The Jewish Legion in Palestine Part 1

April 17, 2023


Zionist leaders Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor worked to form a Jewish Legion to fight with the British in World War I defeat the Ottoman Empire and regain Eretz Yisrael. British regulations only allowed them to form the volunteer transport company known as the Zion Mule Corps commanded by Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson, an Irish Protestant Zionist who provided kosher food for his troops. The Mule Corps’ 650 members brought water, ammunition, and other supplies under heavy gunfire to the British and ANZAC troops fighting at Gallipoli. The Mule Corps was dissolved after that campaign, but the nucleus reformed in 1917 under their previous commander as the first step in creating three Jewish battalions to fight in Palestine as part of General Edmund Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Two more battalions provided support in England. Some British Zionists opposed creating the Jewish force because they thought it better to keep Jewish soldiers in Europe to show good citizenship and they were concerned, as well, that the Germans, Austrians, and Ottomans would retaliate against their Jewish populations.

   Some 60 volunteers from the Canadian Prairies enlisted in what was informally called the Jewish Legion, joining about 5,000 other Legionnaires, mostly American, British, and Palestinian Jews. The Winnipeg Jewish community, like many others, greeted the creation of the small Jewish army with great enthusiasm. Prominent male members of the Winnipeg community formed the Jewish Legion Aid Society to raise funds and assist recruiting while prominent female community members formed the Red Mogen David to provide nursing care for the soldiers and assistance for their families at home. The Red Mogen David later saved many lives by providing nursing care for Winnipeg Jews during the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1920.

Our volunteers received military training in Canada and then in England before sailing to Egypt as the 38th and 39th Royal Fusiliers with a Menorah badge on their left sleeve. They reached Palestine after Allenby won his victory at Gaza/Beersheba and captured Jerusalem so they fought minor actions along the Jordan before seeing major combat in the Battle of Megiddo. New Zealand General Edward Chaytor, the divisional commander, commended the Legion’s forcing of Jordan River fords as an achievement that “helped in no small measure to win the great victory gained at Damascus.” Slowly demobilizing after the British armistice with the Ottomans on October 30, 1918, most Legionnaires returned home while some remained in Palestine or took up British residence. Returning veterans were cheered and feted in Winnipeg. A few helped found the General Monash Legion in 1934 and enlisted again in World War II.

Legionnaires who remained on duty in Palestine guarded prisoners and also took part with the rest of Allenby’s army in athletic competitions where they often excelled.  Jewish boxers won five gold medals but lost the overall prize on a spurious technicality. Jewish soldiers placed second in the soccer competition and did well at cricket. Not surprisingly, Canadian and American Jewish baseballers overwhelmed their British and Palestinian-Jewish competition.

General Allenby received a tumultuous welcome when he visited Winnipeg in 1926 and few spoke then or later of the negative sides of the Legionnaires’ experience. Unlike Balfour and Col Patterson, Allenby was not a Zionist. He considered Arab participation in both regular units and T.E. Lawrence’s irregulars more valuable to his campaign than Jews and resisted having Jewish units assigned to him.  The high command had to order him to give the Jewish units combat duty instead lesser jobs such as digging trenches.  Allenby’s staff went further. Col. Patterson later wrote that he “was constantly called on to ward off unfair kicks, aimed at the Jewish Battalion.” At one point, Col. Patterson and other Christian officers submitted their resignations in protest. (The resignations were declined.)

Discrimination took the form of inadequate supplies and assignments to work in difficult desert conditions for many weeks longer than British troops. Soldiers who came down with malaria received inferior treatment. Headquarters forbade the Jewish Legionnaires to enter Jerusalem during Passover 1919. Worst was the court-martial of some American Jewish recruits who demanded quicker demobilization and refused orders to guard prisoners. After first trying and failing to charge them with mutiny, a military court charged them with disobeying orders and sentenced them to hard labour for up to seven years even though British soldiers had done much worse without being put on trial. The sentences were reversed after United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a leader of American Zionism who happened to be visiting, returned to London and spoke to Prime Minister David Lloyd George about this and other anti-Jewish actions by British officers. The British Army passed over Lt.-Col. Patterson for promotion despite the contribution of the Jewish battalion to Allenby’s very successful campaign.

The term, Jewish Legion, is an informal description. The word, “Legion,” never appeared officially and a Jewish reference only appeared in December 1919, a year after the armistice, when the 38th, 39th, and 40th Royal Fusilliers were consolidated to become the First Judean Battalion with the Fusiliers’ menorah badge on their caps.

A second vignette identifying some of the Prairie Legionnaires will appear soon.