The Balfour Declaration: Britain’s unholy mess

When Allied forces captured Jerusalem 100 years ago this month, British leaders hailed a bright new dawn for the Holy Land. But, writes David Reynolds, by making conflicting promises of land to both Jews and Arabs, they created a diplomatic knot that has yet to be untangled

General Edmund Allenby walks into Jerusalem on 11 December 1917

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

Jerusalem, 11 December 1917. It was one of the most carefully choreographed moments of the First World War. The Holy City had fallen to soldiers of the British empire after four centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks. At the end of a bleak year on the western front – with the third battle of Ypres bogged down in mud and blood – this whirlwind 40-day campaign in Palestine seized the imagination of Britain and the world.

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

Jerusalem, 11 December 1917. It was one of the most carefully choreographed moments of the First World War. The Holy City had fallen to soldiers of the British empire after four centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks. At the end of a bleak year on the western front – with the third battle of Ypres bogged down in mud and blood – this whirlwind 40-day campaign in Palestine seized the imagination of Britain and the world.

Now, the victorious British commander, General Edmund Allenby – nicknamed ‘the Bull’ on account of his huge frame and volcanic temper – prepared to make his ceremonial entrance. But there was to be no triumphalism: a terse cable from London had made that clear: “It would be of considerable political importance if you, on officially entering the city, dismount at the city gate and enter on foot. German emperor rode in, and the saying went around ‘a better man than he walked’. Advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious.”

The “better man” was, of course, Jesus. And the German emperor was Wilhelm II, the popinjay kaiser, who had ridden into the city in triumph on 29 October 1898 through a ceremonial arch specially cut into the old walls. This had been the high point of a grandiose six-week Palästinareise, organised by Thomas Cook & Son, to promote German influence and cultivate the Ottomans, who would later become his allies in the First World War.

Allenby’s Palestine journey was no Cook’s Tour, nor was his entry into Jerusalem anything like the kaiser’s. On 11 December 1917, the Bull rode up to the Jaffa Gate on his black horse, but then dismounted and entered the Holy City on foot, emulating Christ not kaiser. Allenby also struck a conciliatory note to the people of Jerusalem in his proclamation of martial law, promising that the sacred places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would all be respected and protected.

A dream come true?

Back in Britain, however, the mood was less restrained. The press hailed the “End of the Crusades”, with Punch cartoonist Bernard Partridge evoking Richard the Lionheart, who had failed to capture Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, murmuring “My dream comes true!” Te Deums were sung in St Paul’s and in Westminster Cathedral, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George exulted in the House of Commons, declaring to a nation still steeped in the Bible: “The name of every hamlet and hill occupied by the British Army” – places like Beersheba, Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives – “thrills with sacred memories.” What he called “the most famous city in the world, after centuries of strife and vain struggle” had now “fallen into the hands of the British Army, never to be restored to those who so successfully held it against the embattled hosts of Christendom”.

Grandiloquent words. The problem was that the British government had already tied itself in knots about what to do with Jerusalem and what was called Palestine. In 2017, a century after the Great War, that tangle has still not been resolved.

Sick man of Europe

In their heyday, the Ottomans had shaped the destiny of south-eastern Europe, in 1683 even besieging Vienna. By 1914, however, their empire was a shadow of its former self – the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’ – now stripped of its territories in the Balkans and north Africa by nationalist uprisings and European rivals. Aligning itself with Germany seemed the best way to fend off tsarist Russia, the most threatening of those foes. In November 1914, alignment turned into alliance, as the Ottomans slid chaotically into war against Russia, Britain and France.

For these three Entente allies, though primarily focused on the conflict in Europe, war against Turkey opened up the prospect of vast gains in the Levant and the Middle East. The Ottoman army, however, put up tougher resistance than expected. In late 1914 it threatened the Suez Canal, Britain’s imperial artery to India, and in the spring of 1915 its troops repulsed British and French landings on the straits at Gallipoli. Settling into a long war, the British government focused on two campaigns – pushing north-west from Basra towards Baghdad, to protect its oil interests in the Persian Gulf, and also north-east from the great British possession of Egypt into Gaza and up the Mediterranean coast to help create a bulwark to protect the Suez Canal. Strategies for defending the British empire now morphed into policies for imperial expansion.

