The man who became 'Lawrence of Judea'

This month marks the 140th anniversary of John Henry Patterson's birth, the first commander of a Jewish regiment in almost 2,000 years.

November 27, 2006 21:52
4 minute read.
The man who became 'Lawrence of Judea'

patterson 298.88. (photo credit:

Lt.-Col. J. H. Patterson is best known for his books With the Zionists at Gallipoli and With the Judeans in Palestine. His character was the foundation for Hemingway's story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," and he plays a prominent role in Ze'ev Jabotinsky's The Story of the Jewish Legion. Patterson was born on November 10, 1867 in Ireland - 140 years ago this month. He began his military career at 19, as a groom in the 3d Dragoon Guards. While still a mere sergeant he found himself supervising rail gangs in British East Africa, at Tsavo, Kenya, and working as an engineer during the construction of the Uganda Railway. He ruled with an iron fist, disciplining his workers for the smallest infraction. Later he was decorated for bravery in the Boer War. He became a colonel and was awarded the DSO - the Distinguished Service Order. Patterson's lone personality makes him something of a mystery. His remarkable rise in rank and society is matched by curious gaps in his service record, during which he may be glimpsed unexpectedly popping up as an observer at US Army maneuvers, or at the training barracks of the pre-WWI Egyptian Army. The man who became "Lawrence of Judea" has always, to discerning eyes, carried with him an aura of secret intelligence work. It is a pity we don't know more of it. AN IRISH Protestant from Dublin, Patterson had a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and drew spiritual sustenance from historical parallels with the deeds of early Jewish heroes. From the first, he was favorably inclined toward Jews. He eventually became an ardent Zionist and a close friend of Jabotinsky. When the Zion Mule Corps was activated in Egypt on March 23, 1915, he was appointed commanding officer with Yosef Trumpeldor as his second-in-command. Patterson wrote: "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." This was the first purely Jewish fighting corps that went into action since the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies under Titus in AD 70. The unit was 650 men strong, mostly Palestinian Jews with five British and eight Jewish officers. The Zion Mule Corps sailed for Gallipoli, Turkey, in the midst of heavy fighting. Things did not go all that well in the unit. Six members of the corps were killed, 25 wounded in the Gallipoli fighting. There were severe disciplinary problems which required public floggings to be meted out. There were also differences between the idealists and those who had joined only to escape the misery of the refugee camps in Egypt. Patterson's good will and patience and Trumpeldor's devotion were the cement that held the unit together. In June 1915, Patterson was sent back to Alexandria to recruit more troops. Gallipoli had proven to be a fiasco. The ZMC was deactivated on May 26, 1916. Patterson, sick and wounded several times, returned to England. IN JULY 1917, Patterson was ordered by the War Office to begin organizing a Jewish regiment - the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. About 50 percent of the unit were British-born or naturalized British citizens, while the remainder were former Zion Mule Corps muleteers, a large number of Russian Jews residing in London, and a mixture of foreign nationals. The battalion trained in Portsmouth. On February 2, 1918, it marched through the Jewish quarter of London to be greeted with unbelievable emotion. The Fusiliers embarked for Palestine the next day. A 39th Battalion, commanded by Lt.-Col. Eliezer Margolin, joined the 38th in April. WITH THE end of WWI in Palestine, the 38th Battalion, commanded by Patterson, was assigned to military police duties and other support activities. 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 menora inscribed with the Hebrew word kadima [forward]. 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. There were plans to organize the legion as a four-battalion brigade with Patterson as commander, but this never happened. Field Marshal Edmund Henry Allenby opposed it at the outset. In With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign Patterson noted with 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." Patterson later supported the formation of a Jewish army to fight Hitler in WWII. He died in Los Angeles at the age of 79 on June 18, 1947. Though a number of streets in Israel are named after John H. Patterson, he is mostly a forgotten figure, especially among young Israelis. He deserves better. The writer is a physician based in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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