Former enemies, now allies, unite at 99th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba

Although there has not yet been an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries, the respect accorded to Turkish Charge d’Affaires at the Turkish memorial indicated a change in the air.

NEW ZEALAND Ambassador Jonathan Curr lays a wreath at the Turkish war monument in Beersheba yesterday.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW ZEALAND Ambassador Jonathan Curr lays a wreath at the Turkish war monument in Beersheba yesterday.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They fought each other in the First World War, and some fought each other again in the Second World War, but on Monday, military attaches and diplomats of their countries, together with representatives of the Australian and New Zealand contingents of the Multinational Force and Observers, and UN Truce Supervision Organization participated in a series of ceremonies honoring those who fought and died for their countries.
The two main ceremonies were organized by the Australian Embassy in conjunction with the Municipality of Beersheba; and a third ceremony was organized by the municipality in conjunction with the Turkish Embassy.
This latter ceremony, which is always briefer than the other two, was much more meaningful this year due to the gradual normalization process between Turkey and Israel. Although there has not yet been an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries, the respect accorded to Turkish Charge d’Affaires Cem Utkan at the Turkish memorial was indicative of the change in the air.
At the Turkish Obelisk in the Mustafa Kamal Ataturk Plaza, which was established at the initiative of former Beersheba mayor Yaacov Terner, who had been a fighter pilot, Utkan was invited to lay the first wreath, even though he was not the host of the event.
Utkan said that he was proud to stand in the plaza named for the founding father of the Turkish Republic. He noted that thousands of martyrs from both sides lie buried not far from each other in the soil in which they fought their bloody battle.
Great friendships and alliances have emerged from bitter losses of war he said, adding that the ceremonies commemorating the 1917 Battle of Beersheba convey a message of peace and friendship.
New Zealand Ambassador Jonathan Curr, who is stationed in Turkey, came to Israel especially for the occasion as he did last year.
In the absence of Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, who is in Australia with an Israeli trade delegation, Charge d’Affaires James McGarry said that in the beginning of the 20th century, as the curtain came down on the age of empire, a number of newly formed nation states fought alongside the Allied powers in the far-flung corners of the globe, many thousands of kilometers from their shores and homes.
“Two such newly formed nations were among those that fought on distant shores, the Australian and New Zealanders, known as the ANZACs,” McGarry said.
“One of the battles in which they fought took place on this day, 99 years ago, near to where we sit now. As World War One dragged on into its third year, its outcome remained in the balance. The Ottoman Empire and Germany were holding firm. Though of only peripheral importance when the war broke out in 1914, by 1917 the Middle East theater, and in particular the territory of Palestine, had become critical to the outcome.”
McGarry related that there had been two earlier failed Allied attempts to break the Turkish defensive line running from Gaza on the coast to Beersheba 43 kilometers inland. The battle for Beersheba would be the third.
It was on October 31, 1917 that 800 young Australian light horsemen drew up behind a ridge. The battle had commenced at dawn and by late afternoon a series of British New Zealand and Australian offensives had achieved part of their objectives. But the town itself, and its vital water wells, remained in the hands of the Ottoman defenders.
A last push was required if Beersheba was to be captured on this first day, as Gen. Allenby’s campaign plan demanded. A cavalry charge was ordered.
“And so at 4:30 that afternoon, with the sun shining directly in their eyes, the men of the 4th and 12th Light Horse regiments formed up behind a crest southeast of Beersheba, drew their bayonets, and moved off at a trot.”
It was a surprise attack and they sped into a gallop supported by forces from the 11th Light Horse Regiment and from the 5th and 7th Mounted Brigades.
Though confronted by sustained enemy fire, the horsemen moved fast, quickly penetrated enemy lines, jumped the trenches, dismounted their horses, and then entered the trenches on foot, clearing them with their rifles and bayonets. Other parts of the force rode on, heading directly for the town.
Even though they were outnumbered, the momentum and boldness of their surprise attack led them to victory. It took less than an hour to overrun the trenches and enter Beersheba, where some 750 Turkish and German soldiers were taken prisoner. Later, they continued on to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“In a twist of history,” said McGarry, “an encounter of an entirely different kind was occurring in London. In the British war cabinet the members deliberated and ultimately approved the text for what would become the Balfour Declaration, a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations.”
Together, these two developments – one in London, the other in Beersheba – would set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, noted McGarry.
Thirty-one Light Horsemen were killed in the charge. “Brave Turkish and German troops died that day as well, defending their lines, and in large numbers,” noted McGarry. “The presence of representatives of those nations here today reminds us that yesterday’s foe can be today’s friend.”