Australian horsemen reenact the heroic Beersheba charge on its 90th anniversary


4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheva

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. They’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 exactly 90 years ago.

Among them will be Deryn Binnie, granddaughter of Gen. Chauvel; and Bill Hyman, whose grandfather, Maj. Eric Hyman, won the Distinguished Service Order for commanding the 12th Light Horse Regiment when it joined with the 4th Light Horse Brigade in the crucial battle to seize the wells at Beersheba.

Cheering them on will be Australian, New Zealand, British, Turkish and Israeli diplomats, Australian and New Zealand expatriates living here, representatives of the Defense Ministry, members of the Israel-based Society for the Heritage of World War I, members of the Beersheba Municipality and the Beersheba Foundation and members of the Australian Light Horse Association who, like the riders, have made the long journey from down under to participate. The riders will be bearing the flags and standards and wearing the uniforms worn by Australian soldiers in World War I.

Their three-day ride from Eshkol Park near Gaza to Beersheba will culminate in an all-day festival and commemoration in Beersheba.

The ride into Beersheba is part of a year long Beersheba Light Horse project that was launched in May. It includes the construction of a recreational “Park of the Australian Soldier” in Beersheba. The park, which is being developed in partnership with the municipality and the Beersheba Foundation, is an initiative of the Melbourne-based Pratt Foundation, which supports numerous projects here.

When completed, it will include a playground with special access for children with disabilities, an amphitheater seating 300 people, a garden complex planted with Australian flora and a life-size bronze statue of a horse and rider by Australian sculptor Peter Corlett, who came to Beersheba last year for the 89th anniversary.

The statue will be air-freighted here in time for next year’s ANZAC Day Commemoration on April 28 in Beersheba in the presence of high-level diplomats from Israel, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries, plus a large contingent of Australians. ANZAC Day, traditionally held on April 25, commemorates the ill-fated landing of Australian and New Zealand forces in Gallipoli in April 1915, but also takes into account Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fell in battle in subsequent wars.

James, patron of the Australian Light Horse Association, and its president, Chalker, arrived here on Sunday and will participate in the 90th anniversary celebrations. The Australian Light Horse Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the history and tradition of the regiment and its predecessors.

THE MOST obvious question is why has it taken 90 years to put up a monument to one of the most glorious chapters in Australian military history? According to Chalker, there was a monument erected a few years after the war, but it was destroyed during the Arab uprisings of 1929. What was left of it was transported to Australia.

Then with the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing two years ago, there was pressure to construct a monument to commemorate the Battle of Beersheba, which is annually recalled in Australia and is taught in its schools.

Although he disclaims credit, it was James who initially came up with the idea of a meaningful memorial in Beersheba. 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.

This is corroborated in ANZACs Empires and Israel’s Restoration 1798-1948 by Kelvin Crombie, an Australian historian and tour guide who lived in Israel for 15 years, and of course both James and Chalker knew all about it. Some two-and-a-half years ago, James was a guest speaker at Victoria’s Parliament House. He invited his childhood friend Richard Pratt and his wife Jeanne to come along and afterward the Pratts joined James and his wife Barbara for lunch. Someone at the lunch asked Pratt if he traveled much, and he replied that he was going to Beersheba to get an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University.

That immediately set James off, and he began raving on about the 12th Light Horse. He talked so much that Pratt eventually turned around and said- “Do you and Barbara want to come with us?” The reply was unhesitatingly affirmative, and thus the seed for the Park of the Australian Soldier was planted.

In a letter to Billson in February 2006, James wrote- “…The charge at Beersheba was the key to everything that followed. It is one of the great inspirational victories in Australian military history. Indeed the Australian Light Horse charge, which made it possible, has itself been described as ‘the last great cavalry charge in history.’

“Although the Australian Light Horse has been celebrated in at least two feature films, in documentaries and in many books and articles, and while there are memorial statues and other forms of commemoration at various locations in Australia, there is no memorial as such in Beersheba.

“There is a military cemetery in Beersheba dedicated to soldiers who served with armies of the British Commonwealth, which includes the graves of many of the Australians who were killed in the charge on October 31, 1917. But there is no memorial in Beersheba specifically dedicated to the Australian victory.”

Now there will be.

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.”

Australia is “a very horsey country,” said Chalker. “In the early 1900s horses were the only mode of transport. Up until the 1930s motor vehicles were hardly used for transport in rural areas.” As far as Chalker is aware, more than 300,000 Australian horses were exported up to and including World War I. Australians also served in the Boer War.

“We raised an army of mounted men by saying ‘bring your horse and we’ll pay you later,'” said James. It was this attitude of people coming with their own horses that made it possible to raise 23 Light Horse regiments in a short period, said Chalker.

What’s fascinating to James is the number of people “who are now coming out of the woodwork and saying that their father or grandfather was there. And they’re so proud.”