Speech by Dr Jean Bou at the  Launch of The Light Horse Exhibition: Australians in the Middle East 1916-18

Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, 27 October 2017

I would like to begin by thanking the Shrine for the opportunity to speak here today. Believe it or not it is the first time I have been to the Shrine – as a Queenslander and then a Canberran I can take some refuge in the fact that I have rarely had an opportunity to do so, and when I’ve been in Melbourne higher priorities have got in the way. So it is good to finally get here to see this impressive structure and its museum.

As someone who has written a fair bit on the Palestine Campaign I have been asked to say a few words about it to help launch this exhibition. As an ‘operational military historian’ I generally talk about the conduct of the campaign in one way or another, its strategic setting, or attempt an exposition on one or more battles to highlight something like what actually happened, or to outline its standing or consequences. Today, however, gives me an opportunity to talk about the campaign in a way that I have not done often. First I will talk a bit about the way the campaign is remembered, the sometimes dreaded ‘memory’, with which comes heartfelt commemoration, but frequently also a good deal of distortion and mythmaking. Second, I will talk a bit about the human experience of the campaign, which again is sometimes reduced to rather dreamy notions of horsemen dashing over the desert, having a fine old time – a kind of romantic alternative to the grimness of the Western Front.


I won’t insult your intelligence by banging on about supposedly forgotten history, except to observe that all history is more or less forgotten, and just because you or I have not heard of something doesn’t mean someone else has not – a point too often forgotten by some authors and their publishers when it comes to Australia’s war history.


That said it does seem fair to observe that when it comes to the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns of 1916–18 the event that stands out more than any other in the collective Australian memory is the charge at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. Indeed I could not but help note that the launching of this exhibition coincides with the anniversary to within a few days. I’m certainly not having a go at the Shrine for that, they are not alone in using Beersheba as a waypoint for dealing with the campaign in some way – a hook is a hook and it’s better than nothing.

Dr Jean Bou, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

Beersheba’s dominance is not without its complications, however. Most fundamentally it reduces the Australian experience to a single battle, and when it comes to Beersheba it mostly reduces it to a single event, the famous charge by the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at the end of the day, which seized the town and the all-important wells. A fame that I suspect has a lot to do with its reducibility to a simple but thrilling story that has been twice dramatised for Australian feature films, something that not even Gallipoli can equal.


The charge was a remarkable feat of arms and deserves to be acknowledged as such, but of course, it was just one episode in a day-long battle in which other events were important – and indeed without some of them, the charge would probably have been an impossible undertaking. Moreover, if we start taking steps back the day at Beersheba was but one chapter in a much larger battle for southern Palestine, during which other fights (not to mention events off the battlefield) were also important for deciding the outcome. Beyond that, we are talking about one period in a campaign that lasted nearly three years in which there were many important moments. And of course, the campaign itself was but one aspect of a terrible, epochal global war between empires. A war that claimed several of those empires, ended millions of lives and helped set up a series of problems that contributed to an even greater conflict only a few decades afterwards.


By all means, remember and think about the events at Beersheba, but try also to remember, or better yet investigate, its context. Doing so does not diminish what those men did on that day, but it will enrich your appreciation of it. In that vein, I’m pleased to note that this exhibition is not just about Beersheba, but aims to give a wider picture of the Australian involvement in the campaign.


Having done my professional duty to urge all of you to go off and read more history, I will turn to my second theme, the human experience.


As I mentioned there has been something of a tendency over the years to treat the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns almost as light relief to the fighting elsewhere, particularly the Western Front. Of course, the fighting was different and for the Australians, it was decidedly less dangerous, as the respective casualty lists offer eloquent enough testimony. There were several reasons for this discrepancy, first, battles in Palestine rarely lasted more than a few days, and, second, the mounted troops such as the light horse and cameleers were rarely called on to do the heavy lifting of assaulting strongly defended positions. If the low cost of the charge at Beersheba is often remarked upon in Australia, less often noted is the more than 1000 casualties suffered by British infantry that morning during the successful assault of the Ottoman defences to the south-west of town. Similarly, the 6500 British casualties suffered by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the failed one-day Second Battle of Gaza, mostly among the British infantry, was not what could be called a bloodless effort.


An Ottoman bullet or shell could just as surely end or shatter a life as could a German one and the comparison is unfair to those who served in Palestine.  The comparison is not just one that can be projected backwards into history, it was part of the Australian experience of the war. It is rather lost to us now, but at the time the term ‘cold-footed light horse’ was one that gained some currency. Writing to his wife of his experience of charging with the 12th Regiment at Beersheba, Edward Dengate, was somewhat embittered by the characterisation:


But it’s a fact, the bullets were that thick one could not spit through them. ‘Cold-footed Light Horse’, they call us, if they could see the graves…scattered about the desert from the Canal to Jordan they would (or might) change their views, or if they could have seen the Battlefield after the 19th of April last year [that’s second Gaza]…they would have seen the bones of the ‘cold-footed Light Horsemen’ slowly bleaching in the hot summer sun…


That’s as about an eloquent response to the accusation as anyone could have written I think, then or now.


Writing that passage the other day I could not help but wonder whether the supposed differences between those who served in France and Palestine played out in the inter-war years among returned men. One can imagine the potential for heated exchanges on Anzac Day after a few drinks had been had.


The war was dangerous for anyone who took part in it, but at least in France, there were far more attractive escapes from peril and boredom. Trips to an estaminet, to Paris or even Britain for a few weeks had little or no equivalent in Egypt or Palestine. Cairo had some attractions, but they were limited and familiarity bred contempt – all the more so as what seemed picturesque when those Australians first arrived just seemed squalid or backward after a while. A characterisation that was in part based on the racial attitudes of the time, and the attitudes of First World War diggers towards the inhabitants of the Middle East make for quite uncomfortable reading today.


East of Cairo things were even less attractive. There was nothing of note in the Sinai and even once the British had pushed into Palestine there was little to excite soldiers far from home with little to do. The religious attractions of Jerusalem or Bethlehem were interesting for a few hours once they had been taken, but, except for the most devout, held little attraction thereafter. Not surprisingly the traditional pursuits of soldiers on leave were a major preoccupation. One soldier posted to a guard in Damascus in 1918 recalled that one night he was unable to help a drunk and hurt Australian because he said ‘he wouldn’t go to any hospital and all he wanted was to go to a brothel’ – whether that quote is eloquent I will leave up to you.


Not everyone pursued these sorts of entertainments, and not even the most enthusiastic could pursue them all the time, though no doubt a few tried and had the defaulter’s records to prove it.


When we add in the harsh natural environment and the threat of disease – and the AIF’s malaria rates in Palestine in 1918 were at least as high as those of the 2nd AIF in the South West Pacific in the Second World War, it is not hard to see that service in Egypt and Palestine, while less deadly than on the Western Front was no picnic. The soldiers that served there faced their own trials and their own tests of endurance and courage. Exhibitions such as this one do a worthy service to those soldiers by giving us a sense of what their experience was.


Thank you.