Beersheba remembered

November 6, 2014 by J-Wire Staff
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At the annual ceremony commemorating the 1917 Battle of Beersheba, the city’s mayor referred to a proposed project with the Australian government to establish a permanent museum in the city.

 

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97 years ago, on the morning of October 31, 1917, some 120,000 Australian, New Zealand and British troops participated in the Battle of Beersheba. Their victory marked a turning point in the World War I Palestine Campaign. It allowed Allied forces to outflank the Ottoman defensive line stretching from Gaza to Beersheba, opening the way for the capture of Gaza, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tiberias. The taking of Beersheba was the first step in bringing an end to Ottoman rule in Palestine. It and subsequent battles of the Palestine Campaign are widely recognized as critical on the long road toward the establishment of Israel in 1948.

The critical victory at Beersheba and those that followed came at a heavy price for both sides. 1241 Commonwealth soldiers, including 175 Australians, were buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beersheba.

Paying respect

Paying respect

On 31 October the Australian Embassy together with the City of Be’er Sheva commemorated, as it does each year, the Australian and New Zealand contribution. Despite the rain over three hundred people – including Australian, New Zealand, Turkish, German, British and Israeli diplomats and military attaches; Multinational Force Observers, UNTSO and Beersheba Municipality representatives, as well as members of Australian Zionist youth groups, an Australian delegation of Bridges for Peace and members of the Australian community in Israel gathered at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

The municipality then held a service at the Turkish obelisk in Mustafa Kamel Ataturk Plaza and at the Park of the Australian Soldier, a Pratt Foundation project.

The Australian Embassy’s Memorial Service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery included a Catafalque Party made up of Australian and New Zealand soldiers from the Multinational Force Observers, stationed in Sinai, as well as readings of Psalm 121 by Rabbi Raymond Apple.

Australian Ambassador, Dave Sharma spoke in great detail of the battle and stated that, “Most importantly, it (the charge on Be’er Sheva) helped frame the shape of the post-war settlement – which still reverberates across the Middle East even today.

After Be’er Sheva, Allied troops went on to capture Jericho and Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo.

The so-called Sykes-Picot settlement – the borders and states of the modern Middle East – is under strain elsewhere. But one element in particular of it endures.

For it was on this very same day, 31 October 1917, that the British War Cabinet approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations, setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.”

At the cemetery the Mayor of Be’er Sheva, Ruvik Danilovich, spoke of the next three years as being particularly crucial in creating a deeper awareness of the contribution of the Anzacs to his city and of his intentions, together with Australian government representatives and philanthropic organizations to establish a museum in their memory.

Australia’s ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma delivered this detailed address of the historic 1917 battle:

“97 years ago, on this very day, as the sun began to sink over the horizon of the Negev Desert, horsemen of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments lined up on the high ground, to the south east of Ottoman-held Be’er Sheva.

It was late in the day.

The attack on Be’er Sheva had commenced at 555 that morning, with an artillery barrage. The morning offensives had been largely successful. British infantry had destroyed Turkish defences to the south-west of town, and Australian forces had cut the road running northeast from Be’er Sheva to Hebron.

But the capture of Tel el Saba, a hill three kilometres to the east of the town, had taken longer than expected, and only after fierce and resolute fighting from the New Zealand brigade.

Turkish defenders continued to hold the town, and the all-important wells of Be’er Sheva.

Dr Danny Lamm and Australian ambassador Dave Sharma

Dr Danny Lamm and Australian ambassador Dave Sharma

And so a last desperate push was required if the town of Be’ersheva was to be captured on this first day, as General Allenby’s campaign plan demanded, and as he had ordered General Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, by telegraph only hours earlier.

If the defenders of Be’ersheva had held on until darkness fell, the Ottoman high command might be able to send reinforcements or make an orderly withdrawal and destroy the precious wells.

Two earlier Allied attempts to break the Turkish defensive line running from Gaza on the coast to Be’er Sheva 43 kilometres inland – the First and Second Battles of Gaza – had failed. This was the third attempt.

