The Fort Edward blockhouse in Windsor, Nova Scotia is one of the the oldest wooden fortifications still standing in North America. It played a major role in the Explusion of the Acadians in 1755, helped defend Nova Scotia in the War of 1812 and, in a truly odd twist of history, assisted in the creation of the State of Israel.
Fort Edward sits atop a wind-swept hill over looking the former mill town of Windsor. The town has bragging rights as the birthplace of ice hockey and hometown to some of the world’s largest pumpkins.
But there is another less known boast; in the summer of 1917, Windsor was home to some of Israel’s founding fathers and the place where the forerunner of the Israeli Defence Force was forged.
In the shadow of the blockhouse, hundreds of Jewish boys from New York, Montreal, Russia and Palestine first put on a uniform and learned how to handle a rifle. It was here that the Jewish Legion was formed up — one of the first all-Jewish military forces in modern times.
Although the legion trained in Canada, the soldiers where never part of the Canadian army. They were considered British imperial forces and came under British command.
Young recruit David Ben-Gurion arrived to train with the Jewish Legion on June 1, 1918. Like all the legion’s recruits, Ben-Gurion was was paid 50 cents a day. The future first prime minister of Israel roughed in a bell tent and slept on the bare Nova Scotia earth.
“In this camp there are all types to be found among Jewish people, from the most lofty?minded idealists and the highly educated to coarse and evil?minded individuals, born criminals,” is how Ben-Gurion described his first impressions of the camp in a letter to his wife Paula just days after getting Nova Scotia.
One of Ben-Gurion’s brothers-in-arms in Windsor was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an ardent Zionist who was one of the co-founders of the Jewish Legion. Jabotinsky, like many of the legion soldiers, saw forming a Jewish military unit as essential to their dream of creating an Israel. While learning the ins and outs of military life in Nova Scotia in April 1918, soldier-poet Abraham Isserman wrote the following:
“A million more must follow:
You! Join in with the brave:
Or else their faith is hollow,
And Zion seeks her grave.”
The coarse, the evil-minded and the lofty that Ben-Gurion trained with appear to have been well-treated by the local people of the Annapolis Valley town. One account in the local paper talks about the joyous celebration of the Jewish New Year in 1918 when 500 legionaries gathered at the Windsor opera for a kosher meal. On July 1, 1918 Windsor celebrated Dominion Day, the Jewish Legion was invited to take part but the soldiers wanted the “Jewish flag” to fly along side the Canadian and British flags.
“At first they didn’t fly the Jewish flag, and our boys were going to refuse to take part in the parade. I went to the major and demanded that the Jewish flag be displayed as well, and at once he gave the order to fly the blue and white flag,” Ben-Gurion wrote to his wife.
The 39th Battalion of the Windsor-based Jewish Legion was dispatched to fight the Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire in June 1918. The legion fought in the Jordan Valley with the 39th Battalion, listing 23 dead. Many, many more were disabled or died because of malaria or other disease.
But the First World War was coming to a close and that meant the Jewish legion was be stood down by the British. Still the legion achieved what many of its members wanted; formally-trained, professional Jewish soldiers stationed in the Middle East. And many of the legion’s former soldiers formed the backbone of Jewish defence teams protecting villages.
The rifle training, the marching in unison and the military mind-set learned at Fort Edward stuck with Ben-Gurion all his life. In 1996, a letter was discovered from the former prime minister of Israel to the mayor of Windsor describing the importance of what happened beneath Fort Edward in 1917-1918.
“In Windsor one of the great dreams of my life — to serve as a soldier in a Jewish Unit to fight for the liberation of Israel (as we always called Palestine) became a reality, and I will never forget Windsor, where I received my first training as a soldier, and where I became a corporal.”
Today there is no mention of the Jewish Legion at Fort Edward. That should change, says Jon Goldberg of the Atlantic Jewish Council.
“Its important what happened there. Important for Canada, Nova Scotia and Israel,” said Goldberg in an interview.
Goldberg had always heard rumours of the Jewish Legion, but only became fully aware of the unit and its Nova Scotia roots 15 years ago when he was shown a picture of the unit on parade at Fort Edward.
Parks Canada has studied the contribution of the Jewish legion to the history of the Fort Edward, but so far the tale of the corporal-turned-statesman, and the 1,100 Jews who joined him, hasn’t been publicly etched into the fort’s official history. Perhaps that will soon change.