November 4

The Charge at Beersheba: the legend of our glorious past



“And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech's servants had violently taken away… And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant. And Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock by themselves.

 “And Abimelech said unto Abraham, What mean these seven ewe lambs which thou hast set by themselves?  And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.  “Wherefore he called that place Beer-sheba; because there they sware both of them.  Thus they made a covenant at Beer-sheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. “And Abraham planted a grove in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the everlasting God.”

[From the First Book of Moses, called Genesis, chapter 21 verses 25 -33; the picture is of the re-enactment on the 90th anniversary of the charge]


The “Light Horse charges again,” reported Martin Chulov, in The Australian on 1 November, 2007.  When Australian horsemen last rode into Beersheba, he wrote, they had to overrun the Turkish army and six kilometres of open desert to get here. On 31 October, 2007 seventy Australians, including several descendants of the Australian light horsemen, wearing uniforms of the time, with emu plumes in their slouch hats, armed with Lee Enfield 303 rifles and led by the Flag of the Commonwealth of Australia, rode proudly into the centre of Beersheva ( as the city  is now known) to a “rapturous welcome from hundreds of Israeli children waving the Star of David along with Australian flags. “

 A moving remembrance ceremony was held at the  Commonwealth War Cemetery near the heart of the city where almost 200 Australians and New Zealanders are laid to rest.  As evening approached, the Australians re-enacted the charge, stirring, as Mr. Chulov  wrote, “ the legend of a glorious past.”


That glorious past is dominated very much by the great Sir Henry (“Harry”) Chauvel, the first Australian general to command an army corps, the Desert Mounted Corps. He reported to the British Field Marshal Allenby who planned to break the Turkish line of defence which came up from Beersheba, with its crucial water reserves, right to the Mediterranean.  Allenby rightly calculated that if he could break that line, it would open the way to Jerusalem and Damascus. 

Chauvel intended to take Beersheba with an infantry attack, but because of time constraints decided to make a cavalry charge. The choice lay between the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade and the British 5th Mounted Brigade, a cavalry brigade. The commanding officers of both brigades were eager to make the attack, but Chauvel, with time running out, chose the Australians who were closer to the town.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the story that Chauvel launched the 4th Light Horse Brigade only as a last desperate throw after a “brusque” order from Allenby “does not sustain examination”.   Allenby's signal, which arose from misunderstanding an earlier message from Chauvel, was actually sent after the light horse had entered the town.

The 4th Light Horse Brigade, commanded by a distinguished soldier, Brigadier William Grant, was made up of three regiments, the 4th (Victorian), 11th (Queensland and South Australia) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. The 4th and 12th were ready to make the charge under Lieutenant Colonel Bourchier, later Sir Murray William James Bourchier. 

The charge began at 4.30pm. The Turks relied on Austrian artillery, whose fire proved ineffective. The Turkish officers did not allow for the speed of the charge and, as Bourchier reported lost “all control over fire discipline. When the troops came within short range of the trenches the enemy seemed to direct almost all his fire at the horses."

The light horsemen rode across the front trenches and dismounted behind the lines, attacking with fixed bayonets. The Turks, who thought the Australian force was larger than it actually was, were demoralised, and soon surrendered, abandoning the town. The Australians took over 700 prisoners, as well as valuable artillery.  They lost 31 men with 36 wounded. The charge  is portrayed in the 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, which is available as a DVD.

According to Marin Chulov, Beersheva in 2007 embraced the visiting Australians and the legend of their ancestors remains very much alive here. He says the  rapport the light-horsemen struck up with the children of Beersheba will be marked on 28 April 2007 by the unveiling of a life-sized bust of a Digger on horseback, to be erected at the new Park of the Australian Soldier. This is a $3 million project funded by that great Australian, Richard Pratt.

The charge of the 12th and 4th Light Horse regiments broke the Turkish line, and opened the way to Jerusalem and Damascus. It was a significant blow against the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers.  According to the Land Commander of the Australian Army, Mark Kelly, it also set a benchmark for today's army.  "The history of our nation all started from the deeds of our young men in the First World War," Major General Kelly told The Australian.

"The 62,000 men who did not return home to Australia and are buried in Germany, France, Belgium and in the Commonwealth War Cemetery we are standing in today did not die in vain. To be here to remember their sacrifice and to be here to represent today's army is a privilege for all of us serving in uniform."  

Among his many interests , that great Australian, Korean War veteran, former RSL president, and leading constitutionalist, Major General Digger James is also the chairman of the Australian Light Horse Association. He told The Australian: "This was the last great cavalry charge in all warfare. Australians are now beginning to recognise its impact on the First World War and the triumph that that afternoon of October 31, 1917 was." 

The word “hero” has been much devalued in recent times. These men were indeed heroes, and they should not be forgotten, not only for what they did, but as models for all Australians.  Their  memorials are to be found across this country, bearing those simple but telling words, “For God, King and Country.”

Let us hope that the story of Beersheba is known to all future generations, so that they may understand  that dedication to  duty and service should above everything else guide them in all their lives, just as duty and service guided  those earlier generations who built, who defended and who have handed on to us, the safekeeping, during our lives, of this Commonwealth of Australia.



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