Policies – or fantasies? What is striking about British diplomacy in the near east in the First World War is its lack of realism and coherence. The knot they wove for themselves was composed of several strands.

One strand, from the autumn of 1915, was what became known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, prompted by Britain’s desire to draw the Arabs into the war against their Ottoman masters. Hussein was the Sharif of Mecca – titular guardian of Islam’s holy places – while Sir Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. In return for his military support, Hussein wanted Britain’s endorsement of a postwar Arab federation, stretching not just across the Arabian peninsula but also embracing Syria, Iraq and Palestine. McMahon’s attempts to clarify what the British would accept were deliberately vague – and even more so when translated into Arabic, in which he had no familiarity (not, of course, ideal for Britain’s top man in Cairo).

Friends and enemies

A second strand was the Sykes-Picot agreement, drawn up in an effort to square Britain’s territorial ambitions with those of France. Although the two powers were now allies against Germany, elsewhere they remained rivals for empire. François Georges-Picot was a wily French diplomat, while Sir Mark Sykes was the British cabinet’s Middle Eastern expert. The word ‘expert’ is, perhaps, a bit generous. Sykes was an ambitious, smooth-talking Tory MP who had written an amusing book about his travels around the prewar Ottoman empire and then used it to ingratiate himself with the Asquith government, desperate for insights into a region of which it knew little but now wanted much.

Closeted in a room in the Foreign Office, on 3 February 1916, Sykes and Picot drew lines in the sand – or, more exactly, crayons across a large map – to divide up the spoils of the Ottoman empire. Area A, north of a line running roughly from Acre to Kirkuk, would be French, while Area B, to the south, would be British. Within the central part of Areas A and B, the Arabs would be allowed their kingdom, but under the oversight of France in the north and Britain in the south. Since both governments coveted Palestine, which included sites holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews, Sykes and Picot coloured that brown, to signify some kind of international condominium. Within weeks, the Sykes-Picot plan had received official approval in both capitals. The Arabs were not informed.

On reflection, the British were unhappy about what this meant for Palestine, seen now as an important buffer zone to protect Egypt. And that’s where the third strand, the Zionists, came in. They were led by the future first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who, with his charisma and fierce intellect, had won the support of senior government figures. His leading backer was AJ Balfour, the former prime minister, who admired the Jews for their intellect and energy but saw them as an alien presence in Christian Britain. Helping the Jews to return to Zion would, he believed, “restore them to their dignity” so that “their intelligence will cease to be merely acquisitive and will become creative”.

Balfour’s strange mix of sympathy and prejudice was not by itself decisive. The declaration that would bear his name and add further to the British tangle was a response to the exigencies of war in 1917.

Military deadlock

Lloyd George had become prime minister in December 1916. Disenchanted by the “mud-crawling strategy” on the western front but unable to challenge the dominance of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, he envisaged the Palestine campaign as a way to break the military deadlock and boost morale. Seeking a commander of a “dashing type”, he chose Allenby in June 1917, told him to ask for such reinforcements as seemed necessary and stated that the cabinet expected Jerusalem “before Christmas”.

Allenby managed to deliver, unlike Haig. Pushing north from Sinai in late October, he drove his men hard despite the heat and dust – exploiting every opening as the Turks began to retreat. The fall of Beersheba, Gaza, Hebron and, finally, Jerusalem came at the same time as the name of Passchendaele, a little village east of Ypres in Belgium, was being etched in British cultural memory as the ultimate symbol of the First World War’s mud-and-blood futility.

With Allenby’s dramatic victories, the cabinet urgently debated whether to issue a declaration of British support for a Jewish ‘homeland’ in Palestine. First, this would give some apparent moral sanction to Britain’s territorial claims in the struggle for empire in the post-Ottoman near east. The British would govern Palestine not for their own benefit but to provide a protectorate that allowed the Chosen People to return to the Promised Land.

