Monday, October 15, 2012

Time to Revisit the ANZAC's Sarafand Massacre

The militarisation of the Australian mind marches on:

"Ninety-five years after the Australian Light Horse led the charge of Beersheba to claim a pivotal victory in the Middle East theatre, Australians will once again charge through the desert sands. This time they ride in peace. As commemorations gear up to mark the decisive battle, a group of 40 Australians will today start their journey to Egypt, Turkey and Israel in the footsteps of the Light Horse. Members of the Australian Light Horse Association, including descendants of WW1 veterans, will re-enact the charge on the 95th anniversary of the battle on October 31... 'We're keeping the tradition alive,' [ALHA director Barry Rodgers] said. 'One of the reasons we're doing this is to raise the profile of the Middle East campaign. It has been very much overshadowed by Gallipoli and the Western Front'. The charge on Turkish positions and on to Beersheba was regarded as a success that ultimately led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire." (Men of peace cheer charge of the Light Horse brigade, Rosanne Barrett, The Australian, 15/10/12) 

One aspect of the Light Horse's sojourn in Palestine that's unlikely to be mentioned on the ALHA's 'In the Steps of the Light Horse' Tour 2012 is the post-armistace massacre of the defenceless inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Sarafand (often transliterated as Surafend) in November 1918. I've dealt with this particular war crime before (simply click on the AIF label below) but in light of the above and what is sure to follow by way of uncritical ms media attention, and as an antidote to the sickening tendency in this mercenary nation of ours to glorify all things military, it warrants revisiting.

Perhaps the most useful analytical commentary on the matter, which led to the British commander of the campaign against the Turks, General Allenby, writing off the AIF as "cold-blooded murderers," and denying them battle honours, is to be found in Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory & Indigenous Australia (2010) ed. by Peters-Little, Curthoys & Docker:

"In 1923, H.S. (Henry) Gullett, as part of Australia's official war history under the general editorship of Charles Bean, published The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine 1914-1918, where he constructs what we might call the ur-narrative of the Surafend massacre, inscribing the strange mix, part exculpatory, part condemnatory, that provides the motifs, images and tropes for almost all succeeding purported descriptions of what occurred. Post armistace, in their camps at Tripoli and on the Philistine plain, after a very successful campaign that secured the defeat of the Ottoman forces in Sinai, Palestine and Syria, the light horsemen, Gullett writes, participated in an 'unfortunate incident' that was destined to throw a 'shadow' over their last days in Palestine. It has to be recognised, however, he adds, that they were intolerably provoked, by the indigenous inhabitants in one way, and the British high command in another; indeed, they should be regarded as victims of both. Next to the camps of the Anzac Mounted Division of Australians and New Zealanders lay 'the native village of Surafend,' which elicits the following racial typing from Gullett: 'All the Arabs of western Palestine were thieves by instinct.' The 'natives of Surafend,' he continues, 'were notorious for their petty thieving.' At night, the Australians and New Zealanders, 'sleeping soundly were a simple prey to the cunning, barefooted robbers, and night after night men lost property from their tents.' In this image, the Light Horse are 'prey' to shoeless Arabs perceived as stealthy predatory scavengers...

"Gullett's official history provides the template description of how the Surafend massacre occurred. As is often the case with massacres or scenes of violent retribution, a single individual of one's own group is injured or killed. In this case, a New Zealand soldier is shot by a Bedouin, 'the native' who had been stealing in his tent. The New Zealanders, their whole camp immediately aroused, and 'working with ominous deliberation, then trace the 'footsteps of the Arab' to Surafend. The New Zealanders throw a 'strong cordon' around the village, no Arab being allowed to leave. All day, Gullett says, the New Zealanders 'quietly organised for their work in Surafend, and then, early in the night, marched out 'many hundreds strong' and surrounded the village. In his narrative, Gullett stresses that only male Bedouin were harmed. When they entered the village, the 'New Zealanders grimly passed out all the women and children,' and then, 'armed chiefly with heavy sticks, fell upon the men and at the same time fired the houses.' Many Arabs, Gullett tells us, were killed and few escaped injury; the village was demolished and set on fire, and the flames from the 'wretched houses lit up the countryside.' The Anzacs next 'raided and burned the neighbouring nomad camp,' and then went 'quietly back to their lines.'

"Gullett concedes that what happened 'cannot be justified,' and affirms that Surafend 'should not be forgotten.' Nonetheless, he insists, 'in fairness to the New Zealanders and to the Australians who gave them hearty support,' we have to consider that the soldiers 'were the pioneers and the leaders in a long campaign.' They had just lost a 'veteran comrade,' at the hands of a race they despised'; consequently, he feels, they became 'angry and bitter beyond sound reasoning.'" (pp 56-57)

Just for the record, here are two 2 other references to the Sarafand massacre not available on the internet. The first, by our Palestine policeman Douglas V. Duff (click on the label below), reprises (derives from?) Gullett's colonial portrayal of Palestinian Arabs as instinctual thieves. Duff, you'll notice, 'improves' on Gullett in several respects.

"A mile away [from Ramleh] is the village of Sarafand, a place that suffered severely from the Australians during the military occupation. A set of thieving, murderous, cowardly curs are these men of Sarafand; sand-rats who preyed upon the soldiers, and ended by treacherously murdering several. The Australians, maddened by the deaths of their comrades, surrounded the village, sacked it, and killed some of the worst characters who lived there - a lesson that Sarafand has never forgotten. They are no longer active criminals, but any brigand, highway robber, or fugitive from justice, is assured of a welcome from them, always supposing that the Government has not offered a price for his capture, in which case he is certain of betrayal." (Palestine Picture, 1936, p 192)

Much closer to the time comes this brief, teasing reference from the Regimental Medical Officer to the 39th Royal Fusiliers, the 2nd Judean Battalion, Redcliffe Salaman. Salaman is writing to his wife from Ludd (Lydda/Lod) Palestine on 18 December, 1918:

"When I get home I will tell you a rather terrible tale concerning the way that Australians avenged a murder of one of their men here. It was an ordered lynch law - a mixture of chivalry and sternest justice, absolutely spontaneous..." (Palestine Reclaimed, 1920, pp 143-144)


Anonymous said...

I first heard about this event from the son of a NZ soldier who was there ( I think) name of Gainfort and he was in 2000 one of the last survivors of WW1 being nearly 100 years old.
I was told the story after I mentioned a sickly lamb I had, had died. I said it had not been worth treating.. and was told "not worth a bullet". His father told him they bayonetted the Arabs as they were not worth a bullet. Tough men in those days.

MERC said...

Thanks for that. 'Tough' is one way to describe them. I could think of others. The bayoneting certainly contradicts Gullett's account.