The Jewish connection of the Battle of Beersheba

Beersheba was the opening battle in the Palestine Campaign of World War I, a battle won by Australian and New Zealand horsemen. 

 GEN. EDMUND ALLENBY reviews  an honor guard of British soldiers  in Jerusalem’s Old City, December  11, 1917.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GEN. EDMUND ALLENBY reviews an honor guard of British soldiers in Jerusalem’s Old City, December 11, 1917.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Beersheba was a significant turning point in world history. The outcome of that battle led to Israel’s establishment, and it was achieved with the active synergy of Christian and Jewish Zionists.

Beersheba was the opening battle in the Palestine Campaign of World War I, a battle won by the extraordinary cavalry charge of Australian and New Zealand horsemen who turned defeat into victory. 

By spring 1917, in the context of the war, Britain was losing 5-0 against their German and Turkish enemies.

British forces were bogged down in the muddy trenches of France with thousands of dead and little signs of a breakthrough. The Turks had defeated Britain in the Dardanelles, forcing Winston Churchill to resign as 1st Lord of the Admiralty. The British army had surrendered after the Turks put them to siege at the Battle of Kuts in Iraq, and had lost two battles in Gaza with losses of up to 17,000 men. Gaza was an unmitigated disaster and Gen. Archibald Murray, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, was ordered back to London.

So where are the Jewish connections?

A Jewish chemist living in Manchester became close friends with a British prime minister, a friendship that changed history.

Chaim Weizmann was working on the synthesis of rubber in the Trafford Park industrial area when he was asked to find a formula to synthesize and produce acetone and cordite in large quantities. Britain was running out of ammunition. Weizmann made that scientific breakthrough, a success which earned him respect in high places. 

Weizmann was also a dreamer. He dreamed about a Jewish state in its ancient homeland. But he was more than that. He visited Jerusalem in 1907 where he was instrumental in establishing the Palestine Land Development Company which bought land to build Jewish homes including in an area called Shimon HaTzadik, later renamed Sheikh Jarrah following the occupation of major parts of Jerusalem in the 1948 war by Jordan.

Weizmann also used his new influence to set the foundations of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem even though Palestine was under Turkish governance. Weizmann’s vision was a Jewish homeland based on development and higher education.

Arthur Balfour, a former prime minister who represented the East Manchester Parliamentary ward, got to know Weizmann through his contribution to the British war effort and, as Britain’s foreign minister from 1916, tried to persuade Weizmann to accept his offer of establishing an immediate Jewish homeland in Uganda rather what appeared to be unattainable dream of Palestine at that time.

 BEERSHEBA, 1917.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) BEERSHEBA, 1917. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In their discussion, Weizmann asked why Britain did not build their capital in Saskatchewan. A puzzled Balfour answered that Britain always had London, to which Weizmann replied: “Precisely, and we lived in Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”

The point was not lost on Balfour, who became the prominent advocate for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the cornerstone of the Balfour Declaration and British foreign policy.

IN SPRING 1917, British prime minister David Lloyd George made the decision to open up a new front in an attempt to outflank the Germans. He ordered Gen. Edmund Allenby to take charge of the Palestine Campaign, with his personal request to take Jerusalem by Christmas.

When Allenby arrived in Cairo, his General Staff appraised him of their plans for a third attack on Gaza. Everything in the quest to drive out the Turks and Germans from Palestine, they said, ran through Gaza. A lesser-ranked but famous soldier advised Allenby to outflank the enemy by taking the eastern route on the other side of the Jordan River and head straight up to Damascus with less resistance. That man was Lawrence of Arabia, who claimed to have Arab mercenaries to handle the job. 

Then Allenby met a Jew, a non-military one, and things changed.

Aaron Aaronsohn was an agronomist who knew every nook and cranny of Palestine like a lover knows the contours of his mistress.

Aaronsohn told Allenby to ignore Gaza and concentrate the full force of his opening attack on Beersheba. When Allenby asked why Beersheba, Aaronsohn replied: “Because that is where the water is and you cannot conduct your campaign with all your men, machines, horses and camels without sufficient water, and I know where that water lies.”

Allenby was a Bible student, but not in the religious sense. He was familiar with the battles and now he was about to launch a major military campaign in the same arena. Allenby was intrigued when Aaronsohn told him that Richard the Lionheart’s Crusaders failed to reach Jerusalem not because they fell victim to Saladin’s sword, but to mosquitos and malaria in the swampy marshlands of the coastal belt that decimated his army.

