The Zion Mule Corps – and its Irish commander

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11

Colonel John Henry Patterson of the Jewish Legion. (Jabotinsky Museum)

Colonel John Henry Patterson of the Jewish Legion. (Jabotinsky Museum)

John Henry Patterson was born in 1867 in Dublin. His Protestant background imbued him with a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, and he drew spiritual sustenance from historical parallels with the deeds of early biblical warriors. Not unnaturally, he was favorably inclined towards the Zionist aspirations of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Patterson was an eccentric character, and it was his non-military exploits that contributed to his reputation and even notoriety. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst before joining the Essex Yeomanry, and became a regular officer of the Royal Engineers, specialising in railway construction and bridge-building in India.
In 1898 he was transferred to Kenya and put in charge of building a bridge over the Tsavo River as part of the 657-mile Mombassa–Nairobi railway. During the construction of the bridge, two lions held 3,000 Indian and 1,300 African workers at bay in a siege that lasted for weeks. The man-eating lions managed to maul and mutilate more than a hundred people before Patterson, using skills learned while shooting tigers in India, eventually shot both lions single-handed. His account of this incident, The Man Eaters of Tsavo, published in 1907, captured the imagination of Edwardian Britain and became a bestseller. Theodore Roosevelt called it ‘the most thrilling book of true stories ever written’. Val Kilmer starred in a film version of the story in the 1980s called The Ghost and the Darkness.

Sex scandal on safari

Patterson fought in the Boer War, where he was awarded a DSO, and returned to Kenya, where he became a big-game hunter. In March 1908 he left Nairobi on safari, setting up camp at Laisamis, near the Kaisut desert in northern Kenya. His companions on the trip were Audley James Blyth, the son of the first Baron Blyth and late lieutenant of the Essex Yeomanry (Patterson’s own regiment), and Blyth’s wife Ethel Jane. In a scandal that led to Patterson disgracing his regiment’s colours, Blyth shot himself after discovering his wife locked in Patterson’s arms in their tent. Patterson claimed that Blyth had shot himself in the head accidentally while suffering from fever and sunstroke, but disturbing accusations about adultery and suicide reached Lieutenant Colonel Sir James Hayes-Sadler, governor of the East Africa Protectorate. To avoid an unseemly fuss, the colonial secretary, Lord Crewe, decided to exonerate him, but Patterson judiciously decided to resign two days before Crewe addressed the House of Lords on the matter.
Patterson loved writing, especially about his own exploits. His book on this incident, In the Grip of the Nyika, appeared in 1909, and it was this same incident that inspired American novelist Ernest Hemingway to write a short story for Cosmopolitan in 1936, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’. This was later turned into a movie, The Macomber Affair, with Gregory Peck in the Patterson role.

First World War

The outbreak of the First World War gave Patterson the opportunity to once more don army uniform. He was in Alexandria, Egypt, at the same time as a Jewish Ukrainian journalist by the name of Vladimir Evgenevich (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky was sent there by his newspaper in the Black Sea port of Odessa to cover the war. Jabotinsky had been a Zionist activist ever since the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev (then in Bessarabia, now Moldova) when 50 Jews were butchered. Another journalist influenced by this pogrom was Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League. He visited Kishinev after the pogrom on behalf of two New York newspapers, and wrote Within the Pale: The true story of anti-Semitic persecutions in Russia the same year. Davitt’s disgust with the Kishinev pogrom undoubtedly precipitated his loud outburst against the Limerick pogrom in 1904: ‘I protest, as an Irishman and a Christian, against this spirit of barbarous malignity being introduced into Ireland’.
Jabotinsky believed that Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers would lead to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and that the Zionist movement must align itself with the Allies in order to achieve its aims in post-war Palestine. In Alexandria, Jabotinsky found another committed Zionist, Joseph Trumpeldor, a Russian Jew who had volunteered when the Japanese–Russian War broke out in 1904. Trumpeldor lost his arm in battle, and was four times awarded the St George Order, the highest Russian military award for bravery. He spent a year as a prisoner of war after the surrender of Port Arthur, and in 1906, after his release, he was introduced to the Czarina. By royal order he was promoted to officer rank—the first ever Jewish officer in the Russian army.

