When the Ottomans Surrendered Jerusalem Four Times in One Day

The white bedsheet that went down in history

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Brig.-Gen. Watson and Lt. Col. Bailey with Jerusalem Mayor Hussein al-Husseini at the Jaffa Gate, December 9, 1917
Brig.-Gen. Watson and Lt. Col. Bailey with Jerusalem Mayor Hussein al-Husseini at the Jaffa Gate, December 9, 1917Credit: American Colony Photo Dept. / American Colony Archive, Jerusalem / Reproduction photograph: Shai Halevi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In 2004, the office of the custodian general in the Justice Ministry sent a small package containing a framed piece of white fabric to the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. A note attached to it stated that it was the original flag of surrender that the Ottoman rulers of the city waved on December 9, 1917, to signal their capitulation to the British forces.

The museum’s staff were unmoved by the historical object. Two other similar pieces of fabric were already vying for the same title. One is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London, the other in a small museum in Ohio. The assumption was that the flag that found its way to the Tower of David Museum, which chronicles the history of Jerusalem, was a fake; the package was relegated to a storeroom. A few weeks ago, the conservator Olga Negnevitsky took out the package and opened the frame. To her surprise, three letters fell out from behind the flag – and their content shows that the framed piece of cloth is no less authentic than the two other flags.

The story of the flags is only one of the countless legends, tales and sanctified relics that have been making the rounds since the day of Jerusalem’s surrender. A new study tries to set the record straight about what actually happened on that day 100 years ago, and to identify the people who tried to tilt the historical narrative in their favor. The coordinator of the research group, Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, is also the co-curator (with Dina Grossman) of a newly opened exhibition at the Tower of David Museum that commemorates the event’s centenary. The study, which was undertaken in conjunction with the preparation of that show, was conducted by Rachel Lev, the curator of the archival collections of the American Colony in Jerusalem, with the participation of Prof. Dov Gavish and Prof. Yigal Shefi, both specialists on the period.

December 9, 1917, was a very cold day in Jerusalem. The British forces advanced from the west, the Turkish troops retreated northward. Early that morning, the city’s mayor, Hussein al-Husseini, left his home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, embarking on what would turn out to be a surrealistic, tragicomic series of events, at the end of which the city came under the control of the British Empire. The day before, the British had shelled the neighborhoods around the Old City. That evening, the Turkish governor summoned Husseini and handed him a letter of surrender stating that the Turkish forces would leave the city without a fight “to safeguard the religious places from destruction” (as the translation of the Turkish text read). Immediately afterward, the governor left the city with the last of his troops.

The first milepost on Husseini’s capitulation mission occurred a few steps from his house, in the adjacent American Colony building. The residents of the American quarter – a community of American and Swedish Christians who settled in Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century – would play a key role that day. Bertha Spafford Vester, the daughter of the American Colony’s founders and now its leader, urged the mayor to display a white flag, to which end she tore off part of a bedsheet. Husseini also equipped himself with a broomstick. The photographer Lars (later Lewis) Larsson, who was also a resident of the colony, accompanied the delegation of dignitaries that set out from the American Colony.

Accepted tradition has it that the delegation’s first encounter with a British force took place in upper Lifta (today’s Romema neighborhood, near the northwestern entrance to the city). The “force” consisted of two cooks who had left their camp in order to look for eggs (or water, according to a different version) and stumbled across the mayor and the delegation. This account, which appears in the official British history books and in several other sources as well, is quoted endlessly. But the event probably never happened.

The mayor of Jerusalem, Hussein al-Husseini, meets with British sergeants James S. Sedgewick and Frederick H. Hurcomb with the white flag of surrender, December 9, 1917.Credit: Hol Lars (Lewis) Larsson, American Colony Photo Dept / The Larsson Family Collection, Stockholm

The story of the meeting with the cooks was first reported by the noted American writer and journalist Lowell Thomas, who was with the British troops. Thomas mockingly described the cooks’ inarticulate speech and heavy Cockney accent as they encountered the dignitary who wanted to hand over the city to them. But Thomas wasn’t there at the time, and Larsson, who meticulously documented the day’s events, produced no photographs of the event. According to Shalev-Khalifa, the story is an urban legend.

“The sources relate that there were cooks, but they did not encounter the delegation,” she says. “They were apparently the first to hear about the delegation and hurried to inform their commanding officers. But it’s not by chance that this legend – the Cinderella story according to which Jerusalem was conquered by perfectly ordinary people – caught on.”

The second stage of the capitulation is well documented. Two British sergeants, James S. Sedgewick and Frederick H. Hurcomb, met the delegation in the area of today’s Central Bus Station, at the western end of Jaffa Road. Larsson posed the delegation in front of his camera. The resulting image became the visual icon of the surrender of Jerusalem: Husseini, cigarette in hand, is surrounded by 10 delegation members including the chief of police, one of them holding the white flag of surrender attached to a broomstick. A boy snuck into the picture who, according to the narrative that developed was identified as Menashe Elyashar, later a leading figure in the city’s Jewish community. But Shalev-Khalifa is dubious – the boy is too young to be Elyashar (who would have been 15 in 1917), she maintains.

The famous image of the surrender is the first in a series of photos collected in an album by the residents of the American Colony. Researcher Rachel Lev arranged the album’s images from that day chronologically. But the collection is not complete. Three photos are missing. They were definitely taken but apparently were deliberately destroyed, in a rather clumsy attempt to alter the historical record.

