Stain on the Anzac name

By Lawrence Watt

Troops of the Anzac Mounted Division lined up on their horses in 1917. Photo / The Powles Family Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library
Troops of the Anzac Mounted Division lined up on their horses in 1917. Photo / The Powles Family Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Before the men were butchered, the Anzac soldiers cleared women and children from the Arab village. Then, in the desert darkness, the troops - dozens of New Zealanders, but quite a few Australians too - moved in, bashing and bayoneting the frightened men of Surafend, in what was then Palestine.

Troopers threw some bodies down a well, torched the town and destroyed a nearby nomad camp. The atrocity was over in less than an hour. But reverberations from the stain of the December 1918 Surafend massacre have lasted 90 years and will never be scrubbed from New Zealand's military history and in particular the reputation of the mounted soldiers, the troops who went to war on horseback.

The slaughter at Surafend has resurfaced with a new account called Beersheba, by Australian journalist Paul Daley.

Daley puts the Surafend death toll at up to 120 - although other accounts give much lower estimates of 20 to 40 left dead or dying with broken limbs. The author came across a tape recording of an Australian Light Horseman, Ted O'Brien, who described how he and his comrades had "had a good issue of rum" and "done their blocks" in Surafend, and how they "went through [the village] with a bayonet".

O'Brien recalled: "It was a real bad thing ... It was ungodly."

Nearly a century after the bloodbath, it seems hard to comprehend how the massacre was triggered - and why it went unpunished. No one was court-martialled or arrested, although New Zealand and Australia paid compensation to Britain - which then ruled Palestine - for the destruction of the village.

For descendents of the troops dealing with the carnage is difficult.

The Auckland Mounted Rifles has always had a special association to me, as my grandfather, Major Tommy McCarroll, served in the regiment from Gallipoli until 1945. My great uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Jim McCarroll, (DSO and bar) commanded about 500 of the hard men in the desert and Holy Land in World War I.

The Mounted Rifles Brigade, about 2000 horsemen, was part of the Anzac Division, which had served at Gallipoli. Along with British troops under the command of Field Marshal Edmund "Bull" Allenby, the Anzacs wrenched Palestine (today mostly Israel) and Jordan from Turkish control - and effectively but unintentionally, paved the way for the Jewish state.

Mounted troops fought on foot, but manoeuvred on horse. The heat was oppressive, horses died from thirst and typhoid or malaria was just as likely to kill you as a Turkish bullet.

The Anzacs regarded themselves as an elite force. Coming mostly from country areas in New Zealand and Australia, they were close to the land. Using a rifle was a rite of passage.

In late 1918, World War I was over. The Anzacs and British were camped near a Jewish town, Richon Le Zion. This village was known for making wine. It should have been a happy time.

Today Rishon Le Zion is Israel's fourth largest city and makes award-winning wine. Surafend was a nearby Arab village. The trigger for the bloodshed on December 10 was the murder of 21-year-old trooper Leslie Lowry, from the Machine Gun Corps.

At the time Anzac-Arab relations had been at a low ebb. Thieving and killing were at the heart of it. Anzac soldiers were buried in uniform. Desperate Arabs dug up graves and stripped the bodies of their clothes. Guy Powles, author of a Mounted Rifles history, notes there had been two other murders by Arabs over the years.

The regular raids on their camp rankled with the Anzacs more than it did with the Brits. Barefoot sneak-thieves were adept at getting past sentries. Arabs for their part blamed troops for sheep-stealing.

Official accounts describe how Lowry was disturbed in his tent by a thief who tried to take a bag he was using as a pillow. The young soldier made chase but as he confronted the intruder he was shot in the chest with a revolver.

Military police at Allenby's headquarters were informed immediately. Tracks led to towards Surafend, but disappeared on rocky ground.

Lieutenant Colonel Terry Kinloch, authorof Devils on Horses, an account on the Anzac horsemen in the Middle East, says the officer investigating the murder took a plaster cast of the footprint.

A cordon was set up surrounding Surafend. The village headman was ordered to hand over the killer, but pleaded ignorance.

"Fiery Ted" Chaytor, the Anzac commander, sought the advice of General Headquarters, but Allenby was absent. Against Chaytor's protests, GHQ ordered that the cordon be removed.

It was a fatal error. Many Arab men left the village. The troopers' resentment, which had been building, boiled over. They blamed the British military police for not investigating the murder properly.

Kinloch notes one source saying there was a secret meeting at 7pm in the sand dunes. New Zealanders went to Aussie lines to drum up support. "Don't bring any ammunition, or else we'll be shooting each other in the dark, but bring a pick handle or some such weapon or a bayonet will be as good as anything," said one.

A large group, somewhere between 50 and 200, but probably nearer the higher end approached the village at about 8pm. They gave the head man a last chance to hand over the killer.

