Topic: BatzP - Surafend
Surafend, the massacre
Palestine, 10 December 1918
The following is extracted from an outline provided by Terry Kinlock posted on the Great War Forum, 18 September 2005.
My research to date reveals the following sequence of events.
During the evening of 9 December 1918, Trooper Leslie Lowry was sleeping in his tent in the New Zealand Machine Gun Squadron lines near the Ayun Kara battlefield. He awoke to find someone trying to pull his kit bag, which he was using as a pillow, out of the tent. Lowry leapt to his feet and chased the thief through the camp and into the sand hills, calling for help as he ran. As he caught up with the thief, the man turned and shot him. Lowry was found lying in the sand, bleeding from a bullet wound to the chest. He died just as a doctor arrived, having said nothing. No witness actually saw the fatal shot fired, or saw the murderer run into the nearby village of Surafend. However, tracks were reportedly found from the murder scene to Surafend.
The men of Lowry’s unit, probably assisted by other New Zealanders and Australians, immediately threw a cordon around the village to prevent anyone from entering or leaving. They did not enter the village that night – they simply stabilised the situation and waited for ‘the heads’ to launch an immediate criminal investigation. But nothing happened: no military policemen arrived to conduct a crime scene investigation, no witnesses were interviewed, and no senior officer arrived to take charge.
The next morning, Chaytor sent an officer to GHQ to register his growing concern, and another to take command of the cordon. The men there were angry and frustrated, but they continued to wait for something to be done. The only response to Chaytor’s plea was a peremptory order from GHQ to remove the cordon around Surafend immediately. Chaytor tried to overturn this decision, but failed. When the cordon was removed in the afternoon, a steady stream of Arabs immediately left the village.
That evening, the men took matters into their own hands. A soldier of a neighbouring Australian Light Horse Regiment stated afterwards that New Zealanders appeared in their tent lines looking for support. Another source describes a secret meeting in the sand dunes at 7 p.m., where an anonymous Australian light horseman quietly presented the action plan to the men present.
Two hundred men, armed with pick handles, bayonets or iron strips wrapped in puttees or sacks, quietly encircled the village at 8 p.m. One New Zealand witness claimed that British artillerymen from the Ayrshire Battery carrying horse traces (heavy harness chains encased in leather) also took part.
Most accounts state that the village headman was then given one last chance to hand over the murderer. When the murderer failed to appear, the next part of the plan was carried out. The old men, women and children in the village were woken and taken out of harm’s way, and the village was ransacked, probably in an attempt to find Lowry's stolen kit bag. Any Arab men remaining in the huts were subjected to ‘a sound thrashing’. A Bedouin camp next door to the village received the same treatment. Within 45 minutes, the village and the camp were burning to the ground, and between 30 and 40 Arab men had been beaten to death or badly injured. There is no evidence to suggest that anything more than a severe beating of the adult men was intended. Most sources attribute the high death toll to the resistance put up by the inhabitants of the village. Suggestions that some of the men were castrated and thrown down a well are unsubstantiated.
The fires were seen by men in the 2nd LH Brigade, whose camp site overlooked the village, and reported to NZMR Brigade Headquarters. The Auckland and Wellington regiments were both ordered to send a squadron, and the Machine Gun Squadron to send a troop, ‘to preserve order in the village.’ They found Australian MPs and the Richon le Zion picquet already there. Lieutenant Lord gave evidence that, when he arrived at the village soon after 8.45 p.m., he encountered ‘a large body of troops coming away from the village. There was no rifle shooting at that time and I saw Bedouin women, children and old men sitting together near a hedge. They were quiet and nobody was interfering with them.’ Lord did not enter the village, as it was ‘burning furiously’, and, as there were no more troops in the vicinity, he returned to camp. The other New Zealanders cordoned the village and patrolled the perimeter, but no attempt was made to put out the fire. They withdrew at 10 p.m., ‘all being quiet.’ The old men, women and children moved back into the ruins of their homes and began to mourn their dead.
The next morning, GHQ at last took action – but against the raiders, not the Arabs who had allegedly harboured Lowry’s killer. Each brigade in the Anzac Mounted Division immediately convened a Court of Inquiry, but the men closed ranks and professed ignorance of the whole thing. No offenders could be identified by Arab survivors or by anyone else.
Chaytor was furious, although his anger must have been tempered by the knowledge that, had his pleas for action during the daylight hours before the raid been answered, the attack would not have happened. With no offenders to blame, Chaytor turned his anger on the officers of the New Zealand brigade. It was clear to Chaytor that the regimental officers had failed in their duty for not stopping the attack once it had begun. ‘The singular inaction of almost all officers can only be due to a very grave lack of knowledge of their duties and responsibilities, or to a deliberate neglect of their duty.’ Strangely, the only punishment that he imposed was to ban leave for all officers. No one was ever court-martialled for Surafend.
Many of the accounts written after Surafend blame others for the attack. Harry Porter, a New Zealand veteran, stated that the Australians attacked Surafend. Only a few New Zealanders – ‘the harder cases, say half a dozen’ – took part. Gullett lays the blame squarely on the New Zealanders, who he says were the ‘chief actors’, supported by the Australians. The Report of the Court of Inquiry conducted in the 2nd LH Brigade amounts to little more than a denial of any involvement by the men of that brigade. One New Zealander thought that the ‘skilled organising suggested that some of the old hands were involved. But I know in my mind that the tried veterans who had battled so far for so long, would not have gone to this length. The killing was the work of some unblooded gang that had never been under fire. I feel as certain of this as if I’d seen the whole affair.’ The British Army rebuilt the village, and, in 1922, the governments of New Zealand and Australia reimbursed the British Army the sums of £858.11.5 and £515.2.9 respectively.
Citation: Surafend, the massacre, Palestine, 10 December 1918, Kinlock Account