Wednesday, 19 September 2018
Battle of Megiddo: 100th Anniversary
I rise tonight to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Anzac soldiers who formed part of a six-week long campaign, beginning 100 years ago today, in what is now modern-day Israel. In charge of the campaign was the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Edmund Allenby. Inspired by the success of the horses at Beersheba a year earlier, Allenby's plan involved blasting a hole in the defence line on the Sharon plain and sending the cavalry brigades north through the gap to cut off the retreat of the Turks.
Central to this plan was the Desert Mounted Corps, a force commanded by Australia's own Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Chauvel. Chauvel may not be quite as well-known as Sir John Monash, but he deserves his place as one of Australia's greatest military leaders. He was the first Australian to command an entire corps, and, by the end of World War I, his Desert Mounted Corps consisted of five brigades of Light Horse and cavalry, comprising 34,000 men from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France and India. This is thought to be the largest body of cavalry ever to serve under one leader.
The action began on 19 September, with an artillery barrage near today's Tel Aviv. As planned, this created an opening for the cavalry to break through the enemies' lines. The 5th Cavalry Division headed north along the coast towards Nazareth and Haifa, and the 4th Cavalry crossed at the Megiddo Pass and then headed towards the Jordan River. Other troops went down the central highway to Jenin. The Chaytor Force, led by New Zealand General Edward Chaytor, captured Amman and dealt with the 4th Turkish army. On the first day alone, the allies captured 15,000 prisoners.
On 24 September, Chauvel sent the Australian Mounted Division to capture the railway intersection in Semakh, near the Sea of Galilee. The station was heavily defended by German guns and German and Turkish troops. The Australians charged the station by moonlight and engaged in the heaviest fighting of this part of the campaign. The battle cost the lives of 14 Australians, with 27 wounded. Nearly half their horses were also lost. However, this was far less than the 98 German and Turkish troops killed and the 365 captured. From here the troops took the rest of northern Palestine and went on to Damascus by 1 October and eventually Aleppo by the end of October.
Among the Australian troops were a sizable contingent of Indigenous soldiers. This included the so-called Queensland Black Watch, which comprised 36 soldiers, 32 of whom were Indigenous. These troops deserve special recognition not just because of the role they played but because they were wrongly denied many of the benefits that other veterans received upon returning home.
Though Beersheba is better known and a more dramatic battle, the breakthrough in 1918 was across a huge 100-kilometre front, attacking three armies and involving many thousands of troops. This called for not only outstanding coordination and organisation but also exceptional execution. In this task, both Sir Henry Chauvel and the Anzac troops he commanded performed admirably.
The contemporary significance of this action and our earlier success in Beersheba was captured very well by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's speech in Israel last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Beersheba battle. As he said, it:
… did not create the State of Israel, but enabled its creation … Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words.