As a dual national holding both Australian and Israeli citizenship, how could I not swell with pride to be in Beersheba this week to listen to both my prime ministers speak so eloquently about the century-long relationship that spearheaded the conquest of Jerusalem and changed the face of the region.
In the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Exactly 100 years ago, brave ANZAC soldiers liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to reenter the stage of history.”
There was also something very poignant about the references by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the horses brought from Australia and ridden by the Australians in the Palestine Campaign. Turnbull was raised with the Australian-bred waler horses as a boy, and spoke of them with great affection.
Essentially stock horses, they also proved to be very effective in battle. The Australian stock horse, he said, was looked down on by some of the English officers. These horses were not purebreds, “but Australian stock horses are bred for their intelligence, their agility and their ability to work in all sorts of country.”
Describing the horses as the best of horses and the most hardy, Turnbull said that they were as legendary as the men who rode them.
Referring to stories which his grandfather, a veteran, had told him about the First World War, Turnbull said, “One of the most bitter, heartfelt stories of those old soldiers was of the fact that the horses did not come home.”
Quoting Banjo Patterson, one of Australia’s greatest poets who had been in the Light Horse, Turnbull said that he had written beautifully about the horses that didn’t come home. “Shooting the horses was, for so many of those men who had seen horrors beyond imagination, the worst moment of that war,” said Turnbull.
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Both Turnbull and Netanyahu received cheers and applause during their speeches and signified the good vibes between them by addressing each other informally by Malcolm and Bibi.
Although the various speeches and prayers at the 90-minute service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beersheba were inspiring, the most moving part was the laying of the wreaths at the catafalque led by the two prime ministers and New Zealand Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.
After that there were diplomats and military attaches, including former enemies representing Turkey and Germany, whose presence was a sign of hope that Israel might one day succeed in making peace with all her neighbors. When all the officials had laid wreaths, relatives of fallen ANZACs in the various wars in which Australians have fought did so personally.
The wreath layers included veterans of more recent wars – their chests lined with medals. In addition, many of the wreath layers wore Australian Army slouch hats replete with the rising sun gold badge and a sweeping cockade of emu feathers. Others wore the Australian bush hat, as did the two prime ministers later in the day. There was even a wreath from the Australian Stock Horses Association in memory of the horses.
Many people left the catafalque with somber faces, some even weeping. It had been an extremely emotional moment for them – more so for those who discovered the tombstones of relatives, upon which they placed additional floral tributes.
In the afternoon Beersheba held a parade in honor of the centennial. In April 2008, Jeanne Pratt and her late husband, Richard, inaugurated the Park of the Australian Soldier in memory of the Light Horse Regiments in the presence of president Shimon Peres and Australian governor-General Michael Jefferey.
Due to the thousands of visitors and locals, there was the occasional mismanagement, but in general, the organization of such a complex affair was superb. Participants also got to see a lot of Beersheba’s architectural variety, from modern highrise apartment buildings to the single-story homes that were allocated to the early immigrants, who had first lived in transit camps.
The climax of the day came later in the afternoon at the reenactment of the Light Horse Charge, which was delayed due to the late arrival of the official party. However, the Perth Hills and Wheatbelt Band kept the ever-growing number of spectators entertained with First World War songs as well as Australian folk songs, such as “The Road to Gundagai,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” “Waltzing Matilda,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and more.
The reenactment itself was somewhat of a letdown, since the nearly 100 horses, some ridden by descendants of the charge, kicked up dust but not at a gallop. After most of the crowd had departed, there was a mini-charge that was a pale imitation of the real thing.
What many people wondered about was the extraordinarily low-profile participation of the UK. After all, the British had led the war in which Australians and New Zealanders, as well as soldiers from other armies, had performed heroic feats. “Where are the Brits?” was an oft-repeated question.
After the concluding ceremony in the Park of the Australian Soldier, the Pratt Foundation provided a kosher Australian- style barbecue for some 600 invited guests. It was a truly memorable day.
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