The Sarafand Massacre, and Cover-up
Sarafand. (Photo: Courtesy of Uri Zackhem, Palestine Remembered)
In the early winter of 1918, the wheat, barley and sesame fields of Sarafand al-Kharab lay fallow. Oranges, figs, almonds and olives had been harvested, the summer honey stored. At night the goats and sheep were brought into the warmth of the adobe brick houses.
On the moonless night of 9th December, as in typical Palestinian villages, smells of the sparse dinner were fading in the air, bellies barely full, the villagers, subsistence farmers and shepherds and their families, slept soundly except perhaps for a restless child here and there, a mother breastfeeding her baby, a few coughs tapping the night’s stillness.
Suddenly the village, roused by angry foreign voices, was cordoned off by lamps held by wrathful soldiers from the nearby army camp.
The next morning, 10th December, officers from the ANZAC Mounted Division questioned the village sheikh and demanded he hand over the murderer of one of their soldiers; a young New Zealand Trooper Leslie Lowry had been sleeping with his kit bag for a pillow woke when he felt the bag was tugged from under his head. He chased the thief who allegedly turned and shot Lowry in the chest. The alarm was raised and Lowry died before the doctor arrived. Confused, and still in the grip of the cordon, the chief and fearful villagers were unable to comply.
That night, hundreds of enraged New Zealander, Australian and Scottish soldiers set upon the village separating the women and children then viciously attacked the men folk with bayonets, clubs, chains and sticks and set alight the village and the nearby Bedouin camp. Situated on a rise overlooking the coastal plain, the flames, vying with screams of rage of agony of horror, were seen from IMD HQ a half mile away.
After an orgy of blood, 137 (or more) innocent village men (innocent fathers, innocent brothers, innocent husbands, innocent uncles, innocent cousins, innocent friends) lay dead among the smoke and glowing ashes or thrown in the village well; the distraught and grief-ravaged women were newly widowed, children fatherless, all homeless….and the soldiers had vanished into the darkness of a military cover-up.
No one from the ANZAC Mounted Division was prosecuted for the atrocity as the soldiers, standing as one, didn’t cooperate with the bland inquiry, denying participation and later some, from the 3rd Light Horse Regiment’s C Squadron, were ordered never to talk about it. (Daley p 277)
Cover-ups are a reprehensible part and parcel of military history and testimonies collected on Australian Military History of the Early 20th Century: Desert Column site are tainted with fundamental lies and racist justifications that have become the prototype for subsequent historical and newspaper accounts of the Sarafand Massacre:
The killer’s footsteps that led to the collective punishment of Sarafand villagers. Despite there being no witnesses to the shooting of Lowry and that no one saw the killer run to Sarafand, all accounts report that the footsteps of the killer were followed and led directly to the village.
In fact, no footsteps could have been followed from the camp as Palestinian terrain is too rocky. This is substantiated by the Uri Zackhem film, “Tracing all that remains of the destroyed village of Sarafand al Kharab, Palestine” made for Palestine Remembered.
Also, Private AS Mulhall, who was on active duty in the camp, stated “There [were] no sand hills within three miles of the spot where Lowry was shot.”
Furthermore, on checking the NASA, Phases of the Moon, 1901- 2000, the night of 9 December, 1918 fell in the new moon to the beginning of the first quarter Dec 3-Dec 11, which means that it was a moonless night. In rural areas and in a world sans electricity, a moonless night is literally pitch black to the point one cannot see a foot ahead.
Nevertheless, the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal who was called to the camp that night ordered a plaster impression of a fantasy footprint, “Later in the afternoon I sent Lieutenant Fyfe to obtain footprint impressions made of plaster of Paris, which he has done. The specimens taken are those of the man’s left foot.”(Did the killer hop away?)
The Discrepant Number of Sarafand Victims
The casualty figures of the Sarafand massacre range from 5 to 137 but, as there was a cover-up, the number of dead will likely be higher.
Typically a cover-up provides the minimum number of victims: Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal reported he saw only 5 dead and 5 wounded and “saw no soldier committing an offence to warrant his arrest”; Briscoe Moore offered “38 natives”; Terry Kinlock stated “30 and 40 Arab men had been beaten to death or badly injured.”
However, Tasmanian Ted O’Brien confessed to 120 dead and ex-NSW Mounted policeman, AS Mulhall testified, “I counted 137 dead within the village. It was a most gruesome sight the manner in which their heads were bashed and battered.”
The severe dressing down of the division by Commander-in-chief, General Allenby, provides insight into the gravity and extent of the atrocity:
Allenby’s biographer, Lawrence James, writes that a ‘furious’ Allenby said the men were ‘murderers and cowards and by killing the Bedouin had taken away the good name of Anzac- in fact it was a worse atrocity than any the Turks had committed.‘ (Daley p265)
Allenby then immediately removed the division to Rafah and withdrew recommendations for all gallantry awards.
The Cover up
The cover-up was intensified over the decades with a flurry of denials and cross accusations by the different ANZAC Division units. The Australians denied participation putting the blame squarely on the New Zealanders and British artillerymen from the Ayrshire Battery while the New Zealanders parried with counter accusations.
