Visual Memory and Palestine Campaign

Alex Worsfold

While studying for my Master’s, I worked with my University’s outreach program on extra-curricular classes for students of Secondary Schools around Kent. A particular set of sessions I ran on the Palestine front during the First World War, focusing its memory is side-lined in British education on the First World War. As with many aspects of the First World War, the advent of the Second World War inflected almost all facets of memory with altered meaning. The campaign through Egypt and Tunisia, and the famous battles of el Alamein have largely eclipsed popular cultural imagery of the First World War in the desert, which are generally are associated with the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli.

The trouble I had in presenting this subject to groups of 12-14 year olds is the lack of visual cultural memory of the Palestine campaign. The sessions focused on soldiers’ thoughts on their ‘front’ and its contribution to the war effort – something which became markedly theoretical without visual complement to build any historical analysis from. Palestine and the Sinai are an incredibly geographically varied place and the short distance covered by the Allied forces between 1917 and 1918 produced a myriad of challenges for armed forces. Edward Woodfin’s work on the experiences of British soldiers on the front dedicates large sections of each chapter to differing physical conditions between Gaza and the Jordan.[1] When talking of the Western Front, text sources naturally ally with ingrained cultural memory of trench warfare and familiar climate and geography as a reference point in aiding critical engagement.

In my sessions, I ended up using images from various internet sources and representations of history in film. When presented with PEF’s Rhodes collection, I was immediately reminded me of the difficulty I had in trying to create these sessions. Captain Arthur Rhodes was the Aide-de-Camp to Colonel Chaytor of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment at the time, and his photographs track the unit’s progress through the campaign in 1917 from Khan Yunis all the way to Jerusalem.

These images, both showing the area around Gaza (above) and Beersheba (below), go a long way in demonstrating similarities and differences in the terrain. As an educational tool, these images demonstrate excellent possibilities for instigating comparisons and differences in terms of the themes in battlefield imagery. A familiar open no man’s land separates the lines, but the natural undulations in terrain contrast with imagery of the Western Front. Ephemeral river valleys provide shelter where earthworks would otherwise have been built for shelter, and archaeological tels such as those at Tel es-Saba (pictured) or Tel el-Kheuweilfe created defensive redoubts utilised by Ottoman defenders.

Rhodes’ collection of images provides further opportunity for teaching the Palestine Front. They provide a useful prompt to dispel transpositions from memory of the Second World War that fighting in the Middle East took place solely in sandy deserts, and demonstrate the natural diversity of terrain in Palestine and the methods required to overcome this.

Throughout the collection there are a plethora of examples to moving over such varied terrain. Familiar sites of large units of cavalry – since Rhodes’ unit was a mounted unit, contrast with occasional shots of motor vehicles as well as with camels. The novelty photoshoots in which the car is pictured can be used to demonstrate the clear unsuitability of the terrain to such a narrow wheeled vehicle seems to suggest that this mode of transport was not prevalent within the British forces during the campaign.

In contrast, we see camels fulfilling more of a supply role within the British forces. Frequent problems with water supply dogged the British forces crossing the Sinai preceding the construction of a pipeline across the desert, and camels formed a crucial part of this. Known as the ‘camel transport’, they were crucial even after the pipelines completion in distributing water from the pipe head to various frontline British units.

These are of great assistance in providing a visual structure to soldiers’ lives in Palestine, presenting people’s experience outside of combat and their reliance on local population’s techniques in best adapting to the landscape of combat. In France, this would have been the threat of conditions relating to the mud and rainfall in some parts of the year. The opposite was true in the Sinai, where heatstroke and dehydration were also a great threat. Analytical challenges can be provided to students through text alone, but this particular case greatly profits from visual assistance in prompting heightened interest and critical thinking in students.  

 These are only a few images I selected from a highly evocative collection, of which I easily could have taken three of four more selections to emphasise completely different points. I was instantly enamoured to the educational value of these images, which provide inspiration to or compliment any extracurricular teaching that looks beyond the Western Front, or indeed to the beginning of British colonial control of the region.

[1] Edward Woodfin, Camp and Combat on the Sinai and Palestine Front: The Experience of the British Empire Soldier, 1916-18 (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).