Ian Wilcock, the Australian ambassador in Israel
Lecture given at conference in Joe Alon Center
Kibbutz Lahav 1997
The history of the First World War is a most important passage of the Australian history.
Australia came an in depended country in 1901, when the six separate colonies in Australia came together as The Commonwealth of Australia.
So the World War was the first the first occasion in which Australians had fought outside their own shores as a unified defence force. Australians had enlisted with enthusiasm in 1914, like a lot of people in Europe and elsewhere, who thought that this would be a short, sharp adventure, which of course turned out to be very far from that.
The first significant battle in which Australians were engaged was not far from here, at Galipoli in Turkey, which was a terrible defeat for the British forces and their allies. It is still the day of the year which Australians celebrate to mark all wars. It is called Anzac Day. Australians and New Zealanders all together. That was in 1915. The casualties were very large. A large pert of our forces then went to France and Belgium, to the western front, where they again fought heroically, but again the losses were huge Out of population, at that time in Australia of 4.5 million people, we lost 60,000 men, which is a phenomenal trauma for the country. It happened to many societies, but as a matter of fact the per-capita casualty, rates for Australians were higher than for almost any other forces in the First World War
They were often used and volunteered as shock troops in the most difficult environments, so that casualties were very great. Beer-Sheva therefore lives in Australian memory as well as a battle, not only because it was a brilliant military success, but because the casualties rate was so low. There were still 31 death, bad +in particular. So it is something that can be celebrated in both military and human terms, and it still is. It is important celebration in Australian military history. And we celebrate it not only in Beer-Sheva, but we celebrate it in Australia in a number of ceremonies. I was fascinated to read in the Australian press that one of the people that was in the celebrations is the last surviving participant in the battle, aged 91, he is still with us, and he said something to the effect, “well I was fool really to volunteer, but I wanted to go with my horse”. This I think, demonstrate the kind of spirit of these people. What is remarkable about the Australian and New Zealand soldiers, that they were all volunteers. Many of them were in it in sense of adventure. All of them thought it was just cause that they were enlisting for. Most of them, I suspect, will fall in this area. The Light Horse were man from the Bush, as we call it, from the rural area of Australia, who was as a matter of routine in their lives, rode horses and rode them very well. They had tough Bush horses, which could survive in very difficult conditions, as in Palestine, and could survive for perhaps days without water. That was one of the big challenges of the battle of Beer-Sheva, to get to the water as fast as possible. They were also accomplished shots. They would always be out on their horses shooting kangaroos or rabbits. So they were almost ready-made as mounted infantry when the war came along. They were courageous and independent men. When in living in the Australian Bush, and the nearest farm to you is a hundred miles away, and you can only get there by horse or by walking, you tend to be in a very independent disposition, and very tough. And they were.
That period really made the foundations for what is a very warm modern relationship between Australia and Israel. When I was first in Israel in the nineteen seventies, I used to meet quiet a few people who knew the Dragoon Soldiers of the First World War. There were still few of them around. I still met many who knew the Australian soldiers here in the Second World War and have similarly warm feelings toward them. The warm feelings were obviously mutual. I think it was based on probably on similar pioneering spirits, a similar directness of speech, a similar love of rural life. Many of them hit Kibbutzim during this time, and helped with the farming and spent with the Kibbutzniks. I think it is a bond that still exist, because these qualities of directness, of creativity and of toughness when nessecery, are still things that bond Australians and Israelies. So you are celebrating in my mind, or examining, a period which is important not only to you, but to us as Australians as well, as to the Israeli and Australian partnership. The only regret I have about it all when looking back, is that the commanding Australian in Palestine was not General Jhon Monash, who was the most outstanding Australian General of the First World War. Many people think that he was the most outstanding General of the British Allied Forces of the whole war. He exercised remarkable creativity and imagination in the awful circumstances of the Western Front. The point of local interest is that General Monash was a Jew, and there is even a Jewish village named after him: Kfar Monash. Many people described him at that stage as the greatest Jewish General since Joshua. What a romantic and wonderful thing it would have been if the Australian forces at this stage had been led by General Monash. This was not to be, but still the Israeli-Australian bond is remarkable, and the so many people who are interested in this period is of mutual importance to both countries.