The battle of Beersheba took place on 31 October 1917 as part of the wider British offensive collectively known as the third Battle of Gaza. The final phase of this all day battle was the famous mounted charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade. Commencing at dusk, members of the brigade stormed through the Turkish defences and seized the strategic town of Beersheba. The capture of Beersheba enabled British Empire forces to break the Ottoman line near Gaza on 7 November and advance into Palestine.
The mounted troops spent the summer of 1917 after the second battle of Gaza in constant reconnaissance and in preparation for the offensive to come. The Turkish forces held the line from Gaza near the coast to Beersheba, about 46 kilometres to its south-east. The Allied forces held the line of the Wadi Ghuzzer from its mouth to El Gamly on the East. The positions were not continuous trench lines but rather a succession of strong posts. Both sides kept their strength in front of the city of Gaza.
The newly arrived British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Edmund Allenby used plans prepared by Lieutenant General Sir Phillip Chetwode. The plan was to attack Beersheba by using mounted troops from the east whilst the infantry attacked Beersheba from the south west. The preparation also involved persuading the Turkish forces that the offensive would again be against Gaza. Chetwode was in command the 20th Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps was under Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel.
The greatest problem for Chauvel was to find sufficient water in the Beersheba area for his mounted troops. Information from reconnaissance revealed that there was none other than at Esani which was too far to the west to be of any use for a surprise attack. Chauvel, through studying the records of the Palestine Exploration Fund and after questioning local Arabs, knew that the larger ancient towns in the area to the south and south-west of Beersheba must have had existing water supplies. At Asluj the old wells were found and a fortnight’s work put them into working order. This made the attack on Beersheba a feasible operation.
Various deceptions were employed to keep the enemy thinking the attack was going to be at Gaza including keeping the Infantry strength there until the last minute. Beersheba’s defences were held by 1,000 Turkish riflemen, nine machine guns and two aircraft. The position was extended through a series of trenches and redoubts placed on commanding positions with good zones of fire; but on the east and south the trenches were not protected by barbed wire. The Turkish forces were relying on the forbidding open terrain as well as the absence of water to defend Beersheba. Calculating that the attack was most likely to be upon Gaza they were also not prepared for a force such as Allenby’s which was moving on 30 October.
Chauvel’s orders when he left Asluj early on the evening of the 30 October were for Major General Chaytor's ANZAC Mounted Division to close the Beersheba Road at Sakati (almost 10 kilometres north-east of the town) in order to prevent Turkish reinforcements from coming in and also to cut-off escape from the town. Once the road was secured, he was to storm Beersheba using Major General Hodgson's Australian Mounted Division. Allenby had insisted that Beersheba must be captured on the first day of operations. On the night of 30 October about 40,000 allied troops moved towards Beersheba, including most of Chetwode's 20th Corps and Chauvel's the Desert Mounted Corps, in a night march of over 40 kilometres.
Trekking since October 28 via Esani members of the 12th Light Horse Regiment arrived at Asluj on 30 October. Corporal Harold Gleeson mentions in his diary that he obtained no water at Asluj and at 6pm on 30 October recorded moving on towards Beersheba, marching all night on a “very weary and dusty ride of 30 miles.” Private Hunter in his diary wrote “The dust was terrible. One could not see beyond his horses head. The horses braved the journey which was about 36 miles. Walked at my horses head for about 10 miles of flat country giving him a rest.” The horses were carrying heavy packs on average of about 120 kilograms and their riders knew that there was no water available until Beersheba fell into their hands. Private Keddie: “On this stunt we have been told we would have to live on what rations we had for a few days.”
On the morning of 31 October, Chetwode's three British divisions attacked the Turkish positions around Beersheba from the west and south supported by a sustained artillery bombardment of over 100 guns. By 1 pm they had driven the Turks from their defences to the west and south west of Beersheba, but the wells of the town were still in Turkish hands. The 4th Light Horse Brigade waited, scattered over a wide area as a precaution against bombing, to the south-east of the town. Private Hunter: “The Turks immediately started shelling us with heavies. Good cover and tact on our part prevented casualties”. Their horses were unsaddled, watered and fed. William Grant was the Brigade’s new commander following Brigadier General Meredith, who had been invalided home to Australia.
