Friday, 31 October 2014

Three Cheers for the Lighthorse!


 Australians generally will little know, remember or even care that today is the 97th anniversary of the great mounted charge in Palestine by the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade against the Turkish defences at Beersheba during the Great War. History's last great cavalry charge.

 With the sun setting and the town having to be taken by storm before nightfall and thousands of British infantrymen failing to crack the Turks in a day of long hard fighting, Light Horse General Harry Chauvel took the biggest gamble of his career and called forth his Australians for one last effort against Beersheba's eastern defences.

 The consequences of failure were unthinkable. The entire British force would have to retreat through pitiless desert back from whence they came. The wells at Beersheba, their objective, their salvation, were meant to water the British force as they outflanked the fortress of Gaza and surprised the Turks by attacking their flank at Beersheba. Out in the desert. Away from their supply line. "Taking the door off at it's hinges" it was called. But the town needed to fall in a day. And the Turks grimly held on for most of it.


 The 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade was in reserve that day. They hadn't expected to be in the fight and had no doubt listened to the battle as it unfolded from the safety of a wadi where they had bivouacked for the day trying to stay cool and safe until the wells needed to water their horses could be secured.

 The Turks were retreating. The constant battering from British artillery and the remarkable odds they had stood against all day were taking their toll. But they would ensure the British victory would be a Pyrrhic one. They were blowing up the wells before vacating Beersheba. The British would have the town but there would be no water for them to drink. It would cause an unfathomable disaster.

 General Chauvel, commander of the Australian Light Horse, in charge of the battle for the British was perplexed as he gazed at the town from a distance. He needed it today and it showed no sign of falling. He asked for advice from his subordinates. Brigadier Grant, commanding the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade suggested a mounted charge against the seemingly impregnable eastern defences, by his brigade which was close at hand and could move at short notice.

 With a cavalry charge in the offing and a bit of glory to be had, the British cavalry officers at Chauvel's side suddenly pricked up their ears. They offered their own men-cavalrymen, armed with cavalry swords and trained in the age old art of mounted warfare. Not like these volunteer colonial regiments, mounted infantry who dismounted whenever the need arose to get into a fight.

 Chauvel later wrote that he had never tried to favour Australians when he was to make decisions and give orders, but if he ever did, October 31, 1917 was the day. "Put Grant straight at it!", was his famous order. Australia would have the last roll of the dice.

 The 4th and 12th regiments of the 4th Brigade moved quickly to action and 900 horseman soon appeared on the horizon, recognized by the Turkish defenders as what they were-Australian Light Horse-and orders were given to wait until the enemy had dismounted to advance before opening fire with their artillery.

 The 4th brigade never dismounted. With bayonets drawn and all the vigour and reckless daring Australian soldiers could muster, they spurred their horses and set a course for Beersheba, three kilometres away. Turkish shells fell among them and men were blown from their mounts but they were soon under the guns and only Turkish soldiers shielding the town in their trenches stood between them and their objective. The Turks were great defensive fighters but the spectacle of the charge rattled them and every Turkish rifle recovered after the battle was found to have it's sights set at too far a range. The defenders never had time to adjust them. The Australians were on them too quickly and as they closed bullets flew harmlessly over the heads of the Light Horseman. In the blink of an eye horses were leaping trenches and Australians dismounted and fixed bayonets and a vicious, close quarter fight ensued. It was all over in minutes. Forty Australians and many, many horses had died and untold numbers of Turks as well.

 Horseman were soon reigning in at the town centre and the wells were secured. A great action had won a great victory and the legend of the Australian Light Horse was set in stone forever.

 I have a personal connection with the battle at Beersheba. My grandfather, Trooper Norman Robinson was present with the 8th Light Horse Regiment that day. Although they never took part in the great charge, they did good work on the flanks of the town, overrunning several Turkish positions. In fact the regiment's commanding officer was killed by a bomb dropped from a German plane so the 8th had their share of action that day.

 The Charge at Beersheba is one of the greatest feats of arms by Australian soldiers in our history and I doubt I have done it justice with my sparse prose but as Australians we should remember the service and sacrifice of the men of the Light Horse. Never shall their glory fade while the Australian nation lives.

 Have a nice day.

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