The British Jews who answered their country’s World War One call

By Marcus Dysch, July 31, 2014

When war broke out, Lawrence Bowman told his pupils at JFS that life must go on – it would be “business as usual”, explained the headmaster.

Like so many in Britain he expected the war on the continent would be over quickly and with minimum fuss.
But he could not have been more wrong. In the following five years, a remarkable 1,230 of his alumni, teachers and pupils would go to the battlefields of Europe to fight for king and country.

Almost a fifth of them – 240 – would never return. Among those killed was Mr Bowman’s own son, Claude.
The school's experience mirrored that of the wider Jewish community.

No fewer than 60,000 British Jews served in the war, coming from all communities and backgrounds - 3,500 were killed and a further 9,000 were injured. Of the surviving veterans, 1,700 were decorated for their efforts.

JFS’ school magazine had also encouraged its readers to “carry on” as usual while trying to contribute to the war effort in the early days of conflict in October 1914.

“Everyone is to pursue his allotted path – whether soldier, merchant, labourer, or schoolboy, and to push forward with all his energy towards the goal to which his steps are addressed. So we call upon the school to do its little share in the great struggle,” the magazine said.

Among the former JFS pupils called up to fight was Solomon Abrahams. The Reading-born son of a Polish immigrant father and English mother, he had been a school chess champion and tailor.

But by 1917 he was bogged down in the French battlefields where he performed a variety of tasks including hut-building, road-filling and uniform-making.

In his war diary, the Royal Engineer charted both the mundane existence of life at war, as well as the horrors that awaited him in the trenches.

On July 24, 1917, Abrahams wrote: “Unpleasant experiences. Bullets from machine guns at practice strike our huts. Riddled with holes. No casualties”.

The following spring, he endured a horrifying week of village-hopping in northern France. He noted: “Jerry breaks through. Leave camp with full kit. 8pm shelling all the time. Mist all around. Lose company, lose kit. Slept in old barn with no belongings except overcoat.”

Yet Abrams was one of the lucky ones. After suffering a hand injury in May 1918 he was discharged, returned to Britain and lived to the age of 91.

Lance Corporal Isaac Barbitsky had an even harder time. The JFS old-boy saw substantial front-line action after landing in Boulogne in May 1915. Shot through the leg, he later returned to service and was awarded the Military Medal for an unspecified act of bravery in the field in May 1917.

His valiant efforts were noted by Mr Bowman who wrote to offer “hearty congratulations” and extend an invitation to visit JFS at the end of the war.

Across Britain, Jews had rushed to join the war effort en masse. Three battalions of the London regiment the Royal Fusiliers were made up of Jewish soldiers and known as the Jewish Legion. They included immigrants from Russia, and Canadian and American volunteers. When they arrived in Palestine in June 1918 another battalion was created, made up largely of Jewish policemen.

The Cardiff Pals – the 11th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment – recruited a significant number of members of the city’s Jewish community at the start of the war. They marched into battle together on September 14, 1914.

One of the most prominent Welshmen was Israel “Issey” Shibko, renowned for using an axe during a trench raid. He won the Military Medal and was later killed in action in 1918.

Captain Nathan Leonard Harris of the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers was awarded a Military Cross and was killed in August the same year.

The Welsh Jewish contribution was significant. At least a dozen Jewish men from Cardiff were killed, with nine from Swansea, four from Newport and a remarkable 26 from Merthyr Tydfil also making the ultimate sacrifice.

The Jewish Lads’ Brigade, set up at the end of the 19th century as a group for poor East End boys in London, also played its part. Its officials initially held off from allowing its name to be associated with the war effort over fears its brand would be “militarised”, but with conscription in the offing, the JLB provided its full backing.

Styling itself as the “1st London Cadet Battalion, Jewish Lads’ Brigade”, with additional battalions in Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham, JLB lads were soon organised into cadet groups. So many became officers in the war effort that the group was forced to advertise at home for new leaders for the children still in Britain.

The numbers were so depleted that full camps for JLB participants did not run again until 1918.

Doing its duty cost the JLB. Its roll of honour lists 525 names – a significant percentage of all British Jewish deaths in the conflict.

Ironically, many JLB boys died in Palestine, serving in the Jewish Legion. In 1918, at least 10 former members of the group died together fighting in the Royal Fusiliers. Those not killed in front-line conflict often succumbed to malaria in the Jordan Valley.

Last updated: 10:51am, August 4 2014