At almost all Anzac Day services we hear those profound words:
‘Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13)
Those profound words were spoken by Jesus—just a few hours before he experienced an excruciating death—a death He didn’t have to die, but a death He undertook knowing full well that his sacrifice would benefit many others.
Jesus set the supreme example of self-sacrifice.
In our Anzac history we have numerous examples of how our soldiers have sacrificed their lives for the sakes of others. Most of the accounts we hear of relate to actions on the battlefield, when soldiers have saved the lives of other soldiers.
But I would like to present to you another perspective involving self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. This perspective revolves around the actions of our soldiers in saving the lives of innocent civilians, for whom death would most likely have resulted had our soldiers not intervened.
I can only relate to you several such examples—and there are so many others even that I am not aware of. At the beginning of World War One the Ottoman Turkish regime began to implement a policy of eradicating its minority groups, especially the Greek, Assyrian and mostly the Armenian Christians. By the end of the War up to 1.5 million Armenians had died, with up to several hundred thousand more Assyrian and Greek Christians having also perished.
That policy had its officially beginning on 24 April 1915 and is until today commemorated each year on that day. Working adjacent to the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem for some 20 years I observed these annual memorial services—and then the next day participated in the Anzac Service on Mount Scopus.
Every action that our soldiers fought and every victory won was a battle for the survival of these minority groups.
Beersheba to Jerusalem
Following the victory at Beersheba on 31 October 1917 in which our Light Horse played a significant part, General Allenby’s force slowly moved northwards towards Jerusalem. The populace was applauding each of our victories—albeit silently.
Then on 8 December 1917 as the Allied soldiers (mostly British, but which included the 10th Light Horse from WA) were poised on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the Turkish governor ordered the expulsion of thousands of innocent civilians, mostly Jewish and Christian, from the City, in the middle of the cold and wet winter and to walk to inhospitable locations, ‘escorted’ by Turkish guards. Certain death awaited most of these hapless people. (A Brief Record of the Advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force July 1917 – October 1918, facing Plate 26)
Thankfully the Allied troops captured the City on 9 December before this order could be carried out. You can imagine the welcome our men received when they rode into Jerusalem. They were treated as saviours.
Lieut-Col Arthur Mills and the ANZACs at Es Salt
Just a few months later ANZAC soldiers were fighting in present day Jordan and had just captured the town of Es Salt. Up to several thousand Armenian refugees, who had survived the genocide in Turkey, were in that town and they welcomed our men as liberators.
But then the Turks counter-attacked and were set to recapture the town. Our men of the Light Horse and Camel Corps had to quickly retreat. The Armenians (and others) too had to flee as they knew they could possibly be killed when the Turks returned. H.S. Gullett the Australian military historian recorded:
The light horsemen, ‘moved by their plight, lifted women and children up and placed them in front of their saddles; not a few dismounted, worn [out] as they were, and allowed the wretched fugitives to ride their horses.’ (Gullett, The AIF in Sinai and Palestine, p. 583)
One officer, Lieut-Col Arthur Mills of the 4th Battalion Imperial Camel Corps, wrote how he carried a sleeping four year old Armenian girl in his arms to Jerusalem.
(A. J. Mills, file and diaries, 1918, Australian War Memorial, Canberra)
These destitute people became part of some 7,000 such refugees who were saved, many of whom found refuge in Jerusalem. (Storrs, R. Orientations, p. 295)
Captain Stanley Savige and Dunsterforce
When Russia withdrew from the War in late 1917 early 1918 the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea which Russian troops had controlled, became a military and political vacuum. The British feared that the Turks and Germans would take over that region and gain control over the precious oil wells, especially around Baku.
A new force, named Dunsterforce, was formed out of crack Empire troops including many Australians. These men were to move towards that strategic region and train local militia.
But in early July 1918 news came about the presence of about 70,000 Armenian and Assyrian Christian refugees who had survived the genocide in Turkey and had taken shelter near Lake Urmiah in northern Persia (Iran).
A small group from Dunsterforce led by the Australian Captain Stanley Savige then rode out to join forces with a local Christian militia—in order to protect these vulnerable refugees. They faced overwhelming odds and their chances of success and survival were minimal.
Our men… helped saved innocent lives.
But Savige and his men together with the small local militia, staved off the constant attacks by the much larger Turkish force, which attacked any refugees who lingered behind.
