Friday, July 29, 2016

The Aussie Shirtfronter's Guide to History

I doubt failed PM Tony Abbott has ever come across a war he didn't like. (As opposed to actually being in one of course.) And, as a natural-born scrapper and pugilist, it seems to be of crucial importance to him that, in any stoush in which Australia has ever been involved, we land the first punch.

How else to explain this stuff and nonsense from his recent opinion piece published in the incredibly shrinking Sydney Morning Herald, Australians on the Western Front still offer a lesson to us today:

"But Australians didn't just fight at Gallipoli and in France. An Australian battery fired the Empire's first shot in anger to stop a German ship leaving Port Phillip. The Australian Light Horse was the spearhead of the British army that liberated Jerusalem and Damascus." (28/7/16)

Life being too short, I won't burden you with the rest of the paragraph, let alone a discussion of the the entire piece, but that second sentence cannot be allowed to pass as fact. No Australian (or Brit for that matter) ever fought his way into Jerusalem in December 1917 or Damascus in September 1918.

On the 'liberation' of the former, see my 24/4/15 post In the Burning Sands of the Middle East, a response to an earlier attempt by Abbott to peddle this tripe. On the 'liberation' of Damascus, you can read my 13/12/11 post Daley of Damascus.

But just to underline what fantastic bullshit Abbott is feeding us mushrooms here, let me focus again, using a different source this time, and at greater length, on the circumstances in which the 'liberation' of Damascus from Turkish control occurred:

"What a British army, much superior in numbers and arms and enjoying the goodwill of the Arab civil population, did to a Turkish army, much inferior in equipment, ill-fed and ill-clad and moreover operating in a hostile country has been well told in the official history [by Captain Cyril Falls, 1930]. All that is proposed to chronicle here, if only very briefly, is the part played by the Arabs in the victory and the whole campaign. The three Turkish armies in Palestine to the east and west of the River Jordan were supplied by the Hijaz railway running from Damascus to the junction at Dir'a from which one branch fed the forces in the western sector and the other those in the eastern. It was of vital military importance to cut off these connections before the British offensive was launched. The task was entrusted to Faisal [leader of the Arab Revolt]. A mobile column of 5,000 Arabs, who on the 17th and the 18th of September 'emerged like phantoms from the desert', blew up the railway to the north, south and west, shutting off Turkish supplies and cutting off lines of retreat. The few available British aeroplanes struck at Turkish army headquarters, telegraph, telephone, and road junctions. In the words of the historian, [British commander General Edmund] Allenby's victory was thus facilitated by 'two comparatively novel tools - aircraft and Arabs'.

"Once the Turkish lines were pierced to the north of Jaffa the fate of the two [Turkish] armies to the west of the Jordan was sealed. They offered such resistance as was necessary to cover the retreat northwards. The Arabs threw themselves across the line of retreat of the army to the east of the Jordan, hindered its retreat, captured prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties. Thus Allenby's victory was assured long before his forces reached Magiddo, the official name of the battle for Palestine and Syria. Limon von Sanders [the German commander of the Turkish forces], like British official historians of the war, stressed the importance of the aid given to the British forces by the Arab civil population. He cited the specific example of his headquarters at Nazareth, into which the British forces were led by Arab scouts along tracks.

"Confidence in victory was so high that barely 24-hours after the breakthrough [of] the Turkish lines Allenby despatched [T.E.] Lawrence by plane with a message to Faisal in these terms: 'I send Your Highness my greetings and my most cordial congratulations upon the great achievement of your gallant troops at Dir'a, the effect of which has, by throwing the enemy's communications into confusion, had an important bearing upon the success of our operations. Thanks to our combined efforts, the Turkish army is defeated and is everywhere in full retreat.'

"After the capture of Nazareth, von Sander's headquarters, the advance on Damascus was a speedy combined operation: the British army swung north-east inland along the ancient highway that forded the Jordan at Jisr Banat Ya'qub and straight to Qunaitira; the Arabs along, and mostly to the east of, the Hijaz railway. There was no 'fall' or 'surrender' of Damascus in the military sense. Politically the four centuries of Turkish rule came to an end at 2 pm on 30 September when, while the senior Turkish and German commanders were still in the city and offering no resistance, a provisional Arab government was proclaimed and the Arab flag was hoisted on the Town Hall. During the night of 20 September an advance force of the Arab Camel Corps entered the city, apart from many irregulars. Next morning at 7.30 am, Sharif Nasir rode, accompanied by Nuri Sha'lan, into the city to the Town Hall, soon to be followed by Lawrence.

"Here it is relevant to dispose of a myth that the city 'surrendered' to an Australian force and that the Arabs were not the first to take it. An advance guard of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was ordered to block the road from Damascus to Hims to prevent the Turkish retreat. But on account of the terrain in the Barada Gorge it was necessary to pass through the northern outskirts of the city. This the Brigade did unobtrusively early on the first of October. To magnify this episode and to represent it as evidence that the Arabs were not the first to enter Damascus is absurd. As stated above the city was under an Arab government from the afternoon of the previous day. There was no significance, military or political, in the passing of the Light Horse Brigade even through its centre. Allenby himself put it in the right words in a report to London: 'When my troops [Arab, Australian and British] entered the city an Arab administration was in being and Arab flags were flying from government buildings.' He described his own entry into the city as merely a 'visit'." (Anglo-Arab Relations & the Question of Palestine 1914-1921, A.L. Tibawi, 1977, pp 294-96)

PS: This very evening, while browsing in a bookshop, I happened upon a just-published 'history', The Last Fifty Miles: Australia & the End of the Great War, by Adam Wakeling. I couldn't help but note that Wakeling - *sigh* - peddles the very myth alluded to by Tibawi.

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