Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s Footsteps

leichhardt footstepsI went for a walk last week with Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s footsteps. Ludwig Leichhardt was the German explorer who disappeared in the Australian interior in 1848 with his team of men and animals on a quest to open up Australia’s interior to European eyes. Simpson was a drover and bushman who lived in many of the places that were opened up from Leichhardt explorations, including the place where he possibly died. Leichhardt’s disappearance after leaving Mt Abundance remains a great Australian mystery and one that is littered with near misses of evidence.

One such story is Simpson’s, an experienced bushman who turned to writing late in life. Aged 65, he published his life story in Packhouse Drover. “In Leichhardt’s footsteps” is Simpson’s fifth book and is also crammed with anecdotes from Simpson’s own life in western Queensland. Indeed the most memorable line in the book has nothing to do with Leichhardt but with a friend of Simpson who while holed up at the only hotel in remote Boulia would entertain his friends in the morning on the veranda by holding a full two gallon jug of water on his erect member.

Simpson’s connection to Leichhardt connection was perhaps less ballsy but also related to Boulia, one of the westernmost towns of Queensland. Leichhardt may well have come this way as he sought a way to the west coast, Burke and Wills certainly came through this region as they headed north in 1860.  Both expeditions were before the birth of Boulia itself. Although Queensland had separated from NSW in 1859 this area, which Peter Saenger called “Queensland’s Western Afterthough” was not yet part of the new colony. Western Queensland ended at latitude 141 degrees east which marks the border with South Australia. The three degrees of land to 138 degrees east that marks the border with NT (then South Australia) was contested by Queensland, SA and Victoria. Though Victoria had no contiguous border with the region, it was they who financed Burke and Wills’ expedition. But when it went wrong, it was Queensland that led explorations to find them and the area was included in the northern colony in 1862.

The mystery of Burke and Wills was solved thanks to the survival of John King, but none of Leichhardt’s men survived the disappearance 12 years earlier. Where they went and what happened to them remains conjecture but almost exactly one hundred years later Simpson and his mates may have stumbled on their last camp site. That was on Glemormiston station, half way between Boulia and the NT border, as remote a settlement today as it was then.

In 1848 it was the home of the Wonkajera people, who survived this difficult landscape by marketing a narcotic called pituri along well-established trade routes. By the time Simpson got there in 1947, the Wonkajera and their pituri were long gone replaced by cattle stations, though some Aboriginal people still thrived as cowboys. In May 1948 (almost 100 years to the day when Leichhardt and his crew were last heard from at Mt Abundance, 23 April 1848) Simpson was part of a team mustering cattle through a patch of gidgee trees when “something” caught Simpson’s eye. It was a piece of iron on ground scorched by fire and turned up by a horse hoof. When the men dismounted to investigate they found a saddle buried in the dirt.

They then found other packs and riding saddles with bits of steel scattered over a wider area. When the men discovered steel buttons and buckles they were convinced they had stumbled on a camp from the distant past – and one whose inhabitants suffered a bad end. Just about to get back to work, Simpson found two stirrup irons of an unusual design. Simpson took them as a keepsake but they were later lost when sold with all his droving gear. Back at camp no one had heard of the relics the men had found. Glenormiston had been settled for 70 years so it seemed likely this camp was from before then. One of the men at the station said it had to be from the Leichhardt expedition as iron and steel could survive a long time in low humidity and arid soil.

Simpson immediately planned a return trip but it would be almost 40 years before it would happen. Simpson and his mates fell out with the station owner not long after the find and they left the property and its tantalising relics. Simpson forgot exactly where the site was and said the relics were ‘disdiscovered”. Simpson would work in many parts of Queensland, but the memory of what he found in Glenormiston never left him nor the nagging feeling it was related to Leichhardt’s lost expedition.

Leichhardt was an impoverished German with few connections who improbably crossed Australia by land south to north over 15 months in 1845-1856 for the loss of only one life. He was pronounced a hero on his return in Sydney and plotted an even bigger adventure east to west. His first go at this was thwarted by floods and illness and he was having a second go when he disappeared without trace. The men on his first east-west trip painted Leichhardt variously as a liar, thief, coward and martinet and his reputation suffered as British Australian collectively turned against the Prussian. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Leichhardt’s reputation as a great explorer was re-established.

Simpson mentioned his Glenormiston finds when he published Packhorse Drover in 1996 and it rekindled his interest in all things Leichhardt. His own reading of Leichhardt’s life convinced him that the German was a superb explorer and competent bushman whose reputation was unfairly maligned. Simpson was also fascinated by the incredible mystery of the German’s disappearance and the many failed attempts to find traces of him and his expedition. Leichhardt had seven or eight men (he left with sevcen but may have picked up an eighth at Mt Abundance), 77 animals, carts, tents and other paraphernalia. There are trees blazed with L and LL scattered through the outback and tales of massacres and “white aborigines” though none have been verified. The only genuine artefact ever found was a gunplate marked “Ludwig Leichhardt 1848″ apparently found in a tree near the WT/NT border. The person who found that is long dead, the tree cannot be found with accuracy and in any case it may have been moved there by Aboriginals not by Leichhardt himself.

One of the many legends about Leichhardt’s disappearance concerned Glenormiston station. When the station was first taken up in 1875, the manager John Richard Skuthorpe was told of a very old white man who live with Aborigines on the Mulligan River south of the station, speaking a language that was not English. When Skuthorpe went to investigate he found the man was dead and was buried with a saddle bag containing his papers. Skuthorpe became convinced the man was the German Classen who went with Leichhardt on the final expedition. Skuthorpe’s belief was based on a story conman Andrew Hume had told about meeting Classen in the NT many years after the disappearance.

Whatever the truth of these stories, Simpson decided to have another go at finding the Glenormiston relics. Simpson contacted the other surviving drover from the 1948 trip and with the help of an ABC documentary team and a few other interested parties, decided to head west in 1996 to find the site. Simpson would have two goes at finding the relics, first in 1996 and again in 1998. Both were frustrating failures as neither he nor the other drover could remember which part of this giant haystack their pin might be buried in. The country may have changed considerably in the intervening 50 years and there was likely considerable regrowth hiding the site. Simpson concluded his report that ‘Although the search was unsuccessful, the fact remains – the relics are there.”

Simpson is still very much there, almost 20 years later. ABC Landline did a profile on the “droving poet” in August this year. The program harked back on Simpson’s part in the glory years of droving until replaced by trucks in the 1960s. Leichhardt was not mentioned but it was clear Simpson was as Professor Bill Gammadge said “the spokesman for a way of life that’s vanishing very quickly”. Any hope that another tantalising clue into Leichhardt’s fate might be discovered is disappearing at the same rate. The Glenormiston Relics, like the fate of Leichhardt, remain a mystery.

November 2, 2014 at 11:37 am 1 comment

First World War visions: Remembering the Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Centenary commemorations of individual events are already forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will no doubt be depressed by the litany of ceremonies but that won’t make them disappear any quicker. For better or worse, the First World War is an important marker of human history and one that cannot be ignored. A better question to ask than ‘why are we marking this anniversary?” is “what is the legacy of the First World War and why is it relevant 100 years later?”

I was confronted by that question last monyh in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted the recruitment march through the town. There in 1914 like many other towns across the world, young men enthusiastically signed up for “the cause”. As they marched up the main street to the music of the Salvation Army band, they were cheered on by townspeople who were greeted by signs the men held which asked “Will you Join Us?”.

The 2014 march had the band and a cheering audience and even the sign. But what were the 21st century crowd being asked to join if not in a fetish of history? Arguably the most important legacy is the mess that is the Middle East, a direct consequence of the war and a place where Australian forces are still sent to on a regular basis. But that fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips any other country.

That will reach a crescendo as Gallipoli approaches its anniversary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering Ypres, the Somme, Villers-Bretennoux and other places where Aussies died in large numbers. I asked the Laidley organiser why he was arranging their commemoration. “Because,” he said, “they died to preserve our way of life.” I didn’t say anything in response because I disagreed with him but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How exactly, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?

I may have thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I’ve been thinking about them ever since: What was it in the world that was worth preserving in 1914? The First World War has never had the emotional capacity to engage like the Second World War. It wasn’t a fight against totalitarian evil and all parties seemed equally culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews with which to heap homage on. Yet millions would die between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation in that war bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.

Well, none but one. That one was America and it was done in president Woodrow Wilson’s extraordinary Fourteen Points. America was a latecomer to the war but by 1918 had proven it was the world’s superpower in economic capability. The words of its president were listened to as the prognostications of an all-conquering Caesar. In January that year Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to publicly declare America’s war aims. Wilson was reacting to political pressure not moral obligation. The US had entered the war nine months earlier and there was still some resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson had formed a group of experts he called The Inquiry to produce a report of the aims of all countries in the war and determine what America’s goals should be. Their report formed the basis of the Fourteen Points.

The points are almost completely forgotten today but they were hugely influential at the time as a wide-ranging and optimistic blueprint of how a 20th century democratic world might look. The first five points were about general conduct: The first point called for open diplomacy and no secret treaties, the second for freedom of the seas, the third for removal of economic barriers, the fourth about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points delved deeper in the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, ten the dismantling of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, 11 independence for the Slav countries and Serbian access to the sea, 12 the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (the point that still reverberates today) and 13 the re-establishment of Poland. The last point called for a new general association of nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity”.

Wilson’s speeches of a new international order had captured the imagination of people across the world desperate for new ideas after the cynicism and destruction of the war. Wilson, said his biographer John Thompson, had the authority of a pope and the might of an emperor. Yet he was a reluctant warrior. A former president of Princeton, Wilson was an unlikely president of America. Elected in 1912, he played a major part in keeping the US out of the war that followed. Indeed, he was re-elected in 1916 on the express promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. But when in December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad he was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.

The Fourteen Points was delivered in January 1918 when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germanic centre had fought the allies on two fronts into a gigantic stalemate for three years. American manpower meant they were finally breeching the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much at Brest-Litovsk, they spread ideas of revolution into Germany. To protect its own political flank, Germany agreed to end the war and the country itself was never invaded.

The idealism of Wilson’s points struck an immediate chord, even Lenin applauded its vision as he returned to a disintegrating Russia. Wilson was offering not just peace but a new beginning. The plan was popular in Allied countries and even among the people in the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years.  But the plan had many enemies too, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was trying to entrench American hegemony. French president Clemenceau spoke for them when he supposedly said “The Good Lord only gave us Ten Commandments; the American president has given us fourteen.” Clemenceau had reason for his snark. The Points directly contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue as to how to deal with Germany.

In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and they later formed the basis for discussion in the Paris Peace Conference. Though Britain and France outfoxed Wilson in Paris and a hostile Senate defeated him in Washington when he returned, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Euro-centric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson stands alone in articulating some vision from four years of carnage. I’m still not sure what “our” way of life is, but Wilson’s Points aren’t a bad start for discussion. They deserve better than to be forgotten in the rush of military commemoration.

October 26, 2014 at 10:57 am Leave a comment

The Australian Light Horse Part 4 – the end of the war

Harry Chauvel leads the Light Horse into Damascus Nov 1918

Harry Chauvel leads the Light Horse into Damascus Nov 1918

Victory at Beersheba in November 1917 was sweet for the light horse but it was one of the last charges of a light brigade. Harry Chauvel started 1918 with a KCB on Allenby’s recommendation. After months of fierce fighting the Light Horse were ordered to take a break on Gaza’s coast. Here they reenacted their charge for photographer Frank Hurley but refused to ride at full gallop much to Hurley’s annoyance. But the men were owed their jokes, badly depleted by war and malaria. By now they were finally topped up by Indigenous troops. Aboriginal people could not vote in 1917 (and would not for another 50 years) but some of them were finally allowed to die for Australia. Queensland’s Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley pompously proclaimed that “half-castes” would be accepted into the AIF ‘provided they satisfied the medical authorities that one parent was of European origin’. Many, like Frank Fisher of Cherbourg (Cathy Freeman’s great-grandfather) were great horsemen and good shots and a much needed injection of new talent. The horsemen supported the infantry as the ancient city of Jericho fell in March 1918.

While the Australians were still crucial to set battles, Lawrence was leading on the unorthodox Arabs Revolt shoring up Jerusalem’s right flank by taking Tafilah despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Allenby was pushing on to Amman in parallel along the Hejaz railway line. Chauvel’s men were turned into sappers to quickly build a gateway over the Jordan River. Near where John supposedly baptised Jesus, they performed their own miracle putting up four bridges in one night. But the Turks resisted strongly, and the nemesis of Gallipoli, German commander Liman von Sanders was back in Palestine to lead the defensive line.

Turkish morale was boosted by the news of a German advance on the Western Front. Allied generals were so panic-stricken they pinched 60,000 from the Arab campaign to throw into Monash’s defensive line in France. America was in the war by now but had not yet supplied troops in large numbers and there was still doubt about the support of the American people. Chicago reporter Lowell Thomas and a cameraman were dispatched to the war to find suitable propaganda images to bolster American spirits at home. The Western Front was too horrific for that purpose so they went on to the Arabian desert to follow Lawrence’s revolt as they laid waste to Turkish supply depots along the railway.

Allenby meanwhile had his sights on Deraa 100km northeast of Jerusalem on the rail junction between the Damascus-Amman line and the important branch line to the coast at Haifa. Another cavalry charge took the approach town of Es Salt with Turkish and German forces bickering at each other in blame for the defeat. Conditions were tough with summer temperatures rising to 50 degrees and hazards such spiders, scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes to deal with. Lawrence and the Arabs blew up all the railway lines around Deraa while the air force bombed it from the air leaving it demoralised and isolated but still untaken. It didn’t matter, because the war news from France was good. Monash had comprehensively defeated the Germans at Amiens and it was only a matter of time before it would be all quiet on the western front. The Ottoman Empire too was tottering and the British defeated the Turkish 8th Army on the Plain of Sharon leaving a large breach that the mobile Light Horse took advantage of, storming into Nazareth. Chauvel was happy another holy city was taken but annoyed his men allowed Von Sanders to escape in pyjamas in a hurriedly assigned staff car.

On the same day – September 25 – Amman and its defensive force of 2500 Turks, Germans and Austrians surrendered to the British. Damascus was in sight but Chauvel’s problem would be administration. He hoped he would be able to support the Turkish civil governor as he did in Jerusalem but he was well aware of Arab political ambitions to rule the city. Lawrence, Faisal and their army was hurrying north to win the symbolic right to be first into the city and Chauvel and the other officers were wary of the Arab irregulars who, they felt, did not follow “the rules of war”. At Amman the British protected 6000 Turkish prisoners of war, who undoubtedly would have been slaughtered if the Arabs had got there first.

Damascus, meanwhile, was in chaos as Arab in the town revolted against their Ottoman leaders. By the end of September Faisal’s flags flew on many buildings across the city, an act of defiance that would have meant certain death barely months earlier. They could hear the bombs from Chauvel’s Mounted Division on the outskirts of town.  4000 Turkish and German soldiers were ambushed as they tried to escape along the road to Beirut and were butchered in what one Australian soldier called ‘a wallaby hunt’. Damascus was encircled but Lawrence was keen to establish ‘a Brown Dominion’ in the city, an Arab administration reliant on Britain. When the Australians finally entered the city they were feted as liberators and greeted by the Emir who hailed their ‘bravest manner of the Saxon race’ a phrase that uncomfortably reminded the Australian officer ACN Olden of his German enemy. Olden and his men quickly moved north to chase the Turks leaving the Arabs to brawl over ownership of Damascus.

Lawrence entered the city and went straight to the Ummayad Mosque, the oldest place of worship in the Muslim world and paid homage to the tomb of Saladin who took Damascus from the Crusaders and died there in 1193. A new Arab administration was taking over. Chauvel appointed a new city administrator who turned out to be a proxy for Sharif Hussein. The British War Cabinet played along, encouraging the fiction the Arabs took Damascus as a ploy in their ongoing ‘great game’ with France. But it was all bluff. The terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement meant that Syria would become French. Lawrence returned to Egypt in outrage never to return to the Arab world.

Meanwhile Mustafa Kemal refused to give up the fight. He holed up in Aleppo and was ready for a great battle at the end of October when news of the armistice with Turkey filtered through. Nevertheless 15 days after the armistice the British took Mosul giving them the oil resources they had coveted for four years and making it a major bone of contention at the Lausanne Peace Conference four years later. With the war over in November 1918, Chauvel had a new problem, managing the flood of refugees and log jam of shipping as everyone wanted to head home.

The Light Horse were sent to Gallipoli for the first time in three years to find fallen comrades and then they went on to Constantinople. At the end of the year many had to face the most painful act of their lives: shooting their beloved horses. The War Office in London had decided there weren’t enough ships to take them home and Australian quarantine restrictions were too strict. They had to sell them to the British and Indian armies or to local markets. The remainder would have to be shot. 20,000 horses were sold to the Egyptians but many soldiers detested the idea of ‘a Gypo on their horse’s back’ and preferred to kill them rather than trade them. The Australian Light Horse would eventually go home in 1919 to face an uncertain future but their whalers never saw New South Wales again.


Part 1,

Part 2,

Part 3

October 12, 2014 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

The Australian Light Horse Part 3 – 1917

The Australian Light Horse water the horses at Beersheba, November 1917

The Australian Light Horse water the horses at Beersheba, November 1917

The year 1916 was an awful one for all nations in the First World War. The feverish adventurism of 1914 was well gone, replaced by the knowledge that “your country needing you” brought almost certain death to recruits. It was a year of large set piece battles that resulted only in bloody attrition and stalemate. In “plucky Belgium” and swathes of north-eastern France the landscape became moonscape and cemeteries sprung up like rubbish tips to hold the vast numbers of bodies who died in murderous full frontal surges. 1916 was dominated by two major battles that lasted months, killed millions and changed nothing.

The names of Verdun and the Somme became etched on the world’s mind as sites of senseless slaughter. The fort of Verdun was strategically unimportant but was an important symbol of France. They fought the Germans for almost the entire year to save it. Neither side gained much from the campaign and a million men died. An even higher number – one million one hundred thousand – died on the banks of the Somme River. It was chosen as the spot where the French and British armies met but like Verdun, was otherwise of no strategic value.

Delayed by Verdun, the Somme was deliberately planned as a battle of attrition. The British deliberately walked slowly across no man’s land as generals somehow thought this would unnerve the Germans. It didn’t unnerve German machine gunners and 20,000 died in the first hour, 60,000 in the first day – Britain’s highest ever one day casualty list. A bloodfest that started in high summer, the Battle of the Somme went for four months until the onset of winter. Again only a handful of kilometres changed hands and the overall state of the war was the same in January 1917 as it was in January 1916.

Over in the east, the Ottoman campaign was also stalemated as 1917 arrived. The Mesopotamia campaign for Mosul’s oil ended when the British army at Kut surrendered after a siege despite Lawrence’s entreaties and bribes. In the north the Turks feared Christian Armenia more than any other enemy and butchered almost a million of them. In the south the Arabs were paid off to keep quiet while in the west the British Army and their Australian Light Horse trooped were hemmed in at Sinai.

