Neot HaKikar is a desert moshav, just south of the Dead Sea. We were at Belfer’s Place, a collection of B&Bs — where the air conditioners hum all day and visitors like ourselves huddle inside, waiting for the 40+ degree Celsius heat of the day to wear off about 4 pm.
So I had lots of time to listen to Yaacov Belfer regale me with amazing stories of forgotten history. World War I. The Great War… in Palestine.
The contemporary conflict of modern day Israel and the Palestinian Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza overshadow historic facts — and though many people know a lot about the Second World War, most stories of the Great War remain lost under the mists of time.
I was stunned to hear from Yaacov that during the First World War, there were some 300,000 troops from the British forces and their enemies, the Turks and Germans (remember Rommel, the Desert Rat?) stationed in what is now modern day Israel.
This was many more soldiers than the numbers of residents in the land at the time.
The British had divisions posted there from around the world — Australians, ANZACs (combined Aussie/New Zealand units), Indian Gulkas and Sikhs, divisions from Hong Kong and Singapore, divisions from the British Isles — the Londoners, East England, Welsh, Scottish and Irish divisions; four air force squadrons and one zepplin company and eight tanks (which were in Gaza). Divisions were made up of 12,000 men.
The British led forces brought 30,000 horses from Australia and there was also an British Imperial Camel Brigade that had 30,000 special camels brought from Afghanistan, India and Egypt.
It was also fascinating to hear that the German Templars had established Sarona (which later became Tel Aviv) and it was the Templars who introduced many modern mechanical innovations to Israel and that they employed hundreds of Jews to build their facilities.
But when the First World War began, the British soon realized that the Templars were working with the Germans to defeat Britain. The Brits rounded up the Templars’ families — something like 10,000 people — and exiled them all to Australia.
This past week in Israel, the temperatures in Tiberias reached 53 degrees Celsius. So listening to Yaacov’s stories of how the Aussies took Be’er Sheva—- 35,000 of them on horseback — made me shake my head at the tremendous logistical feat of feeding and watering troops and horses, along with the sheer courage and survival skills of soldiers riding in hot desert sun.
He told amazing tales of clever British diversionary tactics, camouflage and intelligence that eventually gave the British the edge.
One diversion entailed having Indian troops march north from Jerusalem to Jericho by day, as if preparing forces to attack Rabat Ammon. By night the same troops were trucked back to Jerusalem and the next day an apparent flood of additional troops marched on Jericho.
But in the meantime, by night, divisions of men on horseback were riding south to take Be’er Sheva.
In the end, he said that the Indian troops were key in the taking of Jerusalem, a city whose population at that time was 66 per cent Jewish.
As General Allenby recorded his victorious entry to the city: “The procession was all afoot, and at Jaffa gate I was received by the guards representing England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, India, France, and Italy. The population received me well.”
Like quicksand, Belfer finds himself immersed in this period of history to the point where he has begun staging historical reenactments of certain events — including horseback, uniforms, and action according to historical description. And he has hosted groups of Aussies who are eager to rediscover their historical roots in the Middle East.
A tragic end to the Aussie’s tale of valour is that of the beloved horses the Aussies had ridden for three years during their stint in the war. At the end of the war the Brits refused to ship them home due to the cost and quarantine issues. Leaving their best four-hooved friends behind was a cruel blow to those valiant Australian troops.
These stories only show how much more complicated the history of the Middle East is; no matter how deep you dig, there’s no simple explanation as to how things got to be the way they are today.
But it looks like much of the whole world had a hand in it.
Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka-based freelance writer.