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With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia: the history of a unit history.

Late in 1927 there appeared an addition to the steadily growing list of Australian army unit histories of the Great War, called With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia: The Story of Anzacs in Asia. Despite its almost playful title, the work was reviewed earnestly and very favourably. F.M. Cutlack, author of The Australian Flying Corps volume of the Official History, himself 'a fine soldier', journalist, and former assistant to the official historian, C.E.W. Bean, (1) wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that
 The editor of "With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia (the Story of
 the Anzacs in Asia)" has just published one of the finest memorial
 unit histories of the war which Australians have yet produced. (2)


A.M. Pooley in the Sydney Evening News went even further: 'It is no disparagement of other war books to say that this is the best war history that I have seen from any country'. (3) The unnamed reviewer in The Argus pointed enthusiastically to the book's potentially wide market, noting that it 'is so packed with narratives, diaries, and photographs that it is entitled to rank as a war book with an appeal to the general public'. (4)

So atypical was it of the standard unit history monographs being produced at the time that Pooley's review labels it a 'memory book'--aligning it with the so-called 'soldiers' books' made up of edited collections of contributions from service personnel themselves: articles, poems, anecdotes and illustrations, often augmented with more official material such as photographs and maps. In the Australian context the best known of these were The Anzac Book (1916) and Australia in Palestine (1919); significantly the look and feel of Horse and Morse even closely resembles these two books rather than the usual 'octavo' format of most unit histories. (5)

Nevertheless, Horse and Morse is a unit history or, more accurately, a compendium of various units' histories. Principally it is a record of the service of the various Australian and New Zealand signals units sent out to Mesopotamia (Iraq) from 1916 to support British and Indian units fighting the Turks in that region. In the book's own terms these were the Australian Pack Troop, the New Zealand Pack Troop, the Australian Wireless Squadron, and the Cavalry Divisional Signals Squadron. Officially these units went under a bewildering variety of titles, especially as they evolved and metamorphosed over time. Broadly speaking, however, the separate Australian and New Zealand Pack Wireless Signal Troops, raised in 1915, were absorbed into the expanded 1st (Australian and New Zealand) Wireless Signal Squadron in mid-1916, which in turn became 1st Australian Wireless Signal Squadron in mid-1918 when the NZ personnel were replaced by those of the disbanded Australian Cavalry Divisional Signal Squadron, which had been raised in early 1917 to support the Indian Cavalry Division. (6) In addition, Horse and Morse devotes chapters to the Australians in Dunsterforce, the expedition made up of British and Dominion volunteers sent to Persia (Iran) in 1918; to the Australian Nurses in India, 1916-1919; and to D Troop of the Signals Squadron, which remained behind after the Armistice and took part in the campaign into Kurdistan in 1919, (7) 'the last complete Australian unit that saw active service'. (8) These latter units were included because of their relevance to the general theatre of war being dealt with, and because up to that time there hadn't been any official coverage of their service. (9)

The publicity leaflet announcing 'The Wireless Book is Out!', produced with the imprimaturs of the chairman of the unit committee and the editor, summarises Horse and Morse's varied content well. (10) Besides the 'hundred and fifty pages of absorbing print', there are 'sixty or seventy pages' of pictures 'containing nearly two hundred photographs'; 'almost a hundred' pen sketches of 'souvenirs, maps, menus, badges'; chapters on all the units and locations in which they served; 'twenty-seven pages of humorous and descriptive contributions'; 'a schedule showing where every station was on every day of the campaign'; a 'glossary of Eastern and colloquial expressions'; and importantly, 'nominal roils of all Australians and N.Z.'s who served in the Middle East', including that of the 1st Half-Flight, AFC which, although its exploits are not dealt with in the book (having been covered already in Cutlack's vol. 8 of the Official History (11)), was included in the interests of comprehensiveness.

