GREG LOCKHART: Remembering the charge at Beersheba and forgetting the Balfour Declaration

Nov 3, 2017

This week, as our $600 million Great War centenary rolled on, the Australian Light Horse charge at Beersheba on 31 October 1917 has come out of the culture in a tsunami of centenary excitement at home and abroad.

Media enthusiasm for the charge has been unbounded in Australia, while talks in Tel Aviv between the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on defence cooperation in industry, intelligence and cyber-strategy lent a business-like touch to proceedings. At the same time, 2,000 descendants of light horsemen, many aged and wearing period costume, gathered near the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Beersheba in Israel’s southern desert. 

There were addresses and some wreath laying by the Prime Ministers. Opposition ALP leader Bill Shorten, who made a side-trip to the Palestinian Authority, was there too. There was a march through the town and, while there were no women in the original charge, a shaky ‘re-enactment’ of it was staged by 100 horsemen and horsewomen – about one fifth of the original number. Confusing matters further, Turnbull affirmed: ‘The tradition of man and horse is a part of us. It is part of Australia’.

‘The “mad Australians” helped enable the creation of the state of Israel’, he also said, linking Australia to the host country. ‘They marched out of biblical verses and knew it’, Netanyahu cheered him on. The brave Anzacs ‘liberated’ Beersheba and ‘allowed the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history’. Much of the media surround-sound was ecstatic on the charge itself: it had ‘changed the course of the war’; it was ‘the last’, ‘one of the last’ or ‘possibly the last great cavalry charge in history’.

Within weeks of the charge at Beersheba, however, both the Indian and Anzac cavalry were involved in more charges in Palestine. And have you heard of the charge of the Italian cavalry Regiment against the Soviet 812th Siberian Infantry Regiment at Izbushensky – on 24 August 1942? Probably not. But as Jean Bou, an historian of these matters reminds us, it has a better claim than the charge at Beersheba to being the last one in history.

Much else has gone missing in the hyperbole, particularly the political and military context for what happened. The February 1917 revolution in Russia and the abdication of the Tsar in March had reminded the British War Cabinet that, with Russia out of the war, the pre-existing Franco-British competition to carve up the Ottoman Empire would intensify. The Ottomans were also able to move troops south from the Caucuses to reinforce their position in Palestine. Pressure was mounting on the Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) General Murray to break the Ottoman defences in Palestine.

Murray failed to make headway in two battles: at First Gaza on 26 March and at Second Gaza on 18 April 1917. In June, a new British Commander General Allenby was appointed to get results.

Since Gaza was something of a fortress on the coast, Allenby decided to do something unexpected: unhinge the Ottoman line some 25 miles to the southeast of Gaza, in the desert at Beersheba, which was defended by about a battalion of 1,000 Ottoman soldiers. Then, the EEF would break out to the north and west and roll up the Ottoman line from east – and march on through the Holy Land to Jerusalem – as it did.

Capturing the wells in Beersheba was crucial to Allenby’s desert strategy. The British attack on the town was thus two pronged. Three British infantry divisions would take the Ottoman trench line to the west of the town, but not enter it; an infantry advance would be too slow to prevent the enemy from dynamiting the wells before they withdrew. The second prong would be a lightening cavalry strike from the east to enter the town and seize the wells.

Commanded by General Chauvel, the Australian Light Horse Division and the New Zealand Mounted Infantry Regiment had concentrated around the water sources at Khalassa and Asluj. This meant a 25-to-35-mile ride across waterless hill-country as the cavalry circled from south to east of Beersheba beginning on the night of the 30th – while the British bombarded Gaza to convey the impression that the attack would begin there.

The cavalry came out of the desert to the east of Beersheba at 8 am on the 31st and could hear the British infantry attacking the town’s western defences. By 9.30 am, the 7th, 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiments, the New Zealand Mounted Infantry and a mixed British artillery group were involved in heavy fighting against Ottoman outposts, especially around Tel-el-Sab, which was the key to the defence of Beersheba perhaps three miles to its east. It was not until 3 pm that the resistance there was overcome.

At 3. 30 pm, the decision to charge Beersheba was made. For an hour, 400 to 500 horsemen of the available 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments formed up. At 4.30, as the edge was leaving the afternoon light, the troops began their almost four-mile charge across an open plain at the trot.

Before long they broke into a gallop, and the leading squadrons came under machine gun fire. The British artillery spotted the guns and knocked them out. Sustained rifle fire was soon coming from the trenches and horses began to fall, some 70 in all. This did not stop the charge. Almost all the 32 Australians killed in it were among the first line who dismounted on reaching the trenches and went in with the bayonet – while the second line leapt over the trenches and, by nightfall, captured seventeen of the town’s nineteen wells intact.

The charge was effectively led and bravely executed. But it was hardly the case that, as one SBS news clip put it: ‘Gallipoli was a British led defeat; Beersheba was an Australian led victory.’ The Australian success at Beersheba was a very small, though significant element in Allenby’s brilliant campaign design.

So, what is the political purpose of the unrestrained hype Turnbull has been beating up about the battle and riding bare-back in Israel this week? Mainly a boost for his Liberal agenda in Australia, where it seriously falters on the road to re-election, and where, to deflate ALP policy, it glows with support for Israeli-Trump opposition to the emergence of a Palestinian state and Israeli-Trump opposition to Iran.

Turnbull was feted in Israel this week. Shorten, faced thorny questioning over recent calls from within the ALP to recognise a Palestinian state and his visit to the Palestinian Authority. In relation to Iran, the Australian, which is a reliable indicator of the darkest Liberal fantasies, speculated ominously that the private Turnbull-Netanyahu defence talks have come ‘at a time when Israel, the US and Australia are increasingly concerned about Iran’s creeping influence in the region as it seeks to fill the strategic vacuum left by the military collapse of Islamic State.’

Such speculations are easily tossed off for political effect. Yet in so far as we are ‘joined at the hip’ with Israel as well as  the US – as Turnbull has also told us we are in relation to nuclear war with North Korea – history is implicated.

Remember the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917. Something the media barely touched during the week was, indeed, the centenary yesterday of that far-reaching announcement when Britain turned the Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish state into a reality by publicly pledging to establish ‘a national home for the Jewish people’.

It is difficult to imagine the Declaration being made, if the British government had not been aware that Allenby’s push into Palestine – which the charge at Beersheba facilitated – was doing well. In that context, neither Turnbull nor Netanyahu were necessarily wrong to imply that the trajectory of the Anzac action in 1917 was historically aligned with the clearance of Palestine and eventual emergence of a Jewish state in 1948. Netanyahu was not necessarily wrong to announce that ‘we are on the same side of history.’

The tragedy is that Shorten’s effort to get a symbolic glimpse of what protracted Palestinian dispossession and persecution looks like was meaningless in the media hype around the ‘re- enactment’ at Beersheba. Nothing therein suggested that, only two days apart, the Balfour Declaration was, as it were, joined at the hip with the original Australian Light Horse charge – or that the Palestinian situation is a part of the wider turmoil in the Middle East dating back a century. Judging by the press this week, the Australian horsemen and horsewomen who turned up at Beersheba wearing what seemed to be government issue Light Horse outfits had little idea of what history had recruited them for.

Greg Lockhart had a military career, in which he served in the Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea and the Australian Army Team, Vietnam. After completing a BA (Hons 1) and PhD in History at the University of Sydney, he was a school teacher and, then, for fifteen years, held research posts at ANU and UNSW. He is author of two histories, Nation in Arms: the origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam (1989) and The Minefield: An Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007). He has also had a life-long interest in the Great War.

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