Ride into History: The Charge of Beersheba. It is likely that the above photograph is of a re-enactment some weeks after the event (AWM: P03723_001)

The Battle of Beersheba is one of the most notable mounted charges by the Australian Light Horse Regiments. On 31 October 1917, the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiment launched a dramatic charge, with bayonets “swords” in hands, to defeat Turkish troops near the town of Beersheba. This charge took place 34 miles south of Jerusalem and 27 miles from the Turkish bastion of Gaza at a town called Beersheba. In this attack Australians suffered little casualities and broke through two lines of trenches to enter the town.

The wells of Beersheba were vital for the welfare of the Desert Mounted Corps’ horses, many of whom had been without water for several days. Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, thus ordered the 4th Light Horse Brigade forward to attempt to secure the position. Brigadier William Grant responded by ordering light horseman of the 4th and 12th Regiments to charge at the unwired Turkish trenches.

Speed and time were of the essence. The Australians’ horses had marched through the Negev Desert for three days and had not been watered. Both riders and horses were carrying all their kit and equipment. In fading light, the town was defended by 3,500-4,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry with four batteries of artillery and fifty machine guns. The attacking infantry suffered 1,200 casualties during the battle. Australians suffered very light casualties, in contrast to other battles, during the charge – 31 killed and 36 wounded. The water supplies were saved and over 1,000 Turkish prisoners were taken. The taking of Beersheba was the first crucial step in bringing an end to Ottoman rule in Palestine.

Head stone of Corporal J. Fielding, Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Be’er-Sheva.

Head stone of Corporal J. Fielding, Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Be’er-Sheva.
A total of 31 Australians were killed and 36 wounded in the capture of Beersheba. (Photo courtesy of Phil Box)

Timeline – Battle of Beersheba31st October 1917

05.55: 100 British guns opened in support of the preliminary operation.

07.00: The Desert Mounted Corps halted, and patrols were pushed forward. Beersheba with its mosque was clearly in view; it offered no prize in rations or quarters, but something more coveted were the ancient wells to water those parched men and their Waler mounts. A large pool could be seen shimmering in the Wadi; there had been a storm on the 27th.

08.30: The British rushed forward and captured their objectives to the south-west and brought forward their guns.

09.00: The ANZACs were ready to seize the road and the Tel. The enemy was observed reinforcing the Tel.

09.30: The 2nd Brigade moved into artillery formation, advanced through a Bedouin camp, and thundered to the Hebron Road Sakati without slackening. Turkish batteries fired, but formation and ground gave them protection. With this task accomplished, they remained in a Wadi for the day.

10.00: The Somerset Battery opened up on Tel El Saba from 3000 metres to cover the ANZAC assault. The 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment was ordered to attack from the south-east. A spirited gallop under heavy fire brought the 3rd to within 1500 metres of the enemy. They dismounted. The Auckland Regiment conformed to the north. The Inverness Battery gave covering fire to the Somersets as they galloped to within 1000 metres of the Tel. The ANZACs were severely punished but they continued their advance, eventually bringing effective Hotchkiss fire onto the cliff. The prospect of the 3rd scaling the 200 metre cliff was not good, so they gave full opportunity to the Aucklanders.

Positions at Beersheba

Positions at Beersheba: Originally uploaded to En Wikipedia by Gsl – Based on Map 15, Ch.23 Vol.VII “Sinai & Palestine” of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18 by H.S. Gullett.

13.00: The 2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment was ordered to support the 3rd. They advanced at the gallop, dismounted and rushed their horses back so quickly that the enemy though they had retreated. They fired on the horses; this enabled the 2nd to advance unharmed. Meanwhile, the 3rd had gained the bank. The Wellington’s were thrown in to support the Aucklanders. The enemy was now under heavy fire.

14.00: The New Zealanders rose and dashed up the slopes with the bayonet. The 3rd continued, but the Aucklanders were first in. Some Turks surrendered; others fled into the town. The 2nd and 3rd gave chase then fought off a counter-attack. At last the ANZACs had secured the Hebron Road and Tel El Saba. Chauvel had not expected to lose as much time. He had already detached the 9th and 10th Regiments from the Australian Mounted Division in support of the ANZACs.

14.30: With the day on the wane, it was now neck or nothing; the time had come to commit the reserve. Chauvel issued decisive orders for the occupation of Beersheba. Brig. Grant of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade and Fitzgerald of the Yeomanry were at Headquarters; they pleaded for the honour of the charge. Put  ‘Grant straight at it’ was Chauvels terse order.

