For more than 60 years, ANZAC Day memorial services in Israel have focused on the failed Gallipoli campaign in which thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers fighting for peace on foreign soil made the supreme sacrifice.
This year, the focus was more on the Western Front, primarily due to the opening this week of a memorial center that bears the name of a man acknowledged as the greatest soldier in Australian history, Sir John Monash, who as it happens was also a proud Jew, and president of the Zionist Federation of Australia.
The John Monash Memorial Center that was opened on Tuesday in Villers-Bretonneux, France, by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Prince Charles was mentioned at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Jerusalem on Wednesday by Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan during his ANZAC Day address.
Monash, who was also a lawyer and an engineer, made such an impact on Australian military and civilian history that one of Australia’s top universities bears his name, and in Israel, Kfar Monash, a village in the northern area of the Sharon Plain, was established in 1946 by Australian Jewish ex-servicemen.
Now an interactive media center in France’s Somme department also bears his name, and tells the story of the ANZACs who fought and died there while repulsing the German Army.
“In the beginning of the 20th century, as the curtain came down on the age of empire, a number of newly formed nation states fought alongside the Allied powers in the far-flung corners of the globe, many thousands of kilometers from their shores and homes,” said Cannan, adding that two such newly formed nations were Australia and New Zealand whose soldiers were known as the ANZACs.
“These ANZACs would first taste action on this very day some 103 years ago when they landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is today modern Turkey,” said Cannan. They were later joined by British (including the Zion Mule Corps) and French forces landing elsewhere on the peninsula, and subsequently Indian and Canadian troops also entered the campaign.
In the faint pre-dawn light, the ANZACs were met by fierce enemy gunfire. Regardless, the main beach was swiftly taken.
But ahead lay greater challenges – a formidable barrier of steep cliffs, uneven terrain and entrenched Ottoman positions, said Cannan.
Some ANZACs did penetrate the Ottoman lines, he noted, but their advances could not be sustained.
More than a thousand ANZAC soldiers lost their lives on that first day.
The objective of the bold plan was to capture the heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula, force open the Dardanelles Strait for the British and French navies, and seize Constantinople.
Cannan surmised that if successful, the Gallipoli campaign might well have changed the course of World War I – “vastly altering the world we live in today – including here in the Middle East.”
Turkish resistance, under Ataturk, proved fiercer than anticipated, and the heights of the peninsula could not be captured.
In December of that year, the Allied forces withdrew. The Gallipoli campaign was over. By that time more than 43,000 Allied soldiers had been killed, and at least 85,000 Turkish soldiers had paid the ultimate price in defense of their country, said Cannan.
SINCE THEN Australians and New Zealanders gather annually in cemeteries and memorials, at parks and cenotaphs, around the globe to remember the sacrifices made at Gallipoli, and as of this year, also on the Western Front.
In actual fact, the Western Front has never been ignored. It is part of the traditional ANZAC Day ceremony to read the poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Canadian physician Lt.-Col. John McCrae. It was read in Jerusalem on Wednesday by Maj. Robert Wallace of the Australian MFO Contingent. The first verse reads:
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Despite the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, said Cannan, something precious was salvaged from the retreat. “Gallipoli showed Australians, and New Zealanders, what they were made of. And it was something to be proud of. In the breach and on the beaches of Gallipoli our national characters were forged, our identity constructed, and much of our national myth built.
“For Australians, the characteristics our troops displayed on the battlefield of Gallipoli came to define the collective ideal of what it is to be Australian.”
Cannan listed these attributes which include endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humor (especially in the face of adversity), a healthy disrespect for protocol and hierarchy, and, mateship.
For the first time, as far as regulars attending the service each year could remember, the ambassador mentioned not only Jewish soldiers who had been among the ANZACs, but also those of Arab descent. Moreover the benediction prayer, which in past years was read by a Christian clergyman, was this year read by Marcia Pius, the Australian representative in Ramallah.
AMONG THE Jewish serviceman whose names were recalled by Cannan were Leonard Keysor, who enlisted to fight only three months after arriving in Australia and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage at Gallipoli, and for his selfless and conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Lone Pine.
He went on to serve on the Western Front, and volunteered once more when World War II broke out.
Altogether Cannan said, some 2,300 Jewish Australians served during WWI.
Of the ANZACs of Arab descent who served and fought, Cannan singled out Walter Abotomey, who enlisted in 1915 as a private before rising to sergeant after serving with distinction in Gallipoli, France and the Middle East.
At the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, “we remember and pay tribute to the 178 ANZACs who lie in the graves around us here, as well as the ANZAC and other allied troops who lie in war graves across Israel and the Palestinian territories, in Ramle, Beersheba, Haifa, Deir el-Balah and Gaza,” he said.
These include the men of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments who took the town of Beersheba on October 31, 1917, in one of the last great cavalry charges in history, Cannan underscored, and also emphasized the victory of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles whose bravery earlier that same day – in taking Tel Sheba – made the successful charge by the Australians a possibility.
He was pleased that Wednesday’s ceremony was attended by Australians currently serving with the UN Truce Supervision Organization, and with the Sinai-based Multinational Force and Observers.
All in all two million Australian men and women have worn the uniform of the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy or Royal Australian Air Force, he said. “One hundred thousand of them never made it home.”
Military attachés not only of the countries whose allied armies fought in the First and Second World Wars laid wreaths on the cenotaph, but also the military attaché of Germany and the deputy ambassador of Turkey.
Following the formal ceremony, a Jewish religious service led by Rabbi Edward Belfer, a former chaplain to the Jewish Reserves in the Australian Army, was held in that section of the cemetery where Jewish soldiers lie buried. A small Israeli flag had been placed alongside each of the headstones, something that had not occurred in the past.