Allenby saw in Aaronsohn a man who knew the topography better than his senior officers and could map out a route that would avoid many unforeseen pitfalls.

Aaronsohn had one other advantage. While developing his agricultural research throughout Palestine, he had established a network of spies who were trying to deliver vital intelligence to the British HQ in Cairo. Having left Palestine in order to persuade the British to accept his NILI spy ring, he had handed the operation to his younger sister, Sarah Aaronsohn, the only woman ever to lead a major espionage network, literally under the noses of the enemy, during wartime. (The story of her motivation and dedication can be found in my book, A Tale of Love and Destiny.)

 ZE’EV  JABOTINSKY wearing  the uniform of the  Jewish Legion of the  British army, with  sisters Bela and Nina. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) ZE’EV JABOTINSKY wearing the uniform of the Jewish Legion of the British army, with sisters Bela and Nina. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

MY FOURTH example of courageous Christian-Jewish synergy begins with a question. Name the Christian British army officer buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel?

Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s epiphany into Zionism began by witnessing the bloody antisemitism of Russian pogroms in places like Kishinev (then the capital of Bessarabia and today the Moldovan capital of Chisinau). He penned a dramatic poem that expressed his anger.

“Once, in that town, under a heap of garbage, I noticed a piece of parchment. A fragment of the Torah. I picked it up and carefully removed the dirt. Two Hebrew words stood out: ‘b’eretz nokriya’ – in an alien land. I nailed this scrap of parchment above my door. For in these two words, is told the entire story of the pogrom.”

The searing sight of defenseless Jews caused him to call on the Jewish youth to defend themselves. He created slogans such as: “Better to have a gun and not use it than need a gun and not have one,” and the even more forceful: “Jewish youth! Learn to shoot!”

His passion led him to the inevitable conclusion that Jews would only be able to defend themselves in a Jewish state.

He was elected as the Russian delegate to the 1903 6th Zionist Congress in Basel but, on his return to Russia, he was angered by Russian Jewish organizations attending events honoring the antisemitic Russian leadership.

In 1914, Jabotinsky moved to Egypt after hearing that thousands of Jews had been deported from Palestine by the Turks. There, together with the handsome, one-armed former Russian war hero, Joseph Trumpeldor, they began to train the male refugees, inspiring them that they would be the first Jews to take up arms and liberate the Jewish state in Palestine.

Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor traveled to Cairo to persuade the British General Staff to recruit their refugee conscripts into the British army. They were scoffed at by officers who told them that Britain had no plans to invade Palestine.

Not to be outdone, the two displaced Zionists sailed to England and began banging on the doors of Whitehall until they were invited to recruit their volunteers as mule haulers in the Dardanelles carrying ammunition and supplies to the fighting men at the front, and carrying back the wounded and dead to Gallipoli.

It wasn’t helpful that, in 1915, the Zionist Organization abroad officially objected to Jabotinsky persuading the British into recruiting a Jewish force to fight on the side of the Allies. They were gravely concerned for the safety of German Jews of such a force taking arms against Germany. In a personal attack against Jabotinsky, they wrote as a matter of record that “the Zionist Organization has nothing to do with any scheme conceived by one of its own irresponsible firebrands who, as a member of the Zionist Organization, has been guilty of an absurdity, as well as a disloyal act.”

 ISRAEL POSTAGE  stamp celebrating  Chaim Weizmann’s  role in the Balfour  Declaration, 1967. (credit: Karen Horton/Flickr) ISRAEL POSTAGE stamp celebrating Chaim Weizmann’s role in the Balfour Declaration, 1967. (credit: Karen Horton/Flickr)

This moment of Zionist infamy set back the advancement of a Jewish fighting force for almost two years.

The British need for additional manpower won the day. They gave command of this Jewish force to an officer named Patterson, a man with a controversial past.

Col. John Patterson was a dashing officer serving in Africa who famously killed two lions that broke into an army compound, slaughtering Indian workers serving in the British army. His exploits led to a book and a movie in which Gregory Peck played the role of Patterson. But this was followed by an embarrassing incident. Patterson was escorting a young British lord and his young wife on a safari into the African bush in which, it was claimed, the man committed suicide. Patterson had him buried in the bush rather than bring his body back to base camp. Press gossip had it that the lord killed himself after finding his wife in the arms of Patterson. Despite Patterson’s denial he was dispatched back to London, which is where he met a Jew named Jabotinsky that developed into a lifelong friendship.

