Jews at war: armed service in return for sanctuary
Keen to repay a perceived debt to Britain and display their loyalty to king and country, the Jewish community launched a First World War recruitment campaign
The outbreak of the First World War provided a unique opportunity for Britain’s disparate Jewish community to demonstrate their loyalty to king and country.
British Jewry had been slowly re-establishing its position in British society since the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell welcomed the Jews back following their expulsion during the Middle Ages. By 1914, Britain’s Jewish community had grown to around 300,000, their numbers boosted by East European immigrants fleeing persecution during the 1880s.
Before the outbreak of hostilities with Germany, many Jews had never been given the opportunity to repay their debt to the country that had provided them with sanctuary in their hour of need. According to Roz Currie, curator of the impressive exhibition For King and Country?, which runs at the Jewish Museum London until August 10, the war gave British Jews “an opportunity to repay their loyalty to Britain by serving in the Armed Forces”.
To start with, many within the Jewish community, particularly those who had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia, were reluctant to fight in a conflict in which Britain and Russia were allies. But as the war progressed and conscription was introduced, there was a sharp uptake in the number of Jews in military service, so that by the end of the war around 41,000 British Jews had been in action.
Much of this was due to the peer pressure that had been brought to bear by the “settled community”: Jewish families who had lived in Britain for a century or more. To persuade their reluctant co-religionists to do their duty for the country, posters appeared in Jewish neighbourhoods of major cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds bearing the slogan: “England has been all she could be to the Jews; the Jews will be all they can be to England”.
Another poster was even more explicit: “Since the days of Oliver Cromwell, Great Britain has meted out the fairest treatment politically, socially and in every way to Jews. Now is the time for Jews to reciprocate and show the old spirit of the Maccabees is not dead. Every able-bodied unmarried Jew between 19 and 45 should join the British Army.”
The first Jewish Victoria Cross was awarded to Lt Frank de Pass for his actions on November 24, 1914, on the Western Front near Festubert in FranceSome of those who opted to fight joined Jewish units such as the Zion Mule Corps, a labour battalion of Jewish refugees that helped to supply the front lines at Gallipoli, or one of the three battalions of the newly formed Jewish Legion, which recruited Jewish soldiers from America and Britain to help defeat the Ottoman empire in Palestine, thereby clearing the way for the creation of a Jewish homeland as outlined by the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
But the majority served in conventional British military units, with a number of Jews distinguishing themselves by winning honours, including a clutch of Victoria Crosses.
The first Jewish Victoria Cross was awarded to Lt Frank de Pass for his actions on November 24, 1914, on the Western Front near Festubert in France. Born in Kensington in 1887 and educated at Rugby School, de Pass was from a Sephardic Jewish background, and his father was prominent at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London’s East End, the oldest Sephardic synagogue in Britain.
After training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, de Pass was stationed in India with the 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse. Like many Indian regiments, the Poona Horse sailed for France at the outbreak of war, and it was during a campaign at Festubert that de Pass lost his life.
The citation for his award describes what happened: “In entering a German sap and destroying a traverse in the face of the enemy’s bombs and for subsequently rescuing, under heavy fire, a wounded man who was lying exposed in the open”. De Pass died the following day from the injuries he sustained during his act of heroism.
Other Jewish winners of the VC included Pte Jack White (Weiss) from Leeds who, serving with the 6th King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, masterminded a daring rescue operation for a pontoon that was stranded in mid-stream and coming under heavy German machine-gun fire.
Capt Robert Gee, of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Fusiliers, won both the Victoria Cross and the Military Cross for various acts of heroism, including escaping from captivity at Cambrai by overwhelming his German captors and then capturing all their nearby defensive positions.
Nor was it only in the realms of gallantry that British Jews made a distinctive contribution to the war. One of the more vivid descriptions of life in the trenches was provided by Marcus Segal, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 16th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment, who joined the British Expeditionary Force in September 1916.
In numerous letters home, he chronicled the everyday activities of soldiers on the front. “I have had a fine game of football and, apart from a few kicks on the ankle, I had a glorious game,” he writes in one letter. In another he refers to the camaraderie among the frontline soldiers. “I have met men galore I know out here and it makes matters very much jollier.” Like so many of his comrades, Segal did not survive the conflict; he was killed by a shell at Arras in June 1917.
These are just a few examples of the exhibits that have been on display at the Jewish Museum London’s excellent tribute to the contribution of British Jews to the war effort, demonstrating how so many repaid their debt to their adopted homeland.
Con Coughlin is The Daily Telegraph defence editor.
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Jewish servicemen have fought for Britain with pride, the idea that they’d run away is simply risible
This Friday’s visit by the Queen to Bergen-Belsen is not merely historic – it is an event with global reverberations. Some 50,000 people were murdered there by the Nazis before British troops liberated the camp 70 years ago.
