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"Odds and Sods": Minorities in the British Empire's Campaign for Palestine, 1916-1919

  • Author(s): Saltman, Julian
  • Advisor(s): Adamthwaite, Anthony
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the role of minority soldiers in Britain's Army during the campaign for Palestine in the First World War. It compares the experiences of two distinct, yet parallel, groups--three battalions of black, British West Indians (the British West Indies Regiment) and three battalions of Jewish soldiers (the "Jewish Legion"). Past scholarship has mostly ignored the history of these men, and what does exist has tended to conflate or subsume the specific experiences of the men in Egypt and Palestine within the broader histories of their specific minority groups, generally those that occurred on the Western Front. This work diverges from these past understandings, arguing that a comparative assessment of minority soldiers within the Palestine theater of war yields a new understanding of how Britain fought the First World War, as well as how wartime experience differed significantly amongst various minority groups.

The first main part of this project assesses the specific military experiences of West Indian and Jewish soldiers in Palestine, tracing their recruitment, training, and military roles. By outlining how the British government and military maintained hierarchies of ethno-racial identity, as well as how minority soldiers conceived their own identities, these chapters are able to dispute narratives of homogenous military service. Specifically, West Indians in Palestine viewed themselves as elevated in class and culture not only from other "non-European" colonial soldiers, but also from other West Indian military units, including units of their own regiment stationed in Europe. Similarly, the identity of the Jewish battalions--often viewed historically as distinctly Zionist--was heavily contested by assimilated British Jews, leading to a more diverse military experience than often assumed. Both chapters demonstrate that West Indians and Jews played key roles in the front lines, and suggest that they represented a distinct tier of imperial soldiering, one precariously situated above explicitly colonial units.

The second part of this dissertation explores frameworks of imperial conditioning, offering detailed examinations of military justice and forced athletic training inside the West Indian and Jewish battalions. First, it examines how West Indian and Jewish soldiers encountered military justice, with a specific focus on how their minority identities influenced the application of military law. These chapters conclude that military law was applied in both a punitive and nuanced manner--allowing prejudice and stereotype to affect the sentencing of minority soldiers, but also providing an effective counter through a mechanical system of appeals, remission, and commutation. The final portion of this section argues that frequent athletic competition amongst soldiers in the EEF was more than a leisure activity or form of military training, but was an indirect means of inculcating potentially disruptive soldiers with a set of British values and norms that would make them amenable to postwar imperial governance. This was a direct reaction to the political radicalism unleashed by the war--namely Bolshevism and the rise of pan-nationalisms inside the British Empire. This dissertation uses military service records, the application of military justice, and a set of wartime and postwar conditioning policies to reveal the ways in which the British Empire was forced to broaden its definitions of who in its empire could serve, what expectations their service would create, where they could bear arms, and how this would affect the postwar empire.

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