Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 - Volume VII Introduction
Volume VII – The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918
Introduction by A J Hill
The Australian War Memorial would like to acknowledge the kind permission of the author and the assistance of the University of Queensland Press in making this Introduction available on–line.
On 13 August 1940 an aircraft of the R.A.A.F. crashed near Canberra killing all on board. The passengers included a distinguished group: General Sir Brudenell White, Chief of the General Staff, G.A. Street, Minister for the Army, J.V. Fairbairn, Minister for Air and Sir Henry Somer Gullett, Vice–President of the Executive Council, the author of this book. He had entered the Federal Parliament in 1925 after a career in journalism going back to 1900 with brief interludes as a war correspondent, gunner in the
Gullett was born in 1878 at Harston in northern Victoria, the son of a farmer whose early death brought responsibility to a boy of only twelve. It meant the end of school so that he could help his mother run the farm, but he was a bright boy and his strong devotion to farming and country life began to find expression in articles in the Geelong Advertiser. Eventually, encouraged by an uncle who had been editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, he joined the staff of that paper. In 1908 he went to London working as a freelance and taking up the study of emigration which he soon came to regard as the key to the development and defence of Australia. He worked closely with the immigration staff of the Australian High Commission and in 1914 published an illustrated, practical guide to Australian country life, The Opportunity in Australia.
In 1915, Gullett went to France as the Australian correspondent with the British and French armies. He returned to Australia in 1916 to lecture on the war then enlisted in the
This was a curious episode. By late 1917 Bean appears to have become aware of the need for an Australian war correspondent in Palestine. When he suggested that Gullett could undertake the work, Brudenell White, the Chief of Staff, refused to put the idea up to Birdwood, insisting that such a proposal must come from the Australian Government through the High Commissioner in London. It was agreed that it should be left for Gullett himself to decide after he had tested the feelings of the
Gullet quickly got to know the Light Horse and No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. Although he had missed the great battles of that year in Palestine - Beersheba, Gaza, the advance to the Nahr el Auja - he was able to see some of the fighting which reached its climax with the capture of Jerusalem in December, 1917. To the Australians in Palestine and Egypt who saw themselves as a “forgotten army” the advent of Gullett, an experienced Australian journalist, was a godsend: here, at last, was a man who might become their own war correspondent. Wherever he went he was under strong pressure to take up the work and about the end of February 1918 he cabled Bean that he would do so. Owing to the circuitous approach demanded by White, Gullett did not receive his appointment until August 1918 on the eve of the last great offensive against the Turks.
It is surprising that Bean, with his feeling for the history he saw being made before his eyes, had not taken steps earlier to secure the appointment of an Australian correspondent for the Light Horse brigades and supporting units which were to remain in the Middle East. Birdwood, as G.O.C.
Perhaps the truth is that, in so great a convulsion, the seventeen thousand Australians in Egypt and Palestine were indeed a “forgotten army”. Some Australians at home looked on them as loafers, enjoying themselves in the Holy Land, or in the unholy land of Egypt, while the infantry divisions slogged it out in France. Birdwood, who was not only G.O.C. of all the
Harry Gullett fitted readily into his new appointments in the Middle East. He was a country man dealing with a force which was from first to last composed mainly of men from the land. For example, in 1914 eighty five per cent of the 1st Light Horse Regiment was from the country and in 1918 its reinforcements arriving in Egypt often included the same high proportion from the bush.2 He was an established journalist, an intensely patriotic Australian yet, like so many of his generation, a strong supporter of the British connection. Gullett mixed easily, spoke well in public and had a great gift for friendship.3 Like Bean he had begun with little knowledge of the army or of war but he was ready to learn and he was in good time for one of the most remarkable mounted operations in military history.
