Charge of the 800 (Extract)

A new memorial to the 1917 Battle of Beersheba highlights Australia's role in the events that lead to the State of Israel

03horsethm (photo credit: Australian War Memorial)
(photo credit: Australian War Memorial)
Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. To hear the Aussies tell it, their Southern Cross should appear next to the Magen David on the Israeli flag. No one actually made that suggestion in Beersheba on April 28 but the pride that many Australians feel over their contribution to the birth of Israel was evident at a ceremony marking the Battle of Beersheba. It was here in this desert city that 800 Australian Light Horsemen played a vital role in defeating the Turkish forces on October 31, 1917 when some 4,000 Turkish defenders were routed in a battle that was a crucial element in the British victory in the wider battle of Gaza. This victory by General Edmund Allenby's forces paved the way for ending 400 years of Turkish rule in Palestine, setting in motion a juggernaut of events, beginning with the capture of Jerusalem 40 days later, the British Mandate and culminating in Israel's independence in May 1948. The Beersheba event was timed to mark the country's 60th anniversary. It saw the inauguration of a Park of the Australian Soldier, which includes a larger-than-life bronze sculpture of a mounted Australian Light Horse soldier by noted Australian sculptor Peter Corlett (see box on page 17). The statue and adjoining playground for children with disabilities was funded at a cost of $3 million by the Australian-based Pratt Foundation, which supports charitable enterprises in Australia and Israel. Melbourne businessman Richard Pratt, founder and head of the Pratt Foundation, tells The Report that "the idea had been germinating for some time ... a tangible reminder of the bond between Israel and Australia needed to be established." Reportedly Australia's third richest man, Pratt was born in Danzig in 1934. Active in Australia's Jewish community, he is a donor to many Israeli causes and was one of the founders of The Jerusalem Report, 18 years ago. In previous years, the battle was commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beersheba and, last October 31, through a reenactment performed by Australian soldiers. The charge of the Australian Light Horse is regarded as the last great cavalry charge in military history. Its commemoration in Beersheba "rights the historical record," giving Australia its due importance in the birth of Israel, according to Pratt Foundation Chief Executive Sam Lipski, who claims the British "stole the thunder" from the Australians in the days leading up to Allenby's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on December 9. On the very day of the charge - October 31, 1917 - another milestone in Zionist history took place, the signing of the Balfour Declaration in London. Dated two days later, November 2, 1917, the declaration stated that the British government "views with favor" the establishment in Palestine of "a national home for the Jewish people." Without the victory in Beersheba, Lipski maintains, "that document would have been merely a paper tiger." It was the Australian military victory, he asserts, that gave the British Balfour Declaration its teeth. Such is the importance of the Beersheba victory in Australian eyes that it will become, under the auspices of the Australian government and military, part of an annual three-day commemoration of Australia's role in World War I, celebrated from April 25-28, according to Lipski. ANZAC Day, April 25, records the day in 1915 when the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) fought a valiant but ill-fated battle to take Gallipoli from the Turks in WWI. April 26 commemorates a 1918 ANZAC victory over the Germans in the French village of Villers-Bretonneux, which ended the German offensive in France. General John Monash, a Melbourne Jew who became the first president of the Zionist Federation of Australia in 1927, was the senior commander of the Australian forces at Villers-Bretonneux. The mission of the Australian Light Horse was to take the town of Beersheba from the Turkish defenders. Under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel, the Australians were certain that a victory in Beersheba would lead to a domino effect that would bring about the capitulation of Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus. The attack was a do-or-die mission. Because the horses had been deprived of water for several days, the Australians had to attack on that very day or retreat about 30 kilometers to rehydrate their steeds. General Chauvel knew that within the fortifications of Beersheba were 17 wells around which the Turks had planted explosives. Therefore it was necessary to break through quickly before the Turks could set off the explosives. Contrary to the legend, the Australian Light Horse were not cavalry but mounted infantry. The latter "would advance on horseback in groups of four with three soldiers dismounting and continuing on foot with the fourth soldier retreating with the horses. Cavalry, by contrast, attacks on horseback," explained Australian army reserves Capt. Arthur DeMain, who attended the ceremony, bedecked in a historic uniform, including a gun belt and emu-feathered slouch hat (one brim up, one down to avoid colliding with the rifle resting on the left shoulder when standing at attention). The Turks, ill-advised by their German allies, believed that the Light Horse would dismount at a certain point and proceed on foot. They trained their artillery and fixed their rifle sights. But the Australian soldiers did not dismount. Under the battle cry of "Put Grant straight at it" (Brigadier General William Grant led the charge), the infantry attacked on horseback. The Turkish fusillade fell harmlessly behind the attacking horsemen. By the time the defenders readjusted their sights, the Australian Light Horse were upon them. The walls were breached, the wells had not been exploded and the Australians won the day with a loss of only 31 soldiers. "The Aussies were charging at the end with such speed that many of their horses died from heart attacks rather than dehydration," says Lipski. It is said that of the 300,000 horses that had been dispatched from Australia to Sinai during the entirety of WWI, only one returned. Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.