AUSTRALIA: by Siobhan ReevesNews Weekly
Beersheba, Gallipoli and the Anzac legend
, July 7, 2012
Few issues provoke as much anger and feelings of betrayal amongst the Australian public as criticisms of the Anzac tradition, as the furore over comments made by New Zealand journalists demonstrated in April.
The Anzac legend is a historiographical minefield, and yet one we must traverse in order to understand what it means to be Australian in the 21st century.
Returning from several years living overseas, I have seen very clearly that the Anzac legend is a defining feature of the Australian identity, yet one that is increasingly being challenged in recent times.
Books such as Paul Daley’s Beersheba: A Journey Through Australia’s Forgotten War call into question the centrality of the Gallipoli campaign to the Anzac legend.
In this article I will use this book as a form of case study, and examine the Anzac tradition in terms of how it arose and/or was assimilated as legend in the early 20th century; the rightful place of Gallipoli; the overlooked events of Beersheba and Surafend; and the crucial implicit question as to what is Australian identity as informed by the Anzac legend.
The Anzac legend is crucially an extension of the Bush legend. Australia’s situation is unique, as Graham Seal explains. He writes: “Myths usually develop over long periods and from obscure origins. In the case of the Australian national-military myth — the product of the interacting traditions of the digger and Anzac — we know the exact historical moment when it began.
“We can trace its origins in the romanticisation of the pioneering and bush life that took place in the later nineteenth century, in the Australian experience of the Boer War and in the broader need for an appropriate national totem. Like many myths, ours was waiting to be invented”.
Bill Gammage notes that the “conditions of battle produced a great re-flowering of the bush tradition”. He writes: “The bush and the war demanded similar qualities in individuals — for example, resourcefulness, initiative, endurance, reliability, courage and mateship.”
Powerful indications of this relationship and assimilation between the Bush legend and the Anzac legend can be observed in the literature of the period, for example the poem by Dorothy McCrae published in 1917:
“They cleared the earth, and felled the trees,
And built the towns and colonies;
Then, to their land, their sons they gave,
And reared them hardy, pure, and brave.
“They made Australia’s past: to them
We owe the present diadem;
For in their sons they fight again,
And ANZAC proved their hero strain.”
Both the Bush legend and the Anzac legend highlight the ordinary man, which appeals in both cases to Australian egalitarianism.
Memorial statue in Australia Soldier Park,
Beersheba, Israel, dedicated to the memory of the
Australian Light Horse regiment,
which freed the town from Turkish rule in 1917.
In light of this relationship, let us return specifically to Paul Daley’s book, Beersheba (reviewed by Bill James in News Weekly, October 31, 2009). The work generated a certain amount of public commentary owing to the fact that Daley challenges the predominant role of Gallipoli in the Anzac legend by his research into the Battle of Beersheba in Palestine, October 1917. A key argument of his study is that the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba should be as central, if not more so, as Gallipoli in our national consciousness.
It was an audacious military strategy in modern warfare, and seemed doomed to failure; yet it is remembered as one of the last great cavalry charges in military history. Surely this event epitomises the best qualities of the Bush legend. As Daley argues, “There is, perhaps, no more salient military metaphor than Beersheba when it comes to Australian doggedness, perseverance and courage in the face of adversity.”
Daley claims that it is the issue of the Surafend affair, where the men of a Bedouin village were all killed by ANZAC soldiers, that has prevented Beersheba from assuming its rightful place in our national consciousness.
He writes: “Beersheba was the scene of great heroism and daring. Conversely, Surafend was the setting for an act of extreme cowardice and premeditated violence so shameful that it sits starkly — almost irreconcilably — at odds with the incredible achievements and, just as importantly, the myth and the legend, of the Australian Light Horse.”
It is in relation to this affair that I believe Daley is a poor historian. Tony Wright, in his foreword to the book, describes Daley as having discovered “a terrible secret”, when he did nothing of the kind, for military histories since World War I have included the Surafend affair.
Daley himself claims that the official Australian World War I historian H.S. Gullet dealt with the issue “briefly and uncomfortably”. Gullet in fact devoted the final five pages of his official history to it, which seems a rather odd thing to do if you are trying to keep something secret.
It is clear, as Daley’s study amply confirms, that the soldiers had been provoked for three years by the Bedouin tribesmen. They stole food, killed the injured and dug up the dead — and the British command refused to intervene.
Daley certainly has a penchant for the term “massacre”, but this term is misleading. By definition a massacre is indiscriminate killing; whereas at Surafend every account notes that the soldiers beforehand insisted that the women and children should leave.
