Australian Light Horse Charge at Beersheba
From its brilliant defence of Romani in August 1916 until the capture of Damascus in October 1918 the Australian Light Horse played a pivotal role in the Palestine campaign of World War I.
In 1915, the Australian Light Horse, having left their horses in Egypt, served at Gallipoli where Lieutenant Hugo Throssell was awarded the Victoria Cross for action at Hill 60; the only Victoria Cross ever bestowed on a light horseman.
In 1916, the light horse remained in the Middle East while the Australian infantry moved on to France.
The Australian Light Horse played a vital role in eliminating the Turkish threat to the Suez Canal on 4-5 August 1916 at Romani in the Sinai desert. The brunt of the fighting fell upon the light horse which suffered 900 of the 1100 Allied casualties. Turkish losses were estimated at 9000 including 4000 captured.
By the end of 1916 Turkish forces had been pushed out of the Sinai and the next Allied objective was the strong Turkish position at Gaza, on the Mediterranean. Gaza anchored the Turkish defence line that ran 50 kilometres south-east inland to the town of Beersheba. Two attempts to take Gaza in March and April 1917 failed.
Allied commanders then decided to outflank Gaza by turning the Turkish line at Beersheba. This battle was arguably the light horse’s finest moment, the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba.
The Beersheba attack was launched at dawn on 31 October with the British XX Corps attacking from the south and south-west in an attempt to draw the defenders away from the eastern defences. A careful orchestration of artillery, aerial bombing and men went on through the day, but by mid-afternoon Beersheba was still in Turkish hands.
Time was running out for the British Empire Forces to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark. Australian Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, commanding the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Brigadier General William Grant to make a mounted attack straight towards the town.
By 4.50 pm the brigade was assembled behind a rise in the ground six kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right and the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left. The 11th Light Horse Regiment was spread out over a line of outposts extending towards the 7th Mounted Brigade and not immediately available for the charge.
Just on sunset, the attack force moved off at the trot then almost at once went into a gallop. As they cleared the ridge, Turkish gunners sighted them and opened fire. The charge progressed in three waves, with around 500 metres between each wave.
Employing their bayonets as “swords” the momentum of the surprise attack carried the Australians through the Turkish defences. Watchful British batteries shelled enemy outposts on the horsemen’s flanks and the foremost riders were soon leaping the forward trenches, dismounting and battling, with bayonet and rifle, as more horsemen rode past them on into town.
Having breached the Turkish defences, the light horsemen inflicted casualties and took more than 1000 prisoners. Most of the wells were captured intact and a complete Turkish division, the 27th, was destroyed.
The fall of Beersheba opened the way for a general outflanking of the Gaza-Beersheba Line. Gaza fell a week later and on 9 December 1917 the city of Jerusalem was captured.
The final Palestine campaign was launched in September 1918. In great secrecy, three cavalry divisions including the Australian Mounted Division, now armed with swords, was moved to the coastal flank. The Anzac Mounted Division remained in the Jordan Valley.
At dawn on 19 September 1918, British infantry, supported by an air and ground bombardment, broke the Turkish line at its coastal end. The cavalry divisions rode through the lines and before dawn the next day were 50 kilometres behind the Turkish front. In a matter of days the Turkish 8th Army on the coastal flank was completely destroyed, while the 7th Army in the centre was routed.
On 23 September the Anzac Mounted Division advanced from the Jordan Valley and captured Amman. The British cavalry and Australian Light Horse then advanced to Damascus which the 3rd Light Horse Brigade entered early on the morning of 1 October. Less than six weeks after the battle commenced on 19 September, an armistice was signed on 30 October 1918.
Composition of the Australian Light Horse
The Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) commanded by Australian Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel in 1917 and 1918 comprised a number of British cavalry and Australian Mounted Divisions.
From mid-1917 the DMC included both the Anzac Mounted Division and the Australian Mounted Division. The Anzac Mounted Division contained two Australian Light Horse Brigades, each of three Light Horse Regiments and a New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.
The Australian Mounted Division in the final battles had three Australian Light Horse Brigades. Two brigades had three Light Horse Regiments while the 5th Light Horse Brigade had two Light Horse Regiments and a French Cavalry Regiment.
Post World War I
During World War 2, many Australians served in what is now modern-day Israel. Since World War 2 Australia has supported peace operations in the Middle East and Australians continue to serve in the area to this day.
Beersheba War Cemetery
Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
War cemeteries and graves
There are 774 Australian war dead commemorated in Israel, 545 from World War I and 229 from World War 2. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the Beersheba War Cemetery which contains 1241 Commonwealth burials of World War I, of whom 175 are Australians.