Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor

The Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion

The Jewish Legion is an unofficial name used to refer to five battalions, volunteers in the Roysl Fusiliers who fought with the British Army against the Turks in the First World War.

Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor

In February 1915, a small committee in Alexandria, Egypt, approved a plan of Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Tumpeldor to form a military unit of Russian Jewish émigrés in Palestine that would participate in the British effort to liberate Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Trumpeldor began recruiting volunteers from among the Jews in Egypt who had been deported there by the Ottomans in the previous year. The British Army formed 650 of them into the Zion Mule Corps, of which 562 served in the Gallipoli Campaign. Its commanding officer was a British Army Christian, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson.

Patterson later wrote: “Many of the Zionists whom I thought somewhat lacking in courage showed themselves fearless to a degree when under heavy fire,” Patterson’s “talking image,” which appears in the Hall of the Brave in Jerusalem‘s Friends of Zion Museum, says of his troops: “This was the first Jewish military fighting unit in 2,000 years…being led by a Christian…imagine that!”

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 1976, was the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Zion Mule Corps were disbanded in May 1916. But in August 1917, 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. In April 1918, it was joined by the 39th Battalion from Nova Scotia, which was made up almost entirely of Jews from the United States and Canada.

Thousands of Palestinian Jews also applied to join the Legion, and in 1918, more than 1,000 were enlisted. This group was organized as the 40th Battalion. The 41st and 42nd Battalions were depot battalions stationed in England. The soldiers of the 38th, 39th and later the 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers served in the Jordan Valley and fought the Ottomans north of Jerusalem with great military success.

Almost all the members of the Jewish regiments were discharged immediately after the end of World War I in November 1918. In late 1919, the Jewish Legion was reduced to one battalion titled the First Judaeans and awarded a distinctive cap badge, a menorah with the Hebrew word Kadima (forward) at the base.