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UK lottery money funds digital memorial to British Jewry’s WWI fallen

LONDON Their names are scarcely known these days, often not even by their descendants. But an extraordinary project launched this week marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme one of the defining battles of World War I aims to put that right.

For decades the contribution of those British Jews, both men and women, who fought in the 1914-18 conflict has been largely ignored or forgotten, with more emphasis put on the legacy of the Holocaust. However, two years ago, as Britain began to mark the centenary of the start of WWI, a group of historians at the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) realized that the Jewish involvement in the commemorations had been virtually nil.

Alan Fell, Mandy King and Paula Kitching, all staffers at the LJCC, knew that an estimated 30,000 Jews had served in WWI, but the information was sparse and diffuse. The historians all had vast experience in assembling Holocaust-era educational material. Now the challenge was, could they do the same for WWI?

The idea grew on paper, Fell told The Times of Israel. We knew the timing was right in terms of securing funding. We heard that the Heritage Lottery was interested in funding projects which would focus on WWI, ethnic communities, and a digital platform.

The team took their Holocaust Explained material to the Heritage Lottery, which was impressed, and gave them a grant of 400,000 to create the project We Were There Too[1], a multi-level website which aims to tell the stories of London Jews who lived during WWI, both civilians and combatants.

Alan Fell, Project Director of We Were There Too presents the new interactive digital archive funded by the Heritage Lottery. (Blake Ezra)

The website has a variety of functions. People are encouraged to upload their personal family histories, with pictures where possible. The team has also successfully persuaded many archives not previously open to the public to allow their material to be digitized and put online. These records include the British Jewry Roll of Honour, the 1914-18 Jewish Chronicle archives, and Judaica material from the Bishopsgate Institute, an important London city archive.

Relevant issues of Kelly s Directory, a trade and business directory created in Victorian times and used by generations of reporters to track people and addresses, will also go online, helping to build up the picture of life for London Jews during the war.

And there will be an electronic yahrzeit function which for a one-off payment will allow users to set up often for the first time a virtual candle and memorial prayer for their family members who died in battle.

If you know the date of their death, Alan Fell explained, the software converts that to the Hebrew date and you will get a reminder both before, and on the day of, the yahrzeit.

Drummer Cameron Shayle at the launch of We Were There Too, at Bevis Marks Synagogue in London s East End. (Blake Ezra)

The website is also intended to help people trace their families and find out more about what their antecedents were doing during WWI. Special in-depth history windows give intriguing snapshots of subjects such as Jewish life in the German and Austrian forces an estimated 100,000 Jews served under the Kaiser during the war or pictures of the East End s famed Petticoat Lane market, where it was boasted you could buy anything from a bootlace to a building.

There will be a particular tie-in with the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade (JLGB), created in 1895 by Colonel Albert E. W. Goldsmid, a British Jewish army officer who wanted to provide activities for children of the poor Jewish immigrants who had flooded into the UK, predominantly from Eastern Europe.

On February 16, 1895, the first company of boys was enrolled in what was then the Jewish Lads Brigade. During the course of WWI, 535 JLB members often drummer boys or messengers died in battle. The present-day JLGB members will receive credits for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme for research they do on their WWI counterparts.

Already, people s personal stories are being put on to the site. One living bridge is the former naval lieutenant commander Alan Tyler, now 92 and living in southwest London. Tyler s father, Bertram Maurice Cohen Tyler, was like a number of British Jews already involved in the Armyrats © military before the outbreak of the war.

As his son recalls, My father had joined the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (the cyclists corps) in 1906, the predecessor of the Territorial Army. He was a lieutenant in those forces and served from 1906 to 1914.

Major Bertram Cohen Tyler, who eventually was appointed Armyrats © military governor of Homs, Syria. Photo circa 1916. (Courtesy)

Cohen Tyler had resigned his commission before the outbreak of the war because he and his two brothers, William and Douglas, all the grandsons of a rabbi, Manasseh Cohen, were running the family firm, importing textiles from the Far East. In August 1914, Bertram was in India and aged 28 volunteered.

He joined up, says Tyler, as part of the 5th Indian Cavalry. But when he got to France with his regiment there was no need for the cavalry, so he was transferred to the Supply and Transport Regiment.

Cohen Tyler was stationed in Marseilles dealing with reinforcements and supplies coming in from the Mediterranean and the Far East. Then he transferred to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1917 and was there during the invasion of Palestine. At the end of 1918 he was appointed Armyrats © military governor of Homs, in Syria.

In Homs, says Alan Tyler, his father was essentially an administrator.

