Top brass ... headquarters staff of the Desert Mounted Corps on the steps of Lazar Slutzkin’s house in Rehovot where they were based. General Sir Henry Chauvel is on the front row, second from the left.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I this year, we highlight and pay tribute to the dramatic role of the ANZACs – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – in the conquest of Eretz Israel from the Turks in 1917.
The following is a short account of a charming, short period during the War.
On the morning of November 14, 1917, the mounted forces of the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade entered "New Deiran", the Jewish colony of Rehovot and freed it from the yoke of the Turks. Two days later, Australian General Sir Henry (Harry) Chauvel, Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, set up his headquarters at the residence of Elazar Slutzkin, formerly of Melbourne, remaining in Rehovot until the end of April 1918. It was the longest period the headquarters would stay in any one place during the entire Sinai and Palestine campaign.
The little that has been written in Hebrew about those five months in Rehovot is based primarily on local sources. This article compares these sources with personal and official sources of the ANZAC forces, in an attempt to verify or refute accounts of the events, and to give faces and names to the anonymous people who took part in them.
The soldiers who first saw Rehovot from the village of Zarnuqa were struck by the stone houses, red tiled roofs, gardens, oranges, western way of life and hospitality, all differentiating Rehovot from the villages they had passed through until then, and all reminding them of home.
Children playing today on the labyrinth outside the renovated Town Hall in Rehovot, with the two commemorative olive tree in memory of the events of World War One at the site
Two Australian Light Horse soldiers were killed near the winepress while taking Rehovot and were buried in the Jewish cemetery, to be transferred later to the British Military Cemetery in Ramle. One of the soldiers, 3299 Trooper Noble George, has been identified and a wreath was laid on his grave for the first time. The identity of the second soldier is a mystery waiting to be solved.
A local story about the olive tree planted by General Chauvel on Arbor Day, January 27, 1918 was based on a single testimony given by Amihud Nachmani, and became something of a local legend. Evidence verifying the story comes from Chauvel's biography and from Lady Chauvel's travel diary. General Chauvel did indeed return at the end of the war, on February 25, 1919, to visit the tree he had planted.
Author Rachelly Rogel with the granddaughter of General Sir Henry Chauvel
On April 3, 1918, a national gathering for the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as the Eretz-Israel Battalion, was held at the Town Hall. More than 1,000 volunteers came to Rehovot, whose population at the time was only 1,194. Research by the author has tracked down over 40 volunteers from Rehovot who enlisted in the battalion.
The heritage of World War One in Rehovot today
The mosque of Zarnuqa, Sheikh Muhammad, is listed for preservation as open public ground. The façade of the winepress which was home to the D Field Troop Engineers, Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, for three and a half months, has been partially conserved. General Chauvel's headquarters is listed as an historic building, and conservation was carried out on the interior in the year 2000.
Rachelly Rogel with visitors to the Rehovot winepress
The Town Hall courtyard was renovated in 2003 and commemorative olive trees were planted These can be seen together with a 'labyrinth' installation recording the events of World War I at the site. In 2010 conservation work was carried out on the final resting place of Colonel Eliezer Margolin, commander of the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and the First Judean Battalion.
The current research reveals the importance of Rehovot during the First World War, focusing public attention on the role played by the moshava at the time and paving the way for a number of conservation activities.
The article was translated from the Hebrew by Debi Manor. The full article is available in “WWI in Palestine: The Battles In the Foothills of Jerusalem”, published by The Society for the Heritage of WWI in Israel.
Naftali Moser assisted in bringing this article to press. Australian born, Naftali has been living and working in Israel since 1974, and lives near Rehovot.