Earlier in the book, Daley acknowledges that “the deprivations and horrors of war have always brought out the best and worst in men”. Beersheba does indeed deserve to be much more “than a mere footnote to the Gallipoli-centric Anzac legend”. Daley rightly observes, “As a military feat, it possesses all the mythopoeic potential of Gallipoli, with the bonus that it was in a fact a glittering victory.”
Yet it appears destined to remain a mere footnote, for, in spite of all this, Gallipoli is essentially synonymous with Anzac for most Australians, and events like Beersheba are relatively unknown. Given that Gallipoli was a catastrophic military failure — and, according to contemporary historiography, a pointless campaign even had it been successful — how can this anomaly be justified?
Daley repeats the often-given reasons for this. First, Gallipoli, unlike Beersheba, had a dedicated military chronicler. Second, events such as Beersheba were overshadowed by the carnage at Gallipoli. And, third, the British claimed much of the credit for the Palestinian victories.
Daley also notes that, during the Gallipoli campaign, 11 Australians were awarded the Victorian Cross. In contrast, after the Battle of Beersheba, it appears that those who would normally have received the award for their outstanding valour were unjustly denied it on account of the Surafend affair.
Gallipoli was also the first major battle undertaken by the Anzacs, and thus, in a certain sense, baptised the new nation of Australia in the eyes of the world. The campaign was also fought at an earlier stage of the war. By October 1917 the public at home had become quite disillusioned with the conflict.
Gallipoli is also noted for its “mythical landscape... (it is) history’s stadium”, looking much the same in the aftermath of the Great War as it did after the ships departed following the Trojan War.
However, it could be argued that the Palestine campaign shared this quality. Russell Ward notes the importance of the frontier to the Australian mystique. Perhaps Gallipoli presented a more clearly defined frontier than the long campaign that led up to and followed Beersheba.
Gavin Souter advances yet another case for the supremacy of Gallipoli. He discusses the importance of self-sacrifice to compensate for failure, but then observes: “Yet failure was not really any disqualification for the purpose which Gallipoli would serve; on the contrary, it may well have been essential.
“Australians had not evolved many legends to reflect and glorify aspects of their collective identity; but those they valued most — Lalor at Eureka, Burke and Wills at Cooper Creek, Kelly at Glenrowan — were all concerned with men who had taken their chances against great odds, and failed. Did Australian self-esteem perhaps contain a core of self-pity?”
Perhaps this is close to the heart of the matter, for it is quite an anomaly that Gallipoli receives such exclusive attention, given that almost 87 per cent of Australian deaths during the Great War were suffered on fronts other than Gallipoli. It is interesting to note a submission into the Anzac Centenary Committee calling on the Prime Minister to “make a public apology on the steps of Parliament House to the families of those men who served in World War I, other than at Gallipoli, for the neglect of this country in acknowledging that service”.
What can we say are the characteristics of our national identity in light of the Anzac legend? The aforementioned centenary submissions demonstrated in the vast majority of cases an immense pride and love for this aspect of our nationhood. The final report stated that “Australians believe that the centenary commemorations program should embrace the sentiments of pride, respect and national identity”.
Anzac Day is valued more highly in Australia than Australia Day. I believe an appreciation of Beersheba as part of the Anzac legend would enrich our identity further.
A Vietnam War veteran commented to Daley that, for him, the Australian Light Horsemen at Beersheba “represent the very best of Australian values”. In the words of the Anzac Centenary Report: “We remember the Anzacs... because of courage, fortitude and mateship: human qualities that define the Australian character.”
Of course, there is an important difference between upcoming generations of Australians admiring the Anzacs and their actually seeking to emulate these heroic virtues. But this is a goal towards which Australians can strive. In relation to the Surafend affair, C.E.W. Bean famously concluded his epic history of the Anzacs in World War I with the observation: “What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand.”
Gallipoli, in just the past 30 years, has exploded in popularity, with many young people describing their journey there as a “pilgrimage”. This may hint at an anthropological, rather than historical, explanation for the supremacy of Gallipoli.
The French historian and literary critic René Girard, who has written on anthropological philosophy, theorises that mankind needs self-sacrifice to form an identity, and around that event of self-sacrifice a ritual or liturgy will necessarily develop. He says: “All religious rituals spring from the surrogate victim, and all the great institutions of mankind, both secular and religious, spring from ritual.”