The wells of Beersheba were vital for the welfare of the Desert Mounted Corps’ horses, many of whom had been without water for several days. Enemy resistance at Tel El Saba, three kilometres to the east of the town, had been stronger than expected and it took a stiff day of fighting for Chaytor’s force to capture this strong redoubt protecting Beersheba's eastern flank. The fall of Tel El Saba at 3:15 pm meant that the 1st and 3rd Light Horse Brigades were free to attack Beersheba from the East.
At 3:30 pm there was only a few hours of day light remaining and orders were issued for the final phase of the struggle, the occupation of Beersheba. Chauvel decided to put Grant’s 4th Light Horse Brigade straight at the remaining trenches, from the south-east. Chauvel knew that he must take the town before dark in order to secure the wells for Allenby's large force. Private Keddie recorded: “We began to talk among ourselves saying Beersheba will be taken and us not doing anything when about 5 o’clock our major came and said that Beersheba had not been captured but we were going in.” Chauvel: “owing to the constant attacks from aeroplanes, which had devoted a good deal of attention to my own headquarters, it took some time to assemble them and push them off”. General Grant gave the order personally to the 12th Light Horse Regiment: “men you’re fighting for water. There’s no water between this side of Beersheba and Esani. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck”. The Light Horse were equipped with rifles and held their bayonets as swords, which would have been more suited to a cavalry style charge. Fortuitously their bayonet tips had been sharpened on the orders of Major General Hodgson, on 26 October.
Grant made the decision to order his light horsemen to charge cavalry-style, when they would normally have ridden close to an objective then dismounted to fight. Trooper Edward Dengate: “we got mounted, cantered about a quarter of a mile up a bit of a rise lined up along the brow of a hill paused a moment, and then went atem, the ground was none too smooth, which caused our line to get twisted a bit . . . Captain Davies let out a yell at the top of his voice . . . that started them all we spurred our horses . . . the bullets got thicker…three or four horses came down, others with no riders on kept going, the saddles splashed with blood, here and there a man running toward a dead horse for cover, the Turk’s trenches were about fifty yards on my right, I could see the Turk’s heads over the edge of the trenches squinting along their rifles, a lot of the fellows dismounted at that point thinking we were to take the trenches, but most of us kept straight on, where I was there was a clear track with trenches on the right and a redoubt on the left, some of the chaps jumped clear over the trenches in places, some fell into them, although about 150 men got through and raced for the town, they went up the street yelling like madmen.” Captain Robey was at their head.
Captain Jack Davies followed Robey’s men towards the town and shouted when three miles away: “Come on boys Beersheba first stop”. Major Fetherstonhaugh’s horse fell shot and was himself shot through the leg. The major put his horse out of its misery then got down behind his dead horse and fired his revolver until he ran out of ammunition. Fetherstonhaugh wrote to Davies congratulating him. In the letter he also mentioned his own injury: “I got a bullet through both thighs, it made a clean hole through the left but opened out a bit and made a large gash through the back of the right which will take a little while to fix up”.
While the 4th Light Horse Regiment dismounted at the trenches and tackled their objective on foot many in the 12th Light Horse Regiment were able to get straight through and take the town, Keddie: “we were all at the gallop yelling like mad some had bayonets in their hand others their rifle then it was a full stretch gallop at the trenches . . . the last 200 yards or so was good going and those horses put on pace and next were jumping the trenches with the Turks underneath . . . when over the trenches we went straight for the town.”