The two photos taken after the one depicting Sedewick and Hurcomb depicts a second capitulation (or third, if you count the cooks), this one to two officers: Maj. F.R. Barry and Maj. W. Beck. Maj. Gen. John Shea, the sector commander, who was then stuck in his car next to a bridge on the ascent to Jerusalem that had collapsed, later ordered the photos destroyed. In the meantime, he was preceded by Brig. Gen. C.F. Watson, on horseback, who met the mayor and accepted the letter of surrender. By now the mayor was apparently worn out, and he and Watson, with the entourage, entered Shaare Zedek Hospital, then located on Jaffa Road, whose director, Moshe Wallach, hosted them for tea. The various flags were left outside, affixed to the terrace. Larsson took their picture and also photographed the mayor and Watson in the hospital courtyard.

Keepers of keys

By now, a small British force had advanced eastward along Jaffa Road as far as the post office (at what is today IDF Square, adjacent to the New Gate). Under the command of one Capt. Cook, the force seized the post office and confiscated the keys. The building was subsequently demolished, but the keys remained in British hands. They were returned to Jerusalem this week by Julian Munby, an independent British archaeologist, whose ex-wife is the granddaughter of Cook’s commanding officer, to whom the keys were sent during the war.

It wasn’t until about 11 A.M. that Shea finally reached the city, where he caught up with the surrendering delegation. His vehicle was photographed next to Jaffa Gate with a large crowd around it. Shea ordered Watson to return the letter to the mayor so that he could hand it to him again, in a proper manner. Thus occurred the city’s fourth surrender that morning.

The study coordinated by Shalev-Khalifa discovered the precise circumstances of Shea’s destruction of the photographs. It turns out that, after the stop at Shaare Zedek, Larsson rushed back home to develop the images he had taken. Grasping the importance of the event, he wanted to send the images to London – but the postal service wasn’t operating.

Maj.-Gen. John Shea (fourth from left) and staff at the English Hospital, Jerusalem, December 1917.Credit: American Colony Photo Dept. / Library of Congress

Following a suggestion he received from a military artist named McBey, who also documented the day’s events, Larsson asked Maj. Gen. Shea to help him send the photographs by military post. Shea, who opened the envelope, was furious at having missed no fewer than three capitulation ceremonies that day.

“They want to send it, they truly believe that it’s important, but then he [Shea] bursts out and tells them not only not to send the photos but to destroy them and the negatives,” notes Lev, the American Colony curator. According to one account, she adds, he was afterward placated and allowed them to spare the photos of the two sergeants. Despite the general’s wrath, the photographs weren’t destroyed until a month later, so Lev doesn’t rule out the possibility that one day copies will be found that Larsson managed to hide.

As evening fell and Husseini returned home, a large British force entered the city to begin preparing a fifth surrender ceremony, this one for Gen. Edmund Allenby, the commander of the British campaign in the Middle East. That event only occurred two days later, on December 11, at Jaffa Gate. According to a detailed protocol that had been drawn up long before, Allenby was to enter the Old City on foot, “as a simple English gentleman.”

Husseini fell ill and died of pneumonia two weeks later, thus becoming arguably the only victim in the campaign for Jerusalem in World War I.

On Monday of this week, exactly 100 years later, the ceremony was reenacted with the participation of representatives of the city’s different communities, to mark the opening of the Tower of David Museum exhibition. Among those attending the event were the current Lord Allenby – Edmund’s great-great nephew Henry Allenby – and a great-grandson of Maj. Gen. Shea’s, John Benson, who told Haaretz, “He was very proud to have taken part in those events. He collected information and pictures about his service, he had great respect, but he did not see it as a religious matter. He was a soldier and did his work.”

One of the two white flags of surrender on a stone terrace at the entrance to Jerusalem, December 9, 1917.Credit: Hol Lars (Lewis) Larsson, American Colony Photo Dept / The Larsson Family Collection, Stockholm

Many questions remain open. One is how it came about that one flag of surrender, which was placed on a terrace next to Shaare Zedek Hospital, split into three and reached a trio of museums on three different continents. That evening, the mayor sent an envoy to bring back the flag from the terrace, but he returned empty-handed. What happened is that Watson had sent soldiers to take the flag. In the evening, Watson arrived at the American Colony and asked people there to go to the mayor’s home and get him to sign the flag to corroborate its authenticity. At this stage, the residents apparently decided to replicate the flag: They used the same set of sheets to create another one. The mayor signed both flags, and the American Colony handed over one and kept the other.

Bertha Spafford Vester sent her flag to the Garst Museum, in Greenville, Ohio, which has an exhibit about Lowell Thomas. Watson bestowed the second flag to the Imperial War Museum. But at one point, one of Watson’s soldiers, named Norton, cut off part of the flag as a souvenir and sent it to his wife. That’s the section that ended up in the office of the Justice Ministry’s custodian general – and, finally, in the Tower of David Museum. Norton’s widow recounts her husband’s deed in the letters that were found when the frame was opened. What’s not clear is how the flag got from Britain back to Israel, to the ministry.

“To relate facts in Jerusalem is pointless,” Shalev-Khalifa avers. “And what difference does it make what actually happened? Whether the mayor went to the left or to the right? But on that day all those things were charged with meaning, the way the objects were charged with meaning. World War I is the first time in which history made room for the ordinary person, and in the story of Jerusalem’s surrender, everyone tried to improve upon his position. Everyone understands the symbolism of that day. This story shows how history becomes legend instantaneously.”

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