11th November 2018 marks the Centenary, of the Armistice when the Allies and Germany ceased hostility at the end of the Great War. Simon Bloomberg was a young Jewish soldier who fought bravely for Great Britain only to fall victim to mustard gas shortly before the war ended. Fortunately he survived. His life was spared and he was able to help spare the lives of many of his people when he became the only Jewish leader of the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp after World War 2. In Honour of the Centenary we publish Chapter 4 of Simon’s Biography.
Life After Belsen, Chapter 4
World War 1 – France and Flanders
The outbreak of the World War I on 28 July 1914 posed a personal problem to all young entrants in the Customs and Excise department. Our contemporaries were joining up to fight and many of us were keen to go with them. However, we were entreated by the Board of Customs and Excise to stay at our posts and promised an early release from our contract. Only those already in the Territorial Army were permitted to go, others who went had to resign. The board stressed the importance of money as a sinew of war and that somebody had to remain behind to do the collection.
My release did not come for a couple of years, but as a salve to our consciences we were permitted to enlist voluntarily prior to the date of our release and, as a further salve, we were issued with a lapel badge proclaiming our indispensability, which was to protect us from female busybodies who distributed white feathers to young men, not in uniform. I was released at the end of 1915 and found myself at Chester Castle ready and willing to ‘take the King’s shilling.’ I had opted to enlist in the Civil Service Rifles but the recruiting sergeant thought otherwise and I was drafted into the Royal Artillery at Fulwood near Preston.
“Religion?” the elderly recruiting sergeant enquired and I recall how perturbed he was when I answered, “Jewish.”
“Can’t put that down” he said, “We’ll just put Hebrew.”
To him, the word Jew was obviously only used in a disapproving sense and he had no wish to hurt my feelings.
Incidentally, being a Jew in the army carried some privileges. I escaped the Sunday church parades with their spit and polish uniform code and, as a bonus, received special leave for Jewish holidays. These were, of course, granted subject to the needs of the service.
The Royal Horse Artillery Battery with which I served in France was a fine team of professional soldiers who knew their trade and who were inclined to scorn the amateurs sent to replace their losses, and as I was considered a little too insubordinate to make a good soldier, I had a rough time. I was happiest at the forward observation posts far away from the exacting voice of my sergeant who seemed to like the sound of my name as it rolled off his tongue so often.
To most young men, the foul army language and the crude attitude to the opposite sex came, at first, as a shock, but the uniform and the training soon reduced us all to one common denominator. The appalling conditions of life in the trenches were accepted with a much grumbling however our soldier’s irrepressible sense of humour never failed them. The British Tommy’s one hope was to get a ‘blighty’ – a bullet wound sufficiently serious to merit being shipped home to Britain and get away from it all. Even in the great retreat in 1918 when Field Marshal Douglas Haig issued his ‘backs to the wall’ clarion call there was a sense of relief at the thought that it was all over bar the shouting. When we started chasing the Germans and knew the end was near, the main thought was how much longer it could last.
“ ‘I can’t put Jewish down,” he said, ‘we’ll just put Hebrew.’ To him, the word Jew was obviously only used in a disapproving sense and he had no wish to hurt my feelings.”
In the summer of 1918 when we were attached to an Australian division, we provided artillery support for a much-depleted New South Wales battalion that rooted out a strong German rear guard from Peronne. When the Aussies came out of action a British general addressed them near our gun position showing them on a map how much territory their division had taken since they stopped the rot at Villers-Bretonneux, just outside Amiens. When he finished his eulogy, he asked if there were any questions and a voice from the rear asked: “When are we coming out of the line, you old bastard?” The Aussies were no respecters of persons.
Towards the end of the war, in 1918, my battery had a tough time trying to root out a German rear guard action that was holding up our advance between Peronne and the Hindenburg Line. During this time, I was a signaller, going out each night to patrol the single strand telephone line between the battery and the forward observation post. It was a fiercely challenging job jumping in and out of shell holes trying to find the broken ends of the wire, and I was cynically amused when I received a message from a signaller friend in an adjoining battery wishing me a Happy New Year.
The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) was about a week off and the thought flashed across my mind that I might ask for leave to attend a synagogue to celebrate the event. I had no idea where the nearest place of worship might be, or whether there was a Jewish chaplain in the field. It was a long shot but it was worth a try. I paraded before my major who passed me on to the brigadier who listened to my story sympathetically and eventually granted me leave. I left the battery, filthy but not forlorn with my rations in a horse’s nosebag, glad to get away from the draining pressure of unending war for a few days.
I got a ride with a truck, funnily enough loaded with spearmint chewing gum, and chewed all the way to Amiens. The city was still uninhabited after the German advance in March 1918 and there was no synagogue or chaplain there. So, off I went by train to Rouen where a friendly RASC sergeant arranged for a hot bath, a clean uniform and my first decent meal in months. After the battlefield, it was heaven. Furthermore, I enjoyed attending the French synagogue and when I got back to the battery, ready for action, the sergeant major greeted me with the remark, “Next time I’ll join up as a Jew.”
A month later towards the end of October, just before the war ended, a treacherous valley filled with mustard gas ended my active service in front of the Hindenburg Line. I was gassed and evacuated to hospital in Rouen and then to England. My war was over.
This was no blighty, a bullet would have been preferable to the burns, blistered skin, sore eyes and vomiting. Known to attack the bronchial tubes, mustard gas strips off the mucous membrane causing bleeding both internally and externally and is extremely painful. I would have problems breathing for the rest of my life, which is why I was always ready to spend time in warmer climates.
It’s hard to express the profound effect my three years in the British Army had on my outlook and character. Had I enlisted with my friends and contemporaries, I may have enjoyed the early experiences of training and breaking in, but as I did most of my soldiering with hardened regulars whose ideas were so different to mine, it was no easy passage. Even so I was relieved to be alive, unlike so many of the brave men I fought alongside.
Order Life After Belsen to read more of Simon’s Story of how he survived WW1 to help His People Survive WW2.