A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Birth of ANZAC: "Birdy" Birdwood is Ordered to Egypt, December 1914

So many World War I in the Middle East anniversaries are clustered in December and January that I'm going to have to do some of them a day early or late; this marks the centennial of something that happened on December 12, but I don't want to clump too many WWI posts together, and I need to deal tomorrow with an event that happened 100 years ago from the coming weekend.

William Riddell Birdwood, later General Sir William Birdwood, later still Field Marshal the 1st Baron Birdwood of Anzac and of Totnes, with a string of letters after his name, may be little known in this hemisphere, but for most of the past century, Lord Birdwood has been well-remembered Down Under by a shorter name; Birdy. There is a whole subcategory of folklore devoted to "Birdy" and his rapport with the men under his command, much of it centered around his moving among the men without his rank insignia, and echoing Shakespeare's Henry V before Agincourt in being mistaken for a common soldier.

Birdwood at dugout, Anzac Cove, Gallipoli
It may be mythology, but the men he commanded have earned  mythical status all their own. For Birdwood would combine a number of Australian and New Zealand Imperial Forces into a combined corps, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Birdwood was the first commander of the legendary ANZACs. Although he had already been informed in November 1914 (at which time he was Secretary of the Indian Army Department) that this would be his assignment, he received his promotion to temporary Lieutenant General rank and his formal order sto Egypt on December 12, 1914. He arrived in Egypt on December 21.

Once the Ottoman Empire entered the war, the Imperial troops originally scheduled for the European front had been redirected to the Middle Eastern war. The Australian, New Zealand, and Indian troops were already being trained in Egypt, the British having felt it was better to train them there than in a British winter on the Salisbury plain. Now they were repurposed for the defense of Egypt, and would become famous for their sacrifices at Gallipoli and their daring during the Palestine campaign.

Birdwood was not himself from Australia or New Zealand. He was born in India, son of a British member of the Indian civil service and later judge. Both his parents were also Indian-born. Birdwood attended Sandhurst and served in the British Army in India, and in the Second Boer War. He became attached to the staff of Lord Kitchener, and when Kitchener was sent to India, he followed, soon becoming Kitchener's Military Secretary, and thereafter rose through the Indian military.

Kitchener of course served in Egypt thereafter, until being named to the War Office in the summer of 1914. When the defense of Egypt became an issue, he turned to Birdwood to forge a corps from the "Imperial" (colonial) forces.

In a bush hat on a visit to Australia
As the ANZACs' fame and reputation grew, Australians and New Zealanders would form their own national identities separate from Great Britain, in part at least due to the nightmare of Gallipoli, in which they were the sacrificial lambs slaughtered through the incompetence of the British (or as they are known Down Under, "Pommy bastards") generals. But the resentment of British generals did not extend to "Birdy"; he was one of their own in a way, a colonial born in India of Indian-born parents. And he was loyal to them. The photo at right shows Birdwood on a later visit to Australia, wearing the typical Aussie bush hat or slouch hat.

Of the British generals in the Middle East campaigns in the Great War, probably only Allenby surpasses Birdwood, though in the southern hemisphere, "Birdy" may have the advantage. Allenby won more battles, but Birdwood became a legend among his men even in the defeat at Gallipoli.

No comments: