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Allenby, Jerusalem and the photo opportunity of the Great War

Britain’s General Sir Edmund Allenby into the city of Jerusalem after the defeat of the Ottomans. (Reuters)
The entry of a victorious General Sir Edmund Allenby into the city of Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 1917, was the most tightly-managed British PR coup of World War I. Such was its importance that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George took a strong personal interest in choreographing the details before his announcement of it in Parliament.
The astonishing film of the event, shot by cameraman Harold Jeapes, was circulated widely by the British from February 1918 and can be seen as part of the Imperial War Museum digital archive in London.
World War I being fought in the Middle East might have been thought to offer a seductive alternative for British propagandists who were fast running out of plausible options on the Western Front. Lack of clear victories, a common diet of the anonymous rather than the heroic and the distinctly un-photogenic vista of military stasis among seas of mud, barbed wire, bodies and blasted landscape lent little support to the pursuit of positive news, or even stirring drama that might engage the audience back home.
But the course of military campaigning across the Middle East was anything but smooth by the middle of the war; expected victories turned out to be crushing and even humiliating defeats, including the 1916 disasters of Gallipoli, where Allied Forces lost over 100,000 soldiers surrounded and trapped on an indefensible Turkish peninsula and the surrender of the British Indian 6th Army at the Iraqi city of Kut Al-Amara, after a five-month siege under the leadership of General Charles Townshend, one that a relieving British force had been unable to break in time to rescue over 13,000 British and Indian troops. These unprecedented failures were supplemented by the fierce defense of Gaza, Palestine and the Hejaz, where Ottoman forces put up serious and unexpected resistance to thwart Allied ambitions. The picture changed, however, with the arrival on the scene from France in June 1917 of General Sir Edmund Allenby as commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).
In the alliances, advances and successes that were to follow until final victory at the battle of Megiddo in Syria in September 1918, British propagandists were to find the images and stories they were after, ones that painted an altogether more glamorous, exciting and heroic picture of war that they could sell at home and abroad with increased conviction.
The British became adept at using film to take advantage of pivotal moments in the war, which they could turn into extended photo-opportunities and thus longer-term public relations ammunition. And, in Allenby and his defeat of the Turks in Palestine, they found the consummate opportunity. The carefully-orchestrated entry of the British Army into the city of Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 1917, after Allenby’s defeat of the principal Ottoman military forces defending it, is one of the finest wartime examples of transcendent propaganda — a moment that rises above its immediate purpose to reach for an altogether greater, more symbolic prize. The sensitivities of a Christian army occupying the Holy City for the first time in over 700 years, a city moreover of such religious and historical significance and in which so many interests were at stake, was not lost on the British war planners in Whitehall.
Not only did they not wish to make a blunder in misreading these sensitivities, but they realized they could turn the event to their advantage if they crafted it as a piece of theater. The manner of Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem and exactly what he was to announce once inside had been considered at the highest levels of government and he had been telegraphed precise instructions from London on Nov. 21, before the battle for the city began.
William Robertson, the chief of Imperial General Staff, had advised Allenby of the need to enter the city on foot and cited the example of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had entered the city on horseback in 1898: “The saying went round: a better man than he walked.”
The prime minister had reportedly demanded a checklist of nine items to be supplied in order for him to make an announcement to the House of Commons in the way he had designed, including the manner in which Allenby had been received by the population, that he had entered the city on foot and that suitable precautions had been taken to guard the Holy Places.
The proceedings in Jerusalem were captured on film by Harold Jeapes, a cameraman working for the War Office Cinematograph Committee (WOCC) in Palestine and Egypt. Thus, when Allenby made his formal entry into the city, the WOCC filmed the carefully-staged event to ensure the widest possible audience for the greatest victory of the war to date.
“General Allenby’s Entry Into Jerusalem,” the 12-minute film made to commemorate and promote the event was released on Feb. 23, 1918, and widely seen by the British public; its focal scene records the reading of Allenby’s proclamation to the citizens of Jerusalem, in which he makes the point that the British troops have not come as invaders, unlike the Ottoman Turks, but will only occupy the city as long as martial law dictates and will furthermore ensure that every one of whatever religion will be able to continue to pursue their “lawful business.”
Upon entering, he also reportedly made the remark “only now have the Crusades ended.” The imagery of the Crusades was used to describe the campaign by the British press and the Ministry of Information and the American film maker Lowell Thomas made it fashionable to think of Allenby as the modern “Coeur De Lion,” repeatedly reinforcing the image of Allenby on horseback at the head of his cavalry units.
Mindful of the Pan-Islamic propaganda of the Ottomans who had proclaimed a military jihad against the Allies in November 1914, Allenby himself discouraged the use of the Crusader imagery and always went out of his way to insist that he was fighting merely the Ottoman Empire, not Islam.
The association with the Crusades has since become a recurring propaganda trope which has been integral to the successful caricaturing and negative stereotyping by Islamists of continuing Western military intervention in the region and can be linked to this cataclysmic event. Replete with symbolism and significance that permeated the consciousness of the entire Christian world, the entry into Jerusalem caused every church bell in Rome to be rung continuously for an hour.
The WOCC film records a pivotal moment in 20th century history, “a carefully stage managed sham” which initiated the British occupation of Palestine for the following 30 years before it walked away from both the country and its people. In a consummate sleight of hand, the military and colonial agendas of the British Empire were combined in a grand gesture that in the end merely flattered to deceive.
The PR exercise took 15 minutes of Allenby’s time before he left the City via the Jaffa Gate, but the betrayal of Britain’s wartime Arab allies was to start almost immediately thereafter.
* This article has been adapted from the yet-to-be-released book, ‘Propaganda Wars in the Middle East’ by  Vyvyan Kinross.