Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 10, 2017

Remembering the Founders of the Jewish Legion

Cap Badge of the Jewish Legion. Widely
displayed but not authorized for Royal
Fusiliers uniforms until 1919. The motto is
קדימה Kadima (forward).

By James Patton

Vladimir Ze-ev Jabotinsky
Royal Fusiliers Officer
The story of the Jewish Legion begins with two Russian-born Zionists, Vladimir Ze-ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940) and Josef Trumpledor (1880-1920).  Jabotinsky was one of the leading Zionists in Russia, a delegate to the World Zionist Congress, a lecturer, a journalist, and what we call today a community organizer. In December 1914 he went to Alexandria as a war correspondent for the Moscow liberal daily Russkiya Vedomosti

He found in Egypt thousands of foreign-born Jews deported from Palestine by the Ottoman government. In particular he met Josef Trumpeldor, a decorated (Cross of St. George) Russian veteran of the siege of Port Arthur where he lost an arm and was imprisoned by the Japanese.  In March 1915, a delegation led by these two was received by Gen. Sir John G. Maxwell, where they presented a plan to raise an infantry unit from these deportees to fight the Ottomans in Palestine and the Levant. 

This was a problematic request. British Army rules at the time prohibited service in the Army by persons  not Crown subjects, like Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor.  Moreover, even though there were some British Jews in the mix, the government opposed the use of Zionists in the campaign in Palestine because the liberation of Eretz Yisrael from Muslim rule was not a diplomatic goal. 

Josef Trumpeldor
(Zionist Mule Corps Kit)
The Gallipoli campaign provided a solution:  service against the Ottomans on a different battlefront. It was proposed to Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor that their men form into an irregular supply unit to serve with the Indian Army Mule Corps. Trumpeldor agreed to this, Jabotinsky did not. So the Zion Mule Corps was formed, commanded by Lt. Col. John H. Patterson, DSO, a Zionist sympathizer, old East Africa hand and Boer War veteran recalled to duty. Trumpeldor was the second in charge and called "Captain". As irregulars, the men were supplied and paid by the British and wore British kit but without insignia.

Landing on April 27th after only four weeks of training and travel, 562 men served with distinction on the Cape Helles front, mostly hauling water. A Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to Pvt. M. Groushkowsky, who under heavy bombardment near Krithia on May 5th kept his mules from stampeding and despite being wounded in both arms, delivered the load. On a different occasion Trumpeldor was shot through the shoulder but refused to leave the field. Lt. Col. Patterson later wrote: "Many of the Zionists whom I thought somewhat lacking in courage showed themselves fearless to a degree when under heavy fire, while Capt. Trumpeldor actually reveled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it ..."

The Zionist Mule Corps were at Gallipoli until the end, returning to Alexandria on 10 January 1916. The unit was officially disbanded on 26 May. 

Lt. Col. Patterson
Meanwhile, Jabotinsky had gone to the UK to lobby the Jewish community for help with raising his fighting unit. The rule against foreigners serving was relaxed in late 1916 so Jabotinsky and about 120 of his followers, some of whom were Zionist Mule Corps veterans, were enlisted into the 2/20th (County of London) Battalion (Blackheath & Woolwich), which was being reinforced prior to redeployment to the east. Again there were objections to Zionist soldiers and Jabotinsky’s contingent was held in Home Service when the 2/20th sailed. 

Although the World Zionist Congress had proclaimed neutrality in 1914 (Jews were serving in many armies), Jabotinsky eventually convinced the renowned chemist and British Zionist leader Dr. Chaim Weizmann of the value of his plan. Weizmann had the ear of top British leaders due to his important contributions to munitions production, and in August 1917 the 38th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (City of London) was authorized (hereafter ‘38/RF’), which was popularly called "The Jewish Legion". Over a thousand volunteered, including Jabotinsky’s group plus many Russians living in the UK.  Lt. Col. Patterson was again appointed the CO and Jabotinsky was made a staff lieutenant.

Once the Zionist movement was behind the plan, it gained momentum quickly. Another unit was raised in Canada, and in January 1918 it was designated as 39/RF, with a deployed strength of 1,720 (more than twice the size of a serving battalion) and most were Americans. The CO was Maj. J.A. de Rothschild, DCM, from the banking family, a French-born naturalized Canadian. 

And it didn’t stop there. A third unit was created in Egypt for Zionist deportees plus non-Palestinian Ottoman Jewish POWs, and over 1,000 were recruited again. This was designated as 40/RF, and still forming in November 1918 were 41/RF and 42/RF. After the war, Jabotinsky wrote of the 5,000 or so men who served in 38/RF, 39/RF and 40/RF: 34 percent were from the U.S., 30 percent were from Palestine, 28 percent were from England, 6 percent were from Canada, 1 percent were Ottoman Jewish POWs, and 1  percent were from Argentina. 

London, 4 February 1918, 38/RF on Parade, Col. Patterson Mounted at Left

Public reaction in the UK to the formation of 38/RF was mixed. Prejudice reared its ugly head as newspapers referred to the unit as "the Royal Jewsiliers" or "The King’s Own Tailors". To counter this disparagement, 38/RF was granted the "freedom" to parade with fixed bayonets in the City of London on 4 February 1918. Led by the band of the Coldstream Guards, they marched over eight miles past tens of thousands of cheering onlookers, were saluted by the Lord Mayor, and ended in Stepney where numerous dignitaries received them.  

In June 1918, 38/RF arrived in Palestine with the 31st Brigade, 10th (Irish) Division. They were immediately deployed to the Jordan Valley north of Jerusalem to oppose Ottoman counter-attacks.

In July 38/RF and the newly-arrived 39/RF were attached to Chaytor’s Force, commanded by the New Zealander Maj. Gen. Sir E.W.C. Chaytor and consisting otherwise of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade and two battalions of the British West Indies Regiment, in total 11,000 men.  Besides various skirmishes, the Force participated in the Battle of Megiddo in mid-September 1918, widely considered one of the decisive victories on the Ottoman front. The objective of 38/RF and 39/RF was to capture the Jisr ed Damieh bridge and fords in a pincer movement to sever the line of communication between the Ottoman forces on the west bank and the Fourth Army at Es Salt, so that the Force could capture Es Salt and Amman. 

David Ben-Gurion
For his actions at the bridgehead, Lt. Jabotinsky was Mentioned in Despatches (he also received an MBE in 1919), and Maj. Gen. Chaytor later told the Jewish troops, “By forcing the Jordan fords, you helped in no small measure to win the great victory gained at Damascus.” 

Among the members of the Jewish Legion who would later become prominent Israelis were David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister (1948-54, 1955-63), Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, President (1952-63) and Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister (1963-69). 

On 4 December 2014 the cremains of Lt. Col. Patterson were re-buried at Avihayli in Israel. PM Netanyahu said of Patterson and the Jewish Legion: "the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia. And as such, he can be called the godfather of the Israeli army." 

Sources include: The Jewish Virtual Library,, and The Jewish Magazine, 

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