by Benis M. Frank
Chief Historian of the U.S. Marine Corps
Prepared for Presentation at the Conference: "China and the Jewish Diaspora: A Comparative Historical Perspective on Acculturation, Economic Activity, Assimilation, Anti-Semitism"
© 1992, Benis M. Frank: Revised Version 4/26/92
It will be difficult to relate the history of the Zion Mule Corps, the Jewish Legion, and the Jewish Brigade without first discussing the role played by Vladimir Evgenevich Zhahotinskii or Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who is well-known to the students of the Zionist Movement, and his unceasing effort to establish Israel as the Jewish national homeland. Similarly, one cannot investigate the Jewish Company of the SVC without first telling of its founder and only commander, Noel Jacobs, whom we will examine later in this paper.
Briefly, Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880, educated in Russia, and in 1898 went to Berne and then Rome where he studied law and was, as well, a correspondent for two Odessa newspapers. He returned to Odessa in 1901 and in 1903 became deeply involved with the Zionist movement, influenced to do so in reaction to due Kishinev pogrom that year. An accomplished Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, and German linguist, he drew large crowds all over the world wherever he appeared. to speak He was a particularly effective and magnetic at Zionist congresses. Early on, he strongly advocated settlement of Jews in Palestine and their involvement in political and educational activities in the Diaspora. At the outbreak of World War I, the Odessa newspaper he was working for sent him west as its correspondent. When Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, Jabotinsky foresaw the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the "Sick Man of Europe," and he became convinced that the Zionist movement -- neutral in the war to that point -- had to align itself with the Allies in order to achieve its aims in Palestine after the war.
When he went to Alexandria, he met Joseph Trumpeldor, who, with about 12,000 other Jews, had been deported from Palestine when they refused to become Turkish citizens. Trumpeldor was a well-decorated Russian veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, in which he had lost an arm. He advocated the formation of a Jewish legion comprised of the Jewish deportees, who would offer their services to the British and help liberate Eretz Israel from the Turks. Such a unit would be the first solely Jewish military organization since the days of the Maccabees. Jabotinsky realized that unless Jews were involved in the fighting to free Palestine from the Turks, they would have no strong claim to the redemption of Israel as the promised land of the Jewish people. Jabotinsky met with Trumpeldor and convinced the refugees that they "should form a Jewish Legion and propose to England its utilization in Palestine." A petition was signed on 22 March 1915 and presented to the commander of British forces in Egypt, General Sir John Maxwell. He told the petitioners that a future offensive in Palestine was doubtful, and besides, British army regulations did not permit recruitment of foreign nationals. He recommended instead that the volunteers form a mule transport unit for service in some other sector of the British front. Jabotinsky and other members of the Legion committee rejected the proposal, but Trumpeldor remained firm in his conviction that "any anti-Turkish force would 'lead to Zion,'" and that this could possibly be the first step leading to the formation of a wholly Jewish combat unit which would free Eretz Israel.
Entering the picture at that point was Lieutenant Colonel John H. Patterson, a regular officer of the British army's Royal Engineers, and veteran of the Boer War. An Irish Protestant from Dublin, he had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament and drew spiritual sustenance from historical parallels with the deeds of early Jewish heroes. From the first, he was favorably inclined towards Jews -- in fact, he became an ardent Zionist and a close friend of Jabotinsky's. When the Zion Mule Corps (ZMC) was activated in Egypt on 23 March 1915, he was appointed commanding officer with Trumpeldor as his second in command. The unit was 650 men strong, mostly Palestinian Zionists, with five British and eight Jewish officers. Opposed to the Zion Mule Corps at first, Jabotinsky went to Rome, Paris, and London to plead with Allied statesman for their support for the formation of a full-fledged Jewish Legion, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, 562 men of the ZMC sailed for Gallipoli on 17 April 1915, arriving there on the 25th in the midst of heavy fighting. The Corps was divided, one half going to the British 29th Division and the other half assigned to the ANZACs (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps). The group assigned to the latter were sent back to Egypt for no apparent reason. The half supporting the 29th Division landed at V Beach on Helles Peninsula, and as it was the only transport unit on the peninsula, it was soon heavily involved in the war transporting water, ammunition, food, and other supplies to the front lines, under heavy fire and conditions which were unbelievably deplorable.
A British view of the Corps is found in Gallipoli, by Captain Eric Wheler Bush, who wrote:
On my way down to the harbour I overhauled the Assyrian Jewish Refugee Mule Corps at the Wardian Camp. Their Commander, author of that thrilling shocker, 'The Man-killers of Tsavo,"* finds Assyrians and mules rather a mouthfull and is going to tabloid bipeds and quadrupeds into 'The Zion Mule Corps.' The mules look very fit; so do the Assyrians and, although I did not notice that their cohorts were gleaming with purple or gold, they may help us to those habiliments: they may in fact serve as ground bait to entice the big Jew journalists and bankers towards our cause; the former will lend us the colour, the latter the coin. Anyway, so far as I can, I mean to give the chosen people a chance.
* This book by Patterson, published in l907, tells of his experiences as a military engineer building a railroad in East Africa. The man-killers in the title refer to man-eating lions which invaded the work area and killed a number of the native workers before they were destroyed.
In another war memoir published in 1932, Military Operations, Gallipoli by Brigadier General C.F. Aspinall-Oglander, relates Hamilton's inspection of units in his Gallipoli force, and said:
Besides these and other fighting regiments [of the British and Indian army forces] since equally renowned, there was the Assyrian Jewish Refugee Mule Corps (better known as the Zion Mule Corps) organised at short notice out of Jewish refugees from Syria and Palestine, chiefly Russian subjects who had sought safety in Egypt. Colonel J.H. Patterson had been commissioned to select a body of about 500, with 750 transport mules. Orders were given partly in Hebrew and partly in English. The men were armed with rifles taken from the Turks during the battle of the Suez Canal in February . Probably this was the first purely Jewish fighting corps that went into action since Jerusalem fell to the Roman armies under Titus in AD 70.
It is worthy of mention that, despite his appointments as commander of the Zion Mule Corps and later of the Jewish Legion -- which for a career soldier might be considered fatal backwater assignments insofar as further advancement was concerned -- evidence indicates that Patterson was respected by his peers and seniors in the British Army.
History shows the Gallipoli campaign to have been a total disaster and for many years was an albatross which hung around the neck of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who designed and strongly advocated the operation.
Internationally, great interest was focused on this singular Jewish unit. Der Tag, a Jewish-language newspaper published in New York, wrote to General Sir lan Hamilton, British commander at Gallipoli, inquiring about the ZMC. He replied:
It may interest you to know that I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era that such a thing has happened.
The men who compose it were cruelly driven out of Jerusalem by the Turks and arrived in Egypt, with their families, absolutely destitute and starving.
A complete transport Corps was there raised from them, for voluntary service with me against the Turks, whom they naturally detested.
These troops were officially described as the 'Zion Mule Corps,' and the officers and rank and file have shown great courage in taking water supplies and ammunition up to the fighting line under heavy fire. One of the private soldiers has been specially recommended by me for gallantry and has duly received from the King the Distinguished Conduct Medal. [As a matter of fact, three were so decorated]
To Jabotinsky, Hamilton wrote:
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.
