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Jewish Soldiers Helped Liberate Palestine From the Ottoman Empire

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avatar by Jacob Sivak

Opinion

Tombstones in the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Photo: Ovedc via Wikicommons.

A recent article from National Library of Israel suggests that T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), a strong supporter of Arab nationalism, also lobbied in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, in part because of knowing Aaron Aaronsohn and the contribution of the NILI spy network to British war aims in Palestine.

Who does not know about the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, especially after watching the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia? Starring Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, the movie describes a critical point during World War I, when British forces were trying to break the destructive stalemate between the Allies (Britain France Italy and later the US) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey) by knocking Turkey out of the war.

Efforts to defeat the Turks at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia in 1915 and 1916 failed. But in 1917 and 1918 General Edmund Allenby engaged the Turks in southern Syria (later called Palestine) and a series of British victories at Beersheba, Jerusalem and Megiddo led to a Turkish collapse, effectively ending the Turkish war effort. During this period, Lawrence, coordinating Arab irregulars led by Feisal, a son the Sharif of Mecca, protected Allenby’s eastern flank by coordinating attacks on the Hejaz Railroad supplying the Turks.

But who knows about the Jewish soldiers who fought with Allenby to liberate the Land of Israel from Ottoman control?

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The saga begins in 1915 when the Zion Mule Corps was created to deliver desperately needed supplies to the troops trying to dislodge the Turks at Gallipoli. The Corps was made up of 737 volunteers, largely Russian-Jewish refugees in Egypt, who were expelled from Palestine by the Turks. The first independent Jewish fighting force in well over a millennium, it was commanded by Lt Col John Henry Patterson, an Irish Protestant who sympathized with the Zionist cause. His second in command was Josef Trumpeldor, a Russian Jew of who served with distinction (and lost an arm) in the Russo-Japanese War. (In 1920 Trumpeldor was killed defending Tel Hai in northern Galilee.) The Corps was evacuated from Gallipoli with other Allied forces. By then, fourteen men were killed and 60 were injured, including Trumpeldor.

The second part of the story took place in 1917 and 1918 when Jewish soldiers, again commanded by Patterson, participated in Allenby’s assault on Palestine. The Jewish Legion was the unofficial name given to five battalions of Jewish volunteers; battalions 38 to 42 of the Royal Fusiliers, a line infantry regiment of the British Army. Initially it included former members of the Zion Mule Corps a well as British and Russian Jews. Later, they were joined by a battalion made up largely of volunteers from the US and Canada. This battalion, which trained in Canada (at Fort Edwards, Nova Scotia), included David Ben-Gurion, the future Prime Minister of Israel.

The five battalions, amounted to a significant force of 5000, about the size of a brigade. They participated in battles north of Jerusalem, at Megiddo, as well as on the east bank of the Jordan River. Close to 100 men were killed or died from malaria. With the end of the war, the force was reduced to one battalion, titled First Judeans, and then disbanded. Some members stayed and founded, a moshav, Avihayil, in central Israel.

Colonel Patterson continued to support the Zionist cause and the Jewish people for the rest of his life. Before he died (in Los Angeles in 1947) he asked that his remains be transferred to Israel to be close to the men of the Legion, and in 2014 his remains were reinterred in the cemetery at Avihayal.

In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), Lawrence himself noted that to Allenby the Arab Revolt was merely a sideshow. The Arab fighters never saw action in Palestine itself and the Revolt may have involved only a few hundred Bedouin.

It was the British Army, including a significant contingent of well-trained Jewish soldiers, that liberated Palestine from the Turks. 

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, University of Waterloo.

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