The Rothschilds as Recruiters for Buckinghamshire in the First World War

In his First World War reminiscences Rev Michael Adler, DSO, the Senior Jewish Chaplain, describes some of the unusual sites he found himself using for religious services for Jewish soldiers in France. One of the examples he gives was when he 'met a party of fifty newly-arrived Jewish soldiers belonging to the 1/1st Bucks Battalion - to which Lieut. D. Fallon, M.C., was attached - near a village called Bouzincourt, outside Albert. As the place was being bombarded, all troops were ordered into the open, and we found a vacant space in a cornfield where a square was formed and a brief service held.' 1

Adler's appointments diary has survived. It records the event as having occurred on 11 August 1916,2 during which month, he happens to mention, he 'expended petrol for 1,670 miles': in France, he says, he was known as the 'wandering Jew', since he ministered to Jews in many scattered units. 3 A month later the Jewish Chronicle published a letter from Lt David Fallon, one of three Jewish officers with the Bucks Battalion, in which he referred to Adler's visit, which he said had occurred just before the battalion had gone into action. 4

Fallon had joined the unit on 31 July 1916, after its first major action on 21-24 July at Ovillers and Pozieres on the Somme when it suffered 242 casualties. In his letter Fallon was referring to its subsequent attack on 'Skyline Trench' on 14 -15 August, during which he was wounded. 5

The wartime history of the battalion, by Capt P.L. Wright, appeared very quickly after the war, in 1920. Sixty-five years later Professor Ian Beckett published his more general account of the county's 'citizen soldiers', covering a longer period and other regiments too, notably the Royal Bucks Hussars. As a Territorial unit the Bucks bn naturally relied on local men and Prof Beckett shows how it was based on three Buckinghamshire towns, Slough, Gerrards Cross, and High Wycombe. This was obviously the case pre-war and remained so until it needed more recruits. That county had no organised Jewish communities at that period; very few Jews lived there.

The second occasion of significant numbers of casualties was during 3rd Ypres, on 16 August 1917. After each of the two major losses what Prof Beckett calls 'strangers' were drafted in to make up the numbers. The 'newly-arrived' Jewish members of the battalion may well have been among 'strangers' who were drafted in after the first action in July 1916. Certainly one can find about 50 men listed as having served in the Bucks bn in the Nominal Roll of OBLI in the British Jewry Book of Honour.6 The Nominal Roll also includes men in the 2/1 bn (to which one of the three Jewish officers was attached.

So it was not surprising to find these Jewish soldiers, many from the East End of London, in this regiment even though it belonged to a county with its special local connections. Except for one aspect. I could not help noticing that several of those who were killed in action had enlisted at New Court. They amounted to 14 in 1/1Bucks and 10 in 2/1 Bucks. Furthermore, with the help of the CD-Rom of Soldiers Died in the Great War I was able to establish that of the deaths in another OBLI bn, 2/4, as many as 24 had enlisted at New Court of whom 22 had previously been in the Royal Bucks Hussars. Altogether 57 OBLI men who died had enlisted at New Court.New Court is in St. Swithin's Lane, in the City of London and four OBLI men died who enlisted in St. Swithin's Lane, making a total of 61 who enlisted in that place.  

In the army as a whole the total of deceased men who enlisted at New Court was 75 to which number can be added 67 who enlisted at St. Swithin's Lane, totalling 142.   Of these 61 were in OBLI and therefore 81 were in a variety of other regiments.

It is possible that some at least of those who died while serving in the Royal Bucks Hussars had also enlisted there but the entries for these men in the CD-Rom only show 'London' as their place of enlistment. It may be indeed that many more who enlisted in other regiments at New Court and St. Swithin's Lane were killed but the place of enlistment is not specified in the source.

What was the significance of New Court? That address was the head office of Rothschild's Bank in the City of London. Its economic role is not our concern, except to recognise that it gave the family enormous prestige, but its social and community roles are. Firstly, its members were the leading lay members of Anglo-Jewry, secondly, part of the family had settled in Buckinghamshire in which they played the part of the local gentry. But New Court's significance is better understood by a brief consideration of Jewish recruitment in general.

A high proportion of Jews were either foreign-born (including those who had arrived in Britain as children) or if British-born had foreign-born parents. Anti-German feelings in Britain often did not distinguish between Germans and Russian Jews, such attitudes to the latter intermingled with antisemitism. At the start of the war there were reports of Jewish recruits and not just the foreign-born being turned down at recruiting centres. The Jewish newspapers noted specifically the difficulties that Jews had in joining the 10th (County of London) bn (Hackney) London Regiment but the same was said of some other units. Even as late as November 1915 the Jewish Chronicle reported examples of recruiting officers saying 'Lord Kitchener does not want any more Jews in the Army' and 'We are not enlisting Jews'.7

Jews had nevertheless volunteered for the armed forces before conscription came in. Indeed in November 1914 Michael Adler, in a letter to the War Office thanking them for their decision not to sanction the formation of a Jewish battalion, said that he had the names of over 4,000 who had joined the forces. 8 Four months later he said the figure was now some 10,000. He went further. He said that many Jews attested as Christians and so 'I am more convinced than ever before that the estimate of 10,000 Jews in the Army is far below the truth'.9 As so often happens an estimated statistic which is published continues to be referred to, irrespective of the period to which it refers. The British Jewry Book of Honour, in 1922, extended the date. 'The number of Jews who were on active service before conscription came into force was about 10,000, of whom 1,140 were officers.'10 Adler's estimate of March 1915 thus became the total figure for Jewish voluntary recruitment before January 1916 when the Military Service Act was passed.