Unfortunately, things did not go all that well in the unit. There were severe disciplinary problems, which required such punishment as public flogging to be meted out. There were also great differences between the idealists and those who had joined only to escape the misery of the refugee camps in Egypt, and this resulted in a number of clashes between "Trumpeldor, the 'Russian,' and the Sephardi Jews." Patterson's good will and patience and Trumpeldor's devotion served as the cement which held the unit together for the whole of the Gallipoli campaign. When it ended, 6 members of the Corps had been killed, 25 wounded. In June 1915, Patterson was sent back to Alexandria to recruit two more troops and to set up a recruiting and base depot. The unit on Gallipoli received only 150 men from Cairo, and that was all. The Zion Mule Corps, a support force, was deactivated on 26 May 1916. Patterson, sick and wounded several times, was returned to England, where he was eventually to command and lead an all-Jewish combat unit in Allenby's campaign in Palestine, the one Jabotinsky envisioned.
In his efforts to have a Jewish Legion organized and sent into combat, Jabotinsky faced opposition from a number of quarters. First, there were the British government and the War Office, which were not especially friendly towards the Jews and so ignored them. Second, although he was supported by Rothschild and some of the leading Jews in England, all of whom were quite well assimilated in British society at this point, most of this social stratum did not particularly favor Zionism. Besides this breed of English Jew viewed Russian Jews as anarchists and communists on whom they looked down as not worthy of representing British Jewry. Added to this opposition was the official Zionist leadership, which consistently insisted upon remaining neutral in the war and did all it could to neutralize and defuse active recruiting for the yet-unformed Legion. Additionally, Russian Jews were traditionally anti-militaristic, and they totally disregarded Jabotinsky's call to arms for an all-Jewish force.
In London's East End lived a large group of Russian-Jewish youth who were subject to being drafted into the Russian army despite the fact that they were in England. At this point in the war, England was still an ally of Russia's and it would seem that to escape the draft, these young men would be more inclined to join an all-Jewish force. But that was not so, for at public meetings, when Jabotinsky, joined by Trumpeldor, tried to plead the cause of the Legion, they were met by heckling and abuse, both oral and physical, from the anarchist and communist émigrés.
To finish Trumpeldor's story, in 1917, he returned to Russia to plead with the Provisional Government to form Jewish Regiments in the Russian army. All he accomplished towards this end went for naught when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed with Germany in 1918. The next year, he returned to Palestine to help form defense units in the settlements to guard against Arab incursions against the settlers. He was killed on 1 March 1920 in the defense of Tel Hai. Before he died, his last words were "Ein davar, tov lamut be'ad arzenu [Never mind; it is good to die for our country]. Trumpeldor remains a folk hero to Zionists and Israelis to this day. An activist Zionist youth movement formed in Riga, Latvia in 1923 was called "BETAR," an abbreviation of Berit Trumpeldor [The Covenant of Trumpeldor] . Its aims were based on what were perceived as the military and nationalistic aspects of his ideals and activities. By 1938, its worldwide membership numbered 90,000.
To get back to the establishment of the Legion, one must realize that the early days of 1917 were bad for the Allies and particularly for Great Britain. Gallipoli was a fiasco, and the enormity of Allied casualties in the stalemated trench warfare on the Western Front in France impoverishes the imagination. On just one day, 1 July 1916, when the Battle of the Somme began, the British Expeditionary Force suffered losses totaling 60,000 dead and wounded. By the time the battle ended in November, British losses were over 400,000. The source of available manpower to fill the ranks of the combat units was just about drying up, and for that reason the idea of forming Jewish battalions now seemed particularly attractive to the War Office.
The activation of a Jewish Legion took a positive turn in late 1916 when 120 former members of the Zion Mule Corps arrived in London and enlisted in the 20th Battalion, The City of London Regiment. At this same time, Jabotinsky and his English supporters continued to lobby individuals in high places and in power who agreed to listen to him. In addition, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution meant that German troops once facing Imperial Russian forces on the Eastern Front could now be transferred to the Western Front to confront the Allies there.
In July, 1917, now-Colonel Patterson was ordered by the War Office to begin organizing the Jewish regiment. Jabotinsky was commissioned and placed in charge of recruiting. Further influencing Zionist support for the unit was the promise in August that the government would publish the Balfour Declaration, which stated that the British government
...favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of that object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
When one knows that in April 1916 Great Britain was a signatory to an Anglo-French-Russian agreement which provided that Palestine should be placed under international administration, one can truly believe in a "perfidious Albion."
On 23 August, the London Gazette published an official announcement of the formation of a Jewish regiment. The British government guaranteed that the unit would be entirely Jewish and that its badges and insignia, as well as its regimental colors, would identify it as such. Nevertheless, because of the pressure of British anti-Zionists, among others, this identification as a Jewish unit was withheld and it was listed in the Army rolls as being the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London Army as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London Regiment. Still, the fact that this was to be the first time since the days of Judah Maccabeus and Bar Kochba that a battalion of Jewish infantry was raised and led against a common enemy in Palestine was a great motivation for Jews in Britain and in other British army units, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, to enlist. When an Anglo-Jewish delegation went to the Secretary of State for War asking for retention of the Jewish name and a Jewish badge for the battalion, it was told that once the unit distinguished itself and had been blooded in battle, it would have these regimental distinctions.
According to the records, about 50 percent of the unit was British-born or were naturalized British citizens, while the remainder was comprised of former Zion Mule Corps muleteers, a large number of Russian Jews residing in London, and a mixture of foreign nationals from both Allied and neutral nations. For many orthodox Jews, soldiering was incompatible with Judaism, and the anti-militarism of the Russian Jews was enough to keep them from enlisting. Also, soldiering in the field was foreign to many of these young Jews who led sedentary lives for the most part.
As the battalion formed, most ranks were Jewish with some Gentile officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlistees. The battalion trained in Portsmouth, and on 2 February 1918, it marched through the Jewish quarter of London and was greeted with unbelievable emotion. The Jewish Chronicle reported: "...thousands of Jews and Jewesses marched merrily together with the 'Judeans' from the Tower whence the march began after they had been addressed by Colonel Patterson, who rode at the head of the picturesque Jewish troops."
The Fusiliers embarked for Palestine the next day. Both Patterson's With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign and Jabotinsky's The Story of the Jewish Legion vividly describe the recruitment, training, and operations of the Legion. When the battalions were authorized, arrangements were made to furnish them with kosher food and to give them a day of rest on Saturday. While training at Plymouth, orders were received to raise two more battalions, the 39th and the 40th. The 39th, half of which consisted of American volunteers, did not join the 38th until after the war was over. When it left Southampton, the 38th had 31 officers and 960 other ranks. Upon arriving in Egypt, it was bivouacked at Helmich, outside of Cairo. The 39th Battalion (Americans), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Eliezer Margolin, joined the 38th on 18 April. In the accompanying Figure 1, plate number 616, 'The Jewish Legion, '39th (Service) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), 1918-1919 and its accompanying plate text published by The Company of Military Historians in its Military Uniforms in America series can be seen the uniforms and the insignia of that unit.*
* Reproduced with the permission of The Company of Military Historians. The artist is R.J. Marrion, and the author of the plate text is Wayne Colwell.
