“After 36 hours continuous journey we arrived in this town [Trudo, Nova Scotia,Canada] and I gladly jumped into a bath tub and after that I feel almost like new born and start my diary on the most adventurous event of my life – the campaign in Palestine.” Ferdinand Breth, October 12, 1918, pg. 1. [ MS 53, 2000.50.19]
I think that most people’s knowledge of World War I is centered on the battlefields of France or maybe the cold Western Front. But World War I was fought in other places as well, including Israel, then Palestine.
This is a subject I am just beginning to understand, but what I’ve learned this about the fighting in what was then Palestine: Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. The Ottoman Empire at that time controlled a region that includedPalestine. Germany and Britain both desired control over the Middle East, and Palestine was a key region for that control. The British established the Jewish Legion to fight the Ottoman Empire (and the Germans) in Palestine. The battalions formed by the British consisted of Jews from all over the world – Britain, Palestine, America, Australia, etc.
We have very little in the museum related to the Jewish Legion, but we are lucky enough to have a few pictures and the diaries of Ferdinand Breth who joined the Jewish Legion with many others from the US and travelled to Palestine. The following are pictures of various soldiers in the Jewish Legion and excerpts from Breth’s diaries. Breth actually reached the Middle East after the armistice went into effect so he and his fellow recruits didn’t see any military action. But Breth wrote in detail about his comrades (including one Ethiopian Jew), camp life, and the Jewish communities he visited while abroad.
“The most interesting persons of the Boston Bunch were 5 Christian Syrians, who joined the Jewish Legion because they want to free their homeland Palestine from the Turks.” Pg. 14, October 16, 1918. [MS 53, 2009.50.19]
“As leader we now get a recruiting ‘sergeant’ Rodman, who in some nondescript uniform was taken by most of us for real sergeant. He was a Hebrew teacher inBaltimoreand knew Sonneborn.” Pg. 15 October 16, 1918 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]
“We crossed the Suez Canal on a pontoon bridge and then marched about a mile thru the camp, till we finally came to the tents destined for us…. Next morning we were full of wonder about our new station. The camp is the biggest we ever saw, as far as the eyes could see the dessert sand is dotted with white tents. Everywhere we see soldiers of all branches and of all nationalities. The camp is now used for demobilization and they arrive here by thousands soldiers from Palestine, Mesopotamiaand other places and are sent from here home. There are here Indian soldiers with big Khaki Turbans, long hair and long beards, Sundanese and other African troops, Australians, Scotch and many other troops. Also we about hundred Legionnaires, from the 38th Batailon [sic], which saw action in Palestine. They are mostly Egyptian and Algerian Jews…speaking Arabic and French, but we found also some American Boys among them, which told us the story of Palestine Campaign.” Pg. 150-151, January 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]
“At about 3pm we arrived in Rafa, the first station inPalestine. We were in land of our dreams and many times before I was thinking what a wonderful moment it will be, when our Legion will reach the Palestinian ground. I expected that our boys will lose their heads in enthusiasm, that we will smile on our knees and kiss the land for which liberation we were willing to sacrifice our lives, but nothing like this happened. The Russian Jew is not a sentimentalist and the crossing ofPalestineboundary, did not interrupt the quarelling [sic] of our bunch or the poker game of the other. We even did not sing Hatikwah, and as soon as the train stopped most of us were running to the cantine [sic] to buy cakes or cans of preserved pineapples.” Pg. 159 January 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]
By the summer of 1919 Breth’s father was very ill and he asked to leave the service.
“The repatriation papers I wrote about last night, came to-day and I may leave Palestine next week. It came so suddenly that I hardly can adjust my mind to it. Leave Palestine and maybe for ever, and still I have accomplished so little. It appears to me like deserting my post and even when I assure myself that I will come back, it cannot quiet my mind. I may come back, but so many things may happen.” Pg. 16, August 24, 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.20]