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Palestine Diaries: the Australian Light Horse

Book review by Nick Goldie

In 2003 Jonathan King published the Gallipoli Diaries, which was re-issued in a revised commemorative edition in 2014.

This year, to mark the centenary of the famous charge at Beersheba, he has published his Palestine Diaries, the “Light Horsemen’s own story, battle by battle”.

(These are just two of Jonathan King’s thirty books on Australian history.)

Where the Gallipoli diaries are arranged on a day-by-day basis, with a diary entry selected for each day of the campaign, the Palestine diaries are necessarily more diffuse, as the campaign covered a very large area and was in several distinct phases. This gives King rather more opportunity for his own interpolations.

King has strong opinions, and he is sometimes an irritating companion. One tires of phrases – however justified – like “stupid decisions by incompetent British generals”, or the British “nervous Nellies”, contrasted with descriptions of the ANZAC soldiers who are inevitably brave, tenacious, independently minded “great Australian warriors”, fast, fearless and capable.

There are also some unfortunate typos: referring to the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, King states that Lord Cardigan’s men “… came face to face with a wall of Russian canons …” – the canons presumably in full Orthodox ecclesiastical garb, driving the Light Brigade before them with wafts of incense and showers of holy water.

As in the Gallipoli volume, the great strength of this book is in the direct quotations from the men involved, whether it is humble thanks from Trooper Broome to his mother: “I took lots of good photos and will send them in the next mail. I hope you get them alright and thanks for the cake – it was a beauty!”, or the steadfast Trooper James Williamson to his beloved Maude.

A major character in the drama is TE Lawrence (“of Arabia”), who famously promised the Arabs that a defeat of the Turks would lead to the creation of an Arab state. This didn’t happen. Lawrence and the Arabs were sidelined by the British and the French, with the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, and it is King’s view – shared by many – that the current state of the Middle East is directly the effect of those back-room deals.

As the Australians and the British at last entered Jerusalem, the first Christian conquerors for centuries, the Mayor asked the invaders to protect the Holy City “the way we have protected it for more than five hundred years.” A rare note of grace, which was matched by General Allenby’s own respectful behaviour.

Palestine Diaries, The Light Horsemen’s Own Story, Battle by Battle, Scribe, 448 pp, Jonathan King 2017.

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