Jewish Legion

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JEWISH LEGION , military formation of Jewish volunteers in World War i who fought in the British army for the liberation of Ereẓ Israel from Turkish rule. When Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Oct. 30, 1914), two different concepts of the Jewish role in the world conflict emerged among Zionists. In November David *Ben-Gurion and Yiẓḥak *Ben-Zvi submitted to the Turkish commander in Jerusalem a proposal to raise a Jewish Legion attached to the Turkish army. The project was approved by the Turkish military council in Jerusalem, and the first 40 Jewish volunteers began their training. Authorization, however, was soon canceled by Jamal Pasha, the supreme commander of the Turkish army in Palestine and Syria, who instigated severe persecutions of Zionists. Many were imprisoned; others, among them Ben-Zvi and Ben-Gurion, were deported. Of the 18,000 Jewish deportees and refugees, some 12,000 landed in Alexandria, Egypt.

The Zion Mule Corps

Vladimir Jabotinsky advanced a diametrically opposite concept. In December 1914, while a roving correspondent of a Moscow daily, he arrived in Alexandria and expounded to the Palestine deportees the idea of raising a Jewish Legion to fight with the Allies in order to liberate Palestine from the Turks. Joseph *Trumpeldor, one of the deportees, fully embraced Jabotinsky's idea. It was also endorsed by the majority of the Palestine Refugees' Committee. On March 22, 1915, about half of the 200 people present signed a seven-line resolution in Hebrew "to form a Jewish Legion and propose to England its utilization in Palestine." Within a few days about 500 enlisted, and training started immediately. Nonetheless, General Maxwell, commander of the British force in Egypt, told a delegation of the volunteers that an offensive on the Palestine front was doubtful and that regulations prohibited the admission of foreign nationals into the British army. He suggested that the volunteers serve as a detachment for muletransport on some other sector of the Turkish front. His proposal was rejected by most members of the Legion Committee, including Jabotinsky, but Trumpeldor's position was that any anti-Turkish front would "lead to Zion."

Together with Lieutenant Colonel John Henry *Patterson, delegated by the British military authorities, Trumpeldor succeeded in forming the 650-strong Zion Mule Corps; 562 of its members were sent to the Gallipoli front under Patterson, with Trumpeldor as second in command. The Zion Mule Corps' services were highly appreciated by General Ian Hamilton, commander of the Gallipoli Expeditionary Force, who wrote to Jabotinsky on Nov. 17, 1915: "The men have done extremely well, working their mules calmly under heavy shell and rifle fire, and thus showing a more difficult type of bravery than the men in the front line who had the excitement of combat to keep them going." The unit, however, posed severe disciplinary problems, and punishments such as public flogging had to be meted out. In addition, the differences between the idealists and those who had joined only in order to escape from the misery of the refugee camps resulted in clashes between Trumpeldor, the "Russian", and the Sephardi Jews. It was Patterson's goodwill and patience, coupled with Trumpeldor's devotion, that held the unit together throughout the Gallipoli campaign. Six legionnaires were killed, 25 were wounded, three received military honors, and one was decorated with a Distinguished Conduct Medal. The Corps was disbanded after the withdrawal of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition early in 1916.

The Royal Fusiliers

Pursuing his project of a Jewish Legion for the Palestine front, throughout 1915–16 Jabotinsky had been trying unsuccessfully to win understanding and support in Rome (together with Pinḥas *Rutenberg), Paris, and London. In London he was ignored by the War Office and met with active disapproval on the part of Jewish assimilationist circles, as well as most of the Zionist leadership; an exception was Chaim *Weizmann, who promised assistance. Among the few active supporters were also Meir *Grossman, Jacob *Landau, Joseph *Cowen, and Montagu *Eder. In 1915–17 Grossman was publishing a Yiddish biweekly, Di Tribune, in Copenhagen and promoted the Legion idea. Zionists in Russia, which Jabotinsky visited in 1915, were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the idea. Appeals to the Jewish youth in London's East End were frustrated by apathy, which frequently erupted into open hostility, fanned by anarchist and communist émigrés. Public meetings, at which Jabotinsky, Trumpeldor, and Grossman tried to plead the Legion cause, were the scene of obstruction and abuse. Only about 300 signatures of men of military age were collected under the declaration: "Should the Government create a Jewish Regiment to be utilized exclusively for Home Defense or for operation on the Palestine front – I undertake to join such a Regiment."

