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.”
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)