All of this adds up to a unique and valuable unit history, but what is equally remarkable is that the material came together in the first place. There was, after all, a powerful mix of factors and circumstances militating against the project's success: the small size and diversity of the units represented; the obscurity of the campaign, a 'little known side-line of the war'; (12) and a cohort of ex-service personnel scattered across the country under a unit association run by at least two, not particularly cooperative, committees. Many other far less decentralised associations floundered in their quests to produce unit histories, even when only having to deal with members in one or two states. Yet, as Cutlack's and Pooley's reviews recognise and the editorial committee's publicity leaflet admits, after seven years' work Horse and Morse at last saw the light of day. What the documents held in the War Memorial archives reveal is that it managed to do so because of two key players: its editor, Keast Burke, who was doubly blessed with the right skills for the job and a profound love of his subject matter; and no less a figure than the official historian, Charles Bean, whose timely intervention, devotedness to the cause of memorialising Australia's part in the Great War, and preparedness to flex some influential 'muscle', ensured that the efforts of the 'Mespot' units association would reach fruition.

Eric Keast Burke (1896-1974) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, but came to live in Sydney when his parents emigrated to Australia in 1904. In the early stages of the First World War he was a student at the University of Sydney, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Economics in 1922. He joined the Signal Corps section of the Sydney University Scouts regiment, Australian Military Forces, and served a year in this unit before enlisting in the AIF in February 1917. As 20555 Sapper E.K. Burke he was posted to D Troop of the Wireless Signal Squadron--made up of 'light motor wireless sections' (13)--which embarked for the Middle East in December 1917. He served with the squadron up to the armistice, and as one of the late reinforcements and an unmarried man, was kept behind with D Troop when it went to Kurdistan. (14) He eventually returned to Australia on HMAT Medic in December 1919 and was discharged in January 1920. (15)

As tragic as the Great War was for the majority of its participants, there is little doubt that for Keast Burke it delivered on its promise of the 'great adventure' that had inspired so many young men to enlist. While overseas he documented his experiences with rather more assiduity and astuteness than the usual 'five bob a day tourist', carrying on the tradition of those 19th century soldiers who, while serving in various colonial wars, took the opportunity to play the amateur anthropologist or ethnographer. Burke had both the qualifications and the talents for such a role, which went beyond his obvious intellectual achievements and university education. He was also a very capable draughtsman, and many of his pen sketches (along with those from other contributors and sources) adorn the pages of Horse and Morse, depicting contemporary and historical buildings, local people, artefacts, flora and fauna, and other sights encountered along the way. He also had the foresight to collect and conserve everyday ephemera during his time overseas: menus of unit dinners; tram, train and theatre tickets from Bombay, Baghdad and elsewhere; records of graffiti in various languages; copies of orders, forms and proclamations. Many of these original items can still be seen among the folders of the Keast Burke file in the Australian War Memorial, (16) and their facsimiles are scattered throughout Horse and Morse, intended no doubt to stimulate the memories of returned personnel, but which for the general reader evoke an equally strong sense of time and place as experienced by those who served.

Burke's chief ability and interest lay in photography, however, and the war provided him with ample opportunity to employ the medium. While Burke was still serving overseas, a veteran of Mesopotamia, G.R. Watts, (17) sent Bean a couple of letters urging that an account of the campaign be included in the forthcoming official histories. Watts wrote helpfully (if none too grammatically): 'I shall be only too pleased to forward any information you require also my photos', adding the cryptic rider, 'Photography was encouraged on that front (on account of the postwar settlement presumably).' (18) Whatever the reasons behind it, the absence of the usual military restrictions on private photography was taken full advantage of by Burke. His fascination with photography was obviously inherited from his father Walter, a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and editor of the Kodak-published Australasian Photo-Review. In fact, after the war Keast became the magazine's associate editor, and in 1946 its editor until its demise in 1956. He then became Kodak (Australasia)'s advertising manager, and all his life was involved in many aspects of photography and photojournalism. (19)

