Ashes of WWI Jewish Legion Chief to Be Interred in Israel

British officer John Henry Patterson, a friend of Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, had wanted his ashes to lie near the graves of his comrades.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A box containing British officer John Henry Patterson's ashes.
A box containing British officer John Henry Patterson's ashes. Credit: Orly Halevy
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Sixty-seven years after his death, the ashes of the head of the British Army’s Jewish Legion that fought the Turks during World War I have been brought to Israel from Los Angeles and will be interred here next month.

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson in Palestine in 1917. Credit: The Jabotinsky Institute in Israel Archives

The complex operation to transfer the ashes of Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson – whose soldiers included Zionist heroes Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor – was coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson's ashes are removed from the Los Angeles mausoleum before being brought to Israel.Credit: Orly Halevy

Aside from the historical aspect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a personal connection to Patterson: The name of his older brother Yonatan, who was killed during the 1976 Entebbe operation, was inspired by Patterson’s. The Irish-born British officer was friendly with the Netanyahus’ father, historian Benzion Netanyahu.

Patterson’s ashes will be interred near the graves of many of his soldiers next month at the Moshav Avihayil Military Cemetery near Netanya, which was founded by veterans of the Jewish Legion.

The reburial story began a few years ago when Alan Patterson, the general’s grandson and a resident of the United States, visited Israel. During his stay, Patterson met with the grandson of Jabotinsky, who had been his grandfather’s friend and comrade and who helped found the Jewish Legion.

A year later, Patterson asked the director of the Jabotinsky Institute, Yossi Ahimeir, to have his grandfather’s ashes reinterred in Israel alongside his fellow legionnaires. He said he wanted to fulfill his grandfather’s wish to be buried next to his comrades.

Ahimeir was very moved by the request. He said he sees Patterson as a “true righteous among the Gentiles, one of the greatest friends our people had in the British military, whose contribution to renewing Hebrew militarism at the beginning of the last century and the national liberation of the Jewish people was of great importance.”

Jabotinsky himself once said of Patterson: “In all of Jewish history we have never had a Christian friend as understanding and devoted as he.”

Ahimeir found the Prime Minister’s Office responsive, and former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser moved the process along until he lost contact with Patterson’s grandson and could not locate him. Hauser, meanwhile, left his post and Ronen Peretz, the cabinet secretary’s adviser, stepped up to the task around a year and a half ago.

The grandson was finally found and arrangements began to bring the ashes of Patterson and his wife, Frances Helena, to Israel. After receiving approval from a U.S. court, an Israeli delegation went in August to the Los Angeles mausoleum where the ashes were interred.

The ashes were taken to Israel and deposited with the Defense Ministry, which is holding them until the reinterment ceremony on November 10. That date is the 147th anniversary of Patterson’s birth and comes only a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Jewish Legion’s founding.

The nearby Jewish Legion Museum will then hold a memorial service in his honor, to be attended by the prime minister and president and representatives of the Israel Defense Forces and British military.

Yehezkel Sibak of Moshav Avihayil is organizing the burial ceremony on the moshav. Many of Patterson’s troops are buried in the moshav’s military cemetery, including the grandmother of Sibak’s wife.

It was Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor who suggested to the British military in Egypt that it set up a Jewish battalion to liberate prestate Israel from the Turks during World War I. The first such battalion, the Zion Mule Corps, was established under Patterson’s command, with Trumpeldor as his deputy. The battalion fought at Gallipoli between April 1915 and January 1916.

After that battalion was disbanded, three more were set up – the 38th, 39th and 40th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, which came to be informally known as the Jewish Legion. These battalions were made up of Jews from all over the world, fighting the Ottomans toward the end of the war.

After the war, the legion was reduced to one battalion called the First Judeans, which remained in British Mandatory Palestine. During the Arab riots of 1920-21, the battalion helped defend the Jewish community.

Patterson wrote two books, “With the Zionists at Gallipoli” (1916) and “With the Judaeans in Palestine” (1922) based on his experiences during this period.

Patterson, who had played a central role in setting up the infrastructure for a Jewish defense force in prestate Israel, continued to support the Zionist cause after leaving the British army and moving to the United States. But he died less than a year before the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

“Col. Patterson was one of the founders of the Jewish Legion, the first Jewish military force since the Bar-Kokhva Revolt, which served as the basis for the eventual founding of the Israel Defense Forces,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “My father and mother always spoke warmly of Col. Patterson, who worked with my father during the 1940s in the United States to promote the Zionist idea.”

According to Netanyahu, “As prime minister of Israel, I see it as a great honor to fulfill Col. Patterson’s wish for his final resting place be in the Land of Israel next to the Jewish Legion soldiers he commanded.”



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