Jewish Legion proposed

Trumpeldor had moved to Palestine in 1912, and together with 12,000 other Jews was deported to Alexandria following the outbreak of the war, after they refused to become Turkish citizens and join the Turkish army. On 22 March 1915, Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor submitted a resolution to the commander of British forces in Egypt, asking him ‘to form a Jewish Legion and propose to England its utilisation in Palestine’. The commander told his Zionist visitors: ‘Under the law I am not entitled to accept foreigners into the British army. I can offer you only one thing: to form a mule transport unit from your young people and send it to a different Turkish front’. Jabotinsky, the reporter and political activist, felt that this was an insult to the Jews, and refused the offer. Trumpeldor, the soldier, saw little difference between trenches and transport, and agreed to the offer.
The British military commander in Alexandria appointed Patterson as the first commander of the Jewish muleteers, blissfully unaware of the Irishman’s passionate commitment to the Zionist cause. Although some career soldiers might have regarded such a commission as a demotion, Patterson, mindful of his recent embarrassments, was happy to accept the post. Trumpeldor was appointed Patterson’s second-in-command.
The commander of the British army in Egypt was none other than General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell. Frustrated with what he regarded as a simple supply role, Maxwell demanded to be recalled to London. He arrived in March 1916, and within a month had been appointed as commander-in-chief and military governor of Ireland, with the task of quelling the Easter Rising.

Zion Mule Corps

In April 1915 the Palestinian Zionists of the Assyrian Jewish Refugee Mule Corps, which Patterson called the Zion Mule Corps, sailed from Egypt to Gallipoli with 562 mostly Palestinian Zionists, five British officers, eight Jewish officers and 750 mules. They arrived 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 ANZAC group was sent back to Egypt, while the group supporting the 29th Division landed at V Beach on the southern tip of the Helles Peninsula. As the Zion Mule Corps was the only transport unit on the peninsula, it was soon involved in transporting water, ammunition, food and other supplies to the front lines, under heavy fire.
Brigadier General C.F. Aspinall-Oglander wrote in his war memoir, Military operations, Gallipoli:

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 1915. 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.

According to Theodore Roosevelt, Patterson's account of his lion-shooting exploits was ‘the most thrilling book of true stories ever written'.

According to Theodore Roosevelt, Patterson’s account of his lion-shooting exploits was ‘the most thrilling book of true stories ever written’.

By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, six members of the corps had been killed and 25 wounded. General Ian Hamilton, commander of the Gallipoli Expeditionary Force, wrote in November 1915: ‘The men have done extremely well, working their mules calmly under heavy shell and rifle fire, and this shows a more difficult type of bravery than the men on the front line, who had the excitement of combat to keep them going’.
The Zion Mule Corps was deactivated on 26 May 1916, and Patterson, who was sick and had been wounded several times, was returned to England. But within a year, as Allied casualties in the stalemated trench warfare in France continued to mount, the War Office needed manpower to fill the ranks of the combat units. The idea of forming Jewish battalions became a more attractive proposition. Patterson had never given up his idea of a Jewish fighting force in Palestine, and he enlisted as a private in the 20th Battalion, the City of London Regiment, together with 120 former members of the Zion Mule Corps. In July 1917 the Irishman was promoted to full colonel and was ordered to begin organising the Jewish Legion.

New Jewish Legion

Acknowledging that he had been wrong to spurn the offer to join the Zion Mule Corps, Jabotinsky now accepted a commission as a recruiting officer for the Jewish regiment, and on 23 August the London Gazette published an official announcement of its formation. Although the British had promised that the unit’s badges, insignia and regimental colours would identify it as being entirely Jewish, pressure from anti-Zionist Jews in Britain led to this identification being withheld.

An exhibit on the Zion Mule Corps in the Jewish Legion's Museum, Avichayil, Israel.

An exhibit on the Zion Mule Corps in the Jewish Legion’s Museum, Avichayil, Israel.

It was listed in the army rolls as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, the City of London Regiment. The only outward sign that the fusiliers were Jewish was either a red, blue or white Star of David worn on the sleeve, each color designating one of the battalions. At the end of the war the Royal Fusiliers did indeed become the Judean Regiment; its insignia was a menorah with the Hebrew word kadimah (‘forward’) inscribed on it.
As the battalion formed, most ranks were Jewish and most officers were not. The Jewish Legion was a great motivation for Jews in Britain and in other British army units, as well as Jews from other parts of the world. About 50 per cent of the unit were British-born or were naturalised British subjects. The legion included 120 former muleteers, a large contingent of Russian Jews from London, and a mixture of foreign nationals from Allied and neutral nations. Eventually, 150 American Jewish volunteers joined, as well as a further 1,000 Palestinian Jews and 92 Turkish Jews who had been captured in the fighting. Well-known members of the Jewish Legion included Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, another future premier, Levi Eshkol, and the father of yet another future premier, Yitzhak Rabin.

Well received in London’s East End

After training in Portsmouth, the Jewish Legion marched through London’s East End on 2 February 1918 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’.
When the Jewish Legion left Southampton, it had 31 officers and 960 other ranks. Between February and June 1918 they were bivouacked at Helmich, outside Cairo. In June the legion was finally transferred to Palestine, where it was placed in the lines some 20 miles north of Jerusalem opposite the Turks. The head of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), General Sir Edmund Allenby, later Field Marshal Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, and his chief-of-staff, Major General Sir Louis J. Bols, were notoriously antagonistic towards Zionist aspirations. They must have fumed at the Balfour Declaration published in November 1917, which promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine. Allenby did, however, allow the Jewish Legion to participate in the liberation of Damascus.

