To make this book more readable, I have avoided military and political jargon and technical details where possible. It is therefore, less military and more personal than other texts about war and the stories of soldiers. It’s also written for normal people, rather than journalists and historians.
In the past, many historians and authors have been careful not to criticise British political and military leaderships. I offer criticism where it is warranted and I don’t shelter the incompetent. I’ve also supported and applauded their leadership where justified.
This is a book about the soldiers, told, at times with a bit of humour and at other times quite emotionally. The text includes real quotes from the soldiers themselves rather than invented dialogue to maintain the accuracy of their stories.
The Great War conflicts in France and Gallipoli gave Australia Anzac Day and its fighting legend. The Sinai Palestine Campaign confirmed that fighting legend. It saved the Suez Canal for Great Britain that in turn saved the British Empire. And, it gave the world the Middle East chaos of today. The link between these campaigns was the Suez Canal.
Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal gave international shipping direct access from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Whoever controlled the canal in wartime would have a tremendous. The British had occupied Egypt and controlled the canal since 1882. During the war, the canal was strategically priceless to Britain; essential for the supply of men, materiel and millions of Australian gold sovereigns to Europe and the Middle East. German shipping, denied the canal, was deflected down the west coast then back up the east coast of Africa before accessing the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and their East African and Pacific colonies.
Control of the Suez Canal dominated British, German and Ottoman strategy throughout the war.
When England went to war so did Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, the West Indies and South Africa as British dominion countries. The Anzac dominions gave the British Empire its first victory of the Great War two years after it started, at the Battle of Romani in August 1916. Twenty-five miles from the Suez Canal, the Anzac’s Sinai Palestine Campaign began. Anzacs then rode, flew or drove on for another two and a half years to forge an eternal national heritage.
The Anzacs’ Sinai Palestine Campaign has not previously been explained in any detail, despite its greater influence on mankind than anything from this war or WWII.
In those days, dominions were simply referred to as ‘British’. Little recognition was given to national identity, even in their home countries. Domestic governments and media lived in a ‘King and Empire’ dreamland of subservience.
Throughout the campaign, some politicians and diplomats in England understood the need to hold the Suez Canal and provide the military resources to do so. Others, however, gave priority to the Western Front of Belgium and France while to them, Sinai Palestine became a sideshow. Political confusion often drowned military considerations and trained English soldiers were taken from the Middle East back to France, to be replaced by untrained citizens who had worn their uniforms for minutes, rather than months. This wretched replacing of experienced soldiers with shopkeepers and farmers plagued commanders throughout the campaign, extending its duration.
Only the Anzacs, led by Australia’s Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel and New Zealand’s Major General Edward Chaytor, provided continuity from beginning to end. The Anzacs gave stability to the British led Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). They provided the warrior advantage to British commanders and likely saved the British Empire.
Most were young, many too young to even vote. Others weren’t so young. Thousands of Australian soldiers stumbled wobbly- legged off ships after weeks at sea. They’d crossed the Indian Ocean, sailed through the Red Sea and up the Suez Canal, then between the sands of Egypt on the left and Sinai on the right. Packed into antiquated trains, they’d slung rifles and packs onto stained floors covered with dirt and trash, then dropped onto hard wooden seats with broken slats and no cushions. They bounced around all the way to Cairo.
Tent cities popped up right next to the pyramids, just as they had in gold-rush boomtowns of Australia’s Bendigo and Ballarat decades earlier. They camped beside the young soldiers of New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, West Indies, Great Britain and the Ghurkhas of Nepal. Then they prepared for France and Gallipoli. First they had to acclimatise, continue the training these volunteers briefly started at home, practise their musketry, ready their horses and bond with new mates. Day after day, as weeks became months, they trained. It was hot, hard work. When they got leave, those naughty Australians cut loose. The market traders, beer sellers and loose women of Cairo had never before experienced such wild behaviour.
For the next few months, the young soldiers camped and trained near the pyramids, about 25 miles from the Suez Canal. That canal became the focus of British wartime thinking in the East for the next four years.
But a nasty surprise lay ahead. The Turks and Germans wanted that canal.
On the night of 2 February 1915 sleep came easily and deep. Dreams were gentle for the unbothered and somewhat bored soldiery of His Majesty’s armed forces.
Erupting from the empty darkness, around 3am, screeching klaxons slammed the defenders’ eardrums. Dormitory lights flickered to brilliance then scalded startled eyeballs. Exploding shells rained among their tents. Terror struck, dazed men fell from beds. Rifles fired outside. Men yelled, ran. Machine guns belted out death songs. In mixed states of dress, soldiers scrambled for their rifles.
