The Jews of India and World War 1

Jews in Palestine during world war 1Austrailian Imperial Camel Corps in Palestine during World War 1

The Jews of India contributed to World War 1 in many ways.  Anthony N Pamm a British author had a grandfather who participated in World War 1. Mr Anthony N Pamm on 19th November at the Zoroastrian Centre in Rayners Lane spoke about the Jewish communities of India's hard effort to ensure India was served. 

"I would like to preface this talk with two statements: Firstly, I have used the terminology and place names of the time. No disrespect is intended to anyone thereby. Secondly, this talk has been researched and prepared whilst under extreme pressures of many urgent matters requiring attention. This has limited the amount of research that could be undertaken. Indian Jewry had four basic component subgroups within it at the time of the First World War, two of these ancient with long sojourns in India and two comparatively more recent. The older groupings were the Marathi speaking Bene Israel Jews, then mainly settled in Bombay and other places in the Bombay Presidency and the Jews of the Malabar Coast, mainly settled in the then Princely State of Cochin and speaking Malayalam.

Both of these groups had subdivisions within them. More recent arrivals, from the late 1700s onwards, were Jews from Moslem lands, many of these from what is now Iraq and many of these again coming from Bagdad. This grouping had spoken Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi on arrival and settled mainly in Calcutta in the Bengal Presidency and Bombay where some such as the Sassoons in Bombay and the Ezras in Calcutta achieved considerable financial and status success as merchants and real estate developers with some setting up multinational trading enterprises. For ease of reference, I will refer to them as Iraqi Jews although not all originated from there. The fourth, and smallest, group comprised of Europeans, not all of whom intended to, or would, spend their entire lifetimes in India. The geographical distribution of these groups was primarily between the Bombay Presidency, the Bengal Presidency, the Malabar Coast and British Burma. The entire Jewish population probably numbered in the region of twenty thousand persons at the outbreak of the First World War. This very small number in comparison with the total population of India and the eventual massive wartime size of the Indian Army should be born in mind when considering the scale of the Indian Jewish contribution to the war effort and what was possible for Indian Jewry.

The Indian Jewish contribution has as its backdrop the socio-political happenings in India during the War. Some of these can be very briefly recorded as initial expressions of patriotic loyalty followed by, for some, increasing disillusionment and discontent as more and more men went overseas and casualty figures mounted, food shortages developed, prices rose and Indian Nationalist feelings and activities increased. Some in the Moslem section of the population was also perturbed by India fighting a war against Moslem Turkey. Bombay, home to large numbers of the Bene Israel and Iraqi Jewish populations became a major port of embarkation. Before proceeding to strictly military contributions, I will mention briefly some civilian home front contributions towards the war effort: 

In Calcutta, Mr D.Ezra was noted for providing hospitality to troops. · In Bombay, the Sassoons turned their mills and factories over to the production of military supplies. They also increased exports of foodstuffs to the United Kingdom. The importance of these activities, which absorbed some of the available Jewish manpower, should be realized. In the sphere of soldiers in uniform, the largest numerical contribution came from the Bene Israel community with smaller participation by Iraqi Jews and a sprinkling of British Jews serving in the Indian Army.