Sergeant Charles Doherty wrote that the horsemen who cleared all the trenches came up to an open plane which “was succeeded by small wadies and perpendicular gullies, surrounding which scores of sniper’s nests or dugouts each were holding seven or eight men. After progressing another quarter of a mile, we turned to the right at an angle of 45 degrees to converge on Beersheba. The enemy’s fire now came from the direction of the town and a large railway viaduct to the north. The limited number of entrances to the city temporarily checked us but those in front went straight up and through the narrow streets. Falling beams from fired buildings, exploding magazines and arsenals and various hidden snipers were unable to check our race through the two available streets that were wide enough for 2 to ride abreast.” Private Keddie had a near miss: “I felt a bullet go past my ear and thought if that bullet had been a few more inches to one side” as did Trooper Dengate: “I suppose you heard about the capture of Beersheba by the 4th Brigade, well I was right in it, and came through safe, and with my skin intact, I got a bullet through the leg of my breeches, just above the knee, grazed my leg but didn’t make it bleed.”
The success of the charge was in the shock value and sheer speed in which they took the town before it could be destroyed by a retreating Turkish force. Harry Langtip described Beersheba: “The town is small but has some very nice buildings with tiled roofs. The water scheme is grand. We got into the army stores and helped ourselves to grain for the horses & got bivy sheets and peg posts. We got all the Turkish stores, there was everything from a telephone to a pack saddle. We got lots of horses and bullocks. There was rifles and gear lying everywhere. The Turks left bombs and if you kicked one up it went. One Tommie got both his eyes blown out by a bottle. He just kicked it out of the way and it must have been full of explosives.”
Sergeant Charles Doherty: “The first party sent across to the large cement troughs had just finished when from the east came an unexpected fusillade of bullets. Through this assault made it appear that we had been cleverly ambushed, we retained control over the prisoners and secured what cover there was until further support arrived. Between 8 & 9:30 pm the 11LHR arrived and the 4th MG Squadron came in. Then a complete chain of outposts was established while the main body of prisoners, together with many scattered lots from the various redoubts were taken back to Brigade HQ.”
31 light horsemen were killed in the charge and 36 were wounded. Some originals from the Brigade who had enlisted in 1914 such as Edward Cleaver and Albert “Tibbie” Cotter, the famous Australian cricketer, were killed. The next morning Private Keddie rode over the ground to see if any of the horses could be found roaming but he recorded only seeing dead carcases. Keddie: “We were sent looking for the horses whose riders were killed so we made for the other side of the town where several other light horse regiments were . . . met some friends in the first light horse and yarned for a while they asked me what it was like in the charge gave them a full account”. At least 70 horses died. The Turkish defenders suffered many casualties and between 700 and 1,000 troops were captured.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the famous mounted charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade into Beersheba.
Private records Captain Charles Lydiard Abbott 12th Light Horse PR86/300 Private William Henry Best 12th Light Horse PR01038 Private Stan Broome 12th Light Horse PR91/053 Major Philip Arthur Chambers 12th Light Horse 1DRL/0196 General Sir Henry George Chauvel commander of the Desert Mounted Corp PR00535 Trooper Edward R Cleaver 4th Light Horse 3DRL/4114 Trooper Ernest J Craggs 12th Light Horse 3DRL/7812 Trooper Edward C Dengate 12th Light Horse 3DRL/7678 Corporal Roy J Dunk 3rd Light Horse PR00469 Lieutenant Robert Clive Hunter 12th Light Horse 1DRL/0367 Private Albert Victor Hunter 12th Light Horse PR01259 Private Walter Mundell Keddie 12th Light Horse PR03724 Sergeant Harry Langtip 4th Light Horse PR00053 Captain Charles Lydiard Abbott 12th Light Horse PR86/300 Lieutenant Arthur Talbot Scott 12th Light Horse 1DRL/0005 Private Arthur West 12th Light Horse 1DRL/0601
Notes on the Battle of Beersheba from Ashley Ekins Head, Military History Section
Official Records Australian Army war diaries - First World War
Published Henry Gullett, The Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine, 1914–1918 (10th edition, 1941) Elsie Ritchie Crusaders of the Southern Cross: the Australian Light Horse in the Middle East from the letters of Colonel Jack Davies ([Leichhardt, N.S.W. : Roland Nigel Davies],c1998.)