105th Anniversary Beersheba Breakfast

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Speech given by Mr Matt Anderson PSM, Director, Australian War Memorial. 105th Anniversary Beersheba Breakfast, Menagle Park, New South Wales, 31 October 2022


I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge and to thank those who have served, those still serving, and the families that love and support them.

Today, we have paused to remember and pay tribute to all who served in the Australian Light Horse Regiments – in particular those who, 105 years ago today, were involved in one of the last great cavalry charges at Beersheba.

I’ve chosen my words carefully.

One of the last great cavalry charges.

In preparing for today’s address, I came across historians who caution against some aspects of the traditional telling of the Battle of Beersheeba.

In particular, I acknowledge the Australian War Memorial’s historians, alongside those who participated in an impresive Military History and Heritage Victoria Conference in 2018 called ‘Busting Beersheba’ for many of the anecdotes I will draw on this morning. 

The so-called myth-busters.

Questioning – is good. Indeed healthy in any thriving democracy.

There are those who argue that Beersheeba has been hijacked, a little like Gallipoli, to be solely an Australian story – certainly British and NZ elements were central to a wide ranging outflanking manouvre through the desert.

But that doesn’t mean we did not play a significant role, and in the doing, we’ve been gifted an example of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifce that traverses the ages.

Indeed, it’s why we gather this morning.

Was it a cavalry charge?

Infantry and artillery  - even aircraft - were also involved in trying to breach the Ottoman Empire’s lines that ran from Gaza to the wells of Beersheeba.

And, was it even cavalry – these were Light Horsemen – mounted infantry (sort of) – whose tasks included scouting and recononnaisance – and, typically but not exclusively,  to get close to the enemy before dismounting and fighting as infantry.

And was it the last?

British, Indian and Australian troops would be involved in mounted charges in the final Megiddo offensive of September 1918, and the Italians took on the Russians on the Estern Front in a successful cavalry charge in 1942.

All valid arguments.

But to me, they miss the point.

I was in London a couple of weeks ago at a conference held by the Imperial War Museum.  I was reminded that when we tell stories in our galleries, we should be careful to avoid the mistake of bringing our knowledge of the outcome of events, years, decades or even 105 years after they have occurred, to our understanding.

It was explained to us, for example, that many visitors to the Imperial War Memorial’s new Holocaust Galleries – children even adults – said ‘why didn’t they just leave’? Why didn’t they leave their jobs, leave their homes, leave Europe ahead of the murderous Nazi tide that swept across Europe, followed closely by the Einsatzgruppen, often called “mobile killing units,”of the murderous SS.

Simply, because they didn’t know there would be a Holocaust. It was beyond their – indeed our – wildest and most horrible imaginings.

It still is. 

So we start today knowing the outcome of the Battle of or for Beersheeba.

We also know that within a month of Beersheeba, Jerusalem fell, and on the anniversary of the charge at Beersheeba, the Ottoman Empire fell and was consigned to history.

But let’s try to put ourselves in the minds of those on the ground in 1917.

Let’s forget, for a moment, what we now know as fact.  

For those involved, their confidence notwithstanding, success was far from certain.

Our fortunes on the Western Front were at a low point.

1917 was the costliest year in Australia’s history.

In 1917 almost 77,000 Australians were killed, wounded or missing on the Western Front—twice the number of casualties in France in 1916 and close to three times that of the Gallipoli campaign.

We were three years into a war in which victory seemed more ellusive than ever.

Meanwhile, in the East, General Allenby was sent in to shake things up – he was nicknamed The Bull! - and set his sights on taking Jerusalem by Christmas.

The first two frontal attacks on the strong Ottoman defences at Gaza, in March and April 1917,  had failed. There was a growing risk of a stalemate that had echoes of the trench warfare on the Western Front.  

The British Army re-organised before trying again, while the Australian Light Horsemen spent the ensuing months conducting constant reconnaissance patrols.

By September, preparations had been made for a third offensive to capture Gaza, but this time via the side-door at Beersheba.

The Ottoman defences stretched 46 kilometres into the desert, from their bastion of Gaza on the Mediterranean Coast, through a succession of fortified strong points to Beersheba.

Beersheba itself was held by some 1,000 Ottoman soldiers, nine machine guns, a number of field guns and two aircraft.

The town’s immediate defences consisted of a series of trenches and redoubts.

The defenders also relied on the brutal desert conditions and lack of water in keeping mounted units from attacking.

But reconnaisance had identified those on the East and South were not protected by barbed wire or anti-cavalry ditches.

An infantry assault was deemed to be too slow and would give the defenders more than ample time to destroy the vital water wells that would be required to water horses and men and continue the battle.

By this stage, Gaza had been shelled for six days, and three infantry divisions had been placed in front of the town to make the Ottoman defenders believe that a third frontal assault was imminent.

The British 20th Corps and Desert Mounted Corps led by Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, Australia’s first corps commander, marched through the night of 30 October to reach their starting positions.

The 20th Corps was to be a diversionary attack from the West, but they were not to advance into the town.