The point is that whatever the real figure of Jewish recruitment let alone the evidence of Jewish casualties, listed every week in the Jewish newspapers, there were undoubted ambiguities about Jewish recruitment. On the one hand there were continued accusations that Jews were not joining. And, on the Jewish side, complaints that they were being rejected at the recruiting offices. There was in any case some confusion about the legal position of foreigners and local recruiting officers were not consistent in their actions.

The situation was clarified by the War Office. In a letter dated 18 December 1915 it first referred to a matter of particular relevance to the current discussion. It noted the establishment of a Central Jewish Recruiting Committee with Edmund Sebag-Montefiore as chairman and Major Lionel de Rothschild MP as Vice-chairman. The site was New Court, St Swithin's Lane, in the City. The purpose was to encourage the recruitment of Jews. The letter went on to inform Recruiting Officers that a man born in the UK was a British subject, even if of alien parentage, and was thus eligible for enlistment in the army. It also explained the circumstances in which British-born Jews, even of enemy alien parentage, could be accepted, if they spoke English and had lived continuously in the UK since birth, and was vouched for by the Jewish Recruitment Committee. In the case of a Jew whose bona fides were doubted or if he bore a German or Austrian name, the matter was to be referred to the same Committee.11

In fact the recruitment office was not new and the news that it was now an official institution had been publicised before this. A month earlier the Jewish World had referred to its opening and that 'Jews wishing to enlist there will be sent to suitable regiments.' It went on to say that Major de Rothschild had been accepting recruits at New Court for the Royal Bucks Hussars and the Bucks Battalion. Indeed three months earlier the newspaper was more precise.

Major Lionel de Rothschild has succeeded in recruiting over forty Jewish youngsters for either the Royal Bucks Yeomanry, the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry (T.F.) and the Bucks R.A.M.C., in addition to many others.12

The 'many others' may refer to Jewish recruits going to other regiments or to the fact that non-Jews were also recruited at New Court.

The Rothschilds were associated with the county of Buckinghamshire from the 1830s. During the century they built a number of country houses, at Mentmore, Waddesdon and elsewhere and in their role as country gentry were engaged in hunting. They were active in local politics, four of the family at various times being Members of Parliament.13

It followed from such local activities and interest that they would be involved with the local Volunteer and later Territorial units, not least the Royal Bucks Hussars. The British Jewry Book of Honour lists three Rothschilds who had commissions in the regiment during the First World War. One of them, Major Evelyn Achille de Rothschild, was wounded on 13 November 1917 in the cavalry charge at El Mughar in the Palestine campaign and died four days later. His cousin Neil Primrose also fell. He was the son of Hannah Rothschild who, to the chagrin of both families, married the 5th Earl of Rosebery. Neil Primrose, Evelyn de Rothschild's cousin, also served in the Royal Bucks Hussars in Palestine. He was killed on 15 November 1917.

1 Rev Michael Adler, DSO, 'Experiences of a Jewish Chaplain on the Western Front (1915-1918), in British Jewry Book of Honour (henceforth BJBH), 1922, 39. Fallon's MC was not awarded until 1 January 1917.

2 MS 125, 'Papers of Revd Michael Adler, 1915-18', Hartley Library, University of Southampton.

3 Adler, p 47.

4 Jewish Chronicle (henceforth JC), 8 September 1916, p 16.

5 Ian F.W. Beckett, Call to Arms: The Story of Bucks' Citizen Soldiers From Their Origins to Date, 1985, p 75, re the major actions in July 1916 and August 1917. Capt P.L. Wright, DSO, MC, The First Buckinghamshire Battalion 1914-1919, pp 40, 188 (Fallon's joining the bn and his being wounded on 15 August 1916.)

6 BJBH, pp 334-7. Later in the year the JC, 6 October 1916, p 18, reported that each Sunday about 20 men of the Bucks bn held a service conducted by Cpl Abrahams and Pte J. Lipman.

7 Jewish World (henceforth JW), 14 October 1914, pp 7-8. There were Jewish officers, NCOs and ORs in the Hackney bn and the newspaper noted that it intended to place the Jews in a separate platoon. For the late 1915 quotations see JC, 26 November 1915, p 9. See generally, Elkan D. Levy, 'Antisemitism in England at war, 1914-1916', Patterns of Prejudice, 4(5), 1970, pp 27-30, an extract from his unpublished Master of Hebrew Literature thesis, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1966, 'English Jewry in the Great War (during the period August 1914 to mid-1916)'. Also David Cesarani, 'An embattled minority: the Jews in Britain during the First World War'. Immigrants & Minorities, 8(1 & 2), March 1989, pp 61-81, reprinted in Tony Kushner and Kenneth Lunn (eds), The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain, 1990, pp 49-58. The best discussion is by Asher Tropp, 'Russian Jews in Britain during the First World War', unpublished MA dissertation, University of London, 1988.

8 JC, 11 November 1914, p 16.

9 JC,19 March 1915, p 25.

10 BJBH, p 3.

11 The letter was printed in JC, 24 December 1915, p 14.

12 JW, 4 August 1915, p 11.

13 Among the relevant literature are Richard Davis, The English Rothschilds, 1983; Miriam  Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, 1983; David Kessler, The Rothschilds and Disraeli in  Buckinghamshire, 1996. The last is a version of a longer paper, with full references by David Kessler, 'The Rothschilds and Disraeli in Buckinghamshire', Jewish Historical Studies, XXIX, 1988. The most recent, and very detailed, book on the family is by Niall Ferguson, The World's  Banker; The History of the House of Rothschild, 1998.

This article was originally published in the Bulletin of the Military Historical Society in May 1999. The Bulletin published a minor correction in February 2000 which is incorporated here.

Copyright © Harold Pollins, 1999, 2000

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