The myths of Beersheba

The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba has been cause for great patriotic celebration among the Australian political elite and the mainstream media.

The Battle, a little-remembered incident in the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War, featured the Australian Light Horse Brigade in one of its first victories and last charges. Beersheba, a Palestinian and Bedouin town in what is now Israel, was a strategically important site held by the Turks.

The mythology is that the plucky Australian Light Horse Brigade (with some British and Scottish cavalry in tow), thirsty and down on its luck, braved the desert, charged into Beersheba, took the wily Turks by surprise and conquered the town. This laid the basis for the Allies to take Jerusalem, the jewel in the crown of the region.

The Battle of Beersheba is presented as a seminal moment in Australian military history. While Gallipoli is iconic, of bravery in the face of defeat, Beersheba is a success story.

For the Australian ruling class, such narratives are important. They play a key role in constructing an Australian identity and in building support for the military and wars past and present.

Kelvin Crombie, a historian and an organiser of the 100th anniversary celebrations, expressed this clearly when he said that the Battle of Beersheba encapsulates the “spirit of the Australian people … daring, bold and courageous”.

That World War One was an imperial war, and that the Australians were fighting in the British Army in the interests of British colonial domination, is of little interest. Of even less interest is that the Battle of Beersheba laid the basis for the British colonisation of Palestine, the subsequent Balfour Declaration and the expulsion of Indigenous Palestinians from their land.

That Israel was not a state during the Battle of Beersheba and that Australian soldiers had comparatively little to do with Jewish villages in the area, is also immaterial for the Australian ruling class. The narrative being spun is that Australian-Israeli friendship extends into a misty past. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu spelled this out in February:

“And you know, and we know, that Australia and Israel are firm friends, a relationship forged in the crucible of history, anchored in shared values, buttressed by strong community ties and given vitality by the optimism and the enterprise of our two young nations – we both know our best years are ahead of us. It is almost 100 years since the charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade captured the town of Beersheba from the Ottoman Turks. That event, [was] one of the foundations of our relationship.”

Facts aside, the Battle provides a good skeleton around which to hang a patriotic story. This is why both Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull flew to Beersheba for the week-long festivities. The ceremonies involved a re-enactment of the Light Horse Brigade charge (accompanied by bush poetry set to music), speeches by Israeli and Australian politicians and a band which played Australian ditties such as “Along the road to Gundagai” and “Click go the shears”. The assembled crowd chanted “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”

While the mainstream press has published a few pieces critical of the dominant narrative of Beersheba, one story that hasn’t been told is the connections between the Light Horse Brigades and one of Australia’s first significant far right organisations: the Old Guard.

The Old Guard was formed as a paramilitary unit in the lead up to the Depression. It was vehemently conservative, hostile to organised labour and the left and dominated by the very wealthy, who sought to preserve the privileges of their class. Many were still under arms and particularly in NSW organised for what they perceived as the coming civil war against workers and the Communist menace.

Like the highest ranks of the Australian Light Horse brigades, the Old Guard contained a disproportionate number of wealthy graziers. For example, the leader of the Desert Mounted Corps that charged Beersheba, Henry George Chauvel, was from a grazier family and had a long history of hostile activity toward the workers movement.

In 1891 and 1894, Chauvel organised strike breakers against the shearers. After serving in the Boer War and then World War One, Chauvel returned to Australia and became part of the highest echelons of Australian military officialdom. He then organised with many of the most prominent figures of the Old Guard. When the left Labor premier of NSW, Jack Lang, was undemocratically sacked, Chauvel sent a telegram of congratulations to the right wing governor.

The leader of the 6th Light Horse Brigade, Frederic Hinton, was another grazier and top leader of the Old Guard. He oversaw the secret military wing and the public wing of the organisation. The semi-fascist front organisation of the Old Guard was called the All Australian League and had around 130,000 members.

These connections are just one illustration of the extent to which the forces of imperial military domination and the far right have often overlapped.

In Britain recently, five servicemen were arrested for neo-Nazi activity and in the US two of the groups who participated this year in far right mobilisations in Charlottesville, Virginia, were founded by former US Marines.

The ultra-patriotic climate created by the likes of Shorten, Turnbull and Netanyahu contributes to an atmosphere ripe for racism and far right ideas here as well.