In June 1918, the 38th was transferred to Palestine, where it was placed in the lines some 20 miles north of Jerusalem opposite the Turks. Active patrolling and an offensive posture kept the Turks worried where and when their opponents were going to strike. At the same time, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) led by General Sir Edmund Allenby, later Field Marshal Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, and his chief of staff, Major General Sir Louis J. Bols, made it quite obvious in a number of ways that they were not favorably inclined towards the Jews and Jewish aspirations, and were mostly pro-Arab.
One evidence of this was the uncommon number of transfers of the Legion from one command within the EEF to another and to such unhealthy locations as the tropical, malarial Jordan Valley where, after seven weeks there, out of a strength of 800, only 150 men and 30 officers were relatively healthy at the end of that tour. In the fighting in this sector, 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 Major General E.W.C. Chaytor, an Australian, who commanded the Jordan Valley offensive. The Legion's mission was to cross the Jordan River against heavy opposition. After the first attempt by the 38th Battalion with two companies from the 39th failed, a second effort was successful. Later, 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." Jabotinsky led the first company to cross the Jordan and was decorated for his exploit.
Meanwhile in America, in 1917 after the Balfour Declaration had been issued, Americans began enlisting in appreciable numbers. The enlistees came from diverse backgrounds. Most of the volunteers were either aliens or held only first naturalization papers and were thus not subject to the U.S. draft. Other enlistees were Americans below 21 who lied about their age to sign up. The first group of 150 volunteers left New York for Canada for initial training, and then sailed for England with a Canadian contingent in August 1918 to train further at Plymouth. The Americans finally joined the 39th Battalion at Tell-al-Kabir in Egypt after the war had ended in Palestine. The fact that their protracted training kept them out of the fighting left some of them considerably unhappy at having missed an opportunity to fight for Eretz Israel.
In Palestine in 1918, there existed a pool of 18,000-20,000 Jewish males who were eager to join a Palestine Jewish Legion, and so petitioned the British authorities which at that time occupied the areas of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and the settlements in Judea. Despite the overwhelming number of volunteers from this group of Palestinian Jews, the British army command had no instructions from England to raise such a force. Finally, in 1918, approval was granted and more than 1,000 men were enlisted. Ninety-two Turkish Jews who had been captured in the fighting earlier were also permitted to enlist. Many Palestinian recruits were "highly educated, with a thorough knowledge of the country; they spoke Arabic fluently and were expert shots and horsemen." This group was organized as the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and sent to Tell-al-Kabir also for training. They, too, like the Americans in the 39th Battalion, missed the September 1918 offensive in Palestine.
With the end of the war in Palestine and Turkish capitulation, the former Ottoman territory was now free. The 38th Battalion, commanded by Patterson, was assigned as line of communication troops, i.e., to act as military police and conduct other support activities. The 39th Battalion soon joined the 38th and all three battalions came together in December 1918 when the 40th arrived. Jabotinsky and others hoped but never anticipated that in the end there would be a force of 5,000 Jews on active service in the war. When most of the British army was sent elsewhere -- to Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt -- the Fusiliers remained in Palestine.
As they had been promised in 1917, having proved themselves in combat, with the end of the war the Royal Fusiliers became the Judean Regiment; its insignia was a menorah with the Hebrew word "kadimah" [forward] inscribed on it. Prior to this, the only outward sign that the Fusiliers were Jewish was either a red, blue, or white Magen David worn on the sleeve -- each color designating one of the battalions.
Whatever exhilaration the regiment may have felt following its successes in the war and in spite of the fact that it was now a full-fledged member of the British military establishment, it remembered the treatment it had received from a British government which had made too many promises to too many parties in the area. While there had been plans to reorganize the Legion into a four-battalion brigade, and Patterson was told that such a move was in the offing, Allenby opposed it at the outset. However, he later wrote to Patterson that he would "form a Provisional Brigade of the Jewish battalions until a complete Jewish Brigade can be formed." This never happened, and in his book, With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign, Patterson noted with some bitterness that "we were pushed around from brigade to brigade, and from division to division; in the space of three months we found ourselves attached to no less than 12 different formations of the British Army." Much worse was to come as the British military authorities openly discriminated against the Legion.
For example, Jerusalem was placed out of bounds to the Legionnaires. All of these affronts led to disobedience and mutiny, which in turn resulted in courts martial. In the 39th Battalion alone, 55 Canadian and American volunteers were sentenced to terms of hard labor, which was later reduced. At the time that Britain announced it was establishing a permanent army of occupation in Palestine, a large contingent of Americans in the Legion volunteered to serve in this force, but was turned down. And even though Jabotinsky urged the volunteers to remain in Palestine and offered his services to the British occupation forces, he was turned down and demobilized out of the Judean Regiment in August 1919. Despite other appeals for them to remain in Palestine to guarantee the security of the Jews there, the Americans decided to return home. The same desire to return to England was prevalent among the London Jews, few of whom were Zionists and not inclined to become pioneers and farmers in Eretz Israel. The Judean Regiment was slowly pared down from three battalions to two and then to one, and by Spring 1920, only 200 to 300 of the Legionnaires remained.
Anti-Jewish riots broke out in Palestine in 1920, and those Legionnaires still on active duty were confined to their barracks by the British. At this same time, Jabotinsky organized two companies of a self-defense corps, the Haganah. They were trained by some of the former members of the Judean Regiment. When this force marched to the Jaffa and Damascus gates of Jerusalem's Old City, they found them guarded by British troops who arrested Jabotinsky and 19 others, all of whom were sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Both Jews and gentiles in Palestine, England, and the United States erupted in a storm of indignation In 1920, upon his becoming High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel granted them as well as the Arabs who participated in the Jerusalem riots amnesty and then formed a mixed Arab-Jewish militia.
Joining this formation were 400 former Legionnaires, headed by Eliezer Margolin, who had commanded the 39th Fusiliers. When anti-Jewish riots erupted in Jaffa in 1921, and 13 Jews were killed, Margolin led his armed Jewish militiamen into the city without authority to protect the Jews there. For this breach of discipline, he was forced to resign as head of the Jewish contingent of the mixed militia group.
After the war, Jabotinsky, ever the activist, argued that it was imperative that the Legion remain on the active list in Palestine to protect Jews against the Arabs. He was unable to convince Zionist leaders, who were not so pessimistic about the safety of the Jews in Palestine, and so the Jewish Legion passed out of existence without strong Jewish opposition. It was this Zionist view of the situation of the Jews in Palestine which led Jabotinsky to form the Haganah. In the 1920s, he continually advocated the idea of a legion of officially sanctioned and organized Jewish units to serve as part of the British garrison in Palestine. In the mid-30s, after an outbreak of Arab rioting, and when he saw his call for a reborn Jewish Legion unanswered, he became increasingly receptive to the idea of an armed underground in Palestine. He even went further when he accepted the policy of the Irgun Zeva'i Leumi for violent retaliation against the Arabs. As is known, after the end of World War II, the Irgun acted against the British as well as the Arabs.
