On Tuesday, exactly one hundred years after the Australian 4th Cavalry Light Horse Brigade conducted its lightning attack to take the southern city of Beersheba from the Ottomans, one hundred Aussies mounted up and recreated the historic charge, reaffirming the deep connection between Israel and one of its earliest allies.
The Battle for Beersheba
In addition to its Biblical importance, the city of Beersheba was a strategic key in the World War I battle for the Middle East. The battle for the city was a key part of the British-led campaign to knock the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, out of the war.
Sitting aside one of the main routes from Egypt to Palestine, Beersheba contained water wells that were described in the Bible. These wells were a matter of life or death for the British army’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), far from home and running on overextended supply lines. Its initiative had been faltering and the leadership had been passed on to a new commander: British General Edmund Allenby.
Though the strategic importance of the city was clear to Allenby, neither was the Biblical import lost on him. One of his first acts as commander was to issue a Bible to all of his soldiers. Historians have recorded how the British general was often found on his knees, deep in prayer, asking for direction from above.
The city was defended by Ottoman Fourth Army Troops who were heavily dug in. Artillery and machine-gun emplacements made any approach difficult. The terrain was flat and treeless, heavily favoring defense.
After a three day trek through the desert, soldiers from the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) arrived outside the Ottoman held city on the morning of October 31. They launched a series of what was intended to be surprise attacks against the strong defenses dominating the eastern side of Beersheba but their early morning approach was spotted by German air-patrols and wandering Bedouin. They encountered Ottoman emplacements where there had been none and all the ANZAC attacks were rebuffed.
With less than two hours of daylight remaining, the commanders faced a difficult decision. The commanders had to decide whether to withdraw in order to find water for the thirsty troops and their mounts, which would allow the Turks to refortify Tel Be’er Sheva, or to advance and try to conquer the city before dark.
Australian Gen. Henry Chauvel chose an entirely unorthodox approach. He sent the 800 mounted soldiers of the 4th Light Brigade charging into the city at breakneck speed. Their bayonets drawn and their rifles slung across their backs, they ran directly into the entrenched Ottoman machine-guns. Their advance outpaced Turkish artillery, who could not adjust their cannons fast enough to zero in on the mounted Australians.
Part of the regiment jumped the four-foot wide trenches before turning to make a dismounted attack on the Ottoman infantry while the rest continued into the town. The Ottomans had rigged the wells with explosives, preferring to see them destroyed rather than fall into enemy hands. Due to the speed of the attack, all of the wells were captured intact.
The victory in Beersheba was the first step of an offensive, leading to the capture of the Ottoman stronghold in Gaza one week later. The true impact of the charge into Beersheba was felt six weeks later when the EEF captured Jerusalem. The battle was considered one of the last great cavalry charges before sophisticated weaponry rendered horses obsolete in the military.
The charge claimed the lives of 31 Australians and eight New Zealanders, but Palestine was in the hands of the British, who were ready to declare to the world that they were ready to take their part in creating a Jewish State.
Prime Ministers Join and Commemorate
At the city’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Tuesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused on the Biblical significance of the event being commemorated.
“Nearly 4,000 years ago Abraham came to Beersheba, the city of seven wells,” Netanyahu said. “”Exactly 100 years ago brave ANZAC soldiers liberated Beersheba for the sons and daughters of Abraham and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to re-enter the stage of history.”
Joining him was Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in Israel to commemorate the anniversary. Turnbull commented on the historical implications of the battle and its significance.
“Had the Ottoman rule in Palestine and Syria not been overthrown by the Australians and the New Zealanders, the Balfour Declaration would have been empty words,” the Australian premiere said.
While British politicians were writing the Balfour Declaration in England announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, Australian cavalry was charging into Beersheba. The momentous document was issued on November 2, three days after the dust settled on the battlefield.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Commemorative events continued in the afternoon, as 100 Australian horsemen were led by an IDF marching band down the streets of Beersheba. The visitors from down under and Israeli locals waved each others’ flags, and the meeting of cultures was complete when the Australian Wheatbelt band followed up Waltzing Matilda with Hava Nagila.
