Neilster -> 90th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba (11/1/2007 4:46:17 PM)
Nearly 1000 Australians, New Zealanders and others have paid tribute to the Light Horsemen who captured Beersheba, in what is now southern Israel from the Ottoman Empire on 31st October 1917 with a re-enactment and memorial ceremony.
The charge by the Australian 4th Light Horse was one of the last successful cavalry charges in warfare and was a turning point in the Middle East in WW1. Many in the re-enactment were descendants of the original soldiers.
The Battle of Beersheba took place on 31 October 1917, as part of the Sinai and Palestine campaign during World War I. The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade, under Brigadier William Grant, charged more than four miles at the Turkish trenches, overran them and captured the wells at Beersheba. This is often reported as "the last successful cavalry charge in history," although the Australian Light Horse were mounted infantry, not cavalry, and cavalry units continued to exist into the early phases of World War II and taking part in operations before being rendered obsolete.
The battle of Beersheba was the critical element of a wider British offensive, known as the Third Battle of Gaza, aimed at breaking the Turkish defensive line that stretched from Gaza on the Mediterranean shore to Beersheba, an outpost 30 miles inland.
Earlier in 1917, two previous attempts to breach this line had failed. Since the second failure in the Second Battle of Gaza, the British forces in Palestine had undergone a major upheaval with the replacement of General Archibald Murray with the distinguished cavalry commander, General Edmund Allenby, formerly the commander of the British Third Army on the Western Front.
Allenby's forces had undergone a major expansion so that he now had two corps of infantry; the XX Corps, commanded by General Philip Chetwode, and the XXI Corps. More significantly, with the formation of the British Yeomanry Mounted Division, he now had three mounted divisions which were combined to form the Desert Mounted Corps, commanded by General Henry Chauvel—the first Australian general to command an army corps.
The Turkish garrison in Beersheba was made up of the Turkish 27th Division plus miscellaneous battalions from other divisions. The defences were strong to the south and west (towards Gaza) but to the east depended heavily on a strong redoubt at Tel el Saba, three miles east of the town.
The plan to break the Gaza-Beersheba line had been formulated by General Chetwode following the failure of the two frontal assaults against Gaza. The Turkish defences were formidable in the vicinity of Gaza but in the east there was a wide gap between the last redoubt and the Beersheba fortifications. The Turks trusted that the lack of reliable water in this region, other than at the wells in Beersheba, would limit British operations to mounted raids.
Chetwode believed that the lack of water would be easier to overcome than the Gaza fortifications and so a mammoth engineering and supply effort was undertaken to make a forward base in the vicinity of Beersheba from which infantry and mounted troops could stage an assault. The plan, however, depended on the town and water supply being captured swiftly. If the attack was repulsed on the first day, the British would be forced to retire in search of water.
When Allenby took command, he set about implementing Chetwode's plan. The attack was to be made by two infantry divisions of the XX Corps (60th (London) Division and the 74th (Yeomanry) Division) and two mounted divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps (Anzac Mounted Division and Australian Mounted Division). The infantry, supported by heavy artillery, would attack from the south-west against the strongest Beersheba defences while the mounted brigades would circle to the south and east. Once the outlying defences were overcome, it was intended to make a dismounted attack against Beersheba itself.
An integral part of Allenby's plan was the planting of false information to deceive the Turks that a repeat of the earlier offensives was planned. His Intelligence Officer, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, rode to within rifle range of the Turkish outposts at Gaza and ostentatiously took notes. When the Turks fired at him, he reeled in the saddle as if wounded and galloped off, leaving behind his rifle and binoculars, and a haversack stained with fresh blood (actually his horse's). The haversack contained details of the dummy plan of attack. To further convince the Turks that the information was genuine, British units were given orders to search for the haversack, and Meinerthagen was subjected to a mock Court of Enquiry, which then published general orders forbidding staff officers to carry sensitive documents near the front lines.
Although it is possible that the impact of this single act of misinformation was exaggerated, Allenby nevertheless relied on surprise far more than on mere superiority in numbers to gain success.
The infantry attack
The attack on Beersheba by Chetwode's XX Corps commenced at 5.55am on 31 October when the artillery, more than 100 field guns and howitzers, commenced bombarding the Turkish trenches. Twenty of the heavy guns were engaged in counter-battery work against the enemy artillery, which was operated by Austrian gunners.
The first infantry went in at 8.30am to capture some Turkish outposts. The main attack of four infantry brigades began at 12.15pm. They quickly reached all their initial objectives and so were in position for the main assault on the township to coincide with the light horse and New Zealanders.
The charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade
Chauvel had planned to make a dismounted attack on Beersheba but he was now out of time. The alternative was to make a cavalry charge. He had in reserve south-west of the town, two brigades of the Australian Mounted Division; the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade and the British 5th Mounted Brigade (the 3rd Light Horse had been sent to support the attack on Tel el Saba). The British brigade was a proper cavalry brigade, armed with swords, however the light horse brigade was closer to the town. Both brigades were eager to make the attack but Chauvel, with time running out, chose the 4th Light Horse.
The 4th Light Horse Brigade, commanded by Brigadier William Grant, contained the 4th (Victorian), 11th (Queensland and South Australia) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. The 11th was dispersed but the 4th and 12th were quickly ready to make the charge. Although Grant commanded the Brigade, the charge on Beersheba was led by Lieutenant Colonel Bourchier.
The regiments commenced the charge at 4.30pm, the 12th on the left and the 4th on the right. They advanced by squadrons (ie., 3 waves) with about 500 yards between squadrons. The 11th Regiment and the 5th Mounted Brigade followed more slowly to the rear and the British 7th Mounted Brigade, which was attached to the Desert Mounted Corps headquarters, also approached from the south.
The Turkish artillery opened fire with shrapnel from long range but it was ineffective against the widely spaced horsemen. Turkish machine guns that opened fire were quickly destroyed by a battery of horse artillery. When the line of horsemen got within range of the Turkish riflemen in the trenches, they started to take casualties but the defenders failed to allow for the speed of their approach so once they were within half a mile of the trenches, the defenders' bullets started passing overhead as they forgot to adjust their sights.
The light horsemen jumped the front trenches and dismounted behind the line where they fixed bayonets and engaged the Turks who were in many cases so demoralised that they quickly surrendered. One Australian who was dazed after having his horse shot from under him, recovered to find his five attackers with their hands up, waiting to be taken prisoner.
The later waves continued through the town which the Turks were abandoning in a panic. The charge was finally halted on the far (north west) side of Beersheba where the light horsemen encountered more Turkish defences. Isolated resistance in the town continued for a little while but by nightfall, the remainder of the garrison had been captured. The Turks had attempted to torch some buildings and blow up the railway but the majority of the wells (15 out of 17) were captured intact. Also, a heavy rainfall left temporary pools of water on the ground, allowing the horses to drink.
In a later report, Bourchier summed up the effect of the attack: "In commenting on the attack I consider that the success was due to the rapidity with which the movement was carried out. Owing to the volume of fire brought to bear from the enemy's position by Machine Guns and rifles, a dismounted attack would have resulted in a much greater number of casualties. It was noticed also that the morale of the enemy was greatly shaken through our troops galloping over his positions thereby causing his riflemen and machine gunners to lose all control of fire discipline. When the troops came within short range of the trenches the enemy seemed to direct almost all his fire at the horses." He also noted that "this method of attack would not have been practicable were it not for the absence of barbed wire and entanglements."
In the capture of Beersheba, the 4th Light Horse Brigade took 38 officers and 700 other ranks prisoner as well as four field guns. In the two regiments, only 31 men were killed (including two officers) and only 36 men wounded (including eight officers).
Here's a map and an image from the re-enactment...