Ireland’s ambassador to Israel, Eamonn McKee, writes: Lt. Col John Henry Patterson was reinterred in Israel just a month ago on December 4th, 2014. While he is not well known in Israel and fast being forgotten elsewhere ‑ certainly compared to that avatar of the British adventurer in the Middle East TE Lawrence, Patterson nevertheless made an early and significant contribution to the Zionist cause. Indeed in some critical ways, both he and Lawrence shared common impulses that underlay their remarkably picaresque lives in the service of others.
Patterson’s birthplace was Ballymahon, Co Longford, and he was the son of an Anglo-Irish Protestant father and an Irish Catholic mother. The year of his birth, 1867, also witnessed the sporadic Fenian rising that fizzled out ineffectually. Though it would be the last incidence of insurrection by Irish republicans until the Easter Rising of 1916, the Anglo-Irish lived insecurely with ominous signs on the horizon about their future. Demands by tenant farmers for rights and proprietorship, backed up by political campaigns and nocturnal violence encouraged a series of land acts that weakened the gentry’s hold. More ominously still, Gladstone became a convert to Home Rule for Ireland in 1886.
Patterson’s mixed heritage may have given a personal edge to this sense of uncertainty, lending a certain air of mystery, even alienation, that was to surround him all his life. Unlike so many scions of this class, Patterson did not join the British army as a cadet but as a groom for a cavalry unit, working his way up through the non-commissioned and, over the years, commissioned ranks.
His first claim to fame came when he was hired by the East Africa Company to oversee the construction of a railway in Tsavo in present-day Kenya. Local workers were preyed on by man-eating lions, sparking both real and superstitious fears, and posing a threat to the whole project. Having learned big-cat hunting skills while on service in India, Patterson eventually tracked down and killed the two male lions, manifestly huge beasts as evidenced by the trophy photographs. His account of this, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, was published to much acclaim and fascination in 1907, becoming a bestseller (and eventually the basis for a number of films, including the 1996 The Ghost and the Darkness, with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer).
In the meantime, Patterson fought in the Boer War under General Allenby, winning the DSO and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was also involved in a scandal which drew Ernest Hemingway’s attention to his colourful life: the suggestion of an affair with the wife of a fellow soldier who died from a gunshot wound while they were all on safari. The cocktail of big-game hunting, sexual pursuit and contested machismo forms the basis for Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. Patterson is the inspiration for the safari guide Robert Wilson, a hunter of big game, and women if the opportunity presented itself, taciturn but manifestly philosophical in a manly, rough-hewn way. Given that it is Hemingway, the prose is pruned and compressed but a psychological portrait emerges of Wilson which may not have been too far removed from Patterson: courageous, skilled, cool under pressure, tough, self-sufficient, detached.
Patterson, a committed unionist, was drawn back to Ireland during the Home Rule crisis of 1913-1914, when he took command of a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force. However his destiny lay neither in Africa nor in Ireland but rather in the Levant. That Patterson did not stay to participate in the revolutionary tumult of his native Ireland but opted for the allure of the Middle East and the adventures of fighting the Ottomans says much about his inclinations and interests.
As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the onset and course of World War I, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor formed the Zion Mule Corp in 1915, as approved by General Maxwell. Their intention was to help the British wrest control of the Levant from the Turks and stake their claim to the creation of the state of Israel. Having served in Flanders in 1914, Patterson travelled to Egypt, where he met with and was evidently impressed by the young and determined Zionists. Jabotinsksy made a marked impression on him, as did his idea for a Jewish legion, both as a symbol of resurgent Jewish nationalism (the first Jewish fighting unit for two thousand years) and as a statement of intent to form a nation state.
The corps fought gallantly at Gallipoli under Patterson’s command (recounted in his With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916). Patterson wrote: “I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era that such a thing has happened.’ (Quoted by Zeev V Maizlin, in the Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/The-man-who-became-Lawrence-of-Judea).
After a stint back in Ireland, where he commanded the 4th Royal Irish Fusiliers and fifth Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Patterson went to England where he formed and trained the Jewish 38th Fusiliers, part of what was to become known as the Jewish Legion, the sobriquet of five Jewish battalions in the British army.
According to one account, “in February of 1918, Patterson proudly led soldiers of the 38th Fusiliers Battalion, one of the components of the Legion, in a parade in the Whitechapel Road, before they were shipped off to Palestine. They met a tumultuous and joyous reception among the Jews of London, as well as generating amazement among other bystanders …” Patterson fought with his battalion in campaigns in Palestine, notably recorded in his memoirs With the Judaeans in Palestine (1922). Throughout his time with the Jewish Legion, Patterson encountered and resisted anti-Semitism in the British army, an experience that came to alienate him further from his erstwhile colleagues and increase his sense of identity as one of uncertainty and flux. Increasingly, he came to admire his Jewish comrades. He was becoming a fervent advocate for the creation of the state of Israel, forming lifelong friendships with Zionist leaders, including Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu. (Netanyhu would name one of his sons Yonatan in Patterson’s honour: Yonatan died in the Entebbe raid; his younger brother Benjamin would become prime minister.)
After the war, Patterson helped lay the foundations for what would become the Israeli defence forces. From his adopted home in America, he would advocate for the cause of the Jewish people and was at the forefront of efforts there to save Jews from the Holocaust. He died in California in 1947, a year short of the creation of the state of Israel.
Patterson in many ways was the Judean counterpart to Lawrence of Arabia. He and Lawrence shared a common origin in both having Anglo-Irish fathers. (Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman, born not far from Patterson’s Ballymahon.) Chapman absconded from his first wife and family with the family governess, Sarah Lawrence, to Wales, where TE was born and given his mother’s surname. Both men shared ambiguous or hybridised identity and an outsider status. Both were soldiers and scholars, innate researchers as well as searchers. Both appeared to be compelled to search for inner meaning and outsized causes, Lawrence in Arab studies and Arab nationalism, Patterson in Hebrew and biblical studies and ultimately Zionism.
Patterson lived a life in tumultuous times and his wanderings progressively created a life that became a veritable palimpsest of the times and places in which he lived, stretching from Ireland, to the heart of Africa and the shores of the Mediterranean; a man of Ireland and yet not Irish per se, Anglo-Irish and not quite British enough, ambitious and independent, a tough disciplinarian and spiritual, worldly and erudite. Above all, his experience of life never dulled his capacity to strive ‑ not for himself but for others. It is a deeply appealing quality that he shares with Lawrence (and which distinguishes him from the fictional Wilson).
Ultimately Patterson would find a sense of belonging with his Jewish comrades, outsiders like himself, looking to fashion their own home and indeed their own identity through the Zionist cause. If there is one place for Patterson to finally rest, it is surely here in Israel.
Patterson’s grandson, Alan Patterson, has fulfilled his father’s wish for his remains to rest in Israel. The reinterment ceremony was held at the Moshav Avihayil military cemetery in Netanya, just north of Tel Aviv. Along with the remains of his wife (Francie Helena Gray, born in Belfast), which are also being reinterred, Patterson will rest with his former comrades of the Jewish Legion.