It was Australia’s first great World War I victory and history's last great cavalry charge. So why has it been forgotten in favour of the tragic defeat at Gallipoli?
- The centenary of the Battle of Beersheba will be marked in Israel on October 31, 2017. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be in attendance.
The 4th and 12th regiments had ridden through the desert all night, bridles and stirrups muffled to silence their advance. The dust was so thick that even in daylight the troopers - all volunteers, all young men from NSW and Victoria - couldn’t see past their horse’s heads.
It was October 31, 1917, and men of the Australian Light Horse Brigade were about to make an extraordinary attempt on the fortified desert town of Beersheba, in what is now Israel.
Their commanders planned an audacious surprise attack on the strategically significant town, which was held by the Turks and was the only source of water in the region.
If they didn’t prevail, the Australian men and their horses - who had already gone two days without water - faced dying of thirst, if they weren’t captured by the enemy.
“Very few Australians know about the Australian-led victory at Beersheba, which was actually the turning point in a three-year campaign to defeat the German-led Turks in Palestine,” war historian and author Jonathan King told SBS World News.
“That was a big victory... Once they conquered Beersheba, the gates were thrown open for the rest of the campaign in Palestine.”
'They just galloped on'
The Battle of Beersheba is remembered for the extraordinary and victorious cavalry charge of the Australian horsemen from the desert through Turkish artillery fire and over the enemy’s trenches.
The town was protected by a system of trenches, but there was no barbed wire on the east side, reflecting the Turks’ belief that no enemy would approach through the desert. They were wrong.
The light horsemen began the charge more than six kilometres from the town, accelerating to full gallop over two kilometres out, Dr King records in his book about the mounted troops, Palestine Diaries. The riders were armed "not with swords, but with bayonets on the end of their 303 rifles," he said.
Artillery shells landed around them as they rode, recorded Ion 'Jack' Idriess, a 5th brigade trooper from the Sydney suburb of Waverley who witnessed the charge through binoculars and later became a prolific writer.
“We laughed with delight when the shells burst behind our men as Turkish gunners wild with fear forgot to lower their sights", he wrote.
"Captured Turkish officers told us they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by roaring machine guns and artillery. Yet they just galloped on, their thousand hooves stuttering, coming at a rate that frightened a man – an awe-inspiring sight galloping through red haze – knee to knee – horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points".
It was the brigade’s commander General William Grant’s decision to order the light horsemen to charge cavalry style, according to the Australian War Memorial, when they usually would have ridden almost to the frontline and then dismounted to fight hand to hand.
Instead, “the 800 horsemen charged out of the desert… [and] just leapt over the trenches straight into Beersheba town, captured the water wells and all of the town,” Dr King said. “It was history's last cavalry charge and it was the finest cavalry charge in history.”
In his book, Dr King records that the Turkish garrison at Beersheba had 28 artillery guns, nine machine guns, two aircraft and 4400 men. The Australians killed 500 hundred Turks and took 1,500 prisoner, while only losing 31 of their own troopers and 70 horses. It was a stunning victory.
The campaign worked because of the shock value, and the sheer speed of the light horsemen’s approach on the town, according to the War Memorial’s official history.
Dr King said the battle was a turning point in the Palestine campaign of World War I, fought between British Empire forces and the Ottoman and German empires’ forces for control of the region, which was considered of great strategic importance because of the Suez Canal which linked the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.
Who were the soldiers?
The men of the Light Horse Brigade were “ordinary stockmen, ringers, jackaroos, bushmen, they’d taken their own horses,” Dr King said. “They did so well because they were used to galloping across the plains in the Outback and shooting wombats or kangaroos or pigs from the back of their horses, so they were perfectly equipped.”
About 100 of the light horsemen involved were Indigenous men, who were not even treated as Australian citizens at that stage. There were also Australian troopers of Chinese, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Singaporean descent, according to the Beersheba 100 years research project.
Dr King points out that the extraordinary triumph at Beersheba stands in stark contrast to the mythologised slaughter that was the defeat at Gallipoli, which cost 8,700 Australian lives and holds a much more central place in the nation's collective history.
“Unfortunately Australia has become obsessed with the British-led failure at Gallipoli... which is a real tragedy,” he said. “I think we should dump Gallipoli as the cornerstone of our culture and replace it with Beersheba, now that we’re having the hundredth anniversary of this great victory of Australians.”
What happened to all the horses?
The horses were known as “Walers” because they sailed over from New South Wales with the troops. They had been bred for tough Outback conditions. In the Palestine campaign, the horses carried supply packs weighing up to 150 kilograms as well as their rider, in temperatures that sometimes reached 50 degrees.
But despite the animals' heroism, the Australian government had quarantine concerns and did not want to foot the bill for the surviving horses’ return after the war. The best went to Britain for breeding, some were sold as horsemeat. Some troopers in Palestine wrote of their heartbreak over this decision, and how they decided to shoot their horses rather than see them fall into the hands of locals, who they believed mistreated the animals.
Of the 136,000 Walers sent to fight in World War I, just one came back. The horse of Major General Sir William Bridges, who commanded the first Australian division in Gallipoli and founded the military college at Duntroon, was repatriated after his rider’s dying wish, sailing home in 1918 and living out its days in Maribyrnong, Victoria.
Dr King is among 200 descendants of the Light Horse Brigade troopers who will join Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on October 31, 2017, to mark the centenary of the battle in Israel. A reenactment of the horsemen’s charge will take place in the town that is now known as Be’er Sheva, in the Negev desert.
The Australian guests will attend commemoration services at the British and Turkish war memorials in the town, as well as the official opening of a new Light Horse Museum.