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11th Tower Hamlets Volunteers: The First Jewish Unit in the British Army[1]

Harold Pollins

The Bulletin of the Military Historical Society, Vol. 48, No 191, February 1998

At the beginning of December 1860 The Times reported:

"A numerous meeting of gentlemen of the Jewish persuasion was held at Zetland-hall, Mansell-street, Goodman's Fields, last night, when resolutions favourable to the formation of a corps of Jewish Rifle Volunteers were carried unanimously. The members present went through their drill, under an able sergeant, and evinced great zeal to qualify themselves for their new duties."[2]

This was some eight months after the first corps of the Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers had come into existence. The Army List of April 1860 reported the establishment of 1st (Dalston) and 2nd (Hackney). In fact the 1st did not become operative and disappeared before the end of that year. One of the officers of the 2nd, all gazetted on 6th April 1860, was Capt Joseph D'Aguilar Samuda, the Jewish Thames shipbuilder, who continued his association with the local Volunteers for a number of years.

Almost as soon as the Volunteer Force came into existence in 1859 the Jewish press published news about Jewish participation and continued to do so for the next half-century.[3] As often as not it was to record names, promotions, and activities but there was a great deal, mainly in the form of exchanges in the correspondence columns, about the very response of Jews to Volunteer recruitment. On one side there were complaints that not enough were joining. But counter views came from correspondents who argued that such statements were untrue and certainly did not apply to their particular town. Occasionally there were statistics to support their arguments - how many Jews were serving in their units or how many had attended camps. It was said at one time that out of 200,000 Volunteers as many as 2,000 were Jews, which was higher than the proportion of Jews in the total population. How accurate that figure was is unknown.[4] In 1897 Joel Zacharias, the president of the Oxford synagogue, signing his letter as late Colour-Sergeant of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, took part in a flurry of correspondence in the Jewish Chronicle about the Volunteers, and stated that when he attested in 1870 (he was then aged 18) there were very few Jews in the Volunteers. This does not square with a statement in the Volunteer Service Gazette of 1875, "We all know how vigorously and well, both in purse and person, the Jews in England have supported the Volunteer movement in the present day."[5]

There were, certainly, very few reports of opposition within the Jewish community to participation in the armed forces, whether in the Volunteers or in the regular army or navy. One opponent was Rev A. L. Green who said in 1870 that "the spirit of military ambition was condemned by the creed of the Jew as well as alien to his character." Many years later, after the boys, at a prize-giving at Stepney Jewish School, were urged to join the army and navy, the Jewish Chronicle published a letter arguing against it, saying that "Peace is essentially a Jewish ideal."[6] But most published opinion in the newspaper was in favour of Jewish military participation, regularly publishing items of news about the small but growing recruitment in the regular army and navy as well as full accounts of the annual military service at Chanukah which began in the 1890s. This encouragement was despite the obvious difficulty of maintaining Jewish religious practices in the armed forces. That problem was the main theme of a discussion that went on for many years. Some ministers confidentally averred that it was legitimate to give them up if events proved it necessary, notably in time of war.[7] But that opinion referred especially to regular service; for the Volunteers there was the immediate question of attendance on parades which were often held on Saturdays. This difficulty - the necessity to breach the Sabbath - was often put forward as a reason why not enough Jews became Volunteers.

Among the various suggestions put forward to deal with the problem of maintaining religious practices was the idea of forming a specifically Jewish unit. It is of passing interest that it was reported in 1846, when war between the USA and Mexico was expected and recruitment in the former was in hand, that a New York corps had been formed composed entirely of Jews. A decade later, during the Crimean War, a proposal came from the Polish (non-Jewish) poet, Adam Mickiewicz, for a Jewish unit. But this was primarily in order to capitalise on Jewish discontent with Russian persecution of the Jews rather than to meet religious needs.[8]

In London the proposal for a Jewish unit of the Volunteers came at least as early as November 1859[9] and was avidly discussed in the Jewish Chronicle from the latter part of 1859, arguments in favour and against being vehemently put forward. A year later, while the controversy continued, the proposed unit went ahead, to be based on the East End of London where there was the largest concentration of Jews. The initiative came from middle-class Jews living outside the East End. The leading light was Barnett Lazarus ("late Devonshire Artillery") with an address in the West End. He advertised late in November 1860 for "Gentlemen wishing to assist in the formation of Jewish volunteer companies" to get in touch with him. In the same week the Illustrated London News noted that "one or two more companies, composed entirely of Jews, are to be attached to a Brigade, in the course of formation in the city of London. It will not be necessary for members of the Jewish companies to attend drill on Sabbaths."[10]