Gullett accepted Bean's invitation to write this volume in 1919 but he was not free to begin work until after the peace conference in Paris, where he was press liaison officer on the staff of the Australian Prime Minister. Like Bean he had no published work to guide him, but unlike Bean, he had not observed his campaign from the beginning. His subject had the special difficulty associated with a small force playing a part out of all proportion to its numbers in the operations of a large army - he knew that he should not “make it appear that the Light Horsemen alone had conquered Palestine”.
Another problem which was soon to become too much for Gullett, was the directorship of the Australian War Museum (as it was then called). Bean had persuaded him to take the position to reduce his own burden; for six months he had borne full administrative responsibility for both the War Museum and the Official History and was also fighting to have the History accepted without censorship. Even the War Museum had to be fought for as his scheme was strongly attacked by the Melbourne Age. In the midst of all this he was writing The Story of Anzac!
With Gullett at the War Museum, Bean was able to retire to the peace of Tuggeranong near Canberra while the former worked on Sinai and Palestine at his home in Como Avenue, South Yarra. By April 1920 Gullett had determined to resign from the War Museum as he could no longer do justice to either task yet not long afterwards he accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to become Director of the Australian Immigration Bureau in Melbourne. According to Bean, Gullett himself had devised this position seeing in it the opportunity of furthering the policies in which he so passionately believed.4 His ambition had led him to replace his albatross with a millstone.
Meanwhile Gullett's book was growing beyond all estimates and contractual limits and Bean had to insist that a two volume work was out of the question.5 Discussing the problem of size in a letter to Bean, 29 March 1921, Gullett said that he was compelled to write about the British forces and the ground to make the story intelligible. “I did not accept, owing to sheer incapacity, your suggestion to stamp the early chapters with some high moral purpose and peculiar Australian psychology. I failed to discern such things in the Light Horsemen. As I saw it their campaign was to a remarkable extent one with a casual sporting purpose to which they bent all their high intelligence and endeavour. If I had a definite aim, apart from a clear, honest narrative, it was to tell a story which would achieve the dual purpose of being a military textbook and at the same time a book for the general reader … Chauvel6 is highly pleased with it on the military side and also thinks it very easy reading.”7
It had been Gullett's practice to send Sir Harry Chauvel batches of draft chapters for comment.8 The latter, with his unequalled knowledge of the campaign, replied at length, correcting the inevitable slips in military terminology and contesting some of Gullett's facts and interpretations. Chauvel's obiter dicta, some of which were long and detailed, provide a valuable insight into various aspects of command, his relations with Birdwood and the British, especially Allenby, and his own view of battles such as Romani and Beersheba. Chauvel's was a kindly, even gentle, nature but ruled by strong loyalty to commanders under whom he had served, especially Sir Philip Chetwode. Accordingly, he pressed Gullett hard to modify some of his passages, for example, his description of Chetwode's decision to break off the fight at Rafah. Gullett had benefitted enormously from Chauvel's comments but he was adamant in his refusal to alter his stance.9 He warned Bean of the possibility of “trouble with Chauvel” over his account of the Surafend outrage10 but that did not eventuate. Bean, in reply, strongly urged him to stand firm if Chauvel or any other officer sought changes to safeguard a military reputation. Pressure came also from the C.G.S., the minister and the secretary of the Defence Department but the offensive passage went to press.11
Not the least of Gullett's troubles, and Bean's, was the editorial revision of the manuscript. The author displayed an extreme sensibility and irascibility arising from his contempt for those whom Bean and the publisher, Angus and Robertson, had charged with the task. Robertson disliked Gullett and Gullett, rather than have his work revised by Robertson's editor, Professor Tucker of Sydney University, threatened to withdraw it and repay his fee to the Defence Department. Poor Bean managed to weather the storm; Tucker was dropped but revision at the hands of Arthur Jose aroused new fury. Gullett would not only withdraw the book but also would publish it independently! The sad fact was that the man was overworked as he admitted in a letter to Angus and Robertson; his health was poor, he had neither the strength nor inclination to do unnecessary work and what he was doing for immigration he considered more important than the history of the Light Horse.
