The centenary of the bloodshed at Beersheba this month is being used to bolster a narrow nationalist understanding of Australia’s First World War. Vital truths about the worldwide catastrophe that had enveloped countless millions by October 1917 are being obscured in a flood of media material that focuses almost entirely upon deeds of gallantry and dash. (Because of technical problems on Tuesday, I decided to repost this important article as some readers may have missed it.)
What really matters about Beersheba? Why were Australians there at all?
The overall purpose of the military efforts in the Ottoman territories of the Middle East was to win such a victory that the entire Ottoman Empire could be divided up between the victors. A veritable ‘scramble for the Ottoman Empire’ underpinned the whole campaign. The resource-grabbing would be the biggest thing since the ‘scramble for Africa’ at the height of the New Imperialism in the late nineteenth century. And German commercial enterprise could be excluded entirely from this new imperial sphere according to the plans of the protectionists increasingly dominant in London and Paris.
The agreement to divide up the Ottoman Empire had been struck in negotiations between Paris and London in early 1916. The Sykes-Picot agreements, concluded in May 1916, contemplated the swallowing up of the great bulk of Ottoman territory by Britain and France.
The spirit underlying this bargain was starkly revealed in December 1915 when Sykes spoke to the War Committee in London. Sykes reported to the War Committee on 16 December 1915, and got his riding instructions for the deal with Paris. He warned the politicians that, if Britain were defeated in its wrestle with Ottoman Turkey, peril awaited. The fearful ‘French financiers’ (mentioned eleven times), ‘a very evil force’, would then do deals with the Ottomans to get their way. Competitive plans for ‘railways’ (mentioned five times) was a vital interest. Moreover, he feared Russia. Peace without victory, he cautioned, ‘means ending the war with grave danger – post-war – to India, Egypt, and to the Entente, if Russia is unsatisfied with regard to an open port.’ The Gallipoli campaign, we must remember, had just failed.
The solution? A new ‘great offensive’ in the Middle East, and agreement beforehand with France to snaffle up the lot. And how to divide the spoils? Here Sykes famously pointed to a map and suggested, ‘I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kerkuk [sic]’, that is, a line running almost a thousand kilometres, from the coast (of what is now northern Israel) to northern Mesopotamia. France would take everything north of the line – Britain, under various guises, would take everything south of the line. (War Committee. ‘Meeting held at 10, Downing Street on Thursday, December 16, 1915’, ‘Evidence of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, Bart., M. P., on the Arab Question. TNA: CAB 24/1/51.)
But the fall of the Tsar in March 1917 threw all this into doubt. In April, therefore, the Western leaders met again, this time at St-Jean-de-Maurienne, a small town near the Franco-Italian border. Italy urged that recent back-channel peace overtures from Austria-Hungary’s new Emperor, the young Karl, be rejected. Shunning any peace overtures, the British, French, and Italian leaders then haggled out an agreement to hand out to each other second-helpings from Turkish booty at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Now Italy was to gain a vast share, the ‘green’ area on an updated Sykes-Picot map, that is the southern third of Anatolia (now Turkey) including Smyrna, and an area of indirect control to its north, on the Aegean coast and hinterland. These deals were confirmed in follow-up secret conferences between the British, French and Italians in London in August 1917.
Such were the purposes underpinning Beersheba.
Whether Australians fought gallantly or not is in fact a question of little importance in the scale of things. Whether Australians received their fair share of the glory of this or that particular victory is also an unworthy nationalist obsession.
Much more important is this: in a war of manufactured murder on a grand scale, of industrialised killing and mutilation, victory would eventually go to the side that brought its overwhelming industrial power to the front line in Europe. And so it did.
What we fought for matters much more than how we fought.
The bravery of the individual soldier anywhere in this orgy of slaughter mattered little, when in the course of battle so many were simply blown to pieces by ever greater masses of artillery.
What really matters in the history of the First World War by October-November 1917?
By the autumn of 1917, Britain, France, Italy and the USA had spent months evading and spurning the diplomacy of the Provisional Government of Russia. The new democratic government in Petrograd produced by the March Revolution had been pressing for a grand inter-allied council to repudiate imperialist war aims and state credible progressive aims. This endangered all the imperialist treaties struck between Paris, London, and Rome. The West shunned this opportunity and the war became utterly discredited in Russia. A second revolution in Russia resulted, which would catapult the Bolsheviks to power. The West’s determination to prolong the war would cost Russia its democratic moment.
In Australia, the battle at Beersheba was above all grist for the pro-war propaganda mill. A spectacular victory in a corner of the Middle East boosted the efforts of the Hughes government to impose conscription in Australia. The government launched a second effort to persuade the people to accept conscription at a referendum in December 1917. The government resorted to a phoney question, and held the referendum on a work day rather than on a Saturday. Still a majority of the Australian people voted NO. Thus they refused to give the government and the British generals a blank cheque to spend as many men as they wished in their prolonged war. It is probably the most important event of all in the record of Australia’s war.
Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.