When World War II began, Jabotinsky, kept out of Israel since 1930, when the British refused to grant him a return visa after a trip to South Africa, he loudly called for the creation of a Jewish army to fight alongside Allied forces against a common Nazi enemy. In February 1940, he sailed for the United States where he hoped to enlist both Jewish and non-Jewish support for a Jewish armed force. He died in August that year, leaving instructions in his will for his body to be "transferred [to Eretz Israel] only on the instructions of a Jewish government." In 1965, 25 years later, both his remains and those of his wife, Johanna, were taken to Israel for a state funeral and burial on Mount Herzl.
As for the Legionnaires remaining in Palestine, despite a promise by the British mandate authority to assist the settlement of the veterans on government land, it was never honored. In 1932, 60 former members of the Legion from the United States, Canada, and Argentina found a moshav ovdim [workers' settlement] they called Avichayil [Father of the Army] near Nathanya. It was there that a museum, Beit Hagdudim, was established in 1941 devoted to the history of the Jewish battalions in World War I, "and where the name of John Henry Patterson is honoured alongside those of the Jewish Legionnaires."
To carry the story of these veterans forward, out of a population of 345 in the settlement, 65 men volunteered for service with the British forces in World War II. Quite possibly, they eventually became members of the Jewish Brigade, which, as shall be seen, was formed in 1944.
In reviewing the accomplishments of the men who served in the Royal Fusiliers and the Judean Regiment, it would be difficult not to conclude that these Jews fought enemies -- both to their front and in their rear, and that despite their success in battle -- which, interestingly enough, was denigrated in some British histories of Allenby's Palestinian campaign -- it was in the political arena that they were defeated. But they left a legacy which would be surpassed in World War II when Jews again successfully pressured the British government for the right to fight in their own Jewish military formations.
But before the Second World War, a wholly Jewish fighting unit was to appear in the Spanish Civil War with the formation of the Botwin Company. It was founded to fight in the International Brigade for the Loyalist Government of Spain in the civil war which wracked that country beginning in 1936. That this company is perhaps little known to military historians -- or historians in general -- is understandable since little if anything has appeared in English about the Botwins; that which has been published is in either French or Yiddish. Since I am fluent in neither language, I am grateful to Victor Berdh, Archivist of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in the Special Collections of Brandeis University for providing me with some English-language material about the company. As Berdh wrote me:
The Botwin Company was named after Naftali Botwin, a young member of the KPP (Polish Communist Party), who was condemned to death for shooting an 'agent provocateur.' The Company was composed mainly of Polish-Jewish volunteers from France, Palestine, and Poland.... The company's military accomplishments were highly praised by other units of the International Brigades. As the International Brigades were being dissolved, the Botwin Company volunteered to stay on and took part in protecting the rear of the fleeing Spanish Republican Army and the Spanish refugees who were making their way into France. Some of its members eventually took part in the Resistance Movement in France and other countries during WWII.
While one might anticipate that something about this unit should very well appear in the myriad of books published about the Spanish Civil War, I have found nothing.*
* There are, however, three books in particular which contain much information about the unit: Ephraim Wuzeck, Zikhrones fun a Botvinist [Memoirs of a member of the Botwin Company], Warsaw, 1964; David Diamant, Combattants Juiffe dans l'Arméé Republicaine Espagnole. 1936-1939. Paris, Editions Renouveau, 1979; and Arno Lustiger, Schalom Libertad, Frankfurt am Main, Atheneum, 1989.
An enlightening article about the Botwins throws considerable light on this unique unit. Of the approximately 40,000 volunteers who flocked to Spain to fight on the side of the Loyalist government against Franco and his Nazi and Fascist allies, nearly 10,000 were Jews, 114th of the total membership of the International Brigades. Some of the Jewish volunteers were from Eastern Europe -- many of them leftists from Poland. There were also in the Brigades about 400 men and women from Palestine, most of whom had migrated there from Eastern Europe.
Many of the Jewish freedom fighters -- for that's what they were -- went to Spain not because they believed the war was a Jewish concern, but because of the threat to world peace by the fascists. For one group of volunteers, it was a matter of Jewish concern. These were the Jews from Eastern Europe "who had a keen awareness of their Jewishness and a loyalty to the Jewish people." They were communists primarily because of a loyalty to the Soviet Union for what they perceived was Communist Russian support for Jewish culture. Also, the common enemy was Nazism and its allies -- Fascist Italy and Spain, but especially Nazism. These volunteers wanted it known that they were Jews fighting Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco under a Jewish flag.
Relative to the basic concept of this paper, one source said, "Many combatants wanted the Jews to be represented as an independent national group, similar to the combatants of other nationalities." After over a year's lobbying by Jewish fighters and their supporters outside of Spain to have this so, the International Brigade leadership decided to permit the formation of a company-sized Jewish unit. On 12 December 1937, the Polish Dombrowski Brigade, in which there were a number of Jewish volunteers, issued an order designating the second company of its Palafox Battalion [named after a Spanish hero who had resisted the Napoleonic invasion] the "Jewish Naftali Botwin Company."
In the Botwin Company, additional to the Polish Jews, were "a Greek-American (who had a thing about the common destiny of the 'two ancient peoples' ), an Ethnic Pole who spoke Yiddish, and two Palestinian Arabs. The latter arrived with a group of Yiddish-speaking Palestinian Jews, and since there was no Arabic- or Hebrew-speaking unit, and one of the Arabs, a baker from Jerusalem, spoke Yiddish, the two Arabs joined the Yiddish-speaking company."
Now that they had a Jewish company, its members looked forward to acquiring a flag, a hymn, and a publication. Their banner had inscribed on it in Spanish, Yiddish, and Polish, "Company Naftali Botwin. For Our and Your Freedom." A hymn was composed, whose last stanza was:
And in the new and war-free times
They'll recall our fight, too:
How Jewish Botwin soldiers
Drove out the fascist plague ---
No passaron [They shall not pass]
After considerable difficulty, the Botwinists were able to obtain the printing material to enable them to publish Botwin, a unit newspaper, the first issue of which appeared 18 days after the activation of the company, on 30 December 1937. In all, five issues were published, the last one, Botwin Number 5, appearing on 3 November 1938. Not too many copies of each issue were printed. Members of another unit of the International Brigade wrote the editors that the publication should "reflect the life of the Jewish soldiers in other battalions, brigades, hospitals, technical services, etc. The soldier's paper Botwin should become the organ of all Jewish freedom fighters in Spain!" But it didn't because those in command of the International Brigade "feared 'Jewish nationalism.'"
The Botwin Company sustained heavy casualties in the fighting during the war -- at Estramadura, 50 percent of the company fell. Perhaps the reason for heavy butcher's bills lies in the fact that the Botwinists were often sent into battle without any military training, with few rifles, and were told that "The fascists have many weapons; capture them!" The unit received a number of reinforcements during its times in combat. Nonetheless, existing records indicate that the Botwin Company had probably more than 1,000 men killed and wounded, with four successive company commanders killed in action.
The very last volunteer in the Brigade killed in Spain was a Botwinist, Haskel Honigstein. For this dubious honor, he was given a state funeral in Barcelona at which senior officials of the Loyalist government were present. The Botwin Company, and the Dombrowski Brigade, became upset and confused when the Soviet government shut down the Polish Communist Party in 1938, accusing it of being a "party of spies and traitors."
