Ireland and the Last Crusade

by Pat Walsh


Ninety years ago this month, on December 9th 1917, Jerusalem was recaptured by Britain for Christendom. This event was treated in England as the major event of the war. Lloyd George imposed a news embargo on reporters until he could announce the news to the House of Commons (in those days parliament was still important). To celebrate the liberation of the Holy City from the Moslem after 730 years the bells of Westminster Abbey rang for the first time in three years and they were followed by thousands of others across England.


General Allenby, the liberator of Jerusalem, and a descendent of Cromwell, declared in Jerusalem that the crusades were over. On hearing him, the Arabs, who had been encouraged into fighting for the British and who had seen them as liberators, walked away. And they have found themselves walking ever since.


The great outpouring of Christian triumphalism produced by the capture of Jerusalem was not confined to England. This is how The Irish News in Belfast saw the culmination of the last Crusade in its editorial of December 11th 1917:


“‘Fallen is thy throne, O Israel! The power of the Moslem in the Land of Promise has fallen at last: we may assume that with the entrance of General Allenbys troops to Jerusalem an end has practically been made of Turkish rule over Palestine When the Holy Land has been fully rescued from Turkish domination, who will possess and administer it?


“Official statements regarding the re-colonisation of the country by the scattered Jewish race have been made. Observers can discover no traces of enthusiasm for the project amongst Hebrews themselves. As an idea, nothing could be more sentimentally attractive; as a practical proposition, we believe each child of Abraham would bestow a benison on his brother who migrated from the lands of the Gentiles to the shores of Lake Galilee and the slopes of Mount Olivet. Thus might the storied little territory become once more a land flowing with milk and honey - greatly to the content of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who remained where they were.


“But an independent Jewish State cannot be established all at once, even did all the Rothchilds lead all their compatriots back to Jerusalem. The country must be protected - in plain terms, annexed: a useful synonym in dealing with Oriental transactions might be Egyptised. And the conquerors are, of course, the natural protectors of the territory won by force of arms. Such has been the rule and practice from before the era of Moses and Joshua. We know all about it in Ireland. When the objects of the campaign in Palestine and Mesopotamia have been completely achieved, a solid block of Asian territory will lie between the Germans and the Indian Ocean. The Turks gave the Kaisers people a free passage from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf.  The new occupants of Palestine and Mesopotamia will not be quite so accommodating.


“No one has hinted as yet at the ultimate fate of Constantinople itself: it was to have been the Czars property, but poor Nicholas would rest satisfied with less nowadays. England, at all events, is carefully building up a wall against German aggression along a line on which German eyes were cast covetously many years ago There are really some arguments against a precipitate disclosure of the Allies war aims : one excellent reason for silence being that the Allies do not know how much they can aim at with a prospect of getting it.


It seems that by this time Ireland was completely in tune with British Imperialist ambitions in the world and quite in unison with the Christian fundamentalism of the Manse that accompanied it.


One of the major reasons why Britain entered the European war in August 1914 was to avail of the opportunity it presented to capture Mesopotamia and Palestine from the Turks. Of course, there was a problem - Turkey was not a combatant in the war at that time. It took a couple of months for Britain to find a cassus bellum. But it did on November 5th, over an obscure incident in the Black Sea, and the conquest of the Ottoman territories was on.


Along with the conquest of the Ottoman territories there was another project close to the heart of Liberal England. This was the project for planting a Jewish colony in Palestine for British Imperial purposes. There was, of course, a Zionist movement that also had the same objective of establishing a national state. But the Jewish nationalists did not have the power to realise it themselves in the region.


During the nineteenth century a Christian Zionist impulse developed within the Nonconformist wing of Protestantism in England. Their Bible reading bred a familiarity with, and imbued a strong interest in, reviving the Holy Land and creating a new Jerusalem. There was a belief encouraged by reading the Old Testament that a Second Coming of Christ depended upon the return of the scattered Jews to the lands of their ancestors. So what happened to the Holy Land mattered to Christian fundamentalist England since great Messianic promises and millenarian predictions depended upon it.


There was nothing ridiculous in the belief and desire that Imperial power could be used to bring about an end to history and the Second Coming. And some Irish Catholics like Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge began to see things in similar fashion as they sacrificed themselves to the cause.


