Australian Jewish Military Stories

September 2, 2014 by J-Wire
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Australian Minister assisting Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the ANZAC centenary Senator Michael Ronaldson has addressed The Australasian Union of Jewish Students at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Senator Ronaldson with AUJS students

Senator Ronaldson with AUJS students

In his address, the minister gave a detailed account of Jewish involvement in Australian military history

The text of his speech:

“For some two centuries Australia has been a multi-national, multi-cultural and multi- religious country, and this is something that we are all proud of.

A country that people from all kinds of backgrounds call home.

So it is no surprise that when you look at our military history, you come across stories of Australian servicemen and women from different cultures, religions and nationalities – including Jewish Australians – coming together to serve in defence of our great country.

We are standing here today at a very important place – where thousands of servicemen and women are honoured and remembered – a place where many members of the younger generation such as yourselves, come to learn about our wartime history.

I’m going to share with you some stories of Jewish Australians who have served in Australia’s armed forces since the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.

Among those Australians who volunteered for service in South Africa, was a small but solid Australian Jewish presence.

Serving alongside many notable soldiers, a Jewish woman, Rose Shappere, was a prominent figure among Australia’s Boer War nurses.

She put her life on the line, as did many, and volunteered to tend to the sick and wounded in South Africa.
It is thought that at least 16,000 Australians fought in the Boer War.

The Boer War was fought over the period that the Australian colonies federated to become the Commonwealth of Australia. It was the first time our young nation was tested in a major war.

Sadly, it would not be the last.

It is estimated that some 2,300 Jewish men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War.
They represented about 13% of Australia’s Jewish community at the time.

Of these, some 300 lost their lives on active service.

During the Second World War, some 4,000 Jewish Australians enlisted in the various armed services.

Nearly 200 died in action: 40 were decorated for gallantry and 30 more were mentioned in despatches.

Jewish Australians went on to serve with distinction in the wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations over the decades that followed the Second World War and continue to do so in our Defence Force today.

First World War

Just over 100 years ago, on 1 November 1914, members of the AIF and New Zealand Expeditionary Force departed Albany on the south coast of Western Australia bound for the war in the northern hemisphere.

Six months later, the first ANZACs landed on the shores of Gallipoli.


For eight long months they engaged in repeated, but ultimately futile efforts to break through the Turkish defences.

They never stood a chance.

During the campaign some 8,700 Australians lost their lives and some 18,000 were wounded.

In August 1915, Australians participated in action at Lone Pine, it was a diversion to draw attention away from operations to capture the heights of Chunuk Bair further to the north.

It was hoped the offensive would enable the Allied Forces, made up of Australian, New Zealand, Indian and British troops, to break out of the Anzac area and carry achieve the objectives set for the original landings; the capture of the Gallipoli peninsula and the straits of the Dardanelles.

The fighting at Lone Pine lasted four days, it was among the fiercest experienced by the AIF, but it was just one of a series of bloody battles that took place through August.

Lone Pine resulted in the deaths of some 2,000 Australians.

Lieutenant Leonard Maurice Keysor

It was at the Battle of Lone Pine that a Jewish Australian, Lieutenant Leonard Maurice Keysor, was awarded the Victoria Cross for the ‘most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’.

Born in England, Keysor moved to Sydney a few months before the outbreak of war. Part of the 1st Battalion, he trained in Egypt before heading to Gallipoli.

During the Battle of Lone Pine, he proved his skills as a bomb thrower time and time again.

In the ferocious close quarter fighting at Lone Pine he smothered exploding bombs with sandbags or great coats, and if he could, caught and threw bombs back towards the enemy.

He was twice wounded but refused medical aid, remaining at his post for 50 hours.

His actions saved his part of the line and eventually forced the enemy to withdraw from the position.

In a measure of the battle’s intensity, Keysor’s was one of seven Victoria Crosses awarded to men of the AIF for their part on the fighting at Lone Pine.

Lone Pine ended in an Australian victory, but the August offensive failed and stalemate returned to Anzac.

Unable to achieve a breakthrough and facing a bitter winter in the trenches, senior British military and political figures decided to evacuate the force.

On the night of 19–20 December 1915, the Allied Forces withdrew from Gallipoli under the cover of darkness.

Keysor, went on to serve on the Western Front, where he was twice promoted, and twice wounded in 1918.