Jose finished his revision just before Christmas 1921. He returned Gullett's hostility with interest. “He is a vigorous writer”, he told Bean, “but damnably lacking in style and hopelessly journalistic in the worst sense. To make his book literature it would have not only to be rewritten but reconstructed … in England his book will reflect discredit on Australian letters. He is verbose and pretentious … a third rate and sometimes offensive work”. Fortunately Bean stood above the melee. His judgement in 1921 was that it “is an excellent book as it stands … would pass anywhere not, perhaps, as a monument of flawless writing but as a splendid, adequate account of the campaign”. Twenty years on in a eulogy of Gullett, he hailed it as “the most readable and the most read” volume of the Official History.12 Today's statistics naturally differ from those of 1940 but the sales of Volume VII rank only slightly below those of Volume I while both have been eclipsed by Volume XII.13
The delays caused by revision and Gullett's objections and by his immersion in other work, together with printing and mapping difficulties, lost the Christmas sales for which Bean had hoped in 1922. Sinai and Palestine appeared belatedly in April 1923 with a first run of 5000, available to subscribers at seventeen shillings and sixpence and to the public at a guinea. For Gullett it had been, in his own words, “a dog of a job” but the book received instant acclaim. In Britain the two leading service journals gave it enthusiastic approval. The Army Quarterly noted Mr Gullett's “engaging enthusiasm” and thought that Australia had been well served by him; his criticism of British policy, conduct of operations and commanders was “remarkably bold but, but, on the whole, well informed”. The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute found the story fascinating and “a very valuable professional study” which “does full justice to the achievements of British troops and commanders”. The Cavalry Journal stated that the book “holds the reader's attention from first to last”. It was a brilliant piece of descriptive writing but the style was journalistic and there was a distinct lack of sound and reasoned criticism. The reviewer was annoyed by Gullett's contemptuous references to the officers of the yeomanry brigade overwhelmed by the Turks at Katia and Oghratina; similarly the reviewer for the New Statesman reacted angrily to Gullett's patronizing references to certain of the British troops and criticism of British policy towards the Arabs. He objected to the “flow of praise” of the Light Horse which was “continuous and undiscriminating”. He called the narrative dull but very full and accurate. Like many reviewers, this one thought the maps inadequate.14
Australian reviews were usually long, mostly enthusiastic and uniformly dull. Many complained of the maps but some noted the masterly word portraits of Light Horse and other commanders. By far the most penetrating appraisal of the book is by the literary historian H.M. Green. He places Sinai and Palestine below Bean's work, being “much nearer the conventional than Bean's and … much more obviously the work of a journalist than Bean's … the reader has not the same feeling of being part of the experiences described”. Gullett's ability did not transcend that required in good journalism nor was he so sharp an observer as Bean. Green is sternly critical of the banalities and clicheés of Gullett's “overcoloured” style which nevertheless “is light and fluent and seldom dull … a capable example of its kind.”15
To the modern reader there are features of Sinai and Palestine which are irritating or even offensive. The character of the light horseman, so brilliantly sketched in Chapter III, nevertheless includes touches which seem naive and unconvincing. References to the Australian country man such as “his one excess is a harmless celebration”, “occasional sprees” and “engages whole heartedly in a joyous demonstration” look odd beside contemporary letters and diaries which reveal the concern of Australian commanders over the conduct of their men when on leave.16 Of greater significance was the mixture of loathing and contempt with which Australians regarded the people of Egypt and Palestine. Their attitude of racial superiority was general amongst all ranks and its uncritical acceptance by Gullett is disappointing although hardly surprising. His references to Arabs are almost always scathing and the nearest he comes to a consideration of the impact of masses of foreign troops on Egypt or Palestine is: “During many thousands of years Egypt … has been accustomed to the presence of great alien armies” [emphasis added].