Under Patterson’s command, Jabotinsky’s men took to the task of pulling pack mules, often under heavy fire, with stoic courage that earned them recognition for their service.

THE ZION Mule Corp was disbanded on December 31, 1915, its duty in Gallipoli done. With Patterson in ill health, suffering from a debilitating illness, it rested on Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor to spend more than a year pressing British officials to reinstate their Jewish unit into the British army.

The profound moment came at a meeting in which Lord Derby, the war minister, invited the Palestinian Jews to a special meeting during Passover 1917. Hard-pressed for manpower, the lord asked if they were able to recruit large numbers of volunteers. With an eye on the impending Palestine Campaign and knowing the favor of both the British prime minister and foreign minister to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, Trumpeldor answered: “If it is to be just a regiment of Jews, perhaps. If it will be a regiment on the Palestine front, certainly. If, together with its formation, there will appear a government pronouncement in favor of Zionism, overwhelmingly.”

The new Jewish force was promoted as a unit of the Royal Fusiliers within the British army. The Star of David was stitched onto the uniform sleeve of every soldier and their unit became popularly known as the Jewish Legion, as they trained and paraded before being shipped off to join the fighting force in Egypt preparing to participate in the Palestine Campaign.

The emotion of a Jewish unit about to help liberate the ancient land of Israel was etched in the diary of Patterson, who wrote: “A Jewish unit had not been known for 2,000 years, not since the days of the Maccabees, those heroic sons of Israel who fought so valiantly, and for a time so successfully, to wrest Jerusalem from the Roman Legion. It is curious that Gen. [John] Maxwell should have chosen me. He knew nothing of my knowledge of Jewish history and my sympathy for the Jewish race. I never dreamed that, in a small way, I would become the captain of a host of the Children of Israel.”

MEANWHILE, in Cairo, Aaronsohn struggled against an antisemitic military elite who were reluctant to assist his NILI spy ring, courageously operated by his dedicated sister, Sarah – to the point that, against their best interest, the British rarely provided the naval frigate required to sail up the coast to pick up Sarah’s intelligence reports from their Agricultural Experimental Station at Atlit.

Sarah excelled at recruiting new secret agents. They reported to her from Beirut and Damascus, recorded troop movements at train stations and logged the flights of German aircraft at airbases inside Palestine. She even had a spy inside the Turkish military base at Beersheba. But, in the absence of the British frigate Sarah was forced to send much of her intelligence by carrier pigeon, and this led to her discovery, torture and death. Sarah died on October 9, 1917. The Battle of Beersheba was fought on October 31.

 COL. JOHN HENRY PATTERSON gravesite, at the  cemetery at Avichail, a moshav founded by many of his  Jewish soldiers (credit: Wikimedia Commons) COL. JOHN HENRY PATTERSON gravesite, at the cemetery at Avichail, a moshav founded by many of his Jewish soldiers (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It must be noted that Lawrence of Arabia’s Arab mercenaries never crossed to the west bank of the Jordan River to fight the enemy. On the other hand, the Jewish Legion did venture across the river to open the way for Gen. Edward Chaytor’s ANZAC cavalry unit to cross and attack the Turks at es-Salt on the Moab mountaintop now located in Jordan. The Jewish soldiers followed the ANZACs as the supporting force and they escorted hundreds of captured Turkish soldiers back across the river.

After the victory, Chaytor sent a complimentary letter to Patterson, writing that “so few people have heard of the Battalion’s good work, or the remarkable fact that we hope to have finally reopened Palestine to the Jews. A Jewish force was fighting on the Jordan, a very short distance from where their forefathers, under Joshua, first crossed into Palestine.”

As a result of the heat, exhaustion and dehydration, the force was decimated with malaria and required immediate hospitalization in Jerusalem. However, the British had foolishly transferred most of the doctors, nurses, even hospital beds to Cairo and, as the available beds were occupied by other soldiers, the Jewish soldiers had to sleep on the grass outside the hospital building in the pouring Jerusalem winter rain.