So as the sun was shifting low in the sky, Chauvel mulled over his options for a final push on Be’er Sheva.

Had Tel el Saba fallen earlier, a dismounted attack would surely have been the preferred course of action. But with day light steadily fading, this was no longer an option.

The only remaining option was a galloping charge. The commander of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, Grant, and the commander of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry Brigade, Fitzgerald, pleaded with Chauvel for the honour to lead it.

Fitzgerald’s yeomanry had their swords and were close behind Chauvel’s headquarters. Grant’s Australians had only their rifles and bayonets, but were nearer Be’er Sheva. Chauvel chose to give the lead to the light horsemen.

And so it was that at 430pm that afternoon, the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments drew up behind a ridge some four miles to the south-east of the town.

Somewhere between them and the town lay a system of enemy trenches, captured in aerial photographs but not able to be definitively located.

“Already the horses were casting long shadows as troop after troop moved into position, and the light, although still clear, had that uncertain quality which marks the failing day.”

The two regiments moved off at the trot, deploying at once until there was a space of five yards between the horsemen.

Surprise and speed were their one chance, and almost at once their pace quickened to a gallop.

Following close behind were supporting forces, from the 11th Light Horse Regiment and from the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades.

Facing sustained enemy fire, but moving fast, the horsemen quickly fell upon enemy lines, jumping the trenches, dismounting their horses, and then entering the trenches on foot, clearing them with both rifle and bayonet.

Other parts of the force rode on, heading directly for the town.

The momentum of the surprise attack carried them, though outnumbered, through Turkish defences.

As the official Australian war history recounts, “the swift, thundering rush of successive waves of horsemen over the dusty ground in the failing light had bewildered and deceived the Turkish infantry”, who believed the attacking force to be at least a division strong.

The light horsemen took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Be’er Sheva. Some 750 Turkish and German soldiers were taken prisoner.

The cavalry equivalent of ‘shock and awe’ had worked.

“The enemy had been beaten rather by the sheer recklessness of the charge than by the very limited fighting power of this handful of Australians”.

The capture of Be’er sheva was complete by nightfall, and the Gaza-Be’ersheva defensive line broken.

Most importantly, the precious wells were secured.

Not since the days of Abraham had the water in the old wells of the patriarchs been such welcome relief.

The stronghold of Gaza itself fell one week later.

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, the outcome of the First World War has an almost pre-ordained quality.

But in October 1917 it looked quite different.

At that time, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Germany were holding firm.

And it was the governments who had brought the Allied Powers into the war – the Asquith Government in Britain, the Viviani Government in France, and the Czar in Russia – which had collapsed or been overthrown.

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign and military catastrophes and setbacks in Mesopotamia and on the Western Front had greatly damaged Allied morale, as had defeats in the first and second battles of Gaza earlier that year.

Of only peripheral importance when the First World War broke out in 1914, by 1917 the Middle East theatre had become critical to the outcome.

The success of General Allenby’s campaign – which began here, on this day, 97 years ago – turned the outcome of the war.

Most importantly, it helped frame the shape of the post-war settlement – which still reverberates across the Middle East even today.

After Be’er Sheva, Allied troops went on to capture Jericho and Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo.

The so-called Sykes-Picot settlement – the borders and states of the modern Middle East – is under strain elsewhere. But one element in particular of it endures.

For it was on this very same day, 31 October 1917, that the British War Cabinet approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations.

Setting off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

The Battle of Be’er Sheva, though mild by the standards of the bloody Western Front, nonetheless exacted its share of human tragedy.

31 Light Horsemen were killed in the charge. But the heaviest Allied losses were suffered by the British infantry. New Zealand also suffered for its heroic effort in taking Tel el Saba.

Brave Turkish and German troops died that day as well, defending their lines, and in large numbers.

Jewish-Australians made up part of the ANZAC contingent. Most famous amongst them was Major Eric Montague Hyman, who was raised in Tamworth and lead the A Squadron of the 12th Light Horse Regiment.