Armed with 'two small Kodaks--a Vest Pocket and a No.1 Special', and developing the film 'in all sorts of out-of-the-way spots, under Active Service conditions', (20) Burke took a huge number of photographs spanning his service from the training camp at Moore Park, Sydney, to D Troop's embarkation in Bombay for home. Immediately upon his return he undertook a couple of tasks that probably tipped the balance in favour of his eventual appointment as editor of Horse and Morse. The first was to put together an illustrated article for his father's magazine, a copy of which Walter wasted no time in sending to Bean, recommending it as 'of interest to you as a historian of Australians' work in the field'. (21) This had the effect not only of introducing Keast Burke to Bean, but of acquainting him with the quality of the young man's work; Bean wrote soon after to Charles Barrett--who laboured under the pretentious title of Literary Organiser of Unit Histories--about 'an article containing some excellent photos of the Wireless unit in Mesopotamia' which 'will be of much interest' in the compilation of a history of the campaign. (22) A few years later Burke referred in a letter to 'the negatives which the War Museum [sic] purchased from me on my return' (23)--'some 2000 photographs', according to a later source. (24) Whether or not the purchase was a direct consequence of Waiter's letter and Bean's subsequent recommendation is unknown.

Burke's other course of action reveals the extent to which his experiences in Mesopotamia had affected him and, in hindsight, points in the direction his particular vision for the unit history would take. Burke compiled a 'travelog' (sic) called 'Mesopotamia--An Ancient Land in Modern Hands' in the form of a lantern-slide show using his own photographs and observations. Extant promotional leaflets show that it was presented at least twice in 1920, on 23 July and 14 September, and that it consisted of a mix of the war experiences of the Anzac wireless units interspersed with more general sights and impressions of Iraq. While the July showing was given under the patronage and in the presence of the then Governor of NSW, the September effort was under that of Maj. C.W.C. Marl M.C., M.P., former C.O. of the Wireless Signal Squadron and subsequently chairman of the Mesopotamia units committee. Significantly, proceeds for this show were to go 'to a fund for the publication of a Memorial History of the work of the A.I.F. Units in Mesopotamia.' (25)

Two years later, again under vice-regal patronage but now titled simply 'Mesopotamia', the presentation's emphasis seems to have shifted away from the war service of the wireless units towards a more purely ethnographic and historical view of the region. Under the heading 'It Fires Your Imagination', the publicity poster tempts its audience with an orientalist smorgasbord of 'Ruined Cities', 'Ancient Kingdoms', 'Mighty Rivers', 'Domes. Mosques. Minarets', 'The Magic Carpet', 'Arabian Nights', 'Harems', and other markers of the 'mysterious east'. (26) Although the names of Townshend, General Maude and Kut-el-Amara rate a mention, no longer does the 1922 show mention views of the camps, wireless stations, arrivals and embarkations of the Australian units serving there, all of which formed part of the program of the 1920 presentations. Also in 1922, Burke had an article published in the April issue of National Geographic magazine, titled 'Modern Scenes in Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization', (27) illustrated with his own photographs, the whole almost certainly based on the material he was using for his public presentations. Quite obviously, he was emerging as yet another of those many ex-servicemen, of which T.E. Lawrence was only their most prominent spokesman, who had developed a deep and abiding fascination with the Middle East and aspects of Arab culture. This would help to explain why a work ostensibly recounting the operations of military units in that theatre should also include a chapter updating 'Travel in Iraq and Persia' (contributed by a Major Sanford-Morgan), not to mention the scores of photos, illustrations, personal notes and observations of a more broadly historical, geographical and anthropological nature.

