Major Vivian Gilbert of the British Army would be long forgotten, were it not for his historic Romance of the Last Crusade, a mostly sober account of Field Marshal Edmund Allenby’s capture of Eretz Yisroel during World War I. At one point, the book breaks into a humorous account of why the mayor of Yerushalayim surrendered his city to the British four times. Truth to tell, so strange is the story that when I once saw an illustrated version of his story in a children’s magazine, I was convinced it was a fabrication or, at most, an exaggeration. Major Gilbert, however, insists that he was present at the Yerushalayim army headquarters and personally witnessed most of what occurred.
The story begins, he writes, when the second in command of one of the Londonregiments in his brigade was struck by a brilliant idea. At 4 AMon December 9th, 1917, as he lay in an improvised tent constructed of two army blankets and three Turkish rifles, drops of condensed moisture dripping upon his face, he heard a cock-crow from the direction of Lifta, an Arab village just west of Yerushalayim. Lifta had fallen into British hands the night before and its inhabitants, like many Turkish subjects, were friendly to the British, hoping they would be more humane than their previous overlords were.
Nowadays, Lifta is a picturesque village of ruins just below where the Tel Aviv – Yerushalayim highway enters the city. In those days it was a flourishing farming village with a plentiful water supply from its spring whose polluted waters nowadays fill a popular swimming hole and water dozens of aravos trees.
“If there was a cockerel in Lifta, there were probably hens too,” the major thought. “If hens – why not eggs?”
On second thought, he realized he’d better hurry, as if only a small percentage of the thousands of men bivouacked had heard the cockcrow, there’d be precious few eggs left for himself. Rousting out his orderly, he ordered him to call the cook, and shortly afterwards Private Murch, “culinary expert of the battalion,” was handed sixty piastres and ordered to march a mile eastwards to procure as many eggs as possible. Stumbling over stones and boulders, and forced to detour around Turkish trenches, the cook came to the crest of a hill and there before him was the village he was looking for. Except for open windows and smoking chimneys, it probably looked much the same as it seems today.
Surprisingly, Gilbert describes tiny Lifta as “an enormous place, and certainly the finest they had come across since leavingCairo.” One thing was sure: the cook would get all the eggs he needed here. But coming across a wide road he witnessed an astounding spectacle.
“The end of the road, previously deserted, was now covered by a large crowd advancing from the shelter of the houses,” Gilbert writes. “It was still some distance away, but a carriage drawn by a pair of horses could be seen leading the procession. As it got nearer, two men on horseback could be distinguished carrying white banners on long poles and riding a little in rear of the dilapidated vehicle. Murch got up and strolled towards them. He was quite mystified as to the meaning of this strange performance. He could see that many of the people, there were women and children amongst them, carried white flags and handkerchiefs, and these they continually waved before them; perhaps it was a native funeral, thought the army cook.
At length they espied him, and, with loud cries and clapping of hands, crowded round, all talking at once.
“The noise now died down, and a little man in a black frock coat with a tarbush on his head and looking very much like a Turk, could be heard speaking from the carriage,” This personage, according to Colonel Gilbert, was none other than Hussein Salim al-Husseini, who served as official mayor of Jerusalem from 1910 to 1915.
“‘You are British soldier, are not you?’ he asked in a high falsetto voice.
“‘I should say so,’ replied Private Murch.
“‘Where is General A-llah Nebi?’ now enquired the man in the red fez.
“(…) if I know, mister,’ answered the private.
“‘I want to surrender the city please. ‘Ere are ze keys; it is yours,’ went on the stranger, producing a large bunch of keys and waving them before the bewildered Britisher, who now began to think he had fallen amongst lunatics.
“‘I don’t want yer city. I want some heggs for my hofficers!'” yelled the disgusted cook.
As we see from the above exchange, many local Arabs associated Allenby’s name with A-llah Nebi (the prophet of G-d), both because of the similarity of the names, and also because according to old Arab legend, “when theNileflows intoPalestine, the prophet from the west will drive the Turk from Yerushalayim.” During theirPalestinecampaign, the British indeed pipedNilewaters two hundred miles over the desert and shortly before capturing Yerushalayim thousands of gallons daily were being pumped intoPalestine, loaded onto camels, and transported to the thirsty troops. So to some Arabs, Allenby’s arrival at the city gates was almost a foregone conclusion.
