Historian's book to debunk WWI myths

By John Cousins

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Damien Fenton said the New Zealand Mounted Rifles served alongside the Australian horseback troops in campaigns marked by mobility and low casualties. Photo / John Borren
Damien Fenton said the New Zealand Mounted Rifles served alongside the Australian horseback troops in campaigns marked by mobility and low casualties. Photo / John Borren

A myth-debunking book examining the highs and lows of New Zealand's battles against the Ottoman Empire in World War I is the next epic task facing Mount Maunganui-raised author and military historian Damien Fenton.

It follows his triumphant publication feat, New Zealand and the First World War 1914-19, which was snapped up by readers and is still selling well after a second printing by Penguin Books.

Fenton, who has a two-year contract with Massey University, is in the research phase of his new book which will form part of a centenary series of publications dealing with New Zealand's involvement in WWI.

It will introduce New Zealanders to the multi-national Ottoman Empire in order to dispel the idea that the Anzac forces were only fighting the Turks.

In fact, two of the three regiments that pushed the Anzac forces back after the April 25 invasion of Gallipoli were Arab conscripts, many from the Syrian city of Aleppo.

"The Ottoman Empire was a very different beast to the modern Republic of Turkey. It makes a lot more sense when you understand that it was not the Turkish republic but a great power that had been around for 500 years."

And while the 1915 defeat of the British Empire forces in Gallipoli was a well-documented heroic disaster, Fenton will also deal with the lesser known successes against the Ottomans in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns that became a morale booster as the rest of the war bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front.

What started as a campaign to secure the Suez Canal, rolled on to end up with Ottoman forces being routed from Palestine and the Ottoman armistice of October 1918 - one month before the armistice that ended fighting on the Western Front.

Fenton said the New Zealand Mounted Rifles served alongside the Australian horseback troops in campaigns marked by mobility and low casualties.

The cavalry was obsolete on the Western Front but it was the key to the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. "It gave the British a decisive edge."

After pushing the Ottomans out of Sinai at the end of 1916, the British government applied pressure to invade Palestine in 1917.

There was a nine-month stalemate around Gaza until the Australian Light Horse mounted its famous cavalry charge and overran the defence line at Beersheba. This mobile and hard- hitting warfare was studied by German generals and provided the inspiration for Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg tactics in World War II.

"I am fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and the more you delve into it, the more interesting it gets," said Fenton who aimed to complete the manuscript by the end of 2015.

Damien Fenton's public appearances in Tauranga

*Queen's Birthday Weekend: Arts Festival panel discussion on his highly creative WWI book.
*Mid-October: WWI commemorative series lecture on the realities of trench warfare.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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