Abra­ham Rabi­novich at­tends a spe­cial cer­e­mony in Is­rael to mark the brave Aus­tralian horse­men who fought there in World War I

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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