The Turks had arrived.
WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST HAD STARTED
* * *
At that time the Middle East was ruled by the 600 year- old Ottoman Empire – once a massive empire coming after, yet rivalling in size and influence, the mighty empires of Rome and Greece. In triumphant times, the Ottomans controlled the massive trade routes through the unique land junction that joins Asia Minor to Europe at Constantinople (Istanbul today). It was an empire controlled by wealth and military strength. It was a palette of races, religions, cultures, customs, skin colours, languages, gastronomy, architecture and clothing.
The Ottomans had ruled over the construction of the Suez Canal, then the greatest waterway of the planet. But they couldn’t meet their loan repayments as a result of bad economic management and the British took control of the canal with a military presence in 1882. But they had won at Gallipoli.
THIS WAS OUR ENEMY
Sharif Hussein bin Ali, a direct descendant of Mohammed, was leader of the Hashemite tribe in the Hejaz region (the western region of today’s Saudi Arabia). He was protector of the religious centres of Mecca and Medina but had been ‘extradited’ to Constantinople in 1893, along with his three sons and wife, by the Caliph Sultan.
However, trouble brewed throughout the empire. Rebellious Arab discontent had grown so much that, under pressure from the revolutionary Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the Sultan returned Hussein to his homeland in December 1908.
The Arabs of the Hejaz considered revolting against the Ottomans. In 1912 and again in early 1914, Emir Abdullah, second son of Hussein, approached Lord Kitchener to sound out British support for such an uprising. No war, no support, was Kitchener’s reply. But encouragement was given should war erupt.
All that was needed was a war, and the Germans came to the party.
The Great War finally got going after Germany trampled over Belgium and France. Great Britain retaliated by declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Australia’s Government received the news like free beer at a wedding. The Governor- General Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson blurted:
There is indescribable enthusiasm and unanimity throughout Australia in support of all that tends to provide for the security of the [British] empire in war.
As a dominion, Australia was obliged to go to war with Great Britain, but our government was able to determine to what extent it would contribute. A few days earlier, in anticipation of war, the government of Prime Minister Joseph Cook pledged to Great Britain: ‘20,000 soldiers and all our naval ships’. On the declaration of war the Minister of Defence, Senator Millen, screeched: ‘Australia is no fair-weather partner in the Empire’. And the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Andrew Fisher, who became Prime Minister at the election on 5 September, shouted at a public meeting: ‘The last man and the last shilling will defend the Empire’.
‘Bloody beaudy!’ was the cry of innocent, maybe naive, youthful exuberance. Men enlisted in droves, faster than sheep on the run could jump fences. Age was no barrier to enthusiasm. Many youngsters without parental consent forged their ages to enlist and fathers with sons joined the lengthening queues, lest there be no uniforms left.
In August 1914 three brothers sat around their kitchen table listening to the wireless report of Germany’s rampage across Europe: Robert, Albert and the fifteen year-old Eric Bolton-Wood. Young Eric wrote himself a letter of permission, signed it as his mother and trotted off to enlist. ‘How old did you say you are, young fella?’ demanded the recruiting sergeant. ‘Nineteen, just like it says in the letter Sir’, came the eager reply. Off to the doctor went Eric, then into a uniform.
As the war’s casualties mounted, when more men were needed, on 17 March 1917 in the tiny country town of Walpeup in northwest Victoria, a five-foot four-inch lad of fifteen years, weighing in at eight stone with rocks in his pockets by the name of Harold Bell, wrote a note to his mum and dad telling them he was going to Queensland to do some jackarooing. Harry could ride bareback, work endlessly with limited food and water, shoot the eye out of a duck on a creek and find his way through unknown countryside – he was a natural for the Light Horse, his dream. Bag packed and note on the home sideboard, Harry snuck out to the recruiting office.
Harry filled out his paperwork saying his name was Harry Wickham, aged twenty-one, his next of kin was his uncle, Thomas Bell of Walpeup, Victoria. The recruiting officer wasn’t sure and asked, ‘You look a bit young, got a birth certificate?’ Harry creatively replied, ‘No sir, it was lost in a fire few years back’, to which the recruiter responded, ‘What about your parents?’ ‘Died in the fire, Sir. Got my uncle but we don’t talk much’. Passing this inquisition, Harry Bell became Trooper Harold Wickham of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.
Mateship, that driving force of Australia’s heritage, saw the menfolk of country towns and villages enlist as groups. The local bank manager or lawyer or grazier became the unit commander. City kids fell in with suburban ‘cousins,’ forging camaraderie with blokes from home. They were boys from the ‘bush,’ or outdoor workers in trade or labouring, Man from Snowy River types. All were thrilled to don the uniform, grab a rifle and march the town streets to bugle and drum; and the crowds cheered.
* * *
The Good, the Bad and the Arabs
On the basis of birth origin we’ll call the ‘good guys’ the British that included the Dominions. This meant, of course, that when troops of the Dominions succeeded, hometown Englishmen thought their farmers and shopkeepers had done a marvellous job.
Generals and other officers
Great Britain had not fought a sizeable land war against a sophisticated European enemy since the Duke of Wellington whipped Napoleon at Waterloo one hundred years earlier. They had really contested only minor skirmishes such as Crimea in the 1860s and the Boers in late 1800s/early 1900s, or expeditions against the spears and arrows of natives in Australia, Africa, India, the Pacific and Asia. In this way they had created an Empire without a foothold in Europe. No surprise, then, that many of Britain’s numerous generals at the start were over-promoted; few had seen the anger of shot or shell or held field command in their entire careers.
And of course, there had to be a ‘bad guy’. On the basis of birth origin again, we’ll call the bad guys the Ottomans – commonly known as Turks, plus Germans and Austrians. History seldom tells the story of the vanquished, as usually only the victor gets to tell his tale of supremacy, somewhat like the story ‘until the lion learns to speak the hunter’s story will be believed’. But it’s worth knowing as they too were sons, husbands, fathers and brothers who fought the fight with passion to a forlorn cause.
Sultan Mehmed V, at the instigation of the Young Turks, had decreed his Jihad to Muslims worldwide in November 1914 declaring:
Know that our state is at war with the Governments of Russia, England and France and their allies, who are the mortal enemies of Islam. The Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph of the Muslims, summons you to the Jihad.
This Jihad scared the socks off British officials, fearing their vast Muslim populations in India and Egypt might follow the call and rise against them. Such fear had an overpowering influence on British policy in the East.
And the Arabs
This campaign was fought in the land of today’s Arabs.
Humans have occupied the Middle East for around 50,000 years. That’s 45,000 before the first of the Egyptian pyramids. It’s 48,000 before the birth of Jesus. It’s 48,500 before the birth of Mohammed. It’s 49,400 before the Ottomans arrived. Around 49,800 before Governor Phillip and the First Fleet settled in Sydney Cove.
In a tribal existence tribes came and went. Civilisations came and went. Nations never existed. Nomads wandered. Towns sprung up; some survived. Arabic Bedouin culture created over those millennia in that harsh environment provides hospitality to an unknown traveller for up to three days without question. That same culture allows five generations to seek retribution if a tribe or clan is dishonoured; that can be anything from a stolen goat or drinking from another’s water well, to rape and murder; then another five generations for re-retribution; and so the circle of their life goes on.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA WOULD ASSIST THE ARAB REVOLT AND ANZACS WOULD ASSIST LAWRENCE AND THE ARABS
* * *
From Chapter 8
Meanwhile, this period enabled the Anzacs to hone their desert skills. They often moved at night to avoid the heat, flies and detection by the enemy watching for columns of dust. Navigating the featureless dunes where the one in front looked the same as the one behind, using just starlight and a compass became second nature to them, much the same as in outback Australia.
When a beachgoer shakes his towel and sand flicks into unsuspecting eyes, it causes momentary discomfort. But suffering this desert every day for weeks, or months, is another matter entirely. As Trooper Robert Bygott explains after one of his skirmishes:
And laying in the scorching sun made a fellow terribly thirsty and the water in your bottle was hot, but better than nothing and you had to be very careful as you didn’t know where the next one was coming from.
It’s simple physiology: if you don’t drink, you die. If you don’t drink enough, you still die. The initial water allocation to troops in the desert by British staff, who could be accused of more care about water for their scotch each evening than troops in the desert received, was ‘in the hot sun only one water bottle a day to drink and wash with’, as Bygott continued. To give some idea of the heat, Trooper Bygott colourfully says, ‘the sun would melt the sins out of Satan’. So you can believe water and thirst were issues.
It took Chauvel’s appeal to General Murray himself to force the staff to provide a second water bottle. This common sense decision could easily have been made at a lower level in an effective HQ.
If you really want to tick off good soldiers, give them rotten food. Not that the admin staff didn’t buy good food. They just neglected to have it packaged and stored properly. By the time good meat and vegetables arrived, it was often fly blown and putrid. Long past was the view that enduring hardship was a soldier’s contribution to a war effort. Morale suffers when the problem is unremitting. As reported by Colonel Keogh:
The rigid and unimaginative attitude of the administrative staffs created amongst the troops out on the hard, blazing desert a feeling of resentment and bitterness towards the people who worked and lived in comparative luxury in Egypt.
But sometimes it wasn’t the unimaginative staff. – ‘Capt Weir reported [A] Bedouin dog stole our bacon this morning, that’s worse than a Taube’.
Villain or hero
Now, some thought this preparatory life in the sand was not the real war. For two years death and destruction had been happening in France. The desert itself wasn’t the issue; many thought that a man should be fighting in that real war where fellow Australians were already dying and others needed help.
Feelings were strong among the Anzac soldiery. Some felt they had to help their mates better. Corporal Francis Curran and six of his mates from the 7th ALH Regiment, stowed away on a ship bound for Marseilles in the south of France, intending to make a worthwhile contribution to the war that they’d signed up for. Lt Col George Langley reports:
With several others, he was caught at Marseilles and returned, crestfallen, to Egypt. Technically, he had deserted and when the facts about him were found out he was placed under arrest.
THE NEXT TURKISH ATTACK ON THE SUEZ CANAL BECAME THE BATTLE OF ROMANI where;
General Murray (the British Commander) scattered the Anzac Mounted Division so Chauvel had only two of his four brigades. The NZMR Brigade (less the Wellington Regiment but with 5th ALH Regiment) went west under the command of General Lawrence, with an infantry division incapable of fast movement, as a reserve force. The 3rd Brigade went south under Murray’s command with his reserve force of immobile infantry on the canal. But Chauvel was given what was left of the Territorial 5th Yeomanry Brigade and their untrained, inexperienced reinforcements. Made sense to no one but Murray and totally bewildered Chauvel.
To divide the Anzacs among British commanders who didn’t understand light horse tactics and place them among immobile infantry, after acknowledging their outstanding combined work under Anzac commanders, was stupid. The suggestion by staff officers that the Anzacs could teach desert battle procedure to the inexperienced British troops instead of developing their own teamwork and battle procedures was offered, but is absurd. Yeomanry charge into the fight with swords; light horsemen approach then dismount and proceed as infantry with rifle and bayonet. Where’s the synergy here?
BACK TO CPL CURRAN
Corporal Curran, still under arrest knew the stoush was on; he broke out. Being a man under arrest, he had no weapon. Nevertheless, he went forwards to seek someone who would use his services; he became a stretcher-bearer at the field ambulance. Colonel Langley explains:
He escaped from his guard, hating to miss a scrap and started out on his own as a stretcher-bearer. He found his way to the front line where he gave a drink and a cheery word to the slightly wounded men. The badly wounded ones he helped or carried in himself. Fourteen times he braved the flying bullets to bring in wounded men. His luck, however, petered out and on his next errand of mercy he was killed.
Because he was a soldier under arrest, he was given no medal or award.
Then, Sergeant Sharp of the 9th ALH Regiment and his troop of around 30 horsemen swooped around the side of a much larger Turkish force and unexpectedly charged them with bayonet and rifle. Some 425 Turks surrendered with their seven machine guns to this outrageously small force. This type of boldness by the Anzacs often won the day. Sgt Sharp later became Lieutenant Sharp and was awarded a Military Cross.
Romani was the first major British victory in two years of the Great War. Delivered by Chauvel and the Anzacs. It was the turning point of the British campaign in the East. The Suez Canal was never again threatened.
* * *
Trooper Scotty Bolton, a 23 year-old from Geelong, astride his waler, Monty, was among those early into town. Monty suddenly careered wildly, nearly throwing Scotty. He later discovered a rifle shot had narrowly missed his own leg, and deflected off his water bottle but cut a swathe about 12 inches long through Monty’s rump. Regaining control, on they went.
…Scotty was just about to join them when he heard one, then a second explosion. Spotting wires in the sand he followed them until they went over a windowsill. Inside was a German officer at a detonation board. Scotty rushed inside putting the revolver to the German’s head. One used his language and the other used his; the revolver translating instantly. Handing the German to others and disconnecting the wires, Scotty remounted only to see a Turkish gun crew making away with their gun. Not allowing this to happen on his watch, Scotty dashed after them, dislodging the driver from his carriage and forcing the others to raise their hands.
… Scotty received the DCM for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.
JUMPING AHEAD TWO YEARS AND MOVING TO CHAP 18
- VIA Beersheba, Gaza, Jerusalem, Jerico, Es Salt, Amman, Bethlehem, the Jordan Valley,
THE END IS NIGH’
The morale of Johnny Turk
Morale and welfare were never concerns for the Turkish Pashas. Men were often taken from family, given a rifle and some rags to wear, poorly fed, unpaid, and put into a no-win situation, creating desertions a plenty.
Chauvel’s biographer, A.J. Hill reported;
The poor old Turkish soldier lacked almost everything, especially good food and boots. His animals were so under-nourished that they could not be relied upon to haul his guns and, while the soldiers could escape their misery by deserting, the draught animals could only die. This they did in the hundreds.
The Turkish soldiers had been told of outstanding German victories in France and seen the raids east of the Jordan go their way. But they knew they had been pushed back from the Suez to near the end of Palestine by crazed horsemen. And not all the Turks could be fed nonsense:
The stolid Turkish soldier paid little heed to German reports. He was too well accustomed to seeing his own victories exaggerated and his failures explained away. His religious fanaticism had long since burned itself out.
MOVING ON TO GENERAL ALLENBY’S FINAL OFFENSIVE
The start was set for the early morning on 19 September 1918. The previous day had been hot and the night before was bright with a full moon that fell below the horizon at 3.55am. The breeze fell away as tens of thousands of men groped in the moonless dark, moving into their start positions, soundless in the pre-dawn before the horizon’s shutter came up to let in the soft glow of the new day. Tension trapped unspoken words in the dry throats of the infantry. Gunners soundlessly opened breeches, inserting high explosive shells. Horsemen saddled in silence. Everywhere, nods to mates, no words. Prayers. Thoughts of loved ones. One mile away lay the supposedly unsuspecting Turks. Would this be as swift as they had been led to believe, or would Johnny Turk be waiting ready to cut down the attackers, secrecy vaporised?
* * *
Northern Palestine became a scene of mayhem. Horsemen scattered with the speed of wildlife stampedes while Turks fell like leaves from trees in a winter’s storm. With the speed of the advance, the ability to continue was based on the ability to receive resupplies. Under the master guidance of Colonel Stansfield, responsible for supplies and transport within the DMC, water and horse feed were plentiful and supplies were arriving regularly; the brigades were ready for fresh enterprises.
A delightful surprise awaited at Jenin. A few thousand bottles of sweet sparkling German wine were discovered in a large cave beside the aerodrome. A light horse guard was correctly placed upon this treasure; but somehow, for some miles around, there was for a day or two a broad smile upon dusty, unshaven Australian faces.
The DMC were now behind the 7th and 8th Armies that were in total disarray and streaming northwards, heading for Turkey, their way blocked. At Jenin:
Lieutenant Patterson of the machine gun squadron was sent with two guns in support. Patterson at once came into contact with the head of a Turkish column moving on Jenin from the south ... he opened machine gun fire over the heads of the approaching enemy. As the head of the column halted in confusion, Patterson ceased fire and shouted to them to surrender. By chance a German nurse who spoke ready English was marching with the officers at the head of the column and Patterson told her he was supported by a large force. She interpreted Patterson’s bluff and, after a brief discussion, the column of 2,800 troops and four guns surrendered to the 23 Australians.
The Turks quickly regretted such a hasty surrender:
ON 31 OCT THE OTTOMANS SIGNED THE ARMISTICE
Chauvel had established himself as Master and Commander. He’d joined them in Egypt. Took them to Gallipoli and brought them back to Egypt. He led them from the first day across Sinai and was still their leader two and a half weary years later, now at the head of the most victorious mounted force in history.
Medics, vets, nurses, rough riders, drivers, mechanics, storemen, ground crew, cooks, signallers, engineers, postal officers, Commonwealth Bank officers, women of the canteen services and Red Cross, dentists and a naval bridging unit had all contributed to the Anzac role. The flyers, horsemen, cameleers and armoured car drivers were at the forefront of the shooting and performed so brilliantly thanks to their supporters. They all integrated the Anzac spirit and legend that lives on today.