Of warriors, bad apples and blood lust

Talk of “warrior culture” in the wake of the Brereton report rings hollow. Sir Galahad never burnt villages or killed children. But “bad apples” has a ring of truth, especially if applied to the estimated 2% in any army who take too much pleasure in killing. But as usual the taboo topic of “hedonistic killing” has not been addressed.

Are Australian soldiers more brutal than others? It would be hard to outdo crimes of the French in Algeria, or the Japanese in Nanking, or the Chinese in Tiananmen, or Americans in Korea and Vietnam, but our soldiers have certainly acquired a solid and consistent reputation. “There is no doubt that our men are hard and even cruel,” observed an Australian at Gallipoli. A century later, a survey of allied soldiers revealed a shared belief that Australians were more brutal than most. 

In the Boer war, some Australians involved in the ‘clearing of the veldt’ were reluctant to burn the farm houses and crops of white Boer families. One wrote home that “ …the worst part is burning the houses …that is work I did not come here to do and a lot of our men nearly refused to do it …” But they did it all the same, and he and many other Boer war veterans enlisted in Light Horse regiments for World War 1, where there is no record of any reluctance to burn villages in the Arab world.

But our soldiers serving overseas have carried an impossible burden, going back to 1885 when troops were sent to the Sudan in the hope that “…the sins of Botany Bay would be washed away by the waters of the Nile.” It was up to our soldiers to wipe out the convict stain by being the best, the bravest, the strongest and the most loyal; living proof that Australia was not breeding degenerates tainted with inherited criminality. For the most part our soldiers have done us proud.

However a harsh convict society inevitably bred cruelty. At the height of transportation in 1835, it’s estimated that a third of the 27,000 convicts had been flogged, averaging 46 lashes each, though 25 lashes could skin a man’s back. Robert Hughes, in his classic work on the convict era, concluded that Australian society is scarred by the “brutal psychic legacy of carceral life”. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Soldiers did the flogging then, and even professional scourgers were usually ex-soldiers. Has any other society, with the exception of ancient Sparta, been so thoroughly militarised? No other colony had to arm itself against its own people while putting down fierce Indigenous resistance and the plague of army deserters and escaped convicts turned bushranger. The colony depended on British garrisons throughout most of the first century, and military officers ruled as governors for five decades. A large military force was so crucial for enabling white settlement that Governor Bourke, in office from 1810 to 1838, wrote that without the redcoats, “the country would be untenable”.

The white population was seeded with soldiers and ex-soldiers, and by the late 1820s it’s estimated that one in every 17 whites was a soldier. Among the rest were numerous army deserters and convicts who were once soldiers. Along with serving soldiers there was the “almost forgotten stream of redcoat immigrants who helped populate Australia from the 1790s to the First World War”, largely due to the demobilisation of many thousands after Napoleon’s defeat.

Brutality and racism had been institutionalised on a huge scale in Britain’s imperial army, unbroken over centuries and impacting countless men and their families. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers over several generations learnt to fight and kill in India and elsewhere, and along with constant warfare they were trained to commit atrocities in cold blood, involving mass hangings, shootings and floggings.

Many redcoat settlers arrived here with post-traumatic stress disorders, and many self-medicated with alcohol in time-honoured fashion. The Duke of Wellington famously described British soldiers as “the very scum of the earth”. Some, he said, had enlisted “for having got bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink…”

He added that army discipline had turned men into “the fine fellows they are”. But as William Cobbett pointed out, the French enemy never flogged soldiers: “Buonaparte’s soldiers have never yet with tingling ears listened to the piercing screams of a human creature so tortured: they have never seen the blood oozing from his rent flesh … in short, Buonaparte’s soldiers cannot form any notion of that most heartrending of all exhibitions on this side of hell, an English Military Flogging.” In NSW, while brutalised soldiers flogged convicts, delinquent soldiers were flogged just as fiercely: “The military cat o’ nine tails was heavier than the one used on convicts.”

A highly militarised society had only one way to cope with Indigenous resistance. Operations against tribal warriors were led by soldiers, first in the Mounted Police from the British garrison, then leading the even more brutal Native Police; Indigenous men officered by whites. By 1876 a settler in Queensland could write: “Sir, I live in one of the many districts where the work of extermination is virtually an accomplished fact … They have been shot and poisoned wholesale …”

Hundreds of well-documented massacres have been mapped by Lyndall Ryan and her team from Newcastle University, but most, perhaps 80%, went unrecorded. The worst of it was that hunting and killing Indigenous people was regarded as a sport in which settlers often rode with the military. Dame Mary Gilmore related a story told by her grandmother, a settler on the Hawkesbury River in the 1840s: “Among the sports of the military officers and landed gentry was hunting the blacks. Grandmother told me they went out after them with packs of dogs just as they hunted foxes in Ireland… when it was over they made a feast and had a ball.” 