He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his role in the charge, for “conspicuous gallantry and dash in action”.

In the cemetery around us, 1241 Commonwealth soldiers who gave their lives in service of their country, are buried, some of whom fought in this very battle we are commemorating.

We come here today to pay our respects to those men of all countries and nations who fought in this deadly theatre of the First World War.

We recognise that those who were ready to sacrifice their life in service of their country displayed values of the highest order that we hold so dear: honour, courage, loyalty and duty.

Today, we honour their memory.”

Comments

9 Responses to “Beersheba remembered”
  1. Adrian Jackson says:

    You added some additional information but want I said was correct.

  2. Adrian Jackson says:

    Indian (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and North African (French colonial) units were also deployed to Palestine.

  3. Adrian Jackson says:

    The Australian Light Horse (ALH), like the mounted New Zealanders, in the Desert Mounted Corps were infantry mounted on horses not cavalry so that is why they had rifles and bayonets and not swords or lances. The horse was used for transport and generally not to fight from (Beersheba being an exception). Australia is the size of Europe so that is why the ALH was conceived decades earlier by Chauvel and others. Foot infantry movement is slow over a vast area

    • Crusty says:

      Adrian,

      – Yes, the ALH were mounted infantry, but
      All of your other statements are wrong:
      – simply visit http://www.lighthorse.org.au/resources/history-of-the-australian-light-horse/the-mounted-soldiers-of-australia
      ‘In 1854, three colonial governments created their own small cavalry forces, partly from fear of Russian invasion. This began the tradition of Australia’s mounted citizen soldiers. In the 1899 -1901 South African war, eventually all Australian infantrymen were put on horseback.’

      – The formation of the ALH had nothing to do with preparations for a war in Europe …. a few regiments were sent to the Western Front, but were mostly used behind the lines or in flanking/support roles, see:
      http://www.lancers.org.au/site/Light_Horse_France.asp

      Let’s not ‘gild the lilly’ .. !

      • Adrian Jackson says:

        My comment explained the difference between cavalry and mounted infantry (LH) and the need for Australian infantry to have better mobility due to the size of our country, that all. Got it !! I was not wrong and you only added more information.

        Yes there were some small cavalry unit in the 1880’s but they never amounted to much and were never deployed overseas as far as I know. I think they were more gentlemen clubs who played polo a lot.

        Chauvel (his father actually) was involved in the creation of the mounted infantry units in NSW in the mid to late 1800’s while Sir Harry was involved in theri raising in Qld. The various colonial (now states) deployed LH units to South Africa and after federation in 1901 further Commonwealth LH units were deployed.

        My comment about Australia being the size of Europe was to note the scale of Australia and the need for mobility for the infantry. I thought my comment made that quite clear.

        LH units were deployed to the Western front but they were dismounted (horses were not need in static trench warfare) but the LH in Palestine were mounted. The British deployed cavalry and lancer units in the first months of the war in Europe for uses as screens and reconnaissance during the German advance into Belgium and France.

  4. Adrian Jackson says:

    It is all a bit late for a museum as the last 1st AIF soldier died in 2005. Also Beersheba (as we Australians call it) is a small town that is not likely to be on a tourist route being so close to Gaza so who would visit it? It would be just like the El Alamein museum in Egypt (near Alexandria) which was pretty ordinary when I saw it in 1984 despite 1/3 of the graves at the cemetery being 2nd AIF soldiers. The El Alamein museum had more about the Yom Kippur war that WW2 so would that happen at Beersheba too?

    In military history terms the Desert Mounted Corps commanded by Australian Lt Gen Sir Harry Chauvel took more ground with far fewer casualties than the campaigns on the Western or Eastern Fronts but the aftermath of WW1 has been chaos. The Ottoman Empire should have been left intact. The similar break up of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires only laid the seeds of WW2.