There was another factor that exerted a gravitational pull on England from the Holy Land. Since the break with Rome the English Church had lacked a spiritual home. The Catholic Church had rebuilt the spiritual home of Christianity in Rome but when Henry VIII made himself pope of the English he had to be content with Canterbury.


The more English Protestants read their bibles the more they yearned for their own spiritual home - in the original holy places of Judea and Samaria. And what could be more of a riposte to Rome than to expose its spiritual inauthenticity by trumping it with the original article. 


Christian Zionism worked its way into the political classes of the British State as the Nonconformists came to political power and it became part of the political culture of Liberal England despite the fact that Darwinism seemed to undermine the religious impulse toward the end of the century.


Under the influence of Herbert Sidebotham, a prominent Liberal journalist, and CP Scott, the influential editor of The Manchester Guardian, there developed a Manchester school of Christian Zionism. The leaders of Jewish nationalism in England, Dr. Weizmann and Harry Sacher, were from Manchester themselves and the city became the hub for an Imperial Zionist project.


The proposed Jewish colony in Palestine was a British construction designed as a foundation for Imperial hegemony and as another buffer state between India and potential enemies. It would end forever the scheme of a Berlin to Baghdad railway and frustrate any designs the new potential rival, France, might have in the region.


The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917 as Jerusalem was about to be captured for the Empire. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister who authorised it, was raised by an uncle, a lay preacher in a millenarian Baptist Church, and was brought up in a school where there was taught far more about the history of the Jews than the history of my own land”. 


In 1903, when an ordinary Member of Parliament, he had drawn up a Jewish Colonisation Scheme for Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. The colony was meant for British East Africa but by 1917 the real thing was possible.


The Prime Minister was not alone. Of the ten men who had formed his War Cabinet at one time or another seven had come from Nonconformist families. Three were the sons or grandsons of Evangelical preachers. They all had a close acquaintance with the Old Testament and the people of the book.


The memoirs of Major Vivian Gilbert were published in 1923 under the title of The Romance of the Last Crusade - With Allenby to Jerusalem. They open with a piece about King Richard the Lionheart and Sir Brian de Gurnay riding away from Jerusalem after their failure to capture the city:


“In the heart of Sir Brian de Gurnay was the thought of another and a Last Crusade that for all time should wrest the Holy Places from the Infidel” (p.1)


Chapter XII of Major Gilbert’s book is called When Prophecies Come True and is about the capture of the Holy City:


“At last Jerusalem was in our hands! In all ten crusades organised and equipped to free the Holy City, only two were really successful, - the first led by Godfrey de Bouillon, and the last under Edmund Allenby… then at last we found ourselves inside the walls themselves - the first British troops to march through the Holy City!… I recalled a quaint hymn I read many years ago. It was written by Saint Augustine, or founded on words of his, and was passed from mouth to mouth in the middle ages to encourage recruiting for the Crusades… As I rode through Jerusalem the words were on my lips… We were proud that Jerusalem after languishing for over four hundred years under the Turkish yoke should be free at last… But above all, we had a great and abiding faith in God, Whose mercy had granted us this victory… to free the Holy Land forever, to bring peace and happiness to a people who had been oppressed too long!” (pp.171-77)  


As the British advanced towards Jerusalem many of them began to see themselves as taking part in the last Crusade. All the Christian fundamentalism imbued in English gentlemen by their Biblical education in the Public Schools came flooding out in a great surge. They had reconquered the Holy Land for Christendom after 700 years of Moslem occupation. And what would the Holy City and the New Jerusalem be without the Jews?


Irish nationalism came into political alliance with the English Nonconformists in the Liberal/Home Rule movement and they came into military alliance with them in 1914. By 1917 the Redmondites had become a mere mouthpiece for British Imperial interests and they uttered no criticism of what was going on about them. And, of course, John Dillon was a personal friend and confidant of the leading Liberal Zionist CP Scott. So the Devlinite Irish News saw nothing wrong in the plantation, ethnic cleansing and partition that was planned for Palestine despite “knowing all about it in Ireland”.



Pat Walsh

Irish Political Review

December 2007