Culmination of the Crusades
For the British, the event seemed like a culmination of the Crusades. It was over seven hundred years since a previous British Crusader, Sir Richard the Lion Heart, reached almost this same exact spot but was unable to go any further. After four hundred years of occupation, the Turks had decided to give up the city without a fight for reasons the Ottoman governor later explained in his letter of surrender:
“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 through Hussein Bey al-Husseini, the mayor of Jerusalem, hoping that you will protect Jerusalem the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years. Signed Izzat the Mutasarrif [governor] ofJerusalem.”
Colonel Gilbert happened to be at the battalion headquarters when Private Murch returned and gives us an eyewitness report of what happened next.
“‘Where have you been for the last four hours?’ demanded the colonel in a freezing tone.
“The perspiring private proceeded to relate his amazing adventures in a rich cockney dialect. In spite of his rambling and at times incoherent recitation, it dawned on us at last that one of the greatest events in the history of the world, for which thousands had given their lives and for which millions of pounds of English money had been poured out, had just taken place. When the man came to the end of his story, the colonel turned to us and said quietly, ‘Gentlemen,Jerusalemhas fallen!’
“Then he seized a field telephone, rang up the brigadier, and acquainted him with the startling news.”
Brigadier-General Watson, the nearest general to the Holy City was delighted to have the honor of receiving the surrender. Within minutes, he was galloping madly up the Jaffa-Jerusalem road where he met the mayor in his carriage outside the Jaffa Gate. By now the streets were black with people. The two rode to the Migdal Dovid, and at the base of the ancient edifice, Watson received the keys of the city in the name of the Allies amidst the loud cheering of the liberated populace. But in the meanwhile, the brigade major had phoned the divisional commander, Major-General Shea, and the latter wanted a slice of the glory for himself.
“Stop the brigadier,” he ordered. “I will myself take the surrender of Jerusalem!”
When Brigadier-General Watson got back to camp and heard what happened, he had no choice other than to ride back to the city and hand the keys back to the mayor. For a second time that day, cheers erupted in Yerushalayim’s streets as divisional commander Major-General Shea arrived in his car accompanied by a glittering staff. The city keys were handed over for a third time and the Major-General motored back to his headquarters on the Mount of Grapes. [Gilbert probably meant Kiryat Anavim near modern day Telz-Stone.] There, his first duty was to telegram to his commander-in-chief what had happened:
“I have the honor to report that I have this day accepted the surrender of Jerusa-lem.”
By return came the message: “General Allenby will himself accept the surrender of Jerusalem on the 11th inst.; make all arrangements.”
Allenby Steals the Glory
“The historic Jaffa Gate was opened after years of disuse enabling him to pass into the Holy City without making use of the gap in the wall through which the kaiser entered in 1898. Allenby entered on foot and left on foot, and throughout the ceremony no Allied flag was flown, whilst naturally no enemy flags were visible,” Gilbert reports. “The mayor came out on to the steps of the Tower of David, surrendered the city and handed over to the commander-in-chief the keys which had been returned to him by the divisional general the previous afternoon.”
This protocol had been decided three weeks earlier in London. Allenby entered on foot to avoid emulating the kaiser’s entry on horseback during a visit to Palestinein 1898, no flags were flown to show respect before the holy places, and to avoid offending Muslim tradition, Muslim troops from India were sent to guard Har Habayis.
Allenby issued a proclamation, read in English, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Russian and Italian, promising order and freedom of religion in the three major religions’ holy sites, and was frantically cheered before motoring back to his headquarters at Ramleh, near present day Ben Gurion Airport.
“Two weeks afterwards the mayor of Jerusalem died of pneumonia,” Gilbert concludes his story. “I could not help thinking he must have caught cold standing exposed to the inclement weather whilst he handed over Jerusalem, first to the cook, then to the brigadier, then to the major-general and finally to the commander-in-chief.”
(Sources: Vivian Gilbert, The Romance of the Last Crusade; With Allenby to Jerusalem, D. Appleton and Co.: New York, 1928. Martin Gilbert, First World War, Harper Collins:London, 1994.)