When the Jewish volunteers came to Lemnos

Just as the Australian Brigadier John Monash bemoaned the lack of Allied organisation, planning, and efficiency at Lemnos, so too the Jewish Corps would record the many difficulties troops like them experienced at Lemnos as they prepared for the coming landings

I have walked across Lemnos’ Turks Head peninsula on many occasions, researching the locations of the Allied encampments that dominated the sharp promontory which juts into Mudros Bay. Most recently I was assisted in my research by the president of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, Lee Tarlamis, whose father was born on the island.

In 1915 the peninsula was full of Allied soldiers and nurses, Egyptian labourers, and Turkish prisoners of war. Its landscape was dotted with tents and wooden buildings. A small train travelled along a narrow gauge railway constructed by British engineers leading all the way from the many piers to the surrounding villages.

One of the structures that dominated the scene was a large water distillation plant or condenser located at the narrowest point of the peninsula, near the small bay that cuts into its northern shore. It was a large building, with water pipes drawing up salt water from the shore that would be converted into drinking water to sate the thirst of the weary Allied soldiers and nurses who made the island their temporary home.

And this is one of the few structures with physical remains on the island to this day. While serious archaeological work needs to be carried out, the most likely location of the plant has left behind concrete and brick foundations and the remains of metal structures stretching to the shore.

In WWI, Lemnos had been chosen as the base for the campaign due to its proximity to Gallipoli. But Lemnos also had deficiencies; not only did Mudros Bay lack piers and other mooring infrastructure necessary for a modern fleet, but there was insufficient fresh water for the Allied troops. As then governor of Moudros Vice admiral Rosslynn Wemyss wrote in March 1915, “the local supply was only sufficient for the wants of the inhabitants.”

The possible remains of the water distillation plant on Lemnos. Brick and cement foundationrubble litter the foreground. Photo: Jim Claven

But, having been charged with the responsibility of preparing the harbour for operations, he was soon celebrating the British Royal Navy’s response to his requests for help with the arrival of the distillation plant. Yet, as with much Allied planning for Gallipoli, it was one step forward, and two steps back. The plant had arrived but in pieces – and with no naval engineers trained in its assembly.

Wemyss’ despair turned to elation with the arrival of a party of Jewish volunteers who erected the plant.

As he wrote on 4 July 1915 the water distillation plant was erected by “Russian Jews . . . from Alexandria.” By August, when the Australian nurses had arrived on Lemnos, the distillation plant would catch the eye of the 3rd Australian General Hospital’s ‘resident photographer’ Albert Savage.
Documentary evidence confirms the presence of the famed Zion Mule Corps and possibly the Jewish Labour Corps. Both units were raised in Egypt, and composed of volunteers from the many Russian Jews expelled by the Ottoman Empire from Palestine in December 1914, others from the Sephardic community resident in Alexandria.

The Zion Mule Corps was commanded by British Lieutenant-Colonel John Patterson who went on to write the history of the unit With the Zionists in Gallipoli. Patterson was assisted by five British and eight Jewish officers, one of whom was Captain Trumpeldor. They were dressed in British uniforms, with the addition of the ‘Magen David’ or Shield of David cap badge. The Corps 500 ‘serious’ young volunteers included mechanics and professors, a doctor and a rabbi.

The men were sworn in at the Jewish refugee camp at Gibbari in Egypt by the Corps’ honorary chaplain, the Grand Rabbi of Alexandria Dr Raphael della Pergola. In Patterson’s recollection, “it was a most moving ceremony”, the Rabbi impressing on the volunteers “that the honour of Israel rested in their hands” and that the scene “aroused great enthusiasm” among the throng of Jewish sympathisers who had come to witness the ceremony.

“The condenser constructed on Lemnos Island.” Looking north.  A 1915 photo taken by Sgt Albert  William Savage. Photo: State Library of NSW

After only three weeks’ training at their camp at Wardian on the outskirts of Alexandria – and after an inspection by the Allied General Sir Ian Hamilton – they were soon sailing for Mudros Bay aboard the troopships Hymettus and Anglo-Egyptian, leaving Alexandria on 17 April. Prior to departure they had marched through the streets of Alexandria to attend its great Synagogue, (most likely the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue), receiving the final blessing of the grand rabbi in front of a large crowd.

