The British Empire Library

The Seven Lives of Colonel Patterson

by Denis Brian

Few people's lives can have been quite as varied and quite so consequential as John Patterson's managed to achieve. On top of what we do know about the remarkable man, there is an awful lot that he managed to successfully keep from subsequent prying eyes. Indeed, he was quite the enigma when it came to his birth, his parentage, a mysterious death in East Africa and the extent of various relationships and affairs throughout his life. There are almost two parallel John Patterson's for us to wonder about. Denis Brian tries his best to explain the public life and achievements of John Patterson, but an intriguing afterword by his grandson, Alan Patterson, hints at the even more fascinating escapades and extent of the Colonel's double life which whets one's appetite even more. Not that we can feel in any way short changed as the title 'Seven Lives' hints at. Indeed any one of these 'lives' would be more than enough for most people to have a book written about them. The fact that the Colonel could probably have bolted on several more 'Private Lives' to these 'Seven Lives' gives an illustration to just what a remarkable man he was and why we should all want to know more about him.

Little is known of his parentage and early years other than the fact that he was a Protestant born in Ireland. This sense of an outsider would find purpose first of all within the British Empire but later it would give rocket fuel to his support of Zionism and his role in training and commanding the first Jewish formations in the Middle East since ancient times. His love of the Old Testament would strike a chord alongside Jews who were struggling at an inauspicious time to gain credibility with a view of establishing a homeland. In the meantime he took a well worn career path for Irish Protestants by joining the Army as a private and heading off first to South Africa and then to India. Here he seems to have come to the attention of William Robertson in the 16th Lancers. William Robertson was to become famous as the first and indeed only soldier ever to rise from the rank of private to that of Field Marshall. Clearly William Robertson saw something in the young John Patterson and encouraged him to study military history and also engineering. It was this latter skill when combined with Hindi that would provide the opportunity that would transform his life ever after.

Indeed, the first of his 'Seven Lives' and probably the most highlighted by authors and filmmakers and which gave him a level of fame that acted as a catalyst towards the other phases of his life is that of the Railway Engineer who became an accidental Lion Hunter in East Africa. Patterson had been hired from India to take control of the largely Indian workforce in the construction of railway bridges on the River Tsavo along the 'Lunatic Line' from Mombasa to the interior of East Africa. Deaths had already been mounting from tsetse flies and malaria. The Parsee habit of leaving dead bodies out for the vultures may have given hungry lions the taste for human flesh. Whatever the reason, a pair of lions began to strike terror in the workforce who often had little more protection than canvas tents from the stalking lions. Locals thought that the Lions were the ghosts of ancestral tribal leaders rising up to stop the march of modern technology through native lands. Patterson would go on to write The Man-Eaters of Tsavo which brilliantly captured the tension and challenges facing the young army engineer expected to defend miles of railway lines and various encampments from the most powerful natural hunters on the planet. The author Denis Brian incorporates Patterson's own accounts and they are still as enthralling as they must have been when published over a century ago. I for one will get a copy of the Patterson's own book to read in full. In many ways his exploits would go on to encapsulate what we all imagine as the late Victorian quintessential Big Game Hunter. However, reading it, you understand that the technology of firearms was not as overwhelming for the hunter as it would later become and that the dangers for these lion hunters was very real indeed or as one of Patterson's diary entries underplays it on one occasion when a lion sprang at him and a partner in the dark had a mostly intensely exciting night and narrowly escaped being carried off! The fact that several policemen, 28 Indian workers and over a hundred Africans were thought to have been killed and eaten by these pair of manhunting lions shows the extent of the danger for all concerned.

The second of the 'Seven Lives' was the doors opened by the public coming to know and understand the extent of his heroics in defending his workforce in East Africa. In particular he came to the attention of the US President Theodore Roosevelt who was a big game hunter himself and came to be a long term friend of Patterson. Interestingly, despite (or really because) of their love of hunting, they both became increasingly important conservationists. They realised that they would have nothing to hunt if there was no environment for the game to live and breed in. Patterson visited Roosevelt's Yellowstone National Park and Roosevelt in turn would visit East Africa. The Lions of Tsavo themselves took on such fame and notoriety that they were taken to be displayed at the Chicago Natural History Museum where they still reside to this day. Another interesting tidbit is that Patterson's son would later get a job at that same museum and go on to become a leading Paleontologist there with links back to East Africa.

The third of Patterson's 'Seven Lives' was his first experience of leadership in actual combat with the advent of the Boer War in 1899. Once again, he did not have a conventional war which is perhaps appropriate for such an unconventional war all round. He joined the Imperial Yeomanry who were nicknamed the Rough Riders. It is clear that he was a firm but fair leader who exhibited great bravery. Once when he and two soldiers stumbled across a force of 15 Boers, rather than retreat or surrender, they went on the offensive and ended up routing the larger Boer force and returning home with prisoners. For this he was awarded a DSO. His engineering skills also came in useful when he commandeered a train from reluctant train drivers. He refused to play the ruthless game of attritional warfare and treated Boers with uncharacteristic compassion. His war was cut short to a certain extent when the newly crowned King of England, Edward VII, specifically requested the famous Lion Hunter to become adjutant of the Essex Imperial Yeomanry (of which the King was honorary Colonel). He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel with 460 men under his command. They were slated to return to South Africa but arrived there after the war had finished. Nevertheless, Patterson was able to use his new social connections to meet with the vanquished Boer generals and victorious British ones in the period that saw remarkable conciliation between the two previous antagonists.

