ANZACs and ‘human vultures’

When the men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade received orders to mount up and move out en-masse, battle-ready, during the night of 29th September, 1918 there was none of the usual grumbling; they hated night ‘stunts’. This night they moved with real urgency, they had no idea exactly what situation they would be riding into, all they knew with certainty was their mates from across the ditch were in trouble and they were on their way to help the Aussies out. There was absolutely no doubt every single member of the New Zealand brigade would willingly risk his own life, do whatever it took, to support their Australian brothers-in-arms; no question asked.   

The legend of the Anzac brotherhood was given birth fighting side-by-side for eight months on the Gallipoli peninsula, then (occasionally) in the cauldron of the Western Front where the Anzacs prevailed in unimaginable success at the battle of Broodseinde before suffering together, just eight days after that amazing victory, an inglorious and shocking defeat burned into the collective memories of our two nations, remembered not as the battle for Bellevue Spur but as the black day instantly recalled by the one-word euphemism for disaster ‘Passchendaele’, while the men of the Anzac Mounted Division spent four whole years side-by-side in the deserts of Sinai and Palestine becoming more than bonded, it was as if they had become welded together in the desert heat.

Initially composing three Australian and one New Zealand brigade, by mid-1918 the Anzac Mounted Division was swelled by the formation of the 5th ‘Australian’ brigade consisting of two regiments of Aussies, the 2nd New Zealand Machine-Gun Squadron, an entire regiment of French Cavalry and an artillery support battalion; the ‘Hong Kong and Singapore (Mountain) Battery,’ comprised almost entirely of Sikhs, supplementing the numbers.

Badge of the Anzac Mounted Division

During the summer of 1918, the Anzac Mounted Division truly suffered. They had been handed a Herculean task; to hold and indeed advance through the Jordan Valley, the hottest place on earth, at the hottest time of year. Three hundred metres below sea-level and entirely windless the valley was considered uninhabitable after April, certainly by Europeans, even locals usually left for cooler climes as the valley became deserted over the season. It was essential to the allied effort that maximum pressure was exerted in the valley, that a credible threat was posed to the Ottoman Empire by the creeping Anzac and joint allied advances. In those deplorable conditions the men worked and fought north while every single day the heat, the shortage of water and the fetid swamps, incubation centres for uncountable millions of mosquitoes, did their work and extracted a price from the Anzacs, six or seven men from every regiment, every new day, joining the malaria casualties. One regiment able to field, at one sorry stage, just 210 able bodies from a nominal roll of 750.

The essential inland assaults were intended to convince the Ottoman and German adversary that a major push, in the cooler months, would come from the east and to this end T.E Lawrence (‘of Arabia’ fame) who had mentored and helped initiate the Arab Revolt, convincing King Hussein of Jordan to join the alliance and throw off centuries of Turkish oppression, co-ordinated Arab attacks to the east. The Arab cavalry and infantry performed admirably in these assaults while Lawrence brokered the support of the Bedouin Beni-Sakr clans to the allied cause with much less success in the Anzac sphere of influence. The Bedouin let the British allies down at an assault on Es Salt in April; intended to replace 7,500 Indian Cavalry the ‘promised’ 7,000 Beni-Sakr support failed to arrive, this failure put down to ‘poor communication’ while at a second action it is said the Bedouins simply failed to engage as planned in battle orders, leaving the Australians in a particularly perilous position and forever earning the combined clans the deep distrust of Anzacs, convinced the Bedouin were there in self-interest only, to loot, not to fight. This distrust increased as numerous incidents of hostile action towards the Anzacs by the Beni-Sakr over the coming months were reported.

The inland diversions of Summer were successful; on 19th September a large force, 70,000+ strong, attacked along the coast and into the Judean hills, the allies encircled and cut off Turkish and German retreats, destroying infrastructure and rendering the Ottoman position in tatters. Tens of thousands of prisoners were taken as the Turkish 7th and 8th armies collapsed, but one Turk army; the 4th, was still ‘missing’ as the allies scrambled to locate them and cut off any chance of their retreat to safety.

They were spotted, by aeroplane, at a position about 20 or 30 miles south of the Australian 2nd Brigade on the 28th and two squadrons, about 500 mounted riflemen, from the 5th Australian Light Horse regiment were sent to assess the situation next day. Finding themselves in insufficient strength to command the dangerous melee brewing before them, the rest of the Aussie 2nd Brigade were urgently ordered to follow, and the New Zealanders to assist.

Moving all night and into the dawn of 30th September, the Kiwis were alerted to the battle scene by the very familiar death-rattle of machine guns and small-arms fire as they approached. Pausing to assess the situation before entering the fray they became bemused, then baffled, then buggered-if-I-know confused. They simply could not believe their eyes.

Ziza railway station. Defensive trenches mid-foreground.

Before them lay a plain, at its centre a clutter of structures forming the railway station of Ziza around which a defensive perimeter of trenches and outposts was manned by the 4,600 strong remnants of their enemy, those healthy enough to fight of the ‘missing’ Turkish 4th Army, all Antonolian Turks, good fighting men, and alongside them in the Turkish trenches bearing arms in support were the Australians from the depleted 2nd Australian Mounted Rifle Brigade, the men New Zealanders had come, riding all night, to support!

To say the situation took a little time to take in would be an understatement; Anzacs and Turks, erstwhile enemies now stood together under arms in the trenches surrounding Ziza.

