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

Spies in the Holy Land in World War I: An American Spy in Plain View?

Filed under: Jerusalem in Historical Context

Spies in the Holy Land in World War I: An American Spy in Plain View?
An incongruous photograph: American and Turkish flags flying over the Sinai medical camp of the American Red Cross and Red Crescent during World War I. The man on the camel on the right is probably American John Whiting. (1915, Library of Congress)

Spying in the Holy Land is an ancient profession, dating back more than 3,500 years to when a disguised Joseph accused his brothers of spying in Egypt. Moses sent 12 spies to Canaan to check on the land’s inhabitants, defenses, and economy. And upon entering the land after 40 years of wandering in the desert, Joshua sent out two spies to reconnoiter the fortress city of Jericho.

World War I in the Holy Land was also the setting for tales of espionage and some very mysterious spies providing intelligence for the German, British, and Turkish armies. Several unexpected secret agents include a Christian Jerusalemite spying for Britain, a Jewish Jerusalemite spying for Turkey, a Russian Jewish doctor spying for Germany, and a Jewish espionage ring spying for Britain.

John D. Whiting, the Jack of All Trades

The American Colony group of Millenialist Christians moved from Chicago to Jerusalem in 1881, where they established a collective enterprise to assist the indigent, orphans, and even needy Yemenite Jewish pilgrims who arrived in the Holy Land in 1882. The Colony also set up cottage enterprises, food kitchens, a photographic department, and a farming project.

The first child born to the Colony was John D. Whiting (1882-1951),1 who served intermittently as deputy American consul in the Jerusalem consulate between 1908 and 1915. Whiting was also a guide, manager of the American Colony’s enterprises, botanist, photographer, and, after World War I, an intelligence officer for the British army. He was fluent in English, Arabic, and Turkish.

John D. Whiting
John D. Whiting on a botanical trip in north Palestine “before 1917.” (Library of Congress)
Whiting’s diplomatic calling card
Whiting’s diplomatic calling card before World War I. He served as Deputy Consul from 1908–1910 and 1915–1917 before the United States entered the war. (Library of Congress)

As World War I rolled across Europe and spread to the Middle East, the American Colony remained meticulously neutral. The Turkish authorities in Palestine appreciated the Colony’s medical aid and social services, such as soup kitchens for the indigent. In 1914, as Turkey and Germany planned to invade the British-held Suez Canal (the gateway to Great Britain’s eastern colonies), Whiting served as one of the leaders of the American Red Cross medical team established to treat Turkey’s wounded deep in the Sinai desert.

Whiting went well beyond the call of duty, wrote Vicken V. Kalbian, the son of Dr. Vahan Kalbian (1887-1968), who served in the hospital. Whiting “organized the next phase of the [military] operation and accompanied the expedition to Hafir-el-Auja to set up the hospital and became the contact in Jerusalem for resupplies. For weeks, the grounds of the Colony had been turned into a warehouse for the tents. The additional freight arriving from Nablus was being dumped into the yard.”2

American and Turkish flags flying over the Sinai medical camp of the American Red Cross and Red Crescent during World War I
American and Turkish flags flying over the Sinai medical camp of the American Red Cross and Red Crescent during World War I. The man on the camel on the right is probably Whiting. (Library of Congress)
The Red Crescent staff
The Red Crescent staff, including John Whiting, standing in the last row. To the left of the man in the uniform in the second row is Grace Spafford Whiting, head of the American Colony. (Library of Congress, 1917)

When a devastating locust plague hit Palestine in 1915, leading to mass starvation, Turkish Supreme Commander Djamal Pasha asked the American Colony photographers to document the locust swarms. Whiting received travel passes to visit every inch of the land, and the result was a vast album showing the locust life cycle and the destruction inflicted by the insects.3 He also inspected Turkish army bases.

herding locusts
American Colony members herding locusts into a pit to destroy them. (Library of Congress)

The Colony’s photographers filmed Turkish military events, exercises, and facilities at the request of Ottoman commanders. Scores of these photographs would undoubtedly benefit British intelligence – if they were to fall – or surreptitiously be delivered – into their hands. Pictures of water resources at the Beer Sheba army base in the desert or troop positions on the approach to Jerusalem would be enormously valuable to British General Allenby in late 1917.

To carry out his medical and locust assignments, Whiting was granted various Turkish passes for railroad travel or being out after curfew – passes found in his papers at the Library of Congress. Those passes gave him access to every part of Palestine and every Turkish base.

Turkish pass

stamped Turkish pass
This stamped Turkish pass with Whiting’s name in English is a “Pass to Nablus via Jaffa in carriage December 25, 1916.” On the back is a notation “to Jaffa, March 23, 1917.” The March 1917 date is interesting: It was a period when British-led forces were moving against Turkish troops in Gaza, and a French battleship was shelling Jaffa. Whiting was traveling to a very active battlefield.

At the same time, while Whiting was traveling to Nablus, a Washington official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was sending him a letter: “I am particularly pleased to learn that the peaches we sent you are bearing fruit and the fruit is excellent.” David Fairchild, the department’s “Agricultural Explorer in Charge,” traveled the world as a “food spy” to introduce new crops and farming methods to the United States. Perhaps the letter to Whiting was just a communication from one botanist to another. “We would like very much to get the Damascus peach varieties… if the censor and agents of destruction at work in the Mediterranean allow them to get through….”4 Or perhaps not; perhaps it was code.

trees to collect
A list of “trees to collect” found in Whiting’s papers. Was it an innocent list requested by Fairchild or a code?

