Anzac Day

white-feather-452537-mIn the grand story that the media wants to tell about the ANZACs, manhood, and our national identity there is not a lot of time for nuance.  There is enough time for the odd nurse, and the occasional conscientious objector in the massed wave of stories about “brave heroes”, but that’s about all.  If 100,000 men went to war then there must be a huge variance in even that experience never minding the experience of not going to war, but living through it.  Living through 10% of the population being taken off shore to fight.  What was it like to be a man of military age who didn’t go?  Or how about a generation of parents?  Or women?  Or Maori in an iwi where the wounds of the Land Wars were still fresh?  Or the 500 odd Pacific Islanders who served but were used as glorified labourers by our army?

I don’t believe in most of the stories that the media wants to tell about World War One.  I don’t believe that the events of World War One contribute meaningfully to modern New Zealand identity for an enormous number of people in this country, and I certainly do not believe – as Mike McRoberts said in his ANZAC promos – that the soldiers went as “boys” and came back as “men”.  The most likely legacy of the war domestically has been to contribute to New Zealand’s high rate of drinking and domestic violence.  Our huge per capita contribution to World War One gave about 50% of men between 18 and 35 direct personal involvement with a horrific war that society and masculine culture at the time did not allow them to discuss or process.  The Great Depression and another war were to come.

The greatest legacy of World War One internationally continues to be borne out in the Middle East.  In our own small way we contributed to the problem of Israel, and the formation of organisations such as Al Qaeda and IS through our actions not only during World War One, but in the months afterwards from October 1918 through to July 1919.


Robert Powley did not volunteer for the war in 1914 although he was 22.  He never volunteered, but was conscripted in 1918.  When he finally arrived in the field in Palestine it was mid October.  The Turkish signed an armistice bringing their war to an end on 30 October.  Robert Powley was therefore in an army in the field at war with Turkey for just over two weeks, and involved in no battles.

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To begin with I thought he was lucky, but when you explore the activities of the Auckland Mounted Rifles from October 1918 until July 1919 there is plenty of evidence to explain Robert’s evident distaste for his society, and his isolation from it, until his death in the 1950s.

Robert was a man who grew up in south Otago and who came to live mainly in the small town of Clinton with his sister.  The experience of leaving the emptied landscape down south in the winter of 1918 and coming, in the end, to the Suez Canal must have been extraordinary.  It is easy to imagine that a rural New Zealander from south Otago in 1918 would have little or perhaps even no experience of, or contact with, people who were not of British stock.  The tumult and exoticism of the Egypt and Palestine Robert saw in his 9 months abroad at the age of 26 would have stayed with him for a life time.

In Egypt he was assigned to the Auckland Mounted Rifles and eventually sent out to Palestine to join them in the field.  In the month that Robert joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles in the field at Richon Le Zion in Palestine 22 of its members died of disease.  That was the final month that the A.M.R. suffered in this way.

On 10 December 1918 the A.M.R were called to the village of Surafend in Palestine where Trooper Leslie Lowry had been shot and died after chasing a thief out of his tent in the night.  The ANZAC soldiers put a cordon around the nearby village of Surafend and waited for justice to descend from G.H.Q..  When it didn’t, and the villagers did not respond to demands to hand over the murderer (presumed to be an Arab from or hiding in the village), the soldiers took things into their own hands.

An unknown number of men, armed with pick handles, bayonets and iron strips… quietly circled Surafend around 8 p.m….  Within 30 minutes, Surafend and the nearby Bedouin camp were on fire, and around 40 male inhabitants were dead or dying….  By around 9 p.m. the raiders were back in their tents and the old men, women, and children were moving back into their wrecked homes to mourn their dead.

Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses

The report of the fire caused Brigade HQ to send troops from the Auckland and Wellington Mounted Rifles to “quell any disturbance, and give any assistance necessary.”  I wonder what it was like for Robert riding up to Surafend that night, its buildings on fire, many of its men beaten to death, and the Bedouin women and children sitting quietly along the hedges waiting to see what these new soldiers would do.

In a book called Bersheeba an Australian Light Horseman, Ted O’Brien,

described in graphic detail how he and his comrades had “had a good issue of rum” and “done their blocks” in Surafend, and how they “went through [the village] with a bayonet”.

The Bedouin inhabitants, he said, were “wicked … You’d shoot them on sight”. Of the massacre, he said: “It was [a] real bad thing … It was ungodly.”

