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The Charge at Beersheba 31 October 1917

by Doug Lennox OAM

  Introduction  

One of the regiments that took part in the charge at Beersheba was the 12th Light Horse Regiment (AIF). Later this regiment was to become the 12th Light Horse Regiment (New England Light Horse) from 1919 to 1942 and from 1948 the 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers. The Regiment has a proud history, but unfortunately most of its history has never been written.

On the 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse was engaged in a battle that has been noted in the history books as the greatest charge by the Australian Light Horse. This charge took place some 34 miles south of Jerusalem at a town called Beersheba.

  Background go to top of page

The Turks held a 60-Km line between Gaza on the coast and Beersheba to the east. Over the months, two attacks on Gaza had failed at great cost. Soon after the second failure at Gaza on the 19th April 1917 a new Army Commander took over. General Sir Edmund Allenby G.C.B. G.C.M.G. an experienced and successful cavalry leader succeeded Sir Archibald Murray. He decided to take command of the troops in the field himself. This action was appreciated by all ranks. General Allenby planned to strike at the other end of the line, at a town called Beersheba. The main difficulty of this plan was the lack of adequate water supplies.

Moving up to Beersheba

A study of the Palestine Exploration Fund, disclosed that Khalasa and a town called Asluj had once maintained a considerable population. It was revealed that the wells in these towns had been used in modem times and that about two weeks work by the Australian and New Zealand engineers could provide water for two cavalry divisions, thus making the projected operation possible.

On the afternoon of 28 October 1917 the 4th Brigade moved out for Esani, bivouacking there until the evening of the 29th October 1917, when a move was made to Khalasa. On the 30th October 1917 the 4th Light Horse Brigade had circled into the waterless country to the East and after a long detour arrived on the morning of the 31st October 1917 at a point approximately five miles north of Beersheba.

Moving up to Beershebs

After a greulling night march from the south, the British infantry launched their attack from the south and west of Beersheba at dawn on the 31st October 1917. For this operation to succeed, Beersheba had to be taken in one day, otherwise this huge force would exhaust its water supply. Most of the horses had at this time been without water for 48 hours and the nearest adequate water supply for the Desert Mounted Corps was some 12 hours ride away. As sunset approached, most of the positions had been taken, but Beersheba with its legendary water wells was still in the hands of the Turks.

  Orders go to top of page

At approximately 3pm, General Chauvel summoned General Hodgson of the Mounted Division, Brigadier General Fitzgerald of the 5th Mounted Yeomanry and Brigadier General Grant of the 4th Light Horse Brigade. In a controversial exchange the decision was made to charge Beersheba. Fitzgerald and Grant pleaded for the honour of a galloping attack. Fitzgerald's British Yeomanry had their swords and were close to Chauvel's Headquarters.

Moving up to Beersheba

The 4th Light Horse Brigade was in reserve and close to Beersheba with the 12th and 4th Light Horse Regiments (AIF), however, they only had their rifles and bayonets. After some hesitation, Chauvel turned to Hodgson and said "Put Grant straight at it."

Orders were sent to the llth Light Horse to concentrate and follow the Brigade. The Brigade were ordered to saddle up, move when ready under the second in command of each regiment.

The Brigadier and Brigade Major, accompanied by the Commanding Officers of the llth and 4th made a hasty reconnaissance of the ground with the view of selecting a covered way of approach for the 4th Brigade to the point of deployment. This was necessary as the 3rd Brigade had been heavily shelled in attempting to cross exposed ground.

Commanding Officer 12th Light Horse - Lt. Col. Don Cameron- "At approx. 4 p.m., General Grant sent for the Commanding Officers' of the llth and 4th Light Horse Regiments. On reporting to Brigade Headquarters, orders were received that thay would attack Beersheba and were to move at once".

Each regiment was to form up on a squadron frontage in three lines from 300 to 500 yards apart. Two squadrons of the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right and two squadrons, A & B Squadron of the llth Light Horse Regiment on the left. Both Regiments would have one squadron in support with all pack animals and machine guns being sent to the rear.

Trooper John (Chook) Fowler; "For many hours during the day we could hear heavy artillery and machine gun fire on our right flank." "We were told it was the Anzac Mounted Division in action". "We were beginning to think it was our lucky day as the shadows were lengthening". "I heard some remark: 'its getting too late now to do anything'. "Just as we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on our good fortune, the order was given, B Squadron all pack horses to the rear, remainder prepare for action etc.". "We had heard that order many times before and knew what it meant". "A tingling feeling ran down my spine. 'Wind up', I suppose, but we were too busy getting things ready to worry much". "Then came the order B Squadron mount", and we were on the way to what!

  The Charge go to top of page

The two Regiments formed up behind a ridge and moved off by Squadrons in a three-line charge formation, five feet between horsemen within each Squadron. Each Squadron had a frontage of from 300 to 500 metres apart. The lead Squadron of the 12th was entrusted to A Squadron, commanded by Major E. Hyman from Tamworth. They started from a walk-march, to a trot, then to a canter, then to a gallop. The German Officers in command in Beersheba recognised the advancing formation of Mounted Horsemen as Mounted Infantry and ordered his Turkish Defenders to wait until they had dismounted, then 'open fire'. Field guns were sighted on the horsemen; the infantry set their rifle sights to 1,500 metres.

