'There was a cart for the dead, a cart for the living'

Morris Buznic volunteered to fight for the British Army when a Jewish battalion was formed in 1917. This is his story.


The band played Onward Christian Soldiers as the soldiers marched, carrying bayonet-fixed rifles, from the Guildhall — where they had been feted at a special banquet — to the London docks. Each soldier had been given the Freedom of the City of London.

This was Morris Buznic’s introduction to army life in 1917 as volunteer for the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, part of the Jewish fighting force of the First World War.

Morris was my grandfather, and the stories of his war service come from my father. I’ve filled in some gaps using a book, We Are Coming Unafraid by Michael and Shlomit Keren, which tells the wider story of the Jewish soldiers who fought for the British against the Germans and the Ottoman Empire in the later stages of the First World War.

That they were there is mainly down to the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who lobbied the British government from 1915 to create a Jewish legion. When they did, it consisted of soldiers from Palestine, Canada, Argentina and the US, as well as those living in Britain, who largely formed the 38th battalion. The Guildhall banquet came after basic training in Plymouth, and before the troops were dispatched to the Middle East.

For many of Morris’s comrades, there was no choice about joining up. They were Russian immigrants and a recent agreement between Britain and Russia meant they had to join the army or be repatriated to Russia.

But Morris's grandmother had been born in Wales (and been sent back to Poland to be married to a man she'd never met); and he and his brother had been living in South Wales for more than a decade, working as peddlers.

His brother stayed in Merthyr Tydfil, but Morris, still single in his mid-20s, travelled to London and queued overnight to enlist.

He was “very patriotic” says my father, noting that joining up meant regular meals, clean underwear and a rent-free roof over his head, plus pocket money and eventual British naturalisation.

Once on board, the Jewish soldiers were read a notice said to come from the Chief Rabbi permitting work on the Shabbat and eating of non-kosher food while under army discipline. “Their first meal was baked beans and pork,” says Dad, “but whether sausages or bits of meat I was never told.”

They landed in Egypt and went sight-seeing, before “getting down to the serious business of defeating the Turks who were holding Gaza against various British assaults. Gaza was shelled for three days and nights by 200 artillery field guns. The Turks broke and fled north to Lebanon, pursued by the British who diverted long enough to capture Jerusalem.”

In Jerusalem, the non-Jewish British officers had a problem when their Jewish troops did not want to go onto Temple Mount, “the fear being that the Mount was subject to a cherem (curse) for anyone who breached its holiness,” says my father.

“The Christian officers would not accept this and ordered a platoon up to clear the Mount of any enemy. The Jewish privates were prepared to disobey the order but the Jewish senior NCO pointed out that would be mutiny punishable by death and there were one or two officers who would be pleased to carry out the execution.

“The privates considered this and finally agreed to a platoon of Cohanim and Levites volunteers to do the duty. My dad was a Levi and went up with his rifle, fixed bayonet and ‘one up the spout’ — in other words, the rifle was loaded and primed. There were no enemy troops there and the platoon had the honour of being the first Jews bearing arms on the mount since the Romans destroyed the Temple.”

The next stop for the battalion was the trans-Jordan valley — “a pesthole” according to my grandfather. In the Kerens’ book, there are quotes from the diary of Abraham Jacob Robinson, who called the march into the valley “a terrible ordeal”, through choking “sulphurous dust” which sucked their feet down with every step. The uniforms were too hot, and the troops did not have enough water. The valley was strewn with the decayed bodies of Turkish soldiers, which did not smell due to the dry heat but “on turning the bodies over, scorpions and tarantulas would be seen in large numbers”.

“When they arrived at the banks of the Jordan River they were allowed to rest, but were maddened by thirst and most ran into the river to cool off and drink,” says Dad. “The Medical Officer was horrified ordered them out and rode on horseback, wielding his whip to drive them out — but it was too late.”

Thereafter, the men continued to march, but with some dropping from malaria and amoebic dysentery. “The battalion was followed by two carts, one for the dead and one for those still alive. My father collapsed and was about to be thrown in the death cart when one of the Red Cross bearers said ‘this one is still alive’ and the next thing he knew was in a field hospital and then being taken to a big hospital in Cairo as soon as his dysentery allowed.”

In hospital he was issued with lightweight pyjamas, which helped his temperature down from a high of 108 degree Fahrenheit. “The rule was that anyone who was hospitalised for more than 29 nights had to be sent home to Blighty,” says Dad, “but so many were sick that the army arranged for everyone alive after 28 nights were to be taken out and left overnight on the steps outside.

“So many were killed by night robbers that the Ghurkas were set to guard them and no further fatalities of British soldiers occurred, but a number of night robbers were found with cut throats.”

We think that some of Morris’s soldiering was spent as a motorbike despatch driver, as he was once dispatched to deliver an invitation to Mr Jabotinsky himself. He certainly served under General Edmond Allenby. “He didn’t like him,” says Dad. “He didn’t like any of the officers.”

The First World War was an adventure that took my grandfather far from home, and won him British citizenship, but left him with the aftermath of malaria, which gave him high fevers every year or so. He went on to serve in the Home Guard and taught my dad to shoot and to make explosives in case of a German invasion. In such a situation, the 12-year-old was instructed to kill his mother and younger brothers, and then himself in a suicide attack.

He died in 1955, a broken man who could never come to terms with the loss of his father and the remaining Polish family at Auschwitz.

I wish I’d known him.

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