Soon afterwards, on 4th December, the meeting reported in The Times, which Lazarus chaired, took place in the Goodman's Fields district, a major area of Jewish residence. Zetland Hall, the venue, was a familiar and well-used East End meeting place. Three resolutions were carried unanimously: that Jews should join the Volunteers, that they should enrol in Jewish companies to be attached to existing corps, and a committee should be formed. Eight men comprised the committee, all of them already in various units - two of them described as Captains, one in the Jamaica Militia and the other in the 40th Middlesex. (However, most of them dropped out quickly and only two of the eight became officers in the eventual unit.) The Honorary Secretary was Samuel M. Lazarus who was later unit clerk and its Quartermaster.[11]

The Jewish Chronicle was in favour of the scheme and the paper reprinted favourable comments from elsewhere. The Volunteer Service Gazette- the main periodical of the Volunteer movement - was in favour of the "Proposed London Hebrew Corps" adding, somewhat surprisingly, a very early pro-Zionist message, "especially when taking into consideration this seeming step towards the to-be-accomplished prophecy of Holy Writ as to the ingathering of Jews to their native land." The Jewish Chronicle quoted too the Evening Standard which referred to the valiant deeds of the ancient Israelites.[12] The news item in the Illustrated London News was quoted by the New York Jewish Messenger which commended the idea to "our militia" of having Jewish units which could be attached to companies not required to drill so as to avoid desecrating the Sabbath.[13] But there were also many in Britain who opposed the separate unit as the correspondence columns of the JC testified.[14]

While the controversy about its very desirability continued, recruitment went ahead and in early February the JC reported on a sight never before seen in Britain "and very rarely if ever since the rising of Bar Cocba" (sic) of 165 Jewish Volunteers (of the "East Metropolitan Rifle Volunteer Corps") drilling along with a drum and fife band. Most of those on parade, except the officers, were members of the working class. The unit intended on the eve of the festival of Purim to march in uniform to the New Synagogue.[15]

At the beginning of March, The Times was among the papers which reported the unit's formal authorisation. "Her Majesty", it said, "has been graciously pleased to accept the services of the East Metropolitan Rifle Volunteers (11th Tower Hamlets), lately established." Although only four weeks old it had nearly 200 enrolled members. The establishment was to consist of a Captain (in command), another Captain, two Lieutenants, two Ensigns, an Assistant Surgeon and a complement of 200 in total.[16] This development was well received by the JC, at least by its gossip columnist. Physical education was much needed, he wrote, especially among "our humbler classes"; and as, through emancipation, Jews did not associate much with other Jews this was a way of remedying that situation.[17] These officers who, as was customary at that period, were elected by the men, were gazetted on 21st March 1861. The Commander was Capt Barnett Lazarus and the other Capt was David Barnett[18]; Lt Barnett Rubinstein, and two Ensigns, Montague Jacobs and Simon David Marks were the remaining officers. They were sworn in by the Lord Mayor early in March. The ceremony was reported in various papers all making the point that while it was formed "by some gentlemen of the Jewish persuasion" it was open to members of all religious opinions.[19] The complement of officers was completed by 2Lt Louis Nathan, who was gazetted on 9th March.

In April 1861 it must have seemed that the future for the corps (named "Goodman's Fields" in the Army List) was bright. A "grand ball" under its auspices was advertised for 6th May 1861 - to be held in the fashionable Willis's Rooms, King's Street, St James's - under the patronage of five Lieutenant-Colonels, two Majors and three Captains of various units.[20] Moreover, on 6th June it provided a guard of honour at the foundation-stone-laying ceremony at Norwood of the new building of the Jews' Hospital (soon to be amalgamated with the Jews' Orphan Asylum).[21] Yet a meeting at Zetland Hall just before the end of April was a dismal affair. Admittedly, said Capt Lazarus in the chair, in the three months since it started 180 had been recruited but they had been able to raise only £8 from the Jewish community and few of the upper classes had joined. (At first the government did not provide any funds for the Volunteers.)[22]

