As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI it is important to remember that in addition to the horrendous slaughter on the battlefields, or maybe as a result of that killing, the face of the modern Middle East was altered forever. Until the outbreak of the war the Middle East was all part of the ailing Ottoman Empire, and had been for four centuries. To paraphrase John Lennon, there were, “no countries and no borders.” The collapse of the Ottomans at the culmination of the conflict led to Great Britain and France carving up the Empire into mandates which ultimately led to many new nation-states. The Zionist movement actively sought an Allied victory and made three major contributions toward that end: The Zion Mule Corps, The Jewish Legion and Nili.
Zion Mule Corps 1915
Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky first raised the idea of a Jewish fighting unit in the British armed forces on December 1914. Yosef Trumpeldor, a Zionist who had been the first Jewish military officer in the Russian Army, an honour earned by outstanding bravery, supported this. By the end of March 1915, 500 Jewish volunteers from among the Jews in Egypt (deported by the Turks) had started training. The British military command initially opposed the participation of Jewish volunteers on the Palestinian front or in an infantry unit and suggested that the volunteers serve instead as a detachment for mule transport on some other sector of the Turkish front.
Trumpeldor succeeded in forming the 650-strong “Zion Mule Corps,” of whom 562 were sent to the Gallipoli front where Trumpeldor led his troops with great distinction. The bravery and courage of the men in the Corps was a key factor in convincing the British to establish Jewish Infantry Brigades, known as the Jewish Legion.
General Sir lan Hamilton, British commander at Gallipoli remarked to Jabotinsky:
The men have done extremely well, working their mules calmly under heavy shell and rifle fire, and thus showing a more difficult type of bravery than the men in the front line who had the excitement of combat to keep them going.”
Jewish Legion 1917
Jabotinsky pursued his project of a Jewish Legion for the Palestinian front. Finally, on August 1917, the formation of a Jewish regiment was officially announced. Jabotinsky was commissioned as an officer in the unit. The unit was designated as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and included British volunteers, members of the former Zion Mule Corps and a large number of Russian Jews. In April of 1918, the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers joined it, more than 50 percent of who were American volunteers.
The unit fought with distinction against the Ottoman Turks and was the first British force to cross the Jordan River. They were assigned a menorah with the Hebrew word “Kadima” (forward/east) as their unit insignia. This was the first Jewish fighting force fighting in the Land of Israel since Bar Kochba’s insurrection against Rome in the second century of the Common Era.
Nili was a secret, pro-British spying organisation that operated under Turkish rule in Palestine during World War I under the leadership of the world-famous agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, Sarah Aaronsohn, Yosef Lishansky and Avshalom Feinberg. The organisation’s name was an acronym for the Hebrew verse “Netzah Yisrael Lo Yeshaker – the strength of Israel will not deceive” (I Samuel 15:29), which served as its password.
Nili was founded by a number of Jews in the moshavot (settlements) who believed that the future of the Jews depended upon the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) being taken over by Britain. The group did not enjoy the full support of all the Jews in the Land of Israel. In February 1917, contact was first established between the espionage center in Atlit and British intelligence in Cairo. The connections were maintained by sea for several months during which the British received invaluable information, including Turkish troop positions and water deposits collected by the group.
Sarah Aaronson (1890-1917)
The Turks later uncovered the network and in October 1917, Turkish soldiers surrounded Zichron Ya’akov and arrested numerous people, including Aaronsohn’s sister, Sarah, who committed suicide after four days of torture. Before she died she wrote a letter to Aaron in which she stated:
I haven’t the strength to suffer any more…in vain did they try all kinds of tortures on us. We did not speak…I aspired to save my people.”
After the war, one British Officer stated, in acknowledging the debt of the British to Nili:
It was very largely the daring work of young spies, most of them natives of Palestine, which enabled the brilliant Field Marshal (Allenby) to accomplish his undertaking so effectively. The leader (in Palestine) of the spy system was a young Jewess, a Miss Sarah Aaronsohn.”