Whiggery and Anzac

Can an illogical interpretation be good history?

This is an issue which arises regarding Mr Kelvin Crombie’s book, Gallipoli-The Road to Jerusalem, published by his Heritage Resources foundation (Perth 2014). The book itself and its accompanying promotional material maintain that Australia has a Covenant with Christ and a special relationship with the State of Israel in virtue of the blood shed by the men of the Australian Imperial Forces in the Dardanelles in 1915 and at Beersheba in Palestine in 1917. The claim is represented as an historical argument. How can we tell if it is or not?

Since the dawn of historical writing some arguments have been known to be formally wrong. Among these fallacies is one known to the Romans.  So we still know it in Latin as 'post hoc ergo propter hoc'. In English this means 'after the event therefore because of the event'. This cannot be right, because some apparent consequences are only coincidences. The problem is all in the 'therefore', in the consequence drawn. This post hoc causal fallacy as it has been called is a fallacy twice over, both on its own account and because it is as the Romans again knew a 'non sequitur’; it 'does not follow' from its premises.

In the English-speaking historical tradition the causal fallacy is associated with the historians of the proto-liberal progressive Whig aristocratic party, who were inclined to imply that with them British if not universal history had come to a final rest with oligarchical Whig constitutional arrangements. In 1931 the conservative Christian historian, Herbert Butterfield, pointed out that the Whig interpretation history embodied the causal fallacy and was anachronistic. He argued that any aspiring historian might fall into it regardless of politics.

Crombie essentially promotes religious preconceptions designed to politically harness the Anzac legend, so potent in Australia, to the Zionist chariot. But then comes his post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  In keeping with a Christian big-picture view of history, he presumes that the taking of Jerusalem in 1917 was the 'natural' consequence of the landing in the Dardanelles. He misquotes Churchill to imply that the provincial capital of Jerusalem, the centre of Crombie’s religious world view, was the heart of the Ottoman empire at which the Gallipoli landing was aimed. In fact the heart of that empire was Istanbul, and the strategic objective of the Allies was to knock Turkey out of the war and consolidate a subsidiary Eastern Front against the European Central Powers. He goes on to claim that because the Australian Light Horse was redeployed eastwards rather than to the Western Front with the bulk of the Anzacs, that his point is somehow proven.

The Light Horse did indeed form part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force which passed onto the offensive under the cavalry General Allenby. Allenby was under instruction from the Prime Minister Lloyd George to take Jerusalem as a morale boosting Christmas present for the British people, downcast by the hard grind of the Western Front in 1917, the low point of the Great War. In so doing the premier brought into greater play the Eastern Front at the expense of exclusive emphasis on the main strategic Western Front. But not even Lloyd George, for all that he was an 'Easterner', doubted that the Great War would be won in the West. The most Lloyd George hoped for was to knock Turkey out of the War by taking Jerusalem where the Dardanelles expedition had failed. Allenby carried out his instructions by opening the road to Jerusalem with a feint at Gaza and an assault upon the other end of the Ottoman line in Palestine at Beersheba, spectacularly completed by the famous charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse.

Crombie allows his religious politics to drive him into belittling Arab involvement in the Battle of Beersheba. He thus ignores Allenby’s own post-war appreciation of it and contemporary military assessment that the Arab Revolt centred in the holy Hejaz had drawn 20,000 Ottoman troops away from Allenby’s eastern flank. Indeed the account of the Battle of Beersheba given by Crombie fails to emphasise Arab involvement in the battle. Yet he acknowledges that a force of Hejazi Arab cameleers under a Lt. Col. Newcombe guarded the Beersheba-Hebron road to the north-east of the British flanking manoeuvre against the Arab settlement with its strategic water supply. Arabs made an important contribution to the British attack on Beersheba. Even more important in view of the bonds of war forged between erstwhile enemies, attested to after the war by no less a foe of the Anzacs than Ataturk, is the fact that the Ottoman defenders of Beersheba were largely Arab. The town was defended by the Ottoman III Army Corp, consisting of the 67th and 81st Regiments of the 27th Division. Most of these men were Arab.

Anachronism though has political uses, and it is these that Crombie’s fallacious and sub-historical arguments serve. Accordingly the foreword to this book is written by a former Governor General who likes to confound religious considerations, politics and military history. While Crombie’s historiography is substandard, the production values of his books argue to no lack of funds. And the author is well connected. A previous version of Crombie’s Christian Zionist argument has been delivered gratis to every vice-regal and parliamentary representative in the country in a cultural propaganda effort to win hearts and minds. Light Horse re-enactors have been trotted out to fly the Israeli flag to effect a godly union between Australia’s popular military traditions and the latter day policies of the State of Israel.

But arguments must do more than trifle with the past to be valid historical arguments, just as an archaeologist must do more than blindly dig. They must pass the test of logical evaluation of evidence before any political implications can be considered legitimate.

Dr David Faber, Adelaide, 6 January 2015.

[This article first appeared in Online Opinion.]