There always seems to be a sense of romance attached to the Australian Light Horse. Last Tuesday, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, was no different. As we watched reenactments of that cavalry charge on our television sets, our hearts were pumping with the adrenalin of those 800 men who gallantly rode off into our history books as heroes. We were overcome by that warm feeling of nostalgia. However, if we were afforded the opportunity to sit and talk with those men who were there on 31st October 1917, the word romance would not enter the conversation. There was nothing romantic about losing 31 troopers and 70 horses to Turkish bullets. In fact, desperation for that precious commodity of water was the driving force on that victorious day.
It has been cited as being the last great cavalry charge in history. In trying to ascertain the exact details of the actions leading up to the charge and those of the charge itself, I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of the battle plan. The briefest description I could find was the following account on the website
The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917, is remembered as the last great cavalry charge. The assault on Beersheba began at dawn with the infantry divisions of the British XX Corps attacking from the south and south-west. Despite artillery and air support, neither the infantry attacks from the south, or the Anzac Mounted Division’s attack from the east had succeeded in capturing Beersheba by mid-afternoon.
With time running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark, Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew, from aerial photographs, that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire. However, German bombing had forced the 4th Brigade into a scattered formation and it was not until 4.50 pm that they were in position. The Brigade assembled behind rising ground 6 kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right, the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left and the 11th Light Horse Regiment in reserve.
The Australian Light Horse was to be used purely as cavalry for the first time. Although they were not equipped with cavalry sabres, the Turks who faced the long bayonets held by the Australians did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry. The Light Horse moved off at the trot, and almost at once quickened to a gallop. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire with shrapnel. But the pace was too fast for the gunners. After three kilometres Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the Light Horse approached. The front trench and the main trench were jumped and some men dismounted and then attacked the Turks with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba.
Nearly all the wells of Beersheba were intact and further water was available from a storm that had filled the pools. The 4th and 12th Light Horse casualties were thirty-one killed and thirty-six wounded; they captured over 700 men. The capture of Beersheba meant that the Gaza-Beersheba line was turned. Gaza fell a week later and on 9 December 1917, the British troops entered Jerusalem.
William Lyons did not take part in that charge as the 5th Light Horse Regiment were not involved. However, he did mention Beersheba in his diary.
On August 3rd 1917 he wrote:
“Bde (brigade) went out on a stunt to scupper Bedouins outpost, within 5 miles of Beersheba. Mafeesh Bedouins. Fired on by Turkish outpost.
On August 4th, he continued:
“Returned to camp without casualties”
Then on 4th November 1917, whilst hospitalized in Cairo due to illness, he wrote:
“The wounded are coming in from Beersheba fight.”
He would have been kept up to speed on what actually transpired at Beersheba on October 31st. No doubt he would have spoken to the wounded, curious for details. According to his diary, Colonel Lachlan Wilson, who participated in the charge, visited him several times during his stay in hospital. If only I could be privy to their conversations. I am sure they were laced with both the excitement of the successful outcome and of course reflection of the losses.
The attack on Beersheba was a case of “do or die”. Failure meant either perishing by the hand of the Turks or of thirst. From what I have recently learnt about General Chauvel, he had studied the possible outcomes. He only took calculated risks and his men knew that. They trusted his instincts. Yes, they might have been touched by a tinge of madness, but also words like “daring” and “gallant” come to mind. They had nothing to lose as their luck was evaporating along with the contents of their water bottles. They gave it their all, galloping across the plains on the wings of hope and that glorious victory was the turning point of the war in the middle east.