It must be admitted that Gullett was writing the history of the Australians in a campaign, not a study of the interaction of two cultures, but his disposition to place the blame for the sporadic violence between Australians and Arabs, and at least one atrocity, on the “degenerate” Arabs and the British authorities is no longer acceptable. Much light has been shed on these problems by Suzanne Brugger in her brilliant work The Australians in Egypt 1914–1919 which is based, in part, on Arabic sources. It deserves to be studied in all service colleges, even in all secondary schools.17 As Australians seem to fight their wars in other people's countries, their relations with those people should be a matter of the highest interest to our armed services and to the nation. In this domain one suspects that Gullett, far from being a historian, was not even a good journalist.
Gullett did not return to military history. He was elected Nationalist M.P. for Henty in 1925, became Minister for Trade and Customs in 1928 and was, for a time, deputy leader of his party and of the Opposition during the Labor government of 1929–31. He was too busy even to revise Sinai and Palestine; then his health became so bad that he resigned his portfolio in 1933. Gullett was soon back in office but differences with his colleagues over trade policy led to his resignation in 1937. He was minister for External Affairs in the first Menzies ministry and was given the additional portfolio of Information with a seat in the War Cabinet after the outbreak of war in 1939. In March 1940, Gullett became Vice–President of the Executive Council in the second Menzies ministry. The prime minister, in a moving eulogy after his tragic death five months later, said of Gullett: “His life was an epic of honourable achievement.”
This book is a pioneer work, although the New Zealand history was published in 1922. The British counterpart, in three volumes with two cases of maps, did not appear until 1928 and 1930.18 The story is clearly told in spirited fashion, taking account of the biblical and historical associations of the country over which the
He went through the hot dusty camps of his army like a strong, fresh, reviving wind. He would dash up in his car to a light horse regiment, shake hands with a few officers, inspect hurriedly, but with a sure eye to good and bad points, the horses of, perhaps, a single squadron, and be gone in a few minutes, leaving a great trail of dust behind him. His tall and massive, but restlessly active figure, his keen eyes and prominent, hooked nose, his terse and forcible speech, and his imperious bearing, radiated and impression of tremendous resolution, quick decision and steely discipline… At last, they had a commander who would live among them and lead them. Within a week of his arrival Allenby had stamped his personality on the mind of every trooper of the horse and every infantryman of the line.19
Gullett also makes much of the horses, the walers which were as characteristic of the Light Horse regiments as were the emu plumes in the soldiers’ hats. What prodigies these animals performed are beyond the imagination of this motorized age. On the heels of the Germans in 1944, the American general George Patton said: “My men can eat their belts but my tanks have gotta have gas”. Chauvel's men could also have eaten their belts, although there is no record of it, but their horses went on and on whatever the demands. Many instances are recorded of horses in battle and pursuit marching for fifty, sixty and even seventy hours without watering, not a dozen or so animals but whole regiments and brigades. Is it any wonder that a bronze memorial to them was unveiled in Sydney by Lady Chauvel? The inscription reads: “They suffered wounds, thirst, hunger and weariness almost beyond endurance but never failed. They did not come home. We will never forget them.”.
There is one important characteristic of the Light Horse which is strangely neglected by Gullett, the central position of the regiment. This has been well put by Suzanne Brugger. “The conditions under which they lived were such as to encourage to an exceptional degree the development of group loyalty. Thousands of miles from home, they were doubly isolated by their almost unbroken service in the field. Their leave periods were rare and short and, even when they occurred, could only be spent in the largely alien environment of Egypt.20 After a few days in Cairo, men returned to their units with relief. The `exhilaration of disciplined comradeship' took the place in their lives of the domestic ties that had been severed by the demands of war, and their regiments stood in place of their families. One Light Horseman wrote: `It is like being without a mother and father to be away from the Reg.' Australians in Palestine were not merely a fighting force. They were a brotherhood in arms.”21 It is this regimental spirit which has inspired incredible deeds in action and which, after more than sixty years, still brings together the few remaining members of these proud regiments on Anzac Day.
