Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 40

The Palestine Campaign 1916–18: causes and consequences of a continuing historical neglect

Author: Dr Jean Bou

Dr Jean Bou completed a PhD in History at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2005. With the assistance of an Army History Research Grant he is presently working on a book manuscript on the history of the Australian Light Horse based on his thesis. An army reserve officer and a historian with the Army History Unit he is involved with a number of projects including the forthcoming revised editions of the Oxford Companion to Australian Military History and the history of the Royal Australian Regiment, Duty First. In May 2006 he began a job at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University where he is working on the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping and Post-Cold War Operations.

The Palestine Campaign occupies a curious place in the historiography of the First World War. Some of its events, most notably the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba, have captured the popular Australian imagination and popular history in a way that few other episodes of the war have. Tied up with the romance associated with the Light Horse, the Palestine campaign, in as much as it is thought about, seems a cleaner, gentler, and less vicious part of the war: a sideshow campaign of brave horsemen where we won without seemingly too much effort and where the casualty lists were far less appalling. Conversely popular memory of the Western Front will, more often than not, tend towards expressions about the waste of lives, the mud, unrelenting horror, and dullard chateau generals blithely sending thousands of men to their death. What has been termed, in reference to the final series of the British television comedy, the Black Adder view of the war.[1] In recent years, however, there as been a vigorous and enthusiastic process of historical revisionism relating to the British and Dominion armies fighting on the Western Front. Much of this work, looking at the war of 1918, has shown that though the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) undoubtedly had its tribulations and weaknesses, it was in fact broadly competent, learnt from its mistakes and earned its victory in 1918. Much of this work was neatly presented at the 1998 Chief of Army’s History Conference.[2] The tenets of this historical revisionism now form a major part of the scholarly history of First World War, at least among Commonwealth historians.[3]

In contrast to this the history of the Palestine campaign has, with a few notable exceptions, received little attention from scholarly historians. This campaign has largely been left to the official histories, regimental histories, and a continuing stream of far less useful popular works that do little to help our understanding. That this campaign should been left alone is not terribly surprising. The Western Front was the cockpit of the war and that historians should focus on it is understandable. The biggest battles were fought there; attractive to non-British Commonwealth historians is the prominent role Dominion troops played there; and in the end it was only the defeat of Germany that was going to end the war. Palestine was, comparatively, a sideshow and the enemy, though admirable, was the less competent one of a second rate power.[4] This historical indifference, however, means that in large part the history of this campaign suffers from a number of flaws, is somewhat stereotyped, and perhaps inevitably has become as much parroted as genuinely understood.

The Australian historiography of the Palestine campaign is still dominated by Henry Gullet’s Volume VII of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, The AIF in Sinai and Palestine.[5] To this book can added the two volumes of the British Official History by George MacMunn and Cyril Falls which, with a reputation for being much drier, are little used by Australian students of the war except when Gullet proves unhelpful.[6] Gullet’s work was, and is, an admirable history. Though Bean complained of its journalistic style he was gracious enough to acknowledge it as the “most readable and most read” book of the Official History series.[7] It is, however, undoubtedly of an older historical tradition and leaving history to one major secondary source has its dangers. It was noted some ten years ago that Bean’s large volumes were more perhaps “more frequently referred … to than actually read.”[8] Such a statement seems as likely to be as true of Gullet’s effort as it is of Bean’s. The inevitable consequence is that, though pervasive, Gullet’s influence is now perhaps more impressionistic than detailed.

One example of this state of affairs that has been of concern to me in recent years, and which can be found in almost every discussion on the Light Horse from scholarly history to the Australian War Memorial’s Palestine gallery, is the common but quite incorrect contention that the Light Horse were mounted infantry.[9] This error has more than one historical thread and Gullett himself should not be held completely responsible, but that this idea is so pervasive is due in large part to an uncritical acceptance of Gullet’s simplification of the Light Horse’s military role.[10] The Light Horse were in fact mounted riflemen, and though the term may sound similar, after the Boer War it in fact denoted a different form of mounted soldier. By the First World War mounted infantry was defined as normal infantry provided with animal locomotion solely for the purposes of mobility. Regardless of their mounts such bodies were intended only as infantry, and once they dismounted their tactical employment was as infantry. Conversely mounted riflemen were horsemen, usually of the colonial and/or citizen-soldier variety, that were organised along cavalry lines (a cavalry regiment being about half the size of an infantry battalion) and were designed to undertake all the traditional duties of cavalry with the exception of the mounted charge.[11] The distinction between cavalry and mounted rifles was in reality a small one and existed only due to the contemporary debates about mounted troops and firepower, and because creating highly trained cavalry from citizen soldiers was thought too time consuming and difficult. Lest it be thought that the distinction between mounted infantry and mounted rifles was really a trivial one, it should be noted that the distinction had genuine meaning when it came to their respective use on the battlefield, as Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) training notes of the time demonstrate:

It must be remembered that there is a radical difference between the fire tactics of mounted riflemen and those of the Camel Corps which are infantry.

