World War I (the Great War) changed so much in the world, ushering us into the “modern age”. Because of the atrocities of World War II and the flourishing of media to disseminate those atrocities, we tend to forget about the Great War and the personalities in it. One personality, John Henry Patterson, was instrumental in forming an important part of modern life in Israel, but you probably haven’t even heard of him.
Patterson served in the British Army from the age of 17 and served his country his entire life. At age 30 in 1898, he was commissioned to oversee construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River in present-day Kenya for the Uganda Railway committee in London. There, he killed 2 rogue male lions who were responsible for the death of about 140 workers and locals. He continued to live in Africa until the coming of the Great War to the continent.
Rising nationalism all over the world, and the slow crumble of the Ottoman empire drew many Jews to their ancestral homeland. They desired a Jewish political entity on the land of their forefathers. So with the entry of the Ottomans into the Great War, the Jews approached the British in order to form a fighting force to push the Ottomans off the land of Israel. The Jews hoped that the British, with their strong Protestant ideology would be supportive of a plan to bring Jews back to the Levant. The British agreed and the Zion Mule Corps was founded in 1915.
Patterson, who commanded the new unit, was skeptical of the Jews’ ability to fight since it had been 2000 years since the last Jewish army fought the Greeks under Judah Maccabeus. After training for a few months, the Zion Mule Corps was deployed to Gallipoli. Patterson later wrote:
“Many of the Zionists whom I thought somewhat lacking in courage showed themselves fearless to a degree when under heavy fire, while Captain Trumpeldor actually revelled in it, and the hotter it became, the more he liked it…”
The Zion Mule Corps were disbanded on 26 May 1916 but were reorganized as the Jewish Legion which continued to fight on the soil of their forefathers for the British Cause. This organization would eventually serve as a basis for the future creation of the Israel Defense Force.
Patterson was an unabashed Zionist and fought for Jewish causes in World War II. He eventually moved to the United States and was close friends with many Zionist supporters. Patterson was such a close friend with Benzion Netanyahu that Netanyahu invited him to his oldest son’s circumcision. Benzion honored him and his contribution to the Jewish people by naming his son, Yonatan, after John Henry Patterson.
Patterson died in 1947, one year before the creation of the state and was cremated in California. According to his last will and testament he was re-interred in Israel, on moshav Avihayil, which was founded by members of the Zion Mule Corps.
Another circle was tragically completed when his namesake, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed during the raid at Entebbe in 1976, less than 500 miles from the bridge Patterson built over the Tsavo River.