Friday, March 03, 2006
Photo Friday (Vol. LVIII) [stones edition]
One of my regular regular traveling companions, an expat Brit/longtime Israeli, works at Ben Gurion University. He recently volunteered for something called the British War Memorial Project... and because it sounded like a worthwhile endeavor I offered to help him out.
Simply put, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemeteries of British and Commonwealth countries around the world. With the Internet age in full swing, the British War Memorial Project has been launched to digitally photograph the hundreds of thousands of headstones so that they can be researched and viewed on-line by relatives and historians.
There are several such cemeteries in Israel, but since my friend works in Beer Sheva he was assigned to photograph the headstones in a WWI cemetery on the edge of Beer Sheva's old city.
I initially volunteered to help my friend take pictures because it seemed like a vaguely worthwhile undertaking (pun intended), and it would get me out of the office and force me to walk around a bit in the fresh air. Also, my friend is a very pleasant chap, so that was an added attraction.
What I didn't anticipate was the incredible history I would learn as a result of the project. You see, as an Israeli I tend to think of British soldiers in a fairly negative context because of the latter part of the mandate period. But this project has taught me the danger of looking at small sections of history without the benefit of context or background.
WWI had many theaters and many battles... but the battle for Beer Sheva between the British/Commonwealth troops and the Turks should be of particular interest to anyone who counts themself a Zionist.
We tend to think of the Brits only in the context of the later struggle for Israeli statehood. But it is now clear to me that without the efforts of these mostly forgotten young men, buried in a Beer Sheva cemetery so far from their homes ... there very likely would not be a modern state of Israel!
Here is a passage from a book called '800 Horsemen' by Col Stringer upon which I can't improve:
"The key to the battle were the Gaza-Beersheba fortifications. Beersheba, meaning "well of the oath", so named by Abraham in the book of Genesis. The well had provided water not only to Abraham, but to Moses and David. Any army approaching its life-giving wells has to march for days through the waterless desert. All the Turks had to do was hold off an attack for one day and the merciless desert sun would do the rest. Despite constant assaults by the combined forces of the British and Australian armies, the place could not be taken. Then came the fateful day of October 31 1917. The generals were desperate, 50,000 British infantry with tank support had been driven back into the desert. With the sun about to set and with no water for many miles, disaster stared them squarely in the face. The Australian Light Horse Commander Chauvel's orders were to storm Beersheba, it had to be won before nightfall at all costs. The situation was becoming grave as they were in urgent need of 400,000 gallons of water for men and horses.
Chauvel concocted a crazy plan. Why not let his 800 horsemen charge the Turkish artillery? A cavalry charge across 6000 yards of open terrain straight into the face of the massed Turkish guns. It sounded like a recipe for disaster. No wonder the German Officer commanding the Turkish defences described the Aussie Light Horsemen as "madmen!" For a start the Light Horse were not cavalry, they were mounted infantry. They had no swords or lancers but were equipped with rifles and bayonets designed for infantry warfare. But left with virtually no alternative the desperate General gave the order for the last great cavalry charge in history! The 800 young men mounted their magnificent Walers (horses) and lined up to face the Turkish guns, their young faces bronzed and tanned from the desert sun, their emu plumes swaying in the breeze from their famous slouch hats, rifles swung across their backs and bayonets in hand. History was about to be written. These 800 young men were about to open the doorway to the liberation of Jerusalem!
The Light Horsemen charged magnificently across the dusty plains, so fast that the Turkish artillery could not keep pace with them and the "mad" horsemen were able to slip under their guns. As they leapt the trenches laced with machine gun bullets, a magnificent cheer went up from the British ranks, even some of the Turks stood and applauded, such was the magnificence of the feat. Although hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned they charged on. Beersheba - the gateway to Jerusalem, fell that day, not to the Crusaders, not to the British, German or US Armies - but to the Australian Light Horsemen!
Let me quote from the book "True Australian War Tales" by Alec Hepburn. "...the British swept towards Gaza. They stormed the city on 26 March but were thrown back by determined enemy resistance. A second attempt on 17 April also ended in failure. The Turks, with German and Austrians of the crack Asia Corps, stood firm along a fortified line from Gaza on the coast, to Beersheba, near the Judean Hills. The key to victory was Beersheba. Many nations claim to have mounted the last cavalry charge in history, but most of these actions were minor skirmishes of no real significance towards the outcome of the war in which they fought. The Australian Light Horse attack on Beersheba was the last important cavalry charge in history and the last to win a resounding victory that altered the course of a war." (And the course of a nation - Israel).
"The late afternoon sunlight flashing from their bayonets, Australian troopers of the 4th Light Horse Brigade made a proud sight as they spread in a khaki flood over the stony Palestine plain. The thundering hoof beats of their mounts rolled over the arid land ahead like some macabre overture . ... Wearing their distinctive feather-plumed slouch hats at a variety of jaunty angles the troopers seemed nonchalant in the face of death.... Topping the last rise Beersheba suddenly came into sight, the graceful minaret on its Mosque pointing the way to glory, in what was to be the last important cavalry charge in history. Almost as one the big, brown warhorses surged forward in a mad gallop, their hoofs striking thunder from the hard sun-baked earth."
"Then from somewhere within the barbed-wire-encircled town, heavy artillery began firing. The first shells roared overhead, exploding in fiery geysers amid the charging ranks. Yelling men and bellowing horses went down in tangled heaps, their screams filling the choking smoke clouds that swirled everywhere, But not even shrapnel could halt their fierce onslaught. Leaping their mounts over fallen comrades, the horsemen swept towards the Turkish line. Soon the shells were falling harmlessly behind the advancing ranks. With the first gauntlet behind them the Australian horsemen raced into the next. From the flanks Turkish machine-guns took over the defence. Many more men and horses went down, but still they came on. The tough Turkish infantry had been unnerved by the seemingly invincible horde bearing down on them. Wild with fear, for they knew their foe by reputation, the Turks put up a formidable rifle barrage in a frantic effort to stop the mounted madmen. Troopers pitched from the saddle; others had their mounts shot from under them: and yet the suicidal charge swept on. As the Light Horse galloped nearer the excited Turks forgot to lower their sights and found themselves firing high. With bullets now buzzing harmlessly overhead the leading squadrons thundered in line across the last kilometre then jumped their mighty Walers over the trenches."
The rest is history. "Beersheba - well of the oath, was in Australian hands by the time the last rays of fading daylight had gone from the desert sky. This deed would live on as the proudest achievement in the colourful story of the legendary Light Horse, the force that was probably the most uniquely Australian fighting unit ever raised. The Light Horseman was the best mounted soldier in history, finer even than the Cossack or the American Plains Indian."
In fact the British General Allenby rated the Cavalry charge as one of, if not the most magnificent in history. Eight hundred Aussie Light horsemen had achieved what 50,000 British troops with tanks could not do, what even the Crusaders or Napoleon could not do! They had opened the doorway to Jerusalem against seemingly insurmountable odds.
I am in no way attempting to glorify war, it is terrible. But I believe we need "to give honour where honour is due." Many of the Light Horsemen were visibly moved when they realised they had opened the gateway to the Holy Land, a doorway which had been firmly shut for centuries. One writer put it this way "Without the ANZAC involvement the modern state of Israel would not have come into existence!" On December 11th 1917 the Australian Light Horsemen rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, so far from their homes, their emu feathers proudly fluttering in the breeze, to be greeted with a hysterical welcome by Jews and Christians. A far cry from the scenario when Godfrey of Bouillon and his bloodthirsty Crusaders had entered the city in 1099. Centuries of Moslem rule was over. As the triumphant British General Allenby entered the city through the Jaffa gate, his honour guard was made up of slouch hatted Aussies. Opposite him as he stood on the steps of the Citadel of David he was encircled by another honour guard of proud ANZAC Light Horsemen! Their magnificent effort was being honoured by the world!"
The cemetery lies within sight of where the battle took place. It contains about 1200 graves, with most of the deaths having occurred on the last day of October 1917 or the first week of November.
Here is a shot from outside the gates:
This is a typical headstone... typical until one looks at the unit and date and realizes how much is owed to one of the brave men who unknowingly helped set the stage for the birth of my country:
Although seemingly every headstone had a neat cross (or sometimes a more ornate Victoria Cross if the soldier had been awarded that distinction), in one corner of the cemetery was a unique headstone with a star. The few small pebbles on top of the headstone indicated that occasionally someone comes to visit the grave of this Jewish soldier. I added one of my own (although, in truth each soldier in this cemetery deserves to be remembered by the people of Israel).
Posted by David Bogner on March 3, 2006 | Permalink
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Beautiful story. I didn't know it. Thank you. May we never lose what these heroes paid with their lives to win.
Posted by: Doctor Bean | Mar 3, 2006 10:42:03 AM
Britain always had a knack for sending Australian soldiers to fight for her around the world. And they often suffered horrific losses. In Be'er Sheva, Gallipoli, Vietnam and so many other battles. Today they continue the fine tradition of fighting for what's right in Afghanistan, Iraq, and recently in East Timor.
Thanks for the lovely post.
Posted by: MamaWombat | Mar 3, 2006 12:01:00 PM
Fascinating. I had no idea! Interesting that you think you know everything about this small country of ours, but there's always a new bit of history waiting to be learned. Thank you.
Posted by: lori | Mar 3, 2006 12:01:56 PM
While I hate to violate your break from politics this week (probably the least breaky break I've ever seen), there's some to discuss here too. While I've seen pictures in the past of the beautiful Beer Sheva cemetery, there's another one you probably won't be photographing for Photo Friday: the Gaza War Cemetery.
There were recently a number of cases of desecrations of graves there by Palestinians. I found this link, but I know there's more:
Posted by: Dave | Mar 3, 2006 12:40:39 PM
I have to thank you for this inspiring and informative post. We commemorate ANZAC day every year on the 25th of April, but I had never heard of this story. It's the first time in a while I've felt truly proud to be Australian.
Posted by: zemirah | Mar 3, 2006 1:30:49 PM
Fascinating, as always. So sad for these soldiers and their families. Thank you for sharing.
Posted by: Essie | Mar 3, 2006 1:32:43 PM
Thank you for this absolutely insightful and charming post. Courageous battles are always intriguing, and those that were part of Hashem's plan for Jewish ownership of His land are especially important for people to know. That the leaders of these heroes had their own agenda is less important than their contribution to the big picture.
One small error - Moses never had the chance to enjoy the Beer Sheva wells as the story says, since Moses never entered Israel. The author was probably just using the imagery to offer historical perspective and make it a little more exciting.
Thanks for something educational to share at our Shabbat table!
Posted by: yonah | Mar 3, 2006 3:16:35 PM
Posted by: Val | Mar 3, 2006 4:58:42 PM
I used to walk by a similar cemetery in Haifa. My grandfather would always point it out to me and tell me about General Allenby and the British (and ANZAC) soldiers who wrestled the land from the Ottoman Turks in World War I.
Thank you for bringing back these memories for me and for reminding us about yet another important chapter in the land's history.
Posted by: wanderer | Mar 3, 2006 6:19:24 PM
Very interesting. Have a good Shabbos.
Posted by: Jack | Mar 3, 2006 6:40:17 PM
Wonderful post. There's a fine film called: "The Lighthorsemen," directed by an Australian friend of mine named Simon Wincer, that covers this brave and amazing assault. Highly recommended. Simon also directed the very great mini-series: "Lonesome Dove." Have a lovely and meaningful Shabbos.
Posted by: Robert | Mar 3, 2006 8:22:40 PM
I've heard about the contribution of the Australians, but have never heard about this battle or the details surrounding these events. Thank you.
Posted by: Irina | Mar 3, 2006 9:02:43 PM
wow, amazing story and, being australian, puts the ANZACS in a new light for me as i had never heard that story. thank you for sharing.
Posted by: Sarah | Mar 5, 2006 1:21:10 AM
wow, as someone who lived a decade in Beer Sheva, I feel like I should have known this.
Posted by: timna | Mar 5, 2006 5:41:16 AM
Doctor Bean... Amen.
MamaWombat... I agree history has shown that Australia has been forced to pay an extremely high price in blood and young men in many of the 'commonwealth campaigns'. But in fairness, there were plenty of Brits, New Zealanders and even South Africans in that cemetery. There was plenty of death to go around back then.
Lori... Every day I seem to learn something new.
Dave... Without crossing too far over to the political side, I think it's no great secret that Muslims respect only the sanctity of their own holy places.
Zemirah... I am so glad you read this post. I know that there are quite a few Aussies reading treppenwitz, but you are one of the few I know by name. While taking the photographs and while posting them I was hoping you'd drop by and see them.
Essie... Yes, quite sad. As one would expect there were also a few unknown soldiers ("Known only to G-d") whose families never even had the closure of knowing the fate of their sons.
Yonah... Yes, I noticed the Moses mistake as well but didn't feel I had the right to edit his writing without doing some long-winded explaining. Glad you enjoyed the story.
Wanderer... It just goes to show you that you often don't really know who is your friend and who is your enemy.
Robert... I'll have to look that up. Do you know if it was released on DVD?
Irina... that makes two of us. Any time I see something new here in Israel I try to write it down and research it when I have a moment.
Sarah... I'm glad you got a chance to read this post. As I said to Zemirah, when I post something of interest to a particular group of readers it is satisfying to know they saw and appreciated it.
Timna... I'm sure there are a ton of facts I don't know about Gush Etzion that will come and bite me one of these days. :-)
Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 5, 2006 12:07:07 PM
"The Lighthorsemen" is available on DVD. Interesting little factoid about the production. Simon Wincer and I were working on a film together and discussing the problems of shooting massed cavalry charges these days--you don't want to hurt horses. Can't use trip wirse like in the old days, etc. Anyway, Simon told me that when he was shooting "The Lighthorsemen," he did not have enough money, and of course not enough horses, and so he had to shoot tight and use a lot of rapid cutting to make the cavalry charge look like there were a lot more horses than there really were in the shots. Simon did a great job. The scenes are just breathtaking. Cinematic magic.
Posted by: Seraphic Secret | Mar 5, 2006 12:40:17 PM
Hi David. I haven't posted in ages, but I have been following from afar. I suggest reading "A Peace to End All Peace". It looks at the events that helped shaped the modern Middle East, starting from just before WWI.
Will be in Israel next Shabbat!
Posted by: Alan | Mar 5, 2006 5:50:37 PM
I came across this page while researching the Battle of Beer Sheva in preparation for a tour of the city by Australian Army service personnel currently posted to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai.
I intend to take the Australian contingent to the site in early June and conduct a tour of the area, and was hoping you could put me in touch with the friend of yours who works on the British War Memorial Project?
I have a contact in Beer Sheva however I think we may have a problem with the language barrier. This is an important event in our history and I want to make sure my soldiers understand the significance of the town to both Australians and Israelis.
Please let me know if you can advise of a contact in the town that may be able to assist with a tour.
Posted by: Captain Joel Turner | May 7, 2006 4:11:38 PM
What a great story. Australian Lt. General Sir John Monash, who ended the European slaughter with some intelligent tactics, was Jewish. It's ironic that the University which bears his name is now the site of anti-Israel histrionics.
Posted by: diana | Oct 8, 2006 5:29:13 PM
David...thank you for your insight on the history of that struggle, and the photos of the cemetery. One of my British ancestors fought and died at the battle of Beersheba, and is buried there. I have always wanted to visit his grave, and have wondered what it looked like. Do you know of any way I might obtain more information from that cemetery? Keith
Posted by: Keith Watts Fox | Oct 11, 2007 4:12:25 AM
I am researching a soldier who is buried in the cemetary at Gaza - Lance Corporal 330435 Edward Plumridge of 8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment who died on 19 April 1917, Grave reference XXI.G.6
Do you know of any way I could obtain a picture of the gravestone?
Posted by: kenneth george dunstan | Jan 29, 2008 12:03:35 AM
I am glad to hear that people still remember and take the effort to remind everybody else have why these headstones still here, and the reasons they died for.
Posted by: Headstones | Jul 6, 2009 1:53:52 PM
I found you site while searching for illustrations of the Wells of Beersheba to supplement a photo I have, This is inscribed Wells Beersheba on the reverse. Here is a link to the photo and additional coments posted.
The site is the Desert Column covering Australian Mounted Units from our early days and which can be found by googling Desert Column Website.
My Uncle served with the Australian Camel Corps through the Senussi campaign and with the 3rd Light Horse thereafter until the battle of Rafa where was concussed by gunfire and left in the desert for days.
Don W Pedler
Posted by: Don Pedler | Apr 11, 2011 7:42:02 AM