Battle of Beersheba 1917

The decisive victory at Beersheba fell to one of the last great charges of mounted troops in history and that honour fell on the backs of the Australian Light Horse Divisions. Many years later it was made into a film.

On 31 October 1917, as daylight faded across the Negev Desert, Australian Light Horse Divisions secured the town of Beersheba, bringing to a close a crucial battle in the Sinai Palestine Campaign of World War One. The Battle of Beersheba was a pivot upon which turned the fortunes of Allied efforts against the Ottoman and German Empires in the Middle Eastern Theatre of the war. It demonstrated the success of Manoeuvre Warfare in the region, and the power of mounted troops to rapidly redefine the outcome of a battle.

On the 31st October 1917, in the Negev desert, north of the Sinai Peninsula, British, Australian and New Zealand armies of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, fought a day-long battle to take the town of Beersheba.

Success at Beersheba was a significant moment in the broader Sinai-Palestine Offensive, which continued for almost the entire duration of the war, and which had begun in January 1915 with Ottoman raids upon the Suez Canal.

After two failed attempts to take Gaza, Beersheba broadened the Southern Palestine offensive, launching the Allied forces further north into Palestine and leading to the capture of an undamaged Jerusalem by the end of 1917.

Almost one year to the day after the Battle of Beersheba, the Sinai-Palestine Offensive concluded on 30 October 1918, with the Armistice of Mudros which led to the cession of the territories of Ottoman Syria and Palestine, and the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the history of the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War One, the Battle of Beersheba was a pivot upon which the fortunes of the Allied efforts against the Central Powers of the German and Ottoman Empires turned.

It demonstrated the success of Manoeuvre Warfare against an entrenched enemy with a weakened defence, and the power of mounted troopers to rapidly redefine the outcome of a battle.

The decisive victory at Beersheba fell to one of the last great cavalry charges in history, in which men of the Australian Light Horse swept into the town’s centre to secure crucial water wells, along the way engaging in fierce hand to hand combat with entrenched Ottoman defenders. Despite outnumbering the Ottoman garrison at Beersheba by more than 10 to 1, were it not for the Light Horse charge in the late afternoon, the town would not have fallen to Allied attack before nightfall. Nor would so many of the crucial wells have survived a more protracted fight. General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force for the Southern Palestine Offensive, later summarised, “The Turks at Beersheba were undoubtedly taken completely by surprise, a surprise from which the dash of London troops and Yeomanry, finely supported by their artillery, never gave them time to recover. The charge of the Australian Light Horse completed their defeat.”

By the middle of 1917, as the Third Ypres Offensive began on the Western Front, the heart of the Ottoman defensive position in southern Palestine was the coastal city of Gaza. Stretching southeast of the city for nearly 50 kilometres was the Ottoman’s defence line against the British advance northward into Palestine. At the end of this line lay Beersheba. Earlier in the year, the first and second battles of Gaza failed to secure the city, which had instead become more heavily fortified after each attack. Progress north into Palestine, toward Jerusalem and beyond, had completely stalled.

But Allied strategy changed under the direction of General Edmund Allenby, who arrived in Egypt in late June. Allenby adopted General Chetwode’s advice, that to conquer Gaza, they must shift focus to the eastern extreme of the Ottoman defence line, and capture Beersheba. At the heart of the plan was a rapid surprise attack, achieved through secrecy and deception, to avoid the town being reinforced and its water supply destroyed before Allied forces could wrestle control. Despite logistical concerns, Allenby was compelled by the plan. Compared to Gaza and its surroundings, Beersheba was defended by a far smaller garrison, totalling around 4,000 men, under the command of Colonel Ismet Bey, and including over 60 machine guns and 24 field guns.

The town was defended by lines of trenches on its western, southern and to a lesser extent eastern outskirts, supported by shallower trenches and small fortified redoubts, in reality little more than earthen mounds.

Highpoints, such as the top of small hills were also used and this covered all approaches to the town. There were, however, little or no wire defences for the attackers to deal with. From the vantage of hindsight, Beersheba seems poorly defended for a location of such strategic importance. Ottoman forces garrisoned at Beersheba were indeed well under strength. Not only was Beersheba the strongpoint of the eastern end of the Ottoman defensive line, but the town also contained 17 water wells, and a major railway junction, intersecting with the Hebron Road.

