Australians in the Middle East - musings on a complex relationship
In December 1942, shortly before the last Australian soldiers finished their time in the Middle East, a private who had served through tough campaigns in Libya and Egypt wrote home: 'Am just about sick of the Middle East and the dirty wogs not forgetting the robbing Jews. I know where these dirty robbing b____ would have been only for the New Zealanders and Australians'. His notion that the inhabitants of the Middle East were ignorant and unworthy of the protection that British Commonwealth forces had given them was a common one. A prominent part of this worldview was apparent when another Australian who had just visited Cairo's bazaars and brothels nominated the latter one of the lowest places on earth and declared 'proves just how fortunate we are to be British'.
There are many more quotations that reflect attitudes that are now considered shockingly racist. Yet Australian attitudes to the local people of the Middle East were complex and, in many cases, included considerable compassion. For example, Eric Lambert, an Australian machine-gunner who would after the war become a respected novelist, wrote in late 1941, 'A Gypo kid begged food I had to give. There was all his soul in that begging'. One of the battalion histories said of a time in 1942 when the 9th Australian Division was in Syria: 'How they loved to visit us from whatever village we happened to be near, all these bright little Arab children and, though we were strong rough he-men, who would not have admitted how we loved all of those kids'.
Dr Mark Johnston, Scotch College, Melbourne.
Author of Anzacs in the Middle East: Australian soldiers, their allies and the local people in the Middle East in World War II, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 2013.
All photos from Mark Johnston's collection.