Whatever the final form such a work might have taken, it's fair to say that With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia may never have been published at all if not for the direct and decisive intervention of the official war historian himself, Charles Bean. The relevant files from the extensive Bean papers held in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, reveal just how comprehensive his involvement in the project eventually became. (28) The chief source of information, AWM file 184 [87], contains over 170 documents dealing with the production of Horse and Morse over the period 1919 to 1932, including correspondence between Bean and Lt Gen. C.B.B. White, Brig. Stanley Savige, Maj. Marr, Keast Burke, Charles Barrett and many others. These and other items such as the nominal rolls he managed to have compiled and fastidiously checked are indicative of Bean's efforts in seeing Horse and Morse through to publication. At some stages he was even compelled to act as an intermediary between the Sydney and Melbourne committees of the Mesopotamian Units Association (MUA), and he seems to have worked tirelessly not only in facilitating the impetus of the project, but also in connecting the eventual network of contributors and in ensuring the accuracy and inclusivity of their contributions. While it's not the object of this article to document every single instance of Bean's involvement, the case can be made very adequately through citing some of the more significant contributions he made both to the book's content and to ensuring its completion. (29)

To some extent Bean himself may be credited with actually getting the unit history underway. Back in 1920 E.R. Farquharson, secretary of the MUA, enquired of the Secretary of Defence as to what the official historian had at his disposal in order to give an account of the campaign and, as Watts did to Bean the previous year, offered material assistance. On 7 March Bean wrote in reply, stressing that the official history will 'lack the detail that they deserve':
 For that reason I would suggest that, as well as the short account
 of your work which will appear in the Official History you should
 publish a "Unit History" of the forces comprised in your
 association.


He added that such a work must 'pay for itself ultimately by its circulation amongst your members', but added helpfully that the government had a funding scheme for kick-starting these projects. It must have taken a while for the MUA to get its act together, but at last in August 1921 it applied for and duly received an advance of 60 [pounds sterling] (the standard amount advanced to unit associations (30)) from the Anzac Book Fund, of which Bean was a trustee.

For the next couple of years there appears to have been a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing of ideas and opinions between the Sydney and Melbourne committees of the MUA, with suggestions from each about how the task of writing various chapters should be divided up. On 14 January 1924 Barrett wrote to Farquharson asking when 'the history of the Mesopotamian Units is likely to be published', as the former needed to report to the trustees on associations in receipt of advances but which had not yet produced unit histories. There seems to have been no satisfactory reply, but in August that year Base Records informed Barrett that a nominal roll had been sent to Burke in his capacity as editor, an appointment apparently made by the MUA sometime between 1921 and 1924. While it can be assumed that Burke was hard at work gathering material, to outsiders it must have appeared, as Bean's letter of 28 January 1926 to the Dept of Defence reveals, that 'nothing further has been done by the unit'. Bean therefore resolved to contact Marr, the MUA chairman and 'now a minister' himself, 'to bring pressure on the association ... in order to have this history completed'. By the middle of that year Bean had to step in as a mediator between the Sydney and Melbourne committees of the MUA. Apparently the Sydney committee had proposed the formation of a combined committee under '(say) Mr Marr & reps of both ... Assocs.'. When the Melbourne branch failed to reply to the suggestion, Bean admitted, 'I am really trying to keep peace between the two committees'. (31) His efforts must have paid off, for in June Marr announced that
 at last former members of the Unit in Victoria and New South Wales
 have agreed to appoint a Committee for the production of the Unit's
 record in Mesopotamia. I have been elected Chairman, and Mr. K.
 Burke will represent New South Wales and Mr. Farquharson, Victoria.
 (32)


No doubt it was a relieved Bean who promised to 'give all the assistance I can', and the meeting he promptly organised between himself, Marr and Burke at 10:45 am on Saturday, 26 June 1926 in the Commonwealth Bank building, Sydney, can be seen as the catalysing moment guaranteeing the eventual publication of Horse and Morse.

