One Question Quiz
Caption reads ‘ruins of Gaza at the time of the great attack (Image: Library of Congress)
Caption reads ‘ruins of Gaza at the time of the great attack (Image: Library of Congress)

SocietyNovember 29, 2023

New Zealand’s shameful role in the 1917 destruction of Gaza

Caption reads ‘ruins of Gaza at the time of the great attack (Image: Library of Congress)
Caption reads ‘ruins of Gaza at the time of the great attack (Image: Library of Congress)

As we’ve watched from afar the tragedy unfolding in Gaza, it’s worth remembering the part New Zealand troops played in setting in motion the cycle of violence that continues today in Palestine and Israel.

The man in the photo walks down the deserted street, over rubble. On both sides of the street buildings have lost their roofs and walls. A pockmarked minaret totters over the wrecked townscape. The photo is captioned Ruins of Gaza at the Time of the Great Attack.

The photo I’m describing wasn’t taken in 2023, but in 1917. Today Gaza is being destroyed by the armies of Israel and Hamas. In 1917 the British and Ottoman empires wrecked the city. New Zealanders played an important role in the destruction. 

In 1917 most Gazans lived in village-suburbs interspersed with gardens and orchards. Their houses were made with mud bricks. The highest building in their town was the Great Mosque, whose foundations dated from the 7th century. The Ottomans had made Gaza into a fortress, and had connected it by rail and road to a series of redoubts further east. These guarded the southern border of the province of Palestine, and were manned by German and Austrian as well as Ottoman troops.

Britain’s new prime minister David Lloyd George was desperate to capture Palestine, in the hope a victory there would shift public attention from the disaster on the western front, where tens of thousands of Britons had died fighting over mud. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, which crossed the Sinai desert to attack Gaza and Palestine, was made up of British, Anzacs, South Africans, West Indians, a volunteer Jewish Legion and Indians. 

The Anzac Mounted Division was an essential part of the EEF. Its men rode to battles but fought on foot. Many of them had learned to ride on the farms of their homelands. Some were survivors of Gallipoli, where they had battled without their horses; others had arrived in Egypt after that catastrophe. 

Gaza’s suffering began before the British attack. Its defenders confiscated farmland for trenches, and demolished houses to give artillerymen better sight lines. The Great Mosque was seized and turned into an ammunition dump.

Captioned ‘Gaza Beauty Show’. Photo was likely taken by New Zealander Private Robert Kerr of the Anzac Mounted Rifle Division (Image: NZ Army Museum)

It took the British empire three battles to capture Gaza. A photo taken before the second assault shows New Zealanders trying on gas masks. It is captioned Gaza Beauty Show. The attackers fired 4,000 canisters of asphyxiating gas towards the city. No Gazan had a gas mask. Before the final assault the city was bombarded for four days by naval guns, artillery and planes. When they finally captured Gaza, the New Zealanders found it empty. Almost the entire population had fled the bombardment; the Ottomans had followed them. 

On the day its troops entered Gaza the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which committed it to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1917, though, Jews made up less than a tenth of Palestine’s population. And Britain had made contradictory promises to Arabs, promising them independence if they rose up against Ottoman rule, and funding an Arab army that had advanced to the edge of Palestine. 

There was still another group that wanted Palestine. When the Auckland Mounted Rifles had passed the stone pillar that marked the border between Sinai and Palestine, Henry Mackesy had stopped his men, and prayed to thank god for delivering the “Holy Land” to Britain. Like New Zealand’s wartime prime minister William Massey, Mackesy was a British Israelite, who believed that Anglo-Saxons were a lost tribe of Israel, and that the British empire was god’s kingdom on earth. For Mackesy and many other Anzacs, Palestine belonged rightfully to Britons, not Jews or Arabs. So many Anzacs wanted to settle in Palestine that Kia ora Coo-ee, their official magazine, had to run an article warning them that conquerors could not legally take locals’ land. 

For most Anzacs, the inhabitants of Palestine – the Arabs of the villages and towns, the nomadic Bedouin of the deserts, the small and ancient Jewish communities in towns like Jerusalem – were at best an inconvenience, and at worst a reminder of the decadence and evil condemned in the Old Testament. New Zealander Alexander McNeur summed up a widespread feeling when he wrote “no wonder the old inhabitants of Palestine had to be destroyed… many a chap is disgusted by the people”. (The only Palestinians the Anzacs really liked were the settlers in Zionist colonies, who looked, spoke and acted like Europeans.) 

The Anzacs complained about the dirtiness and dishonesty of Palestinians. Many complained they had been cheated by Arab or Jewish traders; others said that Bedouins dug up soldiers’ graves and plundered them. But the Anzacs themselves had a reputation for taking whatever they could from Palestinians, as well as from Ottoman soldiers. In 1988 Australian veteran Ted O’Brien gave an interview in which he confessed to killing a wounded Ottoman so that he could steal the man’s possessions. Robbing the dead was routine, O’Brien said. O’Brien added that he and his comrades would immediately kill any Bedouins they found in the desert. Edwin McKay, a member of the Otago section of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, said that theft was a “two-way thing”, with Anzacs and Palestinians preying on each other. 

After its defeat of Gaza the Ottoman army began to disintegrate, but as the EEF advanced through Palestine and into Jordan and Syria, it did not always bring peace. Arabs who fought alongside the British imperial forces, hoping for independence, became possessive about the areas they had captured. Ottoman deserters became bandits. Bedouins who had been pushed off their land by war raided EEF camps in search of loot. The Jewish Legion clashed with Arabs so often that the EEF commander General Allenby asked the War Office not to send him any more Jews. 

The Anzacs’ contempt towards Arabs grew even greater after a calamitous attempt to capture Amman near the end of the war. Rain, cold and tougher-than-expected Ottoman resistance sent the mounted riflemen away with heavy losses. As they rode towards safety, the Wellington Mounted Rifles entered Ain es Sir, a small village set amid hills and ravines. Villagers opened fire from houses and from nearby ledges, and seven Wellingtonians died. The Anzacs counterattacked Ain es Sir ferociously, shelling the village and killing 38 of its inhabitants. They took no prisoners. 

Two members of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles – their exact identities haven’t been established – are flogging Egyptians charged with rioting. Egyptian police are holding the victim down, and other Egyptians are waiting, often in states of undress. 1919 (Image: NZ Army Museum)

The attack on Amman had made been made in partnership with an Arab force, and the Anzacs seem to have believed that the ambush at Ain es Sir was an act of treachery by their supposed allies. They do not seem to have known, or cared, that Ain es Sir was not an Arab village. Its inhabitants were Circassians, a Caucasian group that migrated to the Middle East centuries ago. 

On the night of December 10, more than a month after the end of the war, the Anzacs’ hatred of Arabs erupted. Hundreds of them were camped outside a village named Surafend, waiting impatiently for a ship to take them home. On the night of December 9 a man entered the tent of a New Zealand soldier named Leslie Lowry. Lowry had been using his kitbag as a pillow. The intruder grabbed it and fled. Lowry chased the thief across the dunes that separated the Anzac camp from Surafend. The thief turned and fired a pistol. Lowry died three hours later. The next morning Anzacs found Lowry’s blood in the sand. Footprints led from the stain towards Surafend. 

On December 10, up to 200 Anzacs and a few Scots smashed through the fence that surrounded Surafend. They beat and stabbed scores of male inhabitants of the village, leaving between 40 and 120 dead and many more wounded, then set fire to the Arabs’ homes. A nearby Bedouin encampment was also set ablaze. Ted O’Brien was one of the raiders. He and his comrades had “done their blocks”. They “all went for” the Arabs with “the bayonet”. “It was a godawful thing,” O’Brien remembered.

New Zealander Ted Andrews explained that the massacre was not just about Lowry’s murder. “The treacherous ambush at Ain es Sir was still fresh in the minds of New Zealand troops,” he wrote, ignoring the fact that the men of Surafend had nothing to do with that village. Andrews said that victims at Surafend were castrated. Some historians have dismissed this claim, but American scholar Edward Woodfin has shown that castration and humiliation of the dead were being practised in 1918 by the Indian members of the Egypt Expeditionary Force, with whom the Anzacs were friendly. 

Most historians say that children, women and old men were removed from Surafend before the slaughter, but they ignore the testimony of Australian John Doran, who was at the Anzacs’ medical station the night of the massacre. Doran said that women and children appeared there with burns and bullet wounds. The Jewish soldier Roman Freulich said that Australians had fired a machine gun at the Bedouin encampment on the night of December 10. Freulich also reported that the members of the Jewish Legion were excited by the massacre – they hated Arabs even more than the Anzacs – and that they used what he called “the Australian method” on a group of Bedouin civilians shortly after. Freulich said that he and his comrades sealed off a Bedouin camp and stabbed the men with bayonets. 

Caption reads ‘ruins of Gaza at the time of the Great Attack’ (Image: Library of Congress)

Although the Anzacs’ commander General Allenby condemned the attackers, calling them “cowards and murderers”, no one was ever prosecuted for the massacre at Surafend. In 2009, the New Zealand television programme Sunday ran a story on the massacre. Sunday’s team visited the site of Surafend, which has now been covered by an Israeli town, interviewed an old man who remembered the massacre, and asked why New Zealand had never apologised for the crime. The question is just as pertinent now. When we look back from 2023 to the destruction of Gaza and the rest of the Palestine campaign, we can see that New Zealand troops played a part in setting in motion the cycle of violence that continues today in Palestine and Israel. 

Keep going!