The Light Horse Centenary

The premiers of Israel, Australia and New Zealand will lead a massive celebration in Beersheba at the end of October.

‘The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 31 October 1917,’ painted by George Lambert three years later (photo credit: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL - CANBERRA)
‘The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 31 October 1917,’ painted by George Lambert three years later
ON OCTOBER 31, all roads in Israel will lead to Beersheba when more than 2,000 Australians and New Zealanders, including the prime ministers of those countries, head for the capital of the Negev.
The ancient biblical city of the seven wells was first mentioned in the Book of Genesis, as the place where Abraham, the patriarch of both the Jewish and Muslim faiths, digs a well, as did his son Isaac after him, and both Abraham and Isaac separately make their peace with King Avimelech of Gerar.
Fast forward to October 1917, and the decisive Battle of Beersheba, which spelled the end of four centuries of Ottoman control of what was then known as Palestine; the Ottoman Turks had vanquished the previous controllers, the Egyptian Mamluks, in 1516.
In 1798, Napoleon, in his conquest of significant parts of the region, seized Cairo and then, in Palestine, took control of Jaffa, Ramle, Lydda (now known as Lod), Nazareth and Tiberias. There was a period in the early 1830s when Egypt seized control of Palestine, but the Ottomans regained it in 1840 and gave local Arabs more power than they had enjoyed previously.
During the First World War (1914-1918), in a bid to divert British and Russian forces from the front lines, the Germans drew the Ottoman Empire into the conflict.
Australian and New Zealand forces were part of the British Division. Against all odds, members of the Australian and New Zealand Light Horse regiment, on October 31, 1917, charged against the entrenched Turks, took them by surprise and won what has become known as the Battle of Beersheba.
The ANZAC victory under the command of Lt.-Gen. Sir Harry Chauvel is believed to be the last great cavalry charge in military history. It paved the way for Britain’s Gen.
Edmund Allenby to wrest Gaza from the Turks, capture Jaffa and eventually Jerusalem.
Allenby, as a mark of respect for the holy city, dismounted his horse and entered Jerusalem’s Old City on foot via the Jaffa Gate.
In the interim, on November 2, a letter from British foreign secretary James Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild became a significant milestone on the road to establishing the State of Israel.
It is not widely known that had the result of the Battle of Beersheba been reversed, there would have been no such letter or as it is better known, Balfour Declaration, to give fresh hope to a people that had spent 2,000 years in exile.
Despite its place in the annals of ancient and modern Israeli history, Beersheba, until about 20 years ago, was a backwater city. Today, it is a thriving hub of innovation.
The essential difference between Beersheba and other southern cities on the periphery was that it had a university but, today, most of those southern cities have colleges, at least.
Various philanthropic foundations and individuals have contributed to Beersheba’s development. Among the more significant donors is the Pratt Foundation, which together with the Australian government is largely responsible for the organization and funding of the centenary celebrations, most of which will be held in and around the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and the Park of the Australian Soldier.
The spacious park, which was specially designed to enable children with disabilities to enjoy the facilities together with ablebodied children, was the brainchild of Sam Lipski, the executive director of the Pratt Foundation, which supports many projects in Israel, as well as in Australia, New Zealand and Asia with the aim of enriching lives.
Founded in Melbourne in 1978 by Richard and Jeanne Pratt, the Pratt Foundation worked in close cooperation with Keren Hayesod-the United Israel Appeal since 1998 on immigrant absorption projects in Beersheba, which was one of the places in which many new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia settled. At that time, there was a lot of family violence and abuse in Beersheba, Lipski tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview from Australia. The volunteers who were dealing with this had been working out of a one-room apartment, and the Pratt Foundation provided them with larger premises where victims could come and talk. This led to an expansion of community and social welfare programs.
Lipski, a celebrated international print and electronic journalist, who in a long and varied career at one time was Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, in his last full-time position as a journalist was editor of the Australian Jewish News, which was purchased by Richard Pratt in 1987. After 11 years at the helm, Lipski resigned in 1998 and, instead of reporting the news, became a newsmaker himself when Pratt appointed him executive director of the Pratt Foundation.
Pratt, by the way, was one of a small group of philanthropists who in 1990 were the founding publishers of The Jerusalem Report.
Lipski visited Israel frequently, and for as long as he can remember had been interested in the history of the Australian Light Horse regiment. While in Beersheba, he asked where there was a monument to the Light Horse and was directed to the wellkept Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, but there was no specific monument to record the contribution of the Australian Light Horse to the 1917 victory.
Disturbed by the absence of a permanent memorial to the Australian forces, Lipski spoke to Pratt, whose reaction was, “You don’t want me to build a museum, do you?” Lipski was more interested in building a useful monument, and not just a decoration on the landscape. There was a project in the Melbourne suburb of Kew dedicated to children with disabilities, and Lipski suggested a park to the memory of the Australian soldier that would simultaneously benefit disabled children in Beersheba.