The Desert Mounted Corps, was tasked with capturing Beersheba and its wells by mounted action from the East of the town.

So here’s the picture: British Infantry to the West of Beersheeba, Camel Corps in the North-West, Light Horse to the North as cut off and more to the East and South. The New Zealanders were tasked with taking the high ground to the East at Tel el Saba.

The battle began on the morning of 31 October.

British infantry units advanced on Beersheba during the middle of the day and had secured their objectives by mid-afternoon.

They had suffered over 1,100 casualties in the process.

The Australian and New Zealand mounted units and British horse artillery units began their attacks at 10am, however, the Ottoman defences on Tel el Saba held up the main effort to capture the town until just after 3pm.

Troopers of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were the first to attempt to attack the Tel. The wadi fast became a death trap, but undaunted the Kiwis were ordered to charge the slopes, with the Auckland Regiment in the lead.

Lieutenant Moore later wrote;

“The New Zealanders charged with fixed bayonets, pushing the attack home with great deermination as they mounted the rising ground towards the enemy.

The sight of the cold steel coming upon them was evidently too much for the morale of the Turks for their fire dired down as our panting men approached their trenches.

Those that did not bolt soon surrendered.”

The Kiwis had captureed 130 Turks and four machine gun crews.

Those Turks who fled were soon ‘cut down’ by troops of the 2nd and 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiments who gave case. An enemy force was then seen threatening a counter attack, but it was quickly driven off by the same Australians.     

The afternoon began to fade towards evening.

Again, it was all or noting.

Beersheba was the only source of secure water and Chauvel knew he had to take the town before sunset or face withdrawing. 

The ANZACs would have no water and most would likely die before making it back to their starting point South of Gaza.

His 4th Light Horse Brigade, led by Brigadier General William Grant, was resting nearby. Chauvel gave the order; ‘put Grant straight at it.’

The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments saddled up and prepared to move.

Brigadier General Grant told 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”.

It would be the first time the Australian Light Horse was used as cavalry.

The advance began at a canter at 4.30pm with the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments advancing over open ground that sloped gently down towards Beersheba.

The initial fire from the Ottoman positions was heavy, but as the Australians neared the forward defences at full gallop, the firing became increasingly erratic as many of the defenders panicked and gave way.

Twenty-one-year-old bank clerk from Melbourne, Trooper Arthur Moon of 4th Regiment recalled his part in the charge, while mounted on his charger ‘Jerry’ as they charged towards the Turkish lines:

The pace is getting hotter and Jacko realises that there is something doing. We can hear his rifle and machinegun fire, but it does not seem to be coming anywhere near us.

I have a hazy recollection of a plane badly missing us with bombs. Tim Healey of C Troop is about 50 yards in front, acting as ground scout’.

Covering the left flank of the charge was, Sergeant Doherty of the 12th Regiment who later wrote in his diary:

After progressing about three quarters of a mile our pace became terrific … we were galloping towards a strongly held, crescent shaped redoubt of greater length than our own line. In face of this intense fire, which now included frequent salvos from field artillery, the now maddened horses, straining their hearts to bursting point, had to cross cavernous wadis whose precipitous banks seemed to defy our progress. The crescent redoubt — like a long sinuous smoking serpent — was taking a fearful toll of men and horses, but the line remained unwavering and resolute’.

The lead squadrons of the 4th Light Horse Regiment dismounted from their horses after jumping the first line of Ottoman trenches and commenced close quarter fighting to clear the first and second lines.

One troop from A Squadron of the 12th Light Horse, advancing on the left of their comrades, stopped to help clear the trenches while the rest of the squadron and all of B Squadron of the 12th advanced past the defensive lines and, after rallying at a nearby railway viaduct, entered the town.

Trooper John ‘Chook’ Fowler (12th ALH regiment) was now encountering the main Turkish trench system.

I urged my horse along, and it wasn’t hard to do so as he was as anxious as I was to get past those trenches. I am certain my horse knew what those bullets meant … No horseman ever crouched closer to his mount than I did. Suddenly through the dust, I saw the trenches, very wide with sand bags in front; I doubt if my horse could have jumped them with the load he was carrying, and after galloping two miles. The trench was fall of Turks with rifle and fixed bayonets, and hand grenades.

About 20 yards to my left, I could just see as a blur through the dust some horses and men of the 12th Regiment passing through a narrow opening in the trenches. I turned my horse and raced along that trench. I had a bird’s eye view of the Turks below me throwing hand grenades etc., but in a flash we were through with nothing between us and Beersheba, and the sound of machine guns and grenades behind.

The attack took less than an hour to overrun the Turkish trenches and enter Beersheba.

Of the 17 wells, only two were destroyed. A supply of water was secured.

Thirty-eight Turkish and German officers and about 700 other ranks were taken prisoner.

The Australians suffered 67 casualties.

Two officers and 29 other ranks were killed, and 8 officers and 28 other ranks wounded.

70 horses were dead.

The capture of Beersheba broke the Gaza—Beersheba line and enabled the British, Australian and New Zealand forces to outflank Gaza.

On 6 November, after severe fighting, Turkish forces began to withdraw from Gaza further into Palestine.

The charge captured the war weary world’s imagination.

Official Historian Henry Gullet would later write: 

The enemy was beaten by the shear recklessness of the charge, rather than by the very limited fighting powers of this handful of Australians.

One soldier said:

It was the horses that did it; those marvellous bloody horses.

Grant proudly told his men:

(This is) the greatest cavalry ride in the history of warfare

Why do we remember the Light Horsement and their charge at Beersheeba?

Historian Bill Gammage would write:

The fierce individualism with which he fought the Turks, arabs – and English Staff Officers – lay close to the heart of the Australian Ligh Horseman.

He lived under few restraints, and was equally careless of man, God nd nature.

Yet he stood by his own standards firmly, remaining brave in batlle, loyal to his mates, generous to the Turks, and pledged to his king and country.

His speech betrayed few enthusiams, and he accepted successs and failure equally without demonstration, but the confident dash of the horseman combined with the practical resource and equanimity of the bushman in him, moved him alike over the wilderness of the Sinai and the hills of the Holy Land.

Probably, his kind will not be seen again, for the conditions of war,and peace and romance that produced him have almost entirely disapperaed.

Tonight, as we do every night, at the Australian War Memorial we will remember and pay tribute to one of the more than 103,000 men and women who gave their lives for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

We not only remember where and how the died, but I would arge even more importantly, we tell the story of who they were when they lived. For that’s the true cost recorded on our Roll of Honour – to the extent that can ever be measured.

For as Historian Geoffrey Blainey said, “How can you measure the real cost to Australia of all those talented people who would have become Prime Ministers and premiers, clergy men, engineers, teachers, doctors, poets, inventors and farmers, the mayors of towns and the leaders of trade unions and the fathers of another generation of Australians?”

Allow me to conclude this morning, as we will in Canberra tonight, by honouring Second Lieutenant Francis James Burton, 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment, who was killed in action 105 years ago today.

Francis Burton was born on the 22nd of December 1893 in Nullan, near Minyip in Victoria. Known as “Frank”, he was one of nine children born to farmer Frederick Burton and his wife Mary. Frank received his education at the local state school, and later joined the local Light Horse and Citizens Militia Forces as a volunteer. During this time he worked alongside his father on their family farm.

When war was declared in 1914, Frank Burton was among the first in his district to enlist, joining the Australian Imperial Force on the 22nd of August 1914. He was assigned to C Squadron of the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment and began a short period of training in Australia. He embarked for active service from Melbourne on the 19th of October 1914, sailing on board the troopship Wiltshire.

Burton arrived in Egypt in early December and continued training with his new comrades. His regiment did not arrive on the Gallipoli peninsula until late May of 1915, when Light Horse units were deployed without their horses. Burton’s unit was briefly dispersed to reinforce infantry units along the line before being reunited in early June. Much of their time was spent defending the Anzac’s precarious position, particularly around Ryrie’s Post where they were involved in several minor attacks and raids.

After his promotion to corporal in July, Burton wrote home to his family, saying, “We are in the firing line and my two mates are jolly fine fellows. We occupy number 5 post which is a very good one to sleep in as well as to get a good view of the Turk’s trenches which are only forty or fifty yards away”.

Like many who succumbed to the difficult conditions of life on the front, Burton became ill in October and was evacuated to Egypt for treatment.  He re-joined his unit in February 1916, after the allies abandoned the Gallipoli campaign. Afterwards, his unit was engaged in rear security tasks in the Suez Canal Zone throughout most of 1916, during which time Burton was promoted to sergeant.

In 1917, the 4th Light Horse moved up to the Sinai desert as British and Dominion forces advanced. Burton was made squadron sergeant major in March, and after a short stay in hospital, was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in September.

A month later, his unit was drawn into their first major action of the war during the third battle of Gaza – what I have spoken of today as the Battle for Beersheeba.

Charging on the town, the troops were spotted by Turkish gunners who opened fire as they approached the trenches. Frank Burton was in the front line of his sector. As he charged he was wounded by enemy fire as his horse jumped over the trenches. A stretcher bearer stopped to help. Burton told him “Go on, leave me. I’m done!”

The 4th Light Horse Brigade suffered more than 60 casualties during the charge on Beersheba. Among the dead was Second Lieutenant Frank Burton.

His friend and comrade, Lieutenant Frank Phillips wrote to Burton’s mother:

“You will have received word that you have lost your boy, and I have lost my best pal. I must convey in words my deep sympathy for you in your loss, which I feel keenly.

We were in the attack on Beersheba at 4pm on the 31st of October and were told it must fall that night. It fell, and Frank was part of the price of the victory … Frank fell at the head of his men and died almost immediately.

If I get through I will tell you all that I can of Frank who was loved and respected by officers and men. A gallant gentleman and true pal lies on the plain before Beersheba.”

Frank Burton was buried near where he fell, at Beersheba War Cemetery. He was 23 years old.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour among almost 62,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told at the Australian War Memorial.

Let us now remember Second Lieutenant Francis James Burton, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Lest We Forget

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