16.30: The 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments drew up behind a ridge. From the crest, Beerhseba was in full view. The course lay down a long, slight slope which was bare of cover. Between them and the town lay the enemy defences. The 4th was on the right; the 12th was on the left. They rode with bayonets in hand. Each drew up on a squadron frontage. Every man knew that only a wild, desperate charge could seize Beerhseba before dark. They moved off at the trot, deploying at once into artillery formation, with 5 metres between horsemen. Almost at once the pace quickened to a gallop. Once direction was given, the lead squadrons pressed forward. The 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment and the Yeomanry followed at the trot in reserve. The Turks opened fire with shrapnel. Machine guns fired against the lead squadrons. The Royal Horse Artillery got their range and soon had them out of action. The Turkish riflemen fired, horses were hit, but the charge was not checked. The Lighthorsemen drove in their spurs; they rode for victory and they rode for Australia. The bewildered enemy failed to adjust their sights and soon their fire was passing harmlessly overhead. The 4th took the trenches; the enemy soon surrendered. The 12th rode through a gap and on into the town. There was a bitter fight. Some of the enemies surrendered; others fled and were pursued into the Judean Hills. In less than an hour it was over; the enemy was finally beaten. The Australian Light Horse had galloped into history.

Beersheba Lighthouse Sculpture: Peter Corlett

Australia's Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, has opened a park in southern Israel dedicated to the Australian Light Horsemen

Australia’s Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, has opened a park in southern Israel dedicated to the Australian Light Horsemen (Photo: Donated by a visitor)

Units:

  • 1st Australian Light Horse Regiment – The 1st Light Horse Regiment was raised, from recruits from New South Wales, at Rosebury Park in Sydney in August 1914. It was one of three regiments of the 1st Light Horse Brigade – the first mounted formation committed by Australia to the First World War. The regiment sailed from Sydney on 19 October and disembarked in Egypt on 8 December. The 1st Light Horse Regiment sailed for Australia on 12 March 1919 without their horses, which were either shot or transferred to Indian cavalry units. The light horse were initially considered unsuitable for the Gallipoli operation, but were soon deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry. The 1st Light Horse Regiment landed on 12 May 1915 and was attached to the New Zealand and Australian Division. It played a defensive role for most of the campaign but mounted an attack on the Turkish position known as “the Chessboard” as part of the August Offensive on 7 August – 200 men were involved, 147 became casualties. The regiment left Gallipoli on 21 December 1915.
  • Military presence in Parramatta traces back to 1788, when the first European settlement was established. The Regiment’s ties with Parramatta began in 1891, when the Regiment’s Parramatta Troop was founded. Lancers are Australia’s oldest and most decorated Regiments – 1st Light Horse Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Lancers Barracks was built by Lt. John Watts in 1818 under instructions from Governor Macquarie. It was finished and operational in 1820. This is one of the oldest still in use Barracks. Lancers served at Gallipoli and as part of the ANZAC Mounted Division in Palestine, fighting in Sinai, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Jericho and Amman. By the end of the war, 224 men had died and 679 wounded.
  • 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment – The 4th Light Horse Regiment was formed as the divisional cavalry regiment for the 1st Australian Division on 11 August 1914. The regiment sailed from Melbourne on 19 October 1914 and disembarked in Egypt on 10 December. The regiment’s first major battle would also become that which made it legendary. On 31 October 1917 an attack was launched to outflank the Turkish bastion of Gaza, against which two previous attacks had failed, by capturing another heavily defended town to the east – Beersheba. A deteriorating tactical situation late on the first day of the operation caused the 4th and its sister regiment, the 12th, to be unleashed on Beersheba at the gallop – an action which has gone down in history as the charge of Beersheba.
  • 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment – The regiment that would eventually become the 8th Light Horse Regiment was formed at Broadmeadows camp in Victoria on 23 September 1914 as the 6th Light Horse Regiment. A reorganisation of the rapidly expanding AIF in early October resulted in the 6th being renumbered the 8th, and it became part of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. It sailed from Melbourne on 24 February 1914 and arrived in Egypt on 14 March 1915.
  • 9th Australian Light Horse Regiment – The 9th Light Horse Regiment was formed in Adelaide and trained in Melbourne between October 1914 and February 1915. Approximately three-quarters of the regiment hailed from South Australia and the other quarter from Victoria. As part of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, it sailed from Melbourne on 11 February and arrived in Egypt on 14 March 1915.
  • 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment – The formation of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, and the 11th Light Horse Regiment as part of it, was announced on 11 February 1915. Two squadrons of the 11th Light Horse were subsequently formed in Queensland, and a third in South Australia. The regiment was united for the first time at Fraser’s Paddock Camp, outside Brisbane, on 2 May 1915. It sailed from Australia in two contingents in June 1915. The first contingent was landed at Aden on 12 July to reinforce the British garrison there against a predicted enemy attack; they re-embarked on 18 July without having seen action.
  • 12th Australian Light Horse Regiment – The 12th Light Horse Regiment was raised, as part of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, at Liverpool, New South Wales, on 1 March 1915.

Neera Sahni, Research Services Leader, Caroline Finlay, Research Facilitator, City of Parramatta, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2016

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