Semakh 100th anniversary commemoration

October 17, 2018 by Jill Curry
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The centenary of the battle of Semakh has been recently commemorated in Israel. 

Ambassador Cannan r and Chris Smith, a LH soldier’s relative at the monument

Semakh lies at the foot of Lake Kinneret and is now the site of the Kinneret College.  The college has undertaken to restore the railway station building, retain the Anzac history and remember the lives lost to conquer this strategic village and railway junction in World War 1.  

The battle entailed a moonlight charge into heavy machine gun fire from the trenches and the well-fortified station building and ensuing hand-to-hand combat through every room of the building until the Turks and Germans were overcome or surrendered.  It was a fierce fight – the last major battle in Galilee, and the final one in Israel before going on to take Damascus on October 1, and subsequently the remainder of Syria before the armistice in the Middle East on October 30. Nineteen ANZACs lost their lives and each is now remembered with a small eucalyptus plant and plaque in their memory.

The ceremony at the restored site was addressed by the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Chris Cannan, the Jordan Valley Regional Council Mayor, Idan Greenbaum, the President of Kinneret College, Prof Shimon Gepstein, and the Israeli head of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Yigal Selah.  Jill Curry from Australia explained the battle and long-term Israeli resident and tour guide, Stan Goodenough, referred to biblical prophecy and how the Anzac breakthrough had ended the Ottoman Empire, which together with the Balfour declaration, had paved the way for the Jewish people to return and become a nation again.  About 100 enthusiastic Australians and New Zealanders attended, including one Australian whose grandfather had fought in the battle of Semakh.

A special item in word and dance was given by Kerry Johnston who represented the Australian aboriginal soldiers who fought in the battle as part of the 11th Light Horse regiment. Merita Mannings sang a special ballad written about the battle of Semakh.  It was a wonderful occasion of remembering the past while seeing the vibrant life that has stemmed from this victory.  Semakh means ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ or something that is growing.  Today, young students, both Jews and Arabs, study on these grounds.  They demonstrate the life of Israel and the future of the nation.  Semakh in several biblical passages is used to refer to the coming Messiah as ‘the Branch’.  This is also the future hope of the nation.

The Australian Light Horse Association has plans to erect a statue to the aboriginal riders at the site, once sufficient funds have the raised to complete this project.  

The Megiddo Sweep and Semakh

Following the dramatic breakthrough of the charge of the ANZAC Light Horse troops at Beersheba on October 31, 1918, the British and Allied forces were able to drive the Turkish armies from southern Palestine and capture Jerusalem.  However, it took another major military breakthrough to end the Ottoman Empire, which began on September 19, 2018 and continued until the armistice was complete on October 31, 1918. This saw the liberation of today’s northern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – 560 km in six weeks, on foot or horseback – some travelling 800 km.

The last major battle in Galilee was at the railway intersection of Semakh at the foot of the Sea of Galilee.  On September 25, 1918, the 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment and part of the 12th Light Horse were given the task of capturing this village, which was heavily defended by German and Turkish troops. The troops arrived under the cover of darkness, and Brigadier Grant ordered a moonlight charge of the station. Machine gun fire from the tower felled many horses and took several casualties before the Australian machine gunners eventually silenced the German guns.  The troops broke down the door of the building and engaged in hand-to-hand combat through every room of the station building.  Seventeen Australians died and 27 were wounded with nearly half their horses being lost.  They killed 98 mostly Germans and captured 365. 

Strategic in this fierce little battle was an aboriginal contingent called the ‘Queensland Black Watch’ which had joined the 11th Light Horse Regiment as reinforcements.  At the outbreak of World War 1, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were forbidden to enlist under the Defence Act, as they were not ‘white’ enough, despite many being skilled riders and shooters.  Some faked their identity or pretended to be from other backgrounds but most were turned away.  By 1918, recruitments were harder to find, and the requirements were relaxed.  One of those who fought at Semakh was Frank Fisher, the great-grandfather of Olympic sprinter, Cathy Freeman.  Despite their sacrifice for their nation, after returning to Australia, they were not given the same rights as other veteran soldiers.  Next year, it is planned to erect a statue of a mounted aboriginal rider at the Semakh station.

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