The idea of a Jewish Legion emerged out of the national legions – Belgian, Dutch, and German – that had defended the young French Republic after the Revolution of 1789, when it was threatened with invasion by the monarchies of Europe. Tens of thousands of Poles later served in Napoleon’s Grande Armée when it invaded Russia in 1812, in the hope of throwing off
the yoke of Tsarist rule.
Both Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, and Armand Lévy, of the French Republican Left, then proposed, during the 1850s, the establishment of a Jewish Legion which would ‘liberate’ Palestine.
The tradition that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ continued throughout the 19th century, and in 1914, on the outbreak of hostilities, the Poles formed three companies of riflemen and invaded Russian territory – an event supported and applauded by the Kaiser’s Germany.
Zionism grew out of the 19th-century European nationalist tradition, with the Bible as its essential backdrop. The Jews began to see themselves as a nation in exile – with a culture, history, and literature, as well as a common religion. Jewish history was not Judaic history.
Zionism modelled itself on other European national movements that sought independence from great empires – in particular, the struggles of the Italians, Irish, and Poles. Unlike these movements, however, the Jews had first to ‘return’ to their historic homeland, before conducting a ‘national liberation struggle’ against the Ottoman Turks who had ruled Palestine for centuries.
In November 1914, Turkey entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Despite having escaped
from Tsarist anti-Semitism, many Jews in Palestine still held Russian citizenship and were therefore now considered enemy aliens.
Djemal Pasha, the Ottoman imperial viceroy in Syria, immediately expelled 1,000 Jews to Egypt. Many refugees were
housed at a central camp at Gabbari, near Alexandria, but squabbling broke out amid the miserable conditions. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader, and Joseph Trumpeldor, a socialist veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, therefore instituted
a police force in the camp. This small group became the nucleus for the Jewish Legion, which would eventually see service as part of the British Army on the battlefields of the Middle East in 1918.
Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor attempted to convince General Maxwell, the British commander in Egypt, of the need for a Jewish
contingent to form part of a British force that would invade Palestine. Trumpeldor resorted to wearing his medals – two gold and two bronze St George Crosses – to impress Maxwell, but the latter was prepared only to offer a lowly corps de muletiers.
A disappointed Jabotinsky washed his hands of the exercise, but a Zion Mule Corps was established under the command of an Irish Protestant, Lieutenant-Colonel John Patterson.
He had read the Hebrew Bible and identified with the figure of Joab, who had led King David’s army. In April 1915, 562 volunteers sailed for the Dardanelles on the Hymettus and the Anglo-Egyptian, as part of the doomed Gallipoli campaign.
While the Zion Mule Corps supplied bullets and bully beef to British and Anzac forces in the most adverse circumstances,
the Ministry of War regarded them as little more than temporary employees, undeserving even of a pension. Yet, though
the Zion Mule Corps had existed for less than a year, its presence became widely known in Whitehall. Its existence opened
doors that had previously been closed.
The Zionists had been attempting for two decades to secure an international declaration of support for their cause from the Great Powers of the day. On 2 November 1917, Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild, a prominent banker, zoologist, and Jewish community leader, as follows:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The British had also offered support to the Hashemite Arabs of the Hijaz, promising an Arab state spanning the Middle East if the Ottoman Empire were defeated. The British wanted the support of both Zionists and Arabs for their war effort. But their promises tended to be vague and ambiguous.
What was the meaning of ‘a national home’ in Palestine? A state or a community centre? The British believed in the notion
of an ‘international Jewish power’ that encompassed Jewish businessmen in New York and Jewish socialists in revolutionary Russia. The Zionists played on such fantasies as they angled for support.
The notion of a Jewish Legion ran parallel with this sudden British enthusiasm for a declaration of support for the Zionists. It
seemed to fit with British strategic objectives at the time – to defeat the Turks, secure British suzerainty over Palestine, and divide up the Ottoman Empire between the imperial powers. Suddenly Jabotinsky was welcome in the corridors of power.
