The Australians and New Zealanders in Gallipoli were shortly withdrawn. In their camps at Tripoli and on the Philistine plain the light horsemen waited, eager in the prospect of early return to Australia. But an unfortunate incident was destined to throw a shadow over the last days in Palestine of Anzac Mounted Division. Close to the camps of the three brigades in December was the native village of Surafend. All the Arabs of western Palestine were thieves by instinct, and those who dwelt close to the Jewish settlements were especially practised and daring. Throughout the campaign the British policy, as already noticed, was to treat these debased people west of the Jordan as devout Moslems, kin not only to the Arabs of the Hejaz but to the Mohammedans of India. And the Arabs, a crafty race, quick to discern British unwillingness to punish their misdeeds, exploited their licence to extreme limits.
They learned, also, that there was a disposition in the British Army to assume without justification that any looting and other similar offenses practised by the troops against the natives had been committed by the Australians. Consequently, 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. Seldom punished, they became very impudent in their thefts from all British camps, and at times ventured to murder. All troops may have suffered equally; but, while the British endured the outrages without active resentment, the Australians and New Zealanders burned with indignation, and again and again asked for retaliation, but without obtaining redress. After the armistice a few men of Anzac Mounted Division were shot by the Arabs, and the resentment in Chaytor's division became dangerously bitter.
The natives of Surafend were notorious for their petty thieving. Prompted, perhaps, by the knowledge that the Anzac camps would soon pass for ever from their midst, and emboldened by the immunity they enjoyed, they grew audacious in their pilfering. They were reinforced, too, by a body of nomad Bedouins camped close to their village. The Australians and New Zealanders, sleeping soundly, were a simple prey to the cunning, barefooted robbers, and night after night men lost property from their tents. One night a New Zealander of the machine-gun squadron was disturbed by an Arab pulling at a bag which served him as a pillow. Springing up in his shirt, he chased the native through the camp and out on to the sand-hills, shouting to the picquets on the horselines as he ran. As he overtook the native, the man turned, shot him with a revolver through the body, and escaped. The New Zealander died as the picquets reached him. The camp was immediately aroused, and the New Zealanders, working with ominous deliberation, followed the footsteps of the Arab over the loose sand to Surafend. They then threw a strong cordon round the village and waited for morning, when the head men were summoned and ordered to surrender the murderer. The sheikhs were evasive, and pleaded ignorance. During the day the matter was taken up by the staff of the division, but at nightfall the demand of the men for justice was still unsatisfied.
Meanwhile they had resolutely maintained their guard about the village, and no Arab was allowed to leave. That which followed cannot be justified; but in fairness to the New Zealanders, who were the chief actors, and to the Australians who gave them hearty support, the spirit of the men at that time must be considered. They were the pioneers and the leaders in a long campaign. Theirs been the heaviest sacrifice. The three brigades of Anzac Mounted Division had been for almost three years comrades in arms, and rarely had a body of men been bound together by such ties of common heroic endeavour and affection. From the Canal onward men had again and again proudly thrown away their lives to save their wounded from the enemy. Not once in the long advance had a hard-pressed, isolated body ever signalled in vain for support. The war task was now completed and they, a band of sworn brothers tested in a hundred fights, were going home. To them the loss of a veteran comrade by foul murder, at the hands of a race they despised, was a crime which called for instant justice. They were in no mood for delay. In their movement against Surafend, therefore, they felt that, while wreaking vengeance on the Arabs, they would at the same time work off their old feeling against the bias of the disciplinary branch of General Headquarters, and its studied omission to punish Arabs for crime. They were angry and bitter beyond sound reasoning. All day the New Zealanders quietly organised for their work in Surafend, and early in the night marched out many hundreds strong and surrounded the village. In close support and full sympathy were large bodies of Australians. Good or bad, the cause of the New Zealanders was theirs. Entering the village, the New Zealanders grimly passed out all the women and children, and then, armed chiefly with heavy sticks, fell upon the men and at the same time fired the houses. Many Arabs were killed, few escaped without injury; the village was demolished. The flames from the wretched houses lit up the countryside, and Allenby and his staff could not fail to see the conflagration and hear the shouts of the troops and the cries of their victims.
The Anzacs, having finished with Surafend, raided and burned the neighbouring nomad camp, and then went quietly back to their lines. In the morning all the disciplinary machinery of the army was as active as hitherto it had been tardy. General Headquarters demanded the men who had led the attack and had been guilty of the killing. The Anzacs stood firm; not a single individual could definitely be charged. Allenby wasted no time in expressing his mind to the division The brigades were assembled on foot in hollow square, and the Commander-in-Chief addressed them in strong, and even, one might say, ill-considered language. He used terms which became his high position as little as the business at Surafend had been worthy of the great soldiers before him. The division fully expected strong disciplinary action for Surafend, and would have accepted it without resentment. But the independent manhood of the Anzacs could not accept personal abuse from the Commander-in-Chief. Allenby's outburst left the division sore but unpunished. The affair had unfortunate consequences.
A strained situation continued until about the middle of 1919 when, after the suppression of the revolt in Egypt, the embarkation of the colonial forces was resumed. The Australians of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and New Zealanders were on the eve of departure, yet the division had not been recognised by the Commander-in-Chief since the speech at Surafend. Allenby was then in control of the affairs of Egypt; he was visited by an Australian, who pointed out to him the unsatisfactory position which existed. He expressed surprise at hearing of the feeling engendered by his speech; the Surafend incident, he insisted, had deserved all that he said of it at the time; but it had not shaken, nor could anything shake, the deep admiration and even affection he felt for the Anzacs, nor could he adequately express his appreciation of their campaigning qualities and services. He issued at once a glowing and appreciative farewell order to the Australians, and at the same time wrote personally a tribute to their work in Palestine which is remarkable for its discernment of their distinctive qualities. This letter read as follows:--
"I knew the New South Wales Lancers and the Australian Horse well in the Boer War, and I was glad to meet some of my old friends of those days when the light horse came under my command just two years ago
"When I took over command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in July, 1917, the light horse were already veterans, tried and proved in many a fight. Since then, they have shared in the campaigns which achieved the destruction of the Turkish army and the conquest of Palestine and Syria, and throughout they have been in the thick of the fighting. I have found them eager in advance and staunch in defence. At Beersheba, a mounted charge by a light horse regiment, armed only with rifles, swept across the Turkish trenches and decided the day. Later, some of the regiments were armed with swords, which they used with great effect in the pursuit of last autumn.
" On foot, too, they have equally distinguished themselves as stubborn fighters. They have shown in dismounted action the dash and enterprise of the best type of light infantry.
" The Australian light horseman combines with a splendid physique a restless activity of mind. This mental quality renders him somewhat impatient of rigid and formal disciple but it confers upon him the gift of adaptability, and this is the secret of much of his success mounted or on foot. In this dual role, on every variety of ground--mountain, plain, desert, swamp, or jungle-- the Australian light horseman has proved himself equal to the best.
"He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world."
There, between their great Commander-in-Chief and the Australians and New Zealanders, the painful Surafend affair rested. It was characteristic of the strong temper and of the frailties of both. Both had erred in anger. The sincerity of Allenby's final words to them was never doubted by the troops. Surafend, however, should not be forgotten. Without making excuses for the Anzacs, it may be said that the affair arose out of the simple fact that British regular officers entrusted with Australian commands in Egypt and Palestine, with a few notable exceptions, too often failed to grasp the vital fact that the narrow traditional methods of handling the soldiers of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales are not by any absolute law also the way to handle young men of the dominions. There is in the young British peoples overseas a genius, strong and distinctive, which must be considered in war as in peace.