Ambassadors and military attach s from more than half a dozen countries engaged in battle during the World War I gathered in Beersheba on Tuesday to honor the memories of soldiers from all sides of the conflict who fell in battle.
Joined by residents of Beersheba, members of the Association of World War One Heritage at Sde Boker and various Australian groups, the envoys participated in two ceremonies marking the 89th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.
Waged between October 31 and November 7, 1917, the battle, after previous failures, resulted in a victory for the Allies in general and a particular triumph for the Australian 4th Light-Horse Brigade which charged into the Turkish trenches and captured the wells at Beersheba as well as several hundred Turkish prisoners, including 38 officers.
Many soldiers on both sides fell in that and the preceding battles. British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice are buried in the immaculately kept Commonwealth War Graves cemetery where the first of the two commemorative services was held in front of the catafalque. British Ambassador Tom Phillips read a Christian prayer, and was followed by Rabbi Gil Nativ who recited El Male Rahamim.
Beersheba Mayor Yaakov Terner a former IAF ace, spoke movingly of the soldiers who fell far from home.
"We gather annually with representatives of all the countries who fought in 1917," he said. "Enemies of the past are now linked in friendship and have signed many military political and economic agreements."
Beersheba, he emphasized, "is committed to preserving this place which is part of our history and part of our legacy. Here we salute soldiers of all armies who fought in this city in a very difficult battle." Terner concluded his remarks with the usual wish to be able to live in peace.
The sub-text of the message was obvious. If the Allies who had fought against Turkey and Germany could learn to live with them in peace and cooperation, this might also be attainable for Israelis and Palestinians.
Australian Ambassador James Larsen noted that even though Australia was so far from the Middle East, Australian soldiers had played a critical role in the area in both world wars and are still in the Middle East as part of the Multinational Forces and Observers and the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. MFO and UNTSO commanders and officers were among those attending the ceremonies, laying wreaths and saluting comrades in arms as well as former foes at both the catafalque and the Turkish memorial obelisk a short distance away.
At the second ceremony, Terner said it had bothered him for many years that the British and ANZAC soldiers had a monument, the 23 Jewish laborers employed by the Turkish army who were killed when the British bombed the Turkish railway station at Beersheba were buried in the old Beersheba cemetery, but there was no memorial to honor the Turkish soldiers who had laid down their lives.
Five years ago, he approached the Turkish Ambassador and proposed that an historical wrong be put right. What had prompted the proposal, he said, was the warm and solid friendship between Israel and Turkey, and Israel's admiration for the discipline and loyalty of the Turkish soldier. "We felt the need to have a memorial to honor those Turkish soldiers who fell in World War I," he said.
Turkish Military Attach Col. Ilyas Supurgeli said there were many similar Turkish monuments in Asia, Europe and North Africa. Turkish policy, he said, was based on the policy of Kemal Ataturk, the founding president of the Turkish Republic whose credo was "peace at home, peace in the world." This was why Turkish soldiers continue to be part of peacekeeping forces around the globe, said Supurgeli.
In one of the ironies almost typical of the Middle East, Terner said that the British pilot who had blown up the Turkish railway station was downed and captured a few weeks later near Kibbutz Ruhama. When he was questioned, he gave his name as Rothchild. It transpired that he was Jewish, and it was he who was singularly responsible for the deaths of 23 Jews employed by the Turkish army.