The infantryman moves comparatively slowly, and once committed, he can rarely be disengaged. He attacks in depth, moving in successive waves.

The mounted rifleman, on the other hand relies principally on his mobility. He makes no attempt to advance in depth, except when attacking an immobile enemy in position, which, except in small affairs is not his usual role. He seeks to obtain a decision by surprise, and by catching the enemy at a disadvantage, endeavouring to bring a crushing fire to bear at once by putting in every available rifle at the start.

He avoids, above all, becoming tied down to a face to face fire fight, for by doing so he losses his mobility. He keeps his horses as close as possible, so that if he does not secure success at the outset he can break off the fight, to renew it under more favourable conditions.

On the other hand, once committed, Camel Corps can only be disengaged with difficulty.[12]

To use mounted rifles (or indeed dismounted cavalry) in battle as if they were infantry was a fraught with dangers. The near-run battles at Rafa, Magdhaba, and even Beersheba were testimony to the fact that sending mounted troops against prepared positions like infantry was risky. [13]

Pointing to the glossing over of such operational distinctions is not to suggest that Gullet’s work is entirely debased. Far from it, but there is undoubtedly in the Australian historiography a persistent misunderstanding of the basic operational nature of the troops that made up the bulk of the national contribution to the campaign. Such a misunderstanding would be of lesser concern if their was a rich historical literature to draw on, or the existence of a vigorous historical debate as an alternative, but there is not.

Since Gullet’s efforts in the early 1920s there has been little with which to compare his version of the war. In the mid-1950’s the Army’s Directorate of Military Training produced, under the authorship of Colonel E. Keogh, a very good book-sized review of the campaign, Suez to Aleppo[14]. This book was intended as a prescriptive history to be read by soldiers in an effort to impart what its author saw as its “lessons learned”: intended for a narrow readership and not commercially published it is now, unfortunately, virtually unknown. It nevertheless gives a good account of the campaign in general, has specific sections dedicated to critically reviewing each phase of the fighting and importantly for an Australian work, gives reasonable consideration to the efforts and contribution of non-Australian units. In particular the hard fighting infantry formations that tend to be overlooked due to the common focus on the mounted operations.

Keogh’s book was followed in the late 1970s by A.J. Hill’s very good biography of Sir Harry Chauvel, which makes full use of the available archival sources and in doing so revisits the Palestine campaign.[15] More critical than Gullet, it provides a useful review of the campaign that should be read by any student of it. As a biography, however, its focus is understandably elsewhere and it has its limitations in coming to an appreciation of the entirety of the operations. Looking past these few works, however, we quickly find the limits of the Australian historiography of the campaign. In the 1980s Ian Jones did a large amount of very useful work on the Light Horse at war but his book of the Time-Life series Australians at War, The Australian Light Horse, is aimed at school-age readers, is hardly revisionist and, with a taste for perpetuating the Light Horse legend, it has distinct drawbacks.[16] The fact it is occasionally referred to by scholarly researchers is contradictory testimony to both the amount of work Jones’s did, and to the dearth of good historical analysis of both the Light Horse and the campaign. It is difficult to imagine a similar book appearing in the bibliography of a book on the Western Front as this one does on the few books that relate to Palestine. Aside from this there is large range of regimental and formation histories of both the Light Horse and other non-Australian units that can be drawn on. These are important and provide colour, but though some of it is quite good, it is uneven in quality and has understandably narrow horizons.[17] There is also a steady stream of popular works that deal with some aspect of the Light Horse at war which, sometimes, can be quite readable and worthy in their own right but which do not offer serious analysis. The Duchess of Hamilton’s recent book, First to Damascus, is full of false literary tension and does little more than rehash Light Horse mythology.[18] 800 horsemen: God’s history makers is the barely coherent effort of an evangelical pastor and represents (apart from a warning of what can be done with desktop publishing software) possibly the worst that the mythology around this campaign can produce.[19]

