Russia in the late 1800s was not a place where the Jewish identity was permitted to thrive. The Czarist culture routinely discouraged Jewish practices and norms, and the nation’s press was rife with propaganda of Jewish "cowardice” and "weakness.” It was not exactly where one would expect to be the birthplace of a Zionist hero, but for Joseph Trumpeldor, it was home.
Born in Piatygorsk, Russia in 1880, Joseph’s early life was not an easy one. While a gifted student who won a scholarship into a private school, his family was not particularly wealthy or well off. His father, a lifelong conscript in the Czar’s army, tried to provide him with what he could though. The greatest gift he could give his son was a sense of pride in his Jewish heritage. In a culture that seemed to oppose Jews at every step, Joseph learned to hold his head up high from an early age and kick back against the insults and slander that met him in his day to day life.
This sense of pride guided him through his life. In 1902, when drafted into the Russian army hostilities escalated in the Russo-Japanese War, Joseph wanted to show exactly what Jewish men were made of and volunteered for a station defending Port Arthur from Japanese attack. The fighting was fierce, and Joseph served with distinction.
It was during this battle where Joseph would sustain a critical injury to his left arm, necessitating full amputation. For most, that would have been enough -- duty done. But Joseph, after receiving medical care and a 100 day leave, elected to return to his post. His doctors and superior officers couldn’t believe him, but when pressed, Joseph said "I still have another arm to give to the motherland.”
Fighting again in the protracted battle, the Port was lost and Joseph, along with many other soldiers, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He put his time in captivity to good use printing a newspaper on Jewish affairs and organized history, geography, and literature classes for other prisoners. It was during this time that he met fellow Jewish enlisted men who shared his dream of Aliyah and founding a communal farm in the Holy Land.
When eventually released as part of a peace agreement between the two nations, Joseph’s efforts were recognized and he was awarded with a promotion to non-commissioned officer status along with several commendations for bravery. This made him the most highly decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army and the first to receive an officer's commission.
Having seen the worst of Europe and surviving, Joseph spent a few years studying law in St. Petersburg before deciding to make good on his dream and travel to the Holy Land. He gathered a small group of fellow Zionists he met in his academic pursuits and emigrated to Palestine to join an early Kibbutz known as Degania.
This was a prosperous time. The work was hard and the conditions at the Kibbutz were often precarious, but it was good work building the kind of Jewish community Joseph had always dreamed of when listening to his father. Good days, but not to last. This was 1914, and the world teetered on the brink of the first great tragedy of the century.
When World War I broke out the Ottoman authorities who were in control of the area at the time began rounding up and ejecting Jews. They were seen as a disruptive presence, one that couldn’t be trusted. It seemed like the dream was over. But, while in Egypt, Joseph met Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a fellow Russian Jew and Zionist activist. Together, they came up with the idea of a Jewish fighting force, a unit inside the British army that would help liberate their home, Israel, from Turkish control.
This was a radical idea. The war was more brutal than anyone had ever anticipated, and paranoia hung heavy in the air. The British were initially resistant to the idea of giving arms and support to some Jewish group they knew little about. But Joseph and Ze’ev were persistent, and a compromise was struck. The Jews could assist the war effort as their own unit, but not in a combat capacity. And so, the Zion Mule Corps was founded, a "transportation” unit designed to ferry supplies to needed destinations.
Don’t let the name or stated mission fool you, this was not some warehouse job where the men moved crates around. The very first deployment the Mule Corps was assigned to was the bloody killing fields of Gallipoli, a military disaster where allied forces met overwhelming opposition at every turn. The Zion Mule Corps were ordered to deliver ammunition and supplies to areas that were already pinned down by artillery and machine gun fire. They were being asked to march into a meat grinder with no weapons of their own, weighed down by hundreds of pounds of supplies, while managing live, terrified animals across uneven terrain.
And they did.
While Gallopoli was ultimately lost, the Mule Corps won praise and distinction from allied forces. Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, commander of the attack, said of the unit "Many of the Zionists whom I thought somewhat lacking in courage showed themselves fearless to a degree when under heavy fire, while Captain Trumpeldor actually revelled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it ..." For his part, Joseph was wounded again in the battle, this time taking a bullet to the shoulder. Like before, he would not leave his duties and carried on despite the wound.
While the group was discharged after the end of the war, the legacy of the Zionist Mule Corps would reverberate throughout Israeli history. With the Mule Corps disbanded, Joseph and Ze’ev petitioned the British government to create the Jewish Legion and were successful doing so. Future first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion was a member, and the organization and fighting spirit of the Mule Corps/Jewish Legion would later be a direct inspiration for the formation of the IDF. Without Joseph’s efforts, this key piece of Israeli identity might never have existed.
With the war over, Joseph returned to the British-ruled Mandatory Palestine. Rather than return to Degania, he stayed serving in a military capacity, working to defend Jewish settlements in the area. It was in this capacity that he would meet his fate.
On March 1, 1920, Joseph was dispatched to Tel Hai to respond to worries of an imminent Arab raid. These fears were validated. Joseph and a dozen fighting men soon found themselves surrounded by hundreds of Arabs. It was a tense situation, with the Arab forces operating under the mistaken idea that the fort was harbouring fleeing French officers.
Words escalated to violence and a small handful of Jewish defenders were pitted against a far larger aggressive force. Joseph was grievously wounded in the assault.
Those are the facts we know. This last part is somewhat more disputed, but accounts from the battle claim it to be true. When a doctor examined the horrifically wounded Trumpeldor, mere moments away from death, he asked how he was feeling. Joseph replied, "It does not matter, it is good to die for our country.”
Some say Joseph’s Hebrew was too stilted for him to make such a poetic final statement. Other argue that a man who received the kinds of wounds he did would be incapable of speech. It doesn’t matter. Actions speak louder than words, and Joseph Trumpeldor’s entire life was a series of actions that demonstrated duty, honour, and a commitment to his people. For that, he deserves to be remembered and celebrated as a true Israeli icon.