The Charge

Immediately the Regiments deployed they were quickly sighted and fired upon by the Turkish artillery, who 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 and soon the shells were bursting behind the charge.

On topping the rise 800 yards in front of the enemy's semi-circular trench system, machine guns and a thousand rifles opened fire emptying many saddles and felling many trusty steeds.

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 were unnerved by the mass of Light Horsemen thundering closer and they forgot to adjust their rifle sights. Their bullets began to whistle harmlessly over the heads of the charging troops.

On reaching the trenches many horses whilst attempting to clear them were brought down and others were impaled on bayonets. The greater number of horsemen who successfully cleared the trenches or avoided them by veering to the right or left, galloped straight for the enemy guns, capturing them intact, then continuing their gallop, rode on to Beersheba.

The positions

Trooper John (Chook) Fowler - "The artillery fire was heavy for a time, but it soon passed over our heads, and then the MG and rifle fire became intense". "As we came closer to the trenches most of the fire went over our heads". "The Turks must have forgotten to change their sights". "Our Squadron was drawing closer and looking down I saw a line of Turks lying on the ground and firing their rifles; my horse had to jump to one side to miss them".

"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".

From the time the Regiments received orders to saddle up to 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.

The rapidity of the attack seemed to demoralize the enemy. As stated, they mostly fired high, and it was afterwards found that the sights of their rifles were never lowered below 800 metres. The enemy artillery was not able to estimate the pace, and most of the shells went over the heads of the advancing troops.

  After the Charge go to top of page

By nightfall, Beersheba was in the hands of Allenby's Army. Great disorder prevailed in the enemy camp, armed and unarmed Turks were scattered about in small groups awaiting capture. The two Regiments took prisoners to the number of 38 officers, 700 other ranks, captured 9 field guns, 3 machine guns, a large number of transport vehicles and many other materials. By 10 pm approx. 58,000 light horsemen and 100,000 animals had swarmed into Beershaba. It took 1,800,000 litres of water to shed their battle thirst.

The casualties amongst the men and horses although severe were small compared with the task accomplished. Of the 800 men who rode in the charge, only 31 men had been killed. The 4th Regiment had two officers and nine other ranks killed and four officers and 13 other ranks wounded; the 12th Regiment had 20 other ranks killed and four officers and 15 other ranks wounded. Nearly all the casualties occurred in the trenches.

The charge had demonstrated again the incalculable effect of shock-tactics. The swift, thundering rush of successive waves of horsemen over the dusty ground in the failing light had bewildered and deceived the German and Turkish staff, who had afterwards confessed that they believed the 800 Light Horsemen to be at least a Division strong.

A German staff officer captured in Beersheba said that when the two regiments were seen to move, it's advance had been taken for a mere demonstration. He said that, "We did not believe the charge would be pushed home". He also stated that he had heard a great deal of the fighting qualities of Australian soldiers and stated, "They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen".

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. In the years to come the men would talk of this action at Beersheba, 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"?

The fall of Beersheba swayed the battle against the Turks in Palestine; it also changed the history of the Middle East War.

The Prize - Abraham's Well Beersheba

  Casualties go to top of page

12 LH 4 LR
Men Killed 20 11
Men Wounded 19 17
Horses Killed 44 26
Horses Wounded 60 Unknown

  The Beersheba Lighthorse Sculpture go to top of page

Victorian Sculptor Peter Corlett is currently preparing a lasting monument to this feat.

The sculpture will be situated in a new landscaped park for children in the city of Beersheba, Israel, called the Park of the Australian Soldier. This project is initiated by the Pratt Foundation and funded by the Beersheba Foundation

The bronze sculpture of the horse and rider and the sandbags are to be 1.1 times life sized. Its maximum height above the triangular concrete plinth will be about 2 metres

The 0.7 m high triangular plinth for the bronze sculpture is 4 x 4 x 4 metres and represents the 700 year Ottoman/Turk occupation of Beersheba while the 4 x 4 x 4 metre triangular pool underneath it represents the place of Beersheba (7 wells), settled by Abraham (father of the 3 religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam) over 3,000 years ago as a desert settlement in the Beersheba oasis.

The round podium is to be 6 metres diameter. This is a paved platform on top of a small landscaped mound. Access via steps and a disabled ramp to this podium will allow people to get up close to the sculpture and walk around it. For ceremonial occasions there will be points for fixing 2 removable flagpoles. Also, the sculpture plinth will provide vertical surfaces for ceremonial placing of wreaths (as shown in the images)

The bronze sculpture is being made by Peter and his Foundry here in Melbourne and will be flown to Israel in April 2008. The podium, pool and sculpture plinth will be constructed on site in the Park out of pale concrete to Peter's design.

Proposed sculpture - aerial view Proposed sculpture - view from the ground
Model of the proposed Park of the Australian Soldier Sculpture

The sculpture takes shape The sculpture takes shape
The sculpture takes shape

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