One Australian officer would comment in his war diary of ‘a situation probably unique in the whole annals of warfare’; he wasn’t wrong. The Turks, although bolstered by the support of the Australians, were still out-numbered by their aggressors, now referred to as ‘the human vultures’, the massed tribes of the infamous Beni-Sakr, still technically British allies, fully 10,000 of them had surrounded the Turk position ready to over-run, mercilessly slaughter and loot the worn-out Turkish force.

The New Zealanders, understanding all too well by now the nature and intention of the Bedouins, entered the fray, the Auckland and Wellington Mounted Rifles galloped across the plain, taking ‘pot-shots’ at the mounted Beni-Sakr as they went, driving them back to the surrounding sand-hills and establishing a two-thousand yard perimeter protecting their ‘enemy’, the Turks, from their ‘ally’, the Bedouins, yet still the human vultures would not desist. Dismounted Kiwis manned Turkish machine-guns and Hotchkiss guns, shooting towards any threatened breach of the perimeter. One keen Kiwi begged his officer to use a piece of Turkish artillery against the tribesmen but was turned down only on the (very sound) reasoning the rifleman was more likely to blow himself up in the operation than graze the marauders.

Upon the arrival of more Kiwis, from the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, the Bedouin began to melt away, although hundreds still circled the perimeter on horseback, defiantly discharging their rifles airwards as the Turks formally surrendered to their new ‘brothers-in-arms’; the smaller Anzac force.

Anecdotes immediately began to flow from the Aussies of their night spent inside the Turkish position, stories of sharing cigarettes, souvenirs and fires; the Australians to heat their bullies, the Turks their chapattis. While the Anzac’s despised, to a man, the Beni-Sakr the Turks were terrified of them and anxious to ward them off. All during the night bursts of machine-gun fire had rattled across the plain as the extremely nervous Turks fired at anything that moved in the desert darkness, and with each burst, the Aussies cheered and egged their new mates on with shouts of “Get-em; Jacko”, and “Shoot the bastards; Jacko”.

The New Zealanders were to learn of the amazing thinking of Colonel Cameron, in charge of the Australian 5th Light Horse Regiment, when reaching the Turkish position, assessing the threat and warning the steadily growing Bedouin force unequivocally “If you attack the Turks, we will attack you”, and of the audacious, unconventional plan of General Ryrie, assuming command on arrival of the main body of the Australian 2nd Brigade, for the Australians to enter the Turkish position and defend against any attack, and to ‘invite’ two leading clansmen to ‘discuss the surrender’ only to disarm them and warn them that if their comrades attacked the two men would be shot dead without hesitation, decisions which one supposes could only have been by colonial officers, these tactics not appearing in any officer’s manual anywhere, and decisions which, as a guess, would have left British High-Command generals apoplectic; had they learned of them.

Lieutenant Colonel Cameron believed the Australian men did not fire a shot in anger toward the Bedouin, but the diary’s and personal recollections of men from the 7th Regiment belie that statement, recalling how, probably sensing their last opportunity, the Bedouin thrust at the main station building housing the sick and wounded Turks during dawn and the Queenslanders were ‘forced’ (one suspects with relish) to open fire with both rifles and machine-guns upon the Beni-Sakr, probably the affray the New Zealanders encountered upon their arrival.

The relief experienced by the Turks of their protection by the Anzacs was palpable; they were truly afraid, absolutely bowel-moving level terrified of the murderous Bedouin to the effect the Cameron noted curiously, in perhaps an undiplomatic choice of words: “I was greatly struck by the fact, that the Turkish garrison, notwithstanding its superiority in numbers, was terrified of the Bedouins. Several instances occurred during the day of Bedouins capturing odd Turks. Though armed, the Turks seemed unable to protect themselves, and simply screamed like dying pigs.”

The main body of Australians were now assigned to escort their new Turkish prisoners-of-war to safety but in another incredible display of trust, an entire battalion of Turks remained armed in order to ‘assist’ the escorting Anzacs in case of a return visit by the marauding Beni-Sakrs, truly a remarkable and preposterous position, one which left the Anzac sentries at Damascus both dumbfounded and in hysterics as the long line of Turkanzacs approached. The New Zealanders remained to guard the 600 hospitalised Turks gathered under the roof of the station building from any depredation until the railway line, which had been sabotaged by the British forces at the opening of the September push, was repaired and the sickly Turks safely loaded aboard trains.

If it is at all possible (it’s not) to ‘humanise’ war this, almost unbelievable, incident illustrates it. Anzacs were soldiers, determined, some say ruthless, and very good in their duty, but they were not murderers, neither would they condone or stand by and allow it.

Lest we forget.

Further reading and References:

http://www.anzacs.org/5lhr/pages/5lhr_history_full_a.html#chapter35

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17670720

https://www.awm.gov.au/sites/default/files/damien-fenton-standoff-at-ziza-wartime-24-20031.pdf


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Living in Wellington idbkiwi is self-employed in a non-governmental role which suits his masochistic tendencies. He watches very little television, preferring to read or research, but still subscribes to the daily paper despite his distillation of dismay and disappointment at the very low standards of the modern press on every opening of the awful rag.

He is married, to an obviously very unfortunate woman, and has a family who allegedly loves him despite his right-wing nut-job views on life and the meaning of. He believes laughter is the best medicine for whatever ails you, closely, very closely, followed by wine. He hopes to reach retirement, both alive and eventually.

To read my previous articles click on my name in blue.

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