    • Crusty says:

      With respect Adrian,
      Your argument has no basis:
      – the Australian War Memorial in Canberra needn’t bother displaying material prior to WWII, using your logic, as all of the AIF and Boer War soldiers have passed on.
      Clearly, that idea is ridiculous.
      – by Israeli measures, Beersheba is not so close to Gaza – it is simply half as close as Jerusalem.
      Google it: a city of approximately 200,000 inhabitants and lots of tourists go there.
      – Why would the proposed Beersheba Museum “look just like the El Alamein museum …” etc ??
      There is no intention of the sponsoring organisations to commemorate other than WWI.
      – As the Israeli Ambassador stated in the other recent Beersheba article in JWire:
      http://www.jwire.com.au/remembering-light-horse/
      “The Great War profoundly shaped our world. It drove into the dust the archaic doctrine that ‘might is right’; that nations might advance themselves by selfish aggression.”
      “In their efforts to recreate a world that would never again fight such a horrible war, those at the Paris Peace Conference, and in the League of Nations, tried to redraw the map of Europe based on the simple ideas that just nations should be formed by the will of the people, for the prosperity of the people and that all nations are equal in their sovereignty.”
      – The seeds (extreme nationalism and antisemitism) of WWII were fertilized by the misguided economics of the victorious allies: unrealistic reparations, followed by the depression.
      These mistakes were not repeated after WWII.
      – Finally Adrian, I was thinking of congratulating you for your comment, “In military history terms the Desert Mounted Corps commanded by Australian Lt Gen Sir Harry Chauvel took more ground with far fewer casualties than the campaigns on the Western or Eastern Fronts.” But even that judgement is disingenuous. Geographically and militarily those campaigns cannot be compared: desert warfare versus populated and urban battles ?!?!
      Not a fair call.
      Anyway, apart from that …. there’s nothing else wrong with your comments.

      • Adrian Jackson says:

        It a bit late for a new museum as there are no WW1 digger left to visit it was my point. The AWM in Canberra was completed in about 1940 only 22 years after WW1 ended when a fair number of 1st AIF men and nurses were still alive (about 60,000 were KIA to 1918 and a further 60,000 had dead by 1930).

        The carve up of Europe and war reparations caused much resentment and helped create fascist governments. Even the ally Italy went fascist as they, like Japan, where most sidelined at Versailles but Britain, France and the USA, particularly the pompus Woodrow Wilson.

        Russia who dragged France and Britain into war bailed out before the war ended when the Bolsheviks took over. Russia was an ally of the Serbs (Orthodox religion) in it dispute with Austria. Austria then dragged Germany into the war and the Ottomans jumped the wrong way and sided with Austria and Germany. Russia caused WW1 (yes there were economic rivalty too between all participants). The USSR got what was coming to it in WW2 with 20 million dead.

        The League of Nations was a “paper tiger” and did nothing about Japanese aggression in Manchuria or the Italian invasion of Ethopia.

        The small nations in Europe have not been much of a success so after WW2 they invented the Common Market (later the EU) or 4th Reich as some call it but even now many of the small countries are economic basket cases except for German and few others.

        The comment about Chauvel campaign was simply a statement of fact.

        • Otto Waldmann says:

          Easy, Mr. history compendium on back of one way bus ticket !!! Your destination is in important places ” Nowhere” mainly your merry-go-round notion of “who dragged who in WW1”. Alliances , Antante were formed well before June 1914, try a few decades. That’s elementary history and the “even Italy became fascist” badly misplaced chronologically; Italy was the FIRST fascist state, followed by Hungary. Expansion was not the “domain” of fascist dedicated systems, non fascist states, Great Britain, France even USA big time expanded in the same period more than ever, carving up entire continents. Some main losers, Turkey, Austro-Hungary, stayed home and shrunk to inconsequence, although Hungary got some 30% of lost Transylvania in 1940. As about WW1 creating antisemitism, once again, back to the black board quite a bit, a few good – actually very bad – centuries. Otherwise, what horses were doing in some places…….very important !!!

          ( my ticket, yes, but at least it takes you to the right destination )

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