Battle of Beersheba: 100 years

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I'll get back to the charter amendment proposals in a couple of days, but we have some historical commemorations that deserve our attention. There's the big one -- the semimillenial celebration of Luther's 95 Theses and the commencement of the Protestant Reformation -- but 100 years ago today there were a couple of events of lasting significance involving the Holy Land. One of those events was the last great cavalry charge in the history of warfare, which broke the Ottoman line of defense and opened the door for the conquest of Palestine by British, Australian, and New Zealand troops.

Beersheba is the ancient city known as the southern end of proverbial description of the extent of the ancient land of Israel -- "from Dan even unto Beersheba." It was at Beersheba that Abraham and Abimelech, king of Gerar, made a covenant, by which the place was named -- Well of the Oath (Genesis 21:31). The name could also mean the Seven Wells dug by Isaac (Genesis 26). The modern city of Beersheba, to the west of the tel, was founded in 1900 as a southern outpost of Ottoman Palestine, strengthening the Turks' claim to the Negev against British control of the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula. Today the metro area has a population of about a half-million people. To the east of the modern city is Tel Be'er Sheva National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where you can walk down into an ancient cistern from King David's day.

In 1917, Beersheba was one end of a defensive line that ran to Gaza on the coast, protecting Ottoman and German control of Palestine. In March and April, Allied forces twice attacked Gaza and twice failed to take the city. A long stalemate ensued, which included trench warfare, mounted patrols, aerial reconnaisance and dogfights, and training and reorganization on both sides of the line.

That reorganization included a change of leadership on the British side and a change of strategy, aided by some detailed local knowledge. Historian Barry Shaw explains in a Jerusalem Post story:

Under Gen. Sir Archibald Murray, the British army was badly beaten twice at the battles for Gaza.

Murray tried to put a brave face on his humiliating defeat by misrepresenting the casualty figures and claiming that "it was a most successful operation, the fog and waterless nature of the country just saving the enemy from complete disaster."

The War Cabinet did not see it that way, and Murray was relieved of duty, to be replaced as commander of what was called "The Egyptian Expeditionary Force" by Gen. Edmund Allenby.

This no-nonsense military leader, known as "The Bull" for his build (he stood 194 cm. tall) and demeanor, received instructions from British prime minister David Lloyd George, a Welsh Baptist Zionist, to give the British public a gift by taking Jerusalem by Christmas.

Allenby adopted a new tactic, military deception, by lulling the enemy into thinking he would follow Murray's example and launch a third major assault on Gaza.

Instead, aided and advised by a Palestinian Jew and a Christian Zionist intelligence officer, Allenby was persuaded to swerve south of Gaza and attack Beersheba because, as Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist from Zichron Ya'akov, told him, "that is where the water is."

Aaronson's research convinced him that large reserves of water lay hidden under the hot desert surface of the Negev. As he pointed out to a receptive Allenby, without sufficient water for his hundreds of thousands of men, tens of thousands of horses and camels and his motorized vehicles, he had no chance of winning the Palestine campaign.

Aaronsohn also knew the trails and wadis that would allow Allenby's massed troops to negotiate their way from Egypt to Beersheba without getting bogged down in the soft desert sands and for his advanced troops to approach Beersheba relatively undetected.

Shaw describes the battle as Britain's first victory in the Great War after four humiliating defeats to the Turks.

An article on the History of War website explains the strategic importance of Beersheba:

The main Turkish defensive line ended at Kauwukah, ten miles to the north west of Beersheba. There was a simple reason for this. The countryside to the west and south of Beersheba was entirely waterless. Any attacking force would have to carry its own water, and be confident that it could capture Beersheba in a single day, for the only water in the area was within the town. The biggest danger was that the Turks might have time to destroy the wells within Beersheba, forcing the attacking force to retreat back towards its water supplies.

The Turkish defences of Beersheba were strongest towards the south and west. There they had a line of trenches, protected by barbed wire, supported by strong redoubts, all constructed along a ridge. To the north and east the defences were much weaker, and crucially lacked any wire. No serious attack was expected from the area of rocky hills east of the town. Beersheba had just been designated as the headquarters of a new Turkish Seventh Army, but on 31 October that army had not yet come into being. The town was defended by 3,500-4,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry with four batteries of artillery and fifty machine guns.

Early on the morning of October 31, 1917, the British guns began the attack on Ottoman positions. By mid-morning the attack on the tel, a key defensive position, had begun, and by mid-afternoon New Zealand ground forces charged up the tel with bayonets and took it. Not long after, the Australian 12th and 4th Light Horse Regiments led the charge for the assault on the town:

The 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments drew up behind a ridge. From the crest, Beersheba was in full view. The course lay down a long, slight slope which was bare of cover. Between them and the town lay the enemy defences. The 4th was on the right; the 12th was on the left. They rode with bayonets in hand. Each drew up on a squadron frontage. Every man knew that only a wild, desperate charge could seize Beersheba before dark. They moved off at the trot, deploying at once into artillery formation, with 5 metres between horsemen. Almost at once the pace quickened to a gallop. Once direction was given, the lead squadrons pressed forward. The 11th Australian Light Horse Regiment and the Yeomanry followed at the trot in reserve. The Turks opened fire with shrapnel. Machine guns fired against the lead squadrons. The Royal Horse Artillery got their range and soon had them out of action. The Turkish riflemen fired, horses were hit, but the charge was not checked. The Lighthorsemen drove in their spurs; they rode for victory and they rode for Australia. The bewildered enemy failed to adjust their sights and soon their fire was passing harmlessly overhead. The 4th took the trenches; the enemy soon surrendered. The 12th rode through a gap and on into the town. Their was a bitter fight. Some enemy surrendered; others fled and were pursued into the Judean Hills. In less than an hour it was over; the enemy was finally beaten.

Crucially, the wells were intact when the Allies took the city.

By the end of the year the Allies had taken Jerusalem. The conquest of Beersheba was an turning point in the war against the Ottoman Empire, and a landmark of Australian military history.

Read more, and see photos of the charge:

MORE: Video from the Prime Minister of Israel's office of today's commemorations, including a dramatic haka (Maori war dance) in memory of the New Zealand soldiers who died capturing Tel Be'er Sheva.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 30, 2017 11:13 PM.

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