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We Are Coming, Unafraid: The Jewish Legions and the Promised Land in the First World War, by Michael Keren and Shlomit Keren. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. 191 pp. $39.95.
General Edmund Allenby, who commanded the Egyptian Expeditionary Force that conquered Jerusalem in December 1917, desperately needed men in the spring of 1918. Many of his combat-tested units had been transferred to the western front in France to thwart a series of powerful German offensives. The British War Office did what it could to replace his losses. The result was the creation of perhaps the most multicultural force in British military history. Only one of Allenby’s eleven divisions was fully British. In addition to soldiers from Armenia, Burma, Algeria, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Italy, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, the West Indies and Egypt, Allenby’s polyglot force included three Jewish battalions, the 38th, the 39th, and the 40th, who served with the Royal Fusiliers. A fourth Jewish battalion, the 42nd, remained in Plymouth as a holding battalion. These Jewish battalions had the distinction of being the first Jewish infantry formations in some two thousand years (a mule transport unit, composed primarily of Palestinian Zionists, had been involved in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915).
Where did these Jewish recruits come from and what motivated them to join? Some came from Palestine and Great Britain. Others came from the great cities of New York, Montreal, and Buenos Aires, which had large Jewish enclaves. Some volunteers sought adventure, and a few were even gangsters. Others were coerced into service. This was true of the 38th Battalion, which was composed of Jews from Great Britain. The government gave un-naturalized Russian Jews the choice of joining the army or being repatriated to Russia. Volunteers mostly came from North America (the 39th Battalion) or Palestine (the 40th Battalion). Whether they were volunteers or were coerced into service, many Legionnaires, among them future leaders of Israel such as such as Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (second president) and David Ben-Gurion (first prime minister), embraced the mission of “liberating the Promised Land” from Turkish control. Three months after its decision to create a Jewish Legion, the British government provided added impetus to this mission with the Balfour Declaration, which promised to support the revival of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Wearing the Star of David insignia on the left sleeve of their uniforms, these Yiddish speaking Legionnaires further strengthened their identity by eating kosher food, singing Jewish songs as they marched under both a British and Hebrew flag, celebrating Jewish holidays, and attending lectures on Jewish affairs. The development of a Jewish consciousness in a campaign resulting in the conquest of the Promised Land and not as a reaction to antisemitism is the primary focus of Michael and Shlomit Keren. Relying on a handful of memoirs, diaries, and letters, the authors examine the various phases of the Jewish Legion’s journey to the Promised Land.
The military role of the four Jewish battalions proved to be minor. One battalion remained in Britain as a holding battalion and another was stationed in Egypt. Only two, the 38th and 39th Battalions, were sent to the front a few months before Allenby launched his decisive offensive in September at Megiddo. The 38th and 39th Battalions suffered from the hostile environment of intense heat, blowing dust, and biting insects in the Jordan Valley, but saw limited action against the Turks. During the rapid destruction of the Turkish forces, the Jewish Battalions were attached to Chaytor’s Force which harassed the retreating Turkish Fourth Army.
Once the Turks had been defeated, the British high command played down the participation of Jewish battalions. In his victory speech in December 1918, Allenby recognized all of the nationalities in his army except Jews. Sensitive to Arab hostility, the British also forbade the press in Palestine or Egypt to discuss the existence of Jewish military formations. Some Jewish Legionnaires, especially North Americans who sought unsuccessfully to relocate in Palestine, also experienced hostility from Palestinian Zionists who believed that these North American volunteers did not fit the image of true Zionists who spoke Hebrew and desired the creation of a just society based on agricultural communities. Consequently, as the authors note, “The Jewish Legions in the British army never became poster heroes of the Zionist movement” (p. 169).
The Kerens take a few false steps in placing the Legionnaires in the broader context of World War I. Germany, for example, did not possess the only mass conscript army in Europe when war erupted. And the war in the Middle East ended prior to the war in Europe. Turkey raised the white flag eleven days before the November 11th Armistice. But these minor mistakes do not detract from this account of the creation, role, and impact of the first Jewish fighting force to shed blood to revive the Jewish state in Palestine. It should be of interest to both scholars and general readers.
David R. Woodward
Huntington, West Virginia