More important was talk of lax discipline. This was in fact a common complaint about the Volunteers. In this case, it was said, "Some dissatisfaction had lately arisen among officers and men." Two officers had resigned and had tried to take their men to other units. However, the Lt-Col of the 6th Tower Hamlets would not accept them without production of their discharge. The meeting nevertheless decided to amalgamate with the 6th Tower Hamlets for a "more healthy state of affairs."[23]

The Army List shows that by June 1861 the junior officers had gone, a new Captain was George A. Moss, possibly a non-Jew, and another - Butler A. Sickelmore- became an Ensign in the autumn, in the same month that the 11th Tower Hamlets were attached to the 6th for drill and administrative purposes - a not uncommon structure within the Volunteers. One further change was the creation by June 1861 of 1st Tower Hamlets as an administrative battalion, comprising, 3rd, 7th and 10th. Two months later the 11th joined them although, like the other corps, it retained its separate identity. Barnett Lazarus left by November 1861 and only Barnett Rubinstein of the originals remained.

In the summer of 1864 the 11th Tower Hamlets vanished from the pages of the Army List; in the previous three years very little was published about it. Yet talk of a separate Jewish unit, for and against, surfaced from time to time. In 1872 the question of breaking the Sabbath was again raised; a correspondent wondered what happened to the "Jewish Volunteer Corps" and argued that if started now it would attract many recruits.[24] But in 1898, in the course of encouraging Volunteer recruitment, the Jewish Chronicle went on to oppose any idea of a "distinctively Jewish corps", recalling the Tower Hamlets unit. "Separation of this kind can only retard the work of assimilation so much desired, and which we have always advocated."[25]

Then, at the start of the Great War, in a great flurry of patriotism, there was once again talk in Britain of forming a Jewish army. A letter in the Jewish Chronicle opposing the idea came from "An Old Volunteer Officer", who had been an officer of the 11th Tower Hamlets.[26] He wrote of the 11th Tower Hamlets that 60 had joined (different reports gave various figures from as low as that to 200); for a few months all had gone well but "Soon the men began to disobey lawful commands, and in the end the regiment had to be disbanded, and the rest merged into the 6th Tower Hamlets Rifle Corps. Only ten men transferred, and as the others had been always quarrelling for commissions, we could not manage them at all." The unit did not disappear immediately after the April 1861 meeting, for it took part in the stone-laying ceremony at Norwood in June (the band expenses being financed by £10 from Messrs Rothschild). And another event attended by some 30-40 members of the unit, even though it was a Saturday, the Sabbath day, was the funeral of Mr Broadwood, Chief of the Fire Brigade, who had lost his life in a major fire.[27]

Later in the century one finds references to Jews serving in other East End Volunteer units - in the Tower Hamlets Engineers and in the 2nd Tower Hamlets Rifles.[28] The appropriate East End Territorial units, after 1908, were part of the London Regiment: the 17th (County of London) Battalion (Poplar & Stepney Rifles) and the 4th (City of London) Battalion (Royal Fusiliers).[29] As a Territorial unit the 4th Battalion was sent out at the start of the Great War to Malta to enable regular Army troops to be returned to France. The JC, reporting this [30], noted that there were 32 Jews in the unit. Later it served in France.[31] The first reported death was that of Pte William Alfred Andrade on 15th March 1915. [ibid., Vol 48. No. 192, May 1998, p.169, footnote.] The 17th Battalion was also in action. In October 1915 the Jewish Chronicle, reporting that five Jews had been killed so far in that Battalion, noted that it was from East London and included "a large body of Jewish soldiers."[32] The Nominal Roll of the London Regiment in the British Jewry Book of Honour lists the names of about 200 Jews who served in the 17th Bn and 180 in the 4th Bn in the course of the war.[33]

During 1915 there was in fact a Jewish unit of the British Army, the Zion Mule Corps, composed of Palestinian Jews ejected by the Turks from Palestine. It was serving in Gallipoli.[34] Two years later the Judeans were formed, the 38th-40th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, with a Jewish rank and file but with some non-Jewish officers and at first some non-Jewish NCOs.[35]

The idea of a separate Jewish unit returned in World War II and after much pressure the Jewish Brigade was formed in 1944, mainly of Palestinian Jews, and fought in Italy.[36] A minor curiosity is that in 1939 David Shane of South Wales "attempted [unsuccessfully] to form a Jewish Territorial Army Unit in Cardiff."[37]


1. This article is based on printed sources. No primary source material for the 11th Tower Hamlets Volunteers has survived. There is none it seems at the PRO, the Greater London Record Office, Hackney Archives or at Tower Hamlets Library.

