Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson is to be re-interned in Israel in November. In its adventures and intersections with history, his life was so multifaceted and colourful that were it fiction it would be damned as unbelievable. While not prominent in the coverage of his contribution to the creation of Israel, Patterson forms one of the early links between Ireland and Israel by virtue of the fact that he was born in Ireland.
Patterson’s birthplace was Ballymahon, Co Longford, son of an Anglo-Irish Protestant father and an Irish Catholic mother. The year of his birth, 1867, also witnessed the sporadic Fenian Rising which fizzled out ineffectually. It would be the last incidence of insurrection by Irish republicans until the Easter Rising of 1916. Patterson’s early life was lived during a period of calm and security for the Anglo-Irish gentry. However, perhaps his mixed heritage contributed to a certain air of mystery, even alienation that was to surround Patterson all his life. Unlike so many scions of this class, Patterson did not join the British Army as a cadet but as a groom for a cavalry unit, working his way up through the non-commissioned and over the years commissioned ranks.
Patterson’s first claim to fame came when he was hired by the East Africa Company to oversee the construction of a railway in Tsavo in present-day Kenya. Local workers were preyed on by man-eating lions, sparking superstitious fears and a threat to the whole project. Having learned big-cat hunting skills while on service in India, Patterson eventually tracked down and killed the two male lions, manifestly huge beasts as seen in the trophy photographs. Patterson’s account of this, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, was published to much acclaim and fascination in 1907, becoming a best seller.
In the meantime, Patterson fought in the Boer War under General Allenby, winning the DSO and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was also involved in a scandal which drew writers and film makers to Patterson’s colourful life: the suggestion of an affair with the wife of a fellow soldier who died from a gunshot wound while they were all on safari.
One biographical sketch summarises the episode thus: “While he was serving in East Africa as a game warden, a fellow soldier under his command, Corporal Audley Blyth, died or committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. A son, Bryan, was born in March 1909, possibly to Byth’s wife Ethel, who may have been Patterson’s mistress. Bryan was raised by the Pattersons as their own son.” (http://www.zionism-israel.com/bio/John_Henry_Patterson_biography.htm )
Ernest Hemingway based his story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber on this incident. Patterson is the inspiration for the Safari guide Robert Wilson, a big-game hunter, womaniser and outsider, a loner who has made his way in the world creating as he progressed his own manly code about how to live life. It is an interesting psychological portrait that may offer clues to Patterson himself: a man of Ireland, but not Irish per se, Anglo-Irish but not quite British, ambitious but independent, a tough disciplinarian but spiritual and erudite.
Patterson was drawn back to Ireland during the Home Rule Crisis of 1913-1914 where he took command of a unit of the Ulster Volunteers, a large private militia raised by unionist leaders in the north of Ireland to frustrate the granting of home rule to Ireland. (For an eloquent and engrossing account of this see Ronan Fanning’s recently published Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1920 (Faber and Faber).
However, Patterson’s destiny lay neither in Africa nor even in Ireland but rather in the Levant. That Patterson did not stay to participate in the revolutionary tumult of his native Ireland but opted for the allure of the Middle East and the adventures of fighting the Ottomans says much about his inclinations and interests.
As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the onset and course of World War I, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor formed the Zion Mule Corp in 1915 as approved by General Maxwell. Their intention was to help the British wrest control of the Levant from the Turks and stake their claim to the creation of the state of Israel. Having served in Flanders in 1914, Patterson travelled to Egypt where he met with the young and determined Zionists. The Corp fought gallantly at Gallipoli under Patterson’s command (recounted in his With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916).
One of the better pen portraits of Patterson is by Zeev V. Maizlin, published some years ago in the Jerusalem Post, (link here http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/The-man-who-became-Lawrence-of-Judea ). Maizlin writes: ‘When the Zion Mule Corps was activated in Egypt on March 23, 1915, he [Patterson] was appointed commanding officer with Yosef Trumpeldor as his second-in-command. Patterson wrote: “I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era that such a thing has happened.” This was the first purely Jewish fighting corps that went into action since the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies under Titus in AD 70.’
After a stint back in Ireland were he commanded the 4th Royal Irish Fusiliers and fifth Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Patterson went to England were he formed and trained the Jewish 38th Fusiliers, part of what was to become known as the Jewish Legion, the sobriquet of five Jewish battalions in the British Army.
According to one account, “in February of 1918, Patterson proudly led soldiers of the 38th Fusiliers Battalion, one of the components of the Legion, in a parade in the Whitechapel Road, before they were shipped off to Palestine. They met a tumultuous and joyous reception among the Jews of London, as well as generating amazement among other bystanders….” Patterson fought with his battalion in campaigns in Palestine, notably recorded in his memoirs With the Judaeans in Palestine (1922).
Throughout his time with the Jewish Legion, Patterson encountered and resisted anti-Semitism in the British Army, an experience that came to alienate him further from his erstwhile colleagues and increase his sense of identity as one of uncertainty and flux. Increasingly, he came to admire his Jewish comrades. He was becoming a fervent advocate for the creation of the State of Israel, forming life-long friendships with Zionist leaders, including Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu. (Netanyhu would name one of his sons Yonatan in Patterson’s honour: Yonatan died in the famed Entebbe raid and his younger brother would become Prime Minister.)
After the war, Patterson helped create the infrastructure for what would become the Israeli defence forces. From his adopted home in America, Patterson would advocate for the cause of the Jewish people and he was at the forefront of efforts there to save Jews from the Holocaust. He died in California in 1947, a year short of the creation of the State of Israel.
Patterson’s grandson Alan Patterson has fulfilled his father’s wish for his remains to rest in Israel. The re-internment ceremony will be held on 10th November (Patterson’s birthday) at the Moshav Avihayil Military Cemetery in Netanya, founded by Jewish Legion veterans. Along with the remains of his wife (Francie Helena Gray, born in Belfast) which are also being re-interred, Patterson will rest with his former comrades of the Jewish Legion.
Patterson in many ways is the Judaean counterpart to T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Patterson and Lawrence shared a common origin in both having Anglo-Irish fathers. Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman, born not far from Patteron’s Ballymahon. Chapman absconded from his first wife and family with the family governess, Sarah Lawrence, to Wales where T.E was born and given his mother’s surname. Over-layered or compromised identity appeared to compel both men to search for inner meaning, Lawrence finding it in Arab studies, Patterson in Hebrew and biblical studies. Both were searchers, soldiers, scholars, outsiders, men who ultimately found fulfilment in the campaigns for respectively Arab and Jewish nationalism.
Patterson lived a life in tumultuous times and he embraced the adventures open to him. His wanderings progressively created and erased traces of his sense of identity, a veritable palimpsest of the times and places in which he lived, stretching from Ireland, to the heart of Africa and the shores of the Mediterranean.
Ultimately Patterson would find a sense of belonging with his Jewish comrades, outsiders like himself, looking to fashion their own home and indeed their own identity through the Zionist cause. If there is one place for Patterson to finally rest, it is surely here in Israel.