General Sir John Monash and the Western Front

Along with most veterans of the campaign in the Dardanelles, another Australian Jewish serviceman, John Monash, made the journey from Gallipoli to the Western Front.

Born in June 1865, he was raised in Melbourne, the eldest of three children.

He was a scholar and enjoyed playing the piano, participating in student politics and debating.

He studied Arts and Engineering at Melbourne University.
It is said he was a driven young man; ambitious and intelligent.

Joining the 4th Battalion, Victorian Rifles in 1884, he decided to pursue a military career.

He went on to become one of the First World War’s outstanding commanders and one of Australia’s greatest military leaders.

At the outbreak of the war, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, he commanded the AIF’s 4th Infantry Brigade, landing at Gallipoli on 26 April 1915.

In July he was promoted to Brigadier.

Following Gallipoli, he took his brigade to the Western Front where he was made a Major-General and took command of the 3rd Division.

The division’s first major battle, Messines, was hailed as a great success.

The Battle of Messines started with what was to that time the largest man-made explosion in history.

A series of tunnels and mines, many dug by Australian soldiers, ran under Hill 60 towards the German lines on Messines Ridge. When they were complete, millions of tons of explosives were placed in 21 places under the German trenches.

On 7 June 1917, the explosives were blown simultaneously, only in two of the mines did they fail to detonate.

The effect on the German front–line troops was devastating. Charles Bean, who wrote the war’s official history, noted:

“Everywhere, after firing a few scattered shots the Germans surrendered as the troops approached.

Men went along the trenches bombing the shelters, whose occupants then came out, some of them cringing like beaten animals.

They ‘made many fruitless attempts to embrace us,’ reported Lieutenant Garrard of the 40th. ‘I have never seen men so demoralised.”

Further major battles followed at Passchendaele, in the second half of 1917, and on the Somme during 1918.

In 1918, Monash was promoted to Lieutenant-General and given command of the Australian Corps

On 4 July 1918, Monash lead his men in an important, but relatively small action – the Battle of Hamel.

Two brigades of Australian infantry assisted by American troops, and supported by British Mark V tanks and exceedingly accurate artillery barrages, quickly overran the

German positions and took 1,000 prisoners with what, by the standards of the Western Front were low casualties.

It was considered a truly ‘modern’ battle, having involved the combined use of infantry, armour and aircraft to defeat the enemy.

Hamel became an important step in the development of methods that would overcome the advantages entrenched defenders had over attacking troops.

It is often considered a model for the later full-scale offensives that led to the allied victory in November 1918.

The official ‘War Diary’ of the 44th Australian Infantry Battalion stated that it only took 85 minutes for them to take all their objectives.

The 44th Battalion moved off their start line at 3.10am, skirted the village of Le Hamel village and advanced on the German trenches. By 4.35am they had taken the German trenches around Hamel.

The battalion’s diarist vividly captured the artillery barrage that descended on the German’s before the attack:

“It came down with a ferocious suddenness upon the enemy front line and pounded, battered and chopped it to pieces with shells of every calibre – light, medium, heavy, gas, shrapnel, high explosive.”

Monash wrote of Hamel:

“The operation is a striking example of the success which invariably results from careful preparation and coordinated action: and will serve as a model and the standard of the fighting efficiency of the Australian corps”.

The site is now the home of the Australian Corps Memorial.

Visually striking, the memorial proudly displays the American, British, Australian, French and Canadian flags.

Following the war, Monash stayed in London and managed the repatriation of wounded and ill AIF members back to Australia.

Some of his brother officers considered this his finest achievement of the war.

For his actions throughout the war, Monash was decorated by the French, Belgian, and American governments and knighted in the field by King George V.

In 1930 he was promoted to General, the first Jew in any army to attain that rank.

The service and sacrifice of Australians on the Western Front in the First World War is less well understood than the campaign at Gallipoli.

More than 416,000 Australians enlisted during the First World War, with more than 330,000 serving overseas.

At Gallipoli more than 8,700 Australians died, compared to more than 46,000 on the Western Front.

Anzac Centenary

The Anzac story may have been forged at Gallipoli, but it was on the Western Front that Australians faced and helped defeat the main enemy in the war’s main theatre.

It is important we create an enduring legacy of the Centenary of Anzac that honours the brave souls who served and died on the Western Front.

To investigate how we can achieve this, the Government has committed $6.9 million in the Federal Budget to develop a detailed business case for the construction of the Sir John Monash
Interpretive Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France.

