War in the Holy Lands

Guest post by Briar Barry

We’d hear a heavy smack and know a horse had been hit. Mostly they were hit through the stomach and would just shake themselves a little. The owner would take the saddle off immediately, for it was always a mortal wound. The horse would nose around among his mates, shake himself, and five minutes later roll on the sand. It was the beginning of the end.”

Captain Arthur Rhodes, New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, World War 1

War in the Holy Lands, a new temporary exhibition about New Zealanders’ First World War experiences in the Middle East, is now playing as part of The Great War Exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand. The show is fourth in a series of six created by Story Inc and Dusk, and funded by the Lottery Grants Board, with the intention of telling some of the lesser-known New Zealand stories of the First World War. The exhibit uses six big projection screens and an immersive audio environment to create a powerful visitor experience out of still imagery and first-hand verbatim accounts of soldiers’ experiences.

A talented photographer, Arthur Rhodes captured his experiences during the Beersheba Campaign in Sinai and Palestine on film. The Palestine Exploration Fund of London kindly provided some of the photographs which feature in the show.

Guns drawn up for inspection, a photograph by Captain Arthur Rhodes which features in War in the Holy Lands. PEF/P/RHODES/29, Palestine Exploration Fund, London.

The story of New Zealand’s war in the Middle East is often overlooked. It doesn’t fit with the traditional image of World War 1 – the mud and trenches of the Western Front. Some soldiers at the time shared this view, feeling that they were missing out on the ‘real war.’ A few people back home agreed, seeing them as ‘tourists in uniform’ having an easy time of it in the sun-drenched Middle East. But while the casualty rate was certainly lower than on the Western Front, the Sinai and Palestine campaigns were hardly a holiday. The men faced fierce battles, hordes of flies, extreme temperatures, and rampant malaria. In total 17,723 New Zealanders served in the Middle East. Of them, 640 were killed in action and 1,146 wounded.

The ‘Mounteds’ gained a formidable reputation as fighters and became known by Ottoman troops as “devils on horses”. They would often ride through the night, taking the enemy by surprise at dawn. But it was not all glory. At the end of the war, one of the most shameful events in New Zealand’s military history occurred: a massacre of civilians, in which some New Zealand soldiers played a prominent part, in the Palestinian village of Surafend. Of course there are no photographs or images connected with the event. Instead, a ghostly series of animated “shadowplay” silhouettes hinting at the violence are projected into an otherwise completely black room.

Behind the scenes of the Story Inc and Dusk “shadowplay” shoot. Photo by Story Inc.

Other moments that pack an emotional punch in War in the Holy Lands come from the stories about the bonds between the men and their horses. The open spaces in the Middle East made this a mobile war. The connection between animal and rider was strong, and only made stronger on the battlefield where horses even acted as shields by lying down on the sand so the men could fire over the top of them. However, New Zealand’s strict quarantine policy and a shortage of transport meant that the horses who survived the war could not come home. In the Middle East they were either declared unfit and shot, sold locally, or kept by the occupying British Army. Many troopers, worried about how their horse would be treated if it was sold, made the heart-wrenching decision to shoot their own animal after having them declared unfit. Trooper Ted Andrews described the task,

It was the saddest day of the war…. Each man had to hold two horses, and it was the most sickening job I had… It seemed awfully sad that these poor old faithful creatures, after suffering from thirst, hunger and fatigue and carrying heavy loads for hundreds of miles, should have to end their days being shot down by the very people they had so faithfully served…”

A New Zealand soldier shoots a wounded horse. National Army Museum of New Zealand.

War in the Holy Lands is running from 13 December 2017 until 20 February 2018. Thank you once again to the Palestine Exploration Fund for access to, and permission to use images from their collection.

Visitors watch War in the Holy Lands. Photo by Story Inc.

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