As a campaign of the British Army one can also turn to British sources, but here too, with one recent exception, things are not promising. Cyril Falls added to his official history series in 1964 with another book, Armageddon 1918, that covers just the last two months of the war.[20] Archibald Wavell produced a history of the campaign in 1928 and later added a useful biography of Field Marshal Allenby.[21] In the 1920s The Cavalry Journal produced a good serialised history of the mounted troops of the EEF but this is now largely forgotten.[22] Published around the same and with a similiar focus is R.M.P. Preston’s, The Desert Mounted Corps.[23] The one recent effort to produce a good analytical history of the campaign, however, is the work of the British historian Matthew Hughes, most notably in his book Allenby and British strategy in the Middle East, 1917–1919.[24] As Hughes notes the “existing campaign literature is narrow in its focus, uncritical in its analysis, and in need of some revision.” His book goes some way to correcting this and in it he explicitly states that his aim is to do for the Palestine campaign what Tim Travers, Paddy Griffith, Robin Prior, and Gary Sheffield, among others, have done for the Western Front. In this regard he is, I think, only partly successful. He provides some clear analysis and critiques of the plan for Third Gaza (and thus Beersheba), the two trans-Jordan operations of early 1918, the final advance to Damascus, and of Allenby in general. Ultimately, however, his emphasis is on imperial strategic decision making and how the campaign fit into British plans for influence in the Middle East after the war. Those with an interest in operational history may find it the tantalising first step of a new historiographical direction rather than the destination they may be looking for.

What then is the cause of this neglect of this significant campaign? Perversely I think it is for the opposite of some of the reasons that Peter Stanley advanced for the dearth of good history on the New Guinea campaigns in his well known paper, “The green hole”.[25] Whereas the New Guinea operations were complex, the operations by Australian troops in Palestine have been thought of as overly simple. The focus on mounted troops has emphasised quick battlefield decisions and cavalry dash which tends to obscure the often complex planning and preparation that went into operations. The way in which the Australian works tend to ignore the contributions the infantry, artillery, logistical services, and the role of every level of staff officer only acts to compound this tendency to simplification. Secondly, and again in contrast to Peter Stanley’s ideas about New Guinea, the dramatic events of the campaign, Beersheba in particular, have tended to overshadow the rest of the fighting. The result being that the more intricate and difficult operations are overlooked.

There are, however, some similarities between the other reasons of neglect of New Guinea and that of Palestine. As Peter Stanley noted, historians “thrive on tension, dissent, problems, and failure.”[26] There were more failures and near-run battles in the Sinai and Palestine than is commonly appreciated but the fact remains the campaign was entirely successful and any tensions that might have existed between the senior commanders was run of the mill rather than dramatic or detrimental. Indeed one is struck by how well the commanders got on. Chauvel and Phillip Chetwode, who some thought were rivals for the command of the Desert Mounted Corps, seem to have got on most happily.[27] Allenby was known for his explosive temper but did not apparently carry grudges, and as the energetic replacement of Sir Archibald Murray no one seemed to be complaining. Most important, however, and alluded to earlier, is the basic fact that the campaign contributed little to the goal of defeating Germany, and it is this consideration that has probably done most to ensure that historians have paid it little attention.

What does this mean for our understanding of operations in Palestine? Inevitably the result of drawing on a series of histories mostly written well before the Second World War is that our understanding of the campaign has degraded considerably. The good work of Gullet and others of that generation has to some extent become part of the historiographical backdrop, and has not been critically compared to the extant sources by scholars using modern historical approaches. The notable efforts of the few scholarly historians since than has been entirely laudable, but each of them have been tangential in some way and have become isolated examples rather than the catalyst for a process of revision. Thus the history is increasingly being left to popular historians more interested in telling a good yarn and perpetuating mythology than challenging it. The campaign is romanticised and the men who fought, particularly those who fought it on horseback, get reduced to a characterisation.

Finally, does this neglect matter? I suggest that it does, for a number of reasons. Firstly, if we ignore the subsidiary campaigns of the First World War we run the risk of misunderstanding the full nature of military operations in the early twentieth century. To dismiss Palestine as a curiosity because the nature of the forces sent there, the nature of the terrain, the tactics, and because of the characteristics of the enemy, is to ignore the fact that the fighting on the Western Front was shaped by its own set of the same factors. We then become reduced to a sort of military snobbishness where what happens in Europe counts and what happens outside it is abnormal. The Western Front was undoubtedly the most important and intensely fought campaign of the war, but that it is the only military experience of the period worth understanding seems to be overstating things. Related to this idea is that by better understanding this campaign (and no doubt others) we may come to a fuller understanding of the armies of the British empire during the inter-war period. At the very least there might be less incredulity at the maintenance of horsed cavalry in the 1920s.[28]

Secondly, there is the traditional instructive role of military history. Given the current penchant for manoeuvre warfare theory, the Palestine campaign offers many interesting lessons for those so concerned. Though it may upset the intellectual apple cart to some extent, a wider appreciation of the Palestine campaign by some modern theorists might do much to counter the common idea that only the German Army could do it before 1943.[29]

Thirdly, and in conclusion, this significant campaign deserves better. After Gallipoli it was the major British land effort against one of Germany’s key allies. Australia maintained the better part of two divisions there and the first Australian to command a corps was Sir Harry Chauvel. Just as there is, for historians of other campaigns, a desire to challenge the mythology and attempt to better understand the history, there should also be a similar desire for this campaign. To do otherwise is to allow the mythology to perpetuate itself and for the scholarly understanding of the First World War to be increasingly incomplete.