Approving the plan, Allenby directed Lieutenant Generals Chetwode commanding the British Twentieth Corps, and Chauvel, the Anzac Desert Mounted Corps, to take Beersheba, before attempting another attack on Gaza.

Utilising Chetwode’s plan, Allenby believed victory at Beersheba would be the catalyst that would break the stalemate which had faltered the Allied advance.

Critical to its success would be to execute the attack in a day, to avoid the destruction of the wells, which would cripple the significance of the victory.

Mindful of this, the plan called for a concerted artillery and infantry attack on the town’s western side, with two British divisions pressing the advance on the main entrenched Ottoman defences. At the same time, ANZAC Divisions, principally made up of cavalry brigades, would take key positions in the east, to then be in a position to sweep into the town centre.

Four understrength divisions of the Ottoman 3rd Corps awaited them, distributed to the west, south and east of the town. Of those, the 27th and 16th Divisions would bear the brunt of the British advance, while the 24th Reserve Division would face the ANZAC mounted troops.

In case of defeat, Ottoman forces would retreat north, ensuring the destruction of the town’s Water Wells as they went.

Manoeuvre warfare tactics began in the second half of October, including six days of Allied artillery bombardment at Gaza, as a diversion to keep Ottoman reinforcements away from Beersheba.

A misinformation campaign also planned to convince German and Ottoman commanders that the next British attack would fall again on the coastal city. Meanwhile British and Anzac Divisions made ready in the east, for what would be the real opening to the Third Battle of Gaza.

Just before 6 a.m. on the morning of October 31st, 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Chetwode ordered British artillery to begin a bombardment of the main Ottoman trench line in front of 20th Corps, on the west and southwest outskirts of Beersheba.

Around one hundred field guns and howitzers fired on all Turkish positions, about twenty specifically targeting the enemy’s artillery batteries, while the others sent high explosives and shrapnel over the advanced, Ottoman trench lines.

Trooper Ion Idriss, of the 45th Australian Light Horse, observed, “Above the far-flung redoubts floated shrapnel-puffs, while clouds of smoke masked the trenches. The shells exploded sharp and clear.”

With dust and smoke filling the air and obscuring targets, units of the 60th London Division attacked Hill 1070, directly ahead of the main Ottoman front line.

Meanwhile, the 74th Yeomanry Division edged forward, and by noon had captured their objectives, suffering 1100 casualties in the process.

From 9 am, in the northeast of Beersheba, units of the Anzac Mounted Division moved forward to block the Beersheba Hebron Road at Tel El Sakati and take the small hill there. They would then advance on the larger Ottoman position at the top of Tel El Saba. This manoeuvre would block both an enemy retreat as well as any enemy advance from Hebron and remove an Ottoman position that dominated the eastern side of Beersheba.

The momentum of the Allied assault continued as the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade took Tel El Sakati, before faltering as Ottoman forces at Tel El Saba successfully resisted the Anzac Mounted Regiments’ attempts to take their position of high ground, until after 2.30 in the afternoon.

Soon after Tel el, Saba was taken, Major General Chaytor moved his Anzac Mounted Division’s field headquarters into the settlement. Almost immediately, Ottoman artillery began targeting the new position, and German aircraft dropped bombs. These intense aerial attacks would continue throughout the afternoon.

From Tel El Saba, Chaytor ordered the 1st and 2nd Light Horse Brigades to begin a dismounted advance on Beersheba, toward the mosque, joining other Brigades in their moves to close in on the town. It would take them a little over 2 hours to reach the area surrounding the mosque, advancing under Ottoman artillery.

By 4 pm, the third and final phase of the Battle of Beersheba was poised to begin, as Brigadier-General William Grant ordered the 4th Australian Light Horsemen to ‘saddle up’ and move into attack formations.

Unknown to Allied command, the Ottoman garrison commander, Ismet Bey, recognising impending defeat, ordered a general retirement of the garrison northwards, and the destruction of Beersheba’s water wells.

The Ottoman 8th Army’s German commander, Kress von Kressenstein, would later conclude that “Beersheba was now untenable and unknown to the attackers, a withdrawal was ordered. The understrength Turkish battalion entrusted with its defence doggedly held out with great courage and in so doing fulfilled its obligation. They held up two English cavalry divisions for six hours and had prevented them from expanding their outflanking manoeuvres around the Beersheba-Hebron Road.”

At around ten past 4 in the afternoon, Victorian men of the 4th and News South Wales men of the 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments moved through the Wadi Abu Sha’ai and formed up behind a ridge and astride a track known as the “W” road. They were six and a half kilometres outside Beersheba.

