I\’m Too Sexy for My Master\’s Thesis

Review: The Jewish Legion and the First World War by Martin Watts

Posted in history,jewish legion,scholarship by Rae on 5 June 2006

There are very few books written on my area of research, the Jewish Legion. Those that have been published generally fall into two categories: books written by Revisionist Zionists and books written by amateur historians. I'm not trying to make any statements, just pointing out the facts.

Anyway, here's a review I wrote of a book written by an author who more or less fits into the latter category.
MARTIN WATTS, The Jewish Legion and the First World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Pp. xviii + 256. $65.00 cloth.

Martin Watts’ The Jewish Legion and the First World War offers a history and analysis of Britain’s Jewish Legion. He provides detailed and carefully researched information on a topic that has been largely ignored by historians for nearly 90 years since the Palestine Campaign. Although Jewish self-defense is a common concept in contemporary society, from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 until the formation of Britain’s Zion Mule Corps in 1915, Jewish military forces were practically non-existent. For centuries Jews formed insular communities within the Ashkenazi Diaspora, having contact with non-Jews only as business required. Non-Jews viewed them as passive “people of the book.” Even in response to pogroms in the Tsarist Empire in the latter 1800s, Jews organized politically, not militarily. But in 1914, Vladimir Jabotinsky, an outspoken, controversial Zionist, began promoting a militaristic brand of Zionism.

Watts begins his study with the development of the Legion idea, which was “a Jewish army to fight on the Allied side, which would secure a seat at the peace conference and so obtain a Jewish state in Palestine” (p. 4). Jabotinsky was unsuccessful in promoting this idea in Italy and France and so traveled to Alexandria, where he and Joseph Trumpeldor petitioned the British authorities to form a Jewish military unit to fight in Palestine. The British responded that they could not form a fighting unit but could serve as a volunteer transport and supply group on an unspecified Turkish front. Trumpeldor accepted, but Jabotinsky was unhappy with the results and traveled to London to petition the government. As it turned out, the transport group was sent to Gallipoli and there served with distinction in the doomed campaign.

For several years, Jabotinsky and his allies (including Chaim Weizmann) persisted in their efforts in London to form a Jewish Legion to fight in Palestine. Through the bulk of the book, Watts successfully portrays the myriad obstacles they faced: anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and non-responsive bureaucracy, among others. After nearly three years of few successes and many failures, the diligence of Jabotinsky and a few other key characters paid off and the Jewish Legion was approved. But as Watts makes clear, it was not simply Jabotinsky’s doggedness that led to his desired outcome. Unpredictable and unplanned events enabled the formation of the unique Jewish force.

The magnitude of the war led the British government to allow Russian Jews and other foreign residents to serve in the British military. The Russian Jews refused to serve, however, because Russia and England were allied and they would not fight on Russia’s behalf. Once Russia dropped out and the United States joined the war, Russian Jews began to enlist and requested to join the rumored Jewish regiment. Nearly 2,000 U.S. and Canadian troops also volunteered to serve with the Legion. With the United States government backing the Jewish Legion and the British government attempting to gain the support of pro-German Jews at home and abroad, the formation of a Jewish regiment suddenly made sense. The influence of several prominent, pro-Zionist politicians also played a significant role in the creation of the Jewish Legion, which comprised three battalions of the Royal Fusiliers in the successful Palestine Campaign at the end of World War I. As Watts states in his conclusion, “The contribution of the Legion to Zionism, however, should not be underestimated, for its existence opened Palestine to the founders of Israel” (p. 243).

According to the introduction, Martin Watts first learned of the Jewish Legion in 1986 while he was still pursuing his commercial career as a repairer of traditional water- and wind-powered machinery. His love of history and research led him back to school and he obtained his Ph.D. in 2003; his dissertation was on the Jewish Legion. This book actually reads more like a dissertation: the literature review is extensive, the author references other authors a bit too much, and the narrative is bogged down by too many narrow details. Though Watts’ research is quite thorough, there are at least two important primary sources not included in his bibliography. Regardless, Watts situates the history of the Jewish Legion within both Jewish and British historical contexts quite well. Though Watts certainly leaves room for additional scholarship on the Jewish Legion, his book is an important and far too long overdue contribution to the field.


3 Responses to 'Review: The Jewish Legion and the First World War by Martin Watts'

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  1. Martin Watts said,


    Thank you for the review:it is indeed an edit of my doctoral thesis. By the way I am not the Martin Watts of millwright fame, my career has been in the Merchant Navy and the Marine Industry and I am a part time academic with the Open University. As a gentile this research helped me to understand more about the Jewish experience in the diaspora – and how wrong I was at the outset to assume all Jews were Zionists!


  2. Zel Lederman said,

    I was wondering as I have Martin’s book whether he is aware of a planned conference at Tel Hai College in Northern Israel in September 2007 that might be of interest to him.
    Best wishes,
    Zel Lederman

    Call for Papers

    International Conference:
    “Palestine and the First World War – New Perspectives”

    The Tel-Hai Academic College in Upper Galilee, Israel, is planning an international academic conference to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Palestine Campaign during the First World War and the British occupation of Jerusalem in 1917. The conference will be held on 3-6 September 2007 at the college’s campus at Tel-Hai. Official languages: English and Hebrew with simultaneous translation.

    The conference will examine the period and the campaign in historical perspective, emphasizing the broader context of the Great War in general and the war in the Middle Eastern theatre in particular. It aims to present perspectives for “all sides of the hill”, focusing on recent research and new approaches.

    The organizing committee seeks proposals on the following topics:
    a) Strategy (including the campaign and region in the broader perspectives of a worldwide coalition war and a revolution in the military affairs).
    b) Military and political dimensions (including topics of air warfare, technology, intelligence, military medicine, guerrilla warfare, political agreements, nationalism, peace negotiations and borders).
    c) “Tommy” and “Johnny Turk” – the ordinary soldier and the campaign.
    d) Civilian society and population in Palestine.
    e) Cultural aspects (including images, literature, art and religion).
    f) Historiography, ethos, commemoration and memory.
    g) The significance of the campaign and the period for the country and the Middle East in general.

    * The College will cover travel and accommodation expenses for participants.

    Proposals, up to 250 words including personal and academic details, should be
    e-mailed no later than 1 February 2007, to Ms. Diana Rachamim, Conference Coordinator Tel-Hai Academic College, e-mail: conference@adm.telhai.ac.il.

  3. Rae said,

    What am I, Zel? Chopped liver?

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