The Bene Israel Community had a distinguished record in the Bombay Presidency Army from the mid-eighteenth century onwards with a significant proportion of their eligible males serving in the Bombay Regiments and the Indian Subordinate Medical Department (ISMD) where many rose to the highest ranks (Jemadar, Subedar and Subedar Major) achievable by Indigenous Indians. They remained loyal during the Indian Mutiny and served in the various campaigns in which the Bombay Presidency Army participated. At least one was awarded the Indian Order of Merit (then the highest gallantry award available), another was awarded a rarely awarded Special Gold Medal and there were at least 34 admissions (21 into the second class and 13 into the first class) into the numerically limited Order of British India which had a smaller still sub-allocation to the Bombay Army, was only available to indigenous officers and carried with it the titles of Bahadur or Sardar Bahadur. This was until the mid-1890s when a reorganisation of the Indian Army with an emphasis on companies and regiments being manned by indigenous officers and men of the same caste or race terminated career prospects for a group whose absolute numbers were too low to form separate companies or regiments. By 1908 there were only six Bene Israel Indian Officers still serving (two in the 122nd Rajputana Infantry and four in Military Police Battalions) with another twenty-eight in the Indian Subordinate Medical Department (two of whom were decorated during the First World War). The reorganisation into caste and race-based companies and regiments hardened over the years in the presence of beliefs about some groups being more martial than others and preferences developing for Northerners over Southerners. This is relevant to any consideration of the participation, or lack of participation, of minority groups in the Indian Army of the First World War when high casualty rates necessitated the availability, if possible, of replacement manpower of the same caste or race as those of a regiment which had suffered losses. At the outbreak of the First World War, the Indian Army had a total manpower of around one hundred and fifty thousand. This increased tenfold during the war with the increase being drawn from volunteers from a limited number of castes and races deemed martial and suitable (with one author stating, how correctly I cannot say, that the new volunteers came from around three million eligible males within population groups regarded as martial totalling around thirty-five million out of a total Indian population then of around three hundred and fifty million). One point three (1.3) million men served outside of India in various theatres. As stated previously, the Indian Jewish contribution into these numbers must be seen against a background of the total Jewish population of India (men, women and children) probably being in the region of twenty thousand. The British Jewry Book of Honour 1914 – 1918 records, if I have counted correctly, one hundred and seventy-eight (178) Jews of Indian origin or Indian Army affiliation as having served during the War. This total breaks down into four groupings as follows: (1) Bombay Jews in various military units: twenty-seven (27) in number. This number includes Six (one Honorary Major and five Captains) with medical qualifications serving in the Indian Medical Service. · Four sub assistant surgeons serving in the Indian Subordinate Medical Department (ISMD). · and Eight Military Accountants, all holding the rank of Sergeant. (2) Bombay Jews in the Indian Defence Corps were eighty-two (82) in number. Of these: · Thirty-eight were in the Bombay Battalion.

Sixteen in the Sindh Battalion, nine in the Poona Rifles. · Nine in the Bombay Garrison Artillery. · There were a few non commissioned officers with most holding the rank of Private. One of these died on active service.

A few of the names listed are indicative of belonging to groups other than Bene Israel. (3) Bombay Jewish Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade were thirty nine (39) in number: · Two ambulance officers · Seven NCOs · 30 Privates (4) Jews (from various groups) in various units were thirty (30) in number: · Twenty seven of these were officers of whom four were casualties (One Bene Israel and three British Jews in the Indian Army). These numbers could possibly be incomplete and understated! Honours and Awards to recipients identified as Jewish were as follows: · Victoria Cross: Lieutenant F.A De Pass, 34th Poona Horse (whose home address was in London). · Order of British India: Elijah Abraham, Indian Subordinate Medical Department ISMD (a Bene Israel). · Officer of the Order of the British Empire: Captains E. Ezra and C .E. Montefiore, Indian Army. · Member of the Order of the British Empire: Captain N.C Myers Indian Army Reserve Officers (IARO). · Military Cross: Captain C. Abraham, Indian Army. · Indian Distinguished Service Medal: Benjamin Reuben, Indian Subordinate Medical Department ISMD (a Bene Israel). · Meritorious Service Medal: SSM S. Laventhal, Indian Army. · Ten recipients mentioned in Despatches: Captain L. Brilliant, Lieutenants F. De Pass, E. Ezra, G. Goldberg, D. Judah, R. Marks, F. Rappoport and H. Simons, Clerk J Abraham IVC and Private R. Samson, Khan Sahib, Head Clerk at Kirkee Arsenal. These numbers might be incomplete as there are a few other names of recipients of awards still requiring checking to establish whether or not they might have been Jewish (including one recipient of the Indian Order of Merit). Additionally, at least nine members of the Bene Israel community received Indian Titles and Title Badges during the period 1914 – 1919 (seven Khan Sahibs and two Khan Bahadurs). It is not known if all were for wartime services.

Finally, mention should be made of an Indian Jewish diaspora in the United Kingdom. A partial Sassoon migration had produced a younger generation which had grown up in the UK and whose members were of military age and served in British units during the war. At least one was killed, a few wounded and three (including the war poet Siegfried Sassoon) decorated with the Military Cross. One of these additionally was appointed as an OBE. Sir Philip Sassoon served as Private Secretary to General Sir Douglas Haig and was appointed as a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and received a number of foreign awards for his war services. There may also be others from other families to record as well".

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