World War 1 – Jewish Regiment

In the darkest days of World War I, the British decided to raise a  regiment comprised of Jewish volunteers to help them in their struggle  against Germany and Turkey. J.H. Patterson, who had led the Jewish  Mule Battalion during the Gallipoli campaign earlier in the war in 1915,  forged one of its battalions into a fighting force in the teeth of consistent  anti-Semitism. Organized as the 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions of the  Royal Fusiliers, the Jews served mostly in the Jordan Valley and fought  in the Battle of Megiddo, the final Allied offensive of the Sinai and  Palestine Campaign. Patterson recorded his experiences in his book, With  the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign. 

  Fight for Kosher Food 

“In the early days of 1917, the outlook for the Allied Powers was  particularly black and menacing,” Patterson writes. “England, the  mainstay in the great struggle, was in deadly peril, for just about this time  the ruthless submarine campaign was at its height and our shipping losses  were appalling. The Central Powers with startling rapidity had crushed  and overrun Belgium, Serbia, and Romania, and a large slice of France  was in the grip of the invader. It was a case of stalemate with Italy, while  Russia, the colossus with the feet of clay, was in the throes of a revolution  and lost to the Allies.

“Turkey, the so-called ‘sick man of Europe,’ was found not able to ‘sit  up and take nourishment,’ but strong enough to administer some nasty  knocks to the surgeon.”

Although the USA had joined the struggle in April 1917, months would  elapse before it could make a difference on the battlefields of Europe. This  induced England’s ministers to win the millions of Jews to their cause.  It was no coincidence that the Balfour Declaration was issued shortly  after the creation of a Jewish Battalion in August 1917. Patterson was  surprised to find that although the vast majority of trades and professions  were represented among the Jews joining his force in Plymouth, the vast  majority were either tailors or in some way connected with the tailoring  trade. Because of this, the Jewish troops were jocularly known as the King’s  own Schneiders (tailors).

The only serious trouble Patterson had before leaving with his men  from Plymouth was regarding kosher food.

“This was, of course, quite new to the military authorities, and the army  being a very conservative machine, and at times a very stubborn one, they  failed to see the necessity of providing special food for the Jewish troops – a  curious state of mentality considering the care taken with the food of our  Moslem soldiers,” he wrote.

“I was at length summoned to the War Office by the adjutant-General  Sir Nevil Macready, who informed me that I was to carry on as if I had  an ordinary British battalion, and that there was to be no humbug about  kosher food or Saturday Sabbaths, or any other such nonsense. I replied  very respectfully, but very firmly, that if this was to be the attitude taken up  by the War Office, it would be impossible to make the battalion a success,  for the only way to make good Jewish soldiers of the men was by first of all  treating them as good Jews.”

Only after Patterson threatened to resign, did the War Office telegram  to say that kosher food would be provided and Saturday would be kept as  Shabbos.

When the battalion was about to leave in January 1918, every man  was given ten days leave to bid farewell to his family and the battalion set  off on the 5th of January. Some people were surprised that the Russian  immigrants among them came back. Due to the preponderance of Russian  immigrants among the men, Patterson made a point of taking Reverend  Leib Aisack Falk (1889-1957) as chaplain. Born in Bavska, Latvia, he had  studied at various yeshivos including Kovno and Telz. He eventually served  as rov in Sidney, Australia.

On the way to Eretz Yisroel they stopped at Taranto, Italy, where Rev.  Falk and Patterson searched for and found a suitable aron hakodesh in  which to place the battalion’s sefer Torah. 

“Before we embarked,” Patterson writes, “I addressed the men and  pointing to the Ark, told them while it was with us we need have no fear,  that neither submarine nor storm would trouble us and therefore, that our  minds might be easy on board ship. We… arrived safely in Alexandria on  the 28th February, never having seen a submarine or even a ripple on the  sea during the voyage. Owing to this piece of good luck my reputation as  a prophet stood high! It is a curious fact that on her next voyage the Leasoe  Castle was torpedoed and sunk.”

  Anti-Semitism 

After arriving in Egypt, Patterson wrote to his Commander in Chief  offering to collect more Jewish soldiers from the region. He discovered that  the General Staff from General Allenby down was not interested in having  more Jewish soldiers, nor favorably disposed to those who had arrived. They  were more interested in placating the local Arabs who were harrying Turks  to the east of the Jordan and keeping Bedouins and other marauders from  interfering with lines of communication. In the end, permission was granted  to recruit volunteers from Eretz Yisroel and nearly a thousand recruits joined.

Soon, the men were riding by train through the Sinai Desert on their way  to Eretz Yisroel. To the highly imaginative Patterson, the trip was reminiscent  of the Jews’ wanderings through Sinai.