At the end of 1916, when 120 former Zion Mule Corps soldiers, who again volunteered into the British army, had arrived in London, the tide began to turn. Assigned as a unit to the 20th London Battalion, they formed the nucleus of the Legion. Jabotinsky enlisted as a private in this battalion and, together with Trumpeldor, submitted to the British government a petition proposing the formation of a Jewish Legion for Palestine. Public opinion in Britain had been roused against the Russian Jews as "foreigners" who were earning their bread in the country and contributing nothing toward its defense. It was in this atmosphere that the British government decided to enlist the "foreigners." This decision, coupled with the revolution in Russia, weakened opposition to the Legion idea among Whitechapel's Jews. In July 1917, Patterson was ordered by the War Office to commence the organization of the Jewish regiment, and Jabotinsky was put in charge of recruitment. On August 23, when the British cabinet was already preparing the Balfour *Declaration, the formation of a Jewish regiment was officially announced in the London Gazette. Initially, assurances were given that the unit would be unequivocally Jewish in character and would be provided with Jewish emblems. The efforts of anti-Zionist Jews, however, succeeded in frustrating these achievements, and the unit was designated as the "38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers." It was promised that when it had proved its mettle in action, it would be granted both a Jewish name and Jewish insignia. About 50% of the battalion were British-born or naturalized; the remainder included members of the former Zion Mule Corps, a large number of Russian Jews, and a curious mélange from several Allied and neutral countries. On Feb. 2, 1918, the battalion marched through the City of London with fixed bayonets, a special privilege granted by the Lord Mayor, and on the following day it embarked for Egypt, where it continued training. Late in April it was joined by the 39th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers, over 50% of which was American volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Eliezer *Margolin.

Transferred to Palestine in June 1918, the 38th Battalion was assigned front positions some 20 miles north of Jerusalem on the hills facing a Turkish encampment. There, Patterson later related, it "at once assumed a vigorous offensive policy" that "thoroughly scared the Turks, so much so that they never once attempted to come anywhere near our front." Afterward, the battalion spent seven weeks in the tropical Jordan Valley, where malaria took a heavy toll of the unit. Of 800 men, no more than 150, and only half of its 30 officers, remained in active service at the end of this ordeal. Over 20 were killed, wounded, or captured; the rest were stricken with malaria, of whom more than 30 died. On September 19, the 38th Battalion and two companies of Margolin's 39th 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." The operation was successful. Margolin's two companies of American volunteers crossed the Jordan and marched to al Ṣalt, where Margolin was appointed commander of the town. 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."

The Palestinian Volunteers

Early in 1918 a strong movement for the formation of a Palestinian Jewish Legion developed among the 18,000–20,000 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. At a conference held in Jaffa on Feb. 15–16, 1918, the volunteers drafted their aims and chose a committee, and a mass meeting in Reḥovot, attended by about 1,000 volunteers, was addressed by Jabotinsky. 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 1920 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." A petition with several hundred signatures was submitted to the military authorities in January 1918 but the authorization for recruitment was not given before May. According to the Foreign Office, "practically the whole available Jewish youth, whatever their national status," had enlisted. The Jaffa area supplied 457 recruits (10% of its Jewish population) and Jerusalem supplied 350. Within the first few weeks, more than 1,000 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 200 volunteers. Many Palestinian recruits were highly educated, with a thorough knowledge of the country; they spoke Arabic fluently, and were expert shots and horsemen. They were formed into the 40th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers, under the command of Colonel M.F. Scott, and were sent for training to the Tell al Kabīr camp in Egypt, where they were kept for an unduly long time, so that they missed the decisive offensive in September 1918.

The American Volunteers

In America, enlisting for the Jewish Legion started practically in 1917, 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.S. draft; some American-born citizens below the draft age of 21 deliberately misstated their age to join the Legion, and those eligible for the U.S. draft received transfers to the Legion-in-formation without difficulty. One of the prime movers of the idea was the Po'alei Zion Party led by Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi. 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." In February 1918 the first group of 150 volunteers left New York for military training in Windsor, Canada; further contingents were leaving the United States at regular intervals of three weeks, and a total of 2,700 were ultimately accepted. Among them were some 200 Palestinian exiles in America, and 150 more were drawn from the local pioneer groups; Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi themselves enlisted on April 26, 1918. 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." In August 1918 they sailed with the Canadians for further training, first to Camp Eggbuckland in Plymouth, England, and then to the Tell-al-Kabīr camp in Egypt, where they joined the 39th Battalion. 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.

After the War

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 38th Battalion (predominantly "English" with an admixture of "Americans") took over the "line of communication" duty. It was soon joined by Margolin's 39th Battalion (mostly American volunteers). Early in December 1918, the 40th 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 1919, the three battalions numbered over 5,000 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 1919, the Legion's strength had increased threefold from 1918, when only 1,500 were able to actually take part in the military operations. The major component constituted the volunteers from the United States (34%), followed by the Palestinians (30%), volunteers from England (28%), Canada (6%), Argentina (1%), and Turkish war prisoners (1%). After the victorious end of the Palestine campaign, the name "Royal Fusiliers" was changed, as promised, to "Judean Regiment"; its insignia became a menorah with the Hebrew word "kadimah" (before that, all officers and men at the front wore a Magen David on their sleeves: one battalion red, the second blue, and the third violet). The actual strength of the Legion could have been more than twice as large. Applications for enlistment came from several countries; 1,500 volunteered in Salonika; in Italy, 2,000 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 5,000 in active service – by Armistice Day (Nov. 11, 1918) was 5,600 (mostly Americans, with a sprinkling from Canada); however, it was not considered worthwhile to send them to the Palestine front. They were demobilized directly from the original Legion base at Plymouth, where they had gone through their training under the command of Colonel J.S. Miller, a Jew.