Over the Anzac Centenary we will also commemorate the Century of Service since the First World War and the suffering and sacrifice of generations of Australian servicemen and women.

Australia will recognise other significant military anniversaries, including those relating to the Second World War (70th and 75th), peacekeeping (70th), Malayan Emergency (70th) and the Vietnam War (50th).

We will also remember the contribution of those on the home front.

We must ensure that the Centenary of Anzac leaves a lasting legacy for all Australians.

It will be a legacy of understanding. An understanding of what Australians fought for, where they fought and why.

It will be an acknowledgment of our defeats, and a reminder of our victories and achievements on the field of battle, on the seas and in the air.

And, equally and importantly, it is an opportunity to reflect on the horror, tragedy and waste of war.

The Anzac Centenary and Century of Service will contribute to and leave an enduring and unifying legacy for current and future generations of Australians.

In addition, the Centenary must also educate young Australians, such as yourselves, about our collective obligation to care for those who have served and continue to serve our nation.

This is what I hope the Centenary of Anzac will achieve.

Let me take this opportunity to talk to you about our plans for a number of key commemorative activities that will be occurring in this period.

In September this year, the Navy will conduct a small service in Rabaul to commemorate the Centenary of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force.

The major Centenary commemorations will commence in Western Australia on Friday 31 October with the Albany Convoy Commemorative Event.

Events in Albany will mark the 100th anniversary of the departure of the first convoy of ships that carried Australian and New Zealand troops to the First World War.

They will include a commemorative service, gathering of naval vessels, ship visit program and troop march.

Additional activities will be organised by the local community to complement the national event.

Albany will also be home to the National Anzac Centre. The Centre is currently under construction and will be officially opened on 1 November as part of the Albany Convoy Commemorative Event.

The Centre has been primarily funded by the Commonwealth Government and will be a state of the art interpretive Centre, it will tell the stories of those Australians who left the shores of our young nation, and the many who did not return home.

In April 2015, we will dedicate the Australian National in Wellington, New Zealand and mark a key focal point of Centenary commemorations with the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli landings

On Anzac Day this year, I had the extraordinary honour of representing our nation at Gallipoli.

I had the great honour of speaking at both the Dawn Service and at Lone Pine – a very special experience for me, in a personal sense.

For those unable to be at Anzac Cove in April, commemorative ceremonies will take place in towns and cities right across Australia.

On an international level, the Australian Government will also be organising an Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France.

There are also annual Anzac Day services held in London, in Belgium, in Papua New Guinea and throughout south-east Asia. Services will also be taking place in New Zealand.

From 2016 onwards, Australia will ensure that the efforts of our men and women on the frontline in France, Belgium and the Middle East are appropriately honoured.

In France in 2016 commemorative services will be held to mark two of the most significant battles of 1916 – the Battle of Fromelles on 19 July and the Battle of Pozieres on 23 July.

In September 2017 a service at the Buttes New British Cemetery in Belgium will commemorate the service and sacrifice of Australians who served in the Battle of Polygon Wood, a campaign during the Third Battle of Ypres.

This service will commemorate all who served in Belgium during this period.

Also in 2017, and together with New Zealand, we will commemorate the Australian Light Horse and the desert campaign with a commemorative service planned for Beersheba in Israel.

2018 will see services conducted to commemorate the extraordinary service of Australians on the Western Front in 1918.

These services will focus on Villers-Bretonneux, the site of the Australian National Memorial in France.

The battles of Villers-Bretonneux and Hamel, of which I spoke earlier, are also proposed to be marked, along with a suitable day of commemoration on 11 November – the 100th anniversary of the armistice which was to be the end of the war ‘to end all wars’.

Here in Australia, it is essential that community-based commemoration is at the heart of the Centenary of Anzac.

The Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program is a key element of the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary program, with up to $125,000 in funding made available for each Federal electorate to commemorate the First World War.

These grants will assist communities to find out more about their local servicemen and women through the display of military memorabilia, the research and publishing of books, and the restoration and creation of memorials and remembrance gardens.

They will ensure the stories of our former and current servicemen and women live on for generations to come.


I hope your visit to the Australian War Memorial has given you a deeper insight into Australia’s military history and the service and sacrifice of your Jewish ancestors.

They played, and continue to play, a significant role in our military story and we own them our gratitude.”

Senator Ronaldson is also Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

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