With the defeat of the Spanish Loyalist government, the members of the International Brigade sought refuge in France, where they were interned under miserable conditions and largely became stateless because German Jews could not return to Germany, Italian Jews could not return to Italy, and Polish Jews were deprived of their citizenship for having fought in the war. They no longer had countries to which they could return. When Germany attacked France and the low countries in 1940, a number of the interned Botwinists joined the French and Belgian underground. Many lost their lives; very few survived.
It was noted that:
The Jewish combatants of the Spanish war, and first and foremost those who overcame the resistance of the I.B.[International Brigade] leadership to gain the right to fight under Jewish banners and as members of the Jewish nationality, ought to be recognized as an integral part of the Jewish armed resistance against the Nazi enemy.
After the end of World War II, Naftali Botwin was recognized as a hero of the Polish communist movement and honored in Poland with several memorials, one of them, a Warsaw street bearing his name. However, after the Six Day War, the "Polish government, maintaining that it fights Zionists, not Jews, obliterated all monuments to Botwin. Botwin became a non-person, his street renamed, the existence of the Botwin Company blotted out, and the participation of Polish Jews in the Spanish campaign is now omitted or glossed over to its obscene limits."
It was not until late in World War II that a wholly Jewish combat organization again appeared in history to take its place in the war against the enemy of the Free World. In 1940, Palestinian Jews were permitted to enlist in Jewish companies which were then attached to the Royal East Kent Regiment (the "Buffs") much as the Jews in England in World War I were permitted to enlist in the Royal Fusilier Battalions of the City of London Regiment. The World War II companies were then formed into three infantry battalions which comprised a newly activated Palestine Regiment. These men were largely assigned to guard duty even when they were deployed to Cyrenaica and Egypt. The detailed story behind the lengthy and many discussions behind this decision as well as the history of the reluctance British Arabists to give the Zionists any role in the war against Germany has been told elsewhere and need not be related in detail here.* Other Palestinian Jews who had volunteered at the very beginning of the war were placed in transport, quartermaster, port, labor, or auxiliary units of various kinds which were all- or nearly all-Jewish,. Both British military and political authorities were extremely reluctant to form frontline combatant outfits totally manned by Jews. They were afraid of the Arab reaction, despite the fact that most Arabs were at the least anti-British and pro-Nazi at the other extreme. The Palestinian Jews were unhappy and outraged that they could not fight in the war in their own identifiable military organization, especially when there were many other Jews of other nations in each of their own country's forces -- army, navy, air force -- who were fighting in the war alongside their fellow countrymen.
* For a thoroughly researched and well-told story of the formation of the Jewish Brigade, see Monty Noam Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust (Urbana University of Illinois Press, 1983), pp. 3-29.
In the introduction to his book, Soldiers From Judaea: Palestine Jewish Units in the Middle East. 1941-1943, Rabbi L. Rabinowitz, who was senior Jewish chaplain of the British Eighth Army, wrote:
All through the war there has been a demand among considerable sections of Jewry for a Jewish Army. They point out, quite correctly, that Hitler has no doubt of the existence of a 'Jewish people,' and regards them corporately as his most dangerous enemy. They feel, and the feeling is quite natural in wartime, that the only dignified reply which Jews can make is that some at least of their men and women, fighting among the United Nations, should fight as Jews; that as there are Polish air squadrons and Greek naval units, so somewhere on the vast war front there should be units which can openly call themselves Jewish.
From the very beginning of the war, Palestine and British Jews, as well as the World Zionist Organization lobbied the British government to form all-Jewish fighting contingents. By August 1942, there were 20,000 Palestinian Jews serving in the Middle East, the vast majority of them in purely Jewish units, but, yet, none of them combatant organizations. Of six of these units, four belonging to the Pioneer Corps, a Port Operating Company of the Royal Engineers, and a section from a Royal Signals outfit, were captured in toto when Greece and Crete fell to the Germans. An overwhelming majority of the personnel in the 51st (Middle East) Commando were Palestinian Jews who fought and died in the Abyssinian Campaign. In the "Middle East from Habbaniyeh in Iraq to Tobruk," there was land dotted with their graves, each grave having the Magen David as a marker. So there were some Jews fighting in combat formations, but still not in an identifiably Jewish unit.
Prolonged efforts by the Jewish community in Palestine -- the yishuv -- and leaders of the Zionist movement to "achieve recognized participation and representation of the Jewish people in the war against the Nazis, to lift the mantle of anonymity from the war effort made by the yishuv with its tens of thousands of volunteers, and to reinforce the yishuv's political standing and promote the aims of Zionism" continued to no avail long into the war years.
The initial British reluctance to permit formation of entirely Jewish formations was overcome only after a "sustained and unrelenting campaign" mounted by Chaim Weizmann in London and Moshe Shertok, who was head of the Jewish Agency Political Department in London. This pressure put on the British government, plus the lobbying of many highly placed and politically important English as well as American Jews, and an ever-increasing need for manpower by a country fighting a war on several fronts, compelled the British War Office to announce on 20 September 1944 that:
H.M. Government have decided to accede to the request of the Jewish Agency for Palestine that a Jewish Brigade Group should be formed to take part in active operations.
The Infantry Brigade will be based on the Jewish Battalions of the Palestine Regiment, and the necessary concentration for training is now taking place before dispatch to a theatre of war.
Supporting and ancillary units to complete the Group, based on existing Palestinian units, are being prepared and will join the Infantry Brigade as soon as practicable. The details of the scheme are being discussed with the Jewish Agency which has been invited to cooperate in its realisation.
On 28 September, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a supporter of Jewish aspirations for an all-Jewish fighting unit, referred to the announcement in a speech in the House of Commons, repeating the fact that the government was acceding to the wishes of the Jewish Agency for Palestine that a:
...Jewish Brigade Group should be formed to take part in active operations. I know there are vast numbers of Jews serving with our Forces and the American Forces throughout all the armies. But it seems to me indeed appropriate that a special Jewish unit, a special unit of that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis, should be represented as a distinct formation amongst the forces gathered for their final overthrow, and I have no doubt they will not only take part in the struggle, but also in the occupation which will follow.
The Jewish Brigade Group was formed in the Egyptian desert on 28 September 1944 with Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin, a Canadian-born career officer with 25 years of active duty as a Royal Engineer appointed commander. He was to head an organization:
...whose language was Hebrew, which was almost entirely Palestinian, and whose personnel hailed originally from every country but Britain. Former refugees from Germany; men who had run away from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, for fear of the descending Nazis; early pioneers who had 'gone up' to 'build the land' twenty and thirty years ago from Russia and Poland; romantic-looking, dark-skinned Yemenite Jews, black Falashas from Abyssinia. These were the bulk of the fifty-four countries which were represented in the Brigade, but which were not all welded into the new Palestinian spirit and tradition.
