Jerusalem in World War I: The Palestine Diary of a European Diplomat.
Reviewed by Eamonn Gearon

Jerusalem in World War I: The Palestine Diary of a European Diplomat, by Conde de Ballobar, edited by Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Roberto Mazza. IB Tauris, 2011. 284 pp, ISBN 978-1-84885-632-5. £59.50.

For the duration of World War I, Jerusalem was not, for obvious reasons, a popular destination for travellers in the ASTENE region. Indeed, the city saw the mass withdrawal, and sometimes removal, of sections of the population. This mass disruption of ordinary life did not make it an especially fun place in which to live, whether one was a foreign diplomat or not.

One of the most exciting things about coming across a new diary, from the point of view of an historian or researcher, is that one never knows in advance what one is going to find. Will the diary turn out to be a waste of time, dull and uninformative, with a series of entries that fail even to tell us something about the author or the world around him? Or will it turn out to be a text that opens up a view of a time and place that one could never have hoped to gain by any other means?

Ballobar’s wartime diary falls easily into the latter category. It is a wonderful book that in less than 300 pages gives the reader a treasure trove of detail and insight into life in Ottoman Jerusalem.  One finds here a great deal more insight than one might otherwise find in a standard history of the same period. Ballobar arrived in Jerusalem in October 1914 and did not finally leave until May 1919, so one really gets the whole sweep of the war’s history here.

With many of his fellow foreign diplomats recalled to their home countries at the start of the war, Ballobar found himself responsible for the citizens of more and more European nations, including the numerous members of an almost equally numerous number of Christian religious orders.

One of the biggest difficulties for Ballobar was his sense of isolation. His entry for 16 November 1914 includes the plaintive lines, ‘Will I conclude these notes? Will the terrific announcements one can hear everywhere come to pass? I do not know, but in any case I am so alone, so isolated,, that lacking a family to tell my life to, I’ll tell it to my distant family …[if I die] I would like to think that these notebooks will get to their hands.’

Jerusalem in World War I The details and anecdotes, the reports of rumours that changed daily, if not hourly, all feed into the pages of Ballobar’s diary, providing an honest account of what it felt like day by day, before the passage of time allows embellishments and false memories to creep in. This is the beauty of a good diary: it reveals the hopes and worries that would otherwise be overlooked, providing important insights that might not otherwise be seen so many decades after the fact, but which were important enough for the author to relate.

Eamonn Gearon