The Surafend Massacre

ANZAC day is a day to remember the fallen, a day to recall the horrors of war, a day to reflect on its impact on combatants and non-combatants alike. On this ANZAC day Dr. Carl Bradley – Research Officer at Massey University and member of Wellington Palestine – reflects on the impact of World War One on the Palestinian people; and, in particular, on a less then glorious moment in New Zealand military history. The views expressed here are his own.

In December 1918 New Zealand soldiers were involved in a massacre of Palestinian Arabs. The “impressive record” of New Zealand troops in the Sinai/Palestine theatre in World War 1 was marred by an incident where soldiers attacked and killed approximately 40 local Arabs and burned down their village and a nearby Bedouin camp.[1]  Many New Zealanders fought in Gallipoli and on the Western Front, however campaigns were also conducted in Palestine involving members of the NZ Mounted Rifles companies. New Zealand forces were involved in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant after suffering a major defeat on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. The Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury Mounted Rifles made up part of the Australasian Mounted Rifles division that was part of the allied force tasked with the protection of the Suez Canal and Egypt against potential attacks from the Ottoman Turkish forces in the area.[2] The Ottoman Turks had joined Germany during the First World War (war between Britain and Turkey began on 30th Oct 1914[3]) and were defending the territorial integrity of its Empire. What makes the Surafend [4] massacre ironic is that Arab and Bedouins fought alongside allied forces in their motivation to gain independence from the Ottoman Turks, particularly at Homs and Aleppo in 1917.[5]

However, despite Kiwi and Arabs fighting together there was evidence of “inherent racism towards Arabs” by New Zealand soldiers during the campaign and this attitude has been linked to the massacre in 1918.[6] After alleged acts of thievery by Arabs and abusive and drunken behaviour by Kiwi and Aussie soldiers, events boiled over when a New Zealand soldier was killed by an Arab male.[7] Increasing tension between locals and allied soldiers was not helped by a general feeling of apathy towards the local people and possible antagonism towards the occupying force from the Arab population. With little sign from the military authorities to address the killing of a New Zealand soldier, members of the NZ Mounted Rifles, and some Australian and Scottish supporters, decided to breach all rules of military conduct and take the law into their own hands.[8] After locating the village of the alleged murderer, the soldiers separated the elderly, women and children from the men and proceeded to beat and kill 40 Arab men; these killings were followed by the burning of houses at a nearby encampment.[9] From a historical perspective, while the killed Kiwi soldier is named in most of the accounts of the Surafend massacre, none of the sources referred to list the names of the Palestinian Arabs murdered.

There is no doubt that Kiwi soldiers instigated and were responsible for this massacre. However, despite several courts of enquiry, no one was ever tried for the crimes committed the night of 11 December 1918.[10] General Allenby, commander of allied forces in Palestine, personally paraded the Anzac Mounted division. Ignoring the salute of Commanding Officer Chaytor he gave the NZ troops a dressing down stating; “I was proud to command you, but now I’ll have no more to do with you. You are cowards and murderers”.[11] Some New Zealanders felt that this action was unfair as it addressed and criticized the whole division for the actions of a few, but there are some who feel that to stand by while others commit atrocities can imply complicity. One historian has stated that Surafend “cannot be explained away as an over-reaction by stressed combatants caught up in the heat of battle”. The raid was carefully planned and ruthlessly carried out by men who knew that the war was over, and the victims presented no threat to them. He argued that the only conclusion possible was that the purpose of the raid “was to kill as many Arab men as possible.”[12] Any attack on civilians is unacceptable on every level. The British Army rebuilt the village of Surafend and billed both the NZ and Australian Governments. Despite these later moves to address the destruction of Surafend, tensions between Kiwi soldiers and Palestinian Arabs meant that NZ soldiers remained armed after the armistice of 1918 for fear of reprisals. There was, however, no aggression reported against the NZ soldiers. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1 would have long lasting implications for the region in general and the Palestinian people in particular with the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.

Aida and Carl lay a wreath, on behalf of Wellington Palestine, to commemorate the victims of the Surafend Massacre. (Citizens’ Wreath-laying Service at the Cenotaph on ANZAC Day 2018 | Wreath crafted by Peace Action Wellington).


[1] G. Harper, (2015). Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-1918. Exisle. p.483.

[2] I. C. McGibbon, & P. Goldstone, (eds.). (2000). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 338. Hereafter OCNZMH.

[3] OCNZMH, p. 338.

[4] Surafend is near Tzrifin in modern day Israel.

[5] OCNZMH, p. 494.

[6] Harper, Johnny Enzed. p. 531.

[7] Harper, Johnny Enzed . p. 531. OCNZMH, p. 494. A. Briscoe Moore, The Mounted Riflemen in Sinai and Palestine: The Story of New Zealand’s Crusaders. Whitcombe and Tombs, Limited, Auckland, 1920, p. 169.

[8] Briscoe Moore, The Mounted Riflemen. p. 170. Briscoe’s writings on the campaign in Sinai and Palestine often sadly reflect the racist attitudes of the day.

[9] Harper, Johnny Enzed. p. 483. T. Kinloch, Devils Horsemen: In the Words of the Anzacs in the Middle east 1916-19. Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2007, p.331. Briscoe Moore, The Mounted Riflemen. p. 170.

[10] Harper, Johnny Enzed. p. 532. Kinloch, Devils Horsemen, p. 332.

[11] Harper, Johnny Enzed. p. 534. Kinloch, Devils Horsemen, p. 332. Briscoe Moore states Allenby as saying “Once I was proud of you-I am proud of you no longer”. p. 171.

[12] Kinloch, Devils Horsemen. p. 333.

Feature image | The New Zealand Mounted Rifles marching through Cairo (Australian War Memorial)

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