The fourth of Patterson's 'Seven Lives' nearly brought an end to his meteoric rise through the military aristocracy. In 1906 he returned to East Africa as a game warden for a new wildlife reserve in the place that had made him famous. Even in the short period since he had helped build the railway he had seen how much the colony had been transformed and of course how that development might curtail the opportunity for anyone to hunt in East Africa in the not too distant future. However, it was whilst out demarcating this new game reserve that he got into a supremely compromising position when the son of an aristocrat along with his young wife accompanied him on a mission to demarcate the proposed Game Reserve. The aristocrat, Audley Blyth, was actually a former colleague of his from his Essex Yeomanry days. However, Blyth got sick and had to be carried about. The young and beautiful wife continued hunting with Patterson in the remote East African Savannah. The sickly Blyth shot himself although whether by accident or by design was to be hotly contested in the future months and years. The fact that Patterson and the young wife continued on with the original mission and returned by a circuitous and dangerous route only heightened speculation of their true relationship and the possible reasons for Blyth's death. Patterson also claimed that he had contracted dysentery too which had ended up him being nursed and sharing a tent with the now widow. Unsurprisingly perhaps, tongues began wagging throughout East Africa and back in Britain. Although cleared by a House of Lords enquiry, Patterson's meteoric rise through society stalled somewhat with the shadow of controversy surrounding him. Intriguingly, Ernest Hemingway would write a short story inspired by hearing second hand accounts of the Big Game Hunter who got too close to his clients: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Patterson's grandson adds some fascinating extra tittle-tattle which would transform our understanding of the events if true.

The fifth of Patterson's 'Seven Lives' was a mixture of High Society mingling, military tourism and West African exploration in the years before the First World War. After travelling through Europe visiting the battlefields of Napoleon and Wellington, he put his Engineering skills to use once more in an attempt to assess whether a waterfall in Sierra Leone could be used crush palm oil. Here he came into contact with the dreaded Leopard Society who would kill victims whilst dressed in Leopard skin and claw him to death. Patterson was quite happy that such violent native traditions be crushed. His own brush with locals at the waterfall were eventful but respectful but tragedy did ensue with several of his team being swept over the waterfall itself. He built up a respecting relationship with the local leaders but they were still suspicious of one another's motives.

The sixth of Patterson's 'Seven Lives' would ultimately give him a renewed purpose that would go on to sustain him for the rest of his life. When World War One broke out, the not so young soldier had no regiment and the air of suspicion still hung about his name and reputation. Realising that he would not get very far in gaining a command in Europe, he headed out to Egypt at his own expense where an old friend General Maxwell was commanding the theatre. Turkey had declared war and even an Islamic Jihad against Britain and her empire and had attacked the Suez Canal. The Ottomans banished Jews from Palestine for fear that they were colluding with the Allies. Many of these Jews fled to the relative safety of Egypt where a young Jewish organiser by the name of Ze'ev Jabotinsky lobbied to form a Jewish formation to fight for the British Empire. Jabotinsky recruited a one-armed ex-Tsarist officer by the name of Joseph Trumpeldor. General Maxwell sadly informed Jabotinsky that foreigners were not permitted to join the British Army. However, he did have a way around this prohibition. He said that there was no such problem for non-British nationals to supply services to the British Army. Hence he came up with the idea of forming a Zion Mule Transport Corps. Jabotinsky was less than impressed with the idea and departed for Britain to lobby there instead. However, Trumpeldor understood the opportunity it presented in allowing Jews to serve and gain critical experience in a military setting. Patterson arrived in Egypt just as Maxwell was looking for a suitable British commander to oversee the new unit. Patterson was thrilled with the proposition. Having grown up with a deep admiration for the Old Testament and its heroes, this was an opportunity that he could not pass up. Furthermore, the timing was apposite as the Gallipoli Campaign was about to be embarked upon in earnest. After training, the Zion Mule Transport Corps was duly despatched to Cape Helles where it did indeed far more than merely supply British formations. They were attacked and had to defend themselves from Turkish onslaughts and on more than one occasion were desperately thrown into the trenches to hold the line from Turkish offensives. Patterson and Trumpeldor provided sympatico leadership for the new recruits and the regiment's bravery was soon beyond question. The eventual defeat and withdrawal of the Allies from the Gallipoli Peninsular was beyond their control. However, Patterson had been so moved by the dedication of his troops that he returned to England to lobby for the formation of a full Jewish Legion alongside Jabotinsky. This was to be a defining relationship for the rest of both men's lives. Extensive lobbying coincided with strategic sands shifting as the British War Cabinet sought Jewish support not just in the Middle East but for the wider war effort and in particular from amongst American Jewry. It is telling that some of the most effective opposition to the formation of a Jewish Legion came from a small cabal of British Jews themselves who were less than thrilled with ideas of Zionism. The author explains the extensive political battles that eventually resulted in the Balfour Declaration and the formation of the Jewish Legion to be trained at Crownhill Fort in Plymouth before being despatched to fight in the Middle East. This was possibly the height of Patterson's professional life as he fought with the Jewish Legion in Palestine itself in the closing days of World War One. Although they fought for only a short period, they demonstrated a ferocity and commitment that helped foil a Turkish counter-attack that could have undermined the entire offensive. Patterson felt that the Jewish Legion had served the British Empire admirably.