After an “uneventful” voyage, they sailed through the entrance to Mudros Bay on 20 April and were met by “blinding wind and rain.” Yet they could not but be impressed by the vast array of Allied shipping assembled in the bay for the coming landings. As Commander Patterson wrote, “never in all my life had I seen such a mighty armada of battleships.” As they passed the great Russian battleship, the Askold, many of the Jewish volunteers called out in Russian to her crew.

Just as the Australian Brigadier John Monash bemoaned the lack of Allied organisation, planning, and efficiency at Lemnos, so too the Jewish Corps would record the many difficulties troops like them experienced at Lemnos as they prepared for the coming landings – of nearly hitting another ship in the crowded bay, of being trapped on a sandbar, the poor signalling arrangements, and a shortage of small vessels to help with communications and ship transfers in the bay.

The corps left Mudros for Gallipoli – half the troops going to Anzac Cove and the other half to support the British 29th Division at the southern end of the Gallipoli Peninsula – landing in late April and early May.

While their primary role at Gallipoli was the supply of ammunition and food to the trenches, many were injured or killed by shelling and on some occasions they were directly involved in the fighting. One corps member – Private Groushkousky – was promoted to corporal and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. By July, the corps had sustained many casualties.

While the 213-strong contingent at Anzac Cove was withdrawn by mid-May, those that landed to the south – eventually commanded by Captain Joseph Trumpeldor a decorated Russian Army veteran – would serve at Gallipoli until their evacuation on 31 December 1915. Historian Mark Dapin has written in his excellent history Jewish Anzacs of how the AIF’S first Jewish chaplain, Rabbi David Freedman from Perth, met the Jewish muleteers at Gallipoli. And the service of the corps is commemorated on the walls of remembrance at the Allied Memorial at Cape Helles. Evidence suggests that the 148 labourers of the Jewish Labour Corps never landed at Gallipoli but may have served on Lemnos from mid-April until their return to Alexandria on 21 May.
It is clear from documentary evidence that both these units served on Lemnos in 1915. And it is highly likely that some of these volunteers assisted in the erection of the distillation plant on the Turks Head peninsula. Most likely this may have been done by those Zion Mule Corps troops withdrawn from Anzac, who would, in all likelihood, have stopped at Lemnos on their way back to Egypt as was common.

The likely remains of the foundations of the water distillation planton Lemnos. Photo: Jim Claven

During the Anzac Centenary commemorations on Lemnos in 2015, I had the honour of guiding Kevin Sumption, director of the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, and New Zealand documentary film-maker John Irwin across the Turks Head peninsula, stopping at the site of the water distillation plant.

The remains of the water distillation plant are not merely old stones and rusted metal; they are hard physical evidence of the involvement of these brave Jewish volunteers in the Gallipoli campaign. They tell a story of the day the Jewish volunteers came to Lemnos from far off lands – Russia and Egypt – and worked to ensure the Allied force would have sufficient drinking water. Australia’s sick and wounded diggers and nurses – as well as the local Lemnian population – would have a lot to be thankful for the work of these Jewish volunteers.

In telling this story, I acknowledge the fact that there were also many Australian soldiers of Jewish heritage or faith serving at Gallipoli and on Lemnos, one of the most distinguished being Brigadier John Monash. And Jewish soldiers and support troops would return to serve in the Greek campaign of 1941.

The story of the Jewish volunteers from Palestine and Egypt enriches this connection.

For those like Philip Dalidakis MP, who has both Greek and Jewish heritage, the Lemnos connection opens up the possibility of members of Australia’s Jewish community having a personal connection to Anzac through both their Jewish and Greek ancestors.

This site on Lemnos is yet another example of the connection between Lemnos and one of the major campaigns of the First World War. It surely warrants archaeological study and formal recognition as another key part of Lemnos’ emerging commemorative trail.

*Jim Claven is a trained historian with a Masters degree from Melbourne’s Monash University. He is a freelance writer, and the secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He has researched the Hellenic link to Anzac over a number of years, led commemorative tours on Lemnos and across Greece and is preparing a pictorial history of Lemnos’ role in the Gallipoli campaign. He is working to assist in the erection of a commemorative memorial in Greece, including recognising the role of the Jewish volunteers on Lemnos.

Contact Jim at jimclaven@yahoo.com.au