Three kilometres south-west of their position, the 11th Light Horse Regiment were ordered to follow the 4th and 12th in reserve.

Each regiment was divided into three squadrons of around 128 men each and allotted 200 metres of the front line. These ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ squadrons were arrayed between 270 and 460 meters apart to allow them to spread out once the charge began.

Brigadier-General Grant observed, “It was essential that the place be taken quickly, as the horses had not been watered since the previous day and had made a night march of over thirty miles … only a little over an hour of daylight remained in which to carry out the operation.” Just before half-past four, Brigadier-General Grant, leading at the front, ordered the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments to move off. Personally addressing his troopers, Grant told them, “Men, you are fighting for water. There’s no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck.” And with that, the charge commenced at a gentle walk.

They are followed by the 11th Light Horse, accompanied by the 5th and 7th mechanized Battalions which would provide artillery support for the charge.

After five minutes, the pace of the charge lifted to a trot, with each horseman now four metres apart from his fellow trooper.

Scouts were ordered forward to reconnoitre for obstacles such as barbed wire and natural features that might hinder their advance.

Having led the advance to a trot, Brigadier-General Grant fell back to a reserve position in order to direct the subsequent action, while the 4th and 12th Light Horsemen moved within range of the Ottoman front line, before the eastern perimeter of Beersheba. From their positions within the trenches, Ottoman defenders sighted the advancing cavalry in the distance and opened fire with artillery and rifles.

The 4th and 12th increased their speed to a gallop, now 2 kilometres from the Ottoman front line, as two German aircraft attempted to disrupt the charge, dropping bombs amidst the horses. However, the speed and distribution of the Light Horse charge proved a challenging target. As the pace of the charge intensified, time was measured in minutes and seconds.

Trooper Ion Idriss later described the scene: “They emerged from clouds of dust, squadrons of men and horses taking shape. All the Turkish guns around Beersheba must have been directed at the menace then. Captured Turkish and German officers have told us that even then they never dreamed that mounted troops would be madmen enough to attempt rushing infantry redoubts protected by machine-guns and artillery… their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man — they were an awe-inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze — knee to knee and horse to horse — the dying sun glinting on bayonet-points.”

As the charge increased, rapidly approaching the outlying defences, British infantry to the southwest of Beersheba mounted a concerted attack. Vigilant British artillery officers targeted and silenced Ottoman positions on the approach to the town, which was firing on the 12th Light Horsemen as they closed on Beersheba.

The charge was now sustaining a steady rapid-fire from the shallower advance enemy trenches, about one and a half kilometres away. Some horses in the advanced line were hit and fell, but the charge did not falter.

A mere 400 metres from the enemy line, at full gallop, bullets flew past the Light Horsemen and their mounts. In their rush to respond to the rapidly changing positions, the Ottoman soldiers failed to adjust the range of their sites and their bullets cut the air above the charge.

Trooper Chook Fowler recalled, “As we came closer to the trenches most of the fire went over our heads. The Turks must have forgotten to change their sights. Our Squadron was drawing closer and looking down I saw a line of Turks lying on the ground and firing their rifles; my horse had to jump to one side to miss them.”

Lieutenant Colonel Bourchier, commanding the 4th Light Horse reported 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.”

Almost at the same time, the 4th and 12th Light A Squadron jumped the first occupied trenches. Troopers dismounted and faced the entrenched enemy in intense standoffs, resulting in fierce close-quarter combat and Ottoman surrender.

Alfred Healey and Thomas O’Leary, both scouts of the 4th, were first to jump the Ottoman trenches. Whilst Healey dismounted to take prisoners, O’Leary charged ahead and on into the town.

The Official Australian History records that, “O’Leary jumped all the trenches and charged alone right into Beersheba. An hour and a half afterwards he was found by one of the officers of the regiment in a side street, seated on a gun, which he had galloped down, with six Turkish gunners and drivers holding his horse by turn. He explained that, after taking the gun, he had made the Turks drive it down the side street so that it should not be claimed as a trophy by any other regiment.”

As the main body of the charge made contact with the trenches, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Cameron, commanding officer of the 12th Light Horse later described how, “On reaching a point about 100 yards from these trenches, one Troop of ‘A’ Squadron dismounted for action, and the remainder of the Squadron galloped on.” This tactic was used by ‘B’ and ‘C’ squadrons, while the main strength of the regiment charged on into Beersheba. Ottoman soldiers in the advanced trench lines now faced Australian Light Horsemen in front and behind their position.