Highly critical of Allenby

After the war, Patterson returned to England. He was highly critical of the anti-Semitic policies of the British authorities, describing them as ‘a foul stain on our fair name’. This prolific soldier/writer wrote two books about his experiences with the Jewish soldiers, With the Zionists at Gallipoli and With the Judeans in the Palestine campaign. Patterson was particularly scathing about Allenby, noting 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 twelve different formations of the British army’.
Jabotinsky’s offer to continue with the Jewish Legion after the war was turned down, and he turned his focus to the Jewish self-defence irregulars in Palestine, the Haganah. In January 1920 Trumpeldor was mortally wounded while defending the settlement of Tel Hai in northern Galilee against an Arab attack. The Jewish Legion rapidly ran out of steam. The remaining legionnaires faced open discrimination from the British military authorities, and Jerusalem was declared out of bounds. Britain announced that it was establishing a permanent army of occupation in Palestine, but turned down a large contingent of Americans in the legion that volunteered to serve in this force.

The Jewish Legion marching through London's East End on 2 February 1918. (Jabotinsky Museum)

The Jewish Legion marching through London’s East End on 2 February 1918. (Jabotinsky Museum)

The Judean Regiment was pared down from three battalions to one, and by early 1920 only about 250 legionnaires remained. When anti-Jewish riots broke out in Palestine during Passover 1920, legionnaires still on active duty were confined to their barracks by the British. A mixed Arab–Jewish militia was formed, headed by former legionnaire Eliezer Margolin. When anti-Jewish riots in Jaffa left thirteen Jews dead in 1921, Margolin led some armed Jewish militiamen into the city to protect the Jews there. For this breach of discipline he was forced to resign. This effectively marked the end of the Jewish Legion.
For the next three decades, Patterson’s dedication to the Zionist cause never wavered. His willingness to help is mentioned in a letter written in 1921 by Chaim Weizmann (later the first president of Israel) to the Zionist Organization of America regarding efforts to purchase arms for the Haganah. Patterson’s association with his friend Jabotinsky continued until the latter died in New York in 1940. Patterson wrote the conclusion to Jabotinsky’s The War and the Jew, published in 1942, and the foreword to the English edition of Jabotinsky’s The story of the Jewish Legion, published in 1945. As late as 1941 Patterson was involved in setting up an Emergency Committee for an Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews.

Patterson remembered

Patterson’s memory and legacy are enshrined in at least three museums. Chicago’s Field Museum has a permanent exhibit of the man-eating lions of Tsavo that Patterson shot in 1898. When Patterson lectured at the museum on this incident in 1924, the museum purchased the lions’ skins and skulls, and taxidermists created the lifelike mounts that have been on public display for nearly 80 years.
The largest collection of Patterson’s documents and personal effects is stored at the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv. These include a bust of Patterson, a recording of an interview that Patterson gave together with Jabotinsky to a New York radio station, and a film that shows Patterson attending the stone-laying ceremony for Jabotinsky House, which is home to the institute. The archives also include souvenirs from Patterson’s hunting trips.

Patterson's dress uniform with medals enjoys a place of honour in the Jewish Legion's Museum.

Patterson’s dress uniform with medals enjoys a place of honour in the Jewish Legion’s Museum.

The third museum associated with Patterson is Beit Hagdudim (Legion’s House), which is dedicated to the Jewish battalions in World War I. After the British mandate authority failed to honour its promise to assist the settlement of legion veterans on government land, many of them returned to their countries of origin. In 1932 a group of American, Canadian and Argentinian former legionnaires founded a moshav (agricultural settlement) called Avichayil (Father of the Army) near Netanya. Patterson enjoys a place of honour in this museum, alongside the names of the Jewish Legionnaires.
In modern Israeli history, Patterson’s Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion are seen as laying the foundation stone for other Jewish fighting forces, including the Jewish Brigade in World War II, and ultimately the Israel Defence Force. Soldier, adventurer, writer and political activist Colonel John Henry Patterson died in 1947, just a year before the establishment of the Zionist state that he had always dreamed of.

Yanky Fachler is an author, speaker, copywriter and entrepreneurial trainer, and lives in Dundalk.

Further reading:
V.E. Jabotinsky, The story of the Jewish Legion (New York, 1945).
S. Katz, Lone Wolf: a biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky (New York, 1996).
H.M. Sachar, A history of Israel: from the rise of Zionism to our time (New York, 1996).


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