There was some dressing down for the soldiers and an inquiry afterwards but it didn’t amount to much.

No one was ever tried or punished for what happened at Surafend: the perpetrators literally got away with murder.  The village was rebuilt by the British Army, which was later reimbursed by the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses

In 2009 John Key maintained that no apology was needed as money had already been paid to rebuild the village.  That money was, of course, paid to the British not to the villagers of Surafend, and it doesn’t require comment from me on the idea that money compensates for death.

By January and into February of 1919 the Auckland Mounted Rifles were at Rafah, on the border between Sinai and Palestine, preparing to head home, and dealing with their horses who were not to head home.  While it must have been a painful experience to have to kill or sell on horses that had been close companions for years, the comments of some soldiers about their horses reveals the racism that had been on show at Surafend.

Better dead than to lead a life of misery at the hands of some carriage driver in Cairo.

No-one wanted the natives ill-treating our faithful old horses [so they were shot].

Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses

Robert, after watching the dispatch of hundreds of horses,  must have expected that he would be heading home shortly, but the Middle East had one last job for New Zealand forces in Middle East.

After the British expelled the Turks from the fringes of Egypt and the Suez Canal they promised the Egyptians their independence at the end of the war.  Unsurprisingly, when the British reneged on this deal in March of 1919 there were widespread riots.  On 17 March the New Zealand troops left Rafah and headed back to Egypt to help control those riots.

The Auckland Mounted Rifles spent March and April engaged in riding through parts of Egypt for “moral effect” and in setting up and running a Summary Military Court in Shirbin.

Offenders convicted of rioting by courts-martial received public floggings (10 to 30 lashes), fines or short terms of imprisonment.  By 31 March Percy Doherty’s unit had ‘flogged several hundred natives and we are still going strong…. the job is certainly a unique one, but the novelty of flogging… niggers is wearing off, although our determination is still strong, as we never forget that if the natives had not revolted, we would now have been embarking for NZ’.

Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses

800 Egyptians were killed in the riots.  There were no New Zealand casualties.

By May it was clear that New Zealand’s citizen army in the Middle East was getting restive, and the first half of their forces were demobilised and sent back home in June.  On 23 July 1919 Robert Powley was in the second group of soldiers to go back to New Zealand.


The men of the NZMR Brigade played a small part in shaping the modern Middle East.  The First World War led to the transformation of this part of the world: most of the countries that exist there today came into being soon after the end of the war.  The Hejaz Arabs had been led to believe that they would win independence if they joined the fight against Turkey.  They did their bit and were bitterly disappointed after the war when Britain and France regained control of Syria and Palestine in their own hands and, worse, gave much of Arab Palestine to the Jews as their homeland.  The states of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon were all created in the 1920s, but not initially as independent nations….  The destruction of the Turkish Empire, and the failure to address legitimate Arab aspirations afterwards, set the stage for the violent and unstable situation that still exists in the Middle East today.

Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses

A situation that we are not comfortable addressing.

The Turkish government are currently asking the international community to help with the tidal wave of displaced people out of Syria.  John Key has said our current commitment to taking 750 refugees a year is “about right”.  He is willing to send troops to assist in propping up the artificial creation called Iraq however.  He is willing to do this to be part of the “club”, which I presume is the modern synonym for empire.  It is certainly not being done as part of the independent foreign policy that we are told we have.  Our independence was not in evidence at Gallipoli, or on the Western Front, or in 1919 when our soldiers were suppressing independence riots in Egypt for the British, nor was it in play in 1956 when New Zealand supported Britain’s invasion of Egypt to take back control the Suez Canal.

I don’t know Robert’s view on what he saw, but I know how he lived the rest of his life.  He lived it in a shack out the back of his sister’s house in Clinton.  He never married.  Robert earned money by rabbiting, and must have spent much of his time out on the empty hills around Clinton with a gun checking his traps, and bringing in the dead rabbits for a little cash.


He was the best man at my grandfather’s wedding, and watched that family fall apart as alcohol took hold of his brother, and mental illness his sister-in-law.  His brother’s only son, my father, came to live with them at Clinton, and sometimes the youngest of the three daughters, Isabel, would visit.  One day Uncle Bob was asked to take Isabel down to the shops at Clinton to buy some new shoes.  He was a quiet man who kept to himself but he asked her suddenly if she believed in God.  It was a question that surprised Isabel who was only a girl at the time and had been brought up to believe.  She told him she did.  They walked on a bit further before he told her that she was wrong; that there was no God.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō