The Jewish Legion was five battalions formed during the course of World War I, made up mainly of Jewish soldiers. Originally created with the hope of fulfilling the desire for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the brigade was controversial and divided opinion.
Following Turkey’s entry into the war in November 1914, the Sultan’s representative in Palestine, Djemal Pasha, suppressed
the Jewish defence organisation, Ha-Shomer, and closed down the paper of the Labour Zionists, Ahdut. He also expelled
approximately 1,000 Jews to Egypt. Many of these deportees had originally come from tsarist Russia, which was allied with
Britain and France against the Kaiser’s Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire –and Ottoman Turkey. Large numbers of the
deportees were housed at a central camp at Gabbari, near Alexandria, but squabbles broke out in difficult conditions.
Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader, and Yosef Trumpeldor, a Jewish officer who had served in the tsar’s army, imposed order by instituting a police force in the camp. This small group became the nucleus for the Jewish Legion, which saw service in the Middle East in 1918. It can be argued that the Legion became the model for the Haganah and the Irgun – and ultimately for the Israel Defense Forces.
On 5 March 1915 around 100 of these deportees signed a document which stated:
“At Alexandria, a regiment of Jewish volunteers has been formed. It places itself at the disposal of the British government in order to participate in the liberation of Palestine.”
In hindsight, World War I was a war of suffering and futility, which led to the fall of the great empires and to the emergence of both Nazism and Stalinism. In an unpublished article in 1912, Jabotinsky had remarkably predicted the coming of this
terrible conflict. He wrote:
“That war of which the world is so frightened and which, at the same time, it expects with such a morbid, painful curiosity…(will entail the loss) of an incredible number of casualties and such financial losses, direct, indirect and reflected – one gets the impression that there cannot be enough figures in the mathematical lexicon to count it all.”
Jabotinsky, a journalist, had found himself in Egypt because his editor in Odessa had asked him to travel to the Arab world to discover whether the Sultan’s call for a jihad against the West was being heeded. Instead Jabotinsky found himself organising an army of Jews.
Working for the Zionist cause in Istanbul for several years had convinced Jabotinsky that little could be expected from the Ottoman empire. In his book The Story of the Jewish Legion, he comments that “where the Turk rules neither sun
may shine nor grass may grow and that the only hope for the restoration of Palestine lay in the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire”. He understood that the presence of a Jewish force in the region at the war’s end would be an all-important ingredient in the diplomatic campaign to secure Allied support for a state for the Jews.
Yet apart from Chaim Weizmann, most Zionist leaders were hostile to the notion of a Jewish Legion. Opponents included the
essayist Ahad Ha’am, Max Nordau (co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation with Theodor Herzl) and the journalist
Nahum Sokolov. Their English supporters were of a similar mind. Even Lord Rothschild – to whom the Balfour Declaration would be addressed – was ambivalent.
Their concern was that the Turks might turn on the Jews of Palestine if a Jewish armed force emerged on the side of the Turks’ enemies. The massacre of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks weighed heavily, and until the closing stages of the war in 1918 it wasn’t certain that Britain would even be victorious. Suppose the losing side was backed? This was the reason the Zionist movement transferred its activities to neutral Scandinavia for the rest of the war.
The British military in Egypt under General Maxwell would only agree to the formation of ‘a corps de muletiers’ (a mule
corps). Jabotinsky was exasperated and departed for Italy in a huff, but a Zion Mule Corps was indeed established under the
command of an Irish Protestant, Lt Col John Patterson. Knowledgeable about the Hebrew Bible, he saw himself in the figure of Yoav, who had been appointed by King David to command his army.
In April 1915, 562 volunteers sailed from England for Turkey on the Hymettus and the Anglo-Egyptian. The Zion Mule Corps
supplied bullets and bully beef to British and Anzac forces at Gallipoli in an attempt to knock Turkey out of the war swiftly. As history records, it was a glorious failure with the blame laid at the feet of Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty – with a total of 34,000 British dead and 78,000 injured. The members of the Corps who had struggled for eight months under the most adverse conditions were regarded as dispensable, temporary employees and not even paid a pension. Yet while it existed for only a year, its exploits became widely known. It helped to dispel the anonymity of the Zionist cause in the public arena and opened doors in government that had hitherto been closed.
Jabotinsky was highly influenced by national movements in Europe. Tens of thousands of Poles had been members of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which invaded Russia in 1812. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, even proposed the establishment of a Jewish Legion in the 1850s, which would then liberate Palestine. In Italy the movement for independence,
led by Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour, deeply impressed Jabotinsky.
The British began to give the green light to Jabotinsky’s proposal to form a Jewish fighting force in February 1917, but there was still severe resistance in both the Foreign Office and the War Office. The minister of war, Lord Kitchener, proved to be a formidable obstacle. But Kitchener met his end when HMS Hampshire went down off the Orkneys in June 1916 after hitting a mine laid by a German U-boat. Kitchener was replaced as minister of war by Lloyd-George – a profound sympathiser with the
On 23 August 1917, the creation of ‘the Jewish regiment’ was announced in the
London Gazette. A few months later, on 4 February 1918, there was a triumphal march by the Legion through the City of
London. The following day the Legion left for Cherbourg en route for Palestine and its place in contemporary Jewish history.
The Jewish Legion eventually developed into a force of 5,000 – 35 per cent from the USA, 30 per cent from the United Kingdom, 28 per cent from Palestine itself and the rest from other countries – as far afield as Argentina.
This first group of volunteers was the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. It included many Russian Jews from London’s East End and the remnant of the Zion Mule Corps. In April 1918, the 39th Battalion, composed of Jews living in the United States and Canada, was formed at Fort Edward, Nova Scotia. The Jews of Palestine comprised the 40th Battalion. The 41st and 42nd Battalions were depot battalions stationed at Plymouth.
In their final camp in Taranto, in southern Italy, en route to Egypt, Jabotinsky ordered the construction of a wooden holy ark from a local carpenter, which would house the battalion’s Sefer Torah. In Cairo, the British High Commissioner Sir Reginald Wingate took the salute as the Legion marched past to the strains of the Hatikvah.
The 38th were ordered to move to the arid wilderness of the Mellaha in the Jordan Valley, some 1300 feet below sea level and during the hottest month of the year. Malaria soon began to take its toll.
The 38th and 39th were then instructed to capture the Umm-es-Shert ford across the Jordan. Patterson remarked that “the sons of Israel were once again fighting the enemy not far from the spot where their forefathers had crossed the Jordan under Joshua”.
This comment symbolised the real significance of the Jewish Legion – not as a minor, perhaps irrelevant, fighting force at the tail end of the war, but as a symbolic resurrection of a Jewish national spirit.
Such symbolism conveyed itself to Jews internationally – and to non-Jews in the corridors of power.
The very idea that the Jews now possessed an army after two millennia eventually became a cliché in the telling of the Zionist story. Even so, in 1918 the existence of a Jewish Legion was a source of pride. Its formation marked the watershed between a defenceless diaspora and a defensible state-in-the-making.
A bridge between exile and homeland.
Jewish Renaissance 13 July 2017