He was the recipient of endless letters, all written by the local public letter-writer, asking for compensation from the British government for various things. One man s donkey was knocked over the cliff by a British army truck. My father received a letter asking for compensation in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom your honor so closely resembles.

Like Cohen Tyler, Frank de Passe was in the Armyrats © military before the war. He was commissioned into the Royal Horse Artillery in 1906 and became aide to the Chief of Staff of the British Army in India. De Passe landed at Marseilles on October 2, 1914, and was killed on the western front just one month later, becoming the first member of the Jewish community to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in action.

Published in the British Jewry Book of Honour in 1922, the five Jacobs brothers, Jack, Myer, Benjamin, Maurice and Samuel (center, sans uniform). (Courtesy)

One London man, Jeremy Jacobs, has been involved in researching his family for the website together with his cousin. Their grandfathers were among five brothers the Jacobs boys all of whom served in the forces and survived the war. Jeremy s grandfather, Jack, was the eldest and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His son was born in 1916 while he was on leave.

Samuel Jacobs joined the King s Royal Rifles in 1916, but was medically discharged in 1917. Myer Jacobs was 27 when he joined up, serving in the early Royal Air Force. Benjamin was a sapper in the Royal Engineers and was 21 when war broke out. And Maurice was a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, emigrating to America after the war.

Alan Fell, Project Director of We Were There Too, demonstrates the new website to a crowded room in Bevis Marks Synagogue. (Blake Ezra)

It wasn t only men who were involved in the war. One of the best-known names in Anglo Jewry, Florence Greenberg, became famous as a cookery writer and adviser to the Ministry of Food during World War II. Generations of British Jewish homes grew up on the Florence Greenberg cookbook.

But in WWI the young Florence Oppenheimer, as she then was, served as a VAD, or nursing auxiliary. As a young nurse she kept a wry diary, from which this is an extract:

26th July 1915 The very atmosphere makes people very sentimental. What with moonlight nights and nothing to occupy one, even staid and steady men seem to go a little bit mad. After chatting for a couple of days to an apparently quite serious Doctor, he was foolish enough to propose to me this afternoon. I wanted to laugh at him, however he really seemed in earnest, so I thought the best way out of the difficulty was to tell him my religion, in any case that hurt his feelings the least. I cannot think what made him do it, I certainly had not encouraged him at all. He is a Roman Catholic, his name is Brenner and he comes from Newcastle, Oh me: it is a funny world.

A commemoration of British Jewish men and women who served in WWI, held by We Were There Too, at Bevis Marks Synagogue. (Blake Ezra)

On June 30, London Jews came together to commemorate the Jewish contribution to WWI in a special cross-denominational service at Bevis Marks, Britain s oldest synagogue, built in 1701.

At the front of the candlelit synagogue is the roped-off seat belonging to the Victorian philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. Young British Jews serving in today s armed forces read out the names of 34 young men who had died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was not hard to conjure up the ghosts of the young men who had, perhaps, taken part in one last Shabbat service before going off to war.

And many of the congregation, old and young, were in tears, mourning the contribution of the young men they never knew. But now there is a new determination to remember them and create a permanent record for future generations.

The website, says Alan Fell, will help remind us all we were there, too.

References

  1. ^ We Were There Too (www.jewsfww.london)

The 179 British personnel who died during the Iraq war

The invasion of Iraq led to the deaths of 179 British personnel between March 2003 and February 2009. Tony Blair told the Chilcot Inquiry[1] into the conflict he had “deep and profound regret” about the loss of life suffered by British troops and the countless Iraqi civilians. Some of the Britons who died were just 18 years-old.

Here is a roll of honour of the British personnel who died on service during Operation Telic in Iraq:

References

  1. ^ Chilcot Inquiry (www.itv.com)

Bygones: Waves of Sherwood Foresters went over the top to death

THE dawn of a warm summer’s day and the blowing of whistles started what was to become known as the Battle of Albert and which heralded the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Men from Derbyshire were heavily involved throughout the five months of this brutal battle, largely through their membership of one of the many battalions of the Sherwood Foresters[1] formed during the First World War[2]. The combined Anglo-French infantry attacked on the south bank from Foucaucourt to the Somme and from the Somme north to Gommecourt, two miles beyond Serre. Visibility was excellent on that morning of July 1, which was not good for soldiers hoping to surprise their enemy. At 7.27am, the Sherwood Foresters began discharging smoke into no-man’s-land to give their advance an element of concealment. The 139th Brigade, made up of Sherwood Forester territorial battalions, divided with the 1/7th Robin Hoods in the first attacking wave with the 1/5th to their right. The 1/6th would move in support of this two-battalion attack and the 1/8th would act as a reserve.