In accounts, the number participating in the mass murder varies from 50 to 200.
Regardless, on 16 December, the entire division was paraded before General Allenby who addressed the members as “cowards and murderers” concluding with, “Officers, Non Commissioned Officers, and men of the Anzac Mounted Division I was proud of you once. I am proud of you no longer!”
The participation of all three national groups is confirmed by the compensation payments. In late 1920-1 the British War Office pressured Australia and NZ to pay compensation as the British government had rebuilt the village at a cost of 2060.11.3 pounds. Australia contributed 515 pound and NZ, 858 pounds.
TV NZ’s ‘Sunday: Day of Shame’ documentary reveals that the cover-up extended to the family of murdered Leslie Lowry. His nephew, Noel Woods, believed his uncle was ‘mown down in a hail of Turkish bullets’ and was deeply shocked by news of the massacre.
Blaming the Victims
HS Gullett, the official war correspondent in Palestine, puts the ‘unfortunate incident’ that demanded ‘instant justice’ in the context of the exasperation of the AIF heroes with the unpunished thefts by ‘these debased people’ – ‘The natives of Surafend were notorious for their petty thieving’ coupled with the murder of a comrade ‘at the hands of a race they despised’. Regarding the Bedouin, Ted O’Brien remarked, “wicked… You’d shoot them on sight.”
Gullett’s overt racist superiority, like that of the majority of WW I Australian soldiers hailing from the land of White Australia, dismisses outright the plight of Palestinians struggling to survive the dire economic impact on their land and livelihoods of the mounted armies of the Imperial and Ottoman forces. The Turks had demolished orchards and all the cavalries ‘drank out wells and grazed their horses on standing crops’. Palestinians were driven to steal because foodstuffs, livestock and even unwilling Palestinian staff were requisitioned by the British military and consequently there was a shortage of basic food and commodities and awful disruptions to daily life.
Gullett makes a reference to instances of theft by the Anzacs, ‘if the Arabs missed a sheep from their flocks, they were emphatic that a soldier in a big hat had been seen prowling in the neighbourhood.’ Stealing sheep may have been a lark for the soldiers, but it was devastating for impoverished Palestinian farmers.
The Arabs were also accused of desecrating and stealing from the dead, yet Ted O’ Brien ‘talks in detail how he and his mates stole coins from the dead. They also used the Turkish dead for target practice” (Daley p275). The Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) regularly conducted punitive patrols against villages and troops were known to leave behind booby traps of bully beef tins when they moved bivouac.
Sarafand al Kharab suffered a second calamity on April 20, 1948 when Israeli Givati Forces demolished the village and ethnically cleansed its Palestinian inhabitants.
The Sarafand Massacre wasn’t a one-off aberration, for the Anzacs were notorious for inflicting harassment and collective punishment on Egyptian and Palestinian civilians. In her searingly honest book, ‘Australians and Egypt, 1914-1919’, Dr. Suzanne Brugger chronicles 4 incidents at Azizia, Bedrashein, Abu Akdar and Saft El-Malouk in which the AIF in 1919 were involved in destroying Egyptian villages by fire and the incurring of casualties through excessive force.
A letter in the Egyptian Gazette in 1918 complained, ‘Insobriety and misconduct by the troops threatened to undermine the prestige of the white races and of the Allied forces and dominant British regime in particular.’ (Brugger p61)
Misconduct ranged from misdemeanors to brutal violence: “Men of the Eight Brigade on a route march near Tel el Kebir sniped at passing “gypos’ until their targets fled over the skyline, Egyptian conductors were thrown from moving trains, and Egyptian stationmasters and minor officials were assaulted. The British soldiers are a sedate lot in comparison with ours, boasted a Victorian private, “they don’t knock the baskets of oranges off the heads of the natives, or pull boys off donkeys..” (Gammage p138) other misconduct included- leaving without paying at brothels, not paying fares on trams, looting and burning trading booths,‘drunkedness, harassment of women, riotous behavior and brothel-trawling’, foul language, cruel and crude jokes, ‘crumbling discipline’.
The accumulative offences were so grave that Brugger declares ‘the actions of the Australian troops in the past 5 years [1914-19] had contributed in part to this raising of the temper of the populace’ for emerging nationalism and the 1919 rebellion.(p9)
Ted O’Brien described the Sarafand Massacre as ‘ungodly’ and avowed “war is a shocking thing…It’s shocking just what men’ll do”. Perhaps PTSD arises not just from the horror of war and its stressful proximity to death, but also from the horror at the potential for inhuman barbarity.
Sometimes, a cover-up wreaks greater violence than the original crime. The glorification and sanitization of war is a form of cover-up that leads to further wars as WWI combatant and poet, Siegfried Sassoon warned;
At the Cenotaph
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
“Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.”
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.
- Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001.
- Daley, Paul, Beersheba: A journey through Australia’s forgotten war, Australian Military History of the Early 20th Century: Desert Column site.
- Tracing all That remains of the destroyed village of Sarafand al Kharab, Palestine, Youtube.
- NASA, Phases of the Moon, 1901- 2000
- Gammage, Bill; The Broken Years
- Brugger, Suzanne; Australians and Egypt, 1914-1919