From then on it was all go, as Bean went about soliciting--and in some cases, more often wheedling--contributions from various people: Stanley Savige on the Australians of Dunsterforce; Matron G.E. Davies on the Australian Nurses in India; F.H. Wickham on the administration of the AIF in India; J.L. Treloar of the AWM and others on details of the Cavalry Divisional Signal Squadron. Savige accompanied his contribution with the disclaimer, 'I don't profess to be able to put a show together along the proper lines and you have full permission to cut it to pieces as much as you like. (33) Bean responded with similar largesse, telling Savige that while he would 'do any editing necessary', the contribution 'seems to me to need very little'. (34) Thus the chapter 'The Australians of the [sic] Dunsterforce' is credited to Savige, but interestingly, 'in collaboration with Captain F. Lord', (35) who was also in the force, implying that Savige's work required another perspective if not a degree of checking or cross-referencing. Matron Davies' contribution arrived on 25 February 1927 with a covering message expressing regret over the delay and that as she had no dates available in her own notes she had relied on her memory to fill these in. Whether or not this latter aspect rankled against Bean's professionalism as a historian is nowhere expressed, but his diplomatic response to her on 2 March was that he would be 'editing and condensing the actual article which will appear in the unit history, combining yours with some other material that we have received', including, eventually, a nominal roll of the nurses from the Defence Department. While Bean made sure that his version was sent to Davies for approval, and the Preface to Horse and Morse acknowledges her, it also unambiguously credits the chapter 'The Australian Nurses in India 1916-1919' to Bean.

By 18 May 1927 Bean's assistant, A.W. Bazley, was able to write to A.J. Withers of the Defence Department that 'The book is almost finished and will, I think, be a very good volume'. However, there was still work to do, largely in collating, checking and finalising the additional nominal rolls it had been decided (by whom exactly is not specified in the correspondence) as necessary addenda to the history. Thus Bazley goes on to request of Withers rolls of the Half-Flight, the AIF staff at Bombay, and the 'Dispensers'--the pharmacist NCOs who worked with the nurses in India--plus the current addresses of the nurses so that they may be contacted once the work is published. The patient Withers dutifully complied with these and other similar requests, but the process of obtaining and incorporating this extra information served to delay publication still further. By November 1926 Bean could claim that 'The Mesopotamian history is now partly in proof'; (36) however, three months later Bazley was apologising for the fact that the 'volume was not ready in time for it to be published before Christmas [1926], as was hoped, but the editor, Mr. Keast Burke, hopes to get it out in the next month or two'. (37) In fact, it was not until December that Bazley was able to allude to 'The Mesopotamian Unit History' which 'has just been published'. (38)

In a revealing postscript to its publication, the printer Arthur McQuitty complained to the publishers (presumably the unit committee) that the cost of producing the book 'quickly got past' the amount of 200 [pounds sterling] he'd initially quoted Burke: 'the very large amount of "author's corrections" which together with the special type that was chosen cost me 132 [pounds sterling] alone'. McQuitty maintained that the printing 'took over 12 months to complete', and concluded tetchily, 'It was not an easy book to produce, and I can assure you that I was glad to see the end'. (39) Given the many circumstances impacting on the book's production outlined above, it was probably unfair of McQuitty to lay the blame solely with Burke. Nevertheless, it's also difficult to avoid attributing to Burke the overall vision for the book, an ambitious one based on his wish to pay full tribute both to the units serving there and to the uniqueness of the Mesopotamian theatre of war itself. Part of the responsibility must also be taken by the official historian, who clearly brought with his involvement in the project that same commitment and conscientiousness that attended all of his efforts to commemorate Australia's participation in the Great War. But produced it was, when far too many more famous AIF units failed to have histories of their service published the during the lifetimes of their returned members. Whatever the particular birth pangs of With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia, the units that served there, and everyone else interested in the campaign, owe Keast Burke and Charles Bean a considerable debt of gratitude.

(1) Clement Semmler, 'War Correspondents in Australian Literature: An Outline', Australian Literary Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, October 1985, p.197.

(2) 'Diggers in Asia', SMH 3 December 1927. Reprint held in Australian War Memorial (AWM) file 419/15/5 (folder 20).

(3) A.M. Pooley, 'The Memory Book of a Great Adventure', SEN 22 January 1928. Cutting held in AWM 184 [87].

(4) 28 January 1928. Cutting held in AWM 184 [87].