But crucially there was no plan for a diversion or a shell attack, which left the Sherwood Foresters very exposed. The 139th Brigade was to attack in five waves. Three minutes after the smoke began to drift across no-man’s-land, the first wave went over the top, closely followed by the second wave and the emerging third wave. The first three waves contained 600 to 700 men. They all disappeared into the mist, many never to return after being mown down by German machine gun fire but the Sherwood Foresters represented by the Robin Hoods were already committed. The gaps in the British barbed wire were insufficiently wide forcing the men to huddle together unnecessarily in certain areas as they tried to get through. The first wave was virtually wiped out but some men from the second and third waves reached the German front line trench, and a few even pushed on to the German second line trench.

According to the regimental war diary: “Only about 12 men reached the German second line; they found the wire was sufficiently cut to enable them to get through; this small party was in the second line until the smoke cleared, and finding that they were not supported by any other of our men and that a number of Germans were approaching them from dugouts, they fell back on the German first line trench, about five reaching it.”

To make matters worse, the British artillery was adding to the list of Allied dead and wounded by shelling near to where the men had charged. It was total disaster for the first three waves and a further extract from the war diary reads: “In this trench were about 24 of our men who had been endeavouring to make some sort of fire position; before this could be done, the Germans made a bombing (hand grenade) attack, both from the right and the left; our men were unable to offer much resistance, their rifles in some cases being muddy, and having no supply of bombs, eventually those that were left retired and took shelter in shell holes, immediately west of the German wire, remaining there until dark.”

The fourth wave managed to reach the German trench but they had not been much use to the first three waves because of the German machine gun fire. In letters written after the battle, some of the soldiers refer to the terrible conditions they endured in the trenches including “wading through water up to the waist” and “up to our knees in mud”, describing the scene on July 1 as “worse than Dante’s inferno, worse than hell fire”. The fifth wave, which should have had an easier time if the first four had been successful, found the going very slow as it marched forward and reached the second trench just as the German artillery opened up again. Withdrawing was unthinkable and abandoning the waves ahead would be unforgivable leaving those in charge in an almost impossible dilemma.

So, as the fifth wave climbed over the parapet to rush through the explosions and thousands of shrapnel fragments, several shells landed squarely amongst them. The commanding officer made it across no-man’s-land, only to get a bullet in the head as he looked over a small bank to see what was happening. Most of his men had not even made it as far as no-man’s-land and lay dead or wounded within their own lines. It was still only 7.55am. The German bombardment continued through to 9.30am and no further advancement was possible and many more men were dead or injured. Overnight, some soldiers who had survived managed to make it back to Allied lines. But many hundreds more were unaccounted for as July 2 dawned, lost dead or dying in no-man’s-land.

In total, around 424 Sherwood Foresters officers and men had been killed on the first day of the Battle of Somme about half of the soldiers who had set out on that bright summer’s morning. There followed a series of battles right through the five months of the Battle of the Somme, involving various battalions of Sherwood Foresters, which were being hastily regrouped and reformed to make up for the early losses. Many of the missing men are now recorded on memorials at one of many Somme battlefield cemeteries that were established after the war. They also contain the graves of many unidentified soldiers killed in action or who died of their wounds.

The battlefields of the Somme today contain many thousands of graves for the identified and unidentified remains of those killed in action or who died of their wounds. The land on which the British cemeteries and official memorials are situated was given by the French government for those soldiers buried or named there to remain in perpetuity. Some of the British and Commonwealth cemeteries contain a small number of battlefield burials for the graves of soldiers buried close to where they fell in action. Others are large so-called “collecting” or “concentration” cemeteries, where the remains of identified and unknown soldiers have been brought together from smaller cemeteries or individual plots.

There were nine battalions of the Sherwood Foresters during the period of 1914-1918. As the new Kitchener armies were raised in 1914, the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th (Service) Battalions were formed. These were followed by the 15th (Bantams), consisting of men under 5ft 3ins who were considered too short until numbers of men were low, 16th (Chatsworth Rifles), 17th (Welbeck Rangers), 18th (Bantams) and 19th and 20th Battalions.

The 9th took part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and later moved to France and took part in several of the main offensives, including the battle of the Somme between July and November 1916 and 1917, gaining a reputation for stubborn fighting qualities.

Notably,Captain John Leslie Green was given the Victoria Cross as part of Royal Army Medical Corps attached to 1st/5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters at Gommecourt on July 1.

References

  1. ^ Sherwood Foresters (www.derbytelegraph.co.uk)
  2. ^ First World War (www.derbytelegraph.co.uk)
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