General Allenby led a sweep of His British Majesty’s soldiers out of Egypt in 1917 and up to Jerusalem and beyond, claiming a swathe of territory that had belonged, until then, to the Ottoman Empire for some 500 years.
On his way to Jerusalem, General Allenby took Beersheba — in no small part thanks to an apparently magnificent charge by some 800 Australian cavalrymen – the “Light Horse” Brigade.
“On 31 October 1917 British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers captured Beersheva from the Ottomans. This was the first victory in the campaign to capture the Holy Land during World War I.”, says a press release from Shoresh Study Tours, sent around to announce a big 90th anniversary commemorative bash in Beersheva tomorrow.
The Jerusalem Post has a stirring article today, reconstructing and analyzing the event: “Victory by 800 mounted Australians over 4,000 well-trained Turks seems a bit far-fetched. But that’s exactly what happened on October 31, 1917, at the Battle of Beersheba, which 90 years ago arguably changed the direction of the Sinai and Palestine campaign during World War I. It was a day of surprises for the Turks, one that had been planned far in advance: Already in May 1917, General Philip Chetwode wrote his Notes on the Palestine Campaign, which outlined a suggested plan of attack. There he suggested that the approaching Third Battle of Gaza should move inland and center around a relatively loosely guarded east flank of Beersheba. The Turks, he suggested, would not anticipate the mounted attack due to the scarcity of water for horses and soldiers alike. Chetwode, however, claimed that it would be easier and more efficient to secretly engineer water access to the area than to break through the more heavily guarded Gaza area. At the same time, the Turks were led to believe through a series of British subterfuges that they would – for the third time – indeed choose a frontal attack on Gaza. General Sir Edmund Allenby, who assumed command in July, adopted Chetwode’s suggestions and by late October the British were ready for the Battle of Beersheba.
“The attack on the unsuspecting Turks took place at dawn. However, the Anzac Mounted Division was delayed at Tel el Saba, causing the British forces to fall behind in the master battle plan, which had charted the capture of Beersheba before nightfall.
“As a risky last-ditch effort, the commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, General Henry Chauvel, ordered the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade (made up of the 4th and 12th regiments), under Brigadier William Grant, to secure the capture of Beersheba just before sunset. Charging directly into the sun, the horsemen kicked up thunderous clouds of dust as they rode against the Turkish trenches. The frightened Turks, who assumed this was the beginning of a larger force, fled. The Australian soldiers secured the city and intact wells and reservoirs. (The story goes that a torrential downpour saved the remaining horses from dehydration.)
“How much of the story is fact and how much is myth? No one really knows, admitted president of the Australian Light Horse Association Phil Chalker over drinks this week in his Jerusalem hotel, but the fact is that the charge was a success.
To what can it be attributed? In Chalker’s view, it was because the 4th and 12th regiments had been in reserve, so there was an energy that other battle-weary soldiers may not have had. This was coupled with the element of surprise, the shock tactic of 800 horses coming down on the men in the trenches and kicking up so much dust that it was difficult for the Turks to aim directly at them. For all that he paid tribute to the bravery of the Turks. ‘They didn’t give up and run. They were very competent soldiers. Most of our casualties were shot from the trenches’.
“The charge was unexpected, continued the patron of the association, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) W. Digger James, who also arrived this week, ‘because they had to ride into the sun. One thing you’re told is: “Don’t ride into the sun”. They charged straight into the west. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. It’s a feature I’ve never understood’.
“Chalker termed the charge and its result ‘Australia’s baptism of fire’. ‘The significance of the charge’, Chalker said, ‘is how it took place and how successful it was. The actual success is the attraction because you don’t put cavalry up against machine guns and infantry. It was done as a last resort – and it worked … The whole of Beersheba was a big army. Chauvel brought his horses in. They were desperately short of water ‘d die in 24 hours if they didn’t have water. It was win or bust’.
“MORE THAN 60 riders, many of them descendants of the heroes of the Australian Light Horse Regiment, tomorrow will reenact the epic charge of their forebears in the Battle of Beersheba … Their three-day ride from Eshkol Park near Gaza to Beersheba will culminate in an all-day festival and commemoration in Beersheba … The Battle of Beersheba, which is annually recalled in Australia and is taught in its schools … Bill Billson, Australia’s minister for veterans’ affairs, said at the official launch of the Light Horse project in Melbourne in May: ‘The Australian victory at Beersheba in 1917 set in train some remarkable events – the liberation of Jerusalem, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate in Palestine and ultimately the establishment of the State of Israel’. A little known fact, supplied by Australian Ambassador James Larsen, is that the discussion on the Balfour Declaration was held by the British War Cabinet on October 31, 1917, just as the British, Australian and New Zealand troops were capturing Beersheba, but Lord Balfour, although he informed his friend Chaim Weizmann, later to become Israel’s first president, of the decision, did not formally write to Lord Rothschild until November 2, when the British media reported the victory over the Turks …
“RELAXING OVER their drinks in the lounge of their Jerusalem hotel on Sunday, James and Chalker took great pains to explain the difference between a light horse soldier and a cavalryman. Light horse, James said, are infantry soldiers with infantry weapons. ‘They’re unique. They don’t carry sabers. The horse carries the soldier into battle. He dismounts and enters the battle with his weapons, and a horse handler takes the horses and handles them’.” The JPost story on the Battle of Beersheva and its 31 October 2007 commemoration is here.