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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Light Horse return to Beer Sheva

Tomorrow, the 31st October 2007, is going to be a big day in the town where I work.  No... not Halloween... but rather the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Beer Sheva.

Slouch_hat_2

I'll assume that many of you have no idea what I'm talking about so I'll insert a brief recap from a previous post to bring you up to speed.  Longtime readers can follow along or skip ahead as you see fit:

WWI had many theaters and many battles... but the battle for Beer Sheva between the British/Commonwealth troops and the Ottoman Turks should be of particular interest to anyone who counts themself a Zionist. 

We tend to think of the British only in the context of the Mandate period and the struggle for Israeli statehood.  But it is now clear to me that without the efforts of these mostly forgotten young British and ANZAC (Australian & New Zealand) soldiers, 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... 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 [General] 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!"

Tomorrow I will be taking part in the commemoration ceremonies in Beer Sheva which will include a parede of the Australian Light Horse Society (many of who, I'm told, are grandchildren of the original Light Horsemen) through the city to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, starting at 10:00AM.

At 11:00 AM there will be an official ceremony a the cemetery.  Dignitaries from all the countries involved in the battle will be present, as will many from the Israeli government.

At noon everyone will walk to the nearby monument to the Turkish soldiers who fell in the battle (the monument stands next to the old Turkish Railroad station building on Rechov Uziahu) for a commemorative ceremony presided over by the Turkish Ambassador. 

At 3:30 in the afternoon there will be a reenactment of the charge of the Light Horse from Beit Eshel to the Turkish railway bridge, followed by a closing ceremony at the bridge where the riders will be awarded medals of recognition.

Needless to say, if anyone would like a free tour of the cemetery and battle sights around Beer Sheva during the day, I will be more than happy to share the little I've learned over the past few years.  Of course I will also try to take some pictures and post them later in the week.

If you'd like more information about the Battle of Beer Sheva, the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery or the Australian Light Horse, you can feel free to read these older posts:

http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2006/11/photo_friday_vo.html

http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2006/06/photo_friday_vo_1.html

http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2007/10/writing-home-fo.html

http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2006/10/photo_friday_vo.html

http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2006/03/photo_friday_vo.html

Posted by David Bogner on October 30, 2007 | Permalink

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» The ANZAC return to Israel from THE TEXAS SCRIBBLER
I hope Treppenwitz doesn't mind me borrowing his hat, but it's just so perfect. His report of the Light Horse and their Australian and New Zealand troops and the return of their descendents to the pivotal battlefield of their ancestors... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 1, 2007 6:18:00 AM

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The Jerusalem Post is on top of this story today. It's their main feature column on the front page of their Opinion section. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1192380684605&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Posted by: annie | Oct 30, 2007 11:17:16 AM

David-
I'll be arriving in Be'er Sheva around 10 am via Egged...if you are serious about your offer to provide a tour of the area, I'd love to partake. I can play hookie from work for a while as long as the academic strike is continuing...

Posted by: N.E. | Oct 30, 2007 12:26:38 PM

as soon as i saw the article in the jpost this morning i thought of you... what an amazing story. it's too bad so few people know it but it seems that wrong is being righted. (is that a word?)

Posted by: nikki | Oct 30, 2007 2:30:27 PM

Hi, I visited the cemtary this morning - very moving. I will be working at the university on the 31st, but does anyone know if the parade will come near BGU?

Posted by: Chris Baily | Oct 30, 2007 2:57:28 PM

What a magnificent story - and one I didn't know before. Thanks.

Posted by: psachya | Oct 30, 2007 8:02:31 PM

Hi Trep,

Awesome psot.

I think I'll be linking you tomorrow.

I always admired the brave Ozzies of WWI. And if it wasn't for that fraud, Lawrence of Arabia, and his comaptriots in the British Foreign Service more progress might have been made instead of the parcelling out of the Middle East in un-natural, artificial designations.

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak. | Oct 30, 2007 8:48:16 PM

wow! what an intertwining of histories.
I used to go to the war memorial last year to clear my mind and I always wondered how it was for the soldiers to die so far from home.

How did you get so lucky to be included in the ceremonies?

Posted by: rebecca | Oct 31, 2007 4:12:16 AM

Thanks for reposting that. I read this story last year but it still gives me the chills. Hope you enjoyed the ceremony!

Posted by: Chantyshira | Oct 31, 2007 6:30:20 AM

Hi Trep,

I did indeed link to you from my blog today.

Thanks for the reminder!

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak. | Oct 31, 2007 5:01:45 PM

Don't forget the movie, The Lighthorsemen, though perhaps it is not completely faithful to the history:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093416/plotsummary

Posted by: Dick Stanley | Nov 1, 2007 4:51:33 AM

The reenactment got a small mention in today's London Times:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article2781249.ece

Posted by: annie | Nov 1, 2007 8:19:32 AM

I was with the auzzie and we rode together from Park Golda to Be'er Sheva incl the parade and the charge.
I am from Midreshet Ben Gurion a Christian Zionist and a professional tourguide.
What is your connection with the ANZACS ?

Thanks.

Posted by: Arthur du Mosch | Nov 7, 2007 10:47:54 AM

I leave in Beer Sheva and was take my litle doughter to the childplace near the monument. When I travel through monument I was amazed when I sought hundreds of young mans that was barried there. Unfortunately nobody from my friends knowed what happing in the Oktober 1917. I would like to thank author for this article

Posted by: Dima Ditkovich | Jul 11, 2008 3:51:47 PM

I used to pass the ANZAC cemetery when I lived in Be'er Sheva but was always too scared to go in. I was told one that there is a Jewsih digger from perth buried there and on his tombstone it says something like ' so far from home yet so close'. Is that true?

Posted by: Kovi Pine | Nov 2, 2010 3:34:54 PM

I visited the Commonwealth War Graves last December (stayed in the nearby hostel)and to my knowledge only one of the graves is of a Jewish soldier, not an Australian but an Englishman;
for accurate info. it's advisable to visit the War Graves website:
http://www.cwgc.org/default.asp
Click on Search our Records where you can then search for either casualties or cemeteries;
change to cemeteries and enter Beersheba...

a moving experience being there, all those many young men so far from home!

Posted by: Ron | Mar 21, 2011 10:37:53 PM

Hi just be reading your posts. if anyone is interested there is a new book out called desert boys written by peter rees it is a great read it gives you all accounts of light horsemens desert campaigns.
i am very proud to say there are a few great photos of my grandfather in the book I'm sure you will like them also. My grandfather was in the charge of beerasheeba his name was Godfrey Lambert Burgess if you are interested you can google his name and you will get some very interesting reading. My grandfather and all men of the charge of beerasheeba never received medals for the campaign in 1917. As the men were under British control in those days.I will not post the reason for this on this open post. Lets just say General Allenby was not happy with things that happened during the campaign.

Regards
Shaun Burgess

Posted by: shaun burgess | Dec 30, 2011 3:02:09 AM

A great achievment...Is there any record of the amount of casualties that the Light Horse suffered?

Posted by: Frank Hunt | Apr 9, 2012 5:39:30 AM

Yes a story well remembered and commemorated - but where is the reference to the New Zealanders?

There is only one line in the film "The Light Horsemen" and that shows the Kiwis advancing on foot before the mounted infantry charge.

I was delighted to share this story with two young IDF Reservists who were from Be'ersheva and had not known of it or its significance.

Posted by: Lee | Sep 24, 2012 3:59:57 AM

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