The seventh of Patterson's 'Seven Lives' was to be an undying commitment to Zionism despite being an Irish Protestant. He had discovered a new purpose to life and had been inspired by the commitment of his troops. He would dedicate the remaining three decades of his life to attempting to honour Britain's Balfour Declaration and create a homeland for the Jews. However this was easier said than done and although he often got support from the top tiers of government he felt that military professionals in the Palestine Mandate and the civil servants in the Colonial Service were frustrating these commitments. He felt that many of these were Arabophiles and often Arabic speakers who were better disposed to the Muslim populations of the Middle East than to the Jews. The interwar years would be turbulent for the Palestine Mandate as Jews and Arabs each sought to defend their communities and interests often at the expense of the other. Jabotinsky was instrumental in setting up the Irgun as a de facto Jewish defence force with Patterson's blessing and indeed encouragement. In fact, Patterson often veered dangerously towards treason in supporting an organisation that would steal weaponry from the authorities and later commit terrorist outrages against the British military. Jabotinsky would clash with the more sedate and pacific Zionist Chaim Weizmann. Jabotinsky would come to epitomise the more impatient and more vociferious face of Zionism. Although Weizmann's vision would be the ascendant version in early Israeli history, Jabotinsky's branch would also become a dominant force in Israeli politics in the long run... and coincidentally through a branch of the Netanyahu family who Patterson also came to know well. As a matter of fact, Patterson would become the godfather to Benyamin Netanyahu's brother; Jonathan who was even named in honour of Colonel Patterson. This is the same brother who was killed during the daring raid on Entebbe to release Jewish hostages. It is interesting that there is a direct line linking present day Israeli politics with the Zionism espoused by Patterson and his long term friend and collaborator Jabotinsky who sadly died from a heart attack whilst still working hard for the creation of Israel duuring the Second World War. By this time a now elderly Colonel Patterson was lobbying for the creation of a Jewish Army or at least a Jewish Brigade - along the lines of his Jewish Legion from the First World War. Politics and the strategic situation ebbed and flowed and the war had nearly ended before a formal Jewish Brigade in the British Army was formed. This did fight in Italy and even took part in liberating some of the Concentration Camps of the Nazis. They would also endeavour to help smuggle Jews back to Palestine despite Britain attempting to restrict Jewish immigration for fear of inflaming Arab sensitivities in the Mandate. An outraged Patterson felt that the Arabs had done little or nothing to aid Britain and yet their views seemed to hold sway above those of Zionists who had fought for Britain.

Sadly for John Patterson he died just one year before the creation of Israel. It must be said that few non-Jews could claim to have done as much as John Patterson to foster the creation of Israel and he has a fair claim to being regarded as the father of the Israeli Defence Forces who despite being outnumbered and outgunned pulled off stunning victories against invading Arab forces in 1948. One cannot help but think of the comparison with T.E. Lawrence (who Patterson much admired). Lawrence achieved very little for the Arabs despite his military efforts but earned world wide fame. Patterson, on the other hand, achieved remarkable feats on behalf of Zionists but little is remembered of him beyond his lion hunting exploits. One does have to wonder why such divergence in fame given their relative successes?

In summary, this is a fascinating book about a truly remarkable man. However, it does pull its punches and relies on an academic's efforts to verify all the facts. Sadly, in the case of someone like Colonel Patterson who hid so much of his private life, you cannot help but come away with as many questions as answers. Clearly, Patterson had a reputation and there are hints at his many indiscretions. The afterword by his grandson is arguably far more explosive than the book itself. It intimates that there were even bigger secrets that would add yet more layers to his already complex and full life. Clearly, Colonel Patterson was good at keeping secrets and so were others in his life. One does wish that an author or researcher try to get to the next level of truth in this man's remarkable life. One cannot fault Denis Brian for his verifiable but sometimes staid accounts in what was probably an even more intriguing and bizarre life. A mere 'Seven Lives' of Colonel Patterson may well be selling him too cheaply!

British Empire Book
Denis Brian


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