The Jewish Legion and the First World War
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Trumpeldor began recruiting volunteers from among the Jews in Egypt who had been deported there by the Ottomans in the previous year. Its commanding officer was a British Army Christian, Lt. John Henry Patterson. Patterson later became great friends with the Netanyahu family and was godfather to Yonathan Netanyahu, who was named in honor of Patterson. Yonathan, killed in the famous rescue raid of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, in , was the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Zion Mule Corps were disbanded in May But in August , the formation of a Jewish battalion was officially announced. The unit was designated as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and included British volunteers, as well as members of the former Zion Mule Corps and a large number of Russian Jews. Thousands of Palestinian Jews also applied to join the Legion, and in , more than 1, were enlisted.
This group was organized as the 40th Battalion. The 41st and 42nd Battalions were depot battalions stationed in England. Over 20 were killed, wounded, or captured; the rest were stricken with malaria, of whom more than 30 died. On September 19, the 38 th Battalion and two companies of Margolin's 39 th Battalion were assigned the task of capturing both sides of the Umm Shart ford across the Jordan River and advancing east beyond the Jordan. After the first attempt to gain the ford failed, Jabotinsky's company "was ordered to make the second attempt … and achieve the purpose at all costs.
General Chaytor, commander of Allen-by's right wing, told the Legionnaires: "By forcing the Jordan fords you helped in no small measure to win the great victory gained at Damascus. Early in a strong movement for the formation of a Palestinian Jewish Legion developed among the 18,—20, Jews in the part of the country Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the settlements in Judea by then occupied by the British army.
The British forces were received as deliverers, and the call for volunteers, first made by General Hill, the British commander of the Jaffa-Tel Aviv area, received a response among the workers, the students of the Hebrew High School in Tel Aviv, and a few farmers, led by Moshe Smilansky.
The Jewish Legion and the First World War, by Martin Watts - The Jewish Eye
At a conference held in Jaffa on Feb. These volunteers encountered great difficulties in their desire to enlist, as there was much hesitation on the part of the British, and some influential circles in the yishuv also opposed the idea. In the British foreign office related that the initiative had come from "the Jewish population itself, rather than from any desire or even encouragement from the British authorities. According to the Foreign Office, "practically the whole available Jewish youth, whatever their national status," had enlisted. Within the first few weeks, more than 1, men volunteered.
Most of them were Ottoman subjects and, if captured by the Turks, would have been hanged. With the advancement of Allenby's army, more volunteers were coming forward from the areas in the north; permission to join was given to 92 Turkish Jews who were prisoners of war in Egypt. In August a recruiting office was opened in Cairo and attracted some volunteers. Many Palestinian recruits were highly educated, with a thorough knowledge of the country; they spoke Arabic fluently, and were expert shots and horsemen.
In America, enlisting for the Jewish Legion started practically in , after the publication of the Balfour Declaration. Most of the volunteers were aliens or holders of first naturalization papers and thus not eligible for the U. The Zionist Organization of America, which had been opposed to the Legion project, now decided — largely due to Justice Brandeis ' influence — that "the Jewish Legion is one of the most important factors in the realization of the aims of political Zionism. Among them were some Palestinian exiles in America, and more were drawn from the local pioneer groups; Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi themselves enlisted on April 26, When a train carrying a group of volunteers passed through Bangor, Maine, it was flagged down to enable a crowd lining the tracks to see and embrace the Legionnares.
The volunteers wore the Magen David on their khaki uniforms and had their own blue-white banner with the inscription, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem. There was considerable dissatisfaction among them with the protracted training period, which lasted so long that the American volunteers did not see action in Palestine, for they arrived when the war had already ended. When the armistice with Turkey was signed on October 31, the entire territory of Palestine was liberated from the Turks.
The battered remnant of Patterson's 38 th Battalion predominantly "English" with an admixture of "Americans" took over the "line of communication" duty. It was soon joined by Margolin's 39 th Battalion mostly American volunteers.
The Jewish Legion during the First World War
Early in December , the 40 th Battalion Palestinians only , which was deliberately kept in reserve in Egypt — allegedly for further training — also succeeded in being transferred to Palestine. By the beginning of , the three battalions numbered over 5, men, about one-sixth of the entire British army of occupation, one-quarter of the infantry, and almost one-half of the white infantry regiments. While a large portion of the British contingent was transferred to Syria and southern Anatolia and another was sent to Egypt in the spring of , the Legion's strength had increased threefold from , when only 1, were able to actually take part in the military operations.
The actual strength of the Legion could have been more than twice as large. Applications for enlistment came from several countries; 1, volunteered in Salonika; in Italy, 2, Transylvanian prisoners of war applied to be enlisted; the "Mountain Jews" from Dagestan in the Caucausus sent emissaries offering all their youth.
The number of those who had actually enlisted — in addition to the 5, in active service — by Armistice Day Nov. They were demobilized directly from the original Legion base at Plymouth, where they had gone through their training under the command of Colonel J. Miller, a Jew. At an early stage, there was a definite plan to convert the Legion into a full-fledged brigade, comprising four battalions. Allenby opposed such a project at the outset but later wrote to Patterson that he would "form a provisional Brigade of the Jewish battalions until a complete Jewish Brigade can be formed.
Jerusalem was placed out of bounds for Jewish soldiers. They were often so molested by the military police that, according to Patterson, the only way they could enjoy a peaceful walk outside the camp limits was by removing their distinctive badges. There were cases of disobedience and mutiny among the frustrated Legionnaires.
As long as the Legion remained in full strength, occupying strategically crucial positions, there was peace and order in the country. The situation began to deteriorate with the progressive whittling down of the Judeans.
When the formation of a standing army of occupation was announced, several hundred overseas predominantly American volunteers offered their services, but British headquarters sabotaged their reenlistment. Jabotinsky, who was urging the volunteers to stay on and who had himself registered for further service, was forcibly demobilized in August Largely as a result of this official attitude, an ever-growing eagerness to be discharged and repatriated emerged among the American volunteers. Appeals to hold on in order to safeguard the security of the Palestine Jewish community were of little avail: very few believed that there was any real danger of Arab violence.
A marked tendency toward speedy repatriation also developed among the Legionnaires from England. There were among them both volunteers and conscripts; the latter were predominantly tailors from the London East End, and only a few of them held Zionist convictions.
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The "tailors," however, remained in Palestine longer than any other group of overseas Jewish soldiers and were among the last to be discharged. The urge for demobilization that developed among the Palestinian volunteers was largely motivated by eagerness to resume work or to join a kevuzah. When their period of engagement ended, they contrived to have it extended for three months and then for another three months.
Nonetheless, the whittling down of the Legion proceeded. In the second part of , only two of the three battalions were still in existence, then one the Palestinian unit , and then only part of that. In the spring of a mere to men remained. In , when the first anti-Jewish riots broke out in Jerusalem, the remnants of the Jewish Legion were confined to barracks. Two companies of a self-defense corps Haganah , organized by Jabotinsky and trained by demobilized Legionnaires, marched to the Jaffa and Damascus Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, but found them closed and guarded by British troops.
Jabotinsky and 19 others, mostly former Legionnaires, were subsequently arrested and sentenced to penal servitude by a British military tribunal they were later amnestied.