Pratt agreed, after which Lipski suggested that Peter Corlett, the famous Australian sculptor of war memorials, be approached to create a suitable memorial in the park.
Pratt then told Lipski to contact “Digger James” who was the Australian War Memorial chairman, and a childhood friend of Pratt’s. “Digger” was Maj.-Gen. William Brian James ‒ a soldier and military physician who had served with distinction in the Australian Army in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was severely wounded in the Korean War.
He was enthusiastic about the Beersheba project, but work did not begin immediately.
Pratt became much more interested in proceeding after a visit to Australia by Avishay Braverman who was then president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Braverman had undertaken a speaking engagement on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and, while in Melbourne, was invited to dinner by the Pratts at their estate known as Raheen.
Braverman and Pratt got along famously and the upshot was that Pratt agreed to finance a water project at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that enables strawberries and other agricultural products to be grown with the irrigation of brackish water.
Meanwhile, Corlett was working on a life-size sculpture of an Australian soldier.
Jeanne Pratt was curious as to whether he had yet developed the face and, when she learned that he had not, suggested the face be that of Digger James though it should remain a secret until the sculpture was unveiled in Beersheba.
In addition to the Pratt Foundation, the park received support from the Jewish National Fund and Mifal Hapayis, the Israel National Lottery.
It was inaugurated in April 2008 by then Australian governor general Michael Jefferey, and Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres. Digger James was suitably surprised to find his likeness on the statue of an ANZAC horseman.
there are any cancellations, says Lipski.
There simply isn’t enough room in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery or the ANZAC Museum, which will be dedicated by the three prime ministers together with Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and representatives of the Australian branch of the JNF, which financed the museum.
Many Israeli dignitaries and a large contingent of the foreign diplomatic corps stationed in Israel and representatives of the Australian and New Zealand peacekeeping forces attached to United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and the Multinational Force & Observers will be present as well.
In addition to the by-invitation-only events, there will be separate memorial activities, including one for the Turkish forces.
FORMER BEERSHEBA mayor Yaakov Turner, who was an ace pilot in the Israel Air Force, believed the valiant Turkish soldiers deserved to be honored and remembered and initiated a Turkish monument, only a few minutes’ walk away from the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
Late in the afternoon, members of the Australian Light Horse Association, some of whom are descendants of the legendary horsemen of 1917, will reenact the charge.
Also scheduled by invitation only is the largest-ever kosher barbecue in Israel, which will be hosted by the Pratt Foundation in the Park of the Australian Soldier.
Lipski says that during World War II, Australian involvement with the land and people of Israel was of vital importance as some 24,000 Australian troops of the 7th and 9th Divisions were among the British, Polish and Indian allies who, as the “Rats of Tobruk,” helped stop Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and the advancing German army in North Africa.
“If Rommel had broken through beyond Egypt, and this was always a military possibility, the fate of the Jews in Palestine does not bear thinking about,” he says.
Lipski takes Australian involvement with the region further to the first Gulf War in 1991 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the launch of his Scud missiles against Israel.
“With the knowledge and cooperation of the Hawke government, the joint Australian- American satellite-tracking installation at Pine Gap in Western Australia picked up and transmitted to the Israelis the telltale emissions of Iraqi Scud launch countdowns and firings. This information, relayed in real time, gave Israeli defense authorities vital minutes to plot the probable impact areas and warn the population to take to the shelters and sealed rooms,” he says.
More recently, he says the bold achievements of “the SAS” (Special Forces Unit of the Australian Army) in Iraq’s western desert in the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “coalition of the willing” had some news coverage, and Israel’s leaders publicly thanked Australia.
But there’s much more. Based on the intriguing reports that circulated among Pentagon sources and were partially leaked in Washington, the full and heroic story of how the SAS neutralized the Iraqi Scuds’ capability and thus contributed to Israel’s security has yet to be told, declares Lipski.
Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan says the commemoration events have been his major priority since his arrival in Israel four months ago. A lot of good work was done by his predecessor Dave Sharma, he says, and almost echoing Lipski adds: “Australian engagement continues to this day.”
Turnbull will be accompanied by a very high-level delegation, and Cannan and the Australian Embassy staff will be busy ensuring that everything runs smoothly for the prime minister and members of his delegation.
Cannan says he has been heartened by the level of interest and support, but that he wants to encourage wider knowledge of what Australian troops have done and are doing in the region. In this respect, he is particularly looking forward to the opening of the ANZAC Museum.
The organizing of the event, Cannan says, “is a major logistical undertaking” that has been coordinated by Australian, New Zealand, Turkish and Israeli authorities.
It’s the biggest single event in which he has played a leading role, “and it’s a big challenge for me personally and for the Australian Embassy,” he says.