July 30, 2022

Exhibit recalls the role of the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI Palestine

by Gil Zohar

To most people, World War I Palestine is an obscure subject recalled - if at all - by Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, itself commemorating the British general who together with his expeditionary force of British and colonial ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand) forces freed the country from four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.

The current exhibit at the Austrian Hospice here on the role of the Austro-Hungarian army in Palestine during those critical years 1914 to 1918 illustrates a fascinating if little remembered chapter of the past, even as it proves the adage that history is written by the victors.

The exhibit "Doctors, Artillerymen, Musicians: The Austrian Expedition in Palestine in The First World War" documents the 3,000 Imperial Habsburg troops - some of them Jewish but most Hungarian - who arrived here in 1915 and remained until the calamitous Battle of Megiddo in September 1918, leading to the signing of the Armistice of Moudros on October 30, 1918.

In the Land of Israel, Austria-Hungary's polyglot army was part of the realpolitik strategic alliance between the Central Powers - Muslim Turkey, Roman Catholic Austria-Hungary, mixed Protestant-Catholic Germany and Orthodox Bulgaria. All three empires - the Ottoman, Habsburg and Hohenzollern - collapsed at the end of the war.

With the defeat of Serbia in 1915, Germany established a rail link through Austria-Hungary and the Balkans to Constantinople and beyond via the Hijaz railway. Unlike Germany which had colonial ambitions in Palestine, Austria viewed its Middle East adventure as "an investment that would pay off in the future, in the postwar period," explained Viennese historian Robert-Tarek Fischer, author of Austria in the Near East, the Great Power Politics of the Habsburg Monarchy in the Arab Orient 1633-1918 and Austria-Hungary's Struggle in the Holy Land: Imperial Palestine Politics in the First World War, who was the first speaker at last week's symposium which opened the current exhibit.

Berlin and Vienna were economic competitors for the Ottoman Empire's mineral wealth of copper, lead and oil, Fischer said. Turkey, leery of too much German influence from its 25,000-strong Asia Korps, welcomed the Austrians. As well, the Germans were seen as overbearing while the gemutlich Austrians played a more deft hand, even as they tried to supplant France as the protector of the Christians in the Holy Land. Kaiser Franz Josef - the aging emperor trying to keep his faltering Central European empire from tearing apart under the nationalist ambitions of its disparate ethnic parts - presciently observed of the departure of his troops to the Middle East, "I believe we will never see them again."

The Imperial Mountain Artillery Battalion attending a requiem mass for Kaiser Franz Josef at the Holy Sepulcher in 1916

Those units, initially Motor Mortar Battery No. 9 and Howitzer Battery No. 36 followed by Mountain Artillery Regiments No. 4 and No. 6, were remembered with fond nostalgia by the Arabs and Jews of Palestine.

Austrian soldiers distribute food to the population of Bethlehem during the winter of 1916/17 to alleviate the starvation following a locust plague and bad harvest

One reason was the Austrians' distribution of daily bread in Bethlehem in the winter of 1916/1917 to prevent starvation caused by a locust plague.

The Austrian military presence included a brass band which played frequent concerts, and provided musical accompaniment for the silent films shown as propaganda. Both greatly improved Austria's prestige among the local population. One screening in Jerusalem on March 11, 2022 attracted 1,300 spectators, noted Fischer. "It created a great sensation which for a time let people forget the hardships of the war."

Finally the Austrian military's medical unit attended to the civilian population's health as well as that of its soldiers, seeking to contain outbreaks of typhoid, typhus, dysentery and cholera. Military hospitals were established in Jerusalem and Nazareth. The latter was moved to Damascus in 1918 as the front drew near.

In the chaos of the war's final months, the Austrians suffered many battlefield casualties. Most were left unburied. Fischer estimates the total losses at some 600 men - one fifth of the expeditionary force. The graves of only 12 soldiers are marked, noted Norbert Schwake, the custodian of the German War Cemetery in Nazareth. One of them is that of Vormeister (Corporal) Nissim Behmoiras who was mortally wounded on the Gaza front in July 1916 and buried on the Mount of Olives' Jewish cemetery. His funeral procession from the hospital in the Ratisbonne Monastery was accompanied by a Turkish military orchestra.

Elaborating on the "very much neglected subject" of the many WWI Austrian soldiers missing in action in Palestine, Schwake explained that in 1985 following the Kurt Waldheim affair - the international controversy raised about possible Wehrmacht war crimes of the Austrian who served as the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981 - Austria sealed its military records until 2018. While it's "probably too late to find any new information in the sand of the Holy Land, one thing should be done: change the strange Austrian laws which hinder the historian investigating the lot of so many young men who sacrificed their lives for their beloved Austria."