This year I attended the Bowen Anzac Day Dawn Service where Dale Last, the Member for Burdekin, gave a speech to mark 100 years since the the Battle of Beersheba.
Dale Last - Speech
Battle of Beersheba:
”There is pandemonium, men shouting, screaming and cursing, bodies writhing in hand to hand combat, horses rearing and even lashing at the foe . . . in the forward trenches it is over within minutes”. Those words are attributed to Lt Colonel Neil Smith in his history of the 4th regiment when describing the scene at Beersheba and I want to share that story with you all today. This year marks the Centenary of the Battle of Beersheba that occurred in the Middle East on the 31st October, 1917.
One Hundred years ago the Australian Light Horse Brigade charged into history, glory and, sadly for most Australians, into oblivion. The bravery and sacrifice made at Gallipoli is etched into the core of Australian history and identity. Somewhat lesser known, however, is the heroic, inspiring and history-defining battle of Beersheba some two years later involving the sunset charge by 800 ANZAC’s, mounted on horses, that defeated 4000 Turks, captured Beersheba and led to the liberation of Jerusalem and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Today, we reflect on the significance of the battles that were fought all those years ago, the impact of those battles and the hand they played in shaping Australia as a nation during the Great War.
The time was 4:00pm on 31 October 1917. The situation seemed grim. Tens of thousands of Allied troops massed around the small Ottoman desert town of Beersheba from three directions. Sunset was not far away and Beersheba had to be captured. Both men and horses were thirsty after long approach marches and a long day of battle in the hot desert weather conditions.
The consequences of a failure to secure the Beersheba water sources were too horrifying to consider for both man and animal.
Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, took a daring decision – he instructed some 800 troopers from the 4th & 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments to conduct a charge of the Ottoman trenches east of Beersheba.
The decision was daring as the Light Horsemen had only ever been trained to attack as mounted infantry, and were neither equipped nor trained in cavalry charging tactics. The troops led the horses towards the Ottoman lines and moved off at a trot. Surprise and speed were their one chance. Facing sustained enemy fire, the mounted infantry charged (with bayonets in hands instead of cavalry sabers), riding under the Turkish guns and clearing the trenches in close combat.
Sgt Charles Doherty of the 12th best summed it up when he said, “In the face of this intense fire, which now included frequent salvos from field artillery, the now maddened horses, straining their hearts to bursting point, had to cross cavernous wadies whose precipitous banks seemed to defy our progress. As we neared the trenches that were belching forth death, horse and rider steeled themselves for the plunge over excavated pitfalls and through that tearing rain of lead.”
Though outnumbered, the audacity of the attack carried them through to victory.
The Ottomans were completely taken by surprise at the speed of the Australian charge. They were expecting them to storm the trenches as infantry. The Light Horsemen’s decision not to dismount or fight as infantry proved to be an act of strategic military ingenuity. The capture of Beersheba was complete by nightfall, and the precious wells of the town secured.
The Australian mounted charge was the climax of The Battle of Beersheba, the first blow inflicted by the Allied Forces on the left flank of the Ottoman defense line. The victory paved the way for General Allenby to make profound strategic advances – moving from the Gaza-Beersheba border to ‘Jerusalem by Christmas’ within only six weeks.
The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba is remembered as the last great cavalry charge and was the first in a line of impressive victories achieved by the Australians during the campaign in the Holy Land, who proved again and again their determination, fine horsemanship and courage.
From the trenches of Beersheba the Australians fought their way north to Jerusalem, the Judean Desert, the Jordan Valley, onto the final offensives in the Holy Land – victory at Semakh and the Battle of Megiddo.
The Light Horse Regiments were largely made up of men from small towns across rural Australia, mounted on horses known as ‘walers’. The actions of the Light Horse at Beersheba became legendary, as they charged over open ground towards entrenched enemy positions.
Today we remember the Australians who were killed or injured in the battle and we are grateful for the service and sacrifice of the men who served in the 4th Light Horse Brigade and of every man and woman who has served in defence of our country.
In the cemetery at Beersheba, 1241 Commonwealth soldiers are buried. Men who sacrificed their lives in service of their country, and expressed values of the highest order: honour, courage, loyalty and duty. Amongst those who were buried at Beersheba was Trooper Earnest Cragges who was 19 when he died. His commanding officer, Lt Edward Ralston wrote, “He rode into action just behind me and the last I saw of him, he was standing in his stirrups and cheering . . . he and I were wounded at the same time, he was hit in the head and chest. I helped him under the cover of his horse which was killed. I held the poor boy’s hands while he passed away. He only lived about 10 minutes after he was wounded and did not have any pain, Thank God”.
The Battle of Beersheba represented the entry of the Allied Forces into the Holy Land, a campaign lasting 11 months until the victorious Australians crossed the Jordan River on their way to Damascus. On the same day of the charge of Beersheba, the British Cabinet approved the Balfour Declaration recognising the rights of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland.
However, its contents were revealed only two days later. It is highly likely that the British Government was waiting for the news of the victory at Beersheba and the entry of the forces into the Holy Land. It was the Balfour Declaration that set off a chain of events leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel – a democracy with values similar to Australia.
The Battle of Beersheba helped overcome the long dark shadow cast by the losses at Gallipoli. Today, it is equally important to remember the history-changing events that resulted from the same fighting spirit exhibited by the ANZACs at Beersheba.
I want to leave you with this quote from historian, Bill Gammage who read scores of lighthorsemen’s diaries and letters before reaching his conclusion:
The fierce individuality with which he fought the Turks, Arabs, and English staff officers lay close to the heart of the Australian lighhorseman. He lived under few restraints and was equally careless of man, God and nature. Yet he stood by his own standards firmly, remaining brave in battle, loyal to his mates, generous to the Turks, and pledged to his King and country. His speech betrayed few of his enthusiasms, and he accepted success and failure equally without demonstration, but the confident dash of the horseman, combined with the practical resource and equanimity of the bushman in him, and moved him alike over the wilderness of Sinai, and the hills of the Holy Land. Probably his kind will not be seen again, for the conditions of war and peace and romance that produced him have almost entirely disappeared”.
We are Australians. We are the custodians and stewards of the ANZAC spirit now and into the future. Each and every one of us gathered here today must take good care of it. (Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith)
Lest we Forget.