Fighting battles on two fronts

The 1914-18 conflict meant either facing death in France - or facing a different kind of enemy at home

By David Cesarani, July 31, 2014
Over 41,500 Jews served in the British forces, 14 per cent of the country's Jewish population

Over 41,500 Jews served in the British forces, 14 per cent of the country's Jewish population

The First World War transformed Jewish society in Britain, accelerating the upward social mobility of the immigrants and their children. But it placed enormous strain on the identity forged by British Jews and left the Jewish population bitterly divided.

During the diplomatic crisis of July 1914, the JC spoke for the community when it advocated the "solid ground of neutrality". Britain was allied with Tsarist Russia but few Jews wanted to fight alongside a regime they despised, least of all the thousands who had migrated to Britain to escape discrimination and pogroms. By contrast, Germany was viewed as an enlightened country that treated its Jews rather well.

Once Britain was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the JC hastily revised its position and declared: "England has been all she could to the Jews. The Jews will be all they can to England". Such slogans did little to dispel the popular confusion surrounding Jewish identity and allegiances.

Prominent Jews of German origin, such as Sir Edgar Speyer and Sir Ernst Cassel, came under intense pressure to sign "loyalty letters" for publication in the press. Speyer was so disgusted that he resigned all his public offices and emigrated to America after the war.

The public found it hard to differentiate Jews from Germans. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 led to attacks on shops in east London owned by Jews with German-sounding names. To demonstrate its loyalty, the Board of Deputies abandoned Jews interned as "enemy aliens", even if they had arrived in Britain decades earlier.

An appeal for volunteers published in the JC in 1914

An appeal for volunteers published in the JC in 1914

Most British-born Jews strove to prove their fidelity to king and country. Within weeks of the recruitment offices opening in August 1914, thousands had enlisted. According to the historian V D Lipman, by the time conscription was introduced in May 1916, 10,000 Jews were serving voluntarily. They provided 1,800 officers, twice the average for the rest of the population and reflected the advanced education and professional skills of the community. Conscription swelled the number of Jewish service personnel to 41,500. This represented nearly 14 per cent of the British Jewish population, slightly more than the proportion of Englishmen in the armed forces. Lipman reckoned that this discrepancy stemmed from the fact that Jewish conscripts came from areas of the economy where there were fewer reserved occupations.

Despite its prestige as the senior service, only 400 Jews served in the Royal Navy and only 60 achieved commissions. Since the navy refused to accept anyone foreign-born or with foreign-born parents it effectively barred a huge slice of the community. Tellingly, five times as many served in the Royal Flying Corps, precursor of the RAF, a brand new organisation without fusty military traditions.

On the Home Front the first months of the war were a time of economic disruption and uncertainty. However, as the economy became geared to the war machine the fortunes of Jews in the immigrant trades vastly improved.

Clothing manufacture, shoe making, and carpentry had been poorly unionised, low-wage, and seasonal industries. Government contracts for uniforms, boots, and prefabricated wooden structures set a decent rate of pay and extended over 12 months of the year.

Constant employment enabled Jewish workers to pay union dues, which gave them permanent representation with employers. A virtuous income cycle enabled many to move from the run-down inner cities where the immigrants had settled, to houses in leafy suburban streets.

The arrival of Jews in new districts caused tension, as did the flight of Jews from the East End in response to zeppelin attacks and bombing. MPs for south coast towns complained of an invasion by Jews and overcrowding on commuter trains caused by voluble East Enders eating fried fish.

As the U-boats took their toll on shipping, Jews were affected by shortages like everyone else. But rationing inadvertently set Jews apart and stoked anti-Jewish feeling. When the population was required to substitute pork for beef the chief rabbi secured permission for Jews to use their pork ration to obtain acceptable meat products from kosher butchers. To non-Jews it looked as if Jews were getting favourable treatment from their own kind.

An impression developed that Jews were profiteering and shirking their duty. There were, indeed, roughly 30,000 Russian-born Jewish men of fighting age who were ineligible for military service even if they had wanted to join up. Many of them worked the in tailoring trades, making uniforms, and the sight of able-bodied Jewish workers reaping the rewards of government orders while Englishmen were dying in the trenches caused immense

Since they were also immune to conscription, the problem festered until 1917, leading to anti-Jewish riots in Leeds and disturbances in London. Finally, Britain concluded a convention with Russia under which Russian-born Jews were offered the choice of compulsory military service in either country's forces.

Frantic efforts to enlist Russian Jews provoked opposition among the immigrants which appeared to substantiate claims that Jews lacked patriotism.

Partly to induce them to serve, in mid 1917 the Jewish leadership reluctantly swallowed the prospect of all-Jewish units. The Jewish establishment had previously resisted the creation of "ghetto" units, insisting that Jews serve as citizens irrespective of their faith.

Eventually, three Jewish battalions of the Royal Fusiliers saw action in Palestine in 1918 and acquitted themselves well.

Overall, 2,000 Jews died in uniform, including 300 officers. Jewish heroism resulted in the award of five VCs and the same proportion of decorations as won by English servicemen.

Sadly, the contribution of Jews to Britain's wartime struggle was obscured by a surge of antisemitism in the post-war years. Jewish ex-servicemen were soon back in the fray, this time defending their co-religionists against a new and vicious enemy.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is completing a book for Macmillan, 'Final Solution: the fate of the Jews 1933-1949'.

Last updated: 3:55pm, July 31 2014