Neil Dearberg, Desert Anzacs: the Under-Told Story

Book review

by Honor Auchinleck

Neil Dearberg strikes a touch-paper in his title Desert Anzacs: The Under-Told Story.  Beyond Gallipoli, the name ‘Anzac’ evokes stories of the Gallipoli Campaign and heroic service on the Western Front in France.  Both aspects of the AIF service in World War One have been commemorated and extensively analysed in academic writings.  Fittingly Monash has been commemorated as a hero – but the war had other heroes in other theatres and no less deserving of recognition.  Dearberg makes a valiant effort to redress the balance with Desert Anzacs: the Under-Told story bringing to prominence some of the lesser known heroes of the First World War’s Palestine Campaign. 


Given his experience having taken part in the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP) and having travelled extensively in the region through which the Hejaz Railway ran, Dearberg is well qualified to reveal and analyse the influence of the Great Arab Revolt on the direction of the Middle Eastern Campaign.  Thrillingly Dearberg informs those who never knew and reminds others of the role of the Commonwealth Bank, ‘the only authority able to export gold in the period of prohibition during the war years exported £20,000 about $800,000,000 in today’s currency to support the Arab Revolt’. Dearberg comes into his own in bringing the stories of Australia’s lesser-known heroes, Captain Ross Smith and Lieutenant ‘Dickie’ Williams who served in the Australian Flying Corps. Ross Smith’s meteoric career saw him rise to command the 40th Palestine Wing RAF. Neither is the acerbic gunnery instructor Sergeant Charles Yells who served with Lawrence forgotten. 


Desert Anzacs: The Under-Told Story brings to prominence the stories of those who served in the Light Horse, the Medical Corps, the Australian Remount Units, The Army Veterinary Corps and the Australian Flying Corps. Heroes seldom work in isolation and the time is ripe to bring others to the forefront; to flesh out the story of the Palestine Campaign and to bring it to life in the readers’ minds. 


While Dearberg has done his research, he is not an academic and he writes with infectious enthusiasm, if rather colloquially.  Dearberg doesn’t shy from expressing his opinions and as he says, he doesn’t ‘shelter the incompetent’.  He is tough on Allenby, arguably unnecessarily so; that is for the reader to decide.  Dearberg’s statement ‘Chauvel’s Anzacs wanted to win the war, go home and didn’t care much about imperial anything.’ (p.232) is too broad to reveal the complexity of attitudes among Chauvel’s Anzacs towards the end of the War. 


Even though Dearberg served for fifteen years in the Australian Army, as a writer, he is mindful of his readers, avoiding military acronyms and providing a glossary of military terms.  An index would help the interested reader return to the stories of individuals such as Sergeant Yells.  Detailed maps would also help the reader envisage the context of the campaign. Another edition of Desert Anzacs: The Under-Told Story might see small errors corrected.


I hope that others will follow Dearberg’s lead and begin researching stories of the under-told and untold heroes of the Light Horsemen and those who served with the Light Horse in the Palestine Campaign and on the Western Front.  The Chauvel Foundation’s online anthology is a platform for these stories.