That it was British troops who discovered the evil being perpetrated on German soil and the splendid help that the Royal Medical Corps gave in the months following, trying to save as many lives as possible, working when the camp was rife with typhus, gives Bergen-Belsen a unique place in the annals of our nation’s history – and of Britain’s Jewish community.
Indeed for Jews across the world, to see the Queen herself in a concentration camp is a reminder of what the debt we owe to the Allied forces who defeated Third Reich. But for British Jews it will be an even more poignant moment.
Among the troops who arrived in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 was Norman Turgel, a young sergeant in the 53 Field Security section of British Intelligence. Turgel was himself Jewish – and in a remarkable love story, met his wife, Gena, among the prisoners.
As a Jewish soldier in the British armed forces, Turgel was part of a long line who have given service to their country. Which is one reason why the idea that has taken hold in some quarters – after some of the anti-Semitic murders this year in Paris and Copenhagen and the more general rise in anti-Semitic incidents here in Britain – that British Jews are about to up sticks and leave, is so ridiculous.
It is true that, seventy years after Bergen-Belsen was liberated, the recent murders mean that another generation of Jews are now experiencing the fear that they, too, will be killed for their religion.
But fear is not the same as flight.
A shoddy internet questionnaire published after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris reported that nearly half of all British Jews had thought of leaving.
But that figure was pure nonsense. A proper poll published at the same time found that less than 11 per cent had given it even a moment’s thought.
Not that anyone should be surprised. Why would we run away? Jews have fought and laid down their lives for Britain. As our proud and honourable history of military service shows, we are British, with all that means.
Over the past three hundred years, out of a Jewish population that has never exceeded 400,000, more than 100,000 have served in the armed forces – and nearly 6000 have died in battle. Over 3000 have also been given commendations for their bravery.
In addition, of course, many more have been wounded. In other words, British Jews have been disproportionately willing to stand and fight for Britain – and to lay down their lives for our nation.
Until the late nineteenth century, Jews could not be commissioned officers in the armed forces unless they converted, so we do not have a full picture of the exact numbers who served; many did not reveal their faith.
But the first notable serviceman who we do know was Jewish was Sir Alexander Schomberg, who served in the Royal Navy between 1747 and 1789 and was captain of the frigate Diana, famously part of General Wolfe’s campaign against the French in Canada. His son was Sir Alexander Wilmot Schomberg, an Admiral.
Jews were on Nelson’s Victory in the Battle of Trafalgar and we know there were Jewish officers who fought at Waterloo.
During the Boer War from 1898-1902, 3000 Jews served in the British army; 150 died in battle.
When war was declared on 4th August 1914, the Jewish Chronicle front page headline proclaimed: “England has been all she could be to Jews; Jews will be all they can be to England”. Within a year 10,000 had signed up, including Lieutenant Frank De Pass, who was to become the first Jewish soldier awarded the Victoria Cross – and the very first soldier in the Indian Army to be awarded a VC.
By the end of the First World War many of those Jews who had fled the pogroms in Russia and those serving from across the British Empire had helped swell the number who had served in the armed forces to somewhere around 50,000. Five were awarded the Victoria Cross.
These tens of thousands included the members of the Zion Mule Corps in Egypt, made up of 700 Jews whose job was to move supplies to British troops, usually in the face of heavy Turkish machine gun fire. The corps was disbanded after being decimated at Gallipoli.
Then in 1917, 38th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers became the first Jewish battalion, whose members were recruited from London’s East End – and included two future leaders of Israel, David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, as well as the sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Along with the 39th battalion recruited in the US and the 40th from Palestine, the 5000 Jewish soldiers were known as “The Judeans”.
The 38th were pivotal to the defeat of the Turks in the Jordan Valley that led to the final defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The memorial to the Royal Fusiliers in Holborn has a plaque paying tribute to the Jewish battalions.
General Sir John Monash – commander of the Australian Corps, the largest corps on the Western Front – is credited with devising that battle plans that ended World War One.
As for the Second World War – by VE Day in 1945 around 60,000 Jews had served in campaigns across the globe, and that does not include those from the Dominions or those who enlisted in the British Forces in Palestine, where 30,000 Jews volunteered.
Some were members of the Special Operations Executive, parachuting behind enemy lines.
About 10,000 of the Jewish refugees from Hitler enlisted in Alien Pioneer companies, and the 5000-strong Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier E E Benjamin fought in Italy, gaining 4 MCs, 7 MMs, 2 OBEs, 4 MBEs and 68 Mentions in Desptaches.
Overall, 3024 British Jews and 694 Palestinian Jews – a total of 3718 – died in battle during the war, and 1500 were awarded medals, with three being given the Victoria Cross and three the George Cross.
Jews have continued to serve this country with pride – most recently in the Falklands, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
The idea that we would, as British citizens who have fought and died for our country, run away when faced with the latest threat, is simply risible. We stand firm, like our ancestors, as proud British citizens always ready to serve both Queen and Country.
Lord Sterling is president of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX)