1917 and the Battle of Beersheba

Why is this event so special?

Australian and US flags in Beersheba during a 2007 event marking 90 years since the battle. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Australian and US flags in Beersheba during a 2007 event marking 90 years since the battle.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The prime ministers of Israel, Australia and New Zealand will lead much of the Israeli-based diplomatic corps at commemoration events on October 31 to mark the 100th anniversary of the conquest of Beersheba.
Why is this event so special? The Battle of Beersheba was the first major victory for Britain in World War One. Consider this: going into this battle, Britain had been defeated four times by the Turkish army.
The failure of the British to take the Dardanelles led to the resignation of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. His initiative to launch a naval invasion at Gallipoli resulted in 400,000 casualties on both sides and an ignominious Allied retreat.
The British army suffered a humiliating defeat in Iraq (then Mesopotamia) when they were surrounded and surrendered to the Turks at the Battle of Kut.
Under Gen. Sir Archibald Murray, the British army was badly beaten twice at the battles for Gaza.
Murray tried to put a brave face on his humiliating defeat by misrepresenting the casualty figures and claiming that “it was a most successful operation, the fog and waterless nature of the country just saving the enemy from complete disaster.”
The War Cabinet did not see it that way, and Murray was relieved of duty, to be replaced as commander of what was called “The Egyptian Expeditionary Force” by Gen. Edmund Allenby.
This no-nonsense military leader, known as “The Bull” for his build (he stood 194 cm. tall) and demeanor, received instructions from British prime minister David Lloyd George, a Welsh Baptist Zionist, to give the British public a gift by taking Jerusalem by Christmas.
Allenby adopted a new tactic, military deception, by lulling the enemy into thinking he would follow Murray’s example and launch a third major assault on Gaza.
Instead, aided and advised by a Palestinian Jew and a Christian Zionist intelligence officer, Allenby was persuaded to swerve south of Gaza and attack Beersheba because, as Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist from Zichron Ya’akov, told him, “that is where the water is.”
Aaronson’s research convinced him that large reserves of water lay hidden under the hot desert surface of the Negev. As he pointed out to a receptive Allenby, without sufficient water for his hundreds of thousands of men, tens of thousands of horses and camels and his motorized vehicles, he had no chance of winning the Palestine campaign.
Aaronsohn also knew the trails and wadis that would allow Allenby’s massed troops to negotiate their way from Egypt to Beersheba without getting bogged down in the soft desert sands and for his advanced troops to approach Beersheba relatively undetected.
Despite his name, Richard Meinertzhagen was a swashbuckling British intelligence officer, who became an ardent Zionist. He devised a series of ploys that led the Germans and Turks into believing that Allenby planned to attack Gaza again, using an attack on Beersheba as a decoy assault. One of his methods was to ride close to the Turkish lines, tempting the Turks to come out in pursuit.
When the Turks shot at him he pretended to be hit. He dropped a blood-spattered haversack and made off as if wounded. The satchel contained what appeared to be secret military plans and maps showing Turkish defensive positions at Gaza as well as a forged private letter in which an officer wrote to his sweetheart in London about getting ready to move against Gaza.
The deception worked. According to reports provided by Aaron’s sister, Sarah – the only woman to head an espionage ring in enemy territory during the war – Allenby saw that the Turks were bringing up reserves to strengthen their Gaza garrison.
The Battle for Beersheba began on October 31, 1917, but by the middle of the afternoon no discernable progress had been made. Allenby watched the battle, surrounded by his generals, through his binoculars from a hilltop over the southern flatland leading to the town.
Looking at a potential defeat, or a withdrawal of forces before darkness fell, the order was given to the Australian 4th and 12th Light Horse Brigades to mount a frontal charge against the enemy’s double-lined defensive trench emplacements.
Seven hundred horsemen armed with bayonets rode in three successive lines across a 4.8 km. stretch of open ground. They gradually gained speed until they were at full gallop. With artillery shells and gunfire directed at them they closed on the enemy ranks. The lead horsemen, those that survived the gunfire, leapt over the Turkish infantrymen in their trenches. Their job was to take the town and reach its few water wells, that had been mined for demolition by the enemy.
The second and third line of horsemen leapt the trenches, dismounted, and took on the Turks in hand to hand combat, meeting bullet with bayonet.
This was the last great cavalry charge in military history. The enormous courage of the ANZAC soldiers won the day, Beersheba was taken, and this battle opened the way for the liberation of Palestine and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
This victory also paved the way for the restoration of the Land of Israel.
The writer is the author of the best-selling book 1917. From Palestine to the Land of Israel. He is also senior associate for public diplomacy at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.