By Victor Sharpe
This is the story of a remarkable Christian Zionist who did so much for the cause of Zion in the early years of the 20th century.
John Henry Patterson was the product of an Anglo-Irish family. He was born on November 10, 1867 in Ireland to a Protestant family and died in 1947 – one year before the rebirth of the Jewish State of Israel. Following the family’s military tradition, he joined the British army and served with the 16th Lancers in Lucknow, India. He was sent in 1898 to East Africa where he was engaged in building a railway bridge at Tsavo. The African workers were being terrorized by man eating lions and Patterson was successful in restoring order and killing the marauding lions. He later wrote a book about his exploits titled, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
According to the writer, Ami Isseroff, Patterson served in South Africa during the Boer War and retired from the army in 1911. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he rejoined the army, saw service in Flanders and was subsequently sent to Egypt. It was while he was visiting Alexandria that he met the two men who would transform his life and make him a lifelong passionate and ardent Zionist.
Yosef Trumpeldor and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, two Jews who had earlier left Russia were attempting in 1915 to form a Jewish brigade to fight with the British and Anzac Forces against the Ottoman Turks. They were meeting constant obstacles and refusals by high ranking officers of the British High Command who were often anti-Jewish and did everything in their power to prevent a Jewish military unit from seeing active duty. Turkey, which had allied itself with Germany at the outset of World War I, ruled Mesopotamia and vast swathes of the Middle East, including the geographical territory known as Palestine, and was resisting allied pressure to oust them from their 400 year old occupation of the region.
Jabotinsky, arguably the greatest Zionist leader of his time, had sought to revive the same long dormant Jewish fighting spirit that had led the Maccabees to victory over the Greek-Syrian invaders of Judea 2,200 years earlier. He and Trumpeldor met Patterson and they immediately became firm friends, sharing the same longing for a rebirth in its ancestral and biblical homeland of a reconstituted Jewish state. Indeed, Patterson was to become the commander of the Zion Mule Corps with the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
On March 31, 1915, Lt. Colonel Patterson officiated at the swearing in ceremony of the new Jewish volunteers for the Mule Corps. He invited the soldiers to pray with him that he should, “not only, as Moses, behold Canaan from afar, but be divinely permitted to lead you into the Promised Land.” He wrote in his diary about the military training camp that, “ … 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.” Jabotinsky had made it a personal mission to help revive the ancient language of the synagogue liturgy into the new vibrant functional language of a revived and hoped for Jewish state.
Lt. Colonel Patterson. with Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor serving as a fellow officers, led the Zion Mule Corps onto V Beach during the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign. Half of the Mule Corps had been arbitrarily seconded to Anzac forces who treated them badly and eventually sent them back to Egypt. Patterson, with the remaining 300 soldiers, saw action against the Turks during which time 14 of his men were killed and several more wounded.
On September 15, 1915, Patterson told the Jewish Chronicle: “These brave lads who had never seen shellfire before, most competently unloaded the boats and handled the mules whilst shells were bursting in close proximity to them … nor were they in any way discouraged when they had to plod their way to Seddul Bahr, walking over dead bodies while the bullets flew around them … for two days and two nights we marched … thanks to the Zion Mule Corps the 29th Division did not meet with a sad fate, for the ZMC were the only Army Service Corps in that part of Gallipoli at that time.”
The Mule Corps was disbanded in 1916, a result of relentless pressure by anti-Jewish elements in the British High Command. Patterson had been wounded at Gallipoli but eventually recovered and returned to Ireland where he commanded the 4th Royal Irish Fusiliers and the fifth Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In July, 1917 he was made commander of the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, which happened to be one of three battalions of the Jewish Legion. The soldiers who comprised these three battalions were British and foreign Jewish personnel. Marching through the East End of London, prior to leaving to join the fighting in the geographical territory of Palestine, they were met with a tumultuous and joyful reception by Jewish and Christian Londoners who lined the streets of Whitechapel to cheer on the departing battalion.
Still smarting under British High Command reluctance to allow them to see active service in the front, Colonel Patterson and his Jewish Legion were forced to remain out of the fighting. Severe Allied losses however forced the High Command to finally let the Jewish Legion enter the campaign. By now some 5,000 Jewish soldiers were serving in the three Battalions.
The Legion was sent into the Jordan Valley to relieve the British forces in the Melhalla Rift. There they suffered casualties after forcing back attacking Turkish forces. According to Samuel ‘Shmuel’ Katz, there were no nurses or orderlies assigned to the battalion by the British High Command and more than twenty wounded soldiers died through lack of medical attention. Malaria, too, became a constant problem and many men fell sick. The battalion, nevertheless, crossed the Jordan River, entering Es-Salt in the territory the British Colonial Office three years later would tear away from Mandatory Palestine and create a new Arab state called Transjordan. During actions in and around this territory the Jewish Legion served with great distinction, bravery and honor. But it was all to no avail.
The relentless anti-Jewish persecution by the British High Command towards the Jewish Legion and the serial disdain that Lt. Colonel Patterson received in reply to his long and valiant entreaties on behalf of the Jewish forces finally led him to resign in 1920. That he was never promoted, despite his outstanding record as an officer and commander, is a bitter reflection upon the endemic hostility by elements within the British Government and military towards both the Jewish Legion and the Jewish community in Palestine. Yosef Trumpeldor was later killed in 1920 while helping to defend a Jewish farmstead from Arabs at Tel Hai in Galilee.
Patterson went on to write two books about his experiences both as commander of the Zion Mule Corps –With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916) – and the Jewish Brigade – With the Judeans in Palestine (1922). But after the war, John Henry Patterson grew yet more active in supporting Jewish rights in British Mandatory Palestine. Indeed, Jabotinsky who had served with Patterson and who was now a firm friend of the Anglo-Irish Christian Zionist, went to America with Patterson on a fund raising mission. According to Shmuel Katz, Jabotinsky wrote of Patterson: “I made an appeal for funds, then the collection began, but no one left the hall because they were waiting for Patterson to speak.”
Patterson himself wrote of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky: “… his mentality was ‘void of the peculiar inhibitions of a Jewish mind influenced and twisted by the abnormalities of centuries of life in dispersion. That was probably the main reason why his political philosophy was so healthy and simple, and why, with all his tremendous popularity, he never became the recognized leader of the Jewish People.”
John Henry Patterson traveled to British Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s where he remained a steadfast supporter of the Irgun Zvai Leumi Jewish forces resisting Arab aggression and British hostility. Both he and Jabotinsky worked together in the United States unsuccessfully to raise a Jewish army of 100,000 to fight Nazi Germany. Jabotinsky continued to fight for a restored Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael: The Land of Israel. He was a phenomenal giant within the Zionist Movement but ultimately felt estranged from his less assertive colleagues in the struggle to re-establish the Jewish homeland.
Jabotinsky warned the Jewish communities of eastern Europe of the impending German Nazi juggernaut that was descending upon them, which led to the Holocaust. He died in 1940 near New York of a broken heart.
John Henry Patterson, a great Christian Zionist, died in 1947 before he lived to see the rebirth of the Jewish state that he had devoted his life to fighting for. His wife of many years died six weeks later and both were cremated and their ashes sent to Mandatory Palestine. Their burial place remains unknown except to Almighty God.
Victor Sharpe is a freelance writer on Jewish history and the Islamist-Israel conflict. His books include Volumes One and Two of Politicide: The attempted murder of the Jewish state.
Recommended readings include: The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson – How an Irish Lion Hunter led the Jewish Legion to Victory.
Biography – John Henry Patterson – Commander of the Jewish Legion.
Lone Wolf: A biography of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky