A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 31, 1917: The Light Horse Charge at Beersheba

George Lambert, The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917
When we last discussed the centenary of the Palestine campaign last June, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was stalled after te First and Second Battles of Gaza, with the Ottomans secure behind strong fortifications along a line running from Gazainland to Beersheba at the edge of the Negev. Archibald Murray had been relieved and a new general, Edmund Allenby, dispatched to take over the campaign.

Over the summer, Allenby moved his headquarters from Cairo to the front, received only limited reinforcement, but was ordered to advance with the forces he had.

The Ottomans had reinforced their defenses, but Minister of War Enver Pasha wanted to move to retake Baghdad from the British, and so assembled a joint Turkish-German force near Aleppo intended to move into Mesopotamia under German command, known as the Yıldırım Force. Enver's generals objected, both to being put under German command and to leaving the Palestine defenses undermanned in order to concentrate on retaking Baghdad when there were threats on other fronts.

The British operated best along the coast, where they could depend on the guns of the Royal Navy, but Murray having twice failed to break the line at Gaza, Allenby resolved to try something different. As I've noted in earlier posts, the British had slowly extended the railroad and a pipeline carrying fresh water across Sinai to the borders of Palestine. But to operate inland beyond the end of the pipeline required a source of water for the troops, and for the horses of the Desert Mounted Corps.

Allenby's first biographer, Archibald Wavell (who would himself command in Egypt in a later war), wrote that Allenby carried with him two books, the Bible and Sir George Adam Smith's Historical Geography of the Holy Land, a wonderful Victorian description of the historical landscape of Palestine. He would, then, understand the importance of finding water once he abandoned the coast road.

Gaza to Beersheba
The Ottoman lines were solidly fortified from the coast at Gaza to Hareira (modern Tel Haror in Israel), and beyond that lay the Ottoman garrison at Beersheba (Beer-Sheva) on the edge of the Negev. And, as Allenby would have known from George Adam Smith, that ancient town's Hebrew name means "Seven Wells." Allenby decided to take Beersheba by surprise with a fast-moving column and seize its wells; then, with water available, he would roll up the Turkish line along the 43 kilometers from Beersheba to Gaza.

Every effort was made to persuade the Turks that the main attack would be along the coast. Beginning october 27, field artillery and naval guns bombarded the Turkish lines at Gaza, and the main force of British and Empire forces, centered on XXI Corps, remained in front of Gaza. Meanwhile the British XX Corps and the largely Australian Desert Mounted Corps were moved quietly and by night far to the right. Allenby's center was weak and potentially vulnerable to Turkish attack, but Allenby gambled that the Turks would remain secure in their defenses.

Beersheba in 1917
Both Allenby himself and the new German overall commander of the Yıldırım Force, Erich von Falkenhayn, were veterans of the stalemated trench warfare on the Western Front (which at this moment was undergoing the bloodletting of Passchendaele), and Allenby had served with the cavalry in the Boer War, and so appreciated the importance of mobility on the battlefield. Though tanks had been used at Second Gaza, mobility at this time still meant horses, and at Beersheba that meant the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade.

Sir Harry Chauvel
On October 31, the infantry force approached Beersheba from the West while the mounted troops concentrated against an Ottoman outpost at Tel el Saba east of Beersheba. Once Tel el Saba was taken, the Ottomans  began withdrawing from Beersheba, unknown to the British.

After a long day of fighting, Allenby urged Sir Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, to take Beersheba by nightfall. This produced one of history's famous cavalry charges, by the 4th and 12th Light Horse. It was the 12th that actually occupied the center of Beersheba, but the 4th got most of the credit.

The Charge
Sometimes called the last great cavalry charge, there would actually be many more in this war and later ones; cavalry charges have occurred in Afghanistan in recent times. But Beersheba became an iconic moment for the Light Horse and thus a key moment or Australian national identity; the Prime Minister and other Australian dignitaries were in Israel today for the centennial observations.

Harry Chauvel had one knighthood already; he won another (Knight Commander of the Bath) for Beersheba. At a moment when the Western Front was being bled dry at Passchendaele, Allenby had struck the first blow in a campaign that would have him in Jerusalem before Christmas.

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