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Centenary of the WW1 Middle Eastern Campaign

While the losses and horrors of World War 1 in Gallipoli and the Western Front are deeply engraved in the collective memory of Australians and New Zealanders, the successful campaign in the Middle East (the Sinai, Israel, Jordan and Syria) is largely overlooked. For 2╜ years the troops fought many ferocious battles and often atrocious conditions to defeat the Ottoman Empire and prepare the land for the re-establishment of the nation of Israel.

After the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli in December 1915, the Turkish soldiers headed southwards to take the Suez Canal from Britain. In the sizzling summer temperatures in the Sinai desert, the troops watched the army advance towards Romani, the last oasis, just 37 km from the Suez. The attack came at 1.00 am on August 4 1916 when 12,000 Turkish/German troops attempted to surround the British and ANZAC forces. Two Australian regiments guarded the southern flank and took the brunt of the action. Outnumbered ten to one, they were forced to slowly retreat but their heavy resistance wore out the opposition and thwarted the Turkish plan. At dawn, fresh ANZAC reserves were able to push back the exhausted Turks and eventually force their retreat. From the Allied troops 202 were killed, 882 wounded and 46 missing, with most being ANZACs. The Turkish toll was 1,250 killed and 4,000 captured. The British commander, Sir Archibald Murray said, ‘The ANZAC troops are the keystone of the defence of Egypt’. The ANZAC success meant they were often called to serve on the frontline. It changed the British thinking significantly from defence (of the Suez) to attack (‘get Jerusalem’).

On December 23 1916, after a sleepless night in the saddle the ANZAC troops were ordered to take the inland Turkish outpost of Magdhaba. A fierce bayonet fight erupted and about 1,300 prisoners were taken. By 4.30 pm it was over and the ANZACs had once again cemented their reputation and amazed their commander. General Chetwode commented that they had done with bayonets what he had never known cavalry (with swords) to Achieve.

Following this, there were two costly attempts in March and April 1917 to capture Gaza, which failed. It was then decided to make a surprise attack on Beersheba, which eventually resulted in the famous battle on October 31 1917, culminating in the courageous charge of the Light Horse at 4 pm to take the city (a story for next year). The result of the successful Middle Eastern campaign was to re-write the political map of the Middle East and ultimately birth the modern nation of Israel.

Let’s recognise and honour the courageous efforts of the soldiers who played such a significant part in defeating of the same Turkish army which had caused them so much anguish in Gallipoli.

Jill Curry, based on her book ‘The ANZAC Call.’ Also available is ‘Victory!’ written for a non-Christian audience.

1. Australians in World War 1: Australian Light Horse, Dept of Vets Affairs 2007, 10

2. The Desert Column, Idriess, I., The Discovery Press, 1932, 165