Jewish troops and officers made important contributions to the Allied efforts during both WW1 and WW2. One of the most memorable stories during WW1 that intersected with Australia was that of the Zion Mule Corps in Gallipoli.
Vladmir Jabotinsky (photo below on left) proposed that a Jewish legion be formed to join the British in liberating Palestine from the Turks during World War I, but the British resisted the idea of Jewish volunteers fighting on the Palestinian front. Instead, they suggested the Jews serve as a detachment for mule transport at another location along the Turkish front. Joseph Trumpeldor (shown on right) subsequently formed the 650-strong Zion Mule Corps, of whom 562 were sent to Gallipoli.
The story of the corps is fascinatingly told by Martin Sugarman in The Jewish Virtual Library.
The article is well worth reading.. some excerpts are reproduced below.
“In March 1915 the Zion Mule Corps became the first regular Jewish fighting force – with a distinctively Jewish emblem and flag – to take active part in a war since the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt 2000 years ago. Some of its men later formed the core of what was to become the modern Israeli army. General Sir Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief of the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force in the Dardenelles, later wrote in his diary, ‘I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit – the Zion Mule Corps. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era such a thing has happened. They have shown great courage taking supplies up to the line under heavy fire’ and proved ‘invaluable to us’.
The Zion Mule Corps were fortunate to have as commander, Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, DSO, an elegant Boer War veteran of southern Irish Protestant origin, who had been born in Dublin in 1867. He arrived in Egypt precisely when the British Commander in the area, General Sir John Maxwell, was looking for a suitable officer to raise and command a Jewish military unit to fight against the Turks in the Middle East. Patterson was knowledgeable about Jewish history and sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and as a young man had read all he could of Jewish military and religious history.
Sugarman’s article contains stirring words, and details the corps’ activities. For example, the paragraphs below describe events in Egypt, where they formed and initially trained.
“Patterson set up camp at Wardian, 3 miles outside Alexandria, on 2 April 1915 and wrote, ‘never since the days of Judah Maccabee had such sights and sounds been seen and heard in a military camp – with the drilling of uniformed soldiers in the Hebrew language’ (in fact, Yiddish was also used, as 75 percent of the men were of Russian origin and Yiddish was their common language). Their badge consisted of the Star of David and Patterson noted in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle on 24 March 1916 how ‘sometimes I would meet a General who would be puzzled out of his life by the Magen David but naturally would not care to admit his ignorance. When he found out what it meant, he would say “Oh yes! I know – and very good work your Corps has done too”.’ The Corps also made a blue-and-white Zionist flag to fly alongside the Union Jack. Although it was a mule corps, all were equipped with rifles and bayonets, as they were expected to be a fighting unit as well. Some sources claim the rifles were captured from the Turks at the Suez Canal, but others say they were drawn from the stores of the Egyptian police.”
“Intense training went on for only three weeks as they were under orders to sail soon for Gallipoli to supply front-line troops with food, water and ammunition. The newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force to Gallipolli, General Sir Ian Hamilton, carried out a spot inspection and was delighted with the workman-like appearance of the Corps after so little training. At Passover, which began on 30 March 1915, Patterson, known to his men as the ‘Collon-el’, fought unfriendly attitudes in high places to procure his men Kosher food and Matzah for the celebrations in which he participated. At the end of their training the Corps paraded and marched 3 miles to the Great Synagogue in Alexandria where they were blessed by the Grand Rabbi and cheered by the local population. The Corps then sailed on 17 April in two ships, HMT Hymettus (which took the two ‘Palestinian’ troops and the HQ company) and HMT Anglo-Egyptian (with the two local Alexandrian troops), carrying thirty days of forage for the mules and rations for the men. As they left Alexandia harbour the band of the USS Tennessee played a farewell march. But the men of the Zion Mule Corps on the Hymettus could be heard singing the Hatikvah, the Zionist anthem.”
“At 11am on 25 April the men of the Zion Mule Corps aboard Dundrennon approached Cape Helles at the extreme southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula in the slowly clearing mist, hearing clearly the dull roar of the guns of Allied ships and the Turkish shore batteries. They saw the smoke, flames and debris as high explosives smashed into the beaches and cliffs and saw the circling aircraft and prowling submarines. One, S. Nissenbaum, described how ‘the faces of our comrades grew grim and sombre. It is impossible to describe what was felt.’ The landings had just begun and the battle resembled a scene from hell.
Patterson issued an Order of the Day in Hebrew, saying he ‘trusts everyone will do his work with the utmost speed. Then the 29th Division of the British Army will look with admiration on the Jewish Legion which now has the singular honour of going into battle…to fight side by side with British comrades after only one month of training.”