(5) The format of Horse and Morse is approximately 285 x 210 mm with 200 pages; The Anzac Book is 285 x 220 mm, 170 pages; Australia in Palestine is 270 x 220 mm, 158 pages.

(6)See R.R. McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers 1902 to 1919: Making and Breaking, Corps Committee of the RAE, Canberra, 1979, pp. 184-188, for an idea of these units' formal designations.

(7) Its members thus qualified for the General Service Medal with clasp 'Kurdistan'.

(8) With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia, ed. Keast Burke, The Unit Committee, Sydney, 1927, p. 147. D Troop remained about a month longer on campaign than the Australians in the interventionist forces in North Russia (who were not actually serving in Australian army units).

(9) And presumably because its editor, Keast Burke, had served in D Troop (see below). Bean later included an appendix (no. 5), 'Australians in Mesopotamia', in vol. 5 of the Official History (first published 1937), dealing with the Signals Units and Dunsterforce, but not the nurses in India.

(10) Leaflet held in AWM 419/15/5 (folder 18).

(11) See the footnote in the Preface to Horse and Morse, unpaginated.

(12) Pooley, op. cit., AWM 184 [87].

(13) Horse and Morse, p. 51.

(14) Burke received the General Service Medal for service in this campaign, in addition to the British War Medal and Victory Medal (National Archives of Australia item, barcode 3168895).

(15) Biographical details summarised from Australian Dictionary of Biography/940-1980, vol. 13, Melbourne UP, Melbourne, pp. 302-303, and service records, National Archives of Australia item, barcode 3168895.

(16) MSS 1306, AWM file 419/15/5.

(17) 14335 L/Cpl Watts, George Royston Allan, 1st Wireless Signal Sqn.

(18) Letter, 1 June 1919, AWM 184 [87].

(19) ADB 1940-1980, p. 303.

(20) Advertising brochure, 'Mesopotamia--An Ancient Land in Modern Hands: A Travelog by Eric Keast Burke', 1920, held in AWM 419/15/5 (folder 23).

(21) Letter, 17 May 1920, AWM 184 [87].

(22) Letter, 6 June 1920, AWM 184 [87].

(23) Letter, K. Burke to Bean, 3 December 1926, AWM 184 [87].

(24) Letter no. 2805, A.W. Bazley(?) to Brig. Gen. T. Griffiths, 29 Dec. 1927, AWM 184 [87].

(25) Publicity leaflet held in AWM 419/15/5 (folder 23).

(26) From an original advertising poster held in AWM 419/15/5 (folder 21).

(27) http:/www.kaiserbooks.com/sales/ngs/ng20.htm (accessed 6 March 2006)

(28) Principally AWM 184 [87], but also AWM 93, 12/1/42.

(29) Unless otherwise noted, the account that follows is based on documents found in AWM 184 [87].

(30) See AWM 93, 12/1/42, for Memorandum no.11316, 20 June 1939, from the trustees of the Anzac Book Fund (i.e. Bean and C.B.B. White) to the Secretary of Defence advising the writing off of such advances to those associations which have managed to publish unit histories to that time.

(31) Letter 1093, Bean to A.W. Newman, Dept of Defence, 28 May 1926.

(32) Mart to Bean, 9 June 1926.

(33) Savige to Bean, 12 November 1926.

(34) Bean to Savage, 17 November 1926.

(35) Horse and Morse, p. 104.

(36) Letter no. 1516, Bean to Newman, 8 November 1926.

(37) Bazley to Capt. C.F. Mills, 20 February 1927.

(38) Bazley to P.R. Ball, 15 December 1927.

(39) Letter, 23 October 1928. In a similar vein, Marr wrote to the Trustees for further financial assistance, on the grounds that the MUA 'had no regimental funds such as other Units of the A.I.F. possessed' (letter, 24 October 1928). Bean managed to secure the MUA a further 30 [pounds sterling], adding graciously in his letter of recommendation to Lt.Gen. White, 'In my opinion, it is worth it' (13 November 1928).
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