Correcting the History of Tel Aviv’s Century-old Conquest

Israeli researchers give New Zealand soldiers their due alongside Australians, others for Yarkon River battle

Ofer Aderet  SendSend me email alertsNov 17, 2017 4:46 AM  1comments    Zen Subscribe now  Shareshare on faceboo

The Headquarters of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles near Jaffa, 1917.
The Headquarters of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles near Jaffa, 1917.Australian War Memorial

Every morning on his way to work, Shmuel Giller passes Hill Square in north Tel Aviv. Atop a mound in the center of the square stands an old memorial column, obscured by vegetation, recalling a historic event that took place 100 years ago.

>> Subscribe for just $1 now

In December 1917, Scottish soldiers under the command of John Hill crossed the nearby Yarkon River as part of their battle to capture the land from the Turks during World War I.

A century later, very few local residents bother to climb the mound to read the writing on the column. Giller, an architect and researcher of the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, did so, but was disappointed by what he found.

The writing describes how, on the night of December 21, 1917, the Scottish soldiers crossed the Yarkon en route to their target, using pontoon bridges and rafts. But while the Scots undoubtedly deserve credit for their role in the fighting, Giller said, there’s no justification for excluding the New Zealanders who were the first to cross the Yarkon, a month before their slain colleagues.

The Hill Square memorial isn’t the only place where the Wellington Mounted Rifles’ role in capturing the city is overlooked. Several books on the history of Tel Aviv also state that Hill’s soldiers were the first to enter the city, completely ignoring the New Zealanders who preceded them.

Eran Tirosh, chairman of the Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel, thinks this is first and foremost the fault of the New Zealanders themselves, for not preserving the memory of their exploits in the Holy Land the way their colleagues, especially the Australians, did.

“The fact that they weren’t properly memorialized is more than a little their own fault,” he said. “Only now, after 100 years, have they started to wake up.”

Tirosh himself played a role in this belated awakening. “I nagged them horribly,” he said. About a year ago, he also conducted a tour of key World War I battlefields in Israel for a delegation from New Zealand and “told them about their glorious battles.”

The New Zealanders’ role in capturing the land from the Turks began on October 31, when they participated in the conquest of Be’er Sheva. Two weeks later, they captured the area around Rehovot, Nes Tziona and Rishon Letzion in the battle of Ayun Kara. On November 16 they entered Jaffa mounted on horseback.

“They were happy to see the oranges and got drunk on the wine from nearby Sharona,” Tirosh said.

But one battle weighed on this success, and is largely responsible for the fact that 100 years later, Tel Aviv no longer remembers the New Zealanders’ heroism. On November 24, they were ordered to cross from the south to the north bank of the Yarkon and harass the Turks.

“They galloped toward the river and crossed it successfully, thereby exceeding expectations,” Tirosh said, and in what he termed a “brilliant” maneuver got as far as Sheikh Munis, today the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv.

But their victory was only temporary. The next day the Turks repulsed the New Zealanders, turning the first day’s success into a painful defeat. The battle produced “many tales of heroism and more than a few casualties,” Tirosh said.

Giller, who was impressed by the story of the New Zealanders’ heroism, feels they have been done an injustice.

“In the current celebrations in Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem and other places,” he said, “other soldiers get mentioned, especially the Australians. But the New Zealanders, who bled when they crossed the Yarkon, have been completely forgotten.”

“I love the Australians with all my soul,” added Tirosh, “but you also have to be fair and say that despite the noise they’ve been making here in recent days, they weren’t more than 10 to 15 percent of Allenby’s army,” referring to conquering British Field Marshal Edmund Allenby.

Giller recently contacted the distant island nation and managed to locate an authentic historical relic from 100 years ago. In the archives of Wellington College, located in the New Zealand capital Wellington, he found the flag the New Zealanders flew in Jaffa after the capture of Jerusalem. They were commanded by Lt. Col. Charles Powles, who returned to New Zealand after World War I with several medals and published a book detailing the history of his soldiers in the Holy Land.

Giller has done extensive research on Powles, which is how he also discovered a forgotten heroine from New Zealand. Powles’ horse, Bess, was the only warhorse from New Zealand to return home after the war. After she died, in 1934, Powles buried her in a coffin and put a headstone on her grave, which became a pilgrimage site to honor the bravery of New Zealand’s warhorses.

A few weeks ago, a package arrived at Giller’s office, located near the site where the New Zealanders crossed the Yarkon. When he opened it, he found the flag, sent to him by his new friends across the ocean. The huge flag, which was almost falling apart, was sent to a preservation laboratory. It will be displayed next month at an exhibition at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum titled “A General and Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem.”

Earlier, on November 15, Giller and Tirosh related the New Zealanders’ role in conquering Jaffa and Tel Aviv during an event at Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall marking the 100th anniversary of the first crossing of the Yarkon. They hope they have thereby corrected a small, local, forgotten historical injustice and restored due honor to the New Zealand cavalrymen and horses that were the first to cross the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv.

Ofer Aderet

Ofer Aderet

Haaretz Correspondent