Tank commander's symbol of courage


A war memento from a Jewish officer who took part in the first battle in which tanks were deployed is to go on display at an event commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

On September 15, 1916, 40 British Mark I tanks advanced on German lines at the Somme. Lieutenant Basil Henriques, a 26-year-old from East London, was commanding one of them.

The young officer - his regiment's only Jewish soldier - was looking through the tank's periscope when artillery fire shattered the glass prism, sending shards into his face.

The splinters were removed by medics and Sir Basil later had the largest piece set into a ring for his wife, Rose.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, the Tank Museum in Dorset will be sending a replica Mark IV tank to London. The tank will be in Trafalgar Square and Horse Guards Parade on the 100th anniversary, later this month.

Sir Basil's ring will also be on show - it was given to the museum by his widow after his death in 1961.

The soldier came from a prominent Jewish family. His father, Jacob Henriques, was one of the founders of the West London Synagogue, and his mother was a niece of Sir Moses Montefiore.

Young Basil studied at Harrow and then Oxford.

He founded the Oxford and St George's Jewish Lads' Club in 1914, and after the war, united it with the Jewish Girls' Club.

He was knighted for his efforts in 1955 and Henriques Street in Whitechapel is named after him.

David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, said the war machines were developed in secrecy, with volunteer soldiers unaware of where, and how, they would serve.

"Conditions were awful inside with eight men to operate them in temperatures of 50c with a deafening noise, a top speed of three miles per hour at the very best, and drawing German fire," said Mr Willey.

"Many tanks broke down and others lost their way, but a few made a real difference.

"It seems amazing that - after a day of such terror, confusion and loss - Henriques was able to think of his new wife and make a present out of something that had nearly blinded him.

"Objects like this ring help tell the personal stories of the men and their experiences."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive