‘Everyone was a bit het up with that sort of thing’

By no means psychic, I was able to predict an event way before the happening occurred because, like predicting the winner of a one-horse race, it was just so obvious. So, it was no surprise that the Wellington Palestine Coalition would use the tone and solemnness of ANZAC to besmirch the memories of our fallen with a 25 April post titled ‘The Surafend Massacre’.

It?s a shame the Wellington Palestine Coalition didn?t feel moved to use the occasion to remember the ultimate sacrifice made in freeing Palestine from the oppressive and much-hated Ottoman rulers by British and allied troops; the many thousands of those men whose graves dot the desert. It?s a shame the Wellington Palestine Coalition didn?t bring up the fact that retreating Turkish forces, with a deep-seated disgust for the Arab people of those lands, butchered and hacked their way through every native village and town they encountered, unless those Arab towns were protected by troops from half the world away. It?s a shame they didn?t recall the statistics of regular Arab armed forces, from east of the Jordan river, who took 117,000 Turk prisoners during the freeing of Palestine while the Turks, in retreat, took 0 Arab prisoners; yes, that?s zero. You simply cannot imprison the dead, and besides, an Arab corpse costs a lot less to feed than an Arab prisoner.??

Nevertheless, the Wellington Palestine Coalition insult was very predictable because this year will mark the centenary of the vicious riot at Surafend that they speak of, and they won?t be the only ones. Expect media darlings and left-wing types (same thing) to pile in closer to the date later this year, and don?t wonder that touchy-feelies will castigate our troops through their unique moral perspective and speak of ?our? shame. My, how they will weep as they bring us out-of-context ?facts? and demand ?honesty? about our Anzac traditions.

The truth is, as one man who took part in the Surafend riot said: “Everyone was a bit het up with that sort of thing.” Note that he said everyone.

New Zealanders and their Australian counterparts in Palestine were indeed “het up”, well past the point of overheating; in fact, their blood was boiling. War had ended yet they were still harassed by a covert enemy?? a criminal force acting with impunity from repercussions due to the insidious apologetically inclined British High Command policies. What a disaster HQ created with a ‘hands-off’ approach to crimes committed by the local Bedouin population.

When HQ failed to immediately address the murder of trooper Leslie Tuhoe Lowry, from the New Zealand (1st) Machine-Gun Squadron, which occurred just outside the bounds of the ANZAC camp, located close to the pleasant and relatively prosperous Jewish town of Richon leZion, overnight from 9 to 10 December 1918, all hell broke loose. The Kiwis’ temperament and discipline imploded, with fatal consequences.

Kiwis, numbering 200 or more, (some) Aussies, a scattering of Scots and an occasional English artilleryman took the law into their own hands. That’s a fact, and it’s also a fact that taking the law into your own hands is not right. It’s also true that collective punishment should not be inflicted for individual crimes, but in the face of indifference by authority to react, not just to Lowry’s murder, but to a whole string of preceding criminal grievances, an organised riot was already on the simmer well before 10 December.? Leslie Tuhoe Lowry’s slaying simply turned the heat up to a new, ferocious level, and things boiled over.

Vengeance seeped in Kiwi boots with blood intent where leadership languished and diplomacy dithered, or possibly preferred not to tread.

By the time the (mostly) Kiwi soldiers quenched the red-hot hatred of the criminals in their midst and returned to camp carrying their bloodied pick handles?? some say bayonets were also used (highly unlikely)?? two settlements, one permanent and the other a transient Bedouin camp, were infernos where battered blood-soaked corpses lay about. New Zealand would later concede officially that 30 or more Bedouin died in the riot, while the victims say many more were killed?? upwards of 100 men. It is believed hardly a single male from either nest of thieves escaped unscathed from the melee.

It’s become fashionable in some circles to talk of ‘the affair‘ at Surafend as a day of shame for the New Zealand Armed Services in whole. Held equally culpable were the Australian diggers who fully supported their New Zealand cobbers’ actions, some actually taking part, with not a single Australian unsealing their lips with knowledge of the event despite widely circulated news of the Kiwis’ angry riotous intent and the firing of Surafend ‘lighting up the whole countryside around the area for miles’. Even when incorrectly accused as instigators and main perpetrators of the mayhem, not one digger broke ranks.

A week after the fracas the ANZAC Mounted Division were addressed before the Commanding Officer of British forces in Palestine, General Edmund Allenby, who, standing tall in the stirrups of his mount, vehemently demanded someone, anyone, spill the beans. He became so wildly angry with the stone wall of silence before him he insulted the division with the very lowest possible slur a fighting man can level against other fighting men: he called them cowards. Immediately, angry mutterings began building amongst the assembled division, building to a drone of discontent, despite Divisional Commander General Chaytor?s demand for silence, before Allenby turned his steed and galloped away in a plume of dust. The division would never forget Allenby?s loathsome insult.

