Yesterday (31 October) was the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. One hundred years ago Australian light horsemen charged against Turkish defences to capture the town of Beersheba.
The account below explaining the Battle of Beersheba is taken from two books that I often reach for when I am trying to understand Australia’s military involvement in the First World War — The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles by Chris Clark and Broken Nation by Joan Beaumont.
Australians were in Palestine as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). The commander-in-chief of the EEF, General Sir Edmund Allenby had been told by the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George to take Jerusalem as a Christmas gift for the British nation. To do this the EEF needed to break the Turkish defensive line focussed on Gaza and Beersheba.
Allenby decided that this would be done by capturing Beersheba and its valuable water wells and then moving onto Gaza. The plan had British infantry troops attacking Beersheba and Gaza simultaneously, while the Australian and New Zealand horsemen of the Desert Mounted Corps would come in from another direction to also attack Beersheba.
By the afternoon of the 31 October the Desert Mounted Corps were in place for the final attack on Beersheba. Taking the town had become critical because of the desperate need for water. Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps called upon the fresh troops of Brigadier General William Grant’s 4th Light Horse Brigade to lead the attack.
It was decided that given the urgency of the situation the attack would be a high risk cavalry charge across open ground. The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments formed three lines about 500 metres apart, with five metres between each rider. Not having cavalry weapons, the lance or sabre, the troops made do by carrying their long bayonets in their hands.
As they approached the Turkish trenches the light horsemen broke into a gallop, drew bayonets and yelled wildly. Turkish field guns, machine guns, rifles and even German aerial bombing were unable to stop the charge. The unexpected speed and momentum of the light horsemen allowed them to quickly overtake the Turkish defenders. Within an hour all resistance collapsed.
For Australians the successful charge at Beersheba was welcomed news after the frightful stories of futility coming from the Western front in 1917. Below is one of the early news reports of the breakthrough at Beersheba. This understated account, with map, appeared in Hobart’s newspaper The Mercury on the 3 November 1917. Later accounts like this one in the Singleton Argus on the 8 November 1917, which highlighted the ANZACs feats, would help to build the national memory of Beersheba as a moment of Australian exceptionalism.