Battle of Be’ersheva

Speech at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetry, Be’ersheva
31 October 2014

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.

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.

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