A visit to the Middle East – May 2018
The downside was we probably spent too much time there and then rushed out to Tel el Saba. Now - I wasn’t ready for this – it is an excavation site of an ancient city, and to my mind much smaller than I had expected. Anyhow, being there at around 4pm meant we could experience the light conditions that the Light Horsemen experienced (albeit we were in May rather than October).
Unfortunately, the weather was not clear but despite the modern incursions into this area, you can get a feeling for the lie of the land, as it would have been 100 years ago.
The view from Tel el Saba . The open ground to the south (left) and looking to the city (right).
I now regret that we did not stay longer in Beersheba – perhaps overnight. While there is not a lot more to do, we did not have time to visit older parts of the city. Our guide did take us to the relatively new Park of the Australian Soldier, but while a noble gesture with some information boards and a fine statue by Peter Corlett, it has limited historical value.
Some observations from the visit to Israel.
Virtually all the names of 100 years ago have changed. Then the towns, rivers and hills were Arab/Turkish names; now they have been replaced with Israeli names. Trying to line up the maps in the Australian Official History (and other books) and modern Israel is challenging and rather frustrating. I provided a 1917 map of the Tel Aviv area from the Official History to my driver (an ex-Aussie now a local) and he just laughed. In some cases the change is not all that radical, such as the town of Ramleh is now called Ramla; but in many cases, it is impossible to line up the past with the present.
The growth of Israel and its cities means that much of the geography has changed. Urban developments and massive agricultural developments fill much of the landscape.
While fighting at Gaza and Beersheba, the occupation of Jerusalem in late 1917 and the 1918 push to Damascus is well known, there is a lot of other actions that are hardly known. For example, the fighting that Dunlop died in November 1917 was just outside modern Tel Aviv and the river that flows just north of the main city, which is now a rather pleasant lateral park, was the scene of fighting between the British forces and the Turks. The reality is that Israel is a country of conflict during the ages, and not surprisingly minor battles of WW1 are overwhelmed by later events such as 1967 and 1973, which are far more important to the locals.
The main impression from this trip was that there is a lack of readily available information that enables one to interpret the current landscape with that of the past. It needs the equivalent of a Peter Pedersen’s Anzacs on the Western Front book. I have contacted a historian at the AWM and he advises he is not aware of any such work by any person.
Of course, undertaking such a work would face significant issues as many of the battlefields have very restricted, if no, access – e.g. Sinai, Gaza, Syria. In addition, while a self-driving tour is possible, I feel that compared to the freedom of movement enjoyed in France and Belgium it would be a task only for the bold and hardy.
But regardless, a publication covering what you can see in Israel (and perhaps into Jordan regarding Es Salt), would be of great assistance – even if readers were undertaking a fully guided tour.
One interesting webite our Beersheba guide provided was https://amudanan.co.il.
It is a mapping guide that enables an old Palestine map (called PEF-1880) to replace the locations shown on current maps. It would be easier if I could read Hebrew; but using the modern satellite map I have been able to establish some landmarks, and resolve a number of queries from my visit.
 There is the similar situation in Belgium with the WW1 period names such as Messines is now Mesen