At an early stage, there was a definite plan to convert the Legion into a full-fledged brigade, comprising four battalions. Sir Nevil Macready, adjutant general of the British War Office, told Patterson that his aim was the formation of a complete Jewish Brigade. 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." This plan was never fulfilled. "Instead," relates Patterson, "we were pushed around from brigade to brigade and from division to division; in the space of three months we found ourselves attached to not less than 12 different formations of the British Army." British military authorities openly discriminated against the Legion. 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. 55 Canadian and U.S. volunteers in the 38th Battalion were sentenced by court martial to various terms of penal servitude, ranging from seven years downward (they were amnestied four months later), and 44 Legionnaires of the 39th Battalion received sentences of two to seven years (for most of them the term was reduced to one year; actually, they served six months).

The Demobilization

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. The anti-Zionist military administration was eager to promote their demobilization at the earliest possible date. 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 1919. 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. 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. Yet several hundred of them clung to the belief that the up-building of Ereẓ Israel required protection, and they fought strenuously against demobilization. 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 1919, 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 1920 a mere 300 to 400 men remained.

During the Riots of 1920–21

In 1920, 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). Sir Herbert *Samuel, the first high commissioner of Palestine, created a mixed Arab-Jewish militia, based on voluntary enlistment. The last 400 Palestinian Legionnaires joined this formation, and Margolin was appointed commander of its Jewish half. On May 1, 1921, when anti-Jewish riots broke out in Jaffa, leaving behind 13 massacred Jews, Margolin entered the town with his men fully armed, without asking permission from the military authorities. Accused of breach of discipline, he was forced to resign.

In 1921 the Executive of the World Zionist Organization requested of the British government that the 38th–40th Royal Fusiliers ("Judeans"), as established in 1917–18, should "continue to form part of the British Forces in Palestine"; recruiting of Jewish volunteers should be reinstituted until their number reached at least one-half of the proposed total strength (7,700) of the British garrison in Palestine. This demand was subsequently endorsed by the Zionist General Council and by the 12th Zionist Congress at Carlsbad (August 1921). The initial program of the *Revisionist movement, voted upon at its first world conference (April 1925), included as its central plank the demand that the Jewish regiment be "restored as an integral part of the British garrison in Palestine." At the 14th Zionist Congress (Vienna, August 1925), however, Weizmann reversed his previous stand and declared that under the existing circumstances the demand for a Jewish Legion was "not only useless but even harmful." Faced with the decision of the Mandatory administration to set up an Arab military unit for service in western Palestine and a Circassian one to serve on the borders of Transjordan, in October 1926 the *Va'ad Le'ummi urged the administration to establish a purely Jewish military unit within the Transjordan Frontier Force. The demand remained unheeded, though individual Jews were accepted for service in it. The Palestine government promised to facilitate the settlement of demobilized Legionnaires on government land, but the promise was not honored, as areas offered by the government were not suitable for agricultural settlement. In 1932, 60 former Judeans from the United States, Canada, and Argentina founded a moshav ovdim, *Aviḥayil, north of Netanyah. Continuing the tradition of the Legion, 65 men, out of its population of 345, volunteered for military service during World War ii. In 1961 a cultural center (Legion's House) and Museum of the Legion was inaugurated there.

[Joseph B. Schechtman]


A definitive history of the Jewish Legion was published in Hebrew by Yigal Elam, under the title Ha-Gedudim ha-Ivri'im be-Milḥemet ha-Olam ha-Rishonah (1973).


V. Jabotinsky, The Story of the Jewish Legion (1945); J.H. Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli (1916); idem, With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign (1922); E. Gilmor, Warand HopeA History of the Jewish Legion (1969); Dinur, Haganah, 1 (1954–56), 425–532, 641–4, 748–68, 868–90, and indexes; Me-Ḥayyei Y. Trumpeldor, Koveẓ Mikhtavim ve-Kitei Reshimot (1945), 115–314, 355–60; E. Golomb, Ḥevyon Oz, 1 (1953), 141–202, 353–70; D. Ever ha-Dani, Am be-Milḥamto (1948), 7–181; Mifleget Po'alei Zion be-E.I., Alha-Saf (1918); M. Smilansky, Be-Ẓel ha-Pardesim (1952).

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