“The Dundrennon put the Zion Mule Corps ashore on 27 April at V beach, just to the west of Cape Helles, under the deafening roar of artillery, machine guns and rifles. It had been unable to do so earlier owing to the congestion on the beaches and shortage of tugs. It took them three days to unload in the badly organized shuttle of lighters moving to and from the shore, and carrying ammunition boxes was made more difficult by the behaviour of the animals which, terrified by the gunfire, were running and stumbling into craters and over muddy beaches, having to be pursued and calmed before they were fit for service. By this time the Corps were badly needed to take up supplies to the front-line trenches holding the bridgehead, and once ashore they went straight to work, forming a human chain from ships to shore passing supplies and water onto land, all the while under enemy fire. In the War Office Order of Battle they were defined as a ‘Line of Communication Unit’. Colonel Patterson, with 200 mules, was ordered to W beach first with water and ammunition, while the remainder finished unloading at V beach under heavy fire. From W beach the Corps worked all night and through the next day taking supplies up to the front, now in pouring rain and biting winds which made the rough paths into mud slides. Men and animals walked up and down wadis and hillsides, through thick bush and across rock strewn slopes, often unknowingly passing through the wire and trenches into the no-man’s-land between the Turkish and Allied lines and being shot at by both sides in the darkness, rain and constant shellfire. Yet by the following dawn, when they were stood down exhausted, only a few men and mules were found to have been wounded.
The following night one man went missing in action, his tunic being found the next day on the battlefield, and few days later Farrier Abraham Frank was killed and Mamoun Makaryov seriously wounded. By 9 May, Moscowitz and Meir Peretz had been killed. When Patterson asked his Commanding Officer, General Hunter-Weston, if fifty volunteers from the Corps could join a frontal attack on Achi Baba hill, permission was refused on the grounds that they were too badly needed to keep the trenches supplied.”
“Colonel Patterson described in the Jewish Chronicle on 10 September 1915 how ‘These brave lads who had never seen shellfire before most competently unloaded the boats and handled the mules whilst shells were bursting in close proximity to them … nor were they in any way discouraged when they had to plod their way to Seddul Bahr, walking over dead bodies while the bullets flew around them … for two days and two nights we marched … thanks to the ZMC the 29th Division did not meet with a sad fate, for the ZMC were the only Army Service Corps in that part of Gallipolli at that time.’
Captain Arthur Behrend, a Jewish officer serving with the East Lancashire regiment, wrote in his diary how on 10 May he was sent to enlist the help of the ZMC: ‘I found the Mule Corps in an open meadow. With much saluting I was taken to the C.O., Colonel Patterson … and he handed over a corporal, six men and fourteen mules. “Take great care of my men and dont expose them”, he said as he wished me goodbye. “The mules dont matter so much because they can be replaced more easily.” I returned to our lines followed by the stolid Zionists and the equally stolid mules, and handed all over to our astonished Transport sergeant … half an hour later I strolled across to see how they were getting on and found them all sitting round a big fire with our own transport section, a dixie of tea boiling merrily in the middle. East Lancashire Arabic quickly became the lingua franca because our men had picked up a number of Arabic words in Egypt; equally quickly too the Zionists won respect and affection because despite their over fondness for saluting, they showed a curious disregard for shell fire.’
“On 4 and 5 June the ZMC distinguished itself taking up ammunition and evacuating the wounded during the Third Battle of Krithia. Private Ben Wertheimer, who was seriously wounded during this month, was the son of a poor Orthodox Jerusalem family. Physically frail and timid, he had arrived in Alexandria with his elderly father in March 1915, incongruously stooped figures with their black gabardines, beards and side curls, and when he was taken to Trumpeldor’s tent to sign up said he was ‘ready to fight for the Land of Israel in the name of the Lord’. The father and son embraced on parting after which young Ben showed himself ready to make sacrifices, shaving his beard and curls and even eating non-kosher food. The men held a party the night before embarking for Gallipoli, but Wertheimer stood and watched from a distance. When Trumpeldor asked him why, he said he was afraid of not measuring up to expectations under fire; Trumpeldor reassured him all would be well.
During the June battles, when a serious situation developed in an area of the front, two mules with urgent supplies of ammunition and food had to be taken up under intense fire. The men were reluctant to volunteer, but Ben Wertheimer stepped forward and said he would go. British troops, including many Jews, watched silently as the stooped figure of this courageous and deeply religious young man left the safety of the trenches with his two laden mules under heavy fire from the Turkish guns. He crossed open terrain that was swept by fire, and fell when he was almost at his goal, struck by shrapnel. But he was dragged into a trench, with the mules and the vital supplies, and then evacuated by hospital ship to Egypt. As he was carried away he said to Trumpeldor, ‘Now, sir, I shall never know the meaning of fear’. He later died of his wounds in Alexandria.