Watching on in Cairo, TE Lawrence’s plan to set up an alternative caliph was taking shape. The man he anointed, Sharif Hussein, launched a hugely symbolic and important blow in June 1916 – he took Mecca. Hussein was nominally a subject of the Ottomans but in practice held semi-independent sway as long as he didn’t attack strategic Turkish interests. All that changed in a lightning attack on Mecca’s small Turkish garrison. As well as taking the holiest place in Islam he also took ports on the Red Sea giving the British Navy an opening for weapons and supplies.

But Hussein knew his Arabs could not take the Turks on full frontal. The Ottomans still held Medina, Islam’s second city and the Arabs did not have the training or equipment for open battle. Instead they launched a guerrilla campaign swiftly attacking towns and the railway before disappearing into the desert. Lawrence arrived in Arabia in October 1916 and struck an immediate rapport with Hussein’s son Faisal. Together they planned the revolt of 1917.

The Light Horse meanwhile started on the slow assault across Sinai. Victory at El Arish ended the Turkish momentum and at the start of 1917 Chauvel’s troops secured an important victory at Magdhaba and then at Rafa taking them within sight of Palestine. The way was blocked by the city of Gaza which they laid siege to twice. The British blundered at the first attempt in January 1917 when they withdrew under the mistaken belief Turkish reinforcements had arrived. When told the news, Chauvel’s exasperated response was “But we have Gaza” but he had no choice but to obey orders. The decision demoralised Chauvel’s men and gave the Turks some hope they could the line between Gaza and Beersheba. A second attempt to take Gaza in April also failed. Chauvel began to look at a new option: taking Beersheba in a swift attack. It had to be done in under a day otherwise they would run out of water. His men cooled their heels as the generals worked out if it was possible.

While the British stalled, the Arab Revolt gained momentum. Lawrence’s most audacious plan would be to cross the Nefud Desert in the hottest time of year to attack Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. The British did not support the plan, worried about growing Arab influence in the area. And it wouldn’t be easy, the stretch of desert they had to go through was called al-Houl (“the terror”) known to be the most inhospitable region on earth. But the lure was irrestistable. Taking Aqaba would divert Turkish defences from the Gaza line and it would also provide a direct launching pad for the push on Damascus. Lawrence needed a tough team to do the job and enlisted the support of Howeitat leader Audu abu Tayi, with promises of Turkish gold. Lawrence and Audu led the campaign on a long circuitous across the desert and entered Aqaba on 6 July 1917. Lawrence rushed back to Cairo to tell the news and was greeted by a new British leader.

General Edmund Allenby had replaced the useless General Murray. Though Allenby was disappointed to be taken away from the Western Front to what he saw as an insignificant contest, he was inspired by the mission Prime Minister Lloyd George gave him: “take Jerusalem by Christmas”. Allenby was impressed by Lawrence’s news which he saw as critical in supporting the Gaza operation. It also impressed upon him the manouevrability of the campaign compared to France and what role cavalry might play. He created the Desert Mounted Corps of 35,000 men with Chauvel at its head. He also took the important step of moving headquarters from the corruption of Cairo to the front line near Rafa.

Allenby wanted to convince the Turks they would have a third try at taking Gaza when the real target was Beersheba. He put in place one ruse to return to Cairo to pretend nothing was happening and a second to give Turks plans of a fake attack on Gaza, but he vetoed a third plan to drop packets behind enemy lines with cigarettes laced with opium. Meanwhile the Army prepared to attack Beersheba on October 31.

Beersheba was well defended by Turkish and German troops and an impressive trench system. With the Army advance bogged down on the edge of town, Chauvel’s cavalry made the decisive move. Beersheba lay in a shallow saucer at the foot of the Judean Hills while Chauvel could see the whole town from a nearby hill. As the day progressed the Turks offered stern resistance and Chauvel ordered his 4th Light Brigade to attack. At 4.30pm the sun was already setting as they galloped towards the town. They had 3km of no mans land to cross and halfway there the defenders opened fire with machine guns. Many horses and men died in the hail of bullets but it did not stop the advance. Terrified by the bloodcurdling cry of the Australians, the Germans ordered a withdrawal. The Light Horse butchered what Turks remained and they took the town before the Germans had the chance to blow up the well.

The following day an elated Allenby ordered a third attack on Gaza and this time it fell within 24 hours. The road was now open to Jerusalem. Both sides of the conflict were under strict orders not to engage in fighting at “holy” places and the fight tiptoed around Bethlehem. The Turks fled Jerusalem on December 9 and the 60th Division’s General Shea marched into the Old City on a drizzly morning to be greeted wildly by people of many nationalities. Not since the 6th Crusade 674 years earlier had a Christian power had taken the city. Allenby had kept his promise to Lloyd George. The way was clear towards the even more important target of Damascus in 1918 and an end to the war.

See also part 1 and part 2.