Interestingly, Fairchild already had a long and close relationship with another botanist from Palestine, Aaron Aaronsohn, whom he hosted in the United States in 1909. In his autobiography 30 years later, Fairchild wrote, “I soon discovered that I was in the presence of an extraordinary man. Although Aaronsohn had never been there, his knowledge of California almost equaled his knowledge of Palestine. No foreigner had ever been in my office who had so keen an understanding of the soils, climates, and adaptability of plants to their environment.”5

Barbara Bain of the U.S. Library of Congress is the Curator & Public Historian of the vast collection of American Colony papers and photographs. I asked her if there was evidence of Whiting and Aaronsohn collaborating.

Whiting was writing reports on agriculture in Palestine ca. 1907-12, about the same time Aaronsohn was heading the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Haifa (and publishing Agricultural & Botanical Exploration in Palestine with the U.S. Department of Agriculture).  That is the era when Whiting became involved as a deputy American Consul in Jerusalem, specializing in reports on geography and agricultural economics.  It is hard to think that they did not know one another on some level, and certainly, Whiting must have been aware of Aaronsohn’s professional work and publications.  I believe that Whiting knew David Fairchild, who worked on foreign seed & plant introduction in association with Aaronsohn’s experimental station. Whiting’s interest in plants and botany would continue life-long.  I agree with you that it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Whiting and Aaronsohn’s paths crossed.  Or that they may have had mutual acquaintances.  They certainly shared mutual interests regarding agricultural and plant development and concern regarding the locust plague and its effects.  They had similar abilities to move about. (Emphasis added.)

Aaron Aaronsohn, a renowned scientist and botanist, was probably the British army’s most crucial intelligence resource in Palestine. He, too, had Turkish passes to travel all over Palestine and to all army bases. It is almost inconceivable that Whiting and Aaronsohn hadn’t crossed paths or cooperated to defeat the Ottoman army.

But more on Aaronsohn and his NILI spy ring later in another chapter.

While Whiting earned Turkish trust at the start of the war in 1914, he also practiced his spycraft at the Sinai field hospital 120 miles from the front. “The date of Jamal’s ill-fated attack was kept a secret,” wrote Vicken V. Kalbian, “but Whiting had an informant – “one of the interns… He gave the informant a postcard to mail back and the necessary postage stamp, which would be stuck upside down in case of a Turkish defeat. After the attack on Suez, Turkish HQ proudly announced a great victory as expected, but a few days later, the card arrived as agreed upon but with the stamp stuck upside down, indicating that the Ottomans had indeed been defeated. There had been victory celebrations in Jerusalem on 9 February [1915] based on false Turkish government claims of a triumph.”6

The Capture of Jerusalem by the British Required Water in Beersheba

In the Spring of 1917, the British forces failed twice to lodge the Turks out of Gaza. While the Turks were expecting a third attack, General Allenby, on the advice of Aaron Aaronsohn, sent a cavalry force through the desert toward the Turk’s garrison in Beersheba. Water was crucial; if not found along the way and in Beersheba, the Australian, New Zealand, and British ANZAC light horsemen would fail in their mission.

Would they find water? Aaronsohn was an authority on water deposits in the land. Moreover, pictures taken earlier that year by American Colony photographers, possibly Whiting, showed that water was available if the cavalry could quickly capture Beersheba before the wells were destroyed.

Turkish camels and horses
Turkish camels and horses at a Beersheba watering trough. (Library of Congress, 1917)
Main water Reservoir in Turkish-controlled Beersheba
Main water Reservoir in Turkish-controlled Beersheba (1917, Library of Congress)
Turkish cavalry at the Sharia watering hole
Turkish cavalry at the Sharia watering hole north of Beersheba. A major battle took place here one week after the capture of Beersheba by the British allied force. (1917, Library of Congress)

Evidence supporting the suspicion that Whiting was a British intelligence agent may be deduced by this thank you letter he received from British officer T. H. Lawrence of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (not T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) one week after British General Allenby entered Jerusalem on December 11, 2017. Addressed to “My dear Whiting,” the letter personally thanks Whiting for his activity in support of the British, including providing hospital care for soldiers: “Thank you for all you and yours did for me when I blew in with my Battalion that first evening looking for places to guard, etc.!!”

Letter to John David Whiting
Letter to John David Whiting from British officer T. H. Lawrence. (Library of Congress)

After the liberation of Jerusalem in December 1917, Whiting served as an officer in British intelligence. Among his papers was this military train pass from Beirut to Jerusalem dated November 28, 1918, for “J.D. Whiting, attaché,” General Head Quarters Intelligence, Beirut. The purpose of his trip was to “Report to Jerusalem.”7

Whiting Train Pass
Whiting Train Pass

After the war, Whiting served as a guide, translator, and consultant for British Mandate officials in Palestine. In that capacity, he was apparently a liaison to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini.

Haj Amin el-Husseini
The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin el-Husseini, with attendants, leaving the offices of the Palestine Royal (Peel) Commission after giving his evidence in 1937 (Photograph and caption by the American Colony Photography Department, Library of Congress)

According to Rachel Lev, a scholar and curator of the American Colony’s history, “A perusal of his 1935 diaries reveals that Whiting visited the Mufti several times both with guests and in private.” His poor relationship with Zionists during the British Mandate reflected the attitude of the British leadership in Palestine, some of whom stayed or dined at the American Colony.

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  2. Vicken V. Kalbian, The Field Hospital of Hafir-el-Auja and U.S.-Ottoman Relations, Journal of Palestine Studies, 2015,↩︎


  4. Letter from David Fairchild, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, Washington, D.C., to John D. Whiting (Library of Congress)↩︎

  5. David, Fairchild, The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer, Scribner, 1938. ↩︎

  6. Vicken V. Kalbian, The Field Hospital of Hafir-el-Auja and U.S.-Ottoman Relations, Journal of Palestine Studies, 2015,↩︎

  7. Whiting Train Pass.↩︎