The 100-year-old battle that keeps popping up during PM’s visit down under

“The reason it is so widely remembered in Australian military history is because it was audacious and courageous.”

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February 23, 2017 03:13
3 minute read.
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PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu reviews an Australian Military Forces honor guard at Admiralty House in Sydney yesterday.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

SYDNEY – Ask an average Israeli schoolchild about the 1917 charge of the Australian Light Brigade during the Battle of Beersheba and you will get a blank stare. Ask Australian school kids of the same age the same question and – at least – there will be traces of recognition, some sign that this is something they have heard of before.

And, indeed, it was an event that was referenced time and time again on Wednesday at all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public appearances with his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull.

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It came up when Turnbull first welcomed Netanyahu in a colorful ceremony at his residence overlooking the Sydney Harbor, and it came up during the evening event Netanyahu and Turnbull held with some 2,000 members of the Jewish community at the Central Synagogue in Bondi.

In fact, there it was announced that Turnbull would lead the Australian delegation coming to Israel for the October 31 commemoration of that battle where – as Turnbull put it during the jam-packed day – the “Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade captured the town of Beersheba from the Ottoman Turks in the fading daylight of the 31st of October 1917,” in what proved a pivotal moment in the Palestine Campaign.

Netanyahu called it “the last great successful cavalry charge in history,” one that liberated Beersheba and led to the end of Ottoman control of the area.

For Australians, the battle is remembered not for what it meant for Zionism, but what it meant for Australians as an independent people.

In fact, thousands of Australian tourists and World War I buffs are expected to take part in ceremonies commemorating the battle’s centennial. For, as Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma explained in a recent interview, that battle “has a lot of resonance for the Australian public” because it was a major Australian success in the First World War.

And that war, he continued, is very important for Australia since it was the first time the country fought as an independent nation.

While the Battle of Gallipoli was a military defeat, the Battle of Beersheba was seen as a great success, with the Australian horse brigade turning the tide.

“The reason it is so widely remembered in Australian military history is because it was audacious and courageous,” Sharma said.

“It was seen as classic Australian battlefield spirit, which is bit audacious, a bit unconventional, a bit risky. But it worked. It has imbued the Australian defense forces since that time.”

The Battle of Beersheba, as Sharma explained, was fought on the first day of the Palestine Campaign. From there Australian troops went on to march into Jerusalem, capture Tiberias, go to Megiddo and eventually take Damascus and Aleppo.

The whole campaign, he said, was one of the great successes of WWI and the Australian troops were intimately involved. Those battlefield successes led to the defeat of the Ottomans, the issuing of the Balfour Declaration just three days later and, eventually, the creation of the State of Israel.

For Australians, however, that battle was one of their high points in WWI, a war that occupies a central place in the creation of Australian identity. It was a war in which Australians first fought together and as part of the West. It was a defining moment in Australian nation building, a moment when they, too, were involved in fighting and dying for a just cause.

As Sharma said, Australian kids may not be able to identify Beersheba on a map, but they will know there was a battle there, they will know it is somewhere in the Middle East, and they will know the battle there was significant for their country.


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