Remains of ‘Godfather of Israeli Army’ Buried in Israel

John Henry Patterson hailed by Netanyahu as ‘one of the heroes of our people.’

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Patterson's grave at the cemetery of Moshav Avihayil. December 4, 2014.
Patterson's grave at the cemetery of Moshav Avihayil. December 4, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The remains of John Henry Patterson (1867–1947), whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “the godfather of the Israeli army,” were buried on Thursday in a modest but impressive ceremony in the cemetery of Moshav Avihayil near Netanya. It seems that most Israeli civilians and soldiers have never heard of him or about how he commanded the first Jewish fighting force since Bar Kochba’s time. But Netanyahu knew who he was from early childhood. “He was also the godfather of my brother Yoni, who was named for him,” he said.

And so Netanyahu and his wife Sara, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, together with dozens of other dignitaries, traveled to Moshav Avihayil.

The moshav was established in 1932 by Jewish soldiers who had fought in the British army’s Jewish Brigade in World War I. Lt.-Col. Patterson was the commanding officer of two of those brigades — the Zion Mule Corps and the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (also known as the Jewish Brigade) — and he was also the right hand man of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the brigades’ founder. As Patterson died in 1947, he did not live to see the establishment of the State of Israel. Despite his request to be buried in the Holy Land alongside the men he had commanded, his ashes were interred in a cemetery in Los Angeles and his name forgotten in the intervening 67 years.

His name resurfaced in 1999 when his grandson, Alan Patterson of Boston, visited the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv and read about his grandfather in the archives. Ten years later, he conceived the idea of bringing his grandfather’s ashes for burial in Israel beside the graves of his men in the Jewish Brigade. Four years ago he wrote to Yossi Ahimeir, head of the Jabotinsky Institute, telling him of his grandfather’s desire to be buried beside his soldiers. Ahimeir took up the challenge and brought the government on board for a special effort to fulfill Patterson’s request.

Last summer, an official delegation set out from Jerusalem to Los Angeles, completed the required bureaucratic and legal arrangements and returned to Israel with a box containing Patterson’s ashes. In a memorial ceremony for his grandfather, Alan Patterson said that he had thought at first that Patterson was merely a historical footnote. But on further research he discovered that a direct line, as he put it, linked the Jewish battalions of World War I, the Jewish Brigade of World War II and the Israeli army that was established afterward.

Netanyahu stretched the connection back two millennia, linking Patterson with the great Jewish fighters who preceded him, including Joshua bin Nun, King David and Bar Kochba. He mentioned the exile in which the Jews, who had lost their power as fighters, were called cowards and wanderers – and so when Herzl spoke of a Jewish army, people said he was out of his mind. Netanyahu then mentioned his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who worked with Patterson and Jabotinsky in 1940 in talks to establish a Jewish army during World War II. “They crystallized one direction: a Jewish army,” Netanyahu said. Although an actual Jewish army was established only in 1948, its chief antecedent was the Jewish Brigade, which was part of the British army toward the end of World War II.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with Alan Patterson (L) during a reinterment ceremony for Patterson's grandfather Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry PattersonCredit: Reuters

Patterson was born in 1867 in Dublin to a Protestant father and Roman Catholic mother. From childhood, he loved to read the Old Testament and grew up on stories of the conquering of Israel by Joshua bin Nun, the period of the Judges and the Israelite kings. Trained as a railroad engineer, he became well-known for building the railway bridge over the Tzavo River in Kenya in 1898 and 1899. While he was working as a railway engineer in Uganda, he hunted down two lions that were killing his men, and recounted that experience in his book “The Man-Eaters of Tzavo.” The book, which became a best-seller, won him the honor of an invitation from President Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for his love of hunting. In the late 19th century, Patterson fought as a soldier in the British army in the second Boer War in South Africa. He fulfilled his dream of commanding “the children of Israel” in World War I.

With help from Joseph Trumpeldor, who was appointed his second-in-command, Patterson established a military unit of 650 men, including 500 combat soldiers, which was sent to Gallipoli in 1915 with 750 mules. He decided that the insignia of the battalion, which was known as the Zion Mule Corps, would be a star of David. The unit was disbanded in May 1916, after the fiasco at Gallipoli. The 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as the Jewish Brigade, was established in August 1917, also with Patterson as its commander. Jabotinsky was appointed an officer in the battalion. About a year later, the battalion was sent to fight in Palestine, where its members battled the Turks toward the end of World War I.

Patterson continued working on behalf of the Jewish people after World War I ended. He was active in the United States against Britain’s White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1937 he visited Moshav Avihayil, which had been established by the men under his command, who gave him a bouquet of flowers.

Yesterday, in that very place, his grandson received flowers from the grandchildren of the soldiers who had fought under his grandfather. “In bringing his ashes to Israel and laying them to rest here, beside the soldiers of the Jewish brigades that he established, we come full circle historically, and we repay a very great debt to one of the heroes of our people, one of the greatest supporters that Zionism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel ever had,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony. “We salute you, John Henry Patterson.”

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