A new exhibit opening soon at Jerusalem's National Library of Israel will showcase rare photographs taken by British soldiers during the summer of 1917, presenting how the taking of Palestine from the Ottomans looked like through their very own lenses, just in time for the battle's centennial.
The photos show General Allenby's accession to Jerusalem, the battles, removing the wounded as well as smaller moments from the soldiers' daily life.
The National Library said the exhibit, titled "Where Balfour Meets Allenby", contains never before seen photos reflecting the British soldiers' point of view when they first arrived to the Holy Land.
"World War I was the first war where soldiers carried a camera in their pockets into the field of battle. Cameras were small enough to be transported everywhere, and soldiers documented themselves during combat. The soldiers came to the Holy Land, the land of the Bible of which they heard so much during Sunday sermons, and saw themselves successors to the crusaders," said Dr. Gil Weissblei, one of the exhibit's curators.
According to Weissblei, the soldiers' photos reflect their personal "religious" experiences. After British forces concluded conquering Be'er Sheva and moved northward, Allenby's armies traveled east towards Jerusalem while slowly, painfully pounding Ottoman troops to submission.
"The closer they got to the city from the direction of Hebron and Bethlehem towards Mount Gilo, and from Ramle and Lod through Beit Horon to Nabi Samuel, the young soldiers transformed from warriors to pilgrims and from conquerors to crusaders. Fighting in the Holy Land was described by them as a religious experience and they saw themselves as sort of emissaries," Weissblei explained.
"Similarly to many of the Jews in Israel, British soldiers considered General Allenby, who entered Jerusalem on foot through the Jaffa Gate, as not only a military leader and liberator but as the bearer of religious tidings. Allenby's soldiers saw in their admired commander the personification of Richard the Lionheart, former King of England and hero of the Third Crusade," the curator continued.
The photographers in the exhibit came from the soldiers' private collections, moved on to their families and finally reaching the National Library. The soldiers' identities remain a mystery, as do any details on their photos beyond what they noted in their own albums.
Nevertheless, the photos present the man-in-the-field's point of view on a very personal, rather than institutional, level. The photos may present Israel's holy sites, but also showcase an umbrella-wielding pilgrim leaning on the Western Wall, soldiers shading themselves under palm trees or a soldier trumpeting.
One last remarkable photograph depicts a soldier with a dog, a new personal import of the British army to Israel. "There were no dogs in Israel until the British occupation. People were dying of hunger and couldn't afford pets. The British army came with tracking dogs in tow, and they later stuck around," Weissblei illuminated the conscripted pooch's appearance.