2. The Times, 5th December 1860, p 10.

3. General histories of the Volunteers are by Hugh Cunningham, The Volunteer Force, 1975, Ray Westlake, The Rifle Volunteers, 1859-1908, 1982, and IFW Beckett, Riflemen Form. A Study of the Rifle Volunteer Movement 1859-1908, 1982. See also ibid, The Amateur Military Tradition 1558-1945, 1991, chapter 6: "The volunteer triumphant (1858-1899)", pp 163-195. The first reference in the Jewish Chronicle (henceforth JC) to Jews serving in the Volunteers appears to be in the issue of 4th November 1859, p 5. This notes two serving in North Shields, a shipbroker and a clerk. Cunningham, op cit. p 15, states that "the first major spurt to volunteering came ... in the late autumn and early winter" (of 1859).

4. The figure of 2,000 was stated in 1878 JC, 24th May 1878, p 10. It was repeated in 1885 and a comparison made with the total number of Volunteers: JC, 10th July 1885, p 3.

5. JC, 17th December 1897, p 10 (Zacharias). His son, commissioned in the DLI, was killed at Arras in 1917; his nephew Pte Harry Mitchell Davidson, OBLI, died of wounds in Salonika in the same year. The Volunteer Service Gazette was quoted in JC, 31st December 1875, p 639.

6. JC, 28th July 1870, p 8 (Green); ibid. 8th November 1907, p 11 (Stepney School). Late in 1901 there was a controversy in the columns of the JC about "The Jews and military spirit", with arguments for and against the notion that they did or did not possess it, beginning with an article about Jewish soldiers serving in the international contingent in China: 11th October, pp 16-17: 1st November, pp 710, 15th November, p 7: 27th December, p 7. Evelyn Wilcock, Pacifism and the Jews, 1994, deals with the twentieth century.

7. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Rev S Singer agreed that it was not possible to maintain all religious requirements while in the army but "to serve in the army cannot be a sin" He strongly advocated it: JC, 2nd September 1892, p 12. These opinions led to a lengthy controversy in subsequent issues of the paper about the desirability of Jews joining the army and of ignoring Jewish religious requirements.

8. JC, 4th September 1846, reprinted in ibid, 30th August 1996, p 28 (New York) Abraham G Duker, "Jewish volunteers in the Ottoman-Polish Units during the Crimean War", Jewish Social Studies, vol 16 (3), pp 203-18andvol 16(4), 1954, pp 351-76. That and subsequent research is examined by Artur Eisenbach. The Emancipation of the Jews in Poland, 1780-1870, 1991 (translated from the 1988 Polish edition): "Adam Micklewicz's plan to set up a Jewish Legion", pp 411-18.

9. JC, 18th November 1859, p 7.

10. JC, 23rd November 1860, p 1; Illustrated London News, 24th November 1860, p 481.

11. JC, 7th December 1860, p 1.

12. Quoted in JC, 30th November 1860, p 5.

13. JC, 25th January 1861, p 5.

14. eg, JC, 14th December 1860, p 6.

15. JC, 8th February 1861, p 5. The reference was to Bar Kochba who, in the years 132-5, led the last of the Jewish revolts against Roman rule in Palestine.

16. The Times, 4th March 1861, p 12. It was reported also in the Morning Advertiser (quoted in JC, 1st March 1861, p 5), and the East London Observer, 2nd March 1861, p 2.

17. JC, 15th March 1861, p 2.

18. His grandson, Lt Victor B Barnett, 12th Northumberland Fusiliers, was killed in action at Loos: JC, 8th October 1915, p 18. The following week it published a tribute to him: 15th October 1915, pp 6, 16.

19. The Times, 4th March 1861, p 12, Daily Telegraph, 2nd March 1861, p 3.

20. JC. 19th April 1861, p 1.

21. JC, 14th June 1861, pp 4-5. This was later described in a brief history of 11th Tower Hamlets by "An old Volunteer", in JC, 17th May 1895, p 9. See What About the Children? 200 Years of Norwood Child Care 1795-1995, 1996. There is a photograph on p 46 of a memorial tablet listing former children in its care who died in both wars.

