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Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

7. The Armed Services

Image 4: General Sir John Monash, Melbourne, 1931.

Image 4: General Sir John Monash, Melbourne, 1931.
NAA: A1200, L36902
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As with immigration and naturalisation records, the National Archives holds substantial collections of records which deal with all aspects of wartime and peacetime defence. Such a panorama of material is beyond the scope of this guide and what is provided here is a comprehensive sampling of series in which items of Jewish interest have been identified. Although occasional reference is made to individuals who attained distinction in the peacetime militia or army reserves (Major Isidore Isaacson, for instance), coverage is limited mainly to Australian Jewish participation in three major conflicts – the Boer War (1899–1902), World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945). Documents are cited which reflect Federal Government perspectives on what Lucy Dawidowicz and other historians call Hitler's 'war against the Jews' in Chapter 8. Series are also identified which contain material on the Australian Jewish military chaplaincy. For a full listing of series relating to defence (including civilian services and national service), see Finding Families and relevant Fact Sheets published by the National Archives.

Jews have served with distinction in the Armed Forces throughout this country's history – in line (for much of that history) with the normative Australian Anglo-Jewish commitment to the defence of monarch and empire. Participation in the services (and, in particular, in the war effort) was seen as both an expression of loyalty and an act of gratitude for the toleration, favour and equity rendered Jews in Britain and the colonies. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Jews were prominent in the campaign for conscription during World War I. Rabbi F L Cohen, Daniel Levy, Ernest L Davis and other pillars of the Jewish establishment actively fostered the foundation of the Universal Service League.67

This chapter summarises the Jewish contribution to national defence, and identifies key records which deal with that contribution. Records which deal (in a general way) with Jewish participation in the forces are covered first, followed by records which highlight contributions made by individual Jews.

A small number of Jewish recruits appear to have been in the contingents sent to avenge General Gordon in the Sudan (1885),68 and there was a small but solid Australian Jewish presence in the Boer War (1899–1902). Prominent among the soldiers were Major Walter 'Karri' Davis (who endured two years as a prisoner of war), Myer Blashki, Louis E Phillips, Alfred Saunders (son of Rev Moses Saunders of Melbourne) and two sons of Ballarat's Rev Israel M Goldreich. A Jewish woman, Rose Shappere, was notable among nurses who volunteered to tend the sick and wounded on the South African front.69

Harold Boas, the YMCA's Jewish representative to the troops in Europe and compiler of Australian Jewry Book Of Honour – the Great War (1923), estimated that 2 304 Jewish males enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces in World War I, ie 13 per cent of the Jewish community at that time. Of these, some 300 made the 'supreme sacrifice'. Of Western Australian recruits alone, 47 died out of a total enlistment of 180 (when the WA community numbered less than 2000 in all). More than 100 Australian Jews earned military honours or were mentioned in despatches, and one was awarded the Victoria Cross: Leonard Keysor served with the AIF First Battalion at Gallipoli and was decorated for the 'most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty' at the Battle of Lone Pine. He subsequently served at Pozières in France, and attained the rank of Lieutenant. Another Australian, Issy Smith (formerly Israel Shmulevitch), who served with the British in the First Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, was also awarded the VC (for heroism at Ypres in 1915). Smith joined the Australian Civil Aviation Department in the late 1930s.

Other prominent Australian Jewish servicemen were Eliezer Margolin, who was awarded a DSO for his part at Gallipoli, commanded the 39th Battalion Royal Fusiliers in Palestine, and (following the Armistice) organised the 'First Jewish Battalion of Judea'. Lieutenant Philip Harris edited the trench magazine Aussie. Leon Goldberg claimed credit for both inventing the military tank and for inspiring the Balfour Declaration (by which the British Government voiced its commitment to a Jewish state in Palestine following recovery of the Holy Land from the Turks in 1917). Harry Bernstein found fame as a machine-gun expert and, later, as an explorer in South America. Dr Simon Crownson Joel of Western Australia was commissioned as a medical officer and attained the rank of captain. Sydney solicitor Arthur Wellesley Hyman served as a captain in the Light Horse and on the staff of the Fourth Australian Division, was awarded an OBE for his service, and later attained the rank of Colonel with the Army Legal Corps. Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Cohen commanded units in the Middle East, Britain and France, was highly decorated, and (like Hyman) twice mentioned in despatches.

A number of Jewish women emulated the South African experience of Rose Shappere and served at the front with distinction, among them Leah Rosenthal who earned the Royal Red Cross decoration 'for conspicuous application to duty whilst in the danger zone'.

Without doubt, the greatest and most revered of all Australian Jewish servicemen was former engineer John Monash who commanded the Fourth Infantry Brigade of the AIF in 1914–15, the Second Australian convoy (landing in Egypt in 1915), the Third Australian Division in 1916, and was appointed Lieutenant-General and commander of the Australian Army Corps in 1918. Following the Armistice, Monash directed the general repatriation and demobilisation of the AIF. He was honoured with the KCB (1918), GCMG (1919), France's Legion d'Honneur and Croix de Guerre, and the American Distinguished Service Medal. In 1930 he was conferred with the full rank of General, the first Jew in any army to attain that rank. Monash was once described by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George as 'the most resourceful General in the British army.' TheTimes correspondent Liddell C Hart assessed that Monash would have become commander-in-chief of the combined Allied forces had the war lasted beyond 1918.70

Australian Jews were similarly conspicuous during World War II when some 4000 enlisted in the various services. Nearly 200 died in action: 40 were decorated for gallantry and 30 more mentioned in despatches. Prominent Jewish servicemen included Major-General [Sir] Paul Cullen, Brigadier Alexander Roby, Major Hedley Freedman, Brigadier Philip Masel and Captain Colin Pura (who emulated Philip Harris by editing and publishing a serviceman's journal, Guinea Gold). Lionel Van Praag, Eric Silbert, Julius Cohen, Julius Epstein and Peter Isaacson all served in the RAAF with distinction. [Sir] Asher Joel, [Sir] Zelman Cowen and [Judge] Trevor Rapke were all lieutenants with the Royal Australian Navy. Again, several Jewish nurses served with distinction, among them Rachel Reuben and Adeline Marks, while Sydney science graduate Edna Goulston attained the rank of Second Officer with the WRANS and Doris Selby, a medical practitioner, attained the army rank of captain.71

For full details of Australian Jewish participation in World War II, see Australian Jewry's Book of Honour World War II in Appendix 2.


Chapter notes | All notes

67 Rubinstein, ibid., p.204-7

68 Kwiet, p.202-4.

69 ibid.; Paul Bartrop, Australia and the Holocaust 1933-45, Melb 1994, p.xii-xiii, xv

70 Bartrop, ibid., p.xii, 246-8; Blakeney, p.281-2, 287-8

71 Bartrop, ibid., p.246.


Chapter 7
The Armed Services