Overseas in the  Great War, Arabs and Turks were confronted by Australians already well practised in killing. The official war history claimed that Australia “except for an occasional brawl in the gold-digging days has never known bloodshed”, but the author Henry Gullett was born and raised in Yorta Yorta country where an estimated 4000 Indigenous people had been slaughtered in one generation, and where four of the well-documented massacres took place.

At Gallipoli Australians found that ‘inferior races’ could put up a good fight when properly armed, and the Turk was described as a “superior nigger”. Many fighting in the Ottoman Army’s front lines were actually Arab conscripts, but Australians despised all other unarmed Arabs encountered along the way. After interviewing hundreds of veterans, historian Bill Gammage concluded: “To a man, light horsemen vehemently hated the Arabs … the Australians hardly thought it worth a mention if a few were killed.”

Their reign of terror in Cairo – represented as mere high jinks in the 1981 film “Gallipoli”  – involved drunken fights, rapes, looting and arson, insults, attacks and beatings, culminating in the riotous burning down of the brothel quarter. Next they were engaged in sweeping the Sinai to herd “prying Bedouin” into concentration camps. One such sweep near Romani was an embarrassing repeat of Tasmania’s ‘Black Line’ fiasco, as “most of [the Bedouin] were too fleet and wily to fall into the net”.

While encamped in Palestine, Australians and New Zealanders massacred more than 30 unarmed civilians in the village of Surafend, to avenge a trooper killed while chasing a thief. Hundreds of angry soldiers cordoned off the village and killed most of the men, then wrecked and burnt the village, continuing the rampage to a Bedouin camp which they also torched.

The British Commander-in-Chief denounced them as murderers and cowards, but their special talents were soon called on to put down a postwar uprising in Egypt. The 1st and 2nd Light Horse had already embarked for home, but the remaining regiments participated in hunting down rebels in the Nile delta. The appearance of the Australians, called ‘the men in big hats’, was regarded as particularly sinister and one notable believed, perhaps correctly, that English troops had been withdrawn to let the Australians “do any killing that had to be done”.

Again, the Australians formed cordons around villages, lined up and searched the inhabitants, flogged suspects, shot others trying to escape, and burnt houses. After 120 males had been viciously flogged at one village, the British protested once again at “ indiscriminate and excessive use of flogging”, though after all it was thanks to them that flogging had become a national sport.

General Ryrie, Michelago squatter and boxing champion, boasted of ‘finishing’ one 18 acre village while ignoring British appeals to stop. The tactic of surrounding villages then moving in for the kill had often been practised on Indigenous camps back home. Light Horseman Bostock mentioned an “appalling” death rate, and Australian atrocities led to two courts of inquiry into alleged burning of houses, rapes of women, looting of valuables and killing “for acts of individual opposition”. Most of the accusations were denied, and no significant disciplinary action was taken.

This campaign is omitted from the Brereton Report, but at the time details shocked Europe and America. In Paris an Egyptian delegation displayed photos of the atrocities, and the ‘regrettable incidents’ were mentioned in the British parliament. Decades later Egyptians tore down the LightHorse memorial at Port Said.

Australian soldiers returned to the Arab world in World War 2 to find that the British had prudently closed down the brothel quarter in Cairo. In Libya, Australians were involved in terror and looting, and General Neame placed all towns, villages and ‘native camps’ out of bounds for Australians.

War historian Timothy Hall writes: “There was hardly a campaign where Australians fought during World War 11 where criticism was not levelled at them for their behaviour. The charges ranged from looting and drunkenness to theft, rape and, in New Guinea, even sacrilege.” During the Syrian campaign, the British Minister to Syria complained that: “The Australians are already greatly feared by the natives. Their behaviour, with the exception of some specialised units… would be a disgrace to any army.”  

The Brereton Report lists the more recent crimes in Vietnam and Iraq, plus the heavily redacted evils committed in Afghanistan. In spite of the cultural diversity gifted by postwar immigration, the old legacy of unusual cruelty seems to be undiluted in sections of the army; epitomised by those soldiers who found it hilarious to drink out of a dead enemy’s prosthesis. We’re in debt to Dusty Miller and other whistleblowers for bringing on the inquiry, hopefully leading to retirement of the few who get too much of a kick from killing.

[1] Bill Gammage, The Story of Gallipoli, Penguin, Australia, 1987, p. 54

[2] Joanna Bourke, op.cit., p. 105. Veterans she interviewed identified Australians as “reputedly more brutal in battle.”