22. Cunningham, Volunteer Force, chapter 2.

23. JC, 3rd May 1861, p 5. Lax discipline is mentioned several times in Cunningham, op cit, including pp 62-4. J W Fortescue. A History of the British Army, vol XIII, 1852-1870, 1930, pp 527-8 for criticisms of the Volunteers including their lack of efficiency. More specifically, I F W Beckett, "The problem of military discipline in the Volunteer Force, 1859-1899", Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol LVI. no 226, Summer 1978, pp 66-78. There is an interesting analysis by Patricia Morton, "A military irony: the Victorian Volunteer movement", Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, vol 131, no 3, September 1986, pp 63-70.

24. JC, 26th January 1872, p 5.

25. JC, 4th March 1898, pp 20-1.

26. Ibid, 13th November 1914, p 11. The controversy did not die down. See eg a letter supporting a Jewish battalion in JC, 8th October 1915, p 8.

27. Ibid. 17th May 1895, p 9. Twenty years earlier the JC, 31st December 1875, p 639, quoted the Volunteer Services Gazette. "We believe that there is a corps in London in which at least one company is composed mainly of Jews." I have been unable to confirm this. A speaker at the opening In 1901 of the South Portland Street Synagogue, Glasgow, said that Glasgow Jews had "formed a Volunteer Company"; JC, 13th September 1901, reprinted In Kenneth Collins (ed), Aspects of Scottish Jewry, 1987 The quotation is at p 102. See also ibid, Second City Jewry: The Jews of Glasgow in the Age of Expansion. 1790-1919, 1990, pp 113-14 (where it is called "Glasgow Jewish Volunteers Association"). It was formed in February 1898 and the minute book for 1898-9 is in Scottish Jewish Archives, at Garnethill Synagogue, Glasgow.

28. JC, 9th October 1874, p 452 (Engineers); 19th March 1875, p 812. (Engineers); 10th March 1899, p. 19 (Rifles). ET Rodney Wilde, The Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteer Brigade (1st Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers). A Short History Compiled from Official Documents and other Sources, 2 ed 1903, refers by name to officers, NCOs and other ranks. Several are Jewish.

29. J B M Frederick, Lineage Book of British Land Forces 1660-1978, pp 314-5. shows that certain corps of the Tower Hamlets Rifles became a volunteer battalion of the Rifle Brigade on 1st July 1881 and when the Territorial Army was established in 1908 became the 17th (County of London) Bn, The London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles).

30. JC, 11th December 1914, p 15. Three months earlier, on 18th September 1914, p 26, it reported that "large numbers of Jews have enlisted in the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. A week ago a hundred volunteered for foreign service - they have already left - and some fifty additional Jews have enlisted within the last few days". It is not clear if these numbers are accurate nor if they refer to the 4th Battalion (London Regiment) or to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which had been engaged at Mons.

31. F Clive Grimwade, The War History of the 4th Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers). 1914-1919. 1922.

32. JC, 29th October 1915, p 16. The five deaths were reported in ibid, 4th June 1915, p 10. and 8th October 1915, p 8. A month later it reported the death at Loos of Rfn Minsk, a year after the death in action of his Regular Army brother of the Connaught Rangers: 26th November 1915, p 8.

33. Perhaps inevitably in such a large compilation there are some errors in the British Jewry Book of Honour. See Harold Pollins, "Jews in the British Army in the First World War", Jewish Journal of Sociology, vol 37 (2), December 1995, pp 100-11.

34. See, inter alia, J H Patterson, With the Zionists in Gallipoli, 1916; Cecil Bloom, "Colonel Patterson, soldier and Zionist", Jewish Historical Studies, vol XXX1, 1990; Martin Sugarman, "The Zion Muleteers", The Orders and Medals Research Society, Winter 1995; ibid, "The Zion Muleteers", The Military Advisor, Summer 1996.

35. J H Patterson, With the Judaeans in the Palestine Campaign, 1922. The usual spelling was "Judeans". Also V Jabotinsky, The Story of the Jewish Legion, 1945.

36. Another (mainly) Jewish unit in the Second World War was no 3 (Miscellaneous or "X") Troop, 10 Commando; Martin Sugarman, "A well kept secret. No 3 (Jewish) Troop, No 10 Commando", Medal News, April 1996. Also lan Dear. Ten Commando 1942-45, 1987. The Troop consisted largely of German-speaking refugees from Nazism About a quarter were killed in action.

37. JC, 19th April 1996, p 23. Obituary of David Shane.


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