerusalem be captured by the British army’s Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshall Sir Edmund Allenby.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George had already called on his army to secure Jerusalem by Christmas. Allenby improved on that wish.
In mid-November, he directed his troops east towards the Judean Hills around Jerusalem. Despite three days of near-continuous rain which, as Allenby later noted, rendered the roads “quite impassable, indeed, for mechanical transport and camels in many places”, on December 8 they were able to attack.
Within a day the majority of Jerusalem had been secured and the Turkish army had largely relinquished control, although the Ottomans did attempt a counter-attack later in the month. Losses on both sides were great; some 25,000 Turkish casualties, some 18,000 of the Allied forces died.
The symbolic nature of Jerusalem meant that its loss was a massive blow to the Ottoman morale; in contrast, it was a source of great pride for the British.
In a decree of surrender, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem wrote: “Due to the severity of the siege of the city and the suffering that this peaceful country has endured from your heavy guns; and for fear that these deadly bombs will hit the holy places, we are forced to hand over to you the city.”
Allenby officially entered the city on December 11, writing of his initial arrival that “the population received me well”. He declared martial law out of military necessity, but proclaimed to the inhabitants: “lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption.”
He added: “Since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind…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.”
Before the end of the war the rest of Palestine was occupied by the British, and by October 1918 the Ottomans had capitulated. Under the terms of the League of Nations the British won the mandate of Palestine, including Jerusalem. They did not leave until May 1948.
What the JC: The Holy City being thus isolated was surrendered to Sir Edmund Allenby by the mayor on December 9. (Cheers). The British Political Officer, together with the British Governor of the City, accompanied by British, French, Italian contingents and the head of the French Political Mission. The capture of Jerusalem has been in some degree delayed in consequence of the great care which has been taken to avoid damage to scared places in and around the city
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