After my prior posting on the JewishGen Blog regarding “Fighting Back,” the new book by Martin Sugarman regarding the British Jews’ participation in World War II, I received a message from a reader. She mentioned that she had a number of relatives who fought and some who had died not in World War II, but in World War I, the “Great War”.
As has been estimated, the Jewish population during this period was approximately 350,000. Of that number, 50-60,000 British Jews served in the War with about 3,000 Jewish soldiers who fell in battle. Due to this high percentage of participants and my interest in a War that was obscured by the horrific War that followed, I decided to follow up on this train of research.
First off, I decided to start my research with the reader’s relative, Barnet Levine, who was born in Whitechapel. He was the eldest of ten children born between 1895 and 1914 of parents, Harris (born Bilsh) and Rachel Levine (born Kishinev). In the 1901 Census, there is a Barnet Levine of the right age and birthplace who is a resident of the District Jewish Hospital and Orphan Asylum at Norwood. He probably is one of the boarders who attended school there and was later trained.
The 1911 census shows him living at 29 Nile Street, Hoxton, London, with his parents and seven of his siblings in a 5-room shop with a flat above. He was noted as working as an assistant to a photographic enlarger before he enlisted. His parents' address when he died is given as 31 Britannia St., City Road, London.
In August, 1914, Barnet Levine enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 6th Battalion, Regiment 10427, as a private and was killed in action in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916 - November 18, 1916). This was one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the War where 60,000 men were lost on the first day. An interesting fact regarding the battle is that Hitler was a German soldier during this time and was injured by a shell fragment on October 16, 1916.
Further, in regard to Barnet Levine, information can be found in the following resources:
- He listed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in France. The Memorial is the largest one of its kind and commemorates 72,000 soldiers who were lost in the Battle of the Somme prior to March 20, 1918 and for whom there is no known grave.
- One can find Barnet listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, and the history of the engagements of his regiment are to be found on the same site.
- There is a medal roll card in the British National Archives where a copy can be had for £2.00.
- He is listed on page 183 of the “British Jewry Book of Honor”, edited by Reverend Michael Adler, DSO, Senior Jewish Chaplin, and published in 1922. It lists those who served and died with information on their unit, date of death, home address, records of honors and awards. Further there is a website which gives access to the photos from the book which is located at: here. You can purchase the photos on this site. When Barnet’s niece, who had never seen a picture of him previously, saw the photo of him, she realized that he looked almost exactly like her brother who had passed away last year. Had it not been for this resource, she would not have realized from whence her brother got his appearance.
- There is a listing for him in The Jewish Chronicle in London, November 24, 1916. The listing was published in a column entitled “Jews Who Have Fallen”: Pte B. Levine, Duke of Cornwall’s L.I., previously reported wounded and now reported missing was found. It must have been quite painful for the Levine family to wait to finally learn of the death of their son after thinking him first wounded then missing. The material was obtained from the Jewish War Services Committee, Nos. 6 and 17 St. Swithen’s Lane, London. The Vice-Chairman was Major Lionel de Rothschild, M.P., and his family’s firm was also in St. Swithen’s Lane. Additional notices were also provided by families who announced the deaths of their relatives.
- One can also find information on the regiment he served in at their museum located in their original barracks in Bodmin, Cornwall, UK.
- The London Gazette is also a good resource for official data such as military promotions, awarding of medals, and the like.
When I searched, as an example, on COHEN, there were 97 entries including 35 who were born in Manchester (my home town). The record for each person included their name, regiment, battalion, birthplace, enlisted place, residence, rank, number, date died, how died, theater of war, and supplementary notes. Many of the individuals were listed as killed in action, died of wounds, died, and some died at home which is an interesting category.
Another database on findmypast.com is the “National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918” which has short biographies of men who served, both who died and those who survived. The entries mainly have initials for first names which can prove to be challenging when looking for someone specific.
Again, looking at Cohen and at Manchester, an example is L. Cohen, Driver, R.F.A., who joined in October 1916, was sent to France in April, 1917, and took part in the severe fighting around Arras and other areas. He was taken ill and died on August 21, 1917 and was buried in the Etaples Military Cemetery. He received the General Service and Victory Medals. He lived at 80, Pendine Street, Higher Broughton.
Many of these short biographies tell of the hardships that the soldiers suffered and the great contributions they made to the war effort.
Another web site in regard to Manchester which also lists the individuals killed who served with the Manchester Regiment is the following: http://www.themanchesters.orgManchester%20casualties%201914%201916.html. Looking again at COHEN, as an example, one finds the following soldier who was buried at the Thiepval Memorial, France:
COHEN, Private, BENJAMIN, 26196, 21st Bn., Manchester Regiment. 1 July 1916. Age 19. Son of Mr. and Mrs. P. Cohen, of 146, Broughton St., Cheetham, Manchester. Pier and Face 13 A and 14 C.Going further with Benjamin Cohen, one finds him and his family in the 1911 Census. His parents are Philip and Betsy Cohen and siblings David, Sam and Morris Cohen. At the time, they were living at 53, Red Bank, and evidently did not move to 146, Broughton Street, until later.
One of the soldiers in the Manchester Regiment, who was awarded a Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor, was Issy Smith (originally Shmulevitch). He was born in Egypt in 1890 and came to England at the age of eleven, enlisted in the Army, fought in World War I and eventually ended up in Melbourne, Australia, where he lived for the rest of his life.
A rendition of his exciting life is found on the following site: http://www.tameside.gov.uk/museumsgalleries/mom/lotm/issysmith. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in battle on April 16, 1915.
During the War, there were actually five British Jews who were awarded the Victoria Cross. The first Jew to be awarded the honor was Lt. Frank Alexander de Pass (April 26, 1887 – November 25, 1914), who served in the 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse, an Indian regiment.
More about de Pass’s military career can be found on the following site: http://www.j-grit.com/military-and-spies-frank-alexander-de-pass-victoria-cross.php.
Of interest are that his parents were Sir Eliot Arthur de Pass, who was born March 16, 1851, on the Isle of Wight, and whose ancestors had been in England since the 1660’s. A well-known merchant, planter and exporter, he headed the West India Committee. He married Beatrice de Mercado, who had been born in Jamaica. They had five children.
Upon the death of Sir Eliot Arthur de Pass on July 11, 1937, a piece was written about him and his family in the Jamaica Daily Gleaner newspaper.
There are quite a number of other resources for studying one’s World War I roots in the U.K., amongst them work done by Sir Martin Gilbert, Harold Pollins and Martin Sugarman.
This article has provided a taste of what is available in regard to researching British Jewry’s participation in World War I. Resources are to be found in abundance, especially those which are available online. All one needs to do is search by the particular topic which you are interested in. More resources are coming online all the time, many of which require subscriptions or payment for records.
In addition, the resources of the JCR-UK website and the firstname.lastname@example.org and BRITISH-JEWRY@rootsweb.com digests are of great assistance to those researchers who utilize these online tools.