Cover-ups are a reprehensible part and parcel of military history and testimonies collected on Australian Military History of the Early 20th Century: Desert Column are tainted with fundamental lies and racist justifications that have become the prototype for subsequent historical and newspaper accounts of the Sarafand Massacre.
The Cover-up continued.
No New Zealanders, Australians or British soldiers participated in the massacre
The cover-up was intensified over the decades with a flurry of denials and cross accusations by the different ANZAC Division units. The Australians denied participation putting the blame squarely on the New Zealanders and British artillerymen from the Ayrshire Battery while the New Zealanders parried with counter accusations.
In accounts, the number participating in the mass murder varies from 50 to 200.
Irregardless, on 16 December, the entire division was paraded before General Allenby who addressed the members as ‘cowards and murderers’ concluding with, “Officers, Non Commissioned Officers, and men of the Anzac Mounted Division I was proud of you once. I am proud of you no longer!”
The participation of all three national groups is confirmed by the compensation payments. In late 1920-1 the British War Office pressured Australia and NZ to pay compensation as the British government had rebuilt the village at a cost of 2060.11.3 pounds. Australia contributed 515 pound and NZ, 858 pounds.
TV NZ’s ‘Sunday: Day of Shamedocumentary reveals that the cover-up extended to the family of murdered Leslie Lowry. His nephew, Noel Woods, believed his uncle was ‘mown down in a hail of Turkish bullets’ and was deeply shocked by news of the massacre.
Blaming the victims
HS Gullett, the official war correspondent in Palestine, puts the ‘unfortunate incident’ that demanded ‘instant justice’ in the context of the exasperation of the AIF heroes with the unpunished thefts by ‘these debased people’ – ‘The natives of Surafend were notorious for their petty thieving’ coupled with the murder of a comrade ‘at the hands of a race they despised’. Regarding the Bedouin,Ted O’Brien remarked, “wicked…You’d shoot them on sight.”
Gullett’s overt racist superiority, like that of a majority of WWI Australian soldiers hailing from the land of White Australia, dismisses outright the plight of Palestinians struggling to survive the dire economic impact on their land and livelihoods of the mounted armies of the Imperial and Ottoman forces. The Turks had demolished orchards and the cavalries ‘drank out wells and grazed their horses on standing crops’. Palestinians were driven to steal because foodstuffs, livestock and even unwilling Palestinian staff were requisitioned by the military and consequently there was a shortage of basic food and commodities and awful disruptions to daily life.
Blithely, Gullett makes a reference to instances of theft by the Anzacs, ‘if the Arabs missed a sheep from their flocks, they were emphatic that a soldier in a big hat had been seen prowling in the neighbourhood.’ Stealing sheep may have been a lark for the soldiers, but it was devastating for impoverished Palestinian farmers.
The Arabs were also accused of desecrating and stealing from the dead, yet Ted O’ Brien ‘talks in detail how he and his mates stole coins from the dead. They also used the Turkish dead for target practice’ (Daley p275). The AIF regularly conducted punitive patrols against villages and troops were known to leave behind booby traps of bully beef tins when they moved bivouac.
Sarafand al Kharab suffered a second calamity on April 20, 1948 when Israeli Givati Forces demolished the village and ethnically cleansed its Palestinian inhabitants.
Collective punishment and mistreatment of civilians
The Sarafand Massacre wasn’t a one-off aberration. The Anzacs were notorious for inflicting harassment and collective punishment on Egyptian and Palestinian civilians. In her searingly honest book, Australians and Egypt, 1914-1919, Dr Suzanne Brugger chronicles 4 incidents at Azizia, Bedrashein, Abu Akdar and Saft El-Malouk in which the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in 1919 were involved in destroying Egyptian villages by fire with the incurring of casualties through excessive force.
A letter in the Egyptian Gazette in 1918 complained,‘Insobriety and misconduct by the troops threatened to undermine the prestige of the white races and of the Allied forces and dominant British regime in particular.’ (Brugger p61)
Misconduct ranged from misdemeanours to brutal violence: “Men of the Eight Brigade on a route march near Tel el Kebir sniped at passing “gypos’ until their targets fled over the skyline, Egyptian conductors were thrown from moving trains, and Egyptian stationmasters and minor officials were assaulted. The British soldiers are a sedate lot in comparison with ours, boasted a Victorian private, “they don’t knock the baskets of oranges off the heads of the natives, or pull boys off donkeys..” (Bill Gammage The Broken Years, p138) other misconduct included- leaving without paying at brothels, not paying fares on trams, looting and burning trading booths,‘drunkedness, riotous behaviour and brothel-trawling’, foul language, cruel and crude jokes, ‘crumbling discipline’.
The accumulative offences were so grave that Brugger declares, ‘the actions of the Australian troops in the past 5 years [1914-19] had contributed in part to this raising of the temper of the populace’ for emerging Egyptian nationalism and the 1919 rebellion.
Ted O’Brien described the Sarafand Massacre as ‘ungodly’ and avowed “war is a shocking thing…It’s shocking just what men’ll do”. Perhaps PTSD arises not just from the horror of war and its stressful proximity to death, but also from the horror at the inner potential for inhuman barbarity.
Sometimes, a cover-up wreaks greater violence than the original crime. The glorification and sanitisation of war is a form of cover-up that leads to further wars as WWI combatant and poet, Siegfried Sassoon warned;
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001.
First published inDec 7, 2012