Although their bravery was unquestionned, the corps was subjected to some discrimination. Thus, on 25 July, Colonel Patterson, Trumpeldor, Rollo and Groushkowsky sailed to Egypt to recruit a new company, as Hamilton had asked them to expand the Corps. But on arrival they encountered opposition from men who had been returned to Cairo and particularly from the widows for whom Patterson had been unable to obtain War Office pensions.
“It would be pertinent here to describe something of the hostility of those in high places in the military establishment to the Jewish Mule Corps and War Office documents kept at the Public Records Office give a rather shameful and yet not unexpected insight into the struggles Col. Patterson had in obtaining equal treatment for his men in the Zion Mule Corps and the racist and stingy attitudes he met at the War Office and Treasury in Whitehall. Much of the debate centred on Patterson’s insistence that the men volunteered on the clear understanding that they would be treated like all other British soldiers, in particular with regard to pensions, and the British Government’s insistence that this was never agreed.”
“On 3 March1916, as the Jewish Chronicle reported, a memorial to the fallen of the Corps was unveiled at the Chatby Jewish Cemetery, Alexandria, in the presence of representatives of all the Allied nations and of hundreds of veterans and others. There were 60 wounded and 14 died from the corps. In 1926 the name of the unit was among those inscribed on the inner wall of the British Gallipoli memorial on the lonely headland at Cape Helles, overlooking V beach where they had first come ashore on that fateful April morning in 1915. In Tel Aviv today there is a Rehov Lohamay Gallipoli (‘Gallipoli Fighters Street’).
The Medal Roll of the ZMC shows they were all awarded the 1915 Star, War Medal and Victory Medal. It also shows that they were distributed via the Grand Rabbi in Alexandria from 1921 onwards but that some were not issued until as late as 1938.”
“No fewer than 120 of the Zion Mule Corps men re-enlisted and, thanks to the intervention of Patterson and Major Leopold Amery, 60 were placed in the 20th Battalion of the London Regiment as platoon 16 stationed at Hasely Downs near Winchester. They then became the core of the soon-to-be-formed Jewish Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (38th-42nd) who were to fight in Palestine as the Jewish Legion or ‘Judeans’.
Patterson went on to command the 38th Battalion himself, which included Lieutenant Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and had already met in Gallipoli the Australian Jewish officer who later commanded the 39th Jewish Battalion, Colonel Eliezer Margolin DSO. The 40th Battalion was to include two future Prime Ministers and one future President of Israel: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Yitzak Ben-Zvi.”
As stated in Wickipedia: In June 1918, the volunteers of the 38th Battalion began engaging the Turks some 20 miles north of Jerusalem. In the fighting in the Jordan Valley, more than 20 Legionnaires were killed, wounded, or captured, the rest came down with malaria, and 30 of this group later died. The Legion then came under the command of Major General E.W.C. Chaytor, who commanded the Anzac Mounted Division.
Besides various skirmishes, the Legion also participated in the Battle of Megiddo in mid-September, 1918, widely considered to have been one of the final and decisive victories of the Ottoman front. The Legion’s mission was to cross the Jordan River. Jabotinsky led the effort. Later, he was decorated and General Chaytor told the Jewish troops: “By forcing the Jordan fords, you helped in no small measure to win the great victory gained at Damascus.
By these events in 1918, much had happened since the 1915 formation of the Zion Mule Corps – and the meeting between English Major-General Alexander Godley, Captain Holdich and a Mr Gordon acted as Hebrew interpreter, when they heard how it would be the first time in British history that non-Britons or non-colonials were to be admitted as a unit into the British forces. Patterson explained that the soldier who carries ammunition and supplies to the trenches requires no less courage than the man who fires a rifle and Godley declared that ‘Today the English People have entered into a covenant with the Jewish People’
In Primary school we learned about brave John Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli (see photo and linked article (which incidentally includes an excellent article about Sir John Monash, described by Montgomery as “the best general on the Western Front”)
On ANZAC day, we salute John Simpson, Sir John Monash, and all the brave soldiers who have fought for Australia, and fought to maintain the values we hold dear.
On this ANZAC day, 2009, in the aftermath of Durban II, in which Australia took a positive step, while Britain ignominiously voted in support of the reaffirmation of Durban I anti-Israel statements) it is also worthwhile to recall Zlotnik’s Mules and their important contribution.