[3] Captain R. Gartside, 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment, from his collected papers in the AWM Library

[4] Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Penguin Books, Australia, Revised edition 1986, pp. 16-17 (First edition published in 1970)

[5] Ibid., p. 428

[6] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Time Life Books, Australia, 1987, p. 25. Critics of this popular history point  out that many convicts enjoyed a better life in Australia than they would have had in Britain, and the worst of the “legacy” may have been limited to those who worked in manacles or leg irons in the “iron gangs,” under military guard and usually repeat offenders, or as Governor Darling called them, “double distilled villains.” The men were chained together when marching to work, escorted by soldiers with fixed bayonets, and as well as constructing public buildings they were condemned to building roads under harsh conditions in remote bushland.

[7] Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison: The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986, p. 44

[8] Craig Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2009, p. 17

[9] Ibid., pp. 69-70

[10]Christine Wright, Wellington’s Men in Australia: Peninsula War Veterans and the Making of Empire, 1820-1840, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2011, p. 14. The scale and speed of demobilisation was impressive, with 236,000 in the British army in 1814 but only 81,000 by 1819.

[11] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Scribe Publications, UK, 2017. Ch. 5, entitled “The Myth of Enlightened Despotism,” gives details of Britain’s bloodthirsty rule, in opposition to  historian Niall Fergusson’s depiction of a more benign imperialism. Dr. Tharoor was Under-Secretary of the UN, a Congress MP and author of fourteen books.

[12] Ibid., Loc 226. The notorious quotation was taken from the Earl of Stanhope’s Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851, London, 1888

[13] Ibid., Loc 1457,from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 22nd June 1811. In 1810 Cobbett was imprisoned for seditious libel for objecting to the flogging of a local militia.

[14] Peter Stanley, op.cit.,p. 8

[15] Raymond Evans et al, Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination, ANZ Book Company, Sydney, 1975, p. 80

[16] Massacre web site launched 5 July, 207: https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres

[17] Timothy Bottoms, Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2013, p. 183. Massacres documented by Professor Ryan are estimated to be at most 20% of the real total, according to research by Dr Robert Orsted-Jensen, a Dane who researched frontier massacres for his doctorate from the University of Queensland, concluding that the available records cover less than 10% of the real total.

[18] Mary Gilmore, More Recollections, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1935, p. 246. Her grandparents, the Beatties, had a farm on the Hunter River, but were run out of the area for daring to say that the shooting of blacks was murder, and for sheltering blacks who were being hunted. Their cattle were shot and their paddocks set on fire.

[19] H. S. Gullett, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: Vol. V11,The A. I.F. in Sinai and Palestine, University of Queensland Press, Australia, 1984, pp. 33-37 (first edition 1923). The Gullett’s family farm was at Toolamba in the Greater Shepparton district. Gullett’s father died when he was twelve, but as in the case of Evatt, whose father died when he was seven, intelligent young children are capable of picking up important information.

[20] Gillian Nieman, Aboriginal People and Local Government: A Shepparton Story, PhD Thesis, Deakin University, April, 2014, p. 119

[21] Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, Penguin Books, Australia, 1975, p. 145

[22] H. S. Gullett, op.cit., p. 119

[23] Accounts and numbers murdered vary. The official war historian H. S. Gullett defied pressure from the Minister and the Secretary of the Defence Department to omit any record of this massacre from the official account (see A.J. Hill’s Introduction to the U.Q.P edition, p. xxix in H. S. Gullett, The AIF in Sinai and Palestine, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol. VII, University of Queensland Press, 1984 (1st ed. 1923) . Gullett implied that the main perpetrators were New Zealanders though with close support from large bodies of Australians. Patsy Adam-Smith’s informant remembered “a mixed bunch of Australians, New Zealanders and Scots.”(p.313)

[24] Suzanne Brugger, op.cit., p. 114. Australian historians neglect to cover this campaign so I am grateful to Brugger for her careful research and ability to read Arabic, as well as published memoirs from a few former Light Horsemen.

[25] Ibid., p. 120. Reported by Captain Higgins of the 12th Light Horse Regiment, at Simbellawein.

[26] Suzanne Brugger, op.cit., p. 126

[27] Henry Bostock, The Great Ride, Artlook Books, Perth, Australia, 1982, p. 209

[28] Suzanne Brugger, op. cit., p. 131

[29] Suzanne Brugger,op.cit., p. 140

[30] James Lucas, War in the Desert, Arms and Armour Press, U.K., 1982, p. 61

[31] Ibid., p. 33

[32] Gavin Long, Australia in the War of 1939-1945: Greece, Crete and Syria, Official War History, Vol. 11, Collins, Australia, 1986, p. 516 (1st ed. 1953)

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Former journalist and retired senior lecturer in international politics, UTS. Secretary of Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine and member of the Pittwater Knitting Nannas, activists for renewable energy.

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