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Years of work make cavalry charge celebration a winner

November 2, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Years of work by tour organisers have culminated in a superb commemoration of the centenary of one of Australia’s greatest military victories, the Battle of  Beersheba.

The event in Israel, held to mark the centenary of Australia’s first major World War I victory and history’s last great cavalry charge, was attended by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.

Already people are asking how this great Australian-led victory could have been largely forgotten in favour of the tragic British-led defeat at Gallipoli.

The Beersheba commemoration rewarded years of work by organisers and by the wholesalers and agents who sold it.

The commemoration attracted hundreds of Australian tourists and was supported by modern-day Israel, which in 1917 did not exist. The Australian Financial Review noted that Israel’s oldest newspaper, Haaretz, dedicated two stories to previewing the event in its Monday edition, including a front-page picture story.

Motor ambulances waiting near the Beersheba town mosque in 1917

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an address. Separate Australian and New Zealand services took place (New Zealand Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy attended the New Zealand service) and the highlight was a re-enactment of the charge involving almost 100 horses.

The heroic and decisive attack in 1917 involved the 4th Light Horse Brigade, which charged across more than three kilometres of open ground into the face of Ottoman Turkish artillery and machinegun fire to successfully capture the town of Beersheba. New Zealanders also fought in the battle, in the ANZAC Mounted Division, and a daring and successful New Zealand bayonet attack preceded the Australian horse charge.

The slouch hats of the Australian Light Horse regiments returned to Beersheba in 2007, 90 years after the 1917 battle, as 50 riders repeated the famous charge (see picture). An Aussie and Kiwi contingent attended this year to mark the battle’s centenary.

In 100 years, Beersheba has grown from a southern outpost of the Ottoman Empire to the largest city in the Negev desert of southern Israel, with a population of about 200,000. Often referred to as the ‘Capital of the Negev’, Beersheba maintains a Commonwealth cemetery containing the graves of Australian and British soldiers on the edge of its Old Town. There is also a memorial park dedicated to the soldiers.

The famous charge of 1917 began late in the afternoon, when the horsemen, armed with rifles and 18-inch-long (45cm) bayonets, set off at a trot. Then, using surprise and speed, they broke into a gallop straight at the Turkish trenches. Beersheba’s defences were held by 1000 Turkish riflemen, nine machine guns and two aircraft.

This is an earlier re-enactment of the Australian Light Horse charge. It took place 10 years ago, on the 90th anniversary of the WW1 Battle of Beersheba.

The speed of the attack caused such suprise that the defenders failed to adjust their gunsights, and as the horses thundered ever closer, much Turkish gunfire, including a hail of machinegun bullets, passed harmlessly overhead.

The light horsemen jumped the front trenches, dismounted behind enemy lines, turned and fought the Ottoman forces hand-to-hand with bayonets. The shock and surprise were so great that demoralised Ottoman forces quickly surrendered. One Australian, dazed after having his horse shot from under him, recovered to find his five attackers standing with their hands up, waiting to be taken prisoner.

A final irony of the charge, considered one of the most successful cavalry charges of the 20th century, is that it was not conducted by cavalry at all, but rather by mounted infantry. There were no sabres, just guns and bayonets.

The 4th Light Horse Brigade took 38 officers and 700 other ranks prisoner in the capture of Beersheba  and captured four field guns. In the two regiments involved, 31 men were killed (including two officers) and 36 men wounded (including eight officers). The Turkish defenders suffered many casualties and between 700 and 1000 troops were captured. At least 70 horses died.

Written by Peter Needham

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