The Birth of the Zion Mule Corps

One hundred years ago today, Turkey entered World War I on the side of the Kaiser’s Germany. Within days, Russia, France and Britain all declared war on ‘the sick man of Europe’. This event was probably far more important for Jewish national interests than the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany in August 1914.

In early November 1914, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, told his audience that the Turkish government’s decision had ‘rung the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe but in Asia’. The Jewish Chronicle noted this prescient remark and immediately asked ‘what is to be the fate of Palestine?’ It surmised that Jews displaced by the conflict might subsequently find new homes in Palestine. By January 1915 the British cabinet minister, Herbert Samuel, had submitted a memorandum to his colleagues which advocated a Jewish presence in Palestine while Chaim Weizmann of Manchester University was busily canvassing British politicians to support the Zionist experiment.

The British had unofficially ruled Egypt for decades and it was clear that an expeditionary force would sooner or later invade Palestine to fight the Turks. It was imperative, therefore, to have a Jewish military force which would fight alongside the British.

The idea of a Jewish battalion in 1914 was mooted even before Turkey entered the war, but the prospect divided British Jews. In 1861 a Jewish Rifle Volunteer Corps had been formed in London’s East End. It lasted only a few months. One continuing Jewish fear was that any whiff of separatism would stir anti-Semitic prejudice. After all, the Times in December 1914 had blamed Turkish ‘crypto-Jews’ for taking their country to war. They had been bribed by Germany, it was said, into betraying ‘a faith not their own’.

A symbol of courage, they spent eight months under fire with no shelter, bringing supplies to the British troops

Despite this, a Jewish military force did come into existence. It was not however an army in the lofty image of Bar-Kokhba which would fight to liberate Palestine, but a small unit of muleteers who would carry ammunition, water and bully beef to British soldiers as part of the grand plan to invade the Turkish mainland at Gallipoli, drive on to Istanbul and knock Turkey out of the war at an early stage.

In Egypt there were thousands of Russian and Sephardi Jews who had been forced to leave Palestine because they were not Ottoman citizens – and many were eager to strike at the Turks. Joseph Trumpeldor, a one armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese war and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Zionist activist, had tried in vain to convince General Maxwell, the British Commander in Egypt of the need for a Jewish army. Trumpeldor even resorted to wearing his medals – two gold and two bronze St. George Crosses – to impress the general, but all that he suggested was a Zion Mule Corps. Known originally as the Assyrian Jewish Refugee Mule Corps, 562 volunteers sailed for Turkey in April 1915 on the Hymettus and on the Anglo-Egyptian.

A few days before the arrival of the Zion Mule Corps, the British and Anzac (Australian and New Zealand) losses at Gallipoli had been extremely heavy. A British pilot, Air Commodore Samson, surveying the scene, reported that the sea was coloured blood red for 50 yards stretching from the shoreline.

Eight Jews and six British non-Jews were the officers in charge, but the entire force was commanded by an Irish Protestant, well versed in both Jewish history and the Bible stories of his youth, Lt. Col. John Patterson.

He was conscious of the role that he was playing in this historic drama. The order of the day was given in Hebrew and he encouraged the depiction of traditional Jewish symbols throughout the unit. He was acutely aware that the Jews had not possessed an army for almost two millennia. As a boy, he had read about Joab who had been appointed by King David to command his army – and now he saw himself in a similar light.

Patterson looked the other way when some of the muleteers actually took up arms and fought with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Several were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and mentioned in dispatches. Yet their role as the muleteers grew more and more frustrating and distant from their aim to oust the Turks from Palestine. In June 1915, 75 muleteers requested repatriation to Egypt. Patterson had the three leaders flogged, tied to the wheels of a wagon and put on bread and water for three days – much to Trumpeldor’s exasperation. Patterson’s rationale was that if the Zion Mule Corps was to become the nucleus of a Jewish army, then there had to be both unity and discipline. He recalled the example of Moses berating the wandering, squabbling, children of Israel before entering the Promised Land.

As history records, this proposal of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to eliminate Turkey from the war became his greatest failure and ended with his resignation from government. It resulted in 34,000 British dead, 78,000 wounded and 145,000 ill with dysentery and malaria. By 1916, the Gallipoli campaign was over, an inglorious catastrophe and the Zion Mule Corps returned to the Middle East. The War Office refused to pay them a pension since they were regarded as temporary employees even though 14 had died and 60 were wounded fighting for the British Crown. They had spent eight months under fire without shelter, working day and night, to bring bullets and supplies to British troops.

Yet something had changed dramatically. The name of the Zion Mule Corps was now widely known through repeated mention in the international press. For the Jews, the lowly muleteer became the exalted symbol of the courageous Jewish fighter.

In 1915 Jabotinsky had been instrumental in using all his rhetorical powers to persuade the expelled Palestinian Jews to enlist. Yet he was aghast when all that was offered was a mule corps and not a fighting army. While Trumpeldor embraced the proposal, an aggrieved Jabotinsky left for Italy. Jabotinsky later admitted that he had been wrong. He understood that the mere existence of this small transportation unit had elevated the cause of Zionism and broken through the barrier of international indifference. He later wrote:

Until then it had been almost impossible to talk about Zionism even to friendly statesmen: at such a cruel time as that, who could really expect them to worry about agricultural settlements or the renaissance of Hebrew? All that was, for the moment, simply outside their field of vision.

The Zion Mule Corps was disbanded on 26 May 1916 – it had existed for just over a year. Yet 120 of its members made their way to London where they enlisted as the 5th Company of the 20th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Any mention of the Zion Mule Corps now opened doors and invited discussion with the British political and military establishment. This remnant of the Zion Mule Corps become the nucleus of a Jewish Legion, based on the model of the international legions that had fought for the French Revolution. It saw service in Palestine in 1918 and led to the establishment of the Haganah in the 1920s which in turn was transformed into the Israel Defence Forces in 1948.

The British army in Gallipoli used mules because they were resistant to heat and thirst. These animals were also incredibly stubborn. They were therefore the entirely appropriate companions for their equally stiff-necked masters who had embarked on the impossible task of changing the course of Jewish history.

Jewish Chronicle 30 October 2014

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