Surafend affair

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The Surafend affair (Arabic: مجزرة صرفند‎) was the premeditated massacre of many male inhabitants from the Arab village of Surafend (now the area of Tzrifin in Israel) and a Bedouin camp in Palestine by soldiers of the ANZAC Mounted Division on 10 December 1918.[1] The massacre, believed to have been in response to the murder of a New Zealand soldier by a villager, was mostly overshadowed by the military achievements of the division, although it caused a significant rift between the Division and its Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby.[2]


The village of Surafend (also known as Sarafand) was located nearby to the camps of the three brigades of the ANZAC Mounted Division: the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, and the Australian 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades. The proximity of the village, coupled with a perceived general British Army acceptance and dismissal of petty crime by the local Arabs, meant that thefts and even murders took place regularly with little to no redress from the Imperial forces. The reluctance of the British to punish or avenge such crimes led to a build-up of resentment among the division towards both the native Arabs and British General Headquarters.[3]

The massacre[edit]

In December 1918, a New Zealand soldier, 65779 Trooper Leslie Lowry, was woken from his sleep by an Arab man attempting to steal his bag which he was using as a pillow. The soldier pursued the thief and called for assistance from the picket guards on the camp's horselines. As he caught up, the thief turned and shot him with a revolver. 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. The camp was roused, and a group of New Zealand soldiers followed the footprints of the thief, which ended about a hundred yards before the village of Surafend.[1] Soldiers set up a cordon around the village, and ordered the sheikhs of the village to surrender the murderer, but they were evasive and denied any knowledge of the incident and its perpetrator. In addition, the death was brought to the attention of the staff of the division the following day, but by nightfall there had been no response on what action, if any, should be taken.[3] According to the police report, there was no evidence linking anyone from the village to the murder. The report states:

At 0930 on the 10th December 1918 the Police commenced to search the Village and found no trace whatsoever of the culprit, or even any other individual suspected of the crime. The only material clue was that of a Native Cap (similar to headgear worn by Bedouins) which was picked up by a mate of the deceased, and handed to me by Captain Cobb. This was found on the scene where the Soldier was shot and killed.[1]

The following day, the men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles prepared for what was to take place that night. Early in the evening, around two hundred soldiers entered the village, expelling the women and children.[2] Armed with heavy sticks and bayonets, the soldiers then set upon the remaining villagers whilst also burning the houses.[3] Somewhere upwards of about 40 people may have been killed in the attack on Surafend and the outlying Bedouin camp.[1] The casualty figures depend upon the testimony from the reporting authority. There is no certain figure and one account puts the figure at more than 100. There were also unknown numbers of injured villagers who were tended to by the field ambulance units.


The massacre at Surafend was both visible and audible to the nearby division headquarters, and the division's Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, was ordered by General Headquarters to find and discipline those who took part in the killings, in particular those who led and organised the attack. The New Zealanders stood firm in solidarity and refused to name any individual soldiers responsible, and thus no-one could be definitively charged and disciplined for the massacre.[3]

General Allenby ordered the division to the square at headquarters, where he expressed his fury at their actions in no uncertain terms and employed unexpectedly strong language, including calling them "cowards and murderers".[2][4] According to Gullett's Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, the division was fully expecting harsh military discipline for the massacre, and would have accepted this without resentment; however, Allenby's abusive outburst, although leaving them unpunished, fuelled a great amount of resentment and bitterness that their commanding officer would speak of the brigades in such a manner.[3] The feeling among the mounted division was only intensified by Allenby's silence towards them over the following year. It was only in June 1919 that Allenby was informed by an Australian journalist of the resentment in the division following his outburst, and he subsequently wrote a glowing tribute to the Australian Light Horse troops, bidding them farewell them and thanking them for their heroic work in Palestine and Syria.[5]

No one was charged for the massacre, but in 1921 Australia paid £515 to Britain, as compensation for the destruction of the village. New Zealand paid £858; and the British government paid to authorities in Palestine £686 due to a small number of Scottish soldiers who had participated.[2]

Australian involvement[edit]

At the time the destruction of Surafend was occurring, the YMCA was screening a movie which was watched by many men of the Anzac Mounted Division. On hearing reports about the fighting, the Anzac Mounted Division Headquarters ordered the division to "stand to" with an immediate roll call to be taken and every man's location accounted for at that moment. The result of this roll call was that the location of most Australians were accounted for. In addition to the rolls, police pickets surrounded the village, finding many Australians viewing the burning houses. These were ordered back to their units. No police report indicated the presence of Australian soldiers in the village.[1]

That being so, involvement of Australian soldiers in the massacre at Surafend had been assumed, but never proven. Historian Henry Gullett's volume of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 mentioned that New Zealand troops had conducted the massacre and the destruction of the village, but with the "hearty support" and "full sympathy" of the Australians.[3]

In 2009, journalist Paul Daley was researching a book, Beersheba, and discovered an audio recording in the archives of the Australian War Memorial which appeared to indicate that Australian soldiers were more involved than had been previously thought. In the recording, former Light Horseman Ted O'Brien described how he and his comrades had "had a good issue of rum" and "went through [the village] with a bayonet." O'Brien also described the actions he and his fellow soldiers had taken at Surafend as "ungodly" and "a real bad thing."[2] The O'Brien description appears to be contradicted by the police reports and sworn testimony taken within days after the event, making his participation appear more aspirational than literal. The testimony and police reports were transcribed and can be found at the Australian Light Horse Studies Centre Surafend, the massacre, Palestine, 10 December 1918


  1. ^ a b c d e "Surafend, the massacre, Palestine, 10 December 1918/". Australian Light Horse Studies Centre. Retrieved 2009-09-27.
  2. ^ a b c d e Elliott, Tim: Massacre that stained the Light Horse, The Age, 24 July 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Gullett, H.S. (1923). "XLV" (PDF). Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918: Volume VII – The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine: 1914 – 1918. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. p. [page needed]. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  4. ^ "ALLENBY AND THE ANZACS". Advocate (Burnie, Tas.: 1890–1954). Burnie, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 26 December 1919. p. 4. Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  5. ^ Hill, Alec Jeffrey (1978). Chauvel of the Light Horse: a biography of General Sir Harry Chauvel, G.C.M.G., K.C.B. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84146-5.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 31°57′31″N 34°50′20″E / 31.95861°N 34.83889°E / 31.95861; 34.83889