Much of the regiments' strength came from the common country origin of most of their members and Gullett comments on their family atmosphere. When they were first raised, the regiments were recruited largely from existing Light Horse units or from the reserve. Groups of friends enlisted together and those who followed came, at the least, from the same states or even the same districts. “Each regimental leader [by 1917] knew all his men by sight, and most of them by name; many were his personal friends.”22 Moreover, after Gallipoli, where some of the regiments suffered severely, the losses were never of the shattering magnitude common among the infantry battalions in France and this situation enhanced not only their fighting spirit but also their efficiency. Indeed, the same was true of the entire Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
Nevertheless it should be remembered that even before that war the Light Horse had shown promise of their future prowess. Brudenell White, writing enthusiastically of their progress to Lieutenant General Sir Edward Hutton in March 1913 prophesied that: “When the next war comes it will only need an Ashby or a J.E.B. Stuart to make their name immortal.” Similarly, General Sir Ian Hamilton, who probably saw all of the twenty–three regiments of Light Horse during his inspection of the Army in 1913–14, was more impressed by them than by any other troops. “The Light Horse”, he wrote to the Minister for Defence, “are the pick of the bunch … they are real thrusters who would be held up by no obstacle of ground, timber or water, from getting in at the enemy.” Of all the Australian Army he considered them the fittest for war:
“ … they are a most formidable body of troops who would shape very rapidly under service conditions.”23
Warfare in Sinai and Palestine presents a remarkable contrast to the static siege warfare of the Western Front. Bold and successful use of mounted troops, sometimes against infantry in prepared positions, was its outstanding characteristic, from the brilliant defensive victory at Romani in August 1916 to Allenby's triumph at Megiddo in September 1918, a battle which had more in common with the German invasion of France in 1940 than with the operations of Rawlinson's Fourth Army at Amiens only a month before it.
In all this the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles were the leaders from Romani onwards. At Beersheba the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade not only crowned with success a long and uncertain day, but also seemed to point to a revival of shock action on a modern battlefield and it seemed to be confirmed by the successful charge of two yeomanry brigades at Huj, Mughar and Tel Jezar in the next fortnight. Nor were these the only successful charges in the campaign.
In the last great offensive, Allenby's mobile troops, the Desert Mounted Corps under Chauvel, came into their own in an operation without parallel in that war. After the guns and the infantry had smashed through the Turkish coastal positions in a surprise attack at dawn, the Australian Mounted Division followed two Indian cavalry divisions through the gap. By the evening of the second day Chauvel had two of his divisions in position across the enemy's communications fifty kilometres behind the Turkish armies and was preparing to send his Australians southwards to meet the enemy fleeing northwards! Gullett, no great authority, in asserting that this “advance completely vindicated the employment of a strong cavalry force against modern weapons”24 entirely misses the point. The infantry first fought their way through the Turkish defences, including the “modern weapons”, and the cavalry then poured through unchecked. Their orders were to advance with all speed to Afule and Beisan and on no account to become embroiled along the way. As they would be advancing through the Turkish back areas they would be unlikely to meet fighting troops and so it turned out.
Gullett was not alone in his views of the significance of this and other mounted operations. To many cavalrymen who had survived years of infantry service or inaction on the Western Front, here was the vindication of their arm. To what extent the Desert Mounted Corps's success may have delayed the development of armour and a doctrine of armoured warfare in the British Army it is difficult to say, for the resistance to the tank was a complex amalgam of social and economic forces combining with military conservatism and a limited ability to draw proper conclusions from the study of war.
