A century ago next week, on 31 October 1917, the Australian Light Horse arrived at a small town called Bir Saba´ –– Beersheba –– some 55 kilometres south of Jerusalem in then-Palestine. The troops had made a gruelling overnight march to get there.
They were exhausted. Their mounts had not drunk for 48 hours. The water they needed was in the town, in Jacob’s Well and other wells.
Senior officers met mid-afternoon to discuss their next move. Beersheba, with its wells, must be taken that day. Tension flared over tactics.
His men were about to engage the Ottoman Turkish enemy in a desperate battle that has been noted in the history books as the greatest charge by the Australian Light Horse. Some say it was some say the most successful cavalry charge ever. It immortalised the name Beersheba.
The Turks held a 60-km line between Gaza on the coast and Beersheba in the desert to the east. Two attacks on Gaza had already failed, at great cost. Soon after the second failure at Gaza on 19 April 1917 a new army commander took over. General Sir Edmund Allenby (pictured), an experienced and successful cavalry leader, decided to take command of the troops in the field.
The German-led Turks watched as the Australians formed up. The attack started at a walk, then began to trot, moved to a canter, then to a gallop. The German officers recognised the advancing formation. They ordered the Turks to wait until the troops dismounted, then open fire. Field guns were sighted on the horsemen; the infantry set their rifle sights to 1500 metres.
Turkish artillery opened fire with shrapnel that exploded in front of the formation, then among the galloping horsemen. Some were hit, then, after a brief zone of casualties, the lines galloped free. The Turks could not wind down their guns fast enough to take aim at the fast-moving troops. Soon the shells were bursting behind the charge.
On cresting the rise 800 metres in front of the Turks’ semi-circular trench system, machine guns and a thousand rifles opened fire, emptying many saddles and felling their riders.
The Light Horsemen spurred their horses; there was wild yelling, coo-eeing and even laughter. Long bayonets were held as swords and at full gallop they bore down on the Beersheba defence. The Turkish soldiers, unnerved by the mass of Light Horsemen thundering closer, forgot to adjust their rifle sights. Their bullets whistled harmlessly over the attackers’ heads.
At the trenches many horses were brought down and others were impaled on bayonets. The greater number of horsemen who cleared the trenches or avoided them by veering right or left, galloped straight for the enemy guns, capturing them intact, then, continuing their gallop, rode on to Beersheba. Victorian Sculptor Peter Corlett created this monument to the charge, now placed in the Park of the Australian Soldier in Beersheba.
Trooper John (Chook) Fowler recalls – “The Turks were big men, too big for me to tangle with so I kept going; the fire was now very heavy. I felt something hit my haversack and trousers and later, on inspection I found a hole in my haversack and two holes in my trousers. Some horses and riders were now falling near me and all my five senses were working overtime and a ‘six sense’ came into action: it is called the sense of survival. No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did.”
(Bandicoot searched unsuccessfully for a photograph of John Fowler in the Australian War Memorial records.)
From the time the regiments received orders to saddle up until the entry into Beersheba, less than one hour had passed. It had been a glorious hour, filled not only with military achievement of a rare kind, but with memorable deeds by individuals.
It saved an army and set it on the way to Jerusalem.
Men killed: 31. Wounded: 36. Horses killed: 70. Wounded: an unknown number.
The Light Horsemen and their superb horses had carried out the most successful charge in the history of the war, some say the most successful in history, against what had seemed impossible odds. But as one Light Horseman said, “It was the horses that did it; those marvellous bloody horses. Where would we have been but for them?”
Many of their riders, finding they were not permitted to bring their mounts home, shot them rather than sell them locally –– an act of disobedience officialdom ignored, knowing the love the men had for their mounts.
■ The horses were known affectionately as “Walers”. They became legendary in India, in South Africa during the Boer War and in the Middle East during WW1. British troops dubbed them Walers because they were bred in New South Wales.