On one occasion Savige was confronted by a terrible decision, the likes of which none of us would like to face. There were hundreds of weak older people and children who just could no longer go on. He wrote of this ordeal:
‘We dismounted, and placed two or three women or children on our horses, abandoning hundreds to their fate. Cruel as this was it was absolutely essential, as our idea was to save the greatest number of lives possible.’ (Savige, S. Stalky’s Forlorn Hope, p. 154)
The preservation of that great number solely depended upon Savige and his few men being able to protect them. Finally after about three weeks of constant movement and harassment by the Turks, Savige was able to state:
‘Of the seventy thousand refugees who left Urmiah, we were successful in saving about 60,000 to 65,000, conveying them in stages to the fertile flats of the Diala River, north of Baghdad… (Savige, ibid, p. 173)
Savige received the Distinguished Service Order for his brave actions. Perhaps a Victoria Cross would have been more appropriate.
The ANZACs help stop the Holocaust entering into the Middle East
Some 25 years later Savige was back in the Middle East, this time as commander of the 17th Brigade, 6th Division, and he served in the Middle East.
This time the ANZAC soldiers were faced by another and even worse totalitarian regime—Nazi Germany. Wherever German troops went they were followed by the Nazi cohorts. In Greece where our men fought gallantly, the defenceless Jewish population was secure, but as soon as we were driven out of areas, the Germans moved in and began impacting the Jewish community. In Thessalonika (Saloniki), almost all of the 54,000 Jewish people who lived there were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
This provided a template to the future outcome of any Jewish community which would come under German, and thereby Nazi, control. In 1942 the Nazi’s set up a specialised death squad called the Einsatzkommando Egypt, with orders to begin destroying the 700,000 or so Jewish people living in the Middle East.
All that stood in their way were the brave Allied soldiers, including the Australian 9th Division and the New Zealand 2nd Division, at El Alamein. Once Rommel would break through at El Alamein then this death squad would follow and together with local collaborators, begin their grisly task.
Thankfully, for the sake of the innocent people of the Middle East, Rommel was stopped at El Alamein and the proposed concentration and death camps were not set up in Egypt, the land of Israel (Palestine at the time), Syria or Iraq. (For further details see Crombie, K. El Alamein – Halting and Impending Holocaust in the Middle East)
Herein lies a hidden and yet important aspect of the role of the ANZACs.
Our men, ordinary men like my Uncle John, who died at Tobruk, or Eddie Flower from the 7th Division, or Reg Clapp from the 10th Light Horse, or many others who served in our armed forces—helped saved innocent lives—either directly or by their very presence there. This for me provides an extra meaning for what the ANZAC story is really about. It isn’t just about fighting and taking lives—it is also about saving lives.
The fruits of our service overseas
Our brave young men went to fight for different reasons, but the end result was that in both world wars they stopped totalitarian regimes such as the Ottoman Turks and the Nazi Germans from fulfilling their genocidal plans to destroy entire people groups.
What would have happened if our men did not volunteer to go over there and fight against those regimes and totalitarian regimes? What would have happened had the Ottoman Turks and the Nazi Germans won—and succeeded with their plans?
Unfortunately such regimes and ideologies are still out there, and they want to destroy our society with its freedoms. You may have your gripes against our democratic form of government, due probably to disagreement with some of the people running our country, but as imperfect as Australia is, it is a very good place to live.
We should be thanking God each day for what He has given us and praying that He will preserve us from such totalitarian regimes and ideologies. But we also have to be realistic and know that these very regimes and ideologies will do their utmost to destroy societies, like ours, which uphold democratic freedom.
I never fought as a soldier, but I did try, unsuccessfully, to join the Israeli Army. Yet through 25 years of living there I daily experienced the reality and the consequences of a War between regimes and ideologies trying to destroy Israel—the only democratic nation in the Middle East—albeit an imperfect democratic nation, just like ours.
Conflict between our form of government with its freedoms and those other regimes and ideologies unfortunately is inevitable. But when we are faced with this conflict, would it be that we as individuals and as a nation would have the same attitude and courage as an Arthur Mills or a Stanley Savige and be willing to give up our security, our horse or camel, in order to help save not just ourselves and our way of life—but someone else less fortunate than ourselves.
That, I think, is the essence of the ANZAC story, and one which we should be transferring to the next generation.