By 9pm the men had returned to their tents. The fires raised attention. The killings were discovered at about the same time, a large force was sent to investigate, and a guard was posted, with orders to arrest anyone who tried to pass. No attempt was made to extinguish the fire.

There were several courts of inquiry. The Anzac Division's investigation led nowhere. Officers and men closed ranks. The buck stopped with the regimental commanders. Chaytor singled out his two subordinates, McCarroll, as Auckland CO and the Wellington commander, as responsible for their officers' inaction. Chaytor said they should have known and cancelled all officers' leave.

Returning a few days later, a furious Allenby called a parade, addressed the brigade of nearly 2000 from his horse and did not return Chaytor's salute. He berated the New Zealanders as murderers. But no one was charged and no one punished beyond the cancellation of officers' leave. The closing of ranks was like a huge cone of silence.

The attitude of the day is well described by a New Zealand official military history writer, Major Herbert Wilkie: "Surafend's inhabitants for many years had terrorised the adjacent Jewish communities. They were thieves generally, and one of them at least was a murderer.

"In justice to the relatives of the victim, (Lowry) the authorities should have taken steps to arrest the murderer without delay, but nothing effective was done.

"The troops had suffered casualties throughout the campaign by reason of the treachery of the natives, who were seldom or never punished for the offences committed, and they became somewhat concerned about the apathy shown by the authorities when comrades were murdered in cold blood."

H.S. Gullett, an Australian official historian, writes in a similar vein. "To them [the Anzacs] the loss of a veteran comrade by foul murder, at the hands of a race they despised, was a crime which called for instant justice. They were in no mood for delay. In their movement against Surafend, therefore, they felt that, while wreaking vengeance on the Arabs, they would at the same time work off their old feeling against the bias of the disciplinary branch of General Headquarters, and its studied omission to punish Arabs for crime. They were angry and bitter beyond sound reasoning."

Why did the officers - my great uncle Jim, my grandfather, their colleagues and higher command, not pursue the matter further?

The sheer number of men involved - up to 200 - would have been harrowing. It might have been be possible to arrange for military police to arrest the ringleaders - if they knew who they were.

Imagine you have been though a war for four years. Along the way, were hundreds of your countrymen's graves. There was a strong esprit de corps. Men were trained to kill. People were fiercely loyal. A soldier fights for his mates, before king and country.

The penalty for murder was death. Who would want to arrange a firing squad for men they had fought with in a tight unit, known for its smart tactics and courage under fire? But nothing excuses this massacre. Perhaps it shows that, given the circumstances and mob rule, many people can become killers. We are loyal to a tribe. Australians said they were loyal to the New Zealanders. Then again, it was a significant minority who carried out the killings, not every man.

The Surafend massacre was nevertheless a mass-murder, in today's language and in the language of the time. Allenby realised this, refusing to retract his "murderers" comment, despite generally feeling positive about the Anzacs.

There was no cover up. The massacre is described (and defended) in the regimental histories, although Daley says there was political pressure in Australia for censorship, perhaps they thought it was largely New Zealand's stain. There is a section commemorating Surafend at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and currently some discussion on the Mounted Rifles Association website (www.nzmr.org).

After the massacre, the Anzacs were transferred away from Surafend and Richon Le Zion's wine cellars. The British Army rebuilt the town, the New Zealand and Australian governments footing the bill. The Mounted Rifles put down an Egyptian rebellion against the British and helped bury bones at Gallipoli, before returning home.

Many people justified this incident well after the event, and though it is hard to judge men of the past from today's viewpoint, countries that win wars tend to punish enemy prisoners for war crimes. If you win, your criminals generally get off - which is what happened after Surafend.

RULES OVER THE RANKS

The New Zealand Army in World War I was under British Army control and subject to its disciplinary measures. Punishment was harsh.

In his book On the Fringe of Hell, Dr Chris Pugsley writes that 28 New Zealanders were sentenced to death by firing squad. Five were executed, for desertion and cowardice-related offences. Other capital offences included sleeping at your post and murder.

Australia did not allow any of its men to be executed. New Zealand court martials were pretty hard, and many sentences were overturned by British higher command. All New Zealand executions were in Europe.

Other punishments included the number one field punishment, where a soldier was tied to a wooden apparatus. This punishment was handed out to conscientious objector Archibald Baxter and others. Lesser punishments included a kind of drill, whereby British jailers made prisoners run with a heavy pack for long periods.

Thirty days in jail was a fairly regular punishment. Serious troublemakers were generally sent home - to jail.

No WWI New Zealand soldier was executed for a criminal offence. The purpose of military punishments was generally to instil discipline and keep the men fighting, rather than punish criminals.

- NZ Herald

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