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'It was the bravest, most awe inspiring sight I've ever witnessed, and they were. . . yelling, swearing and shouting. There were more than 500 Aussie horsemen . . . As they thundered past my hair stood on end. The boys were wild-eyed and yelling their heads off'.
Trooper Eric Elliot
Trooper Elliot had crept to a hillock within two miles of Beersheeba (a city now part of Israel, but then a southern outpost of Turkey's Ottoman Empire) to act as range-finder for artillery. He noticed a cloud of dust behind him. The 4th Light Horse Brigade suddenly was on the move. A thundering line of charging light horsemen soon appeared over a crest in extended order, followed by a second and then a third line.
Directly in their path, Elliot quickly mounted his horse to get out of the way.
The charging force comprised the 4th (Victorian) and 12th (New South Wales) Light Horse Regiments. They formed the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Brigadier-General William Grant (born Stawell, Victoria). Earlier, Australian General Sir H. G. Chauvel had been ordered 'to capture Beersheeba today, in order to secure water and take prisoners'. Chauvel had other units available including British troops, but directed the 4th Brigade forward. 'Put Grant straight at it', he directed.
History's last great mounted charge thus was hastily organised in an atmosphere of urgency. Dwindling supplies of water demanded that the water wells at Beersheeba be taken at once. Any delay, while the large British force gradually assembled nearby, would only lead to demolition of the wells by the Turkish defenders. Without water, the whole Sinai-Palestine campaign would be halted perhaps for months, and the Gaza-Beersheeba line would remain unbroken. A victory here over the Turkish defenders would help avenge the disasters of Gallipoli.
The 4th Light Horse Brigade had spent a quiet day till then. Widely scattered as a precaution against any surprise aircraft attack, the men and horses rested in small clusters. It took an hour-and-a-half to assemble the brigade behind a ridge overlooking Beersheeba. The Victorians were on the left, the 12th Regiment on the right. It was 4.30 pm on 31 October 1917. Without swords, the light horsemen drew their long bayonets to flash in the setting sun as swords. . .
The two regiments moved off at the trot, gradually fanning out until there was five yards between each horseman. 'Speed and surprise were their one chance', wrote official historian H. S. Gullett later, 'and almost at once the pace was quickened to a gallop'. Four miles ahead lay Turkish trenches, many cleverly concealed even from aircraft reconnaissance and surrounded on nearby hills by machine gun and artillery positions.
One such battery opened fire with shrapnel ammunition as soon as the brigade was spotted. Soon, after charging over two miles, a hot machine gun fire was directed onto the leading squadrons. A British battery--the Essex Battery--which observed this at once replied and after only a few shells put the machne guns out of action. All this intensifying enemy fire only sped up the gallop.
The Battle of Beersheba has always been presented as a story of almost reckless heroism. But it took sixty years for another point of view to emerge. Historian David Holloway interviewed veteran Trooper Vic Smith who remembered:
Of course we were scared, wishing to hell we weren't there, but out of it. But you couldn't drop out and leave your mates to it; you had to keep going on.
As the Turkish trenches neared, rapid rifle fire began to take its toll. Horses and men in the first line began to drop. Strangely, as the lines got closer to the trenches fewer casualties occurred. This, it was later said, was due to the fact that the Turks, dazed by the sheer audacity and thunder of the charge, failed to alter the sights on their rifles. Soon they were firing harmlessly over the heads of the approaching charge. While this is a possible, even likely, explanation for the sudden fall in casualties, the light horsemen themselves regarded the Turkish soldier as a well-disciplined and dangerous foe, not likely to make so basic a mistake. The clouds of dust of the charge may have made picking a target near impossible.
About half-a-mile from the town, the Brigade began to overrun fugitive troops and guns. Some surrendered but others elected to fight and Light Horsemen here and there dismounted to capture them by rifle and bayonet. Led by two ground scouts about 80 yards ahead, the charge swept on.
When the trenches before Beersheba were reached, the Brigade mostly bypassed the first and main trenches, but casualties occurred. Some Light Horsemen raced through to the town to capture objectives. Others dismounted at various trenches or had their horses shot from under them and dazed or not 'got to work with the bayonet'. A terrible disorder soon reigned with some Light Horsemen reduced to using their rifles as clubs. Mostly the Turks seemed anxious to surrender, but scattered units exchanged fire with the Light Horsemen, some bitterly refusing to give up until large numbers had been shot or bayoneted.
Three or four incidents took place where surrendered Turks changed their minds. One rolled a grenade at Lieutenant Ben Meredith of C Squadron and 'blew him to bits'. The Turkish soldier was immediately bayoneted.
In one incident, Armourer Staff-Sergeant Arthur Cox of Bendigo saw a machine-gun being hurriedly dismounted from a mule by its crew. 'In a minute it would have been in action at close range'. Cox dashed at the party alone, bluffed them into surrender, and took forty prisoners. Altogether 738 prisoners were taken.
Trooper S. Bolton of Geelong single-handedly captured a gun and its crew including a German officer.
A wounded trooper revealed: 'All I could do was ride my horse, wave my bayonet round my head and yell. But we were lucky. No barbed wire and none of those horse pits too wide to jump'.
Another wounded man said: 'As soon as we cleared the trenches and dismounted, the Turks threw down their rifles and offered money to save their lives'.
In an impossible turn of bad luck that evening a German aircraft flew over the 4th Light Horse Field Ambulance Unit scoring a direct bomb hit which killed four stretcher bearers. This was despite the unit being clearly identified by Red Cross Flags. Elsewhere, acting Brigadier General Leslie Maygar VC, of Boer War and Gallipoli fame, and then CO of the 8th Light Horse, lay mortally wounded by another bomb at dusk.
Next day a moving ceremony took place in the morning just outside Beersheba for all the dead Australians. A firing party honoured the fallen and a trumpeter played the Last Post.
The Battle of Beersheba had been an outstanding, swift and decisive victory. Using tactics from an earlier military age, the 4th Light Horse Brigade's stunning achievement is still revered in Australia today.
This superb Australian Light Horse Memorial at Tamworth, NSW, is in Bicentennial Park. It was scupted by Tanya Bartlett (above, right) of Newcastle. Information kindly provided by David Evans OAM.
Relevant, related pages about Victorian mounted units on this website can be found here:
Gullett, H. S.: Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18: Vol. VII: Sinai and Palestine: Angus & Robertson: 1938.
Hamilton, Patrick M.: Riders of Destiny: The 4th Australian Light Horse Field Ambulance 1917-1918: An autobiography and History: Mostly Unsung Military Research and Publications: Melbourne: 1985.
Holloway, David: Hooves, Wheels and Tracks: A history of the 4th/19th Prince of Wales's Light Horse Regiment and its Predecessors: Regimental Trustees: 1990.
Smith. Lt-Col Neil C.: Men of
Beersheba: A history of the 4th Light Horse Regiment: Mostly Unsung Military
History Research and Publications: Melbourne: 1993.
Books about the Australian Light
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