The charge of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments (4th Lt Horse Brigade) at Beersheba.
Today is the 90th anniversary of probably one of the defining battles fought by Australian troops. All of our military actions are remembered but although the troops in all of them served with the same courage, tenacity, and discipline, only a few of these battles go into
legend. Beersheba is one of them.
In 1917 the British advance against the Turks was stalled at the Gaza Beersheba line, which was still intact after two major attacks on Gaza, both of which had been repulsed. Beersheba was on the other end about thirty miles inland across waterless terrain.
For this reason it was generally believed by the Turks that it was not possible to take Beersheba as the only available water was the wells in the town itself.
However General Chetwode, the commander of the British 20th Corps believed that the lack of water would be easier to overcome than the Gaza fortifications and devised a plan of attack from a base within range of the objective. However the whole thing 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.
The force to be used was the British 20th Corps and two mounted divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps, which consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division and the Australian Mounted division. These were Light Horse troops who used horses for fast mobility to get within range of the enemy, then dismount and attack as infantry.
The actions during the earlier part of the day, while successful had taken much longer than expected and as result water was running out. 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, 11th and 12th Light Horse Regiments. The 11th was dispersed but the 4th and 12th were quickly ready to make the charge.
The rest is a quote from “Beersheba; The only great Mounted Infantry charge in history”.
'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 Beersheba (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 somehow managed to scamper 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 Beersheba 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 Beersheba 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-Beersheba 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 Beersheba. The Victorians were on the left, the 12th Regiment on the right. It was 4.30 pm on 31 October 1917. Without swords (they were not on issue to Lt Horse), 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 machine 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'.
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).
This is not my usual type of subject however this one is special, if you get a chance watch “The Lighthorsemen” or a rarer movie “20,000 Horsemen”.