Jerusalem surrenders to a British cook

Turkish Army prisoners of war captured by the ANZAC Mounted Division being escorted along one of the city streets. (Donor British Official Photograph Q12666)

Remembered as a significant moment in the Palestine campaign was the surrender of Jerusalem to the British in WW1.  It is also remembered as the only occasion a city was surrendered to an Army cook.

Jerusalem had been the target of the British effort in Palestine since the end of March 1917. After success in Beersheba, the ultimate objective was the capture of Jerusalem which would be a significant moral victory for the British.

After taking up his command in Cairo in June 1917, General Edmund Allenby had been given explicit orders by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas. This was in the wake of two failed efforts by his predecessor, Sir Archibald Murray, to conquer Gaza, a necessary condition for the conquest of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks.

Allenby began by defeating Turkish forces in the Third Battle for Gaza, which ended on November 7 largely due to the success at the Battle of Beersheba.

Allenby sent out forces along two flanks, one charged with capturing Jaffa, a mission accomplished on November 16, and the other in the direction of Jerusalem.

At the end of November an initial attempt to surround the city and force its surrender was unsuccessful.   With the troops repositioned on December 7 the Turkish forces in the city concluded that Allenby was withdrawing and relaxed their defence.

On the morning of 9 December, 1917 after only a single day of fighting, Turkish troops moved out of the Holy City of Jerusalem offering the keys to the city to approaching British troops.

The surrender of Jerusalem was initially offered to a British cook, Private Murch who had been sent by his commanding officer to the nearby village of Lifta to find some eggs for breakfast. When Murch was approached by the Mayor of Jerusalem, on horseback and flying a white flag, offering to turn over the keys to the city, Murch replied, “I don’t want yer city. I want some eggs for my officers!”

Murch then reported the development to his superiors, and Brig.-Gen C.F. Watson hurried off to accept its surrender from the Mayor, Hussein Salim al-Husseini. However, when the divisional commander, Maj.-Gen John Shea, learned of this development, he got on the field phone and ordered that Watson be stopped: “I will myself take the surrender of Jerusalem!”

Watson rode back to town to return the keys to Husseini. Then when Shea wired General Allenby the good news, Allenby wrote back that he would be arriving in two days to accept the city’s surrender.

General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force, entered Jerusalem two days after the Turkish forces occupying the city raised the white flag before Allied forces.

The British entered the Holy City under strict instructions not to appear disrespectful to the city, its people or its traditions.

In declaring martial law in the city he promised that “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.”

And, as noted, he was careful to dismount from his horse before entering Jaffa Gate.