Anzacs in the Middle East

By Associate Professor Kate Hunter

Our focus on Anzac Day tends to be on people, especially combatants and their families, and their experiences of fighting, wounding, dying and grieving. Those experiences were powerful – catastrophic in many cases – and their aftermath long-lasting. The re-telling of their stories connects us to the generation who endured the Great War and, because those emotions and rituals are powerful forces they resonate in our own lives.

If we change our focus slightly we can begin to see the place as well as the people. We don’t often recognize that the first mass travel experience for Australians and New Zealanders was to the region we know as the Middle East. In January 1915, over half of the 84,000 Allied troops in Egypt were Anzacs and thousands more soldiers and civilian volunteers arrived in the months following.  For many, they remained to fight in Libya, Mesopotamia, Sinai and Palestine for the remainder of the war.

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The Middle East was not a completely unknown place for Australians and New Zealanders, although their knowledge was partial and sometimes fanciful.  Bible stories, Sunday School and school lessons on the wonders of the ancient world and the Crusades provided most Australian and New Zealand young people with images of, and sometimes deep religious connections to, the ‘Holy Land’.  The Suez canal was widely renown as an engineering marvel and the primary conduit of mail, parcels and passengers between ‘Home’ and the antipodes. Young women interested in fashion may have kept up with the ‘harem pants scandal’ in Melbourne in 1911. Those in more adventurous households might have known about the avant-garde Ballet Ruses’ performance of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade and possibly Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé. All of these strands of popular culture – high-brow and low – contributed to an ‘imagined’ place known as the ‘Near East’.

With the outbreak of war, thousands of men and women travelled through Suez to Cairo. If the ‘Near East’ was encapsulated by a Bible story or an oasis scene on a biscuit tin, from April 1915, the region dominated Australasian horizons: the girls of Wellington College could ‘draw the Dardanelles with their eyes shut’. Intimate observations of the region were recorded in thousands of letters and diaries that made their way home to eager readers, and cushion covers, table runners and sequined wall-hangings were sent as souvenirs of an exotic locale.

Soldiers and nurses responded in many ways to the Middle East. On Boxing Day 1914, 20-year-old Henry Coe tried to sum up his brief experience of Egypt in his diary:

The shops never close. The natives won’t work on a Friday, they say their prayers in the open. Women are beasts of burden, child marriage, harems, high palaces… camels, overloaded donkeys, Arab horses, motor cars, phaetons, pyramids, Sphinx, tents, desert, cultivation, electric trams… scorpions, huge beetles, mosquitoes, morning temperature 45, midday temperature 98, no rain, bell tents, marquees, the smell of the east, home memories, mix the lot and that is Egypt for you…

Coe felt bombarded by Egypt; others thrilled at visiting the wonders of the world – both ancient and biblical. Chaplains marvelled at travelling in Jesus’s footsteps, while others donned slippers to enter mosques.

Anzac Day can remind us that there has been a long relationship between Australasians and the Middle East. Our ancestors’ knowledge of the region was built on bible stories and literature, but then became much more detailed and precise because they were anxious for those who served there. Letters and souvenirs brought impressions and objects into Australian and New Zealand parlours and glory boxes. Interwar immigration from Lebanon and Syria created yet more links. Our history, especially wartime history, is enmeshed with the Middle East, which was once a place of richness and wonder for Anzacs, even while it was sacred and bloody.

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Associate Professor Kate Hunter has been teaching Australian History at Victoria University of Wellington since 1995. She is a graduate of the University of Melbourne.

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