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The 'Ungodly' Sarafand Massacre And Cover-Up

By Vacy Vlazna

11 December, 2012

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

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

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 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 sandhills 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 beginning of 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 5-137 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 Commander-in-chief, General Allenby’s severe dressing down of the division
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

Allenby then immediately removed the division to Rafah and withdrew recommendations
for all gallantry awards.

No New Zealanders, Australians or British soldiers participated in the massacre
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

In accounts, the number participating in the mass murder varies from 50 to 200.
Irregardless, 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

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.

Al Nakba

Sarafand al Kharab suffered a second calamity on April 20, 1948 when Israeli Givati
Forces demolished the village and ethnically cleansed its Palestinian inhabitants.

Collective punishment and mistreatment of civilians

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 misdemeanours 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 behaviour 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

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 sanitisation 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.


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
NASA, Phases of the Moon, 1901- 2000,
TV NZ 2009 Sunday: Day of Shame,
Gammage, Bill; The Broken Years
Brugger, Suzanne; Australians and Egypt, 1914-1919

This article was first published by The Palestine Chronicle, 7-12-12

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




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