The official British history of the war in Italy describes the activation of the Jewish Brigade Group thusly:
The formation of the Jewish Brigade had been politically and militarily controversial. Churchill supported the idea, which was pressed by the Zionist leader, Doctor Chaim Weizmann, because he felt it would be sort of rough justice to enable the Jews 'to get at the murderers of their fellow-countrymen.' Neither the War office nor the C.-in-C. [Commander in Chief] Middle East were keen on the proposal From a political angle they thought 'that the Zionists desire to have their men trained at our expense, in active operations'; and militarily they objected to the diversion of effort needed for training and equipment. The War Office fought a long losing battle in which the formation of a Jewish Division was mooted but turned down as impracticable. C.-in-C. Middle East was eventually instructed to form a brigade group although he maintained he could only provide a brigade from Jewish sources. Gaps were filled by British units. The Order of Battle was:As a unit of the British Army, it was entitled to its own unit identification, a flag with a gold Magen David on a background of white-blue-white stripes and bearing the inscription "chayil," the initials of the unit's Hebrew name - Chashivoh Yehudis Lohchemes [Jewish Fighting Brigade], or as it was listed, "Jewish Brigade Group." After a period of training in Egypt, the brigade, 5,000 men strong, including Jews who transferred from other units of the British Army, deployed to Italy to come under the command of the British Eighth Army. It continued its training in Italy until February 1945, when it moved north into the lines on the Alfonsine sector of the front. This area was in northeast Italy, near the Adriatic coast just below where the Italian boot begins to curve towards Venice.
1st. 2nd. and 3rd Battalions Palestine Regiment
* 200th Field Regiment (one battery Jewish), RA [artillery]
643rd (Palestine) Field Company, RE. [engineers]
* Brigade and Field Regiment Signals
178th (Palestine) Company, RA S.C. [service corps]
* 140th Field Ambulance
Jewish Brigade Group Ordnance Field Park and Workshop Sections
* Indicates British units.
In March, the brigade participated in two attacks against German lines, ant then was moved to another sector on the Senio River facing positions held by enemy troops of an elite parachute division. On 9 April, the brigade's three battalions crossed the river to make and hold a bridgehead on the opposite bank -- a very difficult maneuver in a combat situation -- against strong enemy resistance. In the heavy fighting which ensued, the brigade lost 30 men killed and 70 wounded in action. For their valor and bravery in this engagement, 21 officers and enlisted men were decorated and 78 mentioned in dispatches, a British form of recognition of heroism in battle.
As the Allied drive into northern Italy progressed, the Jewish Brigade moved forward also, entering towns and cities where the Jewish civilian population greeted the troops who had Magen David unit markings on their vehicles and other gear. Bologna was one of the first cities where the Jewish community was reborn with the help of individual soldiers of the brigade who shared their rations with the starving Italian Jews -- starving spiritually as well as physically. In each of the towns in which there was a Jewish population of any size, the Brigade's troops helped clean up and making the local synagogues places of worship once more and the brigade chaplain, Rabbi Casper conducted probably the first Sabbath services held in these towns since the war began. Modena, Ferrara, Venice, and Milan followed Bologna in turn and the reception of the brigade by the Italian Jews in each city was the same -- wonderment and pride in this wholly Jewish outfit whose members spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, and a number of other European languages as well.
V-E Day, 8 May 1945, arrived and members of the Brigade wondered whether they would be sent next to Germany, as many had hoped, or to Eastern Europe, where many of the Brigade carne from. Instead, the Jewish Brigade was moved to Tarvisio on the Italian-Austrian-Yugoslav border in the Julian Alps. It was here that former concentration camp prisoners and displaced persons (DPs) began passing through, all survivors of the Holocaust -- Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Carpatho-Russians, Hungarians, Germans, and all Jewish for the most part. Many of the men in the brigade came from the same places as had some of the DPs and a number found relatives or individuals who knew their families. The Jewish agencies, such as the British Jewish Relief Committee and the American Joint Distribution Committee were in Rome, and both were overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees on the move, most moving south with hopes of reaching Eretz Israel one way or another. The brigade set up its own refugee committee, sharing what supplies of food, bedding, and medicine it could with the DPs. The brigade also established a form of an underground railroad, with the help of individual Israelis who had been sent to Europe to rescue the DPs and to see that they got to a place where they would be passed to yet another rescue group, and so on. At the same time the brigade was doing this, it established secret contact with Zionist authorities, for, as one account relates, it:
...thus became a major factor in the care of the Jewish survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps. Without neglecting their military duties, the Jewish soldiers extended systematic aid to the refugees, provided them with clothes and educational facilities for their children, guided them across the frontiers, and smuggled them into Palestine.
Meanwhile, the reputation of the Brigade as a focal point for Jewish refugees attempting to get to Palestine spread. In a number of cases, American Military Government officers in the American zone in Germany, in whose areas existed DP camps, contacted Brigade authorities asking them to help ease the situation of the Jewish refugees in the camps.
The brigade was moved to Holland and then to Belgium in July 1945, where it continued to assist the DPs. Some members of the Brigade were attached to a tracing service of the occupation authorities searching for survivors as far afield as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Once the Brigade had arrived in Antwerp and set up, it helped to re-establish Jewish activities in the city, but most of all, "...the very presence of the Brigade raised the morale of the Jewish civilians" in not only Belgium but also in all of the other cities it had passed through on its way north. In April 1946, it was later revealed in the report of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine that the Brigade was transferred precisely because of its activities in aiding the refugees while it was in Italy.
In addition to the members of the Brigade who obtained official leave, a number of others took off without authorization to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Carpatho-Russia searching for surviving relatives. When this so-called "French leave" threatened to take on epidemic proportions, the Brigade sought permission from the British Army of the Rhine for permission to send organized teams to search for relatives. Brigadier Benjamin, the Brigade commander, pointed out that it was a matter of unit morale for the some 1,500 solders and officers who had relatives in the countries and territories conquered and occupied by the Nazis. The accompanying table prepared in late 1945 by Rabbi Casper, the Brigade chaplain, gives some idea of the vast number of different nationalities in the Brigade and where Holocaust survivors might be found. (See Table 1)
Relationship Father Wife Mother and Brother All Children Sister Others Total Country Austria 88 31 119 Belgium 10 14 24 Bulgaria 4 4 Czechoslovakia 139 23 162 Denmark 1 1 England 4 43 12 59 France 1 28 61 90 Greece 3 1 4 Germany 1 193 78 272 Hungary 1 71 9 81 Holland 28 19 47 Italy 1 1 Japan 1 1 Liechtenstein 1 1 Norway 1 1 Poland 6 342 64 412 Roumania 80 10 90 Switzerland 6 5 11 Sweden 7 1 8 Turkey 1 1 U.S.S.R. 1 38 9 48 Yugoslavia 5 2 7 TOTAL 14 1089 341 1444
In any case, the British command disapproved the request. On the other hand, the British 21st Army Group, the Brigade's senior command, permitted it to provide five search teams of three men each to go out in a general search of the British occupation zone for DPs and released prisoners. Within a short time after the teams went out, they were recalled, thanked for their efforts, and told that their services were no longer required. The only explanation given was that higher authority, whatever that might have been, was concerned that the Jewish teams might have "the wrong psychological effect on the Jewish DPs they might come into contact with in the camps."
Despite the orders prohibiting the soldiers of the Brigade from going into eastern Europe and the concentration camps, many "could be seen...on the streets of Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, Bucharest, Budapest, in fact throughout the greater part of Europe." If these men in fact did not find relatives or friends, they met with people who knew of their families and what had happened to them. It wasn't too long until the British authorities cracked down on these activities. Rabbi Casper described what happened further:
The deteriorating political situation in and concerning Palestine, raids by British soldiery against the settlements which were the homes of many of our personnel, the continuance of the Jewish refugees in the DP camps behind barbed wire inside Germany, and the terribly hard conditions under which those DPs were being forced to prolong a wretched existence month after month without any solution to their problem -- all this began inevitably to produce a feeling of frustration and disillusionment throughout the Brigade.
As it inevitably would have to happen, given the multi-faceted and contradictory aspects of British policy in Palestine, and the continuing ferment of Jewish aspirations for a homeland, the Brigade had to be deactivated and its soldiers demobilized. This had to be done, among other reasons, in order to end the Brigade's role in assisting DPs on their way to Palestine. In June 1946, the Jewish Brigade ceased to exist. Most of the officers and men were returned to Palestine and released from active duty there.
While the Jewish Brigade came into the war late, through no fault of its own, it did see action and proved itself in battle. In a commendatory letter to Brigadier Benjamin following the Italian campaign, the American General Mark Clark, commander of the 15th Army Group, wrote:
I address this letter to you as the Commander of the Palestinian Forces to ask you to thank all ranks, for me, for the splendid cooperation which you gave in the offensive which forced the Germans into unconditional surrender.
Your operations around Lake Comacchio and south of Route 9 were of great importance in the actions leading to the surrender. It was a privilege to have had you with the 15th Army Group.
Good luck to all of you.
In addition to its contributions to the Allied war effort, the existence of such a completely Jewish fighting unit as the Brigade fulfilled two unspoken but historic objectives: first, "it was a decisive factor in strengthening the staying power of Jewish survivors and refugees in Europe," and second, "the experience it gained in military organization and in battle subsequently became one of the foundations of the Israel Defense Forces. Many of the officers of the Israeli army" were veterans of the Brigade. As Israel fought for its independence and very life, it counted on these people, as well as other Jewish veterans from countries around the world, to guarantee its survival.
I should now like to discuss a Jewish military unit, the Jewish Company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, which existed in the midst of a war in which it had no part - active or otherwise. When Great Britain handily defeated the Manchus in the first Opium War in 1842, one of the elements of the Treaty of Nanking signed between England and China was to open Shanghai to foreign trade in 1843. Merchants from all over the world flocked to Shanghai's International Settlement to open what became thriving businesses. In this group were Jews, mostly Sephardim who came from Cairo, Baghdad, and Bombay, among them the Sassoon, Kadoorie, Hardoon, Ezra, Shannon, and Baroukh families, which were to succeed and prosper in the years following their arrival. The Russian pogroms and the 1917 revolution brought to Shanghai waves of Russian Jews, and between 1932 and 1938, German-Jewish refugees from Nazism enlarged Shanghai's Jewish population to approximately 25,000 by the time World War II began.
On 8 April 1853, when the International Settlement was in its infancy, two meetings were held in Shanghai -- one under British and the other under American chairmanship-to consider the establishment of a defense force in the Settlement. That, essentially, was the birth of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC). Its first challenge came on 3 April the next year when two British residents were assaulted by Manchu troops. On the following day, an ultimatum was sent to the commander of the Manchu forces, giving him until 4 P.M. that day to move his troops away from the borders of the Settlement. When the ultimatum was disregarded, the Westerners comprising the SVC attacked the Chinese, routing them. This whole event was over in half an hour. It is celebrated as The Battle of Muddy Flat, the first of the battle honors of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Some 50 Chinese casualties resulted, with the SVC losing 2 men killed and 15 wounded- two of whom died later of their wounds.
In succeeding years, as the international population of the Settlement grew, the SVC grew larger also, with an international flavor added to its composition. The following plates depict the battle honors of the SVC from 1853 to 1938, and also the expansion of the Corps with the addition of various units over the years since it was first formed. Early on, the Municipal Council of the International Settlement subsidized the SVC, and in the annual reports of the Council are the annual reports of the Corps, which not only provide an annual chronology of the activities of the SVC, but also provide the names and dates the various units joined over the years. In 1938, which is a particular handy date to use, a now-rare book, I.I. Kounin's Eighty Five Years of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, was published and contains a complete history of the SVC to that date. As of 1938, the Corps had 19 different units, including American, British, Scottish, Portuguese, Filipino, Russian, and Jewish.
As indicated at the beginning of this paper, the story of the Jewish Company would not be complete without first talking about Noel Jacobs, the first and only commander of the Company. He was born in England to a Methodist family. He grew up in Hong Kong, and was a founder-member of the first Boy Scout troop to be formed in the city. He later served with the Hong Kong Defence Force before moving in the early 1920s to Shanghai, where he was employed by the British-American Tobacco Company. In Shanghai he met a young Russian-Jewish girl, Dora Bogomolsky, whom he married after converting to Judaism. Although he was not a practicing Jew, from that time on, until he left Shanghai in 1949, he was deeply involved with Jewish community affairs.
Jacobs took over the 5th Shanghai (Jewish) Boy Scout Troop as Scoutmaster in 1923. Under his leadership, the troop flourished and was successfully competitive with the other Scout troops in Shanghai. In the summer of 1932, a group of young Jews in Shanghai, some of them former Scouts as well as members of the Shanghai branch of BETAR, met at an obscure address on Bubbling Well Road to consider the possibility of forming a Jewish unit in the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. The commander of the SVC was approached and he proposed the formation of such an organization. It was decided that the Jewish unit should start out as a platoon in an already existing company. The commander of H Company proposed to take the proposed platoon under his wing.
Noel Jacobs, who was already well-known in Shanghai for his business as well as community activities, was commissioned and designated the platoon commander. RB. Bitker, who had belonged to one of the American units of the SVC and was a decorated veteran of service with the Russian army, and M. Talan, who had been a member of the SVC artillery battery, were appointed as sergeants in the platoon, which was activated on 22 September 1932. Two months later, a second platoon was activated.
On 22 May 1933, the non-Jewish personnel of Company H were transferred, thus making it an all-Jewish unit, the Jewish Company. It adopted as its motto, "No advance without security." The chaplain of the Jewish Company was Reverend Mendel Brown, who was the spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in Shanghai. A photograph of him taken in the mid-1930s shows him wearing the British officers' uniform of that period, and wearing a Roman collar. The Company's uniform was the same as the one worn by the British army in the pre-World War II period except that officers and enlisted wore the appropriate Shanghai Volunteer Corps cap and uniform badges. The Jewish Company wore on the uniform collar metal Magen David ornaments with the letters "SVC" superimposed.
In June the next year, Jacobs was promoted to captain. The company drilled in a building on Foochow Street which the Municipal Council designated for use by all the units of the SVC. Marksmanship training was conducted at a range located in the northern limits of the city next to Hongkew Park. Here there were whitewashed, one-story stone buildings, which served as barracks for the various companies of the SVC which came out to fire their weapons for record. The members of the Jewish Company drilled arduously to ensure that it was professionally competent and able to take up their places alongside their SVC comrades when the Corps was called up for active service. Such training consisted of familiarity with their weapons, setting up sand-bagged and barbed wire defensive positions, bayonet drill, and, most importantly for Shanghai, mob control.
Each of the major powers which had concessions in Shanghai as a result of the Treaty of Nanking -- Great Britain, France, the United States -- also had military contingents stationed in their concessions. As the Sino-Japanese War surged around Shanghai, the military representatives of these foreign services met, together with officials of the International Settlement Municipal Council, to draw up plans for the defense of the Settlement against Japanese incursions. Included in these plans were options concerning the control of the masses of Chinese who, it was anticipated, would try to enter the Settlement for the protection it would offer. Each of the major powers held extraterritorial rights in their concessions, which meant that invading them would be the same as invading the home country and considered an act of war. Because the Settlement was too large for all the foreign contingents to defend it, the SVC was incorporated into the overall Settlement defense plan and assigned to assist the British troops in defending Sector B, which was rather large and more than the British could handle.
When the fighting in the Chinese section of Shanghai in 1937 threatened to spill over into the Settlement, the foreign units took up their assigned defensive positions, and the Shanghai Volunteer Corps was mobilized on 17 August, as was the Jewish Company, for a period of three months, taking up predesignated stations. For thus period of active service, 85 members of the Company were awarded the Municipal Council's Emergency Medal. In August 1938, the SVC was again mobilized for three days, and Jewish Company personnel reported to their appointed posts.
The two mobilizations were the last times that the SVC was to be called out in defense of the Settlement. In February 1942, the SVC commander issued a special order to all contingents notifying them that by order of the Municipal Council, which was now governed by the Japanese occupation authorities, SVC training was suspended until further notice and that the Corps would not be called upon to function in any way. Later, in September that year, a special order was published by the Corps headquarters notifying its units that "the Council has decided that there is no further necessity for the retention of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps and has approved its immediate disbandment." All weapons had been turned in earlier, and now, after an 89-year existence, the SVC was no more. Foreign nationals, including now-Major Jacobs were interned until the end of the war. His wife and three daughters had earlier been evacuated to the United States.
There is no record of the other activities of the Jewish Company. It is assumed that besides training for contingencies and defense of the Settlement, it was as social an organization as were the other SVC units. A number of photographs exist showing the officers and men of the Company attending annual awards dinners and other social functions. According to information provided by several former members of the Company, their relations with other units of the SVC were friendly, there was no indication of anti-semitism in either the SVC or the Shanghai community, and that the Jewish community prospered and extended itself helping the refugees from Germany settle in.
In 1949, Jacobs left China to return to England to continue working for the British-American Tobacco Company. He retired in 1956 and he and his family finally settled down in New Milton, England, where, as was his wont, he became deeply involved in community affairs there. In 1967, his former Scouts and members of the Jewish Company who had emigrated to Israel sponsored a trip to Israel for Noel and Dora Jacobs, so that they could see their mentor and friend once more and have him see how they had flourished since leaving Shanghai. Reportedly, it was an extremely emotional and happy reunion. Noel Jacob died in England in 1977 at the age of 79; his wife a few years later.
To honor their former Scoutmaster and commander of the Jewish Company, volunteers and friends the world over sponsored a memorial forest in Mod'in, Israel, in his name. A stone marker was unveiled on 18 May 1980 in the presence of a group of these admirers, who had 3,500 trees planted to commemorate the life of Noel Jacobs. There are still a number of former members of the Jewish Company living in various parts of the world. Undoubtedly they recall the China and the Shanghai that once was, and which remains only in their memories.
In reviewing these four Jewish military units of the Diaspora, dissimilar and as individual as each may be, several particulars are evident. First, and obviously, the persona of Jabotinsky is a continuing thread throughout the histories of the Zion Mule Corps to the Jewish Brigade. While the Jews of Shanghai formed and joined the Jewish Company out of a community volunteerism, the Jews of the Zion Mule Corps, the Jewish Legion, and the Jewish Brigade volunteered to enlist in combat units to fight a common enemy. Whereas the Jewish Company was formed with no trouble whatsoever, this was not the same experience of the founders of the other three units discussed in this paper. In reviewing their records, one wonders who was the greater enemy in World Wars I and II, the Germans or the British Government? To the cynical and the realist, it is no secret that when the imperatives of realpolitik become paramount, then morality and principles are cast adrift. Unfortunately for the members of the Jewish Brigade especially, they had to fight a two-front war -- the Nazis to their front. with guns, the British to their rear with words, ideas, and persuasion. It redounds to Winston Churchill's credit, imperialist that he was, that he was sensitive to the need of Jews to participate in the war against their enemy of enemies, Hitler, and Churchill gave them the opportunity to do so, regardless of any other private political objectives he may have had for postwar Britain.
Above all, the history of the units discussed herein should recall the fighting qualities of the Israelites of biblical times, which has been perpetuated by the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of modern-day Israel. They say, as did the Botwinists in their hymn, non passaron.
Aspinall-Oglander, BGen C.F., History of the Great War: Operations. Gallipoli. Vol I,
Inception of the Campaign to May l9l5
Bulletin of the Igud Yotzei Sin, passim.
Bush, Capt Eric Wheler, Gallipoli, NY: St Martin's Press, 1925
Casper, Bemard M., With the Jewish Brigade, London: Edward Goldston, 1947
Frank Benis M., "The Shanghai Volunteer Corps: A Socio-Military History," unpublished MS
Harfield, Alan, British and Indian Armies on the China Coast. 1785-1985, Farnham: A&J Partnership, 1990
Jackson, Gen Sir William with Group Captain T.P. Gleave, The Mediterranean and the Middle East, Vol VI, Victory in the Mediterranean. Part III, Nov 1944-May 1945, London: HM Stationery Office, 1988
Kirk George, The Middle East in the War, London: Oxford University Press, 1952
Kounin, I.I., compiler, Eighty Five Years of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, Shanghai: The Cosmopolitan Press, 1938
Patterson, LtCol John H., With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1922
Patterson, LtCol John H., With Zionists at Gallipoli, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1916
Penkower, Marty Noam, The lews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust, Urbana University of Illinois Press, 1983
Prago, Albert, "The Botwin Company in Spain, 1937-1939," Jewish Currents, March 1992, pp. 7-11
Rabinowitz, L., Soldiers from Judaea. Palestine Jewish Units in the Middle East. l94l - l943.London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1944
Rothenburg, Joshua, "The Jewish Naftali Botwin Company," Jewish Frontier, Vol 47 (Apr80), pp. 14-19
Silverthorn, Cyril, "The 'Righteous Colonel' and the Jewish Legion," The Jewish Quarterly. Vol 32, No. 2, 1985, pp. 37-40
Wavell, Gen Sir Archibald, Allenby: A Study in Greatness, NY: Oxford University Press, 1941
Zhabotinskii, Vladimir E., Samuel Karz, trans., The Story of the Jewish Legion. NY: B. Ackerman, Inc., 1945
In addition to the above sources, correspondence with Sam Sheflan, Lorna Jacobs Mason, Alexander Katznelson, Henrietta Reifler, and Victor Berch