The First World War was pivotal for British Jews serving in the military

When war began, the JC exhorted: ‘England’s been all it can to Jews; we will be all we can to England’


“England has been all she could be to Jews, Jews will all they can be to England”. That was the famous exhortation in a Jewish Chronicle leader article at the start of the First World War, a conflict that was pivotal in British Jews’ commitment to serving in the armed forces.

It was not, as historian Paula Kitching, education officer for Ajex, the Jewish Military Association UK, explained, as though there had not been Jews in the military before 1914. “There were commissioned officers and regulars in both the Royal Navy and the Army. A number of Jews served in the Boer War (1899-1902), or in India.”

But she paints a picture of a two-tier community of British Jews in 1914. There were the established — and sometimes very wealthy — Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews; and there were those who had arrived as part of the huge influx from central and Eastern Europe that began in the 1880s, fleeing pogroms and antisemitism.

Those from the upper echelons of Jewish society frequently served as officers, said Ms Kitching. But pre-war, the British army was a volunteer force rather than a conscript army, and those who joined as regulars were likely to be, she said, “a little bit rough around the edges. It is the First World War which changed that attitude, when so many men went in”.

The annual Ajex parades with which we are familiar today have their roots even further back than the First World War. There were enough Jews serving in the Boer War for there to be Jewish chaplains, and after the Boer War there were annual Chanucah parades, arranged by Jewish chaplaincy in concert with Jewish service organisations.

When a wave of patriotic fever swept the country on the outbreak of war, and Lord Kitchener began his recruiting programme, Jews were not exempt. There was, said Ms Kitching, massive pressure from inside the Jewish community for its young men to be seen to be “doing their bit”.

It helped, perhaps, that in an effort to get young Jewish boys off the street and away from delinquency, those pre-war years had seen the foundation of a number of clubs and organisations with a military dimension. Prime among them was the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, founded in 1895; there were also Stepney Boys’ Club and Brady in London’s East End.

By the time war broke out, said Ms Kitching, there was a critical mass of young Jewish men with some sort of military training, ready to join up. And the two main Jewish newspapers, the JC and its sister paper, the Jewish World, took a strong line, too.

In August 1914, as soon as war was declared, the JC editorial made it clear: “Jews now have the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to King and country.” This attitude was backed by the Jewish establishment: Rothschild Bank opened up its headquarters as a recruiting centre, while Major Lionel de Rothschild offered to help anyone who had faced antisemitism by ensuring that they would be “placed with their fellow co-religionists”. In fact, said Ms Kitching, “there were more Jews in the Ox & Bucks — Lionel de Rothschild’s regiment — than had ever visited Oxford and Buckinghamshire, where he was the local MP.”

The war touched every level of society, rich and poor. Lionel’s two younger brothers, Evelyn and Anthony, both served, and Evelyn died of wounds received at the Battle of Mughar Ridge in 1917.

In autumn of 1914, a row broke out when a group of young Jewish men were told at a recruiting centre, “We don’t want your sort here”. A complaint was lodged and in January 1915 a long letter appeared in the JC from a regimental doctor, stating that the men who had said this had been disciplined and that no such thing would ever happen again.

Posters went up in Jewish neighbourhoods stating that all single Jewish men between the ages of 19 and 45 should put themselves forward for service. And in 1916, the Jewish Recruitment Committee took a full-page advert in the Jewish World and the JC, sternly declaring: “There Must Be No Jewish Slackers!”

Not everyone, of course, heeded the call to arms. Most notable of those were Russian Jews who had not taken British citizenship and who had no intention of serving in the British army. “The Jewish establishment had no truck with these people. They could understand why people might not want to go back to Russia, but not why they wouldn’t serve.”

One of the huge effects of the First World War, said Ms Kitching, was that “the war altered the attitude to war”. As those men who survived the trenches came home, some with traumatised, some with life-changing physical injuries, the realisation that war was not simply glory and medals crept over Britain — and its Jews, too.

The war also forced the men and women of the Jewish community into the wider world. Sharing their experiences of battle with their fellow citizens catapulted them out of the narrow confines of Anglo-Jewry.

In the end, out of an estimated Anglo-Jewish community of around 250,000, about 50,000 Jews enlisted‚ and five of them won the highest military accolade, the Victoria Cross. They were Frank de Pass, Issy Smith, Leonard Keysor, Jack White and Robert Gee.

Lieutenant Frank de Pass, from a well-to-do Anglo-Jewish family, was the first VC of the conflict. He was a commissioned officer in an Indian cavalry regiment, the Poona Horse, when the war broke out.

Lt De Pass’s regiment arrived in France on October 13 1914. Just over a month later, he was involved in a serious action on the Western Front. For his “conspicuous bravery” he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and died the next day, on November 25, 1914, aged 27.

Jack White was born in Leeds in 1896 as Jacob Weiss. His father was a Russian immigrant, his mother British. The family moved to Manchester where Jack attended school. After the war broke out he enlisted in the King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment. He served in the Middle East and while there, in 1917, saved an officer’s life and rescued vital equipment, earning him his VC. Pte White’s great-grandchildren have paid tribute to their great-grandfather — who, after the war, set up a men’s fashion business — by naming their Manchester-based clothing company “Private Jack White VC”.

Egypt-born Issy Smith had been in the regular army before the First World War and re-joined, winning his VC in 1915. During the second battle of Ypres, according to his citation, “he left his Company on his own initiative and went forward towards the enemy’s position to assist a severely wounded man, whom he carried a distance of 250 yards into safety, while exposed the whole time to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.

“Subsequently Corporal Smith displayed great gallantry, when the casualties were very heavy, in voluntarily assisting to bring in many more wounded men throughout the day, and attending to them with the greatest of devotion to duty regardless of personal risk”.

Sadly, as with many of those who survived the war, Cpl Smith was eventually forced to pawn his medals, including his Victoria Cross — but the then Chief Rabbi’s wife urged the community to buy them back.

And Cpl Smith had one more time in the spotlight, as part of the guard of honour at the Westminster Abbey dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1920.

Ajex, which is normally associated with those who served in the Second World War, is paying tribute to the Jewish heroes of the 1914-18 conflict with a number of special wreaths at its annual remembrance ceremony and parade on November 18.

These include a wreath to mark the 1918 Battle of Amiens, one to mark deaths of all Jewish servicemen and women killed in action in 1918 and one to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force.

Separate wreaths are being laid at this year’s ceremony in honour of those who served in the Zion Mule Corps in 1915 and 1916, and the Jewish Legion from 1918 to 1920.

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