Just over a week after Holocaust memorial day, February 4th marks a significant anniversary in modern Jewish history. Ninety-five years ago today, the first Jewish fighting unit since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the ninth century marched through the streets of London. It’s first wave of soldiers were East-Londoners and they were off to the holy land.
After years of campaigning for a Jewish combat unit, the Jewish battalions were formed following the successful service of a Zion Mule Corps in Gallipoli in 1915. Officially, they were the 38th, 39th and 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, with the 41st and 42nd as their reserves.
Jerry Klinger gives a good account of the campaigning and formation of the Jewish Regiment, which was finally formed in late 1917. The battalions had distinct characters, each being largely drawn from different places:
- 38th: from East London or already serving the British Army.
- 39th: from the Americas – the USA, Canada and Argentina.
- 40th: from Palestine
The Londoners in the 38th included refugees from the Russian empire who had fled the pogroms of the previous decade and become the largest migrant group in the UK in 1911. One of them was Polish-born Londoner Jacob Schneiderson, whose son tells his story on the Jewish East End website.
Also among the soldiers of the Jewish battalions were the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the artist Bernard Meninsky, whose paintings of soldiers in London can be seen here, and the man who would become the first Prime Minister of Israel: David Ben-Gurion. French-born politician and philanthropist James de Rothschild, who had also fought in the French army, served as an officer in the 39th Battalion.
After staying overnight in the Tower of London, half of the 38th Battalion marched proudly through central London and the Jewish areas of the East End and through the city on February 4th. Martin Sugarman gives an excellent, detailed description of the Jewish Regiment and their march here on the Virtual Jewish Library website.
On the march, they were feted by crowds and celebrated by the great and the good of both the Jewish community and the English establishment – including being welcomed to the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor of London. Pathe filmed parts of the parade and made a few films of the soldiers in their uniforms and boxing.
After the parade, the 38th Battalion marched to Waterloo, joined their comrades in Southampton and were shipped out for overseas service. Appropriately, they went to Palestine and performed good service in the holy land.
Sugarman’s conclusion is worth quoting in full, summing up the importance of the 4 February 1918 parade:
In conclusion, we should bear in mind how significant a day this was in Jewish history. It is too easy for Jews today, living in a country where we enjoy such freedom and in a world where Israel is strong and well established, to forget how astonishing it must have been, how hugely symbolic, for Jews who had fled terrible persecutions in Europe, to reach freedom in Britain, and witness a Jewish regiment going off to fight to liberate Eretz Israel. And it all happened in Whitechapel.
Sources – if you want to know more, these two accounts tell you a great deal about the units and the march:
Jerry Klinger – The Jewish Legion and the Israeli Army