John Henry Patterson, the 'godfather of the Israeli army', reinterred near Tel Aviv

Anglo-Irish adventurer led the first Jewish fighting force in two millennia

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a life crammed with swashbuckling incident, John Henry Patterson pursued causes from shooting man-eating lions to expanding the British Empire. But it was for his devotion to the founding of the state of Israel that he was honoured today.

The remains of the Anglo-Irish adventurer, who was by turns an officer, a big game hunter and a writer, were laid to rest alongside the Jewish soldiers whose bravery during the First World War played a role in turning him into an ardent Zionist.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended the ceremony in Avihayil, north of Tel Aviv, paid tribute to Patterson as the “godfather of the Israeli army” because of his leadership of Jewish volunteers on the battlefields of Gallipoli and Palestine.

Benjamin Netanyhau and his wife Sara attend a ceremony to bury the ashes of Lt Col John Henry Patterson and his wife Frances Helena (AFP)

The moustachioed lieutenant colonel had come to British-controlled Palestine from east Africa after a colourful existence as a colonial officer, which included his famed dispatch of two 9ft-long lions.  The creatures had turned into maneaters and threatened to halt construction of a railway bridge in present-day Kenya being overseen by Patterson.

After commanding a volunteer force which became known as the Jewish Legion during the war, Patterson paid glowing tribute to his men and became a committed supporter of the creation of a Jewish state. During his subsequent campaigning for the creation of Israel in New York, he became a close friend of Mr Netanyahu’s father, Benzion.

In a highly personal tribute, Mr Netanyahu said that Patterson, who became godfather to his elder brother Yonatan, had commanded the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia.

Mr Netanyahu, whose brother died leading the daring Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976, said: “[Patterson] had absolute confidence that the Jews would make remarkable soldiers - not adequate soldiers, but remarkable soldiers. And I think he had a lot to do with that. He began the reconstitution of the ability of the Jews to defend ourselves.”

Ashes of British WW1 veteran hero Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson and his wife Frances Helena (AFP)

The reinterment of the ashes of Patterson and his wife Frances followed a three-year process to secure their removal from California, where the couple had lived until his death in 1947 - a year before the founding of Israel. Alan Patterson, the soldier’s grandson and his sole living descendant, said it had it had been one of his father’s dying wishes that he buried alongside Jewish Legion fighters he had once commanded.

Born in 1867 in Westmeath, Ireland, to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Patterson followed many of his compatriots in signing up for the British Army in search of opportunity and adventure.

He found that on the banks of the remote Tsavo River in Kenya at the turn of the 20th century where he was employed to oversee the construction of a bridge, and found his workers on the point of revolt as two rogue lions made repeated attacks on the encampment, claiming at least 28 lives.

Patterson, an archetypal Victorian colonialist who had previously honed his skills as a marksman by shooting tigers in India, spent months hunting down the two maneaters, finally shooting both in December 1898. Each lion required eight men to lift, and Patterson’s exploits were mentioned approvingly in the House of Lords.

His book about the incident became the basis for three Hollywood films, while his subsequent rumoured affair with the wife of a peer, during which the cuckolded baron died from a gunshot while all three were on safari, became the basis for short story by Ernest Hemingway.

While largely forgotten in Britain, Patterson continues to be regarded as a hero in Israel. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of the soldiers commanded by the Briton who went on to play an important role in the creation of the Jewish state, said: “In all of Jewish history we have never had a Christian friend as understanding and devoted.”