Protectors of the Holy Land

WWI Zion Mule Corps revived spirit of Bar Kochva’s army.

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May 26, 2016 18:15
3 minute read.
Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after the British take-over of Jerusalem, December 1917.

Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after the British take-over of Jerusalem, December 1917. . (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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Before the creation of the Israel Defense Forces, Zionist pioneers living in the Holy Land in the early 20th century had no official organized defense unit.

Para-military organizations popped up in the pre-independence years, such as the Bar Giora and Hashomer unit, but those were mainly security organizations and weren’t represented on a national level.

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In World War I, the Jews saw the need to protect their territory, and help the Allies in the war effort. Joseph Trumpeldor, a Jewish-Russian army officer and war veteran, moved to Israel in 1912. He lived and worked on the kibbutzim for more than two years, though he was not the most well-suited member of the group to take part in agricultural activities – with only one arm, having lost the other in the Russo-Japanese War.

What he had learned on the battlefield, however, would be of the utmost importance.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Trumpeldor – still considered a Russian subject and thus an enemy of the Central Powers – was forced to leave Ottoman-ruled Palestine and went to the British protectorate of Egypt.

Trumpeldor went there to found the first Jewish military unit since the time of Jewish rebellion leader Bar Kochva in the 2nd century.

The Russian officer called on his colleague revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky to help convince the British army that the Jewish residents of the Middle East were ready and willing to help the Allies in the war effort and to liberate the Holy Land. After several debates of how and where this future unit may serve, Gen. John Maxwell authorized the creation of the Zion Mule Corps, a volunteer support unit that would take part in the Dardanelles Campaign as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.



Commanding Officer Col. John Henry Patterson, a Irish Protestant and an ardent Zionist and lover of Israel, led the troops, with Trumpeldor serving as second-in-command and being the bridge between the inexperienced fighters and the British officers.

The unit was short-lived, however, but not without it seeing action in the Battle of Gallipoli and Trumpeldor being wounded for a second time, riding exposed into Turkish gunfire in order to spur on his troops.

The Habonim youth movement handbook from 1939 relates Patterson’s surprise at Trumpeldor’s battlefield conduct: “During all the time of that terrible war this gentle captain showed an unparalleled valor and/unflinching determination.

“By his devotion to duty he set an example to all. When bullets were showering upon us I warned him to take heed, but Trumpeldor, with his charming, simple smile, answered : ‘Never mind, I am all right.’”

Alexandria District Brig.-Gen. R.C. Boyle wrote in a letter of recommendation from Trumpeldor’s stint as a volunteer in the First World War that he “proved himself to be a plucky, steadfast and enthusiastic soldier.” In a diary entry from August 27, 1915, Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton,the commander-in-chief of the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force in the Dardenelles, wrote about the amazing feat of the corps, especially considering that the men who composed it were cruelly driven out of Jerusalem by the Turks and arrived in Egypt with their families destitute and starving.

“It may interest you to know that I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit - the Zion Mule Corps. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era such a thing has happened.”

On May 26, 1916, the Zion Mule Corps was disbanded, but a year later, in August 1917, the British formed a Jewish Legion, designated the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.

The Zion Mule Corps became the earliest foundation of the Israel Defense Forces and its courageous soldiers protecting the Holy Land.

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