100 years ago a book of the 50,000 UK Jews who fought in the WWI was presented to the King

AJEX: The Jewish Military Association and research group British Jews in the First World War are marking the milestone with a series of events, starting later this month


Early one morning in 1914, a 17-year-old Jewish boy called Joseph Josephs walked out of his home in Willesden, North London, leaving a note on his bed, which was found later by his distraught parents. It read: “I’ve gone to sign up and if you try and stop me, I’m just going to run away from home.”

On 1 July, 1916, young Joseph, by now Second Lieutenant Josephs of the Second Battalion, The London Regiment, was killed as he advanced towards a German machine-gun position on the first day of the Somme offensive on the Western Front. He is buried in Gommecourt British Cemetery, close to where he died fighting the country of his father’s birth.

Lieutenant Josephs was just one of the 50,000 Jews who enlisted in the armed forces to fight for “King and Country” in the First World War. An estimated 2,425 of them were killed, and there were also 6,500 casualties.

At the time, the Jewish Chronicle had the inspired idea to record the name of every one of those who served in lists printed every week throughout the conflict. One hundred years ago, in 1922, a Book of Honour containing all their names was presented to King George V.

It was compiled after the war by Rev Michael Adler, Senior Chaplain to Jewish troops, with the help of Max RG Freeman.

Now AJEX: The Jewish Military Association and research group British Jews in the First World War are marking the centenary with a series of events, starting later this month, exploring the history of Jewish involvement in the Great War.

On 4 August, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, entering a conflict that would cost the lives of nearly a million Brit. Three days later, in its leading article, the JC declared: “England has been all she could be to Jews; Jews will be all they can be to England.”

The declaration was painted onto a piece of wood by an anonymous member of the local community, and hung on the front of the JC’s offices in Finsbury Square, Central London, encouraging British Jews to serve. Posters and advertisements were printed in both English and Yiddish, and tens of thousands of Jews answered the call.

The following week, a special prayer for those serving, written by the Chief Rabbi, was printed in the JC, as well an interview with the Rev Adler, who said: “The Jewish manhood is responding with alacrity and enthusiasm to the call of England. There is not a Jew in this country who cannot tell of friends enlisted, of relatives enrolled.”

On 4 September the paper announced: “The Jewish Chronicle is desirous of compiling a full list of all Jews in the Empire who are serving during the War.

At the end of the War, when the list is completed, the whole of the names will be printed in a separate form on the finest art paper, and a bound copy will be submitted to THE KING for His Majesty’s gracious acceptance.”

Researchers Ronnie and Lola Fraser, who volunteer with the organisation British Jews in the First World War, spoke to the JC about the Book of Honour and the involvement of British Jews in the war. At the time Jews were not considered by many to be patriotic, which the community was very keen to counter.

“From 1880 until the start of the First World War, there is this great migration of Jews who didn’t really want to be here. They wanted to be in America,” Lola explained. “They are poor. So, you’ve got loads and loads of these poor Jews taking British jobs.”

As more Jews arrived, there was a fear of upsetting people coupled with a real desire to integrate, to the point where poor Jewish women were even asked by the community not to take sewing jobs because “you’re taking the jobs away from other poorer women”.

Another contributing factor, Ronnie said, was the Second Boer War, which led to rising antisemitism across Europe and in Britain.

However, the book was not complete. “If you think about it, there may be 50,000 names of Jews in there who served, but it doesn’t cover all the women, all the men who served in manufacturing in Britain,” Ronnie said.

Lola added: “There are hardly any women because they were not allowed to serve, but there are a few.”

One of her favourites is a woman called Jane Joseph: “She was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. She ended up at Tudor House, on Hampstead Heath, set up for wounded Jewish soldiers. They had an entire Jewish staff, nurses and doctors. They only ever lost one soldier. They all survived.”

Three thousand copies of the Book of Honour were printed and a modern edition was published in 2016. It is still not a complete record, with many names missing and forgotten.

The Frasers have been involved with British Jews in the First World War since 2013, with their mission to document the stories of as many people as possible to ensure that Jewish involvement is never forgotten. With good reason: Lieutenant Joseph Josephs was Lola’s great-uncle.

For events in London, contact Lola Fraser:
For regional events, contact Rodney Ross:

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