October 10, 2014 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

Courier-Mail apology adds to its growing irrelevance

apologyThe Courier-Mail’s apology for an apology this morning highlights everything that is wrong with News Corp journalism in Australia.

The apology, printed on over three small columns hidden on page 7 comes a day after the Brisbane tabloid ran a racy page 1 image of murdered Indonesian woman Mayang Prasetyo in a provocative bikini pose next to the screaming headline “Monster CHEF and the SHE MALE” highlighting the incongruity of the murderous chef and the transsexual nature of his victim. It was an appalling headline that should never have seen the light of day and would have had to pass through many gatekeepers all of which presumably found it okay for publication. It was a headline that said more about newspaper management than it did about the murder victim.

The headline and the picture had one purpose only: to sell newspapers. Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation data have shown a modest recent increase in Courier-Mail sales, which the paper has trumpeted. However the longer-term picture is one of consistent decline, shown up in the Year on Year figures from 2012 to 2013 which shows the paper has fallen 10% from 185,000 papers a day to 162,000. These figures are similar to newspapers across the country. No wonder News suits in Brisbane and elsewhere are panicking and no wonder they think they have to go downmarket to gain readership. Yesterday, the paper hit rock bottom managing simultaneously to offend women, Asians, gays, blacks, domestic violence victims, and possibly chefs, in its extraordinary tabloid heat seeking missile headline.

There’s nothing really new in the headline. Tabloids have been offending so-called minority groups like this since forever, with the “other” always fair game for headline writers. People were always offended and some may have written to the paper to express their outrage. A handful might even have been published in the name of faux-balance. But on the whole, the papers felt they could get away with anything, because no one could stop them. These days however the rules have changed. The digital disruption that is playing havoc with News Corp’s business model is also offering effective ways of expressing disapproval. The headline went viral for all the wrong reasons and social media and activist websites are fanning the flames calling for apologies. Realising finally perhaps they might have gone too far, the Courier-Mail thought they could douse things down with today’s apology and indeed there are some good things in it.

The apology’s first sentence should have been yesterday’s Page 1 lead’s first sentence. It read “Mayang Prasetyo was the innocent victim of a horrendous crime, killed by the man she should have been able to trust”. The sentence went to the core of the issue that yesterday’s racy headline completely ignored: there is a domestic violence crisis in Australia of men attacking and often killing their partners. The apology said Mayang would be remembered for her cheerfulness and her love of family “as we reported yesterday” (but well hidden behind the hideous headline). It went on, “Many believe” (but presumably not Courier-Mail management) “we presented Mayang’s story in a way that was disrespectful to her memory. It concluded they “no intention of diminishing the value of Mayang’s life, or to add to the grief being felt by her family”.

Really? Can they seriously believe “Monster chef and the she male” is a respectful headline? Didn’t anyone at the paper think their other headline “the butcher and the ladyboy” might diminish her life? Was anyone arguing these headlines would surely add to her family’s grief? The apology shows the Courier-Mail has learned nothing. The sooner it and its stablemate of toilet papers disappear, the better it will be for the health of our society.

October 8, 2014 at 8:26 am 1 comment

The Australian Light Horse Part 2 – Lawrence of Arabia and the caliphate

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

What would the great Arabologist TE Lawrence  have made of ISIS, I wonder? Lawrence would no doubt have seen them as a brutal rejection of every 18th century European enlightenment value he believed in, though he would probably have admired their strength in Arab brotherhood. And although a fervent servant of Empire, he would have been honest enough to wince at Britain’s long duplicity in the region for its own aims. He would also surely have acknowledged his own major part in creating the conditions necessary to enable ISIS’s leader to make his extraordinary claim to the caliphate. He would have recognised the new caliph’s call for a jihad against infidels because it is exactly what he was confronted with in December 1915 in the days after Gallipoli was evacuated.

Lawrence was working as an intelligence officer in Cairo at the time and he would have heard the latest news from Constantinople. The emboldened Sultan, flush from his victory in the Dardanelles,  had just used his dual role as caliph to urge his Islamic people to launch jihad against “the infidel”.  It was an act of hypocrisy. These infidels did not count the Sultan’s own German military advisers but Lawrence recognised the power of the call, particularly to restive Arabs, to proclaim a Muslim brotherhood against the Allied invaders at their Egyptian and Iraqi borders.

Lawrence was a gifted analyst and filled with his own ambitions for Arabia, as well as Britain’s. He came up with a new plan to end the war in the east. His bold strategy insisted the Sultan had to be stripped of his powers as caliph, a central role in Islamic society. The prophet Mohammed was the first caliph and the dispute over the decision for his successor split Islam into Sunni and Shia sects.  The Caliphate became a Sunni institution passed on to dominant Arab and later Turkish leaders. The caliph was an ecclesiastic role which for centuries had kept Constantinople at the centre of the Arab world, despite its crumbling power. By passing the caliphate to a non-Turkish Muslim leader whom Britain would support, Lawrence thought, would undermine Turkey from its religious heart.