Recent Australian commentators have argued that if we do not acknowledge all of our history, we will not be aware of “our contributions to shaping the modern world”. For Australians “it is important... not only to mourn our losses but also to celebrate our victories”. The Australian Light Horsemen have a “unique place” within the Anzac legend, and they should not be denied that place.
Seal beautifully encapsulates this idea when he says: “In its fusion of the sacred and the secular, of the everyday and the official, Anzac is the modern Australian dreaming.”
It truly is a “living history”, and we should foster all aspects of a tradition that makes us proud to be Australian.
Siobhan Reeves is doing a masters of international relations at Melbourne University.
 Graham Seal, Inventing ANZAC: the Digger and National Mythology (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2004), p.9.
 Bill Gammage, “Anzac”, in Deborah Gare and David Ritter (eds), Making Australian History: Perspectives on the Past since 1788 (Melbourne: Thomson Learning Australia, 2008), p.295.
 Paul Daley, Beersheba: A Journey through Australia’s Forgotten War (Melbourne Melbourne University Publishing, 2009), p.4. Daley notes also that it was not just during the Charge itself that such courage and determination was shown, for the Charge could not have taken place without the capture of Tel el Saba with much greater loss of life earlier in the day. Ibid., p.101. While those who know something of Beersheba are often aware of the 31 Australians killed during the Charge, over 1,250 Australians, New Zealanders, English, Scottish and Welsh also died that day. Ibid., p.118.
 “An extraordinary military action… arguably, critical to the outcome of the World War One desert campaign.” Daley, op.cit., p.184.
 Please see Appendix 3.
 Daley, op.cit., p.viii.
 Including Paterson’s Happy Dispatches (Chpater XVII, 1934) and Gullet’s official history, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, pp.787-791 (1923). The biographer of Chauvel acknowledged it as a “tragedy” and a “crime”. A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse: a Biography of General Sir Harry Chauvel (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978), pp.192-193.
 Daley, op. cit., p.250.
 Lindsay Baly, Horseman, Pass by: the Australian Light Horse in World War 1 (Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p.313.
 Daley, op.cit., p.28.
 R. Gerster, Big-Noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing (Carlton; University of Melbourne Press, 1987), p.106.
 Note the striking comparison between Daley alone at Beersheba cemetery on Anzac Day 2008, while foreword Guy Wright at Gallipoli with 10,000 other people and a massive sound and light show. Daley, op.cit. p.223.
 It is ironic that another possible reason for this in relation to Beersheba in particular is that the Australian press was rather caught up with the Melbourne Cup at the time of the charge. Daley, op. cit., p.159.
 Robin Prior, Gallipoli: the End of the Myth (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), p.252, passim.
 Gullet did not join the Palestine campaign until near the end of the war. Daley, op. cit., p.171. In contrast, C.E.W. Bean, the correspondent at Gallipoli, ended up devoting two weighty volumes of his official war history to the eight-month campaign at Gallipoli and four to the remaining three years of the war. J. Beaumont, “Introduction”, J. Beaumont (ed.), Australia’s War 1914-1918 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995), p.xx.
 Daley, op. cit., p.5. Even reports in Australia gave the credit to the British. Ibid., p.158.
 Ibid., pp.65, 111, 112, 265.
 C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol. 6 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1942), Chapter 22, p.1094.
 When the charge at Beersheba took place.
 Michelle Griffin, “Pilgrims’ progress”, The Age (Melbourne), April 24, 2004, page 8. Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre. EBSCO. Web. October 29, 2011.
 Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1966), p.231.
 G. Souter, Lion and Kangaroo: the Initiation of Australia (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2000), p.286.
 J. Beaumont, “Introduction”, J. Beaumont (ed.), Australia’s War 1914-1918 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995), p.xx.
 Australian Government, Committee for the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary, 2015, REPORT, pdf, Web. October 29, 2011, p.4.
 Beaumont, op. cit., p.xvii.
 Daley, op. cit., p.164.
 Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998), p.22.
 Bean, op. cit., p.1096.
 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred. Patrick Gregory trans. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), p.306.
 Opinion, “Beersheba’s Message”, The Australian (n.d.): Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre. EBSCO. Web. October 29, 2011.
 Peter Burness, “The Australian Light Horse”, Exhibition Catalogue: Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, Australian War Memorial, 2008, p.12.
 Graham Seal, op. cit., p.172.
 “We shall charge our Beershebas and we will rebuild them — and this we will do for our children and for generations of Australians ahead.” The Hon. Joe Hockey MP, federal Liberal member for North Sydney (NSW), “First Speech To Parliament”, Parliament of Australia: House of Representatives, September 10, 1996.