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The Jewish Legion, the Royal Fusiliers and the Judeans.

In 1914, when the First World War began, British Jewish men and women volunteered for military and war services. However, as some Jewish men in the UK and its territories did not have British or Empire citizenship they were unable to join the regular military. In Palestine, Jews from Russia, Turkey and elsewhere lobbied the British government to be allowed to join up despite not being British nationals. Eventually, they were formed into the Zion Mule Corps and went on to serve gallantly in Gallipoli, receiving praise from the British authorities. Once the Dardanelles (known as Gallipoli) campaign ended, the Corps was disbanded but many of those instrumental in its creation wished it to continue in some form, in particular the Jewish Zionist leaders, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor.

Jabotinsky and others lobbied the British authorities once again to be allowed to form a Jewish fighting group – a Jewish legion that would give Jews a role in the Middle Eastern campaign and the liberation of Palestine from Turkish forces.  Many within the Jewish establishment were appalled at the idea of a Jewish Legion and saw it as divisive; something that would incite anti-Semitism and isolation rather than demonstrate Anglo Jewry’s loyalty to the UK. The debate raged throughout 1916 into 1917. As the war progressed, the authorities began to see the idea of a Jewish, or at least predominantly Jewish, force as a way to manage some of the new conscripts coming into the army and enable Russian Jews living in the UK to fight. 

Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, a non-Jew who had overseen the Zion Mule Corps, was instructed by the War Office to organise a Jewish regiment and the news was announced in the London Gazette on 23 August 1917. To placated those sections of Anglo Jewry against its formation, the Jewish Legion was made into the 38th, 39th, 40th and 42nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (an existing London based regiment). The regiments were made up of recent British nationals, Russians, and Jews from other Empire and Allied nations. A recruitment campaign to join the battalions in the USA led to many American Jews joining the British force with the ideal of travelling to Palestine.

Jewish Legion images from the Book of Honour

On 2 February 1918, the 38th battalion marched through the City of London.  To demonstrate that the men were not just a gimmick, the Mayor allowed them to march with fixed bayonets. On 3 February, the men left London for the Middle East.  Patterson found the men interesting and surprising - while they all seemed proud of their Jewishness not all of them were Zionists, some simply wanted to serve with other Jews and had no political agenda. The Judeans, as the battalions were known, saw active service in the region, fighting in the Jordan Valley and at the battle of Megiddo. The battalions were disbanded between 1919 and 1921 with many of the Zionists staying in Palestine, while others returned home to London and elsewhere. In 1919, those still serving in the battalions were given a regimental cap badge depicting a Menorah (a seven branched candelabrum used in Jewish worship) and the word Kadima (Forward /Eastward).

The men behind the Jewish Legion both served in the Legion and are now considered heroes of Zionism. Trumpeldor died defending the settlement of Tel Hai, Palestine in 1920. Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in New York in 1940 while campaigning for the Zionist cause.

 

Jewish Legion images from the Jewish Museum London/Jewish Military Museum

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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