The Battle of Beersheba
Thursday 10 October, 2019
“The Charge of the Light Horse at Beer-sheba”. A hand-coloured print of the famous photograph said to depict the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on the 31 October 1917, taken by a Turk whose camera was captured later in the day. An enquiry undertaken with the object of establishing its authenticity revealed that it was probably taken when this brigade staged near Belah, in or about February 1918, a representation or reenactment of the charge for the official cinematographer Frank Hurley.
Of the Battle of Beersheba, Charles Bean, Australia’s Official Historian of the First World War wrote:
“The Light Horsemen knew well that the fate of the battle – and probably the campaign in Palestine – depended on this charge; they also realised, that for the first time, Australian cavalry were actually to charge! For this time the Light Horse were to act purely as cavalry, although with only their bayonets as shock weapons. Australians had never ridden any race like this”.
The Battle of Beersheba, and the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade on 31 October 1917, will forever be remembered not only as a significant battle of World War One, but as one of the most iconic moments in Australian Military History.
In 1917 Beersheba (today Be’er Sheva) was a strongly fortified town. It was a section of the Ottoman defensive line that extended southwest and inland from Gaza. It was anchored to the right end of the defensive line that stretched all the way from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. Turkish and German soldiers manned the line.
This attack was the beginning of the third and final Battle of Gaza. Two earlier attacks in March and April of 1917 had failed and despite Turkish forces being outnumbered two to one, the Allies suffered heavy losses in both of these battles.
Italian and French troop reinforcements were called in to support a renewed offensive prior to the third battle. After the failure of the two previous attacks, it was decided that an attack on the town of Beersheba would allow Gaza to be outflanked and attacked later if required.
The conditions in the Sanai dessert were intensely hot, and water for man and horse was in short supply. Beersheba was (and is still today) the location of several all-year wells that were vital to all military operations in the area.
With fading light, time was running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells. Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew from aerial photographs that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire. The Turks naively assumed that no enemy would attack through the desert. With water supplies perilously low amongst Allied forces the bold decision to mount a desperate, late in the day cavalry charge at the weakest point in the enemy’s defences proved to be military masterstroke.
Due to an earlier German bombing campaign, the 4th Brigade were scattered and it was not until 4.50 pm that they were in position to attack. The Brigade assembled on rising ground, 6 kilometres south-east of Beersheba. The 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right, the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left with the 11th Light Horse Regiment in reserve.
This was the first time that the Australian Light Horse was to be used purely as cavalry. Although they were not equipped with cavalry sabres, the Turks who faced the long bayonets held by the Australians did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry.
The Light Horse moved off at the trot, and quickened to a gallop. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire. However the pace of the Light Horse was too fast for the gunners. Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the Light Horse approached.
At full gallop, the Australians raced towards the Turks, using their bayonets as swords. Horsemen charging at full pace leapt the trenches at the height of the attack. The Turkish defence was overrun around Beersheba through sheer speed and surprise.
One of the Australian horseman, Private Keddie later recalled: “we were all at the gallop yelling like mad – some had bayonets in their hands others their rifle then it was a full stretch gallop at the trenches…the last 200 yards or so was good going and those horses put on pace and next were jumping the trenches with the Turks underneath…when over the trenches we went straight for the town.”
Once clear of the trenches, some of the Light Horse dismounted and attacked the Turks in savage hand to hand combat. Others continued on to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons continued straight into Beersheba.
The success of the charge was in the shock value and sheer speed in which they took the town, its water supply, food, fodder and weapons before it could be destroyed by a retreating Turkish force. With the exception of a few, all the wells of Beersheba were intact. Additional water was available from pools that that been filled by storms.
On 7 November 1917 the Turks pulled out of Gaza.
The Battle of Beersheba is considered by many to be Australia’s first great World War One victory and a turning point in the Palestine Campaign.
War historian Dr Jonathan King, author of Palestine Diaries described the decision to charge cavalry style, rather than their usual strategy of riding almost to the frontline and then dismounting to fight hand to hand due to the desperate need to capture Beersheba’s water supply in the following manner:
“…the 800 horsemen charged out of the desert and just leapt over the trenches straight into the Beersheba town, captured the water wells and all of the town…It was history’s last cavalry charge and it was the finest cavalry charge in history.”
A German staff officer captured in Beersheba is reported to have said, “We did not believe the charge would be pushed home”. Of the fighting qualities of Australian troopers he observed, “They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen.”
One Light Horsemen recalled later, “It was the horses that did it; those marvellous bloody horses. Where would we have been but for them?”
31 light horsemen were killed in the charge and 36 were wounded. At least 70 horses died. The Turkish defenders suffered many casualties, including 500 killed and over 1,500 captured.
Lest We Forget.