Outside of Lawrence of Arabia, the Middle East Theater of World War I is an often underreported area of the Great War, but much of what happened during that time frame came to define the modern Middle East. by 1917, the British and its allies were on the offensive against the Ottoman Empire, advancing from Egypt into Palestine.
A series of battles from the Sinai to Jaffa (near modern-day Tel Aviv) led the British forces to the outskirts of Jerusalem and saw the Ottoman forces (under a German commander) fall back to the ancient city. British forces were tired and far from home, facing an increasingly desperate Ottoman force close to its supply lines.
Under the command of the very able Gen. Edmund Allenby, the British attacked a reorganizing Turkish force in the Judean Hills while maintaining pressure on the forces defending the city. With no time to dig in and its counterattacks failing, part of the Ottoman Army was forced to retreat, the city was mostly encircled and under siege, and the remaining Turks offered their surrender.
A small portion of the white surrender flag used that day now sits in the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum in London. The bulk of it, however, sits in the Garst Museum and Darke County Historical Society, a small museum near Dayton, Ohio. How it ended up in a small Ohio museum is almost as interesting as the capture of Jerusalem itself.
The Garst, like most regional museums, keeps a collection related to the history of its local area. The Jerusalem surrender flag, now part of its permanent collection, is no different from the museum’s other artifacts. It’s part of a collection focused on the life of local resident Lowell Thomas.
Thomas was an American news correspondent who worked with media giants CBS and NBC for more than 40 years, between 1930 and his retirement in 1976. He was the creator of the travelog film genre and he was present at the 1917 Battle of Jerusalem. Born in Woodington, Ohio in 1892, Thomas began his documentary career with a commission by President Woodrow Wilson to find stories to turn American public sentiment in favor of the Great War.
The filmmaker went to the Middle East to begin looking for stories to excite the American public. Upon arrival, he was granted official status with the British War Office as a correspondent. He chose the Middle East because he’d heard stories about T.E. Lawrence’s adventures in Arabia and wanted to see them for himself.
Thomas met Lawrence in Arabia, and convinced the British officer to allow him to document his efforts against the Ottoman Turks on the condition that Arab leaders’ voices be heard. Thomas agreed and was present for many of Lawrence’s actions in the Middle East. Thomas and his cameraman Harry Chase were at the Battle of Jerusalem, embedded with Allenby’s Army.
When Allenby walked through the city’s Jaffa Gate two days after the surrender, Chase and Thomas were there to capture it on film. After the war, Thomas produced two documentaries, “With Allenby in Palestine” and “Lawrence in Arabia.” He went on tour with the films, creating lavish openings in London that included incense braziers and exotic women.
During his 1919 visit to London, Thomas met a Canadian colonel who was gathering artifacts for the Imperial War Museum. That colonel gave a 35x37-inch portion of the Jerusalem surrender flag to Thomas. When the Garst Museum opened a wing dedicated to his life in 1966, Thomas donated that portion of the flag to it. It has been on permanent display ever since.