The Great War looms very large in Australian society and culture, something which the commemoration of the centenary years emphasises but certainly didn’t create. Some of the stories about the Great War are ill-informed, prone to sentimentality and dominated by myths and popular beliefs.
Australia’s part in the war with the Ottomans exemplifies these tendencies perfectly. The least important part of it – the eight-month campaign at Gallipoli – has been privileged in Australian culture and history to a degree that is out of proportion both to the losses incurred (whether relative or absolute) and the contribution it made to the war’s outcome, which was precisely nil.
The tendency to break the war in this part of the world into discrete theatres and to see them in isolation compounds the problem. The Gallipoli campaign didn’t just fail because of indifferent British leadership, poor planning or the inability of gallant Austral manhood to prevail against terrain, climate and a tenacious and skilled enemy, although these all played a part. The army sent to conquer the Dardanelles was chronically under-resourced, as were armies in every other theatre of British activity in 1915. This situation was made worse by the opening of new fronts – principally in Salonika – for what seemed like pressing reasons but which ensured that the British armies were dominant nowhere, whether attacking in France, defending Egypt, attempting to advance towards Baghdad or building and training the new formations that would be needed for the great offensives of 1916. The base areas in Egypt were given responsibility for supporting the Dardanelles army, but lacked resources for this task and could not afford to strip Egypt’s defences and risk a successful Ottoman offensive against the Suez Canal.
Strategic direction from London was confused and sometimes contradictory for much of the war, but gradually Britain’s efforts were rationalised so that in the second half of the war there were two main efforts – the Western Front, which had absolute priority, and Egypt and Sinai, which was consistently the second-most important British effort. Emergency situations would also arise – the need for aid to the Italian front in early 1918, for example – but the British war against the Ottomans was always an important sphere of activity.
Australians made a very significant (though never crucial or war-winning) contribution in this sphere, one that is now very largely misunderstood when it is noted at all. Australian understanding of the campaigns in Sinai and then through Palestine and Syria tend to ignore anyone else’s participation, and to focus in a rather sentimental manner on the light horse as mounted troops rather than as a military capability (manoeuvre, mobility and shock action). The conflict over the Ottoman territories was the only phase of the war in which forces from all six major combatant empires (British, French, Ottoman, German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian) fought, with the British Empire armies drawing contributions from Britain itself, Australia, New Zealand, India and Egypt, as well as smaller contingents from lesser British territories. Australians contributed less than half of the mounted forces in Allenby’s army in 1917–18, and the mounted corps of which they were an important part was but one corps out of three in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
The general belief in the martial virtues of the light horse is not entirely accurate, either. A link is often drawn between the ‘mounted infantry’ role of these units with a belief in ‘colonial’ initiative and supposedly ‘natural soldier’ tendencies among Australians, but much of this is romantic nonsense. There is no such thing as a ‘natural soldier’; soldiers are produced through hard training, good leadership, sound doctrine and a host of other factors which know no nationality. In any case, as the British forces advanced ever further into Ottoman territory the nature of the terrain and the fighting changed. Light horse units had engaged in mounted charges against Ottoman positions as early as December 1916, and in the first half of 1917 there was considerable discussion about the need for training along cavalry lines and even for issuing swords to the Australian units. By 1918 this was exactly what happened, and implied a more professional approach to the business of soldiering. Indeed, by 1918 there was very little about the Australian units in Egypt and Palestine that was in any way amateurish. By the war’s last year the mounted units had taken their first steps towards motorisation, a trend that would be accelerated in the course of the interwar period.
Gallipoli aside, the four-year war against the Ottoman Empire has few monuments in Australia, and even fewer at the sites over which Australians fought. For obvious reasons these are mostly impossible to visit now. Australians made a significant contribution to the campaigns which led to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire nonetheless, and in understanding the consequences of those actions it is important to understand what that generation of Australians did, and why they did it.
The War with the Ottoman Empire is the second volume The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Series.
Author, Jeffrey Grey, is a professor of history at UNSW Canberra. The author and editor of many books on Australian and international military history, he sits on a number of scholarly editorial boards in Australia, Britain and the United States.