The thirty-first of October 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba during the First World War. On this day in 1917, the cavalry charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade broke through Turkish defences to capture the town of Beersheba. This was of great strategic importance as it cleared the way for the British to advance on Gaza, which they had failed to capture on two previous occasions during 1917. Desperate for water, the light horsemen were instructed to use their ‘bayonets as swords’ to attack the Turkish trenches:
At Beersheba … a risk had to be taken in order to obtain water. The men had travelled 80 miles and had fought all day, but General Allenby said: "I must have Beersheba and its wells by sunset, even if it costs a desert corps". Sir Harry Chauvel launched five squadrons of light horse containing 600 or 700 men against an infantry brigade which was dug in. The Australians should not have advanced to within 500 yards of the enemy, but the attack proved successful. It was a gamble. Today, that achievement is held up as a great feat of generalship; but had it failed, the people would have looked for a scapegoat…
These are the words of George Rankin in a Parliamentary debate during the Second World War. Rankin (Member for Bendigo, 1937–49 and Senator for Victoria, 1949–56) was one of four former parliamentarians who served at the Battle of Beersheba during the First World War. The other three were Charles Abbott (Member for Gwydir, 1925–29 and 1931–37), Sir George Bell (Member for Darwin, 1919–22 and 1925–43) and Albert Reid (Senator for NSW, 1949–62).
Both Bell and Reid are mentioned in the First World War Official Histories describing the Battle of Beersheba and the advance of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment during the second phase of the attack:
Approach up the bed of the wady was made impossible by enemy machine-gun fire; and Lieutenant-Colonel G. J. Bell of the 3rd, after consultation with the commanding officer of the Aucklands, decided to move along open ground south of the water-course, with the Aucklands conforming on the north. A spirited gallop under fire carried Bell’s regiment to within 1,500 yards of the enemy position before the men dismounted.
Reid is mentioned in the description of the initial charge on the Turkish trenches:
Captain A.D. Reid, who was leading the squadron of the 4th which followed [Major J] Lawson, dismounted one of his troops to deal with the enemy in the shallow advanced trench, and then pressed on to Lawson’s assistance. In a few minutes the fight there was over.
During their First World War service, all four men received honours and awards. Abbott received Mention in Dispatches; Bell received Mention in Dispatches and the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George; Rankin received Mention in Dispatches twice, the Bar to Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Service Order; and Reid received Mention in Dispatches and the Military Cross.
The battle on 31 October 1917 saw 31 light horsemen killed and another 36 wounded, and also resulted in the death of around 70 horses. The light horse charge demoralised the Turkish and German forces, with 38 officers and 700 other ranks captured. The Official Histories describes the attack from the perspective of a captured German staff officer:
“We did not believe,” he said, “that the charge would be pushed home. That seemed an impossible intention. I have heard a great deal of the fighting quality of Australian soldiers. They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen.” From then to the end of the war the Turks never forgot Beersheba; their cavalry, always shy of the light horsemen, from that hour practically faded out of the war, so afraid were they of a blow from these reckless men who had ridden their big horses over strongly armed entrenchments; and the enemy infantry, when galloped, as after Beersheba they frequently were, invariably shot wildly and surrendered early in the conflict. The charge had dealt a heavy wound to the enemy morale, from the High Command down to the men in the ranks.
This year’s commemoration at Beersheba will feature a re-enactment of the charge, the official opening of the new Light Horse Museum and services to be held at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, the Turkish memorial and the Park of the Australian Soldier.
The Commonwealth War Cemetery at Beersheba has 1,241 graves, of which 173 are identified as Australian. The War Cemetery was established immediately after the fall of Beersheba and by July 1918 it had 139 burials. The number of graves increased after the ‘Armistice when burials were brought in from a number of scattered sites and small burial grounds’. At least 67 graves remain unidentified.
For other relevant military history sources, refer to the Australian War Memorial’s First World War Official Histories, Volume VII, Chapter XXIII – The Battle of Beersheba, and Parliamentary Library publications Commonwealth Members of Parliament who have Served in War: Colonial Wars and the First World War and Military History: a Quick Guide to Online Resources.