Having jumped the trenches, Lawson and Hyman, both leading squadron commanders, attacked from the rear. One ‘B’ Squadron Trooper, advancing on a reserve trench line closer to the town, had his horse shot from under him, as they vaulted over the enemy. As he rose from the ground, dazed by the fall, he was surrounded by Ottoman soldiers with their hands in the air. Minutes behind the charge, stretcher-bearers rode up to the advanced lines to aid the wounded, while the vanguard of the attack had moved onto the main and reserve trench lines. Here Hyman led dismounted troopers in the fight. Sixty Ottoman soldiers were killed in close quarters, fighting until a surrender was reached.

Jack Davies, a captain in ‘B’ Squadron observed the ‘A’ Squadron attack, “Hyman was left with the troop of men who did dismount and most of our casualties were, I think, amongst them… Hyman and a few others accounted for 60 dead Turks, which was not bad seeing that they were in the open and the Turks were in a beautiful trench. All it lacked was wire and why they had not wired it, I don’t know.”

Davies himself along with fellow captain Robey charged toward Beersheba. Trooper Edward Dengate of the 12th Light Horse recalled, “Most of us kept straight on, where I was, there was a clear track with trenches on the right and a redoubt on the left, some of the chaps jumped clear over the trenches in places, some fell into them, although about 150 men got through and raced for the town, they went up the street yelling like madmen.”

Davis and Robey halted the charge at the junction of Asluj Road and the Wadi Saba, where they renewed their units’ attack formations. Together they approached Beersheba’s mosque, just before 5 pm, and then separated, with Davis leading his men up the main street of Beersheba, whilst Robey leads his Squadron to the northwest of the town.

As Beersheba fell to the advanced Squadrons of the 12th, enemy aircraft were inflicting a heavy toll on the Anzacs at Tel El Saba. These aircraft had been menacing their position all afternoon and now bombs killed and wounded many Australian and New Zealand men and their horses. By five minutes past five, Beersheba was almost completely surrounded and Light Horsemen had reached the centre. As Robey and Davis’ squadrons completed their circuit of the town, they faced the Ottoman Withdrawal Column, with their nine artillery guns in tow. Without resistance, the Ottoman commander surrendered the entire column.

By 5:30 that evening, with dusk setting in, the town of Beersheba was under the control of the Desert Mounted Corps and British Divisions. Six hours of consolidation and rounding up prisoners ensued.

As night fell, Captain Davis recalled in a letter, “I had just finished counting my little lot of prisoners and sent them away under escort (it was a beautiful moonlight night and I counted them as a lot of sheep with Marnie and Haft keeping tally. 647 and 38 officers were the numbers as well as I remember the odd figures … 4th Light Horse got 350 odd more and we collected about 30 strays during the night.”

By 11 pm the Desert Mounted Corps HQ at Beersheba declared the town clear of the enemy.

After the battle, the Ottoman defensive line in southern Palestine began to collapse, as the Allied forces pushed it back to the coast and on into the north.

On the 6th November, one week after Light Horsemen and British infantry stood in the town square of Beersheba for the first time, General Sir Edmund Allenby wrote to his wife, “We’ve had a successful day. We attacked the left of the Turkish positions, from north of Beersheba, and have rolled them up as far as Sharia. The Turks fought well but have been badly defeated … Gaza was not attacked, but I should not be surprised if this affected seriously her defenders.” The following day, Allenby’s army occupied the city, concluding the Third Battle of Gaza.

Allied victory in the Middle Eastern Theatre of World War One, under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby, contributed significantly to a defining era for the region.

Alongside T. E. Lawrence, well-known as Lawrence of Arabia, General Allenby commanded the British component of the Arab Revolt in the deserts east of his armies.

Allenby’s financing of this irregular, but often wildly successful force, extended his preference for the agility of manoeuvre warfare and contributed decisively to his overall successes.

Eleven months after the Third Battle of Gaza, 160 kilometers north east of the coastal city, the Ottoman line was broken at Megiddo, including a cavalry route to block the Ottoman retreat. The overall victory followed, as Australian forces, alongside British, New Zealand, Indian, South African and Prince Feisal’s Sherifial Hejaz Army seized first Damascus, then Homs and by the end of the month, Aleppo, at the very border of Turkey.