Lord Kitchener, the Minister of War, had initially opposed the formation of a Jewish Legion. His end came unexpectedly when
HMS Hampshire went down off the Orkneys in June 1916 after hitting a German mine. Kitchener’s replacement as Minister of War, David Lloyd George, not only sympathised with the Zionist experiment, but also saw it as a means of promoting the war effort by encouraging dreams of an independent Jewish state, and preventing the French from gaining a foothold in Palestine.
One month after the Declaration, Balfour’s deputy at the Foreign Office proclaimed:
‘Our wish is that Arabian countries shall be for the Arabs, Armenia for the Armenians, and Judaea for the Jews’.
Ironically, the very idea of a Jewish military force, fighting on the side of the Entente, had been opposed by most leading Zionists. In part, they feared that the Turks would treat the Jews of Palestine in the same manner as the Armenians – around a million of whom had been murdered in the genocide of 1915.
Lloyd George wanted to recruit some of the thousands of Jewish émigrés in London’s East End. They were unwilling to fight with the armies of the anti-Semitic Tsar, Britain’s ally, on the Eastern Front, but were clearly amenable to fighting the Ottomans in the Middle East.
The existence of a Jewish Legion aroused great interest. Even Isaac Rosenberg, the First World War poet, applied to join the Legion – but he was killed at Arras before his transfer came through.
The advent of ‘the Jewish regiment’ was formally announced in August 1917, and in early 1918 there was a triumphal march
through the City of London, when the Lord Mayor took the salute at the Mansion House.
The first group of volunteers coalesced as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. In April 1918, the 39th Battalion, composed of Jews from the United States and Canada, was formed at Fort Edward, Nova Scotia. The Jews of Palestine provided the 40th Battalion. The 41st and 42nd Battalions were depot battalions stationed at Plymouth.
In Palestine, the arrival of a Jewish force was greeted with almost messianic appreciation by sections of the Jewish population, whose numbers had been reduced from about 60,000 before the war to just 23,000 by 1918, mainly as a result of the famine and disease which had raged across the Ottoman Middle East.
The 38th were ordered to move into the line between Jerusalem and Nablus – the Turks on one hill, the Jewish Legion on another facing them. ‘Gas exercises’ with protective masks were carried out for fear that the Turks would employ this deadly weapon.
They were then sent to the arid wilderness of the Mellaha, a narrow valley below sea level, close to Jericho and the Dead Sea, during the hottest month of the year. Although 800 arrived, malaria had soon reduced this figure to 550. The Turks fired on them with a huge gun, affectionately known by the Legionnaires as ‘Jericho Jane’.
The 38th and 39th Battalions were then instructed by the Anzac commander General Chaytor to capture the Umm-es-Shert ford across the River Jordan. This allowed Chaytor to march his forces into Jordan. The Legion then advanced on the town of Salt, but were soon ordered to turn back to guard some 900 Turkish and 200 German and Austrian captives.
After the war, the British dissolved the 5,000-strong Jewish Legion, and began to row back on the promise implicit in the
It can be argued that the Jewish Legion accomplished little militarily, experiencing limited action only at the tail end of the war.
But the symbolism of a Jewish force fighting in the ancient homeland of the Jews after 2,000 years of exile communicated a powerful political message to both Jews and non-Jews worldwide. It helped to counter the claims that Jews were all either subversive communists or greedy capitalists, or that they were cowardly draft-dodgers who refused to serve.
British communiqués often failed to mention the Jewish Legion, and clearly upper-class anti-Semitism played a part in this. Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson ended the war as he had started it: no promotion, no recognition. Yet he understood the significance of his contribution.
As he remarked, ‘The sons of Israel were once again fighting the enemy not far from the spot where their forefathers had
crossed the Jordan under Joshua.’
Military History 9 August 2018