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Palestine 1917

    The Last Crusade

From the cover notes of the 1991 hardback edition

It is 1917. Palestine, a starving segment of the Ottoman Empire, is besieged by the Egyptian-based British under Lieutenant- General Sir Edmund Allenby. Its vastly outnumbered defenders are mostly Turks, reluctant Arab conscripts, and Austro-Hungarian artillerymen. Under the direction of German staff officers this threadbare garrison has twice managed to rebuff British attempts to to break through their line at Gaza.

Yet, unlike the war in Europe, the desert campaign has retained a certain Crusader chivalry. The Turks take their prisoners for sight-seeing trips around Jerusalem. Among Allenby’s troops are Yeomanry regiments from the English Midlands commanded by fox hunting squires who have brought their hunting horns as well as their own horses to the desert. Both sides make extensive use of cavalry, though not enough for Weidinger, a one-armed Uhlan officer who longs to charge to glory. Magnus, a Swedish prophet raves in tongues outside the Germans’ Jerusalem headquarters. Maeltzer, a Swiss journalist, observes all with a sympathetic eye, keeps a diary and writes laudatory despatches of German-led victories.

But as the odds against them increase the Turco-Germans begin to suspect that they have enemies within to deal with. “Some Iscariotical bastard is betraying us!” roars Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of the Turkish 8th Army. And he is right. A few of the Zionist Jews the Sublime Porte allowed to settle in Palestine before the war have long supported the British and founded an espionage ring they call the Nili Group. Among them is Sarah Aaronsohn, a courier for the agent codenamed Daniel, a spy so accepted in the lions’ den he can give Allenby Kressenstein’s most secret briefing. Others, too, must dissemble to survive. Widow Shemsi,a sensual Beiruti widow obliged to marry an elderly Turkish officer to save her brother’s life now finds it convenient to be the mistress of Krag, the under-promoted German intelligence officer. In the hunt for Daniel, Krag find himself competing with Von Papen, a future chancellor of Germany. Richard Meinertzhagen, Allenby’s master of deception and T.E. Lawrence, who may have been Sarah’s secret admirer, also appear.

Colin Smith weaves all this into a haunting saga as the Last Crusade unfolds, the Yeomanry prepare to meet the Austrian artillery with cold steel in the charge at Huj, and today’s Middle East is forged in the crucible of treachery and battle. Not since J.G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur has a novelist so vividly combined fact and fiction, comedy and high drama.


Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, who had recently left Hamish Hamilton to start his own publishing company, had always been a great admirer of the Booker prize winning Farrell, was sold the book by an enthusiastic Gill Coleridge, who had agreed to take it on as my agent. I was fortunate enough to have Christopher employ Jeremy Lewis (later author of outstanding biographies of Cyril Connolly and Allen Lane) to edit it and The Last Crusade appeared in 1991 to some gratifying reviews. It had been a long time in the making.

I had discovered Sarah Aaronsohn and the Nili Group almost ten years before when The Observer, forever trying to find the right capital from where its Middle East correspondent might cover the region, moved me and my family from Cairo to Jerusalem. My Israeli landlord came from a family of German Zionists who had settled in Palestine some twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War. He informed me that his grandfather, a doctor, had been a member of a spy ring for the British called the Nili Group. And he began to tell me about their contribution to Allenby’s campaign.

We lived on French Hill in one of several apartment blocks the Israelis had built after the 1967 war in order to encircle Arab East Jerusalem with their settlements. From one side of the flat’s broad terrace was a stunning view across the drop of the Dead Sea valley to the hazy outline of Jordan’s Mountains of Moab. From the other could be seen the Mount of Olives, the walls of the old city and inside them the minarets and domes of its ancient mosques and Eastern churches.

A short walk from my flat, on a saddle of land between the Hebrew University and French Hill, was the most visible reminder of the campaign. East Jerusalem’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is well tended by Palestinian gardeners who keep the grass between its white headstones short and see that its flowers grow. Here rest 2,500 of Allenby’s soldiers (and a few German airmen) who, shortly before Christmas 1917, caused the Turks to abandon the Holy City and ended four centuries of Muslim domination. On long walls are inscribed the names of another 3,500 who have no known graves.