Despite desperate telegrams sent to British headquarters in Cairo, and to the War Office in London by Patterson about the dreadful condition, little was done.

THIS TRAGIC news reached Britain, where a group of Anglo-Jewish women volunteered to come to Palestine to help as nurses. On their arrival they were prevented from serving the Jewish soldiers in Jerusalem and were transported to Cairo to tend to wounded soldiers at the General Hospital. Meanwhile, Jewish soldiers died of malaria and pneumonia.

By the end of the Palestine Campaign, the Jewish Legion had been reduced from nearly 1,000 men to six officers and fewer than 150 men.

On December 11, 1917, Gen. Allenby dismounted from his horse outside the Jaffa Gate and led his men on foot into the Old City of Jerusalem.

He had not only liberated Jerusalem by Christmas, he had arrived on the eve of Hanukkah. Allenby was aware of this. He remarked in his diary that he entered Jerusalem 2,600 years after Judah Maccabee.

While the battles were still raging in the north of Palestine, the World Zionist Organization received permission from the British government to lay the foundation stone to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on July 24, 1918. Gen. Viscount Allenby was an honorary guest at the ceremony.

The Palestine Campaign ended on October 28, 1918. British military administrators were brought to Jerusalem from Cairo to govern Palestine.

Instead of honoring British policy, namely “to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people” and to “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object,” as written in the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, some officers took it upon themselves to encourage the Arabs to rise up and demonstrate against the policy.

By January 1919, Jabotinsky had written to his wife that “the Arabs draw encouragement from the fact that the British do not uphold their promises. The situation is bound to end up like Kishinev.”

By February, Jabotinsky had sent a letter to Allenby bewailing “the heavy burden of disappointment, despair, breached promises and antisemitism” of the Jerusalem-based British administrators.

Allenby, a stickler for discipline and furious that a junior officer would question authority, immediately released Jabotinsky from military service.

On April 2, 1920, the Arabs, aided by the colluding senior British officers, exploited the traditional Muslim Nebi Musa Festival, which included a march into the Old City.

The Arabs were led by the notorious antisemite Haj Amin al-Husseini, who incited the crowd into anti-Jewish violence within the Old City where they began attacking Jews, raping women and destroying property.

The upper class, Jew-hating Arabist Col. Bertie Walters-Taylor, Allenby’s administration chief of staff in Jerusalem who had befriended Husseini, absented himself from Jerusalem by driving with his wife down to Jericho for the day.

THE ARAB riot left many Jews dead and injured. When news reached Jabotinsky, now a demobilized soldier, he gathered some friends and ran to the rescue of fellow Jews under assault. But they were initially prevented from entering the Old City by British soldiers. Not to be outdone, he demanded they be let in as medical orderlies.

Ronald Storrs, the military governor of Jerusalem, ordered a search of the homes of Zionist Jews. They confiscated weapons and arrested Jabotinsky for illegal possession of weapons. The British searched for Husseini, but the Arab leader had fled Jerusalem. Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15-year imprisonment and penal labor, but world reaction affected his release.

By spring 1940 the British had banned Jabotinsky from returning to Palestine. He could see that Europe was lost and that America was the last place where Jews were of sufficient numbers to be recruited to Zionism.

On his retirement from the British Army, Patterson, with his wife, retired to America. There he was reunited with Jabotinsky and helped him address audiences and rally them to the cause.

Benzion Netanyahu was Jabotinsky’s deputy. He became a friend of Patterson, arranging his speaking engagements. When Netanyahu’s first son was born, Benzion invited Patterson to attend the brit as godfather. The baby was named Yonatan, partly in honor and friendship of Patterson.

Yoni Netanyahu fell in Israel’s operation to rescue the Jewish hostages of the Air France flight held at gunpoint by Palestinian and German terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda.

When Patterson died he was buried in California, but his grandson claimed that he always wanted to be buried alongside his soldiers of the Jewish Legion. The grandson made contact with Benzion’s son, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an arrangement was made that the bodies of Col. John Patterson and his wife were moved to Israel where they are now buried in Avihayil cemetery alongside Patterson’s Jewish soldiers.

This remains an everlasting testament to the bond between Christian Zionists and the Jewish people. 

The writer is senior associate at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies and author of 1917 From Palestine to the Land of Israel and A Tale of Love and Destiny.