© Jean Bou


[1] Blackadder goes forth, television series, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1989

[2] Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (eds), 1918 defining victory: proceedings of the Chief of Army’s History Conference (Canberra: Army History Unit, 1999)

[3] G.D. Sheffield, ”The indispensable factor: the performance of British troops in 1918”, in Dennis and Grey (eds), 1918 defining victory: 74

[4] For example, see Jeffrey Grey, The Australian Army, v. 1, The Australian Centenary History of Defence (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001): 46

[5] H.S. Gullet, The AIF in Sinai and Palestine, v. VII, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 (1923; St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1984)

[6] George MacMunn and Cyril Falls, Military operations: Egypt and Palestine from the outbreak of war with Germany to June 1917 (London: HMSO, 1928); Cyril Falls, Military operations: Egypt and Palestine from June 1917 to the end of the war (London: HMSO, 1930)

[7] C.E.W. Bean cited in A.J. Hill, “Introduction to the U.Q.P. edition”, in Gullet

[8] “Bean, Charles” in Peter Dennis, Jeffrey Grey, et al, The Oxford companion to Australian military history (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995): 89

[9] For example, see Jeffrey Grey, A military history of Australia (1990; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 114; and Ian Jones, Australians at war: the Australian Light Horse (North Sydney: Time-Life Books, 1987): 17; see also the description of the Light Horse attached to the mounted soldier display in the Memorial’s Sinai and Palestine 1916–1918 gallery.

[10] “They were mounted riflemen, or in other words, mounted infantry, and their horses were intended merely to give them the greatest range of activity as a mobile body.” See Gullet: 29

[11] Major General E.T.H. Hutton, “Preface”, Mounted service manual for the mounted troops of the Australian commonwealth (Sydney: F. Cunninghame & Co., by authority, 1902): xii-xiii

[12] “The employment of camel corps”, issued by General Staff, GHQ, EEF, 11 January 1918, AWM25: 157/5

[13] Archibald Wavell, The Palestine campaigns (London: Constable, 1928): 125

[14] Colonel E.G. Keogh, Suez to Aleppo (Melbourne: Wilke & Co. for the Directorate of Military Training, 1955)

[15] A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978)

[16]Ian Jones, Australians at war: The Australian Light Horse (North Sydney: Time Life Books, 1987)

[17] For example, see Lieutenant Colonel A.C.N. Olden, Westralian cavalry in the Great War (1921; Sydney: Bennet, 1985); and David Holloway, Hooves, wheels, and tracks: a history of the 4th /19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse Regiment and its predecessors (Fitzroy: Regimental Trustees, 1990)

[18] Jill Douglas-Hamilton, Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon, First to Damascus: the story of the Australian Light Horse and Lawrence of Arabia (Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 2002)

[19] Col Stringer, 800 horsemen: God’s history makers (Robina, Qld: Col Stringer Ministries, 1998)

[20] Cyril Falls, Armageddon 1918 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964)

[21] Wavell, The Palestine Campaigns; and Archibald Wavell, Allenby: a study in greatness (London: George Harrap & Co., 1940)

[22] Anon., Lieutenant-Colonel. J. Brown and Lieutenant Colonel Rex Osbourne, ”Operations of the mounted troops of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force”, The Cavalry Journal, X–XIII (1920–1923)

[23] R.M.P. Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps: an account of the cavalry operations in Palestine and Syria (London: Constable, 1921)

[24] Matthew Hughes, Allenby and British strategy in the Middle East 1917–1919 (London: Frank Cass, 1999)

[25] Peter Stanley, ”The green hole: exploring our neglect of the New Guinea campaigns of 1943–44”, Sabretache: Journal of the Military Historical Association of Australia (April–June 1993) 3–11. In preparing this paper I have used, not this original piece, but Peter Stanley, ”The green hole reconsidered”, in Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (eds), The foundations of victory: the Pacific War 1943–1944: The 2003 Chief of Army’s Military History Conference (Canberra: Army History Unit, 2004): 202–11

[26] Stanley, ”The green hole reconsidered”: 205

[27] For example, in 1919 Chetwode commissioned a portrait of Chauvel in London and got him honorary life membership of the Cavalry Club. See Hill: 196

[28] For example, see Albert Palazzo, ”The way forward: 1918 and the implications for the future”, in Dennis &Grey (eds), 1918: defining victory: 196

[29] For example, see Richard D. Hooker (ed.), Maneuver warfare: an anthology (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1993)