“All through the night as we sped across the Sinai Desert seated in our  open trucks [train carriages] we could see the funnel of the engine belching  forth a pillar of flame, and we were greatly reminded of the wanderings of  the forefathers of these men in this very desert, who in their night journeys  were always guided by a pillar of fire,” he wrote. “Nor did the simile cease as  dawn broke, for then the pillar of flame turned into a cloud of smoke shot  up into the still morning air.”

At the front, Patterson discovered anti-Semitism. Quartermasters were  reluctant to replace his men’s clothing that tore constantly as they built and  reinforced rocky fortifications.

“No matter how ragged and disreputable the men were, I found it  impossible to get any renewal of clothing, although it was freely handed  out to other units. It seemed as it were a joy to some people to be able to  withhold necessary articles of clothing such as shirts, socks, shirts, etc., and  keep the men working in dirty jobs and then say with glee, ‘Look at the  ragged, dirty Jews.”

Another instance of discrimination was the brigade’s stint in the Jordan  Valley during August and September, when “even the wild Bedouins who  linger in these parts to feed their flocks of goats flee from… place in these two  dreaded months. No British soldier had yet been called upon to endure the  horrors of the Mellahah even for a week; nevertheless, the Jewish Battalion  was kept there for over seven weeks at the most deadly period of the year.”

In 1919, after the war was won, Patterson was given command of the  Rafa area between Sinai and Eretz Yisroel. The brigade’s job was to guard  over 150 miles of railway from Bedouin marauders. Early in April, the Jews  were considerably upset to receive orders instructing: “The walled city [of  Yerushalayim] is placed out of bounds to all Jewish soldiers from the 14th to  the 22nd April, inclusive.”

“I cannot think of a greater act of provocation to Jewish soldiers than  this or a greater insult,” Patterson wrote. “The days during which they were  prohibited from entering Jerusalem were the days of the Passover. Think  of it! Jewish soldiers for the first time in their lives in Palestine and barred  from the Temple Wall of Jerusalem during Passover! Only a Jew can really  understand what it meant to those men, and the great strain it put on their  discipline and loyalty… Not since the days of the Emperor Hadrian had  such a humiliating decree been issued.”

Actually, the reason for this seems simple. Probably, the British didn’t  want armed Jews in Yerushalayim at a time when Jewish-Arab tensions were  heating up.

Patterson concludes by writing: “A few interested parties, for their own  ends, sedulously spread the rumor that there was no anti-Semitism shown in  Palestine. I will leave the reader to judge whether these people were knaves  or fools.”

  The First Palestine Pogrom 

At the end of his book, Patterson discusses the first Arab pogrom to occur  under British Administration. In March, 1920, an order was issued to the  troops in Eretz Yisroel: “As the government has to pursue in Palestine a policy  unpopular with the majority of the population, trouble may be expected  between the Jews and the Arabs.”

Initially, the outbreak was expected on Friday, 2nd April, when Arabs used  to celebrate the Nebi Musa procession. Moslems from all over Eretz Yisroel  would meet once a year at the Mosque of Omar and make a procession  to a place near the Dead Sea they mistakenly took for the site of Moshe  Rabeinu’s kever. However, this particular day passed without incident. The  pogrom erupted two days later when stragglers of the procession were  coming up from Chevron.

Patterson cites an eyewitness report of how it started:

“We were standing on the balcony of the New Grand Hotel watching the  progress of an Arab procession just arrived from Hebron. As the procession  reached the entrance to the Jaffa Gate it just had the appearance of the usual  show of this kind – a bit noisy, but apparently well behaved. It was escorted  by two officers of the Military Administration and a few of the Arab police.

“All at once, the members of the procession formed themselves into a  square just inside the gate, and the first thing we saw then was an old Jew  about 70 years of age get his head split open with an Arab’s sword, and as  soon as he was down he was stoned. Within a few minutes, a lot more Jews  got like treatment. By this time, the crowd was well out of hand and rushed  quickly into the Old City looting and killing, and a few hours later there was  a steady evacuation of battered Jews. There was no military present.

“The following day the trouble started again and a lot more were injured,  and the third day there was more looting and more casualties, and then at  last the military took strong steps and the trouble was at an end.”

Actually, it took a couple more days to quell the riot. Due to the relative  lack of British interference during the pogrom, all this time the Arabs’ cry  was, El dowleh ma ana, The government is with us.

Patterson concludes on an optimistic note: “For many years the Jew and  Arab have worked together without the slightest friction and I see no reason  for any in the future. There will be no trouble whatever in Palestine between  these two peoples when the country is properly governed and the local  officials loyally carry out the policy of the Imperial government… Weeping  may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

  (Source: Liut.-Col. J.H. Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign,  Hutchinson & Co. London) 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.