Armistice centenary: Our students’ brave sacrifice

Armistice centenary: Our students’ brave sacrifice

More than 240 ex-JFS pupils lost their lives in the Great War. Tim Barringer, a history teacher at the school, tells one of their stories

“We admire the pluck and patriotic spirit of Joseph Rosenbloom who enlisted in Kitchener’s army in November last, being 13-and-a-half-years-old at the time. But we cannot condone the acts that accompanied this. He knew he was legally obliged to be attending school, he made the false declaration that he was 19 years of age, and joined another regiment when he discovered his father was summoned by the attendance officer. A two month search has failed to discover him.”

So begins the March 1915 edition of the Jewish Free School magazine. Only eight months into the war, 13-year-old Joseph Rosenbloom decided to join up along with hundreds of thousands of others to serve as a soldier in the Great War. The trail goes cold at this point, and the school and Joseph’s parents can do nothing but pray for his safe return.

It is not until a year later that Joseph reappears in the Jewish Free School magazine. He writes his own article describing his experiences on the front line. He writes: “I joined Essex Regiment and no one knew I had joined again… I went to Stratford and from there to Warley. Here they gave me a suit of khaki and a complete kit. They sent me on garrison duty. We did drills with rifles and physical exercise. At the end of this month we were fit for service.”

Joseph, by then 14, goes on to give an extraordinary account of his journey to Turkey and his role in the Gallipoli campaign. “When we arrived near Turkish soil the bullets and shrapnel were dropping all around us. After a few hours of fierce fighting we got firmly set on land. The Royal Naval Division, many of them young lads, brought up ammunition to us in the firing line. The day we landed was April 25th 1915, a day that will never be forgotten by any soldier who was in it.”

Joseph had been part of the 29th Division. They had been in the thick of the fighting during the landings and had lost 2,000 men in the first few days of the campaign alone, trying to take the hill of Achi Baba.

They failed, and Joseph describes how they “gained about six miles along the line, and the Turks lost heavily. They were burying Turks 50 at a time in trenches that we captured from them”.

Joseph was fortunate to survive these early battles, although not without sustaining injuries later on. He described how, on 6 June, “we made a charge in which I was wounded. I thought my last day had come. I fell unconscious when I was hit and when I opened my eyes again, I was in Egypt at Alexandria. I was blind for three weeks and thought I lost my sight, but thank God I regained it”.

And then on 6 August when “we made our great charge. We had helmets on on account of the heat of the Sun. A bullet went through the top of my helmet, and escaped my head by an eighth of an inch. Another bullet hit my left shoulder, but luckily did not go through”.

By November, his father had at last managed to track him down, leading to him being recalled to England. He made the voyage home aboard a minesweeper and then a cattle boat.

After a tricky encounter with a German submarine, he soon found himself back in “dear old England” where he “came home, and my father, who tried hard to get me out, and succeeded was happy to see my face again”.

Joseph ends his article ruefully: “Now I am at work, and think seriously I had better stick to it.” He adds: “I may say that although I was discharged on account of the untrue statement I made about my age, I left the army with a very good character from my commanding officer, a fact I remember with pride.”

The 14-year-old Joseph Rosenbloom escaped with his life. Many others were not so lucky.

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