Leslie, a Morrinsville farmer, volunteered for enlistment on 5 July 5 1917, just three days after his 20th birthday; he would never enjoy his 22nd. We’ll never know if his mother Constance, his five younger sisters or younger brother were proud of him or worried for him, perhaps both, as he boarded the train to Wellington before embarking across oceans to the Palestinian deserts to play his part in a war that had already claimed so many thousands of his countrymen. One thing is sure, for young Leslie Tuhoe Lowry, oldest son, to have survived the war only to be shot through by a villainous pillager almost a month after the armistice must have been amongst the most cruel of cuts poor Constance ever endured.

Showing signs of leadership potential during training in New Zealand, Leslie was promoted to lance corporal in October 1917 but, perhaps uncomfortable in a leadership role or perhaps preferring to remain just one of the boys, he reverted to the rank of private at his own request in January 1918, before mobilisation. Lowry, a horseman, served with the 35th New Zealand Mounted Rifles initially, before being transferred to the (also mounted) Machine-Gun Squadron in May 1918.

During his ten months in the desert Leslie will have learned a lot, and been taught a lot, of his comrades-in-arms and of the local inhabitants?? their strengths and weaknesses, their peculiarities and vices?? and will have absorbed the ill will and distrust of his fellow troops for particular groupings, particularly the treacherous Bedouin who, while technically ?allied? to British forces, betrayed them, planted many a knife in an ANZAC back, clubbed many a wounded man to death as they robbed the helpless of every conceivable prize, and dug up the graves of ANZAC dead to rob them more. It is fair to say the ANZAC troops’ animosity towards those people extended to full-blown hatred.

Sensing something in his sleep, Private Lowry awoke to find the kit bag containing his personal effects, which doubled as a pillow, swiped from beneath his head by a bare-footed burglar. He immediately gave chase to the man, yelling along the way for help in cornering the culprit and caught the thief just 100 yards outside the picket line at camp. He attempted to arrest him, a fight ensued?? some say Leslie had the villain in a strangle-hold ? before the Bedouin produced a revolver and turned it on the stolen kit?s rightful owner, shooting him in the stomach. Leslie Tuhoe Lowry died shortly after the pickets reached him, closely followed by numerous comrades who immediately followed the perpetrator’s fresh tracks across the loose, rocky earth to the nearby Bedouin village of Surafend ?whose inhabitants for many year had terrorized the adjacent Jewish communities.? Surrounding the village, the ANZACs refused anybody leave to enter or exit while also notifying HQ of both the outrage and the circumstances, and waited, and waited.

Lowry was murdered at 1.15am yet, by dawn, with the village surrounded and the criminal corralled, no intervention or orderly investigation had been undertaken or even initiated. As the day wore on bitter Kiwis and Aussies, blood brothers in every respect, veterans of desert war, assumed nothing would be done to discipline the despicable murderer or his accomplices and accessories in crime. During the impasse the troops surrounding the village demanded the local hierarchy hand the responsible man over; he must have been noted by the night owls, running furiously, panting, possibly injured, covered with cordite and blood. He will have been seen. When the local elders pointed to the nearby Jewish settlement as the provider of the felon the Kiwis became further incensed. They had followed the tracks directly to the Bedouin village and the local Jews had never provoked scorn or distrust, let alone theft and murder, during the entire and long desert campaign.

Around 2pm an order finally came through: the men were to drop the cordon and withdraw to camp immediately. Turning back to look at the village as they retraced their steps to Richon leZion, the men saw a steady trickle of Surafend?s inhabitants leaving, probably including the culprit.

Utterances were aplenty and a committee was formed: unless British command acted, the New Zealanders would. There were rules: no firearms, no women or children were to be endangered, nor infirm, nor elderly. Apart from that it was open slather. Heralding a final warning, mule-feed straw was stuffed under the thatch-roofed eaves of local houses in readiness for firing the village while sheiks were offered a last opportunity to export the offender to authority, failing which pandemonium was to be delivered, in triplicate.

They didn?t, and it was.

Were the New Zealanders right or wrong? Undoubtedly, they were wrong. But, having been wronged against, so many times, by a peace-time foe so mischievous as to never fly a flag or reveal their true intent, an ‘ally’ New Zealanders had lost their lives fighting for only to be repaid in treachery and murder on multiple occasions, with zero retribution, the Kiwis lost their collective rag that night. They completely lost it.

Feel free to accuse them all you want, but can you blame them?