Think Piece – A Century of Australian Military Service in the Middle East

Chris Burns_3_compressedJust before Christmas 100 years ago the Anzacs had been successfully evacuated from the Gallipoli Peninsula. While the infantry headed to France, the Light Horse set off to liberate Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. And so began a century of almost continuous Australian military service in the Middle East.

After the Turks sued for peace in 1918 the Light Horsemen returned to Australia. Australian troops returned to the Middle East in 1940 to participate in the siege of Tobruk, the battle of El Alamein and the defeat of the Vichy French forces in Syria.

Australian forces next deployed to the Middle East in 1956 as military observers with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). Established in 1948, UNTSO was the United Nation’s (UN) first peacekeeping mission.

As its longest such operation, UNTSO has remained in the Middle East to monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the region.

Australia has provided 12 Military Observers to the mission on a continuous basis since 1956. A little over 600 of our veterans have served in UNTSO during Australia’s 60 year commitment to the mission.

I had the great honour of attending the 74th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings at Anzac Cove while I served on a 12 month secondment to UNTSO. It was a sobering experience to be on that hallowed soil to commemorate the bravery of our Anzacs.

Unlike the Anzacs in the Middle East during World Wars One and Two, Australian military observers seconded to UNTSO deploy as individuals, not part of a formed body of troops. They are unarmed and are deployed throughout the Middle East to conduct a wide variety of peacekeeping tasks, often at very short notice.

In my case, I served on the Golan Heights overseeing the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. This included conducting vehicle patrols through the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. I was seconded as the only Australian in a nine man team that was sent to Tehran to establish the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq. This was followed by six months as the only Australian in a four man team established in Gaza to observe the first Palestinian uprising or ‘Intifada’.

It was during a patrol in Gaza that I was approached by a Palestinian who presented me with a rising sun badge that had clearly seen better days. He told me his grandfather had spoken fondly of the Australians who wore feathers in their hats but liberated their land in the Christmas of 1917. He said that his grandfather always reflected that the Australians were kind and generous warriors who only had one problem – ‘they drank too much’!

As we commemorate 100 years of Anzac it is worth remembering the service provided and impact Australian military personnel have had on the Middle East over the last century.


 

Chris served in the Australian Army for 32 years. He concluded his full time service at the rank of Colonel as the Defence Attaché in the Australian Embassy Manila. He subsequently worked as a consultant in defence and international relations. Following this, he worked for the South Australian Government as a defence and defence industry adviser. He was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of the Defence Teaming Centre in May 2010. The Defence Teaming Centre is a not-for-profit, incorporated industry association that represents the interests of over 200 companies in South Australia’s defence industry. Chris is a member of the State Government’s Veterans Advisory Council and is the Presiding Member of its Veterans Health Advisory Council.