The Palestine campaign, as it is generally called, was one of those “side shows” which probably served the Central Powers better than it did the cause of Entente. If it contributed heavily to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, it did nothing to bring down the German or the Austrian. However, it would be safe to say that these considerations did not trouble the average trooper or his officers. Chance or the British government, it seemed, had brought the
The “casual sporting purpose” which Gullett detected in their campaign was real enough but by late 1916, the Light Horse, for all their civilian attitudes, had acquired a professional edge and outlook on operations. They had become an élite force in every sense and no one knew this better than General Sir Archibald Murray, the Commander–in–Chief, who praised them to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London and to the Governor–General in Melbourne.25 If too little was known at home or in Britain about their campaign, Gullett set out to correct this when he became Australian correspondent, in spite of difficulties with the censor.26 But it was not until the publication of Sinai and Palestine that the Australian public or even the Light Horse veterans themselves were able to form a reasonable picture of the whole campaign and appreciate the magnitude of their achievement. Today the armoured and cavalry27 regiments of the Australian Army cherish their links with the light horse whose plumed hats and tireless walers had become a legend in the Turkish army in Sinai and Palestine before their deeds were known at home .
- C.E.W. Bean to Brig. General T. Griffiths, 3 March 1918. This letter is the basis of the account of Gullett's appointment on p. xxvi Australian War Records Section File 4353/1/3, Box 2, Australian War Memorial.
- A .J. Hill Chauvel of the Light Horse (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1978), p. 38.
- R.G. Menzies in House of Representatives, 22 August 1940. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 20 June 22 August 1940, Vol. 164, p. 374.
- Reveille, (Sydney), 1 September 1940, p. 8.
- As published it ran to approximately 293,000 words, according to Gullett.
- Lieut. General Sir Harry Chauvel, a regular soldier, commanded the 1st Light Horse Brigade 1914–15, the Anzac Mounted Division 1916–17 and the Desert Mounted Corps 1917–19. On his return to Australia he became Inspector General of the army
- This letter and the material on the writing of The
A.I.F.in Sinai and Palestine are in Correspondence C.E.W. Bean/H.S. Gullett, Vol. VII, Bean Collection, Australian War Memorial.
- Gullett, of course, consulted other senior officers and obtained personal narratives from a majority of leaders. See his preface pp. xxxix–xl.
- Copies of Chauvel's commentary are in the Gullett Collection, Australian War Memorial, and the Chauvel Papers held by his daughter Elyne Mitchell.
- The killing and wounding of many Arab men in the village of Surafend to avenge the murder of a New Zealander by a thief believed to come from the village. See pp. 787–91. The Australian mentioned on p. 790 was Gullett himself.
- Gullett to Bean, Correspondence Vol. VII 6 December 1922.
- Reveille, (Sydney), 1 September 1940, p. 8.
- Vol. I 21600, Vol. VII 20847, Vol. XII 27000. Figures from Australian War Memorial, January 1983.
- The Times Literary Supplement did not review the book, only giving it minimal mention in a notices column where it was rendered doubly obscure by its attribution to H.S. Grillett.
- H.M. Green, A History of Australian Literature Vol, 1 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1961), pp. 753–62.
- See p. 35; Hill, Chauvel, pp. 139–40.
- Suzanne Brugger, Australians and Egypt 1914–1919 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1980).
- Lt Col. C.G. Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1922); Lt Gen. Sir G. MacMunn and Capt. C. Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine … to June 1917 (London: H.M.S.O., 1928) and Capt. C. Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine … June 1917 to the end of the War 2 Vols (London: 1930).
- See p. 357.
- In 1918 they could also go to Jerusalem. The two Australasian divisions also had their own rest camps.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, pp. 81–2.
- See p. 533.
- Quoted in Hill, Chauvel, pp. 42–3.
- See p. 782.
- Hill, Chauvel, pp. 71, 74, 95. See pp. 111, 121, 191–92 of this edition of Gullett, Sinai and Palestine.
- Hill, Chauvel, Ch. 12, note 13, pp. 243–44.
- Mobile troops mounted (in 1983) in armoured personnel carriers.