SANDS OF BEERSHEBA
Abraham Rabinovich attends a special ceremony in Israel to mark the brave Australian horsemen who fought there in World War I
BRIAN Cantwell was 20 before his father, Jack, talked to him about the charge at Beersheba. It was the night before Anzac Day one year when he broke down and told me something about it,’’ Brian told me at the dedication of the Australian Light Horse Memorial in Beersheba in April.
Jack Cantwell was one of 800 Australian horsemen who participated in one of the most dramatic, consequential yet under-publicised events in Australian military history: the charge that led to the capture of Beersheba during World War I.
Brian was among more than 100 descendants, dignitaries and history buffs who visited Israel from Australia last month to participate in a series of events aimed at placing Beersheba and the Palestine campaign of 1917-18 firmly on Australia’s mental map alongside Gallipoli and the battlefields of the Western Front.
The development of an Australian-oriented tourism infrastructure around Beersheba will mark the place where these men made their distinctive mark.
The attack at Beersheba by the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade on October 31, 1917, has been termed the last great cavalry charge’’ of the modern era. What made it exceptional was that the soldiers were not cavalrymen but mounted infantrymen. Cavalry traditionally fought from the saddle with sabres or rifles, but by the mid-19th century cavalrymen had become too vulnerable to defenders armed with repeating rifles.
The mounted infantrymen who replaced them moved on horseback to the edge of the battlefield where they dismounted and moved forward to engage the enemy on foot.
To defend the Suez Canal from Turkish forces during World War I, the British command in Egypt put an army into the Sinai desert, which separated Egypt from Palestine. By 1917, this force had crossed into southern Palestine. When two attacks launched on the main Turkish positions in Gaza on the Mediterranean coast ended in failure, Edmund Allenby was sent from the Western Front to the Middle East to take over the stalled expeditionary force.
The British general approved plans for a third offensive. Instead of trying once more to break through at Gaza, the allied force would stage its main attack at Beersheba, 50km inland. The biblical site was the eastern anchor of the Turkish line and also contained wells; water was more precious to a desert army than petrol would be in future wars.
The British had laid a railroad and water pipes through Sinai that enabled a logistical build-up on the Palestine border, but the move towards Beersheba across the Negev desert was dependent on local wells. The troopers would fill their hats with water and offer it to their horses before drinking themselves. The Australians were mounted on sturdy walers that could go 48 hours without water. But the force attacking Beersheba would be at the end of its logistical tether. If the towns’ wells were not captured on the first day of battle, the army would have to withdraw.
The attack force was commanded by Henry Chauvel, the first Australian general to command an army corps. The Turkish defenders, with input from German generals, had built stout defences. The battle began at dawn with a heavy British artillery bombardment. Two British infantry divisions attacked from the southwest while the Australian and Anzac Mounted Divisions circled to the southeast.
Stiff resistance permitted only limited advances during the daylong battle. With the sun beginning to descend, Chauvel made a bold decision. Instead of pressing the attack on foot, he would use the Light Horse as cavalry in a direct assault on the Turkish positions defending the town. Air reconnaissance had shown that there was no barbed wire that would serve as an impediment.
Command of the charge was given to Murray Bourchier, who was to lead his own 4th Light Horse Regiment and the 12th Light Horse Regiment in the assault. When he was promoted to lieutenant colonel two years before, the recommendation had noted that he was always quite cool and collected, and this had a very good effect on his men’’. There was time only for a quick briefing of the troops. They were told that they would be attacking across 6km of open terrain in view of the enemy gunners and they would not stop until they had entered the Turkish lines.
Rifles would be kept slung across their shoulders and they would use the bayonets, detached from the rifles, as sabres when they reached the trenches.
The grimness of the prospect was recalled by Jack Cantwell, then a sergeant, as he related the scene to Brian, who told me his father’s lieutenant came up and asked, What do you think, Jack?’’ After a brief talk, the officer said to the sergeant: Ask the boys if they’re ready.’’
Soon after 4.30pm, the two horse regiments in formation topped a small rise and saw Beersheba to their front. Led by Bourchier, they moved forward at a trot, straightening the line as they went and keeping a 4.5m spread between the men to reduce losses to shrapnel.
According to Brian, My father told me that once they took off there was no turning back. They were told the wells had to be captured.’’
Artillery shells began exploding around them and machineguns joined in as the attackers drew closer. To the astonishment of the defenders, the horsemen, approaching in three waves, did not halt to dismount when they reached rifle range. Instead, they pushed their mounts into a gallop and charged straight at the trenches. The Turks were unable to readjust their gun sights before the Australians were on them.
The surprise unnerved the hitherto stubborn defenders, many of whom fled or surrendered. Jack and three of his men captured a machinegun,’’ Brian says. They took prisoner an officer and 200 of his men.
The officer was wearing medals, which my father took. I still have them.’’
While some of the attack force swept through the trenches, the rest continued into the town to secure the wells before they could be blown up. Fifteen of Beersheba’s 17 wells were captured intact. Thirty-two Australians were killed in the attack, an exceedingly low figure attributable to the surprise.
The capture of Beersheba opened the way for the allied army to begin moving northward. On December 9, it reached Jerusalem. Less than a year later, Chauvel led the Light Horse brigades into Damascus. The breakthrough at Beersheba had been a key link in the unravelling of the Ottoman empire, the establishment of the British mandate in Palestine and the creation of new nationstates in the region, including Israel.
In speaking of his father, Brian’s eyes well up in pride. He hadn’t joined up for adventure. He and his mates went to prove a point, to establish Australia as part of the empire. These men were elite, the equivalent of the SAS today.’’
At the dedication ceremony, GovernorGeneral Michael Jeffrey, who shared the podium with Israeli President Shimon Peres, said the charge at Beersheba was an integral part of the Anzac legend. The bravery, initiative and determination of the Light Horse exemplified the values of duty, loyalty, humour and mateship that, as Australians, we so revere today.’’
And among the proud sons attending the ceremony was Keith Reid, whose father, Robert, was a major who led a squadron in the attack. The Beersheba charge, Robert believes, deserves to emerge from the shadows of Gallipoli where his father, like many of the others at Beersheba, had also fought. Gallipoli was a waste of time and a waste of men,’’ he said. Beersheba served a purpose, which was to shorten the war. Gallipoli was a defeat. Beersheba was a victory.’’
Riding to victory: Australian horsemen re-enact the Beersheba cavalry charge last year, main picture; descendants of the Light Horsemen who joined the tribute, top right; riders cheered on by locals, bottom right