Aaron Kalman
Business and GenAI by day, public policy by night

At Gallipoli, a Hebrew fighting force is born

Under the cover of darkness, shortly after midnight, the navy ships carrying thousands of men made their way toward the fortified shores of the Ottoman Empire. Within hours all of them would become part of a battle that would go down in history books. On April 25 1915, thousands lost their lives in an allied attempt to gain access to the Dardanelles Straits – and many legends were born.

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Campaign for Gallipoli, a battle that would end up costing the lives of over a quarter million men before the attacking forces retreated eight months after the landing. Much has been written and said about what took place at Gallipoli, a battlefield that shaped the lives of many. Amongst the ripple effects it would create, it’s impossible not to mention that the landing date would become ANZAC day, the day Australians and New Zealanders view as the formation of their national identity; a day that many Australian’s view as more significant than the country’s memorial or independence days.

In addition to the historical significance the landing and ensuing battles have for the countries who fought the Turks in that allied campaign, Gallipoli would have an impact on the non-existent Jewish state. The death fields of Gallipoli were, on top of everything else, the backdrops against which an organized and trained Jewish fighting force was reintroduced to the stage of history.

On the first of April, less than a month before the amphibious landing on the shores of the Ottoman Empire, 650 men pledged their allegiance to the British army as they formed the Zion Mule Corps, a logistical unit led by Lieut.-Col. John Patterson, an acclaimed British officer. His second in command was the 34-year-old Joseph Trumpeldor; the entire unit comprised of Jews who had fled or been expelled from Palestine by the Ottomans.

It wasn’t only the fact that the unit was comprised of Jews that made it a Jewish fighting unit. Indeed, Jews had fought for many armies throughout history. Rather, it was the fact that the insignia chosen for the unit comprised of a Star of David, and that the daily orders were issued in Hebrew, that gave the unit its historical status. According to at least one account, Patterson fought his superiors in order to provide Kosher-for-Passover food to his troops, who were already enlisted when the festival started on March 30.

This was the start of the Jewish Legion, units that fought under the British during the First World War, and many of these veterans would go on to form the Hagannah – the organization that would, in 1948, transform into Israel Defense Forces.

Famed Zionist leaders Trumpeldor and Zeev Jabotinsky were the driving force behind the formation of this 1915 Jewish army unit, however they were split on accepting the British offer of forming a transport corps. Being the idealist he was, Jabotinsky wanted to see an actual fighting unit formed and placed in Israel, not only “a bunch of cattle drivers” who could be sent anywhere around the world. However, being the pragmatist and military veteran he was Trumpeldor countered that forming the unit was the crucial thing, the rest not as important. “We’ve got to smash the Turk. On which front you begin is a question of tactics; any front leads to Zion,” he stated.

On April 25, as the allied forces landed and the fighting intensified, Patterson read the order of the day to his troops. In it, he highlighted the way the British world would treat the Jews if the mule corps succeeded. Patterson stated he “trusts everyone will do his work with the utmost speed. Then the 29th Division of the British Army will look with admiration on the Jewish Legion which now has the singular honor of going into battle…to fight side by side with British comrades after only one month of training…”

Having lost his left arm as a Russian soldier fighting Japan in 1904, Trumpeldor landed on the beaches of Gallipoli less than 48 hours after the initial invasion with a serious handicap. Nonetheless, he led two of the corps’ companies through enemy fire on their mission to supply the Australian and New Zealand Armored Corps (ANZAC), who were fighting under British command. Here to, Trumpeldor was injured, from a gunshot to the shoulder.

During the eight-month campaign against the Ottomans, 12 soldiers serving under the Zion Mule Corps were killed. Interestingly, all were later recognized by Israel’s Ministry of Defense as casualties of the Jewish state in the making – a symbolic gesture that highlights how impacted the wider Jewish community was by these few hundred men.

“On the night of January 1 [1916] we left Cape Helles,” Trumpeldor wrote in his diary on the way back to Egypt, lamenting the fact that the pages he wrote during the Gallipoli campaign had been lost. “Many feared submarines along the way, but nothing happened,” he describes the voyage home at the end of the Zion Mule Corps’ active role in WWI.

Trumpeldor wrote in his diary he thought he and his men “wouldn’t find anything belonging to the Z.M.C. in Alexandria, but we found an office and a camp.” However the camp didn’t save the unit, which was disbanded – much to the dismay of Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky who had hoped it would become a permanent Jewish fighting force.

Despite it being discontinued, the Zion Mule Corps will be remembered as being the path paver for Jabotinsky’s vision of Hebrew fighting units helping the British capture the Land of Israel from the Turks.

Some 120 soldiers of the mule corps reenlisted in his majesty’s forces in England, and together joined the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, headed by the same Patterson who had led them in Gallipoli. Heavily impressed with the Jewish fighters’ performances in the previous campaign, Patterson promoted many of them to commanding positions and eventually nearly two-thirds of the battalion’s officers were Jewish – the only unit under British command to boast such a high percentage of non-Christian officers.

The success and performance of the 38th Battalion had such an impact on the British command that they decided to form two more Jewish-based battalions in Palestine, naming them the 39th and 40th Royal Fusiliers. And so, as a result of one logistical mule corps, three combat-trained battalions of Hebrew speaking soldiers were formed.

So as the world marks 100 years to this epic battle, we – as Jews and Israelis – can remember that it holds a special meaning to us as well.

About the Author
Currently the Chief of Staff at Lightricks, Aaron previously served as a diplomatic advisor to Israeli Cabinet Members and a Jewish Agency emissary in Australia, among other things.