Downhill from the cemetery, on the Nablus road leading to the old city’s Damascus Gate - over which the Turks once hanged Arabs they even suspected of pro-British sympathies - is the American Colony Hotel. The Colony, which features in my story, is a stone built late Ottoman building with vaulted ceilings and some of its rooms around a flagged courtyard hung with bourgainevillea. It has long been a favourite of journalists.

Its proprietor was Horatio Vester, a British lawyer of American-German origins. (Horatio Spafford, the devout and wealthy Chicagoan who was his maternal grandfather, had moved with his Norwegian-born wife Anna to Jerusalem in 1881 to found a religious community after their four small daughters perished in a shipwreck.) As a small boy Horatio had watched the Turkish rearguard withdraw towards their last stand at the hill of Nebi Samwil a little to the north of the Colony Afterwards he extracted the gun powder from a grenade and cartridges he and his sister Ann-Grace had found on the abandoned battlefield but, by enormous luck, failed in his attempts to ignite it in the pot-bellied stove that heated their nursery during Jerusalem’s cold and wet winters.

My luck too, otherwise Horatio might not have been around to allow me to examine the Colony’s remarkable photographic record of the conflict. Commercial photography, along with a small farm, blacksmith’s, butcher’s shop, bakery and souvenir emporium, was one of the ways the community remained solvent and did their philanthropic work in the days before they moved from being a hostel to a hotel. Here in musty albums was a glimpse of this vanished world.

The studied arrogance of the fully bearded Jemal Pasha, ruler from Damascus of all of Ottoman Syria, taken mounted on a grey on the banks of the Dead Sea, right arm akimbo, left hand on the reins, holstered pistol on his belt, frowning and staring beyond the camera as if something displeasing had just caught his eye. The enormous holes blown into the German Consulate building at Haifa by French warships. The cruel Hassan Bey, notorious as the Tyrant of Jaffa, bursting out of his tightly belted tunic, yet the moustached features beneath the lambswool hat benign and iconoclastic. The ruins of the mud brick houses of Gaza destroyed in the failed British offensive earlier in the year. A three man honour guard of Turkish soldiers with the highly embroidered standard, covered with pre-Kemalist Arabic script, awarded to their regiment for the valour it had displayed repulsing the Gaza attack. Jackbooted Germans emerging from freight cars at Jerusalem railway station. Bertha Vester, Horatio’s mother, in her nursing uniform for the Colony looked after the wounded from both sides. British prisoners who had just been given a guided tour of Jerusalem’s Christian places staring unsmiling into the camera. An equally solemn looking Turkish officer, wounded in the fighting around Nebi Samwil, lying arms folded in bed, his bandaged and splinted broken leg clearly visible. . From Nebi Samwil itself there was a picture of a bunched line Turkish infantry lying prone on the bellies, long Mauser rifles pushed out in front of them, possibly a unit being held in reserve and waiting to be ordered forward. The Arab mayor of Jerusalem, and his great coated entourage - it was December - were snapped gladly “surrendering” the city to two British sergeants still wearing the shorts they have had on since they advanced from the low lying ground around Gaza. Behind them a member of the mayor’s party is holding the white flag they displayed when approaching British lines. It was made out of one of the Colony’s bed sheets. (It is now in London’s Imperial War Museum.) A dismounted Allenby humbly enters the Holy City on foot through the Jaffa Gate. Some time later T.E. Lawrence turned up and is captured in a group photograph standing alongside the man who will become the first King Abdullah of Jordan. He is wearing an unlikely suit and tie and looking rather bashful, as if he feels he has no right to be there.

These then, the people, Horatio’s old photographs and sometimes simply being able to visit the places where my cast, real and imaginary, played out their various parts, were my inspiration. That and a conviction that I could put together a story worth telling. Some of the historical characters, the enigmatic Lawrence being the prime example, are well known. Others such as Sarah Aaronsohn, Richard Meinertzhagen and Bertha Vester, usually only make footnotes in the better known chronicles of those times. I have tried, in word and deed, to be faithful to all of them.

Colin Smith, Nicosia, 2005.


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Buy this as an ebook from
  The Last Crusade
London, 1991
ISBN: 1 85619 0765

Sinclair-Stevenson Paperback 1993 and 1994
ISBN 1 85619 475 2
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