Second, given London’s belief in the potency of worldwide Jewry, it was hoped that British endorsement of Zionism would strengthen support for the war in Russia and America. After the overthrow of tsarism in February 1917, Russia’s new provisional government was struggling to keep its war-weary country fighting. In the USA, which had entered the conflict in April, war mobilisation had been slow to get going. In both of these allies, it was hoped, pro-Zionist Jews could galvanise public opinion.

The proposed declaration was dictated by the imperatives of power and propaganda. Genuine sympathy for Zionism – though evident in some policymakers, not least Balfour – was a secondary consideration. Between July and October 1917, the text went through several versions, as the original Zionist formulation was watered down from a stark statement – “His Majesty’s government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people” – into a vaguer affirmation that the government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

British plans unravel

Crucial qualifications were also introduced after Lord Curzon, a former Viceroy of India, loftily reminded colleagues that Palestine was not empty terrain but already had Arab communities living there and that the holy places of Jerusalem were venerated by Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. A clause was duly added that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

The revised declaration was pushed through cabinet on 31 October, the day Beersheba fell to Allenby’s troops. On 2 November, Balfour conveyed its terms in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leading London Zionist, which was then published in The Times on 9 November. This turned out to be two days after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. And that’s when Britain’s secret diplomacy in the near east began to unravel.

The Bolsheviks immediately published the Allies’ “Secret Treaties”, found in the tsarist archives. And so, at the end of November, the Manchester Guardian informed British readers of the details of the Sykes-Picot agreement. These stood in tension, to put it politely, with the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Then on 15 December, Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, secured an armistice from the Germans and began formal negotiations. This undercut the main propaganda point of the Balfour Declaration.

The cabinet itself was also breaching the spirit of the declaration. During that autumn, British emissaries held secret talks in Greece and Switzerland with dissident Turks about a possible armistice. In mid-November, as Weizmann and the Zionists celebrated their triumph, the cabinet formulated Britain’s negotiating position. It was agreed that not only would the Turks retain their Anatolian heartland but they would also be allowed to keep titular control over their possessions in the near east, including Palestine. Curzon wrote an incredulous memo: “Almost in the same week that we have pledged ourselves, if successful, to secure Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, are we to contemplate leaving the Turkish flag flying over Jerusalem?” In fact, this secret policy toward the Ottomans was driven through cabinet by Lord Milner, the man who had also drafted the final text of the Balfour Declaration. Luckily, perhaps, for the British, the Ottoman peace talks petered out in the spring of 1918.

Nods and winks

And so, by the time Allenby entered Jerusalem in studiously humble triumph, the British had already given a range of incompatible pledges and agreements, nods and winks, to the Arabs, the French, the Jews and the Turks. Some of the incompatibilities remained hidden from public gaze; others were quickly and embarrassingly exposed by the Bolsheviks. It would take years to make some sense of the mess.

In the end the Turks lost their empire, the Arabs were fobbed off and the French were propitiated in a modified carve-up of the Levant, while Britain got Palestine but in the form of a ‘Mandate’ from the postwar League of Nations and with a commitment to prepare the territory and its fractious inhabitants for “self-government”. For nearly 30 years, His Majesty’s Government tried to square the circle of Palestine’s two ‘selfs’ – Jews and Arabs – within a vulnerable strip of land little larger in area than Wales or New Jersey. Eventually Britain threw in the towel in 1948 and left the contending parties to fight it out.

In October 1917, Curzon had warned the British cabinet that by committing to a Jewish homeland in Palestine they could be “raising false expectations which could never be realised”. A century later, his words seem tragically prophetic.

David Reynolds is author of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster)

Television: David Reynolds’ documentary Balfour: A Very Long Sentence will air on Radio 4 in December

Advertisement

Collector’s Edition: You can read more about this subject in our collector’s edition magazine The Story of the Holy Land. For more details, go to buysubscriptions.com/special-editions/the-story-of-the-holy-land