Lawrence said the caliphate should pass to the Arab leader Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein was currently in the pay of the Turks but Lawrence believed he could be bought out. Lawrence also needed to cut the Hejaz railway line which linked Turkey with Arabia. He reasoned the Arabs would support this because the railway enabled Turkish administration which hampered Arab collection of tolls and taxes in the region. Lawrence wanted to see the rule of many small Arab nations which would all rely on Britain for support, though he also knew of the secret Sykes-Picot pact to split the region between Britain and France. A British double cross, he thought, was worth the risk to ensure victory in the war and he went on to strike a productive partnership with Hussein.

But Lawrence also knew he could do little without conventional military might to defeat Turkey’s own defences. The most vital part of that strategy was the role of the Light Horse. The fight would take take place over a vast area of Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Arabia. The Light Horse would be shock troops in a wide ranging war where trenches weren’t a problem. Harry Chauvel also saw the likelihood that the Light Horse would now be sent to Arabia, which presented him a dilemma. He wanted an assignment in France but he also saw the opportunities if he stayed with the horses. The likelihood was he would be made a leader of one of the Australian divisions under Birdwood. Chauvel became commander of the mounted divisions, committing him to the war in the Middle East.

Once again he would turn a blind eye to his soldiers playing up in the bars and brothels because he knew what they could do under fire. But the pressure to step increased in March 1916 with the fall of the Iraqi city of Kut. Situated 160km south-east of Baghdad, the city was as far as the Mesopotamian campaign would get on its journey up the Shatt Al-Arab and the Tigris river. A British force was surrounded by Turks at Kut leading to a siege. Worse still the Turks were threatening Sinai and the Suez Canal, which was Britain’s lifeline to India and Australasia. While Lawrence was sent to Kut to bribe the Turks to free the British (he failed), Chauvel and the Light Horse were thrown into the battle to save the Suez for empire.

Chauvel knew horses would be vital for the task and would need a strong remount depot. He turned to an old schoolfriend who could be trusted to do the job: the renowned horse whisperer Banjo Patterson. The pair had met at Sydney Grammar, both were from military stock and both wanted to join up. Patterson resigned his commission after the Boer War but he signed up again in 1914 hoping to be a war correspondent but ending up in a veterinary unit. He returned to Australia to re-recruit in a remount unit breaking in horses and it was here that Chauvel renewed acquaintance with his old school pal.

The importance of the Paterson-trained horses was increased after German planes began bombing raids in Sinai in May 1916. Once the alert was sounded, riders and their horses would rush into the desert and stay as still as possible. Thus camouflaged by scrubs and palms they were difficult to spot from the planes despite flying low.  While Chauvel’s men were being frustrated by endless patrols, Lawrence was making headway. He could not stop Kut from falling but he met Arab leaders in Basra where he made dangerous promises of Arab freedom to chose their own leaders. Lawrence was setting in train a desert campaign with the Arabs that would dovetail with the British Army campaign in Palestine.  It would be 1917 before Chauvel or Lawrence would achieve any sort of success in their plans.

October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

The Australian Light Horse – part 1

Australain Light Horse march in the town of Laidley (Derek Barry)

Australian Light Horse march in the town of Laidley (Derek Barry)

Yesterday the streets of Brisbane marked another one hundred year anniversary of the First World War. As the city prepared to celebrate Riverfire, a bunch of men and women and their horses paraded from Victoria Park to the Story Bridge. One hundred years ago on 23 September 1914, the newly trained second light regiment, then all men, rode through Brisbane to Pinkenba docks where ships would take them to the war in Europe. Many of the men would never come back and none of their horses did.  Roland Perry does a good job of telling their story in his book The Australian Light Horse.

At the beginning of the war most commanders believed that cavalry would be a crucial factor in securing victory. Mobile warriors on horses had proved decisive in conflicts for hundreds of years. In 1914 Germany’s strategy was contingent on a swift victory over France while Russia slowly mobilised. That meant avoiding France’s defences by invading through neutral Netherlands and Belgium. At the last moment, the Kaiser decided he needed Netherlands to remain neutral so his invading forces had only a narrow strip of Belgian land with which to enter France. For three months it was swift-moving war where horses played a role. But the narrow front, stubborn resistance from the Belgians, and last ditch defence by the French at the Marne stopped the offensive and the war slowly developed into battles of attrition across trench lines where defences were favoured. It was no war for horses and the many Australians that rode them would have to wait for other campaigns to show they still had merit.

