Research in Focus: Rewriting the History of the Great Arab Revolt

Australian Military Historian Neil Dearberg in the ACOR Library in 2015. Photo S. Harpending

A captain in the Australian army at the beginning of his career, Neil Dearberg has had a long interest in Australia’s military history, particularly the role ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) forces played in supporting the Sinai and Palestine campaigns of the First World War. In 2010, his interest led him to volunteer with the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), during which he helped excavate military positions along the route of the Hejaz Railway south of Ma‘an.

Troopers of the Australian Light Horse mounted on their 'Waler' horse, brought from Australia. These amazing horses in operations could carry up to 500lb and go without water for 40-60 hours.
Troopers of the Australian Light Horse Regiment mounted on “Waler” horses, brought from Australia to participate in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns. These amazing horses could carry up to 500 lbs and go without water for 40–60 hours.

After his GARP experience, Neil wanted to learn even more about the ANZAC troops who had campaigned in Palestine and Transjordan during World War I, an aspect of ANZAC history that is often overlooked by Australian media and the public. To help tell this story, Neil has been working extensively in the ACOR Library to research a new book that will shed light on this little known aspect of ANZAC history in the Middle East. Since 2008, Neil has made nearly a dozen trips to Jordan, always choosing to stay in ACOR’s hostel so he has ready access to the Library. His most recent visit has allowed for three months of intensive research.

Company of Australians of the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC)
Company of Australians of the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) “on parade” during the Palestine campaign. ANZACs made up 12 of the 18 companies of the ICC.

To conduct research for his book (tentatively titled “Desert ANZACS: The Undertold Story of the Sinai Palestine Campaign 1916–1918”), Neil has become a fixture in the ACOR Library, studying its extensive resources on the period of the First World War and the Great Arab Revolt. In particular, Neil is hoping his research will reveal a more critical and historically accurate portrait of British and ANZAC involvement in the Revolt.

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Wounded New Zealanders sitting on camel ambulances, the dreaded 'cacolets'. Many wounded preferred to walk until they dropped.
Wounded New Zealanders sitting on camel ambulances that were used by ANZAC forces during the Sinai and Palestine campaigns.

Wary of the mythology surrounding Lawrence of Arabia that was created by American showman Lowell Thomas, Neil has found through his research that many of Lawrence’s countrymen and compatriots were of equal or perhaps greater importance than Lawrence himself. Similarly, there were several Arab officers as well as local tribal sheikhs who proved critical to the success of the Revolt and the campaign.

Only time will tell if Neil’s book will inspire an epic film about the ANZAC role in Transjordan and the Great Arab Revolt. But the ANZAC story, set amid the conflagration that ultimately brought about modern Jordan and the Middle East, certainly gives occasion to reflect on Jordan’s early history in light of the turmoil that now surrounds its borders.

All images in this article are sourced from the Australian War Memorial unless otherwise indicated. 

Written by Sarah Harpending

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