This Day in Jewish History

1947: The British Army Officer With a Zionist Heart Dies

John Henry Patterson led Jewish soldiers in battle in World War I but is perhaps best known for his adventures with two man-eating lions in Kenya.

Wikimedia Commons

On June 18, 1947, John Henry Patterson, the British army officer who became a Zionist, and served as commander of the Zion Mule Corps and its successor the Jewish Legion, in World War I, died.

Patteron was born in Forgney, Ballymahon, County Longford, Ireland, on November 19, 1867. His father was a Protestant, and his mother a Roman Catholic. At the age of 17, Pattison enlisted in the British Army, and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Essex Yeomanry before finally retiring, in 1920.

Patterson became something of a legend in his time after he killed two man-eating lions that had been plaguing the crew of a railway bridge whose construction he was overseeing for the British East Africa Company in what is today Kenya. Before Patterson himself ambushed and shot the two felines, they had succeeded in killing 28 members of the team, plus a large number of other local residents of the area where the bridge was being erected over the Tsavo River.

In 1907, Patterson described his exploits in a book, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo,” one of four memoirs he published, which was adopted several times for the screen, most recently in 1996 as “The Ghost and the Darkness.”

After service in the Boer War (1899-1902), followed by initial retirement from the army, Patterson rejoined the service with the outbreak of World War I. In 1915, he was assigned command of the newly formed Zion Mule Corps, a 750-man unit composed of residents of the Jewish community in Palestine. He later described his impressions of the training camp of these largely inexperienced young warriors, in Egypt: “Never since the days of Judah Maccabee had such sights and sounds been seen and heard in a military camp - with the drilling of uniformed soldiers in the Hebrew language.”

Wikimedia Commons

The ZMC served in the disastrous battle at Gallipoli, an early and unsuccessful Allied attempt to conquer Constantinople. The Corps performed admirably and suffered numerous deaths, wounded and sick: One of the wounded was the one-armed Capt. Joseph Trumpeldor, Patterson’s second-in-command, who was shot in the shoulder in the battle. 

The Zion Mule Corps was disbanded in early 1916, after its members refused to join the British in suppressing the Irish campaign for independence. Patterson, however, who had returned home sick a few months earlier, came back to the Middle East in 1917 to take command of the newly formed 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as the Jewish Legion. Although part of the British Army, the legion, like its predecessor, the ZMC, was composed of Jews, from both Palestine and abroad.

The formation of the Jewish Legion was far from a foregone conclusion. The key figure in pushing for its creation was Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky; he was opposed by the top figures in the World Zionist Organization, who feared negative repercussions for Jews living in the countries of the Axis if the Allies should lose the war. In the United Kingdom too, the Jewish community was largely opposed to a corps of Jewish soldiers, but once Jabotinsky and Patterson joined forces to lobby for just such a fighting unit, the growing needs of the army for more men prevailed over politics.

After the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, in November 1917, the number of recruits to the Jewish Legion grew to 5,000. Per the agreement with the authorities, they were sent to Palestine, arriving after Jerusalem fell to Gen. Allenby. The Legion saw action at several points, in Jaljulya, in the Jordan Valley and at Es Salt, in Transjordan. After the armistice, it was reassigned to Rafa, remaining under Patterson’s command until his retirement, in January 1920.

Patterson left the army with the same rank he had at the start of World War I, lieutenant-colonel, after 35 years of service. He had been a vocal supporter of his men, who suffered a fair amount of abuse as Jews from fellow British soldiers and officers, and had threatened to resign several times in response to what he considered unfair treatment of the Legion.

Following his retirement, Patterson became an proponent of the Zionist movement, and was especially close to leaders of the Revisionist camp. During the Holocaust, he joined the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, established by Peter Bergson (the nom de guerre of Hillel Kook) in 1943. He also advocated formation of a Jewish army to fight against Germany, a project initiated and run by Jabotinsky before his sudden death in 1940. In fact, the Jewish Brigade did fight with the British Army during World War II, and a number of its volunteers went on to be among the early officers of the Israel Defense Forces.

Patterson and his wife, Frances Helena, moved from England to the United States in 1940, and he died in Bel Air, California on this day in 1947, at the age of 79. Frances died six weeks later. The bodies of both were cremated, and today, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation is working to have their ashes reinterred in Israel, something that apparently was among Patterson’s final wishes.