A visit to the Middle East – May 2018

(continued)

Gaza

I confess that my research was a bit lacking.  I was only vaguely aware of the Anzac Trail that was established some time ago by the Jewish National Fund of Australia and New Zealand.[4]

Anyhow I was up for a drive to the Gaza region with my local Israeli (ex-Australian) driver to see what was on offer.  The roads are fine and rather easily travelled.  Of course the idea of travelling close to the Gaza Strip area made the trip intriguing.

 

The Anzac Trail

It was here that I had wished I had brought one of the books – say David Cameron’s The Charge, as I quickly realised my recall of the events around the early 1917 battles of Gaza 1 and Gaza 2 was limited.

 

The highlight of this trip was the ANZAC Memorial, which is a 50-year-old concrete structure with a small lookout in the middle of a eucalypt plantation.  It has the added interest of being located only a kilometre or so from the Gaza Strip border, just south of the centre of the city of Gaza.  Over the final five kilometres of the drive, the road deteriorates badly and I recall seeing only one sign to the memorial. Built by the Jewish National Fund with assistance from Australian and New Zealand Jewish interests the memorial provides a view over into Gaza in the near distance.  The three information boards are rather light on information and they advise that the lookout tower at the top of the memorial offers a view of the Gaza battlefields.  On return to Australia I have reacquainted myself with David Cameron’s book.  In Gaza 1 the Australians might have moved through this area, to attack from the north of city.  In Gaza 2 it is likely that Tank Redoubt feature[5] would have just been to the east of the memorial.

 

I have also looked at Paul Daley’s 2009 book Beersheba on my return.  In Chapter 7 titled Badlands he tells of his visit to the same memorial and says that due to concerns of threats from Hamas sharpshooters they did not climb the lookout and effectively they were in ‘no man’s land’.  Due to greater Israeli measures against tunnels and missile attacks, my guide says the biggest threat today is from kites sent over which are used to light fires and points out as we drive in some burnt out scrub. 

 

The countryside is rolling and some is growing grain.  You could be in Australian pastoral country.  Of course, you are not with an area dominated by Israeli army cars patrolling the roads and the smoke rising from the tyres being burnt by Palestinian protestors in Gaza.  A member of a French media company visited the site while we were there looking for any evidence of protests.  The following day I am told that four protesters were killed on that day.

 

Nearby, and just a little to the rear, we had difficultly finding what was called the Badlands view point (number 1 on the ANZAC Trail)– this is probably a bit more like what the country was like 100 years ago with limited vegetation.  We found a recently constructed viewing point but no information boards.

 

A week later, I returned to this area with an Israeli tour guide and a friend of mine[6] as we undertook a private day tour to Beersheba.  It was interesting to see that around the Anzac Memorial was the evidence of a fire from what I can only assume was a fire kite from the Gaza Strip.  This makes you realise that any investment in facilities in this area is rather pointless and, hopefully, what is there will not be damaged or destroyed.

The Anzac Memorial and its information boards

A week later with evidence of fire

A panoramic photograph looking to Gaza from the memorial

Our guide then took us to Number 5 on the trail named Eshkol Park which the Wadi Besor runs through.  In Anzac hands from spring 1917, a train line was built across the river in June 1917.  There is a reconstructed bridge and a train carriage.

We did not do the full Anzac Trail to Khalassa and Ashuj (now Golda Park) but cut across on a road to Ofaqim where there is an old Turkish police station and according to our guide the possible location of the material dropped by a British intelligence officer to fool the Turks into thinking the October 1917 attack would be at Gaza.

The restored railway line at Eshkol Park

The old Turkish police station at Ofaqim

Beersheba is a big city.  The CWGC cemetery has high-rise apartments facing its entrance.  The cemetery itself is a very simple layout and while not as ‘beautiful’ as I would describe some other CWGC cemeteries, still with 1,239 graves it is impressive.

 

We found our OW, Lt Norman Stuart Edmonstone, who died fighting in a British unit, the Queen’s Westminster’s on 7 November 1917, a few days after the Beersheba attack as the British Army moved on Gaza itself.

 

In addition, there are three VCs[7] buried here including the well-known Lt Colonel LC Maygar, 8th Light Horse of Boer war and Gallipoli fame, who died the day after the battle.[8]  Also Major AM Lafone, Middlesex Yeomanry, who Cameron writes of his bravery in defending a key hill from a major Turkish attack on 27 October 1917[9] and Captain JF Russell, a doctor killed on 6 November 1917 attending to the wounded.

 

The surprise here was the adjacent museum opened last October.  I understand it is privately owned.[10]  It has excellent displays (better than the new Fromelles facility) and a well put together 20-minute film clip splicing in footage from the movie The Light Horsemen with one of the men buried in the cemetery.

 

It also provides an elevated viewing area over the cemetery, which is quite rare and moving.

Beersheba – graves close to camera from 31 October 1917 battle

Beersheba – view from the Museum

 

Notes

[4] The map provided to me was dated March 2011. See website: http://www.kkl-jnf.org/people-and-environment/kkl-jnf-projects-partners/dfu-2012/anzac-trail/

[5] See map on Cameron p 169.

[6] Rodney Thorpe joined me for the later part of my Israel visit and then on to Jordan and Egypt.

[7] I had been requested to photograph the headstone of any VCs in the cemeteries visited on this trip.

[8] Cameron p298

[9] Cameron pp235-6

[10] Established in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund of Australia, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Australian Government and the Beersheba Municipality.