Horses had been a core part of the Australian colonial experience since 1788 and one of the key reasons why white settlers were able to defeat Aboriginal resistance. Even with the advent of the trains, the horse remained the quintessential pioneer accoutrement up to 1914. Many country kids rode to school every day while others like Harry Chauvel rode enormous distances to boarding school in the bigger cities. By the time Chauvel left Toowoomba Grammar in 1881 he was an accomplished jockey and bushman. His father and grandfather were soldiers so it was only a matter of time before Harry too enlisted. Chauvel’s first “battle” was against fellow Australians when the military were called to Western Queensland to put down the 1891 Shearers Strike. Chauvel and his men arrested strike leaders and faced down an angry crowd without a bullet being fired. Afterwards Chauvel gave his men emu feathers to put in their slouch hats as a reminder of their courage.

Chauvel fought in the Boer War where he was concerned about the maverick reputation of Australian soldiers. The lack of a class system meant all Australians had to be treated with respect but discipline was crucial. Chauvel married and had family as his career slowly advanced in peacetime Australia. In faraway England First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, influenced by Shell founder Marcus Samuel had declared oil to be of supreme importance to the Navy and set about releasing Kuwait from the thralls of the dying Ottoman empire. In early 1914, Churchill had his eyes on ancient Mesopotamia, the three Ottoman vilayets Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. He gained 50% control of an oil company to exploit Mosul oil. With the Germans beating the war drum in Europe and Africa it seemed only a matter of time when conflict would emerge that would drag in all of the British Empire.

The catalyst was Sarajevo and the Serb Black Hand assassination of Franz Ferdinand. A chain reaction, fed by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bloodlust brought all the European powers to war. Chauvel, who had already been called to London, was on the high seas when he found out, and was relieved he and his family made it safely to Liverpool. Now 49, he was immediately appointed commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, meaning he had to wait months for his troops to arrive. His first decision was to abandon the waterlogged Salisbury Plains as a training ground and instead ordered the ships to disembark at Egypt. Mounted units were formed all over Australia, with their ‘waler’ horses (originally New South Walers) sired by English thoroughbreds from breeding mares that were often partly draught horse. With genetic input from brumbies and Welsh and Timor ponies, the walers were tough and had stamina, vital for arid Australian conditions.

The men had volunteered gladly, fired up like their European counterparts by patriotism and a sense of adventure. Of the 12,000 Aussies that served in the earlier Boer War only 231 died in action, though fewer remembered the same number dead to disease. Still, at 1 death in 25, they thought the odds were good for survival with the big worry being the war would be over by the time they arrived. Churchill meanwhile had put in place his Mesopotamian plan and had already taken Basra from the Gulf. Now it was a natural progression to attack the Ottoman capital Constantinople via the Dardenelles. This war was unknown to the troops that landed in Cairo in late 1914. Chauvel commanded three regiments in a 1500 man brigade as well as looking after 8000 walers.

The Aussies and Egyptians warily sized each other up. The locals were amused by the feminine touch of the emu feathers but wisely said nothing. The Aussies thought they were ‘filthy Arabs’ but were not above using their women as prostitutes, with 3000 Anzacs contracting syphilis. As Chauvel worried about discipline, the war was moving dangerously close to them as the Turks attacked the Suez Canal. Churchill’s plans to take the Dardanelles by naval power alone was defeated by Turkish mines making a land invasion necessary. But the narrow ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula was no terrain for horses and Chauvel told his men they would be going in on foot, though not as part of the initial contingent.

It took only three days after 25 April to realise an easy taking of Constantinople was an impossibility. The wards in Cairo were already filling up with dead and injured troops and Chauvel’s men were deployed in early May, with orders for just 50 to be left behind to look after the horses. Of those, 25 disobeyed orders and were smuggled aboard, with Chauvel turning a blind eye. They arrived to a nightmare. “Things were pretty warm,” wrote Chauvel to his wife, laconically downplaying matters. His men had orders to hold the Monash Valley, an 800m narrow cleft of land along the cliffs connecting two battlefronts, just 15m from Turkish trenches and open to sniper fire from above. The constant noise was deafening and the stench was intense with dead men and animals rotting in the Mediterranean heat. The subterranean life of trench warfare was alien to the horsemen but they quickly learned or died doing so.

For months on end, their lives would be dominated by attack and counter-attack. On June 13 Chauvel wrote ‘The Light Horse are now cave dwellers and I am living the life of a rabbit”. he knew instinctively they no chance of breaking free of the mountain but he was scolded by superiors for a negative attitude. While some wanted him relieved of command for his pessimism, there was no doubting his courage. He was evacuated to Egypt for six weeks diagnosed with pleurisy but returned in August in time for the Suvla Bay offensive. Like most attacking offensives in this brutal war, Suvla Bay failed with the defences ready for everything the Allies could throw at them. At the Nek, British commanders butchered two regiments of Light Horse sending them over the top to their deaths in a futile attack. For the next few months it was a matter of grim survival before the British mercifully called a halt to the invasion.

Chauvel and his men that survived went back to the welcoming embrace of their walers in Egypt. But the war to end all wars had barely begun.

September 28, 2014 at 12:09 pm Leave a comment

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This work by Woolly Days is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License.

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