The highlight of the day was the reenactment of the actual cavalry charge. While the Australian and Israeli prime ministers looked on, 100 horses lined up at the far edge of a large patch of desert. The horsemen, dressed in the cavalry uniforms and distinctive ostrich plumed half-cocked hats, rode their steeds at a leisurely pace substantially less dramatic than the event they had come almost 8,000 miles to reenact.
Some time after the first ‘charge,’ forty of the best horsemen returned to the far end of the field and charged forward at full tilt, shouting in a display of Australian bravado that would have done their ancestors proud.
Australians Come to Bear Witness
At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Turnbull said the “the battle has become part of our history, part of our psyche”. This was evident in the enthusiasm of the 3,000 Australians and New Zealanders who came to Israel to attend.
Stan Goodenough, a South African Christian tour-guide who has lived in Israel for over 25 years, frequently travels to Australia to advocate for Israel.
“It’s a remarkable choice of the Almighty to use the Christian Nation furthest from Israel to spearhead the opening of the land to the Jewish people,” Goodenough told Breaking Israel News. “The entire battle lasted 58 minutes. It was not a big battle in a technical sense, and very few soldiers were involved. But every battle that takes place on the planet has a connection to the battle for the Holy Land.”
Keith Buxton, National Director of Bridges for Peace in Australia, was finishing up a fifteen-day visit to Israel in Beersheba.
“We’ve been amazed by the land,” Buxton told Breaking Israel News. “This event encapsulates why we came. It marks the very special relationship Australia has always had with Israel.”
Buxton and Goodenough are collecting signatures for a petition to convince the Australian government to be the first country to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Stan emphasized that it would be a characteristically Australian act.
“The cavalry charge one hundred years ago defied expectation,” Goodenough said. “It was a madman’s decision. So let Australia be mad again, and lead the charge.”
Dan Webster and Raymond Gates, employees of an Australian defense company that works with Israel, came to attend the event. Webster’s grandfather fought in the battle for Beersheba as a British soldier, immigrating to Australia after the war.
“I am not sure he knew at the time the importance of the battle, or if they ever really knew,” Webster told Breaking Israel News. “They were just a bunch of men here to do their jobs, looking for their next meal, and trying to stay alive, but it has become apparent to us in the last 20 years that Israel is important to Australia.”
Gates noted the strong connection between the two countries, emphasizing proudly that Australia was the first country to cast its vote in favor of the UN Partition Plan in 1948, leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel. He believes that this connection has its roots in the Bible shares by Christians and Jews, based in the Holy Land.
“One hundred years ago, religion was a very important part of life in Australia,” Gates said to Breaking Israel News, bringing in a personal example. “My wife’s father was here in WWII and we have a nice collection of mementos he brought back, all connected to the Bible. I think he knew that he was walking on the Holy Land and that was probably a part of what he was fighting for.”
Four Jewish Australian teens took time off from their studies to celebrate. Participating in a year-long program from Netzer, a Reform Jewish youth group, they feel the strong connection between the two countries.
“Most of the soldiers in the battle were not Jewish,” Tilda, with family roots going back to the very beginnings of Australia, pointed out. “But that comes from the strong Australian trait of helping other nations. The relationship between Israel and Australia is very strong. They are both liberal democratic countries isolated in their respective regions.”
After the dust settled and the horses walked off the field, many went away wondering if the day of commemoration would have a lasting effect.
“For the last five years, the focus has been on this event; this one hundred year commemoration has passed, we need to ask what we need to do next,” Goodenough said to Breaking Israel News. “Is the focus on looking back? Israel and Australia built a bond in the fires of that war. But now, we need to use the aftershocks of this event to galvanize Australian Christians to lead the way in standing with Israel and Jerusalem.”