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the first commander of a Jewish regiment in almost 2,000 years.
The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without soldiers who had been trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade.


The Times of Israel  Read more: Natan Slifkin | The Blogs |

Colonel John Patterson was an Irish soldier and engineer assigned to Kenya by the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. His job was to supervise the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river for a massive railroad project. Unfortunately, railroad workers were constantly being slaughtered by the most notorious man-eating lions in recorded history. Two maneless but huge lions, working together, were estimated to have killed and eaten well over a hundred people working on the railroad.

Night after night, Patterson sat in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions when they came to the bait that he set for them. But the lions demonstrated almost supernatural abilities, constantly breaking through thorn fences to take victims from elsewhere in the camp, and seemingly immune to the bullets that were fired at them.

Patterson was faced with the task of not only killing the lions, but also surviving the wrath of hundreds of workers, who were convinced that the lions were demons that were inflicting divine punishment for the railroad. At one point, Patterson was attacked by a group of over a hundred workers who had plotted to lynch him. Patterson punched out the first two people to rush him, and talked down the rest!

After many months, Patterson eventually shot both lions. He himself was nearly killed in the process on several occasions, such as when one lion that he had shot several times suddenly leapt up to attack him as he approached its body. Patterson published a blood-curdling account of the episode in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which became a best-seller, and earned him a close relationship with US President Roosevelt.

Upon returning to England, Patterson was hailed as a hero. When World War One broke out, Patterson travelled to Egypt and took on a most unusual task: forming and leading a unit of Jewish soldiers, comprised of Jews who had been exiled from Palestine by the Turks. As a child, Patterson had been mesmerized by stories from the Bible, and he viewed this task as being of historic significance. The unit, called the Zion Mule Corps, was tasked with providing supplies to soldiers in the trenches in Gallipoli. Patterson persuaded the reluctant War Office to provide kosher food, as well as matzah for Passover, and he himself learned Hebrew and Yiddish in order to be able to communicate with his troops. The newly-trained Jewish soldiers served valiantly, but the campaign against the Turks in Gallipoli was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Zion Mule Corps was eventually disbanded.

In 1916 Patterson joined forces with Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a full-fledged Jewish Legion in the British Army, who would fight to liberate Palestine from the cruel reign of the Ottoman Empire and enable the Jewish People to create a home there. The War Minister, Lord Derby, succumbed to anti-Zionist agitators and attempted to prevent the Jewish Legion from receiving kosher food, from serving in Palestine, and from having “Jewish” in their name. Patterson promptly threatened to resign and risked a court-martial by protesting Derby’s decision as a disgrace. Derby backed down and Patterson’s Jewish Legion was successfully formed. During training, Patterson again threatened the War Office with his resignation if his men (many of whom were Orthodox) were not allowed to observe Shabbos, and again the army conceded. Meanwhile, Patterson brought Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook to address and inspire his troops.

Patterson clashed repeatedly with anti-Semitic officers in the British Army. Once, when a visiting brigadier called one of his soldiers “a dirty Jew,” Patterson demanded an apology, ordering his men to surround the brigadier with bayonets until he did so. The apology was produced, but Patterson was reprimanded by General Allenby. On another occasion, Patterson discovered that one of his Jewish soldiers had been sentenced to execution for sleeping at his post. Patterson circumvented the chain of authority and contacted Allenby directly in order to earn a reprieve. The reprieve came, but a notoriously anti-Semitic brigadier by the name of Louis Bols complained about Patterson’s interference to General Shea. Shea summoned Patterson and, rather than discipline him, revealed that his children were great fans of The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. The Jewish Legion fought well, and Palestine was liberated from the Turks. But, as a result of his outspoken efforts on behalf of the Jewish People, Patterson himself was the only British officer in World War One to receive no promotion at all.

After the war, Patterson dedicated himself to assisting with the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The achievements of the Jewish Legion gained sympathy for the cause, but there was much opposition from both Jews and non-Jews. One Jewish delegation, seeking to explore an alternate option of creating a Jewish homeland in Africa, was dissuaded after reading The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. Meanwhile, against Patterson’s strenuous efforts, Bols was appointed Military Governor of Palestine, and filled the administration with anti-Semites who attempted to undermine the Balfour Declaration and empowered hostile elements in the Arab world.

When World War II broke out, Patterson, now an old man, fought to create another Jewish Legion. After great effort, the Jewish Infantry Brigade was approved. Aside from fighting the Germans, members of the Brigade succeeded in smuggling many concentration camp survivors into Palestine. Many other survivors had been cruelly turned away, and Patterson protested this to President Truman, capitalizing on his earlier relationship with Roosevelt. This contributed to Truman’s support for a Jewish homeland.

Patterson spent most of his later years actively campaigning for a Jewish homeland and against the British Mandate’s actions towards the Jews in Palestine. Tragically, he passed away a month before the State of Israel was created. The newly formed country would not have won the War of Independence without trained soldiers – and the soldiers were trained by veterans of Patterson’s Jewish Legion and Jewish Infantry Brigade. Colonel John Patterson had ensured the survival of the Jewish homeland. But his legacy lived on in another way, too. Close friends of his named their child after him, and the boy grew up to be yet another lion-hearted hero of Israel. His name was Yonatan Netanyahu.

Zeev V. Maizlin 11/27/2006, from  Jerusalem Post 12/2/2014

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

 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 3rd 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 manoeuvres, 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.







The Story of the First Jewish Battalion, 1922
(click on the above links to go to the free e-book)

The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson: How an Irish Lion Hunter Led the Jewish Legion to Victory Hardcover – July, 2008, by Denis Brian  (Author), Alan Patterson (Afterword)