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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Imperial Battle for the Holy City

Filed under: Jerusalem, Jerusalem in Historical Context

The Imperial Battle for the Holy City
The surrender of Jerusalem to two British sergeants on December 9, 1917. (American Colony collection, Library of Congress)

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land

In late January 1915, the German-led Ottoman army attacked British army positions in an attempt to capture the Suez Canal. They were beaten back, and over the next two years of fighting, the British Imperial forces pushed the Turkish army out of the Sinai and Gaza. After the capture of the Turkish base in Beersheba, the British moved toward Jerusalem. After a hard-fought battle at Nebi Samuel, the Turks evacuated Jerusalem, and Arab dignitaries surrendered the city on December 9, 1917. General Edmund Allenby had fulfilled the British Prime Minister’s demand that “Jerusalem is captured by Christmas.”

The surrender of Jerusalem to two British sergeants on December 9, 1917
The surrender of Jerusalem to two British sergeants on December 9, 1917. (American Colony collection, Library of Congress)

Two days later, on December 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem’s Old City to read a proclamation of martial law.

Allenby in Jerusalem

Allenby in Jerusalem
Iconic pictures were taken by British army sergeant George Westmoreland. (Library of Congress)

Allenby’s appearance in Jerusalem lasted 15 minutes.

Jewish Suffering

The Jews of Palestine suffered terribly during the war from starvation, disease, and the Turkish army’s looting, forced conscription, imprisonment, and execution.

Ḥemdah Ben-Yehudah, a journalist and the wife of the pioneering Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, provided details of the Jews’ travails in a chapter of the book Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future, a 1918 volume of eyewitness essays.

Jewish women, children, and elderly men were huddled underground, all too despairingly aware that soon it would be Hanukkah: “the Feast of Deliverance in former days, and now approaching as the day of destruction!”

The women, weeping, prepared the oil for the sacred lights, and even the men wept, saying that this would be the last time they should keep the feast in Jerusalem! They strained their ears to hear the horses’ hoofs and the tread of the [Turkish] soldiers coming to arrest them and drive them forth. The women pressed their children to their breasts, crying: “They are coming to take us!”

Then, suddenly, other women came rushing from outside down into the depths, crying: “Hosanna! Hosanna! The English! The English have arrived!”

The Jews’ Wailing Wall Is in Our Hands

After General Allenby departed from the Old City, officers and the photographer, George Westmoreland, made their way to the Western Wall. Two pictures in the British Imperial War Museum show Jewish worshippers and British officers, who stood at the narrow alley’s northern entrance.


Westmoreland’s pictures were taken at the “Jews’ Wailing Wall” on December 11, 1917. The shadows indicate that the day was getting late; the first night of Hanukkah was approaching.

The first picture at the “Kotel” is fascinating. Upon enlarging the photograph, one can see an officer holding what appears to be a Torah scroll. Between the soldiers and the Wall is a small table, a curiosity considering that until the day before, the Turkish masters of the city banned all furniture at the Jewish site.

Was the table there to hold a Hanukkah menorah? Apparently, that was its purpose.

The “Hanukkah table”

The picture below was taken in 1881 by Frank Good, and it, too, shows an ornate table with something on top of it in the same spot as Westmoreland’s photo 36 years later.

The Wall of Wailing
“The Wall of Wailing,” a photograph by Frank Good, 1881. (Library of Congress).
The Wall of Wailing
Enlargement of “The Wall of Wailing,” a photograph by Frank Good, 1881. (Library of Congress).

Sixteen years later, in 1933, the “Hanukkah table” appears again in precisely the same spot.

The “Hanukkah table”

Hanukkah candle-lighting at the “Wailing Wall, 1933, (Keystone-Mast Collection, UC Riverside, California Museum of Photography)

An official British military report on the Jerusalem victory likened the 1917 liberation to the defeat and ouster of the Seleucid Greeks by the Maccabees and attributed this quote to General Allenby himself:

On this same day, 2,082 years before, another race of conquerors, equally detested, were looking their last on the city which they could not hold, and inasmuch as the liberation of Jerusalem in 1917 will probably ameliorate the lot of the Jews more than that of any other community in Palestine, it was fitting that the flight of the Turks should have coincided with the national festival of the Hanukkah, which commemorates the recapture of the Temple from the heathen Seleucids by Judas Maccabæus in 165 B.C.