Hoofbeats of history

In Israel, descendants of Aboriginal ANZAC soldiers retrace forgotten stories

On trip marking 100 years since one of the last great cavalry battles in history, descendants of WWI Commonwealth soldiers seek to shed light on army’s discrimination at home

Members of a 10-horse cavalry procession that took place as part of the October 23, 2017, ceremony commemorating the battle for the Tzemach train station in northern Israel.  (Michael Huri/KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
Members of a 10-horse cavalry procession that took place as part of the October 23, 2017, ceremony commemorating the battle for the Tzemach train station in northern Israel. (Michael Huri/KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

One hundred years ago, the sound of hoofbeats and war cries rolled across northern Israel as soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, mounted on horseback, fought against German soldiers in one of history’s last great cavalry battles.

Descendants of the Australian soldiers who fought in Palestine during World War I returned to the site on Monday as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, where hoofbeats again rang out on stone pathways during a somber procession.

The Battle of Tzemach is a largely overlooked yet significant battle that came in the last weeks of WWI. It is considered one of the last cavalry battles in history, as few cavalry units were still in use by the time World War II broke out. Tzemach is much less well known than the other large ANZAC battle, in Beersheba in the south of Israel. Beersheba was much more documented in war diaries and was the subject of a 1941 movie called “40,000 Horsemen.”

The Jewish National Fund/Keren Keyemet L’Yisrael and JNF Australia are leading 100 people, including descendants, researchers, and politicians, through 10 days of commemoration of the ANZAC campaigns in Israel. The Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps supported the British during their battles against the Ottoman Empire and German forces during WWI.

Twelve of the participants on the trip are part of the Rona Tranby Trust, an oral history organization in Australia. They are dedicated to preserving stories of the Aboriginal ANZAC soldiers, many of whom did not receive the same rights and recognition as European Australians.

Doris Paton, from Queensland, recalled her family’s stories about her great-grandfather’s escapades during four years in Palestine from 1915 to 1919.

“As an Aboriginal man, he was very good with horses,” she said of her great-grandfather David Mullet, who was with the 1st Redmont Unit. “He came because he thought, like other Australian men, he thought he would be given land when he came back. That didn’t happen.”

Paton said her great-grandfather’s family was forced to live on a “mission station,” similar to Indian reservations in the United States.

Descendants of ANZAC soldiers embrace after planting a tree in memory of their ancestors next to the Tzemach train station in northern Israel on October 23, 2017. (Michael Huri/KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

“They were not allowed to leave the missions, so he decided that one way to get off the mission and do something exciting, and also to get away from oppression they lived under, was to enlist,” said Paton. “When they were overseas, they were treated the same and were equals [as European-Australians]. But when they came back they were not allowed the same entitlements as the other Australian men that came to war.”

Paton, who is writing a book about her great-grandfather, said she wanted to come to Israel to research and raise awareness of the sacrifice of Aboriginal soldiers, including the discrimination they continued to face upon their return.

“This story of the contribution of Aboriginal soldiers in the First World War isn’t as well-known, so it’s opportunity to share this story with Australia,” she said.

Peta Flynn has a great-uncle who fought in the Battle of Beersheba. She noted that Australia has typically focused on larger battles in the Ottoman Empire during memorials, such as Galicia or Gallipolli. “But with the hundred year anniversary, a lot more knowledge is coming out on other battles that happened,” she said.

With that is a greater appreciation for Aboriginal, or indigenous, soldiers.

“A lot of indigenous soldiers said they were European so they could enlist, so it’s lost to history how many indigenous soldiers were over here,” said Flynn, whose great-uncle Charles Fitzroy Stanford was part of the Australian Light Horse 12th Regiment.

Posted by In the Steps of the Light Horse – Tour 2017 on Monday, October 23, 2017

Historians estimate that as many as 1,000 of the approximately 4,500 Australian soldiers who fought in Palestine in WWI were Aboriginal, though it’s difficult to track. In the beginning of the war, Aboriginals were barred from enlisting, so many lied about their origins. The cavalry units were especially popular for Aboriginal soldiers since many had experience handling horses at home.

Also commemorating the 100th Anniversary is a 100-kilometer “Ride Like an ANZAC” bike ride. The fundraising ride will trace the route ANZAC soldiers took to conquer the city of Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire and open the road to Jerusalem for General Allenby’s British Army brigades.

The main reenactment will take place on October 31 in Beersheba with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. The former prime minister of New Zealand, Bill English, was also slated to attend before Jacinda Arden became the new prime minister on Friday.

The reenactment at Tzemach commemorated a decisive, though less well-known, battle.

Many Aboriginal soldiers joined the ANZAC cavalry units, commemorated here during an October 23, 2017 ceremony at the old Tzemach train station, though they were forced to lie about their origins since the army did not allow Aboriginals to enlist. (Michael Huri/KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

The Tzemach train station was originally built in 1905 as part of the Mediterranean branch of the Hejaz railway from Damascus to Mecca, and was meant to bring Palestinian pilgrims to Mecca. It was also the strongest building around, and a natural choice for the German and Ottoman soldiers to occupy.

In the early dawn of September 25, 1918, members of the 4th Light Horse Brigade’s 11th Regiment charged the train station from two directions: the east and the west. They galloped toward the German’s machine guns with their swords drawn, dodging hand grenades and artillery to engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat.

Australian war historian H.S. Gullett wrote of the Tzemach battle:

”The garrison, outnumbering the Australians by two to one, and made up largely of Germans, had, in addition to their extraordinary position and their machine guns, an ample store of hand grenades. They fought with exceptional boldness and stubbornness, their courage stimulated by an abundance of rum. But the Australians would not be denied.”

Fourteen of the Australian soldiers and 98 Germans died during the battle. About a quarter of the nearly 700 soldiers engaged in the battle were injured.

Fierce fighting during the 1948 War of Independence gutted the building, and the Tzemach train station was abandoned for decades before opening as an archive and study center for Kinneret College in 2012.

JNF/KKL maintains an “ANZAC Trail” which marks important battles during WWI. The delegation will follow the trail over the next 10 days, culminating in the reenactment of the Battle of Beersheba on October 31.

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