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There is No Glory in War

Monument dedicated to the Australian Aboriginal Light Horse Troopers

Photos by Dalia Sinclair OAM 

"They" were "us"

Living in Australia for almost 36 years I held a number of positions within the Jewish community relating to Israel - Australia affairs, including Israel Hasbara. It seems as though I have always lived in two worlds. Since my move back to Israel a year ago, I often find myself focusing on Israel - Australia historic or personal encounters which made a great impact on me. I still have a strong connection to Australia, not only because my family resides there, but also due to a few ongoing projects I have initiated and events I attend whether in person or via Zoom due to the coronavirus restrictions.

On September 25, 2019, together with my daughter Etty, who landed in Israel the previous day, I attended an official ceremony to unveil a monument dedicated to the Australian Aboriginal Light Horse Troopers, who lost their lives in the World War 1 battle of Semakh, on the southern shore of the Kinneret, on September 25, 1918.

Mark Pollard clothed in his grandfather's soldier uniform

Designed by well-known Australian Light Horse artist, Jennifer Marshall, and titled "No greater love than this", the monument was produced in Israel. It features Aboriginal Trooper Jack Pollard tending to the grave of a fallen brother in arms. This was achieved thanks to major donations by the Australian Light Horse Association, JNF Australia and Christians for Israel. Etty represented JNF Australia, an organization she has been involved with for many years, focusing on projects alongside the ANZAC's trail.

Clothed in his grandfather's army uniform, Mark Pollard, an Australian Aboriginal, stood proudly at the Semakh railway station, addressing dignitaries and visitors, some of whom had travelled all the way from Australia, including Aboriginal descendants of the troopers of the Australian 11th Light Horse Regiment.

"There is no glory in war," said Mark Pollard. "It is simply a descent into a seemingly endless insanity, that humanity seemed eternally capable of, but in that madness and darkness, there is courage and there is honor. Courage displayed by the men of the 11th Light Horse regiment as they galloped across open ground and through machine guns and rifle fire to overrun an entrenched enemy who far outnumbered them. Honor in the way they dispersed fair justice and due respect. They fought not for glory but for peace. Peace for all the world and for the people of Israel."

 Railways were vitally important in World War I, thus it was often referred to as the war of the railways. Semakh was crucial to holding back the Allies from advancing further north to Damascus. The Turkish defenders at the station were supported by German troops.

Over 1,500 Aboriginal men enlisted for service in World War I, many serving with great distinction and particularly in the Light Horse Regiments. The 20th reinforcement contingent for the 11th Light Horse Regiment was nearly all Aboriginal and was known as the "Queensland Black Watch".

On 25 September, 1918, the Australian 11th and 12th Light Horse Regiments, together with the 4th Machine Gun Squadron, were to approach the railway station during the night and then, at a safe distance from the station, dismount and attack on foot at dawn. The important element of surprise was lost once they were discovered. They faced heavy gunfire from the station house, the train carriages and the village homes. The gunfire took the troops by surprise and they made an unprecedented decision. Major Costello ordered his men to form a troop line and charge ahead on their horses in total darkness towards the fire. Charging over unknown ground at 4:30am in into enemy fire defied any logic.

This night time cavalry charge in darkness was a unique feature of the Semakh battlefield, and the heroism displayed by the troopers and their horses was immense. At sunrise the rail station fell into the hands of the Australians. Days later they arrived in Damascus. Nineteen Australian troopers and sixty horses were killed in the fierce hand-to-hand fighting. The Australian troops captured the station.

Mark Pollard and Dalia Ayalon Sinclair at the unveiling ceremony

Barry Rodgers OAM, Director of the Australia Light Horse Association and Master of Ceremonies, highlighted the fact that although the Aboriginal Light Horse troopers on enlistment had effectively signed a "blank check" on their lives, on returning home they did not receive recognition, soldier's benefits or pensions.

"Sadly, at that time in our Australian history these men were not recognized as Australian citizens and they had no voting rights," he said. "In the military, however, they were equal, paid the same, suffered the same, there were no racial tensions; "They Were Us" - as stated on the monument. I think they are worthy of double honor today as we pay special tribute in recognition of the role the Aboriginal Troopers played and fought in the Semakh Battle; they were great soldiers and horsemen."

Australian Ambassador to Israel Chris Cannan said in his address that he was privileged to be among descendants of Aboriginal troopers from the 11th Light Horse Regiment at the ceremony.

"Semakh was not just a strategic victory. It was more than that," he said. "Atop their horses, with bayonets across their shoulders, the Aboriginal troopers forged tight bonds with their fellow Australians. They were part of the same story, the Light Horse story, the ANZAC story, a lasting legacy of heroism, mate-ship and resilience felt to this day. We commemorate the sacrifice of Australian troops who fought here 101 years ago today: Australians who planted the roots and set the tone for Australia's commitments to this region and the strong and long standing friendship between Australia and Israel. We pay particular tribute to the contributions of the Australian Aboriginal troopers of the First World War. As we look towards the future, we must remember the sacrifices and bravery of Australian troops during the Sinai - Palestine Campaign, WWI, and indeed all wars. They wrote the critical early chapter of Australia's national story, and the Australia - Israel story. Their sacrifice gave us the opportunity to write our own stories."

For Mark Pollard, it was important not only to remember the sacrifice of the indigenous troopers who fought, but also to honor the memory of their non-indigenous brothers who fought and died beside them.

"It is perhaps fitting in some way, that the Aboriginal Australians themselves being part of a displaced people in their own spiritual land, volunteered to travel to a distant country to help in the reunification of another displaced people with the Holy Land," he said. "This memorial will mean many different things to different people. The blood of my people fell on this soil, so this place will forever be part of the story of Indigenous Australians and we will forever now be part of the story of Israel.

"Let this memorial be, not a tribute to war, rather let it be another candle in the darkness, to guide mankind into the light of peace in the world. A dream and a hope we must never relinquish, for the sake of all the children."

I felt privileged, as an Israeli Australian, who has just returned to live in Israel, not only to be among the guests at this auspicious event, but to personally meet Mark Pollard, and express my gratitude for his warm words. His speech certainly touched a chord as it reminded me of the deep debt Israel owes to Australia for their continued support throughout our history. 

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Thursday, 26 November 2020

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