Shy of one day to the year that Beersheba had fallen to the Light Horse Brigade, the Armistice of Mudros brought an end to fighting in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I, and signalled the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Obscured by profound changes in the region, the Armistice finally fulfilled objectives given to Australians on their first foray into the conflicts of the first world war, where more than three years before, at Gallipoli, Anzacs were tasked with occupying the forts of the Dardanelles.

I find the attack fascinating, It was the last time cavalry would be used in such numbers and the tactics used to bring home the attack was sublime, to say the least. The attack came in so fast that the Turkish defences did not even have time to just their sights on both artillery and small arms. The first rank of Light Horse went over the trenches then unmounted their horses, and attacked from behind the second rank stopped short dismounted and attacked on foot. The tactic was so successful that only 31 men from the Light Horse were killed, 36 were wounded, 70 horses killed with over 60 wounded. They captured 1,000 Turkish soldiers. On the other side of the coin, the Ottoman casualties are believed to be about 1000 (killed and wounded). The British lost 171 troops killed in action earlier in the day attempting to take Beersheba. What is also fascinating is the choice of weapons used. Gone was the usual Sabre, also spelt saber, heavy military sword, in came the Bayonet held by the hand not fixed to the rifle It was perfect for thrusting in tight spots like in the Trenches that the Turkish soldiers were inIts no wonder they inflicted so much damage to the entrenched Turks that would have been using their rifles with fixed bayonets. In a tight spot like that the shorter bayonet was a godsend to the Australians.

What is also fascinating as well, is the fact that many of the Light Horse were veterans of the Gallipoli, campaign where they saw hundreds of their comrades lose their lives, then had to retreat back to Egypt in defeat licking their wounds. It must have been a bittersweet moment for them when they attacked those positions defeating their old foe.

I guess the lay of the land helped them as well, it was flat giving the horses the freedom to pick up speed. It also said that the horses could smell the water, which urged them on, this might be true as both men and horses had gone without water for at least a day as the water was in front of them and many miles behind them. I say this because when the Australians dismounted, their horses ran hell for leather to the water troughs in Bathsheeba its self.

The poem was written by 2639 Tpr Arthur Wilson Beatty soon after taking place in the charge at Beersheba.

BEERSHEBA.

(Written by 2639 Tpr Arthur Wilson Beatty, C Sqn, 4th LHR)

We left the “Wadey” at break of day,
We rode far into the night;
Our loads were heavy, our horses poor,
But we pushed them on as we’d done before,
And swallowed the dust, and growled and swore,
Till Esani came in sight.

Two days we rested, three days we rode,
While the ‘planes buzzed overhead.
We left Khalasa at dead of night,
And we rode till dawn; then, streaked with white.
The mountains of Judah came in sight,
Like watchers o’er the dead.

We kept our horses behind the rise,
We followed the “Wadey” round,
And sunset found us behind a hill,
Our horses tired, but ready still
To gallop again at their riders’ will,
And watch for the broken ground.

Three miles of a wind-swept, shell-torn plain
Where death was sure to lurk!
The shrapnel screamed, the bullets whined,
Swift death spat out from the redoubts lined,
And red flame showed where the wells were mined
By the panic-stricken Turk.

The sun set red as we galloped on,
Our ranks thinned here and there,
As one dropped out who would ride no more
And a groan, as somebody galloped o’er
A foeman, battered and sick an sore,
Surrendering in despair!
.
Onward we rode till we reached the town,
At the end of the three-mile plain.
Empty and burning the old town lay;
The foeman beaten, had slunk away,
And left us there at the dawn of day,
To follow, and fight again.

The sun rose high on the saddest scene,
The last of the boys “gone West!”
They’d all gone out as the soldier dies -
We buried them out on a lonely “rise”
Where the mournful wind from the desert sighs
We left them there at rest.

Perhaps a cross, or a row of shells,
On wind-swept dusty “rise,”
Will mark where a brave man left the race
With a willing heart and a smiling face -
His grave a Bedouin camping place -
But memory never dies!

Part of the charge. The photo was taken by a Turk. The Turk was later captured and the camera confiscated. Many say this photo was taken after the charge in some sort of reenactment. I am not so sure because if you look above the riders you see three puffs of darkened smoke, those are shell bursts that are being fired above the riders to take them out